The Ketchup Song, Los Ketchup:
Don't ask me how it happens, and it certainly wasn't planned, but as my relationship with my fiancée hurtles towards a messy and explosive end, I find myself becoming best friends with her cousin. Furthermore, we seem to complete each other, me giving her an older, wiser brain to pick, and her bringing out the party-like-there's-no-tomorrow side of me that previously lay dormant, untouched. She's been out of the closet for a year now (a fascinating story in itself, but one for another time) and it's through her that I visit my first gay bar - a truly seminal event in my life. After this night out, we go back to her house, only to find that her cousin, my so-called fiancée, is absolutely livid that we're getting so close, and not quick to hide the fact. She's been living with my new best friend, Lee, for a few months now, the two of them sharing the bills and rent between them, and in an attempt to get back at us both, she decided to tell Lee that she's going to move back to her mother's in the morning, leaving her half of the money unpaid. This catchy summer sing-along song is playing as a massive argument ensues between the two of them, one interspersed at regular intervals with unhelpful comments from me. Not sure what the foreign lyrics mean (is anyone?) but I'm pretty sure that its creators never thought it would be playing as an irate lesbian put her foot straight through her cousin's wooden door.
Ignition (Remix), R. Kelly:
And so begins an ugly family war, with Lee on one side and practically everyone else on the other. Her mother has just died and she really doesn't need this shit, so she decides to go and live with her previously absent father way over in Germany. From a purely selfish standpoint, I'm gutted; she's shown me life for the first time, and I planned to hang out with her for a long time before we went our separate ways. But when I look at things from her perspective, see the way that everyone has taken her cousin's side just because 1: they can't take the fact that she's gay and 2: they think she's betraying the family by being friends with me, I realise that escape is probably a good idea for her. But like we said then and continue to say, "if you're going to leave, do it in style," so the day before she leaves sees her withdraw her last $1000 from the bank and hit the shops, with me in tow. Amongst her many purchases is this song on single, and we listen to it all night, although it's not my usual type of music (more of which later.) It officially becomes the very first Party Song in my head.
Free (Let It Be), Stuart:
Me and Lee, not to mention our two other best friends Shaun and Dani, have arranged a little surprise for Jen, Lee's girlfriend. She's been told that I have a present to give her from her partner, so I meet her in another gay bar and wait there with her, upping the suspense about this non-existent present. She tries to get it out of me, but since I want to be a horror writer I have to learn how to keep things close to my chest, and this looks like good practice. Minutes tick on, and I wonder if I should be disturbed by how much I enjoy tormenting Jen, but finally it happens; Lee, who she thinks is sitting in Germany right now, walks through the door.
Talk about a surprise.
But anyway, the night that follows sees me journey deeper into my local scene, and I hear this song and find myself liking it, although I've never liked a dance song before in my life. This leads me to ponder a few things about myself and the past I'm coming from...
Basket Case, Green Day:
Okay, brief history lesson time. This was the first song that I ever truly loved, that totally changed my life, views and outlook on the world, so technically speaking, I guess I'm a punk/rock kid, right? But the thing about the type of crowd that normally like that music, the type of circle I've spun around for years, is that it's so narrow-minded and introverted in its tastes; if it's got a dance routine and doesn't have screaming guitars, they look down their nose at it. I've always found this bizarre considering that most rock bands and pop bands are marketed in the exact same way, but no one else seems to see it - maybe this is part of the reason that I never felt comfortable in rock bars. So anyway, much as I love my punk and rock music, it can't be the sole thing that I feast my ears with anymore. So I wonder, could another totally organic change in me be round the corner? Could my tastes be broadening just that little bit? I certainly hope so.
Jump, Girls Aloud:
And so we come to another life-changing moment.
The first pop song beloved by me.
I'm instantly captivated when I see this video/hear this song, and it hasn't even got anything to do with how short their skirts are. I've never watched a TV talent show in my life, and all I know about this band is what my three best mates (all big fans of the group) have told me. But that doesn't matter. I hear the song when I'm changing, going from someone that can't stand who he is to someone that is actually happy, actually enjoys life, and somehow, the song is a big part of this change. It comes at just the right time.
I just wish it came at the right place.
When the wheels really came flying off the truck with my former fiancée, my head was in a thousand bits, and anything that took my mind off her seemed like a good idea. So when the guy who'd been my best friend before I met Lee asked if I wanted to move in with him, I'd said yes instantly, not even giving it much thought. But then came this big change in me, and as the video plays on the TV, I peel my eyes away (not an easy task with those short skirts on display) and look around the flat that I pay half for and realise how desperately unhappy I am here. My shifting view of the world, of what's wrong and what's not, puts me totally at odds with my flatmate. For one, he hates the fact that I like "manufactured" music now, refusing to let me listen to Busted on his CD player in the main room, unless he wants to laugh at them. More importantly, though, he's a homophobe; I took him to one of my favourite gay bars a few weeks earlier and he'd gripped his chair so hard that his hands went white, and eyed every passing male, straight and gay, with a suspicion that bordered on the ugly. I don't think my three best friends would be comfortable if they were here at the same time as him, and he's told me before that he would just sit on the couch and not say a word if I had people over. Couple this tension with the fact that he always moans about me coming in late and the fact that I hate his girlfriend, who's never away from the place, and you get some unpleasant results. And you see the way I feel.
The song ends, but repeats in my head all night. As I leave the flat to meet Lee, I see how glad I was that my flatmate's girlfriend wasn't there when I got in, and how glad I am that I'll not be coming back tonight. This comprehension, unlike the radical changes I'm going through, really does scare me.
Fast-forward an hour or two. All I'm doing is buying a CD, but I feel like I'm breaking some great taboo; I've been stuck in the Punk Rock Introvert Club so long that I'm expecting a heavily tattooed sniper with a bright blue Mohawk to appear from behind the jazz section and take me down before I can commit this cardinal sin. Nonetheless, I enter the G-section, pick up the CD, and quickly take it to the till - I had to move quickly so the sniper couldn't get the range, you see.
Voila! An exchange of coins and it's all over. I've officially bought my first pop single: Jump, by Girls Aloud. I give it to Lee as a present, but we head back to my mother's house to hear it, not the flat - anything to keep away from a place that screws up my new found, hard fought for, happiness.
(I've Had) The Time Of My Life, Bill Medley:
As you've probably guessed, not all of the songs were released in the year I'm describing. Especially not this very famous and very annoying track. I loathe the movie it's from with a passion (don't get me started on that one) but find I can deal with the song's existence now that I can attach a happy memory to it.
The four of us have made it to Manchester for a partying weekend, overcoming all sorts of adversities ranging from lost money to haunted hotels to me almost not getting away from work in time to catch the coach. I'll not bore you with the details of the trip (not this time, at least) but I will say that I'm glad to be here. The only thing that makes me frown is all the lame "gay weekend" jokes that my flatmate felt the need to crack when I told him I was heading to Canal Street with my friends a few times. It is little things like this that seem to be making escape from the flat for more than a weekend into a very pressing concern. Me and him have been friends for a very long time, but the bond's breaking now, and I think that seeing him so miserable and angry about the world while not doing a damn thing to change it is too much like looking at a photo of myself from the past, but a photo that talks and moans, even though no one wants to listen.
But back to the song. We're in a quite charming little 80's bar when this comes on. So high is my euphoria, so happy am I to be here with my three best friends, that I actually ignore my hate of the film and just enjoy the song. Anyone who knows of my aversion to all Patrick Swayze movies will have to respect that.
Black Velvet, Allanah Myles:
Christmas has come and gone. I spent some of it at home, some with Lee - and very little at my flat. In fact, I've hardly been there at all. There's always something better to do, and it's a big area out there to explore, but way back in the recesses of my head, there's always the niggling knowledge that I'll have to go back there sometime. And sit in a room with two people I can't stand. My flatmate came out with one of the pettiest, most stupidly jealous lines I've ever heard just before Christmas. His brother was talking to me about the presents he'd bought for his father, and said to me, "bet you wouldn't buy something that expensive, eh?" Since I'm not about material goods - me and my mates could buy penny chews for each other and be perfectly happy knowing the love they were given with and the good times we'd have chewing them - I simply replied, "depends who it was for." And my flatmate, who was lying on the couch in a strop about his poor day at work, said, "he would if it was for Lee." I've put that name in italics to try and bring across to you, the reader, just some of the venom that was spoken along with it. Jealousy because I have a new best friend. Not even a girlfriend or anything, a new best friend. Unbelievable.
Anyway, the night of this song, we're out again, this time supporting a friend who's on a date and a little too nervous to go alone. He's a college tutor, and our own little karaoke king. We go with him to meet this lad, but they hit it off so well that Lee and I start to feel a little superfluous, and head off to the pool table for a couple of games. All of which, since I'm not the most coordinated of guys, I lose.
But enough of that. The night takes us to a few more bars, and by the time Steve performs Mustang Sally and his date does Black Velvet on the karaoke, I'm having so much fun that I don't want the night to end when all the clubs close. So I suggest to Lee that we head back to my flat, all eight of us.
She's up for it. But a few minutes later, I wimp out. It's supposed to be half my flat, but I feel like a virtual prisoner in it. I come in at nine and they're sitting with the lights out watching a film, and I just have to sit there quietly until it finishes. He has a massive double room while I'm relegated to this dingy little cave - and we both pay the same! He gave me that threat about making my friends uncomfortable if they were over, and yet his girlfriend, who treats me like something she'd scrape off her shoe, is never away from the place! The living room is full of his photos, including many of her, so I can't escape her even on the rare occasion that she isn't there. I've been walked all over my entire life, and a new voice of rebellion is crying inside for me to stand up for myself. What's more, it speaks with Lee's voice. I have every right to take people back to my flat, she says. In fact, since she knows how intimidated and used I feel there, she practically snarls it. She intends to make sure we go there and make our little stand tonight.
So we do - me, my best friend, Steve and his date, and four friends all pile back to "my" place, and I'm feeling both nervous and excited as I unlock the door. Of course, the trouble kicks off the moment we're inside - the girlfriend, who everyone else seems to hate on sight as well, storms out of their bedroom (so much bigger than mine) and fumes, "what the hell do you think you're doing, turning the light on?"
I could point out that the light has to be turned on so that we don't fall over the big bloody mountain bike that her boyfriend so considerately parks right in front of the door, but the fight isn't in me yet, so I just shrug. But I tell you this; I've never felt as much hatred before as I do when I hear that tone she takes with me. And it only gets worse. This is confrontation, you see; this is the point that a book builds up to over a few hundred pages. Lee, who knows how unhappy I've been, knowing I have to come back to this cave eventually, has pushed me to make or break stage - and all I want to do is break. And I do so, spectacularly. My rage increases when she tells me that there's "no smoking in this flat," conveniently forgetting just who pays half the rent, and then when her other half appears and gets a bit handy with his fists, Lee and Steve respond by taking the Christmas tree that's still lying around outside and pushing it through the open window of my room, which causes enough mess and damage to almost be an embodiment of my truly annoyed feelings. When it's all over, I leave with a smile on my face.
I'm out of here.
Cha Cha Slide, DJ Casper:
It's the happiest birthday of my life, one spent with the best friends I could ask for. I receive this single twice, once from my mother and again as a group present from Lee, Dani and Shaun. Everything comes together on this day, and I finally start kicking away the remains of the old me that hated everything and didn't realise there was such a thing as happiness. And my enjoyment of the day has nothing to do with the fact I get a lap dance from Dani's very sexy cousin...
This Is The World We Live In, Alcazar:
So now we're up to date. I've gone from being downtrodden misery guts in a flat where he felt worthless to someone with a wild, loved life that never knows where the day is going to take him. I'm writing and being published more than ever, and closer to making peace with myself (everyone's true life aim, in my eyes) than ever before, and I even get more interest from the opposite sex now that I actually give a shit about what I look like, how I dress, and the trips I've made to Manchester (for Gay Pride) and Northampton (for a Valentine's Day surprise that didn't quite go as planned) have made me see that there's a big world existing there beyond the everyday. And I want to see it all.
Oh yes. And when I do, you'll be the first to know.
It sounded like such a damn hoot; how can you blame me for going along with it as far as I did? I said that much to the jury, though I guess it didn't do much to sway their opinions.
Yeah, I can tell what you're thinking of me. It's as plain and as cold as these chafing handcuffs.
Funny I should remember that. George knew, and had always known, that I had a semi-crush on his wife Sandra - she was a fabulous piece of work, a former model that had settled for relative normality with us, occasionally returning to the cat-walk when the urge came. Not that life in Paradise Heights was always typically normal, of course; last year we had some nasty business with the town's former inhabitants, a bunch of common riff-raff that claimed they'd been forced out of their homes to make way for us. They resorted to terrorist extremes against us, and one of our valued residents, Bill Forester, got himself kidnapped by them. Ever since his escape, he's gotten kind of quiet, which is a sad end to a once great man, a once great teacher, which makes it doubly worse. Anyway, as I was saying before I so rudely interrupted myself, because he knew I had a harmless crush on his wife, George took great delight in tormenting me with details of the sexual games he and Sandra got up to. Including, you guessed it, the old bondage/handcuffs/prisoner routine.
Kind of funny, really, in a nasty kind of way. A bit like this whole story.
It goes without saying, though, that I never expected my own wife to go in for such kinky stuff. I mean, you could tell Sandra would be into anything that made her feel good, feel pleasured; it was in her eyes. My wife was different. And things between Eileen and I had been... not exactly boring, but sort of stale of late. Too much work on my part, and too much... well, I didn't know what on her part. We hadn't been talking much, spending too much time in the spaces that can create themselves between people. A sad fact but a true one, and we're all here for the truth, right?
However nasty it might get.
When I finally broached the subject with her, however, over a caviar meal with the very same friends I'd soon be sharing her with, she was more receptive than I'd expected. Later on that night, she was enthused enough to instigate lovemaking, and she arched her back in pleasure, then pushed me over and got on top and whispered in my ear as she writhed and squirmed and drove me further into her, "let's do it" And since we already were doing it, I guessed what she meant. Who was I to argue?
"We'll start off lightly," George was soon telling me, spreading his hands across a sheet full of names as if he were a General and this was a map of a battlefield that must be won. "Just us, you, and a few others. People we can trust."
He looked up at me, surprised by the naivety of my question. "Why, of course! What fun is there in two?"
"You sound like you've done all this before."
He raised an eyebrow. "Never underestimate George Goldstein, my friend."
So yeah, I'd be kidding myself if I said we weren't up for it, Sandra and me and Eileen and George, plus a few others from the influential circles we dabbled in. I was so excited about it that I went to this little meeting he and a few of the other husbands were having about the soiree, where they were debating whether or not we should start including teen wives and mothers in the fun. "I've had a few requests," George said, looking very dapper in an expensive suit with glass of wine in hand, "and I certainly think it's something that bears some thinking about." The rest of the party were nodding their heads in agreement, and despite some concerns I had about dabbling in underage sex, I was swept up enough by the moment to nod along with them.
The mistakes were just mounting up by now.
I was expecting most of the party to be relative strangers, but that was my next shock (the first of many); of the three other couples that turned up, two were family friends that were old hands at this kinky behaviour, and the third were merely acquaintances and, like us, novices. I recognised most of them from their cars before we even got in there. That was when I looked over at Eileen, flashed her my most re-assuring smile. "Nervous?"
"A little, dear."
"It'll be fine." I rubbed her thigh, wondering how Sandra's would compare. "These are our friends."
"I know." She squeezed me back. "Let's give it a whirl."
"That's my girl."
George and me had a quick word in private before he got things under way.
"Hey, isn't that lady over there... isn't it Ruth Hanson?"
"Yes, you know it is." He sounded disinterested and distant, not even bothering to look up from the drink he was pouring. "So?"
"But she's pregnant!"
"My Lord, you really are innocent. Pregnant women are a big fetish nowadays. Our other new-starter can't wait to get his hands on her." On that note, he took the tray of drinks into the living room, and I eventually followed.
You might expect the atmosphere inside to have been tense, solidified by nerves and barely restrained sexual tension, but George was too good a host for that, and he kept the wine flowing, which kept the good feelings rolling until the time was right to begin.
Which happened at around nine, when George removed a glass from Sandra's hand, laid it on the table and then leaned forward in his chair. All conversation and activity stopped; somehow, we all knew what he was going to say.
"Who's feeling in the mood?"
The two hosts let their gaze fall on everyone, and I stared back at Sandra intensely, pleased in the knowledge that, come what may, I would be making it with her before the night was out. What, me unfaithful? Nonsense! It was what we had all come for, Eileen included, and if I had to sleep with someone else, I would rather it was someone I actually knew, was friendly with. It seemed more dignified.
"Who's going to be first to pair off?"
I was acutely aware of the fact that George's wife was resting her head on his shoulder so that it tilted to one side, and that she was staring back at me, a strange look in her eye.
"Who feels that pull?"
No takers, I was thinking downheartedly. Waste of time I was thinking. Never gonna get to score with Sandra, I was especially thinking. Then came the reply from behind us.
We all looked around, finally pulled away from hanging on the ringmaster's every word. I was very surprised to see my wife in the limelight; she had beaten her initial apprehension and was now standing with her hand on a guy called Johnny Peterson's chest. Johnny was well built, and he had a bit of a cowboy fixation, always wearing a big hat and spurred heels. It was quite a shock that Eileen found herself attracted to him; after all, he was nothing like me. The first shiver of doubt ran through my insides with the realisation that another man - this man - would soon be putting his thing into my wife; what if he was better than I was and they ended up having an affair because he satisfied her more than I could? But it was too late, because as soon as George had his answer, the room erupted, cheers coming from everyone, all of which attention forced a blush from Eileen...
Who disappeared into a room with Johnny the cowboy, leaving the path well and truly open for me. When everyone else was paired, I wasn't surprised, just very excited, to see Sandra waiting for me, look still in her eye and robe slowly falling open, revealing to me what I'd secretly lusted after for so long.
"I'm glad you finally decided to go through with this, Mike."
So was I. Behind me, George disappeared into a room, hand-in-hand with Ruth Hanson.
You're probably wondering why, since things started out so well, I'm now bothering to write it all down in such lavish detail. Well, hold you water; I'm just getting to that.
Everything was going just fine - hell, better than fine; I was with Sandra, and she was soaring high above the pinnacle of expertise and excellence I'd placed her on - until something happened. Our lust had been so great that we never made it to a bedroom, just dropped to the floor in the top hallway. Consequently, I could see the whole of the first floor, and that was how I saw the man open the back door and stroll right in, without a care in the world.
He looked both mean and oddly out of place here. Tall, bald, built like a steroid-guzzling action movie star with a purple waistcoat open exposing his huge chest, my first instinct was not to feel surprise but to feel jealousy, as he was exactly the type of perfect-bodied sort that I'd envied since I was a scrawny kid - I may have grown a lot in stature and personality since then, but seeing the guy for the first time sent me right back to the playground, where he'd either bully me or be too far up to even know I existed. He stood still for a few seconds, looked around, and that's when his out-of-place-ness struck me: neither sharply-dressed nor undressed, no glass of wine in hand, no sense of excitement around him. Looking at him intensely, forgetting what I was actually supposed to be doing, it struck me that he was too out of place here.
"Come on, honey," Sandra urged me, digging nails into my back. "You're doing just fine."
Considering that she'd probably sampled model meat, I took it as a great compliment. But still a small part of dwelled on the intruder, the strange man still walking among us below me.
"You're not going, are you?" she said when I got to my knees. "I thought we were having fun here, just the two of us."
"We are," I insisted.
"Well, then." That's when she did something that made me realise Eileen must have given her some tips on my buttons. I've always had a foot fetish, and nothing used to get me worked up more than feeling a woman rub her bare foot against my chest. So that's just what she did, and it had the desired effect, and before I knew it we were going round again. Apart from the mystery of the downstairs stranger, the night was going pretty well.
It should have been one of the best nights of my life, what with the drink flowing and the house full of laughter, fun and love. But something about it was no longer working for me; it might not have stopped me getting it on with Sandra - twice - but it certainly soured the experience a little. I could hear cries from Eileen - I recognised them instantly, as I was sure she would recognise mine - but I could also see Johnny the suburban cowboy knocking the ass off Sarah Maguire, the female part of the other first-timers, so that meant my darling wife had taken another lover onboard. So why shouldn't I? There were certainly no shortage of offers, but I just couldn't get back in the mood for it. My good time thrill was now calling itself treachery, and I was left to wander the house like a demented soldier stalking the dead.
And then I saw the guy again.
Not a pretty sight. Especially when I figured out what he was up to.
"Hey, sexy." Eileen came running out and grabbed me by the shoulders, and then planted a big kiss on my cheeks. "This is great! Thanks for talking me into it!"
I saw her lover walk out of the room, nodded my head in way of greeting, and then decided to speak.
"Hello, Ruth. When's it due?"
So, my wife had decided to experiment with someone of the same sex, and a pregnant one at that. Something kind of funny about it, or is that just my warped sense of humour? A bit of both, I'm thinking.
Anyway, back to the guy. He'd gone into a room when I'd been talking to my wife, and closed the door behind him, and I suppose I knew that I shouldn't peer inside, but an immensely persuasive voice inside, one I couldn't resist, was urging me, and so I quietly pushed the door open, tension building as I did so, and poked my head through the small gap I'd created. I could only see his bare, muscular and sweaty back, so I circled around the door a little, and it was then that I saw the naked legs hanging by his waist, kicking viciously at the wall. It was Alice he was with, Alice Huntington, one of the community's most devout Christians, and, and...
He was throttling her.
I stood watching, disgusted and transfixed, and I harboured innocent ideas about rushing him in my head. But let's be honest, what damage could weedy old me do to this huge, barbell-pumping brute? It was amusing to contemplate, but I was through with being naive.
So I watched. What else could I do, oh silent accuser?
She squirmed about for most of it, her legs and feet working overtime in her struggle, and when she finally stopped, he bent down so that his face touched hers. Then he walked off, while Alice lay still.
'Hey, handsome.' I turned to find Sarah standing there, naked except for an over-sized shirt, probably one of George's. She slid an arm around me, gripped my most sensitive part with a firm, warm hand. 'Coming to bed?'
I turned her so she could see Alice. 'Wow, looks like she had a really good time.'
Ignoring her, thinking only of returning safety to our house of love and grabbing some glory in the process, I ran down the hall to George's study. That was where he kept the gun.
He was in there, bare-chested and tired-looking, pouring himself a drink.
'George! There's a strange man in here!'
He did that eyebrow hoist again, something he did a lot that had never annoyed me until now. 'Michael, there are several.'
'No, damn it, listen for once.' This comment put an annoyed glance on his face, for which I was glad; if he was ready to argue, he was ready to listen. 'This guy – I saw him, uh, hurt Alice Huntington.'
'In what way?'
I got the feeling that he wasn't taking me very seriously, so I pushed him out of the way, pulled open the draw and scouted through it until I found the weapon. Then, praying it wasn't too late and no one else had been hurt, I took off back down the hall, ignoring George's cries of protest.
I caught him with Eileen, oh horror of horrors, doing the same as earlier, and when her eyes fell on me, on the thing I had in my hand, I saw blind panic in them, and I nodded my re-assurance to her that everything was okay now, that I was here to rescue her, that I was finally going to be the big hero that years of failure and self-damage had almost wiped out, and she shook her head no, but I didn't understand, and I saw the huge man bend down towards the neck he was throttling, and I just knew, knew for absolutely damn certain, that he was going to bite it, tear out her throat – man, I even saw it in my head, saw him rip it out like a vampire in some horror movie – so I ran forward towards the scene, feeling like everything was in slow motion, and I swear to you, I only meant to club him with it, knock him out, but I tripped over a couple that were busy on the floor, and as I fell, yelling, my finger squeezed the trigger, and the stranger's face splattered all over my wife's bare shoulder. She screamed.
'It's okay,' I told her. 'He can't hurt you now.'
She looked up at me, shock in her eyes. Death hadn't been my original aim, but I still felt very manly, very heroic. Now all we had to do was break the bad news to Jimmy Huntington... who about then stood up, revealing himself as one of the two lovers that I'd fallen over.
After the slow motion, things started going pretty fast. Everyone rushed in, alerted by the sound of the accidental shot, and I expected glory, even though my prevention of a potential massacre had been pretty much accidental. But all I received was cold, judging, accusing eyes, much like I would soon see from the ladies and gentlemen of the jury. And then, to top things off, Sandra ran in and started crying, cradled the dead body and screamed up at me: 'bastard! You killed my brother!'
Alice was fine; she was one of those curious types that enjoy asphyxiation at the height of orgasm. Eileen had been discussing it with her earlier that night, displaying some enthusiasm for the idea, and Alice had told her she knew just the man for the job.
Hey, anyone can make a mistake, right? Right?
So they busted me for it, and I duly got sent down for murder. I ruined one of George and Sandra's star attractions, which they still haven't forgiven me for.
Eileen still comes to visit sometimes, though, and the kids send their love. I guess that's about all you can say for me now: good husband, loving father – lousy wife-swapper.
After spotting a fresh set of boils on my chest, I spent a good ten minutes prising one of the filthy bastards off. Hurt like a bitch, but I was past caring.
I guessed I had about a fortnight before it got to my face and I couldn't conceal it anymore. How much fun could I get up to before then? I'm guessing lots.
P.S. The holiday trade is going down the pan at the moment, understandably, but the ads still come thick and fast. I saw one for Butlins holiday camp as I left for work. "Come to life," the perfect-skinned singer says on the jingle. Almost bust a gut laughing. Then I headed to the office.
The drive to work was as amusing as ever, but at least I got to laugh at the fallen landmarks, devastated by enemy bombs, and all the people buzzing around them like flies. Pretty stupid; if they could see what I've got, live with what I've got, you can bet they'd lock themselves at home, safe from mutation. Too late for them, though. And far too late for me.
Work growing duller... or was it just my head doing a turnaround? Yeah, well, whatever, it was still all I could do to stop myself from diving over my table and tearing Mr. Brett's head off.
Oh, how I loathe my boss. He was tedious enough before, or perhaps I was just more tolerant in my pre-decline days, but since the war started he's appointed himself as morale officer, and taken to coming out with all these "we must keep hope" speeches which the rest of the office idiots see as rousing but that I find about as dull and unconvincing as the old British propaganda movies they used to show during World War Two.
Driving back, watching the elite fire squad put out yet another explosion, I found it amazing that we could manage to live, function as normal, during such times. Then I pulled off my tie, unbuttoned my shirt, looked down at my new assortment of boils whilst thinking of the day I'd just sat through, and I sighed, and I believed it.
Woke up in the middle of the night with a screaming pain in my head, put my hands to my temples and lay there wincing, unable to move and scared halfway to death that this was my moment, my endgame, that I was going to die before kicking out the jams just one last time, motherfuckers, and made about a thousand promises to myself about things I would do if I survived this night of sheer panic, until it stopped.
The pain was getting steadily worse, starting to take a mental toll as the physical flaws increased, I realised; pretty soon, things would start to fall off.
I was looking forward to it. If I can just keep my head together through the whole mess, I reminded myself, then I'm in for a grand old show.
All this serves me right, I thought as I beat a slow path through some bad (is there any other kind?) traffic later. The thing about war is this: it keeps you scared, but it also removes some dull social restraints and bonds - does that make sense? When I was ten or so, myself and a friend found the body of a dying hobo under a bridge, and we kept coming back every day until he was dead, and then, after watching a TV show about a coroner, we decided to open him up. We had some fun with him and his insides, and we would have carried on having more and more fun, but his bratty little brother followed us one day, and he blabbed to his parents, and they spoke to mine, and needless to say, they put an end to our friendship, both parents blaming the other's child for everything. Mine sent to me to stay with my aunt and uncle for the summer. My uncle was a stern man who took a dim view to my experiments, and many were the nights he came to my room, belt in hand, to vent his fury on me. The day I went home, I pissed in his shoes and then put razor blades in them, just for good measure. They were discovered before he put the shoes on, unfortunately, but no matter. A few years ago, I headed back to the farm, finished off the job on him, then dug up my auntie, who'd been dead for about four years by then, and danced with her in the moonlight to a jolly tune in my head. What can I say? Old habits die hard.
This started a healthy interest in the dead, so when I saw the mass burial mounds waiting to be burned, I couldn't contain myself; I bribed my way past a disgusted-looking soldier, and immediately made my way over to an attractive blonde teen. I mean, come on, guys; how was I to know that her sumptuous young body was riddled with illness?
Midday. Headache had returned, and was certainly not helped by being forced to work with Lucy and Phil. The latter is a local playboy who's humped his way through half the office, and the former is a student working here in her gap year who was only too ready to tell us that she's modelled with some of the world's finest, and it's common knowledge around the place that he's sticking it to her, even though she has a boyfriend who's off fighting somewhere. Personally I'd love to tell said boyfriend just how faithful his partner is being in his absence; if only I could get his number somehow...
Anyway, I just about made it through the day and I was getting ready to make my escape when Mr. Brett called us all together, announcing, with glee sicker than anything I could ever come up with, that we would all go to a karaoke night tonight, to raise morale. "I expect everyone to attend," he said, casting an eye at me, since I was a man notorious for lack of group spirit, a man who'd been forced to pay a fine for non-participation in every charity event we've ever ran here in our oh-so generous office. A grin as wide as your arm spread over his face as he said, "it'll do us all good, right?"
Damn the man.
I didn't really fancy it - I've heard my co-workers sing many times, and believe me, it's not a sound for the faint-hearted - but I saw no point in causing trouble before the right time, so I dragged myself along. As rank decreed, Mr. Brett went first, singing with Polly, a manager that everyone thinks is a lesbian. Afterwards, he sat beside me, wearing a smug grin on his face. "I sang a little when I was younger."
"Really?" It hadn't shown.
I sarcastically told Phil and Lucy they should do a duet version of that shitty song "Something Stupid," and the two pathetic bastards looked at each other sappily, actually taking my suggestion seriously. The thought of them sitting on chairs singing to each other was intense, and threatened to send me off into waves of violent delirium, but I managed to hold on. Needless to say, my request to do "I Hate Led Zeppelin" didn't go down too well, so I stepped out the back when no one was looking, thankfully missing my chance to see the two reluctant lovers serenade each other.
Unable to sleep, head filled with tangled images of my own diseased body and the terrible state I left my aunt and uncle in so long ago, I soon found myself down by the corpse mound again. But this time I had plans of a different nature, plans that would make Burke and Hare proud. The lovely blonde that gave me the disease had been burned, so I picked another for my purposes, an overweight, ginger-haired housewife. I grinned as I shoved her in the back of the car, thinking of my great idea.
I managed to avoid the heavily armed, heavily armoured soldiers as I made my way to a sleazy motel and booked a room for three nights. "I want total privacy," I told the man. "And no one must enter the room when myself and my friends are not present. Is that clear?" He just shrugged apathetically - as long as I wasn't a pest, what would he care what I did with the room? - and handed me the key.
Had the great dream again. In it, I was getting it on with this hooker with massive tits, and, having already taken her up her back passage, I was getting fairly into it as I took her from the front, and I was just biting her neck, which she seemed to love, when it happened: the disease had finally spread, and my tool came dislodged inside her. She didn't know, though, and she just kept writhing on the bed beneath my now incomplete body. I woke up in soggy shorts and sheets, glad that the dream hadn't come true. Yet.
Dinner with Phil.
"Listen, I know you and Lucy must have a hard time finding a place to go." I cut off his protests, his denials of activity with her. "I had a nice weekend away with a girl all sorted, but she's had to pull out; why don't you have the room?"
Had he been in full control of his senses, he might have shot my story down with some well-placed questions. Luckily for me, he wasn't thinking with his head, and he accepted the key with heartfelt thanks. "Forget it," I told him. "What are friends for?"
I followed them the entire way, trailing them from Phil's house, where they spent a good half hour getting re-acquainted with each other's bodies, all the way through cracked streets filled with whining kids, burning houses and broken down parents, to what passes for temporary accommodation in that forlorn part of town near the corpses.
"It was nice of him to let us have the room," Lucy said, and for a moment I was surprised by her gratitude; at work, the thin blonde girl could come off as being very cold with a tendency to look down on everyone except her partner in infidelity here, so this expression came as something of a shock.
Not as much of a shock as the one she got when she went into the room, of course.
Phil and Lucy, expecting a night of illicit passion, found themselves pulling back the bed sheets to reveal the infected body of a middle-aged housewife, one who'd been in a worse enough state before I'd had my fun with her, one whose disease-riddled body lay cut open and spewing out misery and death at them. I watched them run out into the night, Lucy spitting out pieces of vomit as she ran, Phil telling all about what he would do to me tomorrow.
Why wait until then? I thought, and dived out of the shadows and into them.
When it happens, it happens fast. Boils all over my chest, making it a real bitch to button my shirt. And as if that wasn't enough, Mr. Brett found out somehow. He called me into the meeting room, and all of the directors were standing around the table, looking grave and solemn in their black ties/white shirts, and I realised, for the first time, that they looked like they were at a funeral. But whose? Use your loaf.
"How long have you had it? Where did you get it? How could you have put all your colleagues, your friends, at risk?" The questions came thick and fast, unlike the solutions. "Don't you feel any guilt for what you've done to Phil and Lucy?" Now how the hell did they know about that one? I shook my head, frantically trying to rid myself of the influence of their words, and it wasn't too hard; all I had to do was think of every office argument I'd fought and lost, every terrible assignment I'd been handed from up on high, and my eventual reply was full of vitriol:
"You've all got it, ha-ha! And now my job's done, I'm out of here!"
I dived onto the table, expecting someone to stop me, but they didn't, and I ran, all the way to the end of the table, and instead of dropping back to the floor, I jumped forward, flying through the air until I met the window and went through it, sprawling into the open air and letting gravity do its work, falling, falling, falling to the ground, to my end, getting the bitter last laugh on the system and the illness...
Day ? anybody's guess
And who should I see upon my awakening but Phil and Lucy, shuffling through a packed hospital, hate in their eyes when they looked at me? "We can cure anything these days," a voice told me. "We can stitch soldier's arms back on and send them back into battle; that's why this war will last a very long time. And they finally found a cure for The Illness. So, when they've given you a nice new body, you can come back and earn your forgiveness. Oh, I know it will be hard and long, but we'll hire the best therapists money can buy, and one day, you and Phil and Lucy will all be able to work together again. We'll be together for a long time yet, my boy."
I looked up. Just in time to see Mr. Brett and the board of directors staring down at me.
Well hi, and welcome to y'all. I've got a story to tell, and this is how it started: I was enjoying a much-needed girly night out with Brandi, Candy, Chrissie and Kylie, and I only went and saw him. One Dwight D. Donaldson. If I hadn't recognized him from his bloodshot eyes, I'd have done so from his buckteeth, unshaven cheeks and pockmarked face.
God, he was sexy.
And he knew how to dress, too, what with those tracksuit bottoms and all of the gold on him that he'd bought from Argos – ooh, I'm getting wet just thinking about him...
Right, I'm back now. Sorry about that, folks; got a little bit carried away. So, where were we? Oh yes: the night that Dwight waltzed back to the estate a good few years after fathering the twins Beyonce and Brooklyn. I wasn't too thrilled to see him, of course, since I hadn't heard once from the rat in all of those years. I walked over to voice my rage, wobbling drunkenly in the six-inch stiletto heels that I was very proud of and that would be paid off with the catalogue company in just three short months. I stood in front of him and waited for his lecherous gaze to drift up from my ample cleavage to my eyes. Then I hit him with a devastating verbal assault.
"Dwight! Lovely to see ya, honey!"
Well, I tried to.
Thing about Dwight, though, is that he can make your words come out wrong sometimes, and this was such an occasion. And maybe it was a combination of the alcohol and the loud thud of the music, or maybe it was just that the batteries in all of my vibrators were dead and I didn't have the money to buy any new ones, but I ended up spending the rest of the night where I'd fought so hard to escape from back in the old days: wrapped around his little finger. So much so that I invited him round for tea one night.
I'd tell the twins about it as soon as I could.
As soon as my hangover wore off.
"Daddy's coming round, kids!"
Little Brooklyn had a point. In the years that Dwight had been gone, all eight of them, the louse, I'd tried to fill his space, both in the family and in my big second-hand bed, with any number of temporary uncles that the kids had naturally come to regard as father figures. I had to drag them right back through their memory banks, past John, Peter, Keanu, Christian and Justin (those two being brothers who didn't speak now) to locate their true blood father. They seemed less enthusiastic than me, though, which I suppose was natural after such a long absence from him. But I still smiled at them both, and rushed them out of the house so they wouldn't be late for school again.
With no children, no job, and no pets to look after following that rather nasty animal cruelty charge, my day was kind of empty. So I watched talk shows for a few hours, spoke on the phone to Kylie for a few more, and then decided to doll myself up for Dwight's almighty return.
It never came. Plus, I'm ashamed to say, the kids had predicted his non-showing even though I hadn't. "Stood up again, eh?" little Beyonce said, touching my hand soothingly. "I'm glad that never happens to me."
Quite reflective for an eight-year-old.
I saw both kids off to bed in a right mopey state, and sat up all night wondering just how I'd let myself get suckered again.
And I didn't think things could get any worse, but then the next morning I was proven wrong, when I saw him exiting Brandi's house – with a kiss on her cheek, no less!
I wasn't angry with her, though, not even for a second. After all, she didn't know about Dwight and me, as our affair had been a secret. He'd told me, way back when, that it had to be that way because some very bad men were after him, and would hurt us all if they found him. So I'd always lied to the rest of the girls about the identity of my children's father, inventing names and personalities as the mood took me. I'd actually gotten quite good at the whole lying thing in the end, which came in handy when I had to conjure up an explanation to the kids about what I'd spent their dinner money on that week...
But back to Dwight, the creep. He knew, even if Brandi didn't. And since he'd seen me out with the rest of the girls on Saturday night, he also knew that he was messing around with a very good friend of mine. I just didn't know if he was doing it on purpose to hurt me or not.
Over the next week or so, he stayed nights at Chrissie and Candy's, too. I know this because I watched him, from a variety of hiding places. The kids, luckily, could fend for themselves, and my absence from the house during these occasionally lengthy stalk-a-thons was barely even noticed.
As much as I held no blame against, Candy, Brandi and Chrissie, I still felt that the only real friend I had in the world, apart from my vibrator, of course, was Kylie. Now Kylie Oaks was the smartest and prettiest of the whole gang, and these were attributes that she had managed to pass onto her lovely daughter, Holly, who I cared for dearly. Kylie was always full of moneymaking schemes, and her latest one involved the giant trampoline in her garden. She was charging the local kids 50p a go... and if a child couldn't afford that, as so many couldn't around here, then Kylie brought their father into the house, closed the blinds to get some peace, and worked something out with them. I don't know what sort of bargains they made in private, but both father and the elder Oaks always came out of the house smiling!
Of course, my problems were a little greater than hers, what with Dwight still ignoring his family duties. But the more I watched him from afar, the greater my lust for him grew, in spite of his bad behavior towards us. What can I say? Those rotting teeth and that greasy hair really seemed to push the button on Sewerville Estate.
He finally showed up at my house on Thursday, somehow picking a night when I was alone in the house. "If you're expecting an easy time, Dwight D. Donaldson, you can forget it. I know what you've been doing and I – "
He cut me off. "I brought a present for my son." And with that, he pulled something into the room behind him.
A state-of-the-art laptop computer, I found when I opened the box. "D-Dwight," I said, shocked. "How on earth could you afford this?"
He hitched his dungarees up proudly. "I've moved on up in the world, Susie Sue. Only the best for me from now on."
"Does that mean me, then, does it?"
He smiled, revealing the green teeth that drove us all so wild. "You know it, babe."
The computer didn't come as that much of a surprise, really, as there had always been something special, something much classier than any other guy, about Dwight. Whereas all of my boyfriends before him had settled for having sex in the back of cars (stolen ones, normally) or in the back alley behind the bar that I'd just met them in, Dwight had insisted on taking me to a motel on the end of town before giving me a servicing. I hadn't thought about that in years, but it came back to my head without much effort, and I was surprised to find that I remembered every single little detail about that night, which had been our first. I blushed and coughed and tried to stay mad at him.
It didn't work, especially when he gazed out of the window and let a single tear roll down the unusual contours of his face. "I just wish that we could be a proper family, darlin'..."
I nodded, watching him lovingly. "Those really bad men still after you, huh?"
"What?" He seemed confused, his face snapping up sharply for a second, but then understanding dawned on him and he nodded right back. "Oh yeah, that's right. Bad men, yeah, of course."
"You're still a mystery to me, Dwight, after all this time." I rubbed my big gold hoop earring distractedly. "So, you going to spend the night or what?"
The next morning, when Brooklyn came in from wherever he'd been all night, he loved his new computer. And I, without hope of redemption, still loved his father.
Who had dropped a business card before leaving. I found it lying next to my high-heeled shoes, and picked it up to study it. Cheapskate Motel, it said. For all the indiscretions you want kept a secret. Below that bold title, it said in smaller letters, Special rates for politicians and cheating celebrities. Hmm, now that I came to think about it, I did recall seeing a couple of famous faces last time I was there. I decided to visit the place that my love still called home – a little for old times sake, but more because I wanted to catch the bastard doing something I didn't like and then force him to do something I liked very much.
I left immediately. The kids knew better than to ask when I'd be back.
The place was just as I remembered it – but then, not a great deal ever changes in Sewerville. Teenage mothers, like me, keep breeding teenage mothers, with barely a father in sight – although plenty of "uncles."
I wasn't normally so negative about the place I live in, but a few hours before heading out to Cheapskate Motel, I'd heard at the local shop that Chrissie's daughter Cassie was pregnant. Well, I'd rushed over like any good friend would, and asked the soon-to-be grandmother just how she was feeling, and, more importantly, what she'd said to the girl after being told the news.
"Told her she was seventeen," Chrissie had told me. "And at least she was two years older than I was when I got pregnant with her." Then she'd looked me in the eye and asked, "more coffee?"
I declined, and as I left, I found myself confused about how I should feel. Oh, don't get me wrong, I wasn't worried about how little Cassie would cope – after all, she had plenty of people to ask for advice, and it wasn't like getting pregnant at an early age had ever done any of us any harm. No, it was just that something seemed wrong here, with all these events – Dwight's return, his infidelity, and now this – coming all at once and knocking me right off balance. And at the heart of that wrongness seemed to be the object of my desire, whom I still couldn't quite work out. All the signs of familiarity, of him seeming, on the surface, perfect Sewerville material, were there, but they didn't add up right. Something about him niggled with me, from how he could disappear for eight years and just come back like nothing had changed, to how he could afford a computer like the one he'd left the other day when he was still living in a motel. I wanted answers.
I used the kids" pocket money to pay for a room, but that was obviously just a ruse so I could get into Dwight's room. Which I managed to do with relative ease, since the dozy bleeder had left the door open. I waltzed straight into number twenty, and it wasn't until the door was closed behind me that I felt the first bit of unease. Everything about tracking him here had been so simple, and yet he'd managed to evade me for so long beforehand. I needed time to think and –
I suddenly got the feeling that something was going to happen, and looked around the room to see where a surprise could possibly come from. Then I heard a scraping noise right in front of me, and snapped back to attention there.
The noise came from green fingertips caked in slime rapping against the glass of the window. As I watched, it slowly slid up.
And a hand reached in, one covered in scales as well as that oozing slime I mentioned before, and started pulling itself in. I caught a glimpse of a body equally vile, and heard a soft hissing voice say, "it feels so good to get out without all that skin for a change. Oh, this is the life." Then I ran, and because I couldn't make it back to the door without him seeing me and maybe also because I still wanted to know just what was going on here, I looked around for a hiding place, found one and dived into it; I lay under the bed, eyes peering out, and waited for the Dwight-thing to make his next move.
Dwight getting ready in the morning when we were a couple:
He gets up, wobbling a bit from drinking too much the night before. He checks the black eye he got from fighting when drunk. He pulls on first one Reebok sock, then the other. He cooks a full English breakfast, pulls out a fresh tracksuit, and spends a few hours deciding where to go first – the pub, or the job center.
Dwight getting ready in his motel room, as I hid watching him:
He swings open the bathroom door, and there is something hanging up on it. When the lizard thing steps into it, I realize that it is Dwight's body – or what I'd thought was Dwight's body. He speaks some weird words in a strange language, and the skin moulds itself to him, hiding the true creature beneath. Then he sits in front of the mirror, and picks up a facemask in one hand whilst applying low-grade glue to his real skin with the other. He sighs, says "this is the part I hate the most," and sticks the human face back on. He pulls on some fashionable socks and then slides his feet, now looking normal, into some cheap imitation of a designer brand pair of shoes. The transformation is complete, and so seamless is the result that I wonder if I've imagined the whole thing.
He put on a little aftershave and left the room. Where are you going tonight, you bastard? I wondered. And who with? Eh?
But the only answers forthcoming were the ones I would have to find for myself.
I'd been so stupid, believing that only I had given birth to little Dwight juniors; the table was covered in them, and the mirror was surrounded by them: photos of his children. And a lot of them I knew from Sewerville – especially the pictures of Brandi's two kids Cocoa and Strawberry.
"How long have you been doing this?" I said to the room, but really addressing a Dwight that was no longer there. "And how come all of your kids look so totally different?"
Thinking I was alone in the room, I didn't really expect a reply.
But I got one.
"I think I can answer that, miss."
I followed the voice to the cupboard, where earlier my love had pulled his mask from. I swung it open, and gasped. It was full of faces just like the one I knew of him, all totally different, all lying there full of a kind of life that I couldn't understand – and one of them was talking to me. Explaining to me. And when I finally understood, (which took a few explanations), I made a phone call to Kylie, and told her what had been going on as best I could. And then I wrote Dwight a little note, before leaving with a few of his possessions.
His call came a few hours later, and his voice was colder and meaner than I'd ever heard it. "Give me back my faces, Susie Sue. I'll only ask once."
I was in the kitchen at Kylie's house, trying to keep calm by focusing on the well-used trampoline outside. "I've got you sussed, Dwight," I replied to him. "Can't function with just one face, can you, eh? With just one identity? Well, you're going to play my game now, honey. That's right. By my rules." I hung up.
The face he was using to seduce the top computer programmer was, predictably, the smartest. He'd told me about the bizarre relationship between the face and the thing that wore it; how the creature on the inside molded itself to match the skin it was in. What the skin was made of, how it lived and thought and where they all came from weren't things I needed or wanted to know; in fact, I'd only had two questions. Number one: "But why was he using the same face for all of us in Sewerville?"
A spiky-haired face with a heavy-metal look to him coughed up my answer. "He seems to like that one most for your area. Something about the zits and buck teeth, I think."
And number two: "How come my kids, and Brandi's, and Chrissie's, are all normal, and not like him?"
The smartest face of all, the saleswoman-seducing one, answered this one. "His genes are very recessive. And if he wanted to have children that looked just like him, he'd go with the female of his species, not you. He wants his children to look like you."
Even Kylie had to admit, it made a certain amount of sense – have kids with green skin and claws, or have beautiful bouncing children like Cocoa, Brooklyn, Beyonce and Strawberry? It was a no-brainer, even if he didn't exactly go out of his way to see them. I looked over to the older, wiser woman, and she said simply, "phone the rest of them. It's time."
Dwight arrived like a true Sewerville boy – not because he blazed into town way over the speed limit, but because he emerged from the car holding a crowbar and looking like he was ready to use it. He'd changed out of his body suit on the way, and it felt strange seeing him in his true persona, scampering up the path to the house on green, scaled feet, but each of us knew just who he was. He walked through the late night rain, tapping the bar against his open palm, and gently pushed Kylie's front door, which opened just as easily as his motel room door had before. He came through the hall without turning the lights on. "Just hand over my stuff, Susie Sue, and no one will get hurt." He was too arrogant not to add, "but you might still, anyway." We heard him come a little closer. "What if I've grabbed the kids, Susie? Maybe they're in the back of my car now, all tied up and waiting for Mommy to come and save them."
"Please," I couldn't resist replying. "If I don't know where they are, how could you?"
That must have enraged him, as he came crashing into the living room with a roar – and that was when Candy flicked on the light, letting Dwight see what we had in store for him.
It was a cacophony of noise, carrying with it the threat of pain.
A lot of the living faces cried and screamed, knowing what could happen to them if their owner didn't play ball, and if I'm honest, I'll admit that I felt a little sorry for them. But what else could we do? We had to force some responsibility from the man-thing that had fooled us all, and this was the only way.
Each of us held a lighter (borrowed from our kids) in one hand and a face in the other, and we were ready to use the former on the latter. We stood around a chair and lots of rope. "Give it up, Dwight," Kylie warned him. "Or you know what happens."
He dropped the bar immediately, panic falling over his face. Chrissie and Brandi pushed him towards the chair, and Kylie, our leader and the only woman here not to have been duped by the creature, tied him up.
His cockiness was boringly predictable, and as I checked the knots, I wondered how I'd ever been charmed by it in the first place. "You can't hurt me, girls. I'm more than you. I'll be out banging and impregnating in hours, and there's nothing any of you can do to stop me."
"Yes, Susie Sue, really. And may I just say you were a lousy fuck."
"You may." I leant in close to his face. "Now listen. We did a check on you, Dwight. Brandi over there tried to track you down years ago. You know what she found out?"
"That you have a police record. Seems you are only human, after all."
"So?" The talk was big, but I could see the panic in his dark eyes. Time to tighten the noose.
"So a man with a record can't ever disappear from us again. Not totally. And we're going to make you pay."
I leant even closer to his face. "We're going to make you pay child support."
"For all of your kids."
He didn't stop screaming for a full twenty minutes.
His name was John Rix, and after an exemplary career in the Army that only ended after a messy scandal in his personal life (he discovered that his wife was having an affair, abseiled down the side of the hotel she was being unfaithful in, and took out both wife and lover in a hail of grenades and bullets) he took no shit from anyone. Following that little incident, which had left him unable to remain a soldier, he'd worked as a mercenary, taking down many an inner-city drug cartel or espionage organization, and in the police, where he'd avenged the death of many a murdered partner. In-between all these (busy man, our John) he'd trained up a champion boxer and defeated his own clone. But now he was retiring, and although the man selling him the house was pleasant enough, John would still wrestle him to the ground if he got too greedy.
Luckily, Mr. Burroughs, a gray-haired and mustachioed old gentleman, recognized him from the papers, and knew how blessed he was to be selling his home to such a legend – indeed, there was a certain sycophancy to his manner that John found both pleasing and familiar. "I hear you have a daughter, Mr. Rix. Aren't you worried about old enemies tracking you down here and kidnapping her?"
"No." Nonetheless, he picked up some ornamental piece of tat and discreetly checked it for bugs. "I have another new identity." Satisfied, he placed it back down. "Plus she hasn't spoken to me since a little argument I had in a hotel with her mother."
"Ah, I see." Burroughs ran a hand along the wall, soaking up many a memory. "I've had some good times here, Mr. Rix, I don't mind telling you." He looked up into the eyes of the legend standing in front of him. "And I'm sure you will, too."
Was there some kind of threat contained in those words? Rix returned his gaze long and hard, trying to find out. Satisfied, at last, that there wasn't, he said "yes," and bent down to check the table for explosive devices – you could never be too careful, not with the number of enemies he'd made in the last forty years of using guns, tanks and grenades to make the world a safer, less violent place. "I'm sure I will."
"So... you're interested?" This was going better than Burroughs could ever have imagined, and he decided to push things along to endgame so he could make his way to his new home.
"Yes. I am. Let's talk. I have a suitcase full of money here to open." He'd received that windfall for rescuing a millionaire's daughter from a trio of experienced kidnappers – one whose brother, it turned out, had been killed by Rix many moons ago. After sending all three to their punishment, the girl he'd saved had fallen in love with him, naturally enough after seeing the skill with which he'd taken out the criminals, but Rix mad a point of never mixing business with pleasure, and had so returned her back unmolested. Women could be so much bother, anyway; these days he got more fun polishing his huge collection of guns.
The old man's face practically split when Rix opened up the case. "Why, I've never seen so much money before!"
"This is a nice house. Let's talk trade off."
So they did.
Rix wandered around the house a few days later, feeling alone and vulnerable for reasons he couldn't quite understand. All he could tell was that something about the place bothered him.
No, not the place exactly.
He'd walked amongst them expecting to be treated like a hero, like the icon he was, but he'd registered only disinterest in the people that hadn't recognized him. As for the people that had... they'd looked at him with something close to terror and disgust. Their fear he could understand, as through the media they'd seen him standing over the dead body of many a bad guy; they'd seen the damage that his hands could do, with or without guns in them. But surely the people of this community knew that the good and just had nothing to fear from John Rix? So why, therefore, were they so disgusted with him?
Maybe they think they're not good enough for me.
That much could be true, he decided. And they were probably right to think that. But part of him still wished that some of them, hell even one of them would take the risk to come and talk to him. He was, after all, a team hero, (even though he tended to be the only good guy left at the end of the mission), and being alone suited him not at all.
He sat down by the phone that never rang, tapped his fingertips against the table in frustration, and tried not to look too lovingly at the weapon room – the biggest in the house.
Gerald Macintosh was, in spite of the many blackheads on his face, considered the leader of his group of friends. This was a questionable accolade, however, as said group of friends consisted entirely of nerds and fellow sci-fi fans. Still, like all true leaders, he took great pleasure in exploiting and subjugating his subjects, and this was something he did now, enjoying the anguish on his friend's face as Gerald laid out a brand new plan.
"I don't know, Gerry," Charlie told him when he'd finished. "It sounds kind of... scary."
"You wimp. It's totally safe, man. We'll do it at night."
"But..." Charlie started and then shut up, reluctant to speak. This infuriated Gerald greatly – in his eyes, if a statement wasn't worth finishing, it wasn't worth starting. And he frequently told his subjects as much.
"But he's a hero, isn't he?"
"That's what makes it so funny. No one has ever played tricks on a hero before. Anyway, I'm an individual; why should I subscribe to society's view of what makes a hero?"
Charlie sighed and kept silent, but inside he was, once again, voicing a few doubts about their choice of commander.
Rix had painted one of the rooms on the third floor in opposing shades of green to remind him of his time in the jungle, and this was where he lay sleeping when he first heard noises from downstairs.
As he came awake and reached for his gun, (all in one move), he wondered which one of his old enemies could have tracked him down here. Colonel Godolphin, perhaps? He'd brought that terrorist in after the madman took over a high-rise building, holding all its inhabitants hostage. Rix had taken his crime, not to mention his negative comments against the country that Rix was proud to be a symbol of, kind of personal, and when he found out that one of the hostages in the building was his wife (before the affair), he'd gone on Attack Overload, wiping out all of Godolphin's henchmen and delivering the ringleader, after a slight beating, of course, to the police. They'd imprisoned the Colonel a long time ago, but Rix's foes had a habit of escaping incarceration and coming after him for revenge every few years. It was a tough life.
Still, the identity of his foe downstairs didn't matter, really; all that mattered was their trespassing here.
The noise in the kitchen, a consistent rattle of pots, pans and plates, grew louder with every step he took towards it, as if the intruder knew he was coming and actually wanted confrontation between them. He tried not to let the din phase him, but when he got to the bottom of the stairs and paused just outside the door, the noise suddenly cut off, plunging the house into a deadly silence.
Deadly for someone, all right. Just not for him.
He had planned, ever since waking, to go in quietly. But then he heard a word, one that blew his cool into fragments more than any grenade ever could:
He rushed through the door, and he took in the whole scene instantly: his daughter, naked and spread out over the kitchen table, slit open from throat to groin but somehow still alive and groaning, even as the mad, blood-splattered chef raked around in her insides with one hand and raised a cleaver over her throat, ready to chop down, with the other.
Rix, without thinking, issued his standard warning: "drop it!"
The chef sighed wearily, as if he'd been expecting this. "As you wish."
The cleaver fell from his hands, slicing through Sarah Rix's throat and severing her head, which dropped from her rather surprised shoulders and rolled across the floor to lie at her father's feet. Where it started to laugh insanely, features on it running and melting until it was the face of a stranger, one he pointed his gun at and started to think the unthinkable about...
Something was definitely wrong with these people.
No longer was he getting the silent treatment from his neighbors; now he was being successfully alienated from them. It was always the same – they'd grow silent as he passed, then start mumbling about him when he was too far out of earshot to actually make out what they were saying. For reasons he couldn't work out, they didn't want him here.
Depression was no friend of his – in fact, if it had been a human enemy, he'd have destroyed it with missiles and a cool one-liner long before now – but he felt it creeping up on him more and more each day. Not to mention the nights, and what visions like the murder of his daughter were doing to him. That chef... that damn chef. He'd chased the white wearing psycho all through the house last night, through the hundreds of rooms and hallways that only seemed to appear after midnight, and he was still no closer to catching the guy. But he would. One day. And then it most definitely would be personal.
This enemy was an enigma. Of all the people he'd had trouble with over the years – terrorists, drug dealers, intergalactic aliens, Communists, spies, robots from the future, anti-gun lobbyists – why was he so perpetually haunted by a cook? He couldn't remember having any problems with the people that brought him food.
To get far enough to discover the answer to that, he needed to do something new with his days, needed to get away from the house instead of just sitting in it watching the clock, waiting for a new nocturnal battle to begin. And he was sitting there mulling over his problems one afternoon when he had an idea: why don't I go out tonight?
It had been a while, he had to admit; the last time he'd been to a good party had been the time he saved the president's wife from two career criminals who'd been hired by a crooked congressman (all three had perished). The people around here were certainly no presidents, but he decided that he could grace them with his presence anyway. All it took was a quick call to find out what was on that night.
A few hours later would find Gerald having the time of his life – again, however, given the quality of his life so far (spying on girls changing, reading about spaceships, drooling about both) this isn't really saying much. In many ways, he was breaking the bonds of his own cowardly image tonight, and this provided him with the greatest thrill of all. The only disappointing thing was that his second-in-command Charles had been too afraid to tag along, so Gerald was lumbered with the ultra slow and lumbering Derek instead. Gerald frowned, thinking, something will have to be done about Charlie. He's a good friend, but if he hasn't the guts for stuff like this, then we'll have to part ways.
It was a harsh judgment but a necessary one. For something, you see, had happened to Gerald when he sneaked out of his house into the dark night. Some change had begun inside him. All this creeping around in the shadows and playing pranks on unsuspecting people had made him feel alive in a way he'd never known, in a way that nothing else ever had, and he liked this new feeling. And he wanted to feel a lot more of it.
He was just putting the much-used spray paint down when he caught a flash of light and slight movement from the corner of his eye, and he stopped suddenly, frozen by fear as he realized he'd been caught. But even as he began to wonder how long it would take to wash the smell of terror from his underpants, the front door of the house merely swung shut again, and no one emerged from it.
False alarm. It was still warning enough, though, that they were pushing their luck here. So he pulled Derek away from the wall and they took off down the road side by side.
It wasn't until Gerald was alone in his room that he had a chance to think about that creepy door opening, but when he did, he found that he couldn't get the event off his mind. The more he thought about, the more it seemed like an invitation.
Elsewhere in town, John Rix stood on a crowded dance floor trying to catch someone's eye.
It was pretty hard going.
He didn't know what fathers were telling their daughters nowadays, but if tonight was anything to go by, it certainly wasn't that they should go for big muscular men wearing combat pants, big army-issue boots, a bullet belt, war-paint on their face and a bandanna to keep the sweat from their eyes. He sighed to himself, and finally managed to make eye contact with a young girl wearing glasses across the room. She didn't look much like his type – in fact she looked like she could even be pro-peace, and he certainly couldn't be doing with that in a potential partner. She was, though, the only one to register any interest in him.
He was out of practice at this. With his ex-wife he'd just talked about his many achievements, then showed her his gun and flexed his muscles and she'd almost swooned. This one looked like she could be slightly more difficult.
"Hey, babe," he said, sitting down next to her. "I noticed you admiring my body."
"Hmm. Yes." She sipped her drink and looked him over. "I was just looking at all your bullet scars."
"Turn you on, do they, baby?" Could go all right, from here.
"No. I was just finding it highly improbable that one person could have so many and still be alive."
It kind of went downhill from there.
At the end of the disco, the most successful scorer was some dancer kid, someone who was thin and unscarred and yet still did better with the ladies than Rix did. The hero sat in his car and watched the wimp leave with a lady on each arm, heading back to some scummy student pit full of illegal drugs, no doubt. Rix watched it all with fury mounting, and sped home to take his frustration out on the ghosts inside his house.
He entered through the back door, and didn't see what had been done to the front of his home.
He had two surprises waiting for him in the morning, neither of them doing much to lighten his mood. First off, he found that everything in his kitchen was covered in mould; worse, the bacteria making it up were speaking to each other, keeping up an illogical discourse about anything and everything that almost drove him mad. So he staggered outside, into the garden, and saw surprise number two: a message that had been spray-painted onto his wall.
Killer OUT! Murderer OUT!
It was something about the lower case/capital letter combination that worried him as he looked around the street, looked at the people that remained all but strangers to him. Heavens, he thought, I haven't been this stressed since the time my wife found out that I was a secret agent, and not really a computer salesman. Even worse did he feel now, weighed down as he was by the oppressive glares and stares of this damn community. How could they be so resentful towards a man that had saved blessed civilization so many times? Didn't they care that he was a hero? He wanted to scream at them all, I'm normal! I am, damn it! I just have more balls than most other man, that's all! I still love to hang out and relax at home when I'm not shooting bad guys, and I still love to fuck! Why must you torture me so? I'm normal, straight, normal!
But he didn't shout at them. Instead he walked back inside, closed the door behind him, and shouted "will you shut up in there?" at the singing mould in his kitchen.
Gerald's fantasy took him back to the house, and while most bizarre visions take place in a dream while the viewer is asleep, he had things a little differently. After homework and a few hours of various sci-fi channels, he started doodling in his notepad and imagining what pranks he would play on the oh-so-brave John Rix tomorrow, and he soon pictured himself standing at the gates of the huge house again, about to step into the garden surrounding it. And then a strange thing happened: he crossed the line into sleep without realizing it, as there was no break in his fantasy – one minute he was in his room and seeing the building only in his head, and the next minute the room had vanished and he really was at the gates. Well, sweet, he thought, and decided not to question things too much. But since it was a dream, he thought he might as well take a quick sneaky peek on the inside.
Which he did, passing the gunroom with considerably less interest than Rix (a spaceship room, on the other hand, would have satisfied him no end) and ended up in what he knew to be the spare room.
Inside it lay his dream woman, the beautiful composite creation of many a TV cyborg, alien and intergalactic freedom fighter. She was tied naked to a bed, whimpering for help as a group of turbaned figures circled her chanting some kind of war cry. Although Gerald would normally have been terrified by full frontal confrontation, tonight seemed different, and he actually found himself longing for a battle with them. If only I had some guns, he thought, observing how heavily armed they were... then he looked down at himself and realized that he had somehow gained one in each hand, not to mention that a handy knife had been hooked to his belt. He was well and truly set, but just needed some way to grab their attention before he dealt with them.
It came to him in the form of a snappy one liner.
"Take your chanting to the Happy Hunting Ground, boys! It's time for payback!"
Gerald dived across the room, both guns blazing, and as he took out two of them with precise shots to the heart, he noticed something else about the situation that was rather strange; he noticed that none of the men could aim very well, noticed that all of their bullets only seemed to fly around him, hitting nothing but the walls. Only one came close, whistling over Gerald's shoulder as he landed beside the bed, dropped one empty gun, and brought his other up to bear. "Allah may be merciful," he exclaimed, "but I'm not!" Standing, feeling the bullets all around him, he killed the last three, and then turned to the maiden fair.
A little of the real Gerald came back at this point; stress made all of his zits throb simultaneously as he watched the woman, whose struggle to escape her bonds was doing wonderful things to her breasts. Was she his lover? Gerald wondered. She had to be. Who else would he risk his life like that for?
Finally free, she wrapped a sheet around herself and said, "thank you. I'm the luckiest girl in the world..."
Bingo! Gerald thought, and prepared himself for the best – actually the first – kiss of his life.
"...Having you as a brother."
His smile fell off and the house laughed, having played a trick back on him.
Walter Jackson sounded just as sharp as always, and Rix now knew that he'd done the right thing by calling him. "Hello, Captain."
"Johnny-boy! My man! How's retirement treating you?"
"Not too well." He wrapped the bandage tighter around his hand – whilst chasing ghosts last night/this morning he'd missed a target and accidentally put a knife through his own precious skin; the pain was pretty bad but he'd had worse. "Can you get down here by the end of today?"
"Hey, are you kidding? I'd do anything for the man who went deep undercover with the mob to avenge the death of my son! What kind of trouble have you got, Johnny?"
"It's hard to explain. But it's bad."
"Bad? You mean worse than the time our team was picked off one by one in the jungle by that alien space hunter thing?"
"Even worse, Walt old buddy. And I need your help to beat it."
"You got it, my friend. I'll just go charter a helicopter."
With that, Rix went off to take care of some business of his own.
"I wish to see a Mr. Burroughs."
The receptionist looked him up and down; with some disgust Rix noticed that it was the girl who'd laughed at his bullet scars at the disco the other night. He was dressed the same today, but this time he had guns to go with the bullets. "Are you a relative?" she finally asked.
"No. I bought his house."
"I see. Well, I'm sorry, but you're out of visiting hours so –"
With an ultra-fast punch he sent her flying off her chair and to the floor, and then, noticing that two puny in comparison to himself security guards were coming towards him, he quickly pulled on his gas mask and threw a smoke grenade into the middle of the room. Even as it went off Rix was moving, never stopping until he reached the door marked BURROUGHS.
"Why'd you do it, old man?" He snatched his home's former owner up and growled into his face from behind the mask. "Who paid you off? Was it the Colombians?" As the smoke began to clear, he pulled off the mask so that Burroughs could see who he was.
"Mr. Rix! Good to see you!"
"Don't stall with me, old man, or you'll find your life span considerably cut!" He stuck the barrel of his gun against the man's chin. "Now tell me what you've done to that house!"
As expected, Burroughs's terrified gaze was stuck on the gun at first. But then his eyes strayed to the walls, flicking over Rix, and fixated on something there. Not used to being overlooked, especially when he was feeling this mean, the hero turned to see what was so interesting.
And saw that the walls were covered in shapes. Black shadows of people, bodies, explosions and guns. He saw his wife and her lover gyrating in there, how they'd looked seconds before he obliterated them, and just as he had that thought, the shapes changed, becoming his wife and her lover after he'd punished them, all burnt, torn and mangled. And here, seeing all of this in a gas-filled old people's home, full of panicking pensioners, he finally understood what was happening to him.
And so did Burroughs.
"You brought it all with you. The death follows you around. The house isn't haunting you; you're haunting the house!" He started pummeling Rix with weak blows. "I thought you were a hero." He started weeping. "But you're not!"
"Damn, you're right." Rix pulled the trigger, spraying the room with octogenarian brain cells. Then he sat down and started rifling through the old man's possessions, certain that he'd find something to help him out. He looked for a fruitless five minutes, as the smoke cleared up and his head did quite the opposite, before finally finding a newspaper article that explained one of the biggest mysteries.
WIFE OF NATIONAL HERO FOUND DEAD, screamed the headline. ALONG WITH WORLD FAMOUS CHEF TO THE STARS.
His wife's lover, who'd he taken out with his favorite gun, had been a chef.
One who looked very much like the one he'd been chasing for the past few nights.
Nodding his head in recognition, Rix ran back to his car.
He and Walter Jackson returned to a state of sheer bedlam, to a house full of ghost and poltergeist versions of all their former enemies, including the highly formidable alien space hunter thing. With lots of grenades being flung and lots of rooms being decimated and walls being kicked through, it wasn't long before the inevitable happened and Walter fell.
"Tell my wife and kids I love them," he said in a typically moving death scene – no matter how many of them he'd seen (and he'd seen a lot) they always touched Rix. Touched him enough to make him hunt the killers down to a bloody, action-filled showdown every time. "And John... buddy... promise me... you'll... avenge my death."
Rix finally understood it all. He wasn't meant to retire, and now that he had this house to give him everything he needed, he would never have to. Here there were always battles to fight, dead partners to even the score for, new drugs to wipe out, new police officers to be partnered with that he'd hate at first but gradually come to grow a grudging respect for. As long as he had all that, he didn't need the community outside. So fuck 'em.
He was still lacking one thing, though.
Gerald thought he'd woken up in his room. But the strange surroundings said otherwise. For a start, why would his room be full of guns?
It was a mystery, much like the ones they sometimes showed on the sci-fi channels. Still, as soon as he got home he was sure that everything would be okay.
Just as he was thinking that, the door burst open, and through it walked the hugest, most grizzled and fearsome looking man that Gerald had ever seen. I'm dead, he thought. But instead of assassinating him, the owner of the house said simply: "just in time, son. I'm in need of a new sidekick." He tossed a gun to the boy. "Welcome to the Rix corp. Once you're in, you're never out."
Gerald stood. Rix watched him, then readied his gun for a fight that would never end.
Of all the curses she could have put on him, she'd certainly hit the nail on the head with this one.
For here was Jack, a man who ran a very successful business despite being crippled with self-loathing issues, and she'd chosen to curse him, in way of punishment, with a miniature version of himself. One that sat beside him silently, aping his every move but never saying a word. Where once he could have silenced the hating voices inside by simply not looking in the mirror, now he had his own face behind him every minute of the day, and it was driving him up the wall, to the point of no return. He'd tried to beat the little monster away yesterday, but it was just no fun beating on something that only came up to his knees. So he was stuck with it.
Unless, that is, his secretary Julie had some good news for him. He found her in the library, checking books for a remedy. 'Is there anything you can do yet?'
'Sorry, Jack.' She struggled to suppress a smile, and noticing this tore Jack up inside – as her boss, he felt he should berate her for not taking this more seriously, but as her friend, one who knew just how bad her life had been, he was gladdened too much by her grin to mention anything. 'I've checked through hundreds of texts, and there's nothing.' She slammed an old book shut, spewing dust everywhere, and looked him straight in the eye. 'I'm starting to suspect it must be an original spell, 'cos there's nothing in any of these about any kind of antidote.'
'Just great.' He looked at his double, and as always, seeing his own face stare back at him without the aid of a mirror was a tremendously disturbing experience. He didn't know how much of this he could take, but his determination would win through. 'Well, I'll think of something. No way any old woman is going to get the better of me.'
'Of course,' Rob said in the canteen, 'you could just apologise to her.'
Rob, a stigmatic telekinetic from somewhere up North, had tried to float little Jack out of the room earlier, but the sprite had remained rooted to the floor, resistant to the powers of anyone other than his creator.
'No way,' Jack replied. 'I want her working here. I need new staff.'
'Is it really worth this, though?' He pointed at the double to emphasise his point.
Jack didn't answer at first, as he was too busy thinking of his meetings with the woman that had placed this curse on him. It was normal for people to end up in his care when their unusual abilities – telekinesis and stigmata like Rob, psychic powers like Julie's – drove them to the point of attempted suicide; that was when he found them, lying in hospitals with no one to visit them, or bleeding their lives away on a street corner somewhere, alone and unloved. But the woman he was thinking of, one Mary Reginald, seemed different somehow; from what he could tell (and he was pretty good at working people out), she was genuinely happy with her life, with her marriage, striking a happy balance between loving wife and. well, someone who could do this sort of thing to him. There was one thing about her that intrigued him, though – she didn't want kids. Which was interesting, if you followed it a little deeper, if you made a few assumptions: could it be that she wasn't totally at ease with her talents? Could she, in fact, be scared of passing them on to any offspring?
It required some thought.
He'd been nice, on the first visit. Second time round, he'd been a bully, which had been infinitely more enjoyable. Third time, she's waved some sort of relic at him, whilst threatening something about 'divine retribution.' Thinking of an event from his recent past, he'd replied, 'lady, I've taken down idols before, so don't bother.'
Then she'd hit him with the curse. Which made him wonder why she hadn't just got her husband, who was a big, scary guy, to sort him out. Even two black eyes and a couple ov lacerations would have been better than this little silent midget!
Jack stared down at his hands, suddenly feeling sorry for his harassment of the woman. Maybe Rob was right; maybe he should just say sorry. Come to think of it, maybe he should go one step further and leave her alone.
He wavered for a few seconds, wondering, but then the old Jack Peters self-defeating stubbornness kicked in, making him say, 'no. No apologies. I'll kick this bug myself. And I'll get her to sign up here. Just you wait and see.' With that, he stood and left, followed by his burden.
Rob watched his retreat, feeling more than a little sorry for him. As bosses went, Jack was okay, and Rob thought it was good to have a job here where he depended on his talent, rather than do some piddly little everyday job where he had to hide it away and pretend to be normal, but there was still something a little untrustworthy about the man that had brought them all here... no matter how much he tried to hide it.
Adjusting to your Abnormality in Today's World; Dealing with your Dilemmas and Dishwashing your Demons; Problems with your Parents? – they had nearly as many advice leaflets as inmates – sorry, employees – here, and Jack flicked idly through some now, as his double sat at the other end of the table watching him. The one regarding parents made him ponder his own; how would they feel, he wondered, if they knew what he did now? He imagined telling them: hi, Mom and Dad! What's my job? Well, let's see, I'm in charge of a business that rents out people with abnormal powers to solve problems that normal people can't – speak to their departed loves, predict their future, that sort of thing. And how did I get this job? Well, brace yourself, cos this one's going to come as something of a shock: I'm abnormal, too! I'm a healer. But some wounds heal harder than others.
One particularly hard to deal with wound was the memory of what he'd done to his best – and only – friend when he first got the job. But that was a different story, one with no happy ending.
Despite all of this, he liked to think that he was a success. He knew that others had doubts, though. One had once asked him, 'how can you even hope to be a good leader when you can't stand yourself?' This Jack wondered about now – as he dropped the leaflets and threw darts at a photo of himself.
Not liking the roads that these thoughts were leading him down, he sat down at the table so hard that the double flinched. For just a second, there was a tiny flicker on its face. It was brief, but in that instant another face appeared behind the Jack-one it was wearing, a face that was grey and not quite human. It transformed back straight away, slipping back behind the mask, but by then Jack was already smiling, feeling power slip into his court once more.
'Can't be much fun for you, eh?' Staring at himself was creepy, but eye contact with the thing was absolutely essential. 'Her just calling you up from wherever and making you wear whatever face she wants you to wear?'
Stony silence. This was going to be tougher than he'd thought.
'You know how many better people you could look like?' He tossed one of Julie's gossip magazines, one full of hot and hip singers and actresses, at the form. It held out for a full minute before Jack caught its – his – eyes creep down to the magazine. Jack's grin grew wider; if there was one thing that supernatural beings loved, it was knowing what those famous human types were up to. Well, good supernatural beings, at least – the bad ones were more likely to gut you and eat you. All of which supposition led him to believe that the being currently leafing through a fashion bible was basically good-natured. He was glad; there were few activities he enjoyed more than manipulating good nature. He raised an eyebrow when the double finally looked up, and nodded when it pointed to an actress and said:
Jack's agreement was fake, as he thought that most actresses were mingers. 'Bet you'd like to look like her, eh?'
It nodded Jack's head.
'Yeah, and I bet it can't be much fun following me around every day, either. There's a much bigger world out there, you know.'
'Yeah.' Jack sighed. 'But I guess you're stuck as me now...'
It was easy after that. The double wrote down the spell and then transformed into its natural (if that's the right word) state, which was a pile of funny looking ash. Then Jack took it through to Julie, and made her cast the same spell that had given it Jack's face. Soon it was a solid lump of grey clay, wearing the face that Jack had momentarily witnessed earlier. 'All we need now is a face,' Julie told him. 'Shame. It's kind of cute this way.'
'It'll be even cuter in a minute.' Jack handed her a picture of the face he wanted on it. Then settled down to wait.
Day one brought nothing. Which was fine, as he had plenty of other things to keep him occupied.
Day two was a bit slower, and he found himself hanging round the table watching the clock a lot.
Day three, however, brought her pleading to his door, a broken, sobbing woman. 'Please call it off! I give! I'll do anything you want!'
'Good.' The curse couldn't be reversed as such; you could only persuade the form to go and hassle somebody else. And it seemed that Mary Reginald didn't have the persuasive skills that he did. 'Just sign here,' he said, handing her a copy of The Contract. 'Welcome to the business, Mary. I'm sure you're going to love it here.'
He held out his arms, and the woman's double jumped into them, clinging to Jack like an infant. He smiled at yet another victory – now this was what he called winning in style.
"Stephanie, are you almost done yet?" Alexis says in a sleepy voice.
"Yes just give me a couple more minutes!" I murmured back to her. We both share a bathroom in the morning getting ready for school so I'm always trying to get in the shower before Alexis does. This is a typical morning for us; we are always trying to beat each other to using the shower, hair dryer, or the hair straightner. Of course, we have our arguments about things like who was going to do what first. After living with Alexis (Ali is her nickname) for 16 years we have managed well and figured things out with out attacking each other every morning.
"Ali, it's 7:10, we need to get going to school right now!" I exclaimed.
Like usual, we are running behind or in a rush and just need to get to school. We pull up to school at 7:15 and we go our separate ways. Ali goes through her school day which I would say isn't so normal compared to other students. She is taking mostly all AP or honor classes. Depending on what season, it is, she is always busy after school.
It's fall time, school just started and Ali, now an upperclassman, is on the varsity tennis team. She is a fighter in this sport. This is her favorite to play because it's something she likes to do for fun and gets a good work out. She comes home with a sun-kissed look and goes right to doing homework. It is now winter time, the middle of the school year and Ali is now in basketball. She is in this sport for the discipline and motivation to be better than she was the season before. Basketball is probably one of the hardest sports on her because she puts in so much heart and does everything she can with a positive attitude. Even though her basketball season hasn't gone the way she wanted it to, she stays positive. Once practice is over she comes home with a flushed look on her and again goes right to doing homework. It's now spring time, end of the school year and Ali is a star on the track team. Track is the hardest on her body because of the tough work outs the track team does. Ali feels that she has a lot to live up to because our oldest sister was a 3-year state track runner. No matter what sport she is doing, she puts 100% into everything she does. She keeps her body in shape from all of the sports that she participates in. Ali is most serious about school and sports, but outside of that all she is quite the humorous girl.
"Do you want to play Barbies?" Ali asked in her little girl voice.
"Yeah let's go!" I would say back to her in an excited voice. Ali and I would play Barbies for hours and hours every day when we were younger. We had over 50 Barbies, each of them had a name and we would each play with the same ones every time. Ali has an imagination where she could go in her own little world and just play the whole day; that's what I admire about my sister, she isn't a materialistic girl. She doesn't need something to keep her occupied, she just uses her imagination and she'll be good for the day. I can remember all the times when we were younger, nobody could believe that my sisters and I were actually sisters because of the way we would play and get along. That is still true about my sisters and me to this day. Even though we don't play anymore, we hang out just like best friends would.
Ali has got this extroverted personality about her. She is a warm and welcoming person and has no enemies. Ali is always there to give advice to anyone who needs it. The best conversations that we have is late at night since our rooms our only separated by the bathroom and 10 feet down the hall. I go and sit in her room on school nights. She has the candles in her room lit with slow music playing, and just her Christmas lights on. We talk forever about random things that just come into our heads.
"Girls, it's going on 12:30, what are you still doing up?" our mom yells up the stairs.
"Mom we are having a sister conversation, it's okay!" I yell back down to her.
"Well you girls need to go bed, you have school in the morning!" our mom would yell back up the stairs. Ali and I would just giggle and start talking a little more quitely so she couldn't hear us. These times I will remember forever because once I leave soon for college, I'm not going to be able to have these conversations with Ali. Ali is one of a kind and a very compassionate person.
"How was your day mom?" Ali asks in a cheerful voice.
"It was good. How was yours?" My mom replies back to her.
Ali is always seeing how other people are doing and making sure everyone is having a good time. She carries herself with confidence and always has a vast smile on her face. One thing that makes her weathered acorn eyes light up is her boyfriend, Jared. They have been dating for 6 months, but they have dated on and off throughout the years. When Ali isn't busy with school or sports she is most likely with Jared.
"Mom, can Jared please come over tonight?" Ali asks with a beg in her voice.
"Sure, just remember it's a school night so no later then 10:30!"
Our mom says back to her.
"I know that mom, thanks!" Ali cheerfully says back.
"Ali it's going on 10:30 and Jared needs to be home, it takes him 10 minutes to get home, and he should probably get going!" my mom yells down in the basement to Ali.
"Mom, we know that, we are coming up soon!" Ali says back to her.
Jared has become part of the family because he is always over here; it's a good thing that we all like him so much! Not only does Ali care about Jared, but she also cares a lot about her friends and family. It's nice having two sisters that are always looking out for each other. If one of us gets in trouble at home, we stick up for one another. Now that our older sister is at college, it brought Ali and me a lot closer together because it's just the two of us at home. We go to each other with boy problems all the time now.
"Ali, what am I supposed to do about this problem?" I ask Ali.
"Well you're a strong girl, you'll figure everything out, and things will be ok!" Ali says back to me with confidence. She always knows what to say and how to help everyone out. She makes people feel good about themselves.
"Where is my cell phone? Where are my jeans? I can't find anything!" Ali says in a panicky voice.
"Well, where did you last have everything?" I say back to her.
"I don't know, I thought I had everything right here." Ali replies.
One thing that Ali isn't really good at is staying organized. She is so busy with everything else that she doesn't have time to keep much in order. I am always hesitant about letting her borrow my things because she some how always manages to loose everything. It's not just little thing she looses, they are big expensive things like her cell phone or a new coat from Hollister. If she doesn't loose it, people steal her things because her stuff is always in the locker room for sports. All of these traits of Ali are what makes her, her own person.
Growing up with two sisters each of us two years apart, we all learned to get along and be best friends. There are times where Ali and I don't get along, but the good thing about being sisters is that we always make up. Ali is a very hard working and determined girl and always wants to do her best.
His tattered brown fedora flapped in the wind and almost came off the detective's head, but he caught it just in time. The cold battered him as he walked towards the tavern on the docks. The man at the front stood up as he approached and asked what he wanted.
"To speak to a man inside," the detective said, glaring out from under the hat that gave him an air of superiority over the man at the door. It could be felt, it hung in the dense air like a warning.
The guard sat back down in his chair as the detective walked by and opened the door.
The action froze as he walked in and the looks began. "Who the heck are you?" asked one man.
"My name is Morris, Detective Morris," he said as he slowly removed the hat so the men in the tavern could see his eyes.
His eyes were special, a dark color. Almost like steel, and they were intense. God, they were cold and intense. When he looked at you, those eyes cut you to the core. It was as if he could, just by looking, tell who you were and what you were going to do in the next few minutes.
Morris stared at the man who had spoken, "Please take your hat off," he said evenly, commandingly. The man looked around to see if he had any support and seeing that he had none, he complied. He set his tattered ball cap on the table.
"What's your name?" Morris asked.
"J-Jones sir, Bill Jones," he stammered.
"Jones, would you step in the back room with me for a minute. I have several questions for you." Morris makes the request, quietly, although everyone in the room knew that if Jones didn't there would be problems.
The bar-keep felt it too and yelled at Morris, partially to help him out and partially to get him out of the room. "Morris has a way of discouraging the spending of money in this place." The thought ran through his head, he yelled, "Morris! I need him to able to walk out."
"We shall see how our talk goes. Mr. Jones should be able to walk. If anything, he will have to get help going to the bathroom." he replied coolly.
The rest of the taverns occupants sat still and silent, not wanting to cross the man that had interrupted their night of drinking and mischief.
Jones got to his feet as Morris placed his hat back on its perch. He smiled a cold smile, the kind that was forced and didn't show memories of good times.
As the door to the back room closed, the men in the bar went loud with plans to get their friend back so he couldn't talk. Amid the yells of crazy plans that called for Morris's death in a hundred ways, the barkeep spoke up. "Jones will be fine," he said almost silently. The bar went quiet.
"Why should we listen to you?" a man asked.
"That would involve damaging Morris's hat and that, gentlemen, is a very bad idea."
The faces told the bartender to go on with his tale.
"It was a cold night." he started. Upon hearing a loud noise from that back room, he went silent.
The back door opened and Jones walked out calmly. He looked around the bar, forced a smile, and walked calmly outside. It was then that the others inside the bar heard a blood curdling scream from outside! They ran outside to see Jones running down the street like a mad man screaming about Mr. Morris's hat, of all things. They ran to catch him, and realized that the man who put Jones over the edge was still in the bar.
They ran back in to see that Morris was standing at the bar having a drink, talking casually with the barkeep. They grabbed him as the barkeep smiled, turned and walked out, leaving a final warning.
"What you do to him the hat will do to you."
"What do you mean?" asked a man in a tattered fur cap.
"The hat watchs out for its head." The barkeep said. Then he walked out the door, never to be seen again.
"I'd listen to the barkeep," Morris said quietly.
"We want to know what you did to Jones and what the bar man meant."
"Jones needed to tell me what happened at his girlfriends house the other night. He went over there and she turned up dead. He apparently killed her because she wouldn't marry him. As for the hat, well that is one heck of a story. This hat has been in my family for over a hundred years and is cursed. Not the kind of cursed your thinking of, no, this curse is the kind that returns harm done to another person. Jones, he killed his friend, so the hat killed him." stated Morris.
"That's bull!!" another man yelled and punched Morris across the face. Immediately, the man was punched across the face by... nothing!
"I told you."
That set an old sea captain off, he tore his sailors' hat off and pulled out a gun.
To this day, no one knows what exactly happened in that tavern on the dock after the captain pulled the gun, but strangely, after the building burned down, a battered brown fedora hat was all that survived.
One day a man suggests the circumstantial evidence that lead to the evidence that lead to the egotistical rebirth of his new found redemption. Questions surround this suspected fabrication the man carried in his pocket. This handheld comfort gave him the confidence that with no doubt he has found to be his purpose.
He speaks of this misinterpreted guidance to anyone that will listen. Going on and on purposely ignoring the obvious boredom of the listener. The expression on this unfortunate soul (who is painfully pretending to listen) is most likely made by a potent combination of Morse code signals only picked up by telepathy. This mixture of signals are followed by a violent exclamation point, and can be translated into no other than "I Don't Give A Shit!"
With every attempt this man makes to explain or more posing, justify, his persona, he admits an attitude that he has found his calling. But he is only overshadowed by doubt. He looks back into the dusk, driven to prove that this purpose is his pathway. He proclaims secretly inside that his search for purpose in this life is comparable to those just getting started in this world or graduating high school or college.
"I was chosen to be this! I was born for this to be! This is Who I am!" He drinks his first cup of coffee every morning pondering the truths that he has spent his life trying to ignore. He looks at his wife every morning shaken by the split second flashbacks of nights with the guys. Filled with long talks, while passing the pipe, and not always, but usually ending with innocent make-out sessions that sometimes led to sex.
He shakes it off and remembers the importance of his job and duty as Vice-President of Tyzan-- the second largest distributor of Urinal cakes in the United States and abroad. He begins getting dressed for work, and is filled with excitement when he can be alone in the bathroom... [Let the imagination take over.]
Yeah I know I look horrible... Listen Doc, I know you got your casual "hi's and byes" to attend to. And your shot gunned overly medicated patients to pet and feed like lost dogs so I'll keep this short, so you can trip my fellow crazies out for their weekly shit.
If I look horrible it's not because I feel bad. "Bad" is what sends a man to the psych ward for a weekend getaway from his family. Only to give him the misery and shit of knowing he has to return. Bad is what keeps a man on the couch for a Star Trek marathon that only ends too soon.
I am not "Bad" or seeking attention in a ten minute weeping willow of pity. It's not an emotional scar of the skin; it's a stolen part of my Soul. Something that I dwell on and question the uncertain return to a connection of comfort, and a vast world that fills you with the joy of walking on a terrain that holds no limits and casts no bounds.
Freedom is at hand. The journey of purpose. I am a searcher, a rare but oh too common group of people that will cross any bridge, any mountain for truth. Walkers of the Black dog. The test of courage and strength can bind you into an unforgiving pit of despair; Where you are forced to succumb to the most ugly of thoughts.
Demons of spirit. The test there is to separate the impression of accusations that "they" (meaning despair) stuffs down your throat with fucking righteous zeal of the world... What is truth, is the test... I must live here, for I am a searcher, even if I must die here. These spirits that guard the pit will not let me continue with my journey until the journey there is complete... Much more pain in store.
I, like many others must stay untill I find what is separate with fear at our feet and being the very ground we walk on. Soaking in this torture gives me all I left, when faith, joy hope, peace, freedom and the very light of days are taken away from you... nothing. Maybe will, but also patience is at question for this is one of the most frightful and unproductive journeys.
You see doc, it's not just one of the most untrue lies that people fall into believing, mostly because of our arrogance of bullshit if that this is our last and final journey, test. Life goes on brother, like goes on past our shattered differences. LOVE is what stops me along past and gives me a trance of hope, of one beautiful truth that is walked past everyday. Our fucking absorbed lives of material gives us our wall of ignorance that grows higher and higher with each passing day.
And each time we are sucked into motions and chores that don't mean a god damn thing. All that provides us with is another brick for the wall, and we take it, and say "Thanks," even though we have an unconscious source of awareness that that's not what matters!!! It's bullshit. Don't let it consume your mind with ego or untrue meaning. So when you say I don't look too good, you must think you are looking great and got it all fucking figured out.
So Doc instead of talking with a sore lip and a past grin of pain, and having you label all my problems I'm going to give you something to leave with and some advice... I'm wrestling in a slow journey that searcher me understand to part of the chain.
But when you or someone you love is engulfed by a undertow of spirits and is thrown into the pit of despair (that you and other doctors might call an episode of depression). Just know for the books, that I'm on six different medications but the journey, the journey my friend is spiritual... Slowly as I realize the survival techniques are not what you really remember climbing out. It's the distinguished truths.
Decoding the chains set before you cause them to stretch and as a baby you will learn to walk again. Right... left... right. But remember the journey does not end.
One more thing I must ask... Want to come with me? Do you really? If so I will give you the pleasure of success (another word of many lies and masks). Points of no matter and pats on the back that your boss might give you as he passes you in the hall and looks at your ass. But if you really wanna come with me. With understanding of at least the struggle of truth, I will reveal my present condition that holds me in containment... Unsure Doc?.. hesitant? Well maybe not today Doc. Maybe today's not your day to find out, like me, you really don't know a god damn thing...
I wish Ken were here and I could talk with him about everything. I met him while standing in line waiting in the dusk at the temporary shelter in Northampton, back in 1998. He gave me an idea what to expect in homelessness, and later taught me how to keep my feet dry so they would not freeze, in the depth of winter. I was a novice homeless person. He was a veteran, in more ways than one.
Ken was tall and rangy, on the thin side, with a moustache and in his fifties like me. I remember seeing track marks on his arm.
His girlfriend, Elizabeth, lived in a tent beside the railroad tracks. She looked like Marilyn Monroe, was religious, and a little crazy, but had a gentle voice. She never would stay inside the shelter.
Ken hung out with me in coffee shops, the library, at Kinko's and at the soup kitchen.
He told me how Celtic music calmed his spirit when he listened to it on his portable radio every Sunday night.
He told me some things about 'Nam, like how he was forced to shoot through a baby to kill a Viet Cong lady who was about to detonate a bomb.
He told me about his adult son who lived in Wooster. He told me they had not seen each other in years.
We transferred over to the rehab shelter about the same time, in the spring. One day I found him dead in the upstairs bathroom during a community meeting, sitting on the toilet. In his hand was a needle, poised in the air. I remember his eyes were blank, but, strangely, he seemed to be staring into space.
I remember he wanted to talk with me before the meeting about something but I said "later." I still feel bad about putting him off.
Many years have passed. I no longer am homeless. I have a job but need more hours at work. I listen to Celtic music with my wife and do peace work and stay close with my son. Yesterday I remembered to wear socks, to ward off the advancing cold.
I am universally renowned in my tiny speck of a world as a master in the science of "not flinching." I am considered a titan among titans at the art of not missing a beat. Well, if the truth be known, at least in the land of my mind where I imagine reigning over my domain with infinite kindness and compassion. I could, in fact indeed I did always deftly conceal the brutal reality of my humanity being ripped in two, shredded into psycho-scopic bits of shear horror with the consummate ease of an accomplished illusionist but yesterday... I slipped. I ascended the grand staircase to the second floor of the old Victorian house and entered the sun room where Mark rests during these days of uncertainty, these nights of indecision, demanding satisfaction like some spoiled child. I slipped... and Mark saw that... and he didn't miss a beat. What a guy! What cynicism rebuked!!! My hero! I thought to myself, or maybe I thought I thought to myself, or maybe I thought I should of thought, "Oh god, not again, enough is enough already!" I slithered into his sweltering, claustrophobic world on a dank, hazed, smoldering, funky, fucked-up Monday afternoon in July in LA. I slinked into the near-to-the-end, closer-to-god world of yet another dearly beloved dying comrade. A man loved not only by me but by so many countless others. Yes, it's true, there are people in this world you and I will never know, men and woman and children we have never even heard of who have single-handedly spun our earth on it's axis with only the power of their hearts. Mark, a strapping, vital, virile, shinning star of a man - the same guy who had fifteen years earlier saved my ass from dropping off the deep edge of the Hollywood sign, laying there on a chaise lounge like a scene out of Sunset Boulevard, almost a apparition of himself. Down to 108 pounds from his usual 180. With a plastic catheter in his chest; the only way to feed his wasting body; an intravenous needle gauged into one vein, another above that for good measure; a testimony to the miracle of science, easy access to his royal blue, proof that god does indeed work in mysterious ways. In my brief and oh-so-fleeting life I have seen many men, some I have loved, some I have loved even more in the same physical shape as Mark but it's been almost six years since the last time. That was when Mitch lost his battle with a sick and twisted cosmic humor, speechless and paralyzed from a surgeons botched biopsy of a tumor on his brain. Up until Mitch died there was hardly a week that would go by without an untimely-in-his-prime bravely-fought courageous a-lesson-for-us-all bullshit death. My soldiers and I considered it an act of god's undying love for creation if a month passed without another fucked up, nasty, cruel, senseless, nobody-should-die-like-that, modern-day crucifixion, while over on the right-side of the tracks, Reagan and Bush were sitting around Ming dynasty china sharing champagne and Spam with other fat-fuck leaders of a compassionless new-up-yours world order, but more often than not the average was once a week. In fact, towards the end of 1995 there was one week in which my brother Richard, my guru Don, (for lack of a better word yet to be invented) and my adopted baby brother/buddy Mitch, all died within hours of each other. That sucked! The meaning of sucked reached new heights altogether that week. A whole generation wiped out... just like that! My whole generation was obliterated from the face and memory of my time, a catastrophe that not even Allen Ginsberg could imagine. But shit man, I was making progress. I was getting to the place that I imagine living long enough may take a holocaust survivor to if they're lucky, if they get past the Lazarus syndrome, anger and the bitter truth of man's inhumanity to man. So here I am in the year 2000, minding my own business, pretending I don't exist, conveniently forgetting that a life not examined is a life not worth living. Smoking my pot, brushing my teeth, biting my tongue, shooting for the cool, too-hip-hey-I'm-over-it, forgive and forget new attitude and what happens? Like a blast from the past, a here-we-go-again, a just when I was beginning to see the light rude interruption, a bumming-my-stone crank wake-up call punches me right smack, bang-pop-wham-shazam, bulls-eye, into my beautiful smug face! And I slipped, I can't believe it... I slipped... but not Mark, he just smiled his breathtaking smile like he knows some secret that maybe, just maybe he will pass along to a wounded soldier such as myself if I'm lucky, if I deserve a heroic act of mercy... but I'm not feeling too hopeful... I mean, having slipped and all... and feeling like I do, a little ashamed of myself.
I wonder how many women my age would be excited at the thought of how I am going to spend a Friday night. After work, instead of making my hour-plus-long trek home to Brooklyn on the New York City subways, and then watching situation comedies - having eaten dinner, showered, and donned PJs - I will ride swiftly to Chinatown and nervously await a reunion with someone whom I haven't seen in more than 20 years: my favorite high school teacher.
For me, high school was basically where I was held captive, listening to long, drawn-out speeches that test the attention span. Then, every few months, I was forced to retain as much of the information as possible. When I studied, it was as if my head were a balloon filling up with more and more helium. As I took a test, tiny puffs of air would be released. End of test -- total deflation. Minor school perks included hallway socialization and the occasional free-period hangout. Anything more was mainly enjoyed by the various in-crowds. (You know, the people whose yearbook photos had myriad activities noted below.)
In the spring semester of the 11th grade, I had Mr. Marino for the second time (the first having been 10th grade's spring semester), and something magically changed. Though he was a marvelous teacher during both semesters, something just clicked that second time, when I took his special elective creative writing class.
Every lesson was a creative, therapeutic one-man show. His marvelous life experience and unique brand of philosophy educated his students, encouraging us to write. I could not wait to sit down, take pen to paper, and start working on the next project -- or to read his insightful comments that made me aware of talents that I did not even know I had. Usually, seeing lots of red ink on a paper would petrify me, but not in his class. It meant that he carefully scrutinized the piece over which I had slaved so hard, and now he was celebrating the creativity and insight that I strived to effect -- all the while offering carefully crafted suggestions for improvement, as if to say, "You're great, and I'm trying to make you better." And what a wonderful sense of humor he had. When I wrote cluelessly about a "passing siegel" in the sky, he responded with, "Is that a Jewish bird?"
His light brown hair, parted to the side, was neatly groomed, as was his goatee, and his narrow eyes had a special twinkle. He has been retired for about 10 years. Mr. Marino was a chubby man. Well, actually he was fat - and perfectly comfortable that way. He would bike to work when the weather was decent, and often he would ride past me on the street and give a smile and a wave. Students, myself included, would voluntarily come to talk to him after school. Bottom line, he understood and appreciated us like no teacher I had ever known.
Nine months ago he responded quite enthusiastically to a letter I had written. He agreed to my suggested meeting and even said that his wife already liked me "because of all the nice things I said about her favorite guy." Ordinarily I might consider such a remark corny, but remembering this man's incredible sincerity and having met his wife briefly, I found it one of the sweetest things I'd ever read.
I was honored that he remembered me - though he did say he was certain he would not recognize me if he passed me on the street. I quickly quashed that theory (and stroked my ego) by e-mailing him a recent photo. Friends offered myriad reactions to my pending meeting, ranging from "Are you going on a date with him?" to "Why would you want to do that?" Some thought it was a mistake to make contact: Maybe my expectations would not be met. But I was determined. A man who cared so much about his work and loved life so much? I could not see any of that changing just because he was no longer in front of a class. The clincher was when he wrote that we could meet if I "don't mind chancing a few surprises" -- practically like dangling a hot fudge sundae in front of me.
It's almost time, and I am worried about everything: Do I look spinsterly? Bookwormish? What will we talk about? Will my life seem empty to him because I have no husband or children? Then again, I don't think that he and his wife have children, but in any case, their lives certainly do not seem empty.
As our eyes meet (a cliché, but accurate), we stare in awe, trying to determine if each is the person the other seeks. He finally breaks the ice: "Teri?" I let out a cheery and robust hello, and then the three of us come face to face. His wife, Rosalie, also a retired teacher, makes an enthusiastic move toward me, introducing herself and giving me a kiss. I then say hello to Mr. Marino (or should I say Jim?), and give him a brief hug. I feel him kiss my cheek, somewhat hesitantly. He looks pretty much the same, only with gray hair that has thinned slightly. Still sports a goatee. The characteristics I recalled of his wife, in the brief time that I had met her, rang familiar to me: petite; earthy; dark-brown curly hair; somewhat pointy nose (noses have always commanded my attention). Small talk ensues as we proceed toward the Cantonese restaurant one block away. Luckily the weather has been fickle; weather is my old standby for beginning a "long time, no see" conversation. Rosalie is quite friendly, just as I remembered.
I order diced chicken and mushrooms -- but not before lamenting the absence of tomato egg drop soup. I ask Jim if he remembers a takeout place near school, the only one I know that has this wonderful soup. "I think every kid went there after school," he chuckles.
What a pleasure to dig in to the piles of cubelike chicken pieces smothered with juicy black mushrooms. (I am devoted to mushrooms. Fungus, shmungus.) The Marinos are very generous, urging me to partake in their dishes. And I do. Jim raves about the black bean sauce on his clams, advising me to pour some over my white rice. An excellent recommendation.
Before long, it feels as if dining with these people is a weekly event. Jim comments on the difficulty of my job as a copy editor - a real testament coming from an English teacher - and then makes me laugh by assuming that my employment at a Jewish publication means I am proficient in Yiddish. His wife says enthusiastically, "When we were watching for you, I asked Jim what you looked like and he described you to a tee." He adds, "I remember you having a good sense of humor, and I remembered your laugh." Giggling, I hunch up my shoulders and look downward, as I recall him christening "the Zucker laugh." Then comes the question: "I was wondering what it was that made you contact me after all these years." My stomach tingles slightly, and I feel myself blush. I cannot formulate an answer. Why is this so difficult? I try to cheat: "Well, I remembered your old Brooklyn address and tried that, but when it didn't work I did a general search on the Internet white pages." That bought me a little time, but soon Jim came out with "Well, I'm not wondering so much how you did it as why." Darn. I tell him that a friend of mine reminded me of him; awkwardness resumes. "Oh?" he asks. "Why? Do we look alike?" I confess that except for a goatee and Italian descent, no way. But I do say that my friend was once a teacher, and that he commanded an influential presence and spoke fondly of his former students. I really want to tell Jim that this person reminded me of the wonderful English teacher who cared and inspired me so much, and made my junior year a joy, but I just can't, lest the pink on my cheeks gradually darkens, or I cut off the circulation in my hands by wringing them under the table. Needless to say, I find myself extremely thankful that I have not been asked "What were you hoping to get out of this?"
I'm amazed that this loving married couple who are seasoned travelers, often overseas, seem intrigued by me, a very single woman who has never been out of the country except to go to Canada: They're impressed by my total willingness to eat and travel alone, my victory in a karaoke contest 10 years ago. They offer support as I bemoan the grind of online dating (though when Jim says that the world is easiest for "pretty people," I worry for a split second that he is calling me ugly).
I share a regret: I miss writing. It's something I used to be quite good at -- and the main force that connected me to Jim Marino -- and now I feel so disconnected from it, so lost. It might sound strange that I am in this position considering my line of work, but on a professional level I feel so ignorant. Jim smiles. "There are probably a lot more people who are in your position." He says many people will be able to relate, but I am skeptical. "Why would people be interested in my life?" I ask in frustration. "Remember what I would say in that creative writing class," Jim says. "Don't bullshit." Suddenly it's like I am 16 again, sitting by his side at the desk after school. But now I am even luckier; Rosalie is just as helpful and supportive, taking a genuine interest in my plight.
Plentiful conversation consumes the rest of the night. We discuss the school's transformation from one of the city's best to, sadly, one of its worst and most dangerous. (And he wants to hear my thoughts, not just to sound off.) We chat about former students and teachers. How sweet that he keeps in touch with some of them. Jim and I discover that we are both multiple kidney stone victims, and I am surprised at his and Rosalie's enthusiasm regarding the impending nuptials of Erica on "All My Children" ("Everyone knows Erica!"). Sub-stories relating to the Marinos' extensive travel reveal how being stranded in a broken down car compelled them to get a cell phone. I myself only decided to "cell out" this past April. (However, Jim is bothered by misguided cell phone use: "Who wants to be on a bus and hear someone talking on the phone about how they clean their toenails?") Rosalie tells an amusing anecdote about how she thought to have alleviated her homesickness while in Asia by purchasing a jelly doughnut - only to bite into it and find not jelly but red bean.
The night has way exceeded my expectations. Now I know I have been destined to meet certain special folks -- not only Jim but also others who have touched my heart and given me both personal and professional inspiration. But Jim is clearly Charlotte to my Wilbur, and Rosalie is an added bonus. As I hug them both, I realize they have renewed my belief that there are people who are able to employ themselves and their love for life to inspire, while exuding warmth and happiness. "Write something," Jim tells me. And I know I can and will. And someday he will hear it, and then maybe what I could not say in person will finally heard - and felt. As I head to the subway, I feel reconnected with a world that I had abandoned. And I have a newfound appreciation for black bean sauce.
Do you ever fret? In today's materialistic age, sometimes fretting is inevitable. With so many goals to achieve and needs to meet, fretting has become the "official emotion of the generation."
A few weeks ago, I was having another fretting day. I had so many conflicts to deal with and personal affairs to attend to that I was eating my heart out the whole day I was moving around. I could almost hear the song playing in my head: "Fretty woman walking down the street, fretty woman... lalalala..."
That night, after retiring from the day's toil, I remembered the time when I was diagnosed with SLE (Systemic Lupus Erythematosus) a.k.a. Lupus, an incurable autoimmune disease. I started re-grieving over the part that SLE took away from me. I began to fret about all the things I used to do so well.
I thought about how I used to take the jeepney for an hour's trip to the city just to get to pre-Med school everyday. I remembered how neat and pretty I looked with my white college uniform and how all my male neighbors used to have a big crush on me. I lamented that because of SLE, my college days are over and I'm never going to fulfill my dream of becoming a neurologist... ever!
I also recounted those days where I used to bum around with my friends. All those shopping sprees and dating schemes with a pool of suitors not to mention the series of soirees in schools and dormitories and a string of sorority mischiefs. Again, I lay the blame on SLE for cutting my frolicsome moments abruptly.
But as I was pouring out my grief, a crazy question popped in my mind: "Rachelle, give me five reasons why you should be happy today."
At first, I took the idea for granted thinking it was utterly ridiculous to entertain. Nonetheless, it remained lodged in my brain that a moment after, I felt like I just couldn't give it up. I thought for a moment and then, I started reiterating.
"Well," I mumbled, "my first reason to be happy would have to be my life, I think. The fact that I am still breathing the air of life would be a good reason at that. I have knocked on Death's door several times in my life and yet he never took me in. With dengue fever at 9 years old, malaria at 10, dengue fever again at 12, severe UTI at 19 and cardiomegaly at 20, and recently SLE, i think it's a miracle that I'm still alive. Second, I have a beautiful family who loves me so much. When I was at the darkest hours of my life and felt like everybody turned their backs away from me, they were there, enduring every sadness and pain with me. Third, I have great friends who were always there through thick and thin and were willing to sacrifice just for me. Fourth, I have a loving boyfriend who, despite our distance, never ceases to send his cares through the distance and loves me more than life itself. And fifth, I have a god who unwaveringly shows his love and care for me if all else fails."
And before I realized it, I felt good again. My lost fervor was revitalized and I felt joy overflowing inside me. I just realized that everything I need to be happy is right before my eyes and I was just overlooking them all along. It dawned to me that joy does not reside "out there" but within each of us in our hearts. It worked so well that I decided to incorporate it in my daily routine. Each day after rolling out of bed, I would grope for five things in my life that I am most grateful about. It soon became a habit that my life gradually changed.
Three days after the experience, my brother came up to me and asked,"What's with you? What's making you so happy these days?"
I just told him, "It's because of the power of five". My brother furrowed his brows not knowing what I meant. I just smiled.
A young girl grows up in a little barangay in Bogo, Cebu. Her name is Llianzareh but she is fondly called Leyan. She lives with her father in a little yellow house made of oak and narra just beside the road. Her mother who was only nineteen when she conceived Leyan, died of a heart attack right after giving birth. Since then, it was her father who shouldered the responsibility of rearing her up. Having only graduated highschool, her father had a difficult time finding a permanent job. He had to jump from one opportunity to the other and frequently changed jobs in order to provide for their growing needs. When Leyan reached five, their fiscal problems alleviate. Her father has found a job in the newly opened factory in the nearby town as a laborer. He only works during the day so after working hours they stroll in the park and sometimes play hide and seek when there are less visitors in the park. On weekends, they would tread the 2-km distance to get to the nearest beach to bathe under the sun and play sand-castle-building on the shore. It went on for years until Leyan crossed her adolescence. That's when things started to change. Being conservative and old-fashioned that her father is, they would often end up bickering on her nose ring, the music she listens to, and the length of her skirts. Not a day passes by when they would not argue about anything. Consequently, her love for her father eventually turned to hate. Consuming anger seethed inside her. "I hate you!" she screams at her father one time when he knocks on the door of her room after an argument. That night Leyan felt she couldn't take it anymore. She finally acts on a plan she has mentally rehearsed scores of times. She runs away.
She has never really been away from her father that long. But with the frequent soirees with her friends, she got accustomed to places in the city. She's been to clubs, concerts and slumber parties and just about any get-together there is. The thought of Junquera immediately crossed her mind, the haven of flesh trading. With all the mobs and thugs abiding in that place and with all the newspapers reporting in lurid detail the drugs and violence in Junquera, she concludes that it's the perfect place for her refuge. Probably the last place Dad will ever look for me, she thought. Maybe Danao, Mandaue or Cebu City but not Junquera.
So she packed up her things and made her way to the big city. Daunted to make her escape known to her father, she refused to tell any of her friends about her whereabouts. She rode a bus on her own and made it to the heart of Junquera. There she meets a man driving a shiny yellow Honda. He offers her a ride, buys her food and arranges a place for her to stay. He also gives her some pills that make her feel better than she's ever felt before. She was right all along, she decides: her Dad was keeping her from all the fun.
The good life continues for a month, two months, a year. The man with the big car - she calls him "Bogard" - teaches her a few things to thrive. Since she's underage, Bogard taught her to lie about her age and made her dress like a woman - actually more like a tramp. He taught her how to flaunt her body in the streets and seduce men with words. She felt awkward at first but as time went by, she became familiar with what she's doing. She now lives in a penthouse, and men just give her a ring or drops by her place for her services. Occasionally she remembers her Dad, somehow missing him but she loves her life now and thought that her Dad maybe enjoying his life without her too- without someone to piss him off all the time.
One time while sauntering the cold streets, she saw her face on the headline of the newspaper. It read, "Have you seen this girl?" She felt her heart pound fast from fear of being noticed. She calmed down when she realized that no one would recognize her anymore. With her brown curly hair, thick makeup and jewelry all over, it was a perfect disguise. Not even her father will be able to identify her.
After three years, the first sallow signs of illness appear. Bogard who used to love her and take tender care of her suddenly turned mean and grumpy. Before she knows it, she's already out on the street without a penny to her name. She still turns a couple of tricks a night, but with her habit to support, her money usually just goes down the drain. When winter blows in she finds herself sleeping on metal grates outside the big department stores. With dark bands circling her eyes, her hair smelling like dregs, and her skin tingling against the cold, she looks like a bummer without a family and a home.
One night as she lies half-awake listening to footsteps, memories quickly flash in her mind and realizations came dawning in. She no longer feels like a woman of the world. She feels like a little girl, lost in a cold and frightening city. She begins to whimper. Her pockets are empty and she's hungry. She needs a fix. She pulls her legs tight underneath her and shivers under the newspapers she's piled atop her body now turned lanky and pale. Something jolts a synapse of memory and a single image fills her mind: her life at home in Bogo, where a million sampaguita bloom at once filling the morning air with such fragrance while she serves her Dad his favorite cup of coffee in the morning.
God, why did I leave, she says to herself, and a pang of guilt stabs her heart. She's sobbing, and she now realizes that more than anything else in the world she wants to go home. She thought about her father and how much she misses him. She wonders if he's missing her too.
She decided to make a call first before going home to give her Dad a chance to prepare for her arrival and in any case, allow his anger to subside before she makes it home. She goes to a phone booth and dials their home number.
She awaits patiently for her Dad's voice on the other line. Fifty rings but still no one picks up the phone.
"Oh, yea, it's still 2:00 pm. He must be at work." she relieves herself. She decided to surprise him instead. She was sure he'd be able to forgive her despite her shortcomings.
"I'm his only daughter and he loves me," she reassured herself. She thought of just letting the day go by without a word to her Dad in hope of making it a big surprise.
The next day, she scrambled off her feet and headed towards the nearest bus station. She felt so excited. It's been years since she last saw her father and she wonders how he's been all these years. Her thoughts bounce back and forth between those worries and the speech she is preparing for her father. "Dad, I'm sorry. I know I was wrong. It's not your fault. It's all mine. Dad, can you please forgive me?" She says the words over and over, her throat tightening even as she rehearses them. She hasn't apologized to anyone in years.
The bus has been driving for four hours now. Her pulse races after every turn. She could hardly wait to hug her father and patch up with him. The world outside looks dark and dreary. It seems so dim but at the same time it was still and peaceful. Yes, peaceful, that's what she's been wanting all these years- some sense of peace. Junquera is such a clamorous place. She wished she could get home soon.
When the bus finally rolls into the station of Bogo, its air brakes hissing in protest, the driver announces in a crackly voice, "Abot nata! (We're here!)"
She immediately checks herself in a compact mirror, smoothes her hair with a fine-toothed brush and tangles it to a ponytail. She wipes her lipstick with a Kleenex and checks her nails for nail polish. "All right, I'm all set," she utters with a deep sigh.
She walks into the terminal for a tricycle en route to her barangay. Familiar faces greeted her with a smile. There's Manoy Alberto who was the frequent companion of her Dad in their drinking spree and there's Manang Cacang, still hollering and talking the passengers into purchasing her "bananacues". Everything's still the same and it made her heart wrench inside.
"Oh, how much I missed this place." she whispers to herself.
She finally rides on a battered 3-wheeled vehicle and gently slumps on a seat at the back. She felt worn to a frazzle but her excitement supersedes her physical depletion. The tricycle finally arrives in her hometown. She gets some coins and pounded the railing with a coin to make the vehicle stop. The tricycle screeches to a halt and Leyan extends her fare to the driver. She went down the vehicle and went straight to their house. But not one of the thousand scenes that have played out in her mind prepared her for what she sees when she walked through the yard. There, in the small frontyard of their house, were her aunts, uncles, cousins and a few neighbors seated in a row.
Out of the crowd breaks Aunt Maryjane, her Dad's older sister. She approached Leyan and hugged her tight.
"Auntie, what's this all about?" Leyan whines. "Where's Daddy?"
Aunt Maryjane smiled wryly and said, "He's inside. He's been waiting for..."
Without letting her Aunt finish her speech, she rushed inside to check on her Dad. Her thoughts filled her with fear and anxiety. As soon as she entered the door, she felt her world collapse into pieces. She moved towards the huge rectangular casket held in front of her. She stares out through the tears quivering in her eyes like hot mercury and begins the memorized speech, "Dad, I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. It's all my fault..."
Aunt Maryjane interrupts her from behind. "Hush, child. No need for apologies. It's not your fault. He's been having that cancer even before you ran away. He never told you because he didn't want you to worry." Leyan stood in disbelief. Her father had long been suffering from cancer and she didn't even know. She felt a twinge of guilt slowly sweeping her inside.
"Here's something he left you," Aunt Maryjane confided while extending Leyan's inheritance. "He said it will remind you of him and the love you shared for each other."
Leyan received the envelope and the cup of coffee. Her hands were quivering as she holds them with both hands. She didn't know what to say. She felt the one to blame. She felt like a criminal to her own father. She burst into tears and felt her chest exploding. She wanted him back. She badly wanted her father back. But there's nothing she can do to make him come back from the dead. If only she could turn back time, if only she could. She sobbed some more and wailed in pain. She realizes now how much her father really loved her and how much he means to her. But it's too late. She's only got the cup of coffee to remember him by.
It was way past 10:00 pm when I came home from a grueling day of schoolwork and extracurricular activities. The wind was rustling about overhead as I paced through the door of our humble abode. I moved towards the nearest couch and plumped myself to rest. Defeat and exhaustion filled my frame as I laid back against the soft cushions. But then I remembered our Hematology project which was due the next day. Galvanized, I scrambled off my feet and immediately headed towards the personal computer situated on the other side of the room. Just then, my little brother Michael dashed out of his room and came straight at me. He was holding a pen on his right hand and a piece of paper on the other.
"Ate, can you help me with my assignment? It's about the seven wonders of the world," he blurted out while staring at the paper in his grasp.
My brother's words didn't seem to filter through my mind at first. My attention was so riveted at the computer screen that my brother had to nudge me and pull the tip of my blouse just to get my attention.
"Look, not right now! I'm very busy," I yelled while ticking on the keyboard.
"You're always busy! You're always like that!" he wailed back as he turned on his heels and stomped back to his room.
For a moment, Michael's words fiddled in my mind. I felt a twinge of guilt as his words lingered in my thoughts. But the urgency of my work seemed more important to me than my brother's. I sighed a few times and continued to polish my school work.
The next day, I went home late again. I went straight to my room and quickly changed my clothes. When I was about to turn off the lights, I heard a pounding noise on the door. I went to see who it was. It was Michael.
"I know you are busy but there's something I wanna show you," he began. "I was just wondering if my classmate was right when he said that my assignment was wrong."
Without saying a word, I snatched the paper from him and pored over his written assignment. I really didn't care what he was saying. All I wanted was to get rid of him and finally get to rest. Suddenly, my eyes widened in surprise as soon as I saw what he'd written. There, he wrote in gothic letters:
The Seven Wonders of the World
I froze dead on my tracks as the words registered in my brain. I could not believe what my brother just scribbled on paper. I was completely transfixed. How could such an innocent little child fathom such things in life, I thought to myself. As I was trying hard to push back my emotions to the farthest recesses of my mind, I didn't notice that tears were already swelling up in my eyes and started flowing down my cheeks.
"Ate why are you crying? Is it really wrong?"
"No, baby brother, it's not. This is the other set of answers most people don't know," I said as I whisked the trickling droplets from my cheeks.
That day, it dawned on me that the most valuable things in life are the ones that we often overlook and take for granted. These things don't take the form of towering buildings, gigantic houses, magnificent cars, material wealth or even high-paying jobs. What my little brother showed me was a gentle reminder that the most wondrous things in the world are immaterial, priceless and can never be developed by human art, skill or effort. As Dean Wilson of London once wrote, "As with most of the important things, we often take them for granted and forget we even have them..."
It began the Christmas of 1992 when I asked for a horse. I was a normal twelve year old who was always dreaming. I never had a normal wish for Christmas. One year I even asked Santa Claus to bring me one of his reindeer. Who knows what made me want a horse for Christmas but, I did and I wanted it really bad. I was not like most girls my age who would ask for clothes and electronics. I had a much bigger wish.
I was usually the first one out of bed on Christmas morning begging everyone to open presents but this year the anticipated disappointment kept me in bed.
My mother came in trying to wake me up, but I did not want to wake up. My Mom even told me that it had snowed and that I should look outside. Little did I know that their was a horse tied up to a tree in my front yard and all the neighbors were watching out of their windows waiting for me to come outside. They were anxiously waiting to see the joy on my face.
After, repeated attempts by everyone in my family to drag me out of bed, I finally got up. Once, I looked out of the window I could see this impressively large and beautiful brown horse with a big red bow tied around its neck. I was so excited I ran outside and started petting it. Although I was overcome with excitement, I was also a little timid, how was I going to take care of him. This was the best Christmas present that I have ever received. Little did I know that this present was also going to be one of the biggest responsibilities that I have ever had.
On Christmas Day we did not have a pen for the horse yet so we took him to my godparent's house. They had a farm and were able to provide a place for my new friend to stay. My parents told me that I could ride him after I had Christmas at my grandparents. I was really excited but, I was also really scared since I had only ridden a horse a few times. After Christmas with my grandparents I went out to ride my new horse whom I had named Grubby. I named him Grubby because he was one of my Grandpa's old horses and when he was younger he had grubs which are a type of worms. Looking back, this is not a normal name a ten year old girl would have named her horse. My first riding experience with Grubby was one that I will never forget. I got on and I was shaking with great apprehension. Needless to say, he sensed my fear, and decided not to make this any easier for me. Right after I got on he began to buck. I was so scared that I wanted off immediately and wasn't sure if I ever wanted to ride again. That is when I became educated in a little horse psychology. If you are scared then the horse can sense it and it too will become scared. My dad talked me into staying on Grubby and the longer I did the more that I began to relax and enjoy it. I still was very scared to go faster than a walk and when he would begin to trot I would get scared and want to quit.
After Christmas, my parents received the approval from the city to keep a horse in town, so my Dad built a huge pen for Grubby in my back yard. It was the best thing ever. How many people do you know that have a horse and a golf course in their back yard? Before long I got a riding instructor and was having lessons about three times a week. I was being taught to ride western style. I was really enjoying it. Riding is a great therapy. While growing up with three other siblings this gave me a chance to be different from them and I think that was something that I really liked. I was never good at sports when I was little and this was something that I could become good at and it was defiantly something different than what most kids my age where doing.
When I was in fourth grade I had lots of friends but, instead of going to recess I would stay in my classroom and work on homework so that when I got home I could go ride. I was completely in love with everything about riding. I wanted to ride every chance that I got. There were many drawbacks to having a horse though, I had to clean his pen out every day and let me tell you that is not fun at all. I hated having to scoop stinky horse poop up ever other day. Also, every morning before I went to school I would have to go down the hill to where Grubby's pen was and feed him. On the cold days I would have to get a hammer that was heavier than me and break the ice in his water. One day like many in the winter it was freezing cold and I had to go and break the ice in Grubby's pen. That day I got the hammer like always and tried to break the ice. Well, I did successfully break the ice, but I also ended up head first into the huge pool of water. At the time, I stood in the water crying because I was so cold. It was times like these that made me so mad that I had ever asked for a horse. Looking back, I am sure that my parents really must have gotten a kick out of this.
The summer before I was going into fifth grade I decided to go to Horse camp. I was so excited to be going to a camp where I could not only be immersed in horse riding, but also meet people, that shared my love for horses. This would also be my first overnight camp. The camp was supposed to last one week. It was at West Texas A&M which is only about thirty minutes from my house. I thought, “what could get much better than being away from home and being able to ride every day with other kids my age.” I had a lot of fun the first three days of camp. I really liked all the other campers and I was also learning a lot.
Everything changed when one night I had watering duty. I had just gotten through watering all the horses and I was turning off one of the old fashioned water pumps when one of the campers ran up and turned it on while my finger was still on top. It cut the first three-fourths inch of my index finger on my right hand completely off. Wow, that will put you into shock. I can remember it like yesterday, there was blood shooting strait up and all the other campers faces were in shock. I can't exactly explain the way that it felt because I was in so much shock I don't really remember it hurting. The councilors were college students and looking back at the situation now that I am in college, if I was in their position I don't think that I would have been able to handle the situation as well as they did. They knew exactly what to do. They put the correct pressure on my finger and then went to look for my finger tip.
The councilors rushed me in one of their trucks to the nearest hospital. The hospital that I was taken to was very small and there was not a specialist. There was only a regular emergency room doctor. The doctor on call wanted to amputate my fingerer. He did not think that there was any way of saving it. My Dad threatened the doctor so he re-attach my finger. The worst part about the hospital was the iodine that they made me soak my hand in to clean out any bacteria. This pain was the worst pain that I had ever experienced.
After my surgery I was allowed to go home. I don't remember anything about the drive home. The next thing I remembered was waking up in my bed the next day. Everything seemed like something that only happens in the movies. The next day I woke up and my parents had gotten me an appointment with a well-known plastic surgeon in Amarillo. I went there to see if he could make my finger look and feel somewhat normal again. That summer I endured four surgeries to save my finger. My doctor had to do skin grafts from my wrist and also from my middle index finger. The surgeries were very complex.
During the summer of my finger's resculpting I was not allowed to ride my horse because my doctor was worried that it could get infected. This made me want to ride so much more than I ever had.
After having my finger permanently disfigured I had to learn to deal with people looking at it. I was very uncomfortable with the way it looked until I came to college. I was always thinking that it was all that people noticed when they met me. Later I found out that most people don't even notice it until I tell them, but it still made me feel very uncomfortable. I started having fake nails put on my freshman year of high school because there was no other way to cover up the oddness of my figure. The only thing that is really noticeable is that the nail does not grow straight. I am very lucky to even have a nail but it grows some what crooked and is much thicker than my other fingernails. When I got to college I finally realized that it is a part of who I am, and that I should be proud of what I had been through, so I quit wearing fake nails as soon as I got to college.
After I was released to ride I decided for some reason that I was bored with Western riding and wanted more of a challenge. I decided that I wanted to start taking Equestrian riding lessons. My parents found me a coach and I began right away. This was one of the hardest things that I have ever learned to do in my life. I had been riding for two years before I began to ride English but, it was completely different. The thing that makes English so much harder is the saddle. The saddle does not have a horn to hold on to. You have to learn to hold on to the horse by using only your legs. This makes for great leg exercises! For what seems like a month, I was rubbing Bengay on the insides of my legs because they hurt so unbelievably bad. I began riding a new horse named Baby Lue. I loved to ride with her; she was great. After I actually learned to ride English, it became an amazing experience. I loved being able to jump obstacles on such a powerful yet graceful animal. The feeling of being in the air when you are flying over the obstacles is one of the most amazing feelings in the world. There is so much that has to go into perfecting it. I began going to competitions all the time. I enjoyed every minute of it, but in particular, the rush that I got while performing and being judged in front of many other people was unlike any other.
Well, this love for English riding was short lived when a tragedy occurred. It was beginning to get dark on November, 1996, when my life would change forever. I was out on a trail riding in the middle of the country with one of my riding friends. We had decided that it was getting late and we needed to get back to the stables to put up the horses before it got dark. I was riding a new horse that I was not completely comfortable on yet. We were beginning to turn back to the stables when my horse took off running. I had no control over him and I remember trying everything that I knew of get him to stop and nothing I tried was working. The next thing I remember was lying on the hard ground in excruciating pain. I woke up to my friend standing above me asking if I was ok. I was having a lot of trouble breathing. My friend ran and got help from my riding instructor. My instructor decided to take me to the hospital in her car because she felt that an ambulance would take to long.
We arrived at the hospital in my hometown of Hereford which was very small. The surgeon that was called in was one of my parent's good friends. He was not exactly sure what the extent of my injuries were so he took all necessary precautions. My doctor in Hereford took many x-rays. The hospital in Hereford was not equipped enough to deal with the severity of my injuries so they had to transfer me to the Hospital in Amarillo. The doctor in Hereford was very worried about my stability so he rode in the ambulance with me to the hospital in Amarillo which is about sixty miles from Hereford. The doctor that was with me had called ahead and got three specialist doctors to meet us at the hospital. Dr. Khuri my doctor from Hereford thought that I had a broken hip, some internal bleeding, and possibility of damage to the spleen and kidney complications. He had a bone specialist and surgeon waiting for me when we arrived. The doctor that I saw thought that I had a broken femur and some internal bleeding but no other complications.
Once, I got to the Hospital in Amarillo I do not really remember anything but, my mom holding my hand before I went into surgery telling me that she would be waiting for me and that everything was going to be all right. As soon as I got there the doctor rushed me in to perform surgery on my left femur. The bone specialist had to put a plate and several pins in my hip. The next morning I woke up in my hospital room with both of my parents sitting next to me. Everything seemed so groggy and it was very hard to believe what had happened the night before was really true and not just a bad dream.
The surgeon that was on call had decided that night, that he did not think that their was anything wrong with my kidney or spleen. After, two days of being in the hospital my doctors told me that they were going to release me if they could just get my temperature down because, all they thought was wrong with me was a broken femur. Well, they soon found out that that was not the only thing that was wrong and after many tests they found that I had lost the use of one of my kidneys. The injury that I had sustained was a broken left hip and the loss of the right kidney. It was very hard to hear that the doctor might have been able to save my kidney if he had just listened to the doctor from Hereford. I still have much anger towards this doctor.
My story may be uncommon for people with other hobbies, but I find that there are many harrowing stories of horse riders that have endured some very painful and at times life threatening experiences only to get back on a horse and keep riding. The love for horse riding is so very powerful. Although I have been advised to stay clear from horse riding, I still have hope and dreams that one day I will ride again.
My grandma passed away at the age of 93. She was like a thick encyclopedia recording history, our family ancestors and the function of many Chinese herb medicines.
My grandma was an ordinary and also great woman. She never went to school because China was very feudal at that time and people thought women should stay at home. My grandma longed to read and get knowledge. She taught herself with a dictionary. When in her eighties one day she showed me a newspaper with a story about Helen Keller, my grandma said: "Look, Helen is blind, but she can know and do a lot of things. Compared with her, I am like a blind person with eyes." Actually most women of my grandma's age, couldn't even recognize their own names. My grandma could read books and newspapers.
Because of her strong eagerness for knowledge and her spirit to fight against the unfair fate of women, my grandma sent her two daughters, my mom and aunt, to university. To keep her two daughters in school, for many years my grandma was a vendor to sell salt on the street and every day only ate rice porridge mixed with a little sugar.
My grandma was very kind too. She gave her care and love to others, but never troubled them. She died at my aunt's home during the mid-autumn festival. One day before she died, her heart felt uncomfortable. After taking some medicine, she felt better then she washed her clothes. The next day, the mid-autumn festival, was a family reunion day, she had dinner with my aunt's family and told many stories and tales about the festival at the table. Before going to bed, my aunt gave her some medicine again. My grandma shook her head and said, she had lived such a long time, it was enough. Early the next morning, when my aunt went into my grandma's room, she found my grandma had gone quietly in the midnight of the festival. A set of new clothes, a new hat and a new pair of shoes that my grandma sewed were put on a chair beside her bed. Obviously, she planed to wear them to go to another world. Under her pillow, there was 500 Yuan and a bank book. She had saved money for her funeral. My grandma arranged everything for herself, she didn't leave any trouble to us, not even dirty clothes.
My grandma has 5 grandchildren. Every grandchild got boundless care and love from her, and we five all gave our first income to her. It was a way to give our love to her. We five, my mom and aunt, each took some thing that my grandma left as a souvenir. I chose her sewing ring. When I hold it, I seem to feel the warmth of her hands again. It was her hands that brought me to this world; it was her hands that sewed many beautiful clothes for me; it was her hands that cooked all kinds of food for me; it was her hands that combed my hair...
My grandma left me 10 years ago, but she will live in my heart forever.
The cherry tree in my grandmother's vegetable garden is to be cut. It is rather hunched, with its leaves scattered about. It is wilted beside the young prune tree. My grandmother woke up one day and walked around, as is her habit, with no specific purpose, thoughts flowing smoothly around her, until she stopped, caught one, labeled it as a problem, stopped, caught another, labeled it as a solution and then woke me up.
"We will cut it down," she said "today."
My grandfather sat by it many times, winter and summer, looking out onto the road, never stepping on it, not one bit of curiosity towards the outside world. Not because he could not or would not possibly be interested, but because habit has established itself upon his brows, clouding his thoughts, his sight. Perhaps he did prefer to leave the street as it was in his memory. Perhaps, having stepped on it once was happiness, and to walk it again would be trite. His wooden chair knew how old the days had grown, how the memories persisted on the morning dew. It could feel the weeks, the seconds. It knew my grandfather had become weak, his hair gray. He sometimes pointed towards an airplane crossing:
"What is that, Anca? Can you tell me?"
"An airplane, Oti."
That was in the good days, when he still remembered my name. Those days he looked at me with weathered eyes and beneath his forehead I could still see a flicker.
"What is the time?"
"I don't know," I used to say. I did not want him to worry about time. Time would pass either way. Time is subjective and I did not want him to worry about it.
"In '65 we went down to the river. Did I tell you?"
He had told me, thousands of times. I knew the story by heart; I mouthed it while he was reciting.
My grandfather died in February and I forgot to say goodbye.
"Talk! Tell me what you know! Tell me something!"
I kneel to cry beside the chair. It remains quiet.
The cherry tree is to be cut today. The same cherry tree my grandfather sat beside, smoking his cigars, talking with young girls, spending his time, passing his years. Its trunk is full of memories that would fly with the wind, away from us, away from me. I am afraid of losing the one memory that I hold most precious. I have hidden it in the trunk for my grandfather. I may not be able to catch it in time.
She went up with the car in a fiery ball. That's all I know. And that I held her last night in a dream, and for the first time in a long time was truly happy. Then I made the mistake: I said, "Can I ask you a question?"
"What?" she answered.
"Are you going to stay?" I asked, knowing right away that the question made her uneasy.
"You mean..." she said, and I quickly added, "Until the end of this dream, at least?"
And even as I asked the question, standing there on that broad lawn, holding her tight, I started to feel her evaporate from my grasp and the monrning's stillness, darkness, overtake me. I was lying on my own bed once again, wife and children slotted in beside me, thinking, there's a story in this about a man who becomes happy, who comes home from his drudge of a job every night to a house of screaming mimis, and can't wait to go to sleep, and in his dreams, hold, just hold, the girl he once loved, even though fifteen years before she'd gone up in a fiery ball after a car crash. Yes, it seemd the key to happiness could be as simple as that.
Then I thought, whispered, thank you, thank you for coming.
She did not reply.
I got up and went to the toilet, relieved mystelf but did not flush, not wanting to wake the others, a song by R.E.M. going through my head -- "Sorry... sorry," thinking there was a reason this song was playing through my brain, that it was her saying this. Looking at myself in the mirror, time's lines starting to carve their way across my face, lines that she never knew, happy for the moment, just thinking about that dream, about holding her there on that lawn. Promising that I would not ask that question again if she came back again that night.