The Favor

The young, slender woman with short dark hair said, “Excuse me.”

Looking up from his Apple laptop, the man raised his bushy eyebrows. Seeing the woman, he adjusted his thick glasses and smiled. He noticed her when she sat. Yes, she was attractive, and looked fit, but she reminded him of his daughter. She would’ve been about the same age, had she lived. “Yes?”

“Can you do me a favor? I need to use the restroom. Would you mind watching my bag for me?”

“That bag?” The man pointed at the green bag on the table. “Is that the bag?”

“Yes, that’s the very one.”

“Okay, I’ll watch it. But what should I be watching it to do? Does it do tricks?”

The woman laughed. “Yes, sometimes it dances. I’ve seen it but nobody else has ever seen it, so you’d be really helping me if you watched my bag.”

“Well, a dancing bag, I certainly will keep an eye on it. I’ll keep an eagle eye on it. I’ll turn on my laptop’s video and record it, in case it starts dancing.”

Laughing again, the woman said, “Thank you. I’ll be right back.”

She headed to the restroom with the man watching, smiling after her. Beginning to return to his computer, he caught movement. Looking up, he gasped.

Her green bag was doing a jig on the table. As he gawked, the bag completed a spin move, then fell back and hopped up. As it danced more, he glanced around for signs of hidden cameras or other witnesses.

The restroom door opened. The bag flopped onto the table into its original position.

“Thank you,” the woman said, returning. “Did my bag dance for you?”

“Yes,” the man said. “It did dance. I wish I had recorded it. Your bag stood up and danced.”

Beginning to sit, the woman stared at him. As she said, “What,” he said, “Is this a joke? Am I on one of those prank shows like Candid Camera?” 

“No, it’ s not a joke.” Picking up the green bag, the woman stepped closer to the man. “I thought you might — ” Her voice was low. “I need your help. Please come with me.”

Turning, she walked away, calling back over her shoulder, “Come on, hurry.”

Packing up his laptop, the man muttered, “Okay, okay, I will, I’m coming, but you have some explaining to do.” As he rushed after her, he muttered, “I should’ve never agreed to watch her bag.”

Warning Shot

It wasn’t as if he was doing this without meditation and forethought. A dangerous situation prevailed. This wasn’t just his opinion. He’d researched studies on the internet and sought validation by experts. It was only then that he formed his plan and executed it.

First, there was the gun, ammunition, and the ability to aim and fire it. Done in a thrice (an expression that he loved). Next he chose his location. Months of research were conducted. He wasn’t a marksman. A moving target wouldn’t work. Distance was also a premium.

It all came together on a bright and quiet Sunday morning. A guy driving a Prius rolled along, left hand holding his cell to his ear, dismissive of the person in the cross walk. Probably didn’t see them, too occupied with his cell phone. What was so damn important that he needed to drive and talk? Infuriating.

So it wasn’t hard to finally convince himself, do it. The blue car cruised toward him (a little over the speed limit, if he was to judge). He didn’t expect the Prius to stop at the sign. The driver nearly didn’t, but an elderly woman in an elderly green Subaru forced the issue (it was like God was helping him).

Stepping up to the Prius’ passenger window, he fired at the driver four times. Spinning around, he tucked the weapon into his pocket and walked away (calmly, at just over normal speed), defying his body’s urging to run.

Around a corner, he went into an alley where his vehicle was parked. Only then, after he’d gotten into the car, started it up, and driven it away, did celebrations begin.

He’d done it. Laughing, he hit his steering wheel. He didn’t know if he’d killed the man (a kill wasn’t required, the message was in the shooting), but he’d definitely hit him at least once.

Oh, the adrenaline, the feeling of exhilaration.

One down. More shootings were probably required before people got the message (most people were so stupid that they needed to be hit over the head). He’d send a letter to newspapers (that would take some doing to cover his tracks), explaining how and what he was doing. Talking on a cell phone while driving was dangerous. He didn’t want to hurt anyone. He was saving lives by sending a message.

Nodding to himself, he halted his car at the corner stop sign and watched a police car speed by, red and blue lights flashing, siren screaming. Even if caught and convicted, he was sure he’d be pardoned. He was absolutely certain that his President would approve of what he’d done, killing one to save many. Why, he was just like the police.

Smiling again, he decided on a change of plans. He was hungry. 

Time to celebrate.

She Thinks

Sitting with friends, laughing while nibbling a scone (blackberry, overbaked, it doesn’t taste that good, and she’s not that hungry, but she bought it because the rest insisted, “Get something,”), celebrating (after the fact) a friend’s birthday, an epiphany strikes her.

Inspired by Barbara’s recounting of her husband’s recent illnesses (he’d gone through surgery but developed an infection), Diana and Belle are speaking about their late husbands. Both died of heart attacks in their mid-sixties.

She thinks about her husband, two years older than her (and in his mid-sixties). Coughing for days, he’d been listless, and getting worse, it seems. He’d always been a health freak — didn’t and doesn’t drink except for an occasional social beverage when they’re out (which she usually finishes for him), and a pescatarian for over forty years (no, almost fifty years, to be more accurate, always important to her). He runs five miles a day four days a week, cycles everywhere, and rows with a club several times per month, activities that he’d needed to curtail when he’d become ill. A cup of coffee a day, he always said with a wink and a grin, is his vice. Yet, he seemed to be getting sicker.

His illness really started over two years before. He’d seen doctors, and everything was great. (“They tell me that I have the arteries of a teenager.) This is when her epiphany is delivered, a thought so striking that it sucks the air out of the room and her lungs. The voices fade. Dizziness topples her.

Others say suddenly, leaning in, touching her hands and shoulders, concern on their faces, “Are you okay?”

She smiles. “Yes, fine, what?” She shakes her head. “I just got distracted. I’m sorry. What were we talking about?”

They buy it after a few seconds. When the attention leaves her, she thinks, is her husband slowly killing himself to keep her from being happy?

It’s audacious and ridiculous, but she thinks, it’s keeping with his character. He’s always been something of a passive aggressive, secret saboteur. His mother, sisters, and cousin had told her stories about how he’d undermined friendships (and an engagement). He was always sneaky when he did it. He’d been the same at work throughout his career, a liar, essentially, but very clever about it, damaging relationships when he did, but always as an innocent, and almost always believed.

Now, he’d retired. No family lived nearby. He has few close friends (were any of them close to him?). Could he have turned his attention to his relationship with her?

She thinks, how? (He could be poisoning himself.) Why? (Because that’s who — what — he is.) She thinks, I have no proof. It’s insane for her to even consider it. Yet, the idea remains moored in her thoughts. She thinks with growing shock as the group breaks up and leaves the coffee shop, it’s possible.

Destiny

Brooding with leftover anger and resentment, he stared at the page, unable to read.

The book, by Lee Child (a Christmas present), was a thriller (which he usually enjoyed), but an argument was displacing his attention. It’d been a stupid argument, not worth even recounting, but it was another in a string of stupid, exhausting arguments. One a day? Hell, on a good day, it’d be one a day. Most days, there was one in the morning before they left for work and another in the evening. They were part of the routines.

He was tired of that routine. He decided that if he could, he would change his life so that he and his wife had never reconciled after they’d separated. That had happened less than nine months in (nine years ago). His life would be so much more pleasant, wouldn’t it? Her, and her attitude. It infuriated him.

Maybe, instead, it would be better they hadn’t had children. Much had changed when she’d become pregnant. The pressure to succeed, save money, and everything else, had ratcheted up, becoming relentless. Besides, they hadn’t been getting along well before that point.

He loved his children, though, although they worried and wearied him. A friend said that having children was all about the three Ws: worrying, wearying, and weaning. That sounded right.

Maybe, instead of not reconciling, he would not marry his wife. Then there would be no children. He tried imagining that life. He’d be like Grover, alone on holidays (and declaring that he liked it most times, but also decrying it on other days), but doing whatever he wanted, whenever. But he’d asked her to marry him because he loved her. Probably be better then, to have never met her. But if he’d never met her, would he have ever met anyone and fallen in love? (What an expression.) Yes, he had other girlfriends. He’d been popular.

Setting his book aside to watch football on television for a moment, he waited for some spirits to show up, someone to tell him how different his life would be if he’d never met his wife and married. That sort of tale had been written to death. Hadn’t there been movies with that theme? He waited for the television screen to change to a movie where he was the star and the plot was that he’d never met his wife and married. But that would’ve required many other changes, since he’d met her in high school as freshmen.

He had to consider all that would’ve all changed to keep them from meeting. One of them would not have been in that school (or maybe just not that year) (but both were good students), or their activities, likes and interests would’ve needed to change. He tried peering into the past to see what needed to shift to stop their meeting from happening. Maybe they met but didn’t fall in love. That’d seemed instant for both of them, like destiny.

Wiping her hands with a dish rag, she stepped into the room. “Kitchen’s clean.”

“Good.” He heard the dishwasher running.

“Are you hungry? Can I make you a sandwich?”

“Okay, sure, thanks.”

She smiled. “Want a beer?”

“Okay.”

“Anything else?”

“No, thanks, that’d be good.”

She glanced at the screen. “Who’s winning?”

“Titans, third quarter.”

“That’s not who you wan to win is it?”

“No.”

“Well, there’s still time for it to change.” Smiling again, she turned and left the room.

One child hit the other. A scream erupted. He leaped up, refereeing, consoling, explaining, parenting. A few minutes later, detente achieved, he sat down with a slow exhale and looked at the television. The third quarter was almost over but the score hadn’t changed. He picked up his book. He couldn’t remember where he’d stopped reading, what was happening, or what he’d been thinking about.

Turning the page back, he began reading again.

 

 

Strategy

She was home. 

He moved into the living room and his little electric heater. He preferred warm air. She (she claimed) liked it ‘normal’. It exasperated the hell out of him. Wasn’t like he was choosing to prefer hot. His need for heat (he’d probably never see that on a movie poster) was derived from injuries, illnesses, and diseases. Life demanded a harsh toll from him.

Hurrying to the heater, he turned it up from low to med. Then, with silent swiftness, he settled into his recliner, grabbed his book, and pretended like her arrival was a surprise.

“Oh, you’re home.”

“Yes.” She talked about things going on outside as she removed her coat. Then, as he turned away, he watched her reflection in the television screen out of the corner of his eye. Soon as she saw his back was turned, she took two long fast steps to the heater and bent over it. A soft click followed.

She bustled away as he turned back. Smiling to himself, he glanced at the heater. On low, just as he preferred.

A happy marriage sometimes required a little guile.

The Rock

“Follow me.” She took the movers into the backyard. It’d been a last minute decision but was appropriate.

A foot taller than her, they followed her out into the immaculate backyard. Winter had drained its color and autumn had jerked the leaves from the trees but a sense of comfort embraced her as she wrapped her sweater around her shoulders, glanced up at the milky sun, and limped across the grass.

A innocuous rock about a foot high and a foot wide rested in one corner in sunshine by a patch of dirt. She pointed at it. “This rock. I want this rock to go, too.”

The movers, without exchanging looks, said, “Yes, ma’am.” The three encircled the rock and studied it. She said, “I’ll leave you to it.”

Turning, she strode back into the house, casting eyes over the cottage. She and her husband had bought it twenty-one years before, ten years after they’d retired, coming up here for a more relaxed life. Then came the cat, a tiny tabby mewing on her porch as rain poured outside. The husband had died later that year. The cat, though, had lasted for twenty-one. The rock had been the cat’s favorite sitting place in the back. Sunshine always found the rock, and Pebble, named for her petite size, always found the rock.

She could leave the house – had to, really, because small as it was, it was too much for her  now – but she wouldn’t leave the rock. The cat was gone, but she’d always have the rock. And who knows? Maybe in the new place, she’d put the rock on the tiny balcony and perhaps find a new feline companion.

Or maybe it’d find her, as Pebble had.

It would be nice to have another rock in her life.

NOTE: Someone posted a photo of a mover carrying a large, unpretentious rock into an apartment. Others wondered why someone was moving a rock into an apartment.

So did I.

Recognition

Looking up from his phone screen (where he was flipping through social media) (and nothing was catching fire), thinking about what he wanted to do for lunch (and what friends might be available today), he considered the skies outside the windows. (Well, where else would skies be?)

Classes were out. He didn’t go to college (he’d graduated years ago) but somehow, most of his friends were younger than him and students, and had gone home for the holidays. He didn’t, because Mom and her boyfriend went to Mexico for the holidays, and Dad was already in Europe with his second wife and that family. His sisters each had invited him to their homes but they were their homes. He’d done that before, going to Kendra’s home for the holidays once, but he’d felt like a stranger, and didn’t want to do it again.

(Plus, of course, was the sadder part that he didn’t want to dwell on, that he and his partner of four years had broken up the day after Thanksgiving. He’d been planning the holidays with her. Most of the people outside of the young people that he knew were her friends, because he was the transplant to his valley. Not thinking about all of that made it easier to manage.)

Winter had clearly arrived in the valley. Light rain was falling but cold air was drilling through his clothing (he should’ve dressed warmer but he thought it would be a nicer day). It could snow, he thought, even though the forecast didn’t say anything about snow. Forecasts can be wrong, his father used to say, but that was back when he (and Dad) (and weather modelling) were younger. They knew a lot more about weather modelling and forecasting than they did twenty or thirty years ago.

A woman entered the coffee shop. Recognition flashing through him, he stared, unable to stop himself. She glanced his way but kept going toward a table. She looked just like Ilya. He’d worked with Ilya down in California in a past life. It’d been, what, ten years?

Wow, ten years. They’d been in relationships, so they hadn’t dated. It clearly wasn’t Ilya (because the woman didn’t recognize him) (and she was too young) but everything from the strange, fuzzy auburn hair to the athletic (but hippy) figure to her height, weight, the way she carried herself…wow, it was Ilya down to every detail.

The woman glanced his way (probably because she felt his stare’s weight).

He looked away (because he thought it rude to stare at others) (and only did that when he was drinking heavy, which he no longer did). Yet, he couldn’t help but look at her again when her back was turned. Walking across the coffee shop to the counter, it was just like watching Ilya.

His cappuccino finished and his stomach rumbling, he decided to venture into the day to find food. Passing the woman as she left the counter to go back to her table, he said with a small smile, “I’m sorry that I was staring at you.” They stopped, she with a leery glance. He said, “You just look exactly like a woman I know, except you’re about twenty years younger. But you could be her daughter.”

That would be wild, he thought, and laughed to himself. Then, he said impulsively, “You’re not Ilya’s daughter, are you?” He guffawed at his silly joke.

Her eyes widened. “No, but Ilya is my name.”

“No way. Are you serious?”

“Yes.”

“Wow. It’s just…wow. Well, you look just like my friend, Ilya. You could be her clone.”

Ilya smiled at him. “Maybe I am.”

Was it him or was something happening with them? “Are you in a relationship, Ilya?”

“Not yet,” she said. “Let me give you my number. Maybe we could get coffee.”

“I’d like that,” he answered. “I’ll give you my number, too.”

“Okay, I’d like that, too.”

Outside, afterward, he couldn’t help grinning up at the sky as flurries swirled around his head. Looks like the forecast had changed. Then, although it felt like the temperature had dropped, he took his time as he walked up the sidewalk, smiling at himself, recognizing, something had changed.

Whatever it was felt really good.

 

Humaverse

“Listen,” she said. “It’s very simple.”

Although she was a little girl (four, I’d guess, and then remembered, oh, yeah, she told me that before, she is four) with a high-pitched voice, her tone carried a judge’s authority.

“I’m listening,” I said, injecting a hint of jocularity.

My hint gained me an eye-roll. “We remain in a humaverse. It’s only the timeverse that’s changed.”

I conjured up more questions. She stilled them with a small rosy palm.

“Stop. I know what you’ll ask,” she said. “The humaverse is the universe as humans perceive it.”

I pursed my lips to issue another question but faced the all-powerful palm again.

Eyebrows going up, she tilted her head. She did that often, resembling a small dark-haired, white parakeet when she did. “I’ve been through this before. Let me finish. Humans have certain perceptions and observations that create agreed and accepted preconceptions about how everything is supposed to work, like gravity, time, and light, for instance. I’m talking classic physics, of course. Light travels at cee. Gravity is a force that causes bodies to be attracted to one another, as Newton expressed in the most commonly accepted explanation in this humaverse. Time flows from the past to the future and can’t be revisited. Well, it can but you need to shed preconceptions to make that work. Most people can’t.”

Her glance lashed me. “Don’t worry,” she said. “I’m sure that you can’t.”

“Hey, that’s — ”

“Excuse me, I’m not finished. So, that’s why it’s called the humaverse. It’s the universe as humans define it. Others can use it, though, but they’re not usually limited by the humaverse’s laws. It depends.”

“Okay.” It depended on what? “And a timeverse?”

“A timeverse is an agreed upon reality within a humaverse based on the constraints and parameters established by the results from major events of a specific time-period, as humans think it happened.”

“Like…who won world war two.”

“Everyone always brings that one up.” She sounded mystified. “That, and Jesus of Nazareth. But, yes. There are many timeverses. Some people call them alterverses, but they’re not really. To be a true alterverse, enough residual chi-energy to change humaverse rules must be present. I’m talking about classic physics, of course.”

“Of course.” Like I knew, but I didn’t want another eyeroll. If her eyes were weapons… “So…there can be more than one humaverse?”

“Of course. Now we’re wasting time. Yellow will be coming after us. Let’s go.”

Swinging around, she marched off. “Adults,” she said. I wasn’t sure if she talked to herself, me, or someone else. All were possible with this child. “They can learn if they can just forget.”

As I hurried to catch up with her, I thought with cynical amusement, I never will.

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