And Then, The Sky Fell
One fateful day, a horde of metallic spaceships darkened the Earth's blue sky. The alien force arrived unannounced, their intentions veiled in their eerie silence. Earth was left to wonder as efforts to communicate with the invaders went unanswered.
The world's armies united, firing a series of missiles at the invaders, only to witness them dissolve mid-air, leaving no trace of their existence. The invaders retaliated, releasing a beam of light that turned everything it touched to dust. Panic ensued, chaos reigned, and the once bustling earth fell into an eerie silence, succumbing to the defeat.
As humanity's end neared, the alien ships concentrated their firepower on the Earth's moon. The moon began to break up and the pieces plummeted toward the Earth. The sky, once a symbol of infinity and hope was filled with falling fragments of the moon. People watched in horror, their hearts sinking with every impact on the Earth's surface. The sky that was once full of stars and dreams, was now a menacing entity, falling upon them. Their last sight was of the descending fragments. The final chapter of human history started with humanity's last words, "and then, the sky fell."
Beware. Cannot Be-- scared
Context: Think of Frederick from Cursed Princess Club, or look it up. Now stick the story in a Modern/Percy Jackson AU. Frederick Plaits becomes Son of the Eldest Goddess, Bastard of the Plaits family. Considering his own Father hated him, the Goddess of Love was already a cheat, he could think of at least two Gods who wouldn't appreciate his existence either... and all too ready to harm his fiance and brothers in his place. So, he disappears from their purview within the Titan army, if it took destroying the Gods to keep himself and those he loves safe or, betraying a Titan, so be it.
Now, his administrative skills and youngest, least favorite child stealth came to great use. Now someone was getting demigods off the streets and out of careless schools and cold teachers.
SCENE: An abandoned road in Kansas. Four demigods walk toward a lone sign five miles away that indicates a town.
The tune, some song from the Percy Jackson musical. I will write it at the bottom.
FREDERICK PLAITS Son of APHRODITE
ETHAN NAKAMURA Son of NEMESIS
INGRID LAWLET Daughter of DEMETER
ALEX Son of DIONYSUS
Frederick: Stop. Keep watch. Feel noooooow.
A whisper, a laugh.
Everyone huddle clooose.
???: Come near, come here.
Alex[bears up a Curtana]: Who is it? Who does it think we are?
???: Silly little children.
Ethan: No, please don't be... not you.
[Ingrid too, palms out stands with her legs parted]
Alex: Supposing us unwanted and alone.
The weak ones? Oh it wouldn't, should not dare!
Ethan[whisper]: Mother. It could be her.
Frederick: Have a plan. Weigh the options. Keep safe and live another day.
Ethan: I'll defend you my captain, with my own life.
Frederick: Keep them safe in my stead--
Ethan: Have a plan.
???[Leland's harsh, waspish bark]: You fail! Now face punishment.
Frederick: Keep watch
[The leaves blow, a moaning, ominous whisper]
Ethan: Await first attack.
[The snap of a stick and crunch of dry grass]
Frederick/Ethan: Strike as one.
Frederick/Ethan[to twelve-year-old Ingrid and fourteen-year-old Alex]: You'll both be fine.
Ingrid/Alex: Cannot fight what scares you so. Yeah, so cool, you adult demigod cast offs. Fearless, unabashed. Be not scared.
Ingrid/Alex: Even if...
Ingrid/Alex: We'll lose it all.
Alex: And ache in equal wholesale.
[Ingrid can't help but flinch, to the sudden bone-deep chill]
Ethan: Listen though.
???: [a harsh, cold stepmother] that woman broke his heart you stupid child.
Frederick: Her voice--
Ingrid/Frederick: Her voice always changing.
Ethan: A shapeshifter.
Ethan/Frederick: A witch.
SCENE: The road had become endless, the demigods felt small and squashed under the force of the sky. Could hardly breathe. FREDDIE invoked tribute. His own life, as the son of the most beautiful Goddess. And swore upon the River Styx that with his last breath she would be beautiful.
The Witch is intrigued enough, to swallow him up toward the dark forest.
Frederick: SHOW YOURSELF!!!!
[A little girl. Hair white and lustrous as the stars themselves, one bluish-grey eye peeking from the bob style. And hands with nails much too sharp, ready to pounce.]
???: You need have only asked. Child.
[Roving, rotating around Frederick he bellows out to calm his heart.]
Frederick: I'm the son of the eldest, I may be the youngest!
???: Restore. restore balance, to be betrayed and to betray--
[Red , glaring power enshrines them both within a bubble. Where the misted images of a sword at his own back-- only to turn around and reverse the roles. Grinning and in a mania, Frederick poised the knife--]
[... Not at Luke, but his own brother who'd betrayed him first.]
Frederick: I'm the son of the eldest!
[Hands to his head, weapon thrown laying discarded just at the electric barrier's edge]
???: You're a PAWN child!
[And that woman was older]
[Hair a duller grey, eyes sunken but still the milky shine, not quite blind and always cold.]
Nurse Aileen: Quiet. Say not a thing.
Leland: Don't you know you're not worth a thing?
Nemesis: Oooooh ahhhhhh! Lost children, used and forsaken! Beware the touch of friend! Lead them astray, you'll lead them to death!
Frederick: AND YOU took your son's eye! (whisper): you took his eye.
Nemesis: O this cosmic game threads dancing and swaying.
Frederick: Stop pretending!
Frederick: What does she want, this ancient deity? A pawn I suppose to her own grand scheme.
Nemesis: I enshrine, I encompass justice. Yours and his and hers.
[His demigods, still huddled together, pressing onto each other for safety. A safety never allowed them]
Frederick: Eye for an eye! Is that what he'd meant? Had she lied! The Gods always lie!
Nemesis: Yours be steep the blood of new upon your hands. Your future crumbled to ash.
[Gwenny's image he tried to run to and hold her hand, defend her from this onslaught--]
Frederick: She speaks to destiny, to cosmic thread. AND ME! Mind entangled in webs! [He flounders around, head turning this way and that-- refusing to accept his fiance nothing but ash] To serve or to defy as I'd done-- Loyalty! Fear! Ohhhhh Fate now draws near!
Nemesis: (murmur in his ear) Remember my name, young halfling.
Frederick: (shrill and shaking) Fate draws near.
Nemesis: Your victory... or your destruction. Raze it all to nothing.
Frederick(poisonous anger pumping through his veins): the gods always lie. the Gods always Lie. The Gods ALWAYS lie!
[Scythe in hand, the Goddess stills upon the bronze, curving blade at her throat]
Frederick: I am not worthy. Not evil. Not good.
Alex: I can't really trust him but he can't be all that smart. Smiling so bright, eyes askance, shining jade.
Frederick: I'm the son of the eldest!
Ingrid: And though danger is all over, in the dark and the light too.
Ethan: He fought for us, saved us all.
Frederick: Whatever your price or your demand, is mine to choose. [Bringing his scythe to himself, now closed] I choose-- [bone whistle in hand]-- the last of my good heart.
And so the whistle whined across the sky. Skeleton arms rose across the plain, through the forest. Frothing in their dry, teeth gnashing mouths Godly essence.
For the Witch in the Woods Challenge.
White Flask Labelled “Summer Snowball Fight”
If my shelves were to be stacked with glass flasks of all shapes and sizes, filled with colorful substances of unknown forms, I would put little labels on them. Of course, it is visible from a distance that some flasks look more dangerous than others, but I would want to make sure that anyone reaching into the shelves would know what Pandora's box each one of them could be.
Today, the rays of light feel like waves of heat, and I am craving a memory flask of snow capped mountains. Make no mistake – although these tall peaks spend decades in snow, during the summer season they are perfect for snowball fights. Providing you have a jacket. And very warm pants. Preferably paired with sturdy boots. And if you're going to go this far, might as well grab a hat, a scarf, and some gloves.
What they hear
Tick. Tick. Tick.
The fatherclocks pendulum swung loudly as the children lay in bed. The eldest daughter waited. The clock chimed three. Then the ticking stopped. It all stopped.
Then, a breathe later, the banging began. A thumping against her closet door. She tried to raise her covers over her head. To drown out the noise. Then the screams began. It woke the other children.
They sounded like her screams. Begging for help. Pleading. The eldest daughter's heart raced as the eerie sounds filled the room. She clutched her blanket tightly, paralyzed with fear. Her mind raced. More hauntingly familiar.
Small Talk Paradox
Curious George found Skis
Gave me another book to read
And I sat on the stairs
The sun shines blue
The plants wanted food
And somebody, somewhere, cared
The ceiling fan spun
I watched and had fun
I'm one so easily entertained...
Long conversations can
Be found in small talk
"It's been a while since it rained"
When the Sky Fell
I sat on the bed ready for something big. Whenever a girlfriend said we needed to talk and used that tone, it meant we were about to break up. But this was different. This was a twelve year marriage.
We’d just had one of the most amazing summers of our lives. The kids too. Our four young kids. We’d gone to New York and stayed in a room on the 38th floor of a skyscraper. We’d gone to an amusement park in the hills of Pennsylvania with one of those old organ machines, old timey carousels, and wooden roller coasters. We’d gone to the Blue Ridge Mountains in Tennessee in the early Autumn when the leaves were orange and yellow like fire. And an anniversary trip downtown complete with fancy restaurant and nice hotel room. And then, the sky fell.
She told me she was gay and wanted a divorce. I tried my best to understand, to be supportive, and she said she’d get a job and be gone by next June. Next June came. And then September and I realized I wouldn’t be able to move on as long as we were still married and I was still in that house with her. I wouldn’t be able to find a life, get laid, find love.
And another June came and I was dying like a rotting vegetable. I watched pieces of my life fall away like flaking dead skin. And I saw the control and manipulation I’d blinded myself to when we were “happily” married. I’d chalked it up to the usual nagging, the usual honey do lists. The usual ball and chain. Only I was locked in a jail cell in the basement of her narcissism.
And I wasn’t able to break free until I found a new house and moved away. I found pieces of life like building blocks. A music open mic here. A poetry reading there. And workshops and parties. And eventually trips and travels. New chances at life. Old friendships renewed. And opportunities for new friendships, and maybe more someday.
I realized the sky falling, the rug being pulled out from under me, was maybe potentially one of the best things that ever happened to me. I’m not quite there yet. But maybe I’ll get there. Maybe one day I’ll learn to hope again.
The heat steamed off my freshly misted back. Perhaps it had been a mistake to wear my black Star Trek: The Tour shirt to a music festival, even in October. Thankfully, the mist tent was just a few yards from the 2nd stage. Danzig was chubby and clad in leather and black linen. But the angry balm of chaotic energy held me captivated.
My heart beat faster than I thought it could, and I looked bleary-eyed at the concrete-walled restrooms, a cool spot maybe, just walk a few feet and maybe it will be cool. Like a cave. Someone happily yipped and darted past me, causing goosebumps to scattershot up my arms. Just walk, start walking, be there in no time. And one foot pulled from the Earth, weighing tons, each toe gripping independently like a sloth releasing a branch to make its way down for its monthly shit.
Inside it was cooler. The water vaopr from flushing toilets and washing hands mixing with the hotter, wetter air. Waiting for the next available sink was torturous. I knew if I could only splash enough water on myself, I could cool down. I should sit down, but I wouldn't want to get up, and I might lose my place in line. The crowded room was thick with body smells, perfume, cigarettes, and pot. The soap from the dispensers had long been depleted. More experienced women had brought travel-size pouches of baby wipes.
I just had to make it to sundown. My boyfriend had left me at the 2nd stage to see Sepultura. It was the only time they would be in North America, so I didn't fault him. But, I wondered if he was worried about me at all, beer in hand and gleaming with that boyish energy that made everyone adore him. It was no use; the thought of just taking my shirt off fought against my need to cover, to never show any more flesh than absolutely necessary.
The chatting and laughing only made me feel more in danger. As if I would perish in this crappy restroom in the asscrack of America, people stepping over me and laughing. But, this was a heavy metal festival. It was Ozzfest. Women offered me baby wipes and fanned me with t-shirts. It hadn't really been that hot. It was a panic attack, a feeling of being crushed by the sheer weight of humanity in such numbers. I was able to push myself to hear the last few numbers by Sepultura. "Roots" is so much more heart-wrenching live.
By the time Ozzy took the stage, I was already scoping an exit. Half a set, that was all I could handle. My boyfriend didn't understand and was pissed that he was going to miss the finale. As we walked to the parking lot, the sun had finally set, and the pressure evaporated like spilled vodka on a desert road.
The Life and Death of Rockbridge Raceway
She was dead. The surprise of it was plain in his eyes, though there was no one with him to see it. He had somewhat expected it, her demise, had prepared himself for it, but it is different to be there, to take death in through one’s own senses, the awful stillness of it. Laid bare, she looked for all the world like the carcass of some desert animal, her kinetic energy sapped, her flesh weathered, dusted, and torn like carrion, her skeleton bleached by the sky. She had always been small, but she was even smaller than he remembered. The whole valley seemed smaller. Isn’t it strange, how time shrinks the warmer memories while expanding the cold ones? Still, she retained a shadowy reminder of beauty past, of the racetrack the boys lovingly called, “The Dirty Girl.”
Telling his age, Robert “Croc” Odell had been here the day she was born. Robert was thirteen when the boys came swaggering back from their service in the second big war, returning home with newly acquired skills, cognitions, and with an itch for adventure sparked by a passion to live which had been handed on to them by those who had not. Many of them came home seeking jobs of course, but others of them were simply searching for something to do, their purpose at a seeming end, if their lives were not. Eldridge Langley was one of those types. Robert’s brother Custis somehow caught word of what Eldridge was doing here that day, and being a good older brother, Custis brought Robert along to enjoy the fun. In so doing, Custis implanted the racing bug into the younger sibling he‘d long since begun calling “Croc” due to the thick spectacles which near-sightedness forced his younger brother to wear.
Eldridge Langley had really done it. He’d “borrowed” a bulldozer from the interstate highway construction site and had driven the thing all the way out to Rockbridge using every bit of it’s 12 mph top speed so as to get there unseen by the sheriff or his cronies. Eldridge expertly maneuvered the behemoth tractor off the highway and onto a flat stretch of government land just off of Rural Route 7, where he commenced to clearing, grading, and scraping. The cigar puffing Eldridge was loudly engaged in this work when Custis and young Robert arrived in their flatbed farm truck to see what he was about, and to help if they might, but mostly the pair sat on the the truck’s tailgate and cheered him on as both the Churchill cigar clutched between Eldridge's jaws, and the Caterpillar tractor he'd lassoed, fumed out their own distinct, stinking gray smokes through overworked exhaust flaps in protest against being so rudely manhandled on a Sunday afternoon.
There having been a training camp in the lower valley during the war years, I am perfectly aware that one of the many and best things that the U.S. Army has going for it is a knack for discovering a man’s talents. It is how Eldridge wound up a Seabee rather than an infantryman, not that being a Seabee had been any less dangerous for an American in the South Pacific. Hell, fully half of Eldridge’s unit had been lost on The Canal. In the same way, Robert’s brother Custis had wound up in the motor pool, and his Uncle Charley, who could bark a squirrel with a .22 from twenty-five yards away, was made a sniper. But as it turns out, those same traits which can make a man a soldier must also make a good racer, ’cause every damn one of those Rockbridge Valley rascals who made it home in one piece not only could drive fast, but they would... anytime, and everywhere. If it’s doing the same thing over and over again that gets you called crazy, then what do you call someone who does it over and over while going faster and faster?
A durned fool of a race car driver, that’s what you call him.
When the sheriff finally told Eldridge to get the hell off the county roads and find a racetrack somewhere, Eldridge one-upped him. Mind you, for a twenty-one year old kid who had already built three airstrips atop volcanic islands all while under enemy fire, building something so simple as a racetrack didn’t seem like a big deal. So Eldridge did it. He built himself a track right here in Rockbridge, never-minding that he didn't own a tractor to grade it. Eldridge's racetrack wasn't paved. Nor were there any bleacher’s at Eldridge’s track; nor concessions, nor pit crews, nor scoreboards, nor rules, nor spectators, nor prize monies, nor any need for numbers on the sides of the cars, as those few in attendance knew exactly which car was whose. Nope, Eldridge’s racetrack was every bit as plain and without “show” as the airstrips he’d built in the South Pacific had been, but also like them, it was plenty functional. In the beginning the boys generally went at it two cars for ten laps, and the slower car had better get the hell out of the way. There was little need for civilities like helmets or seatbelts, as young men who survived war cannot be hurt. All that really mattered was that the man in the lead knew he’d won. That was how it was back in them days, and the old folks who disapproved kept themselves away from Rockbridge Valley on the theory that what they didn’t know wouldn’t hurt them.
"Give the boys their fun," even the prudish types remarked. "They've certainly earned it."
Born tinkerers, it was the army taught our Rockbridge boys how to build cars, and how to make them go faster. How to turbocharge them I mean, and how to bore out the valves, and to increase carburetion so as to squirt more fuel and air for increased combustion and therefore power… hence speed. But they were also smart kids who made up for their lack of formal educations through hillbilly innovation and invention, learning tricks of their own by fusing common sense with old fashioned trial and error. They raced the original American muscle; Ford flatheads, Chevy small blocks, and Dodge “Firepower” V-8’s. The Rockbridge racers built them fast, and they built them loud. The upper valley roared come Saturday and Sunday afternoons as the boys turned out to flex their mechanical muscle, kicking up dust and denting fenders. Sheriff Robertson showed out himself one Saturday, to the delight of everyone in attendance, wanting to test his government issue flathead against the boys’ home-styled modifications. But the sheriff didn’t show well that day, which led to Custis leaving the family farm to make better, easier money in town on the payroll of the sheriff’s motorpool. Sheriff Robertson had not shown well that day, but he would never again be slow when it mattered. Custis Odell saw to that.
I said before that there were no spectators, but of course it wasn’t true. Aren’t there always those few rubberneckers who can’t not see a good wreck? That was young Robert, back in those days. He would stand a good ways back from the track, alongside those few who were foolish enough to want to witness the craziness of it, far enough away that they’d have plenty of time to run when one of the boys got sideways, which happened often enough, and not even a guardrail to slow them down when they left the track. And if a car took to rolling those few spectators would run back into the danger zone, hurrying to yank the unfortunate driver out with the fear of a fire in them that somehow never sparked.
But those simple days couldn’t last, could they? Even in a timeless valley like this one change is the one constant. It is easy now to see, looking back, that those times were far too happy to last, but it was not so obvious in the moment. As the reputation of Eldridge’s track grew, the weekends brought more and more people to it. Like shavings to a magnet hotshot drivers from the surrounding counties were drawn in, hauling their own souped up muscle cars to the upper valley strapped to contrived hay trailers, or inside old horse haulers, followed by the family and friends who cheered them on. The possibility of even a tiny dab of local fame was such an unavoidable intoxication that soon, out of necessity, rather than two cars duking it out one-on-one there were now five or more cars at any one time giving battle out on the nearly egg-shaped half-mile oval, and soon after that ten or more cars. Sensing opportunity, it was Sheriff Robertson who began to organize things; putting up guardrails, charging admissions, and offering prize monies. This was about the same time when big brother Custis married Liza Weyandt and handed young Robert the keys to his prized Dodge, at Liza’s insistence. But either way, there never lived a sixteen year old who wanted a set of keys more.
Young Robert loved those older guys more than anything, but he was different than they were. Not having survived a war Robert thought differently than they did, and he did things differently. Robert wasn’t one of those older, harder-edged guys who got their kicks bumping and banging away at each other down along the bottom of the racetrack. Young Robert set his goal to win.
First off, Robert was just a tyke when Custis first saw him in his new googly-eye glasses. The glasses were why Custis saddled him with the nickname ”Crocodell,” or simply “Croc” most of the time, but it still played out when his last name was added along with it, as in CrocOdell, a play on "crocodile." It also turned out that Croc Odell made for a great racing name, somehow reaching the audience through the tinny, carnival P.A. speakers when no other name seemed to make it past the roaring of the engines. It was nothing for some farmer clear across the lower valley to hear an excited Sheriff Robertson hollering into his microphone from his makeshift press box, “… and in the outside lane here comes Croc Odell chewing up the competition! Odell pulls even with the leader in the final turn… and it’s Croc Odell taking the win by a nose!”
But Robert worked hard for all those victories. No one worked harder than that kid. Friendless but for Custis and the boys, the younger Robert took time on weekdays to go to the track and practice, something the older guys would never have dreamed of, running laps all on his own, timing those laps in his head, and filling the upper valley with daily thunder. Robert searched until he found the fastest grooves, marking them so that they could be found and used even when in the confusion of dust and heavy traffic. Enlisting help, Robert and Custis mounted the one hundred gallon tank they used to water the cows to the bed of their farm truck. They rigged up a valve near the cab so that Custis could drive around between races, or “heats” as they came to be known, spraying the clay down until it was slick as snot. They tied old tires behind the pouring water and used them to drag any ruts driven into the clay smooth again, allowing Robert the surface he needed to slide the Dodge racer Custis had given him gracefully through the turns, steering with the throttle, rather than releasing it. Using these strategies Robert raced away from the beaters and bangers, and he won… a lot. With the increase in prize monies, Robert took on his Uncle Charley and Jesse Tipton as a crew. The three of them carried Custis’ motors out on the road, chasing ever bigger dollars at ever bigger tracks. Over time the trio made them all, following the paychecks to Bristol, Martinsville, Richmond and Nashville. They hauled that old Dodge all the way down to Rockingham, Darlington, Myrtle Beach and even Jacksonville. Once they made it clear to Daytona, giving the beach a run, and scoring themselves an unlikely top ten finish down there against against the "big boys."
But there was nothing that compared to their little Rockbridge Raceway. It always called them back home, the racetrack that had been so good to them all… except, that is, for the one who fathered it. Eldridge Langley broke his fool neck the very first night under Sheriff Robertson’s brand new lights, not long after the concrete wall had been built to circle the track and the wooden bleachers built. And just as Eldridge had done for his buddies back on The Canal; everyone shed a tear that night, said a quiet prayer, and then went back to racing. They did so because “that’s what Eldridge would have wanted,” was what they said to one another. Isn’t this world just a wild, man-eating beast, wars or no wars?
But bottled thrills are intoxicating concoctions that, once drunk, are difficult for a country boy to re-cork, until tight-roping the edge of death becomes not only tolerated, but encouraged, expected even. Faster, longer, and bigger meant that progress eventually found it’s way to Rockbridge, along with seatbelts and helmets, and that worst of all things… promoters. Eldridge’s little country race track took on a new identity with him gone, almost as if it had killed Eldridge so that it could grow outside of him. But irregardless of how it grew, as with anything that isn't dying, grow it did.
But just like anyone else’s, the old dirt track’s glory days went by fast, and were few. The old girl rests idle now, her catch fence rusted, her megaphones sagging, her bleachers rotted and broken. Custis is gone, and Eldridge of course, and Uncle Charley, and even Sheriff Robertson. All of the people and personalities that made the track great are gone to time… and so, for all intent and purpose, is Rockbridge Raceway itself.
But she is different than they were, isn’t she? It would not take much to bring her back, to give her new life, would it? A couple of high-spirited good old boys could do it. Two flat-topped kids with greasy jeans, greasy t-shirts, and greasy fingernails. Two youngsters with a dollop of the old courage and a pair of fast cars is all it would need to bring her back. In fact, just one car could do it, really. Or even one truck, if the man in it took the notion. She might live again, ”The Dirty Girl” might, which was why Robert Odell had returned to her today... to see if she might be resuscitated, or rather to find out whether either one of them, him or her, might have a spark left inside them, and possibly to give the valley back it’s lost thunder. The calm is a deafening noise for one so accustomed to making thunder.
I can’t say I know exactly what Robert Odell was thinking, or feeling, as he sat there that day looking the old track over, but I think I know him well enough to have a pretty good idea. The drive out would have been plenty enough to exhaust the age-spotted hands driving the old truck. One of those hands probably shook, gripped almost helplessly upon the steering wheel, the other upon the shifter. And who knows? The hand resting on the shifter might have lifted up to swipe something away from a misty eye as it looked over what had become of his only love, having to edge up under a clinging pair of bifocals to do so. Robert’s decibel damaged ears were likely tuned to the reverberating echo of Custis’ mechanical skills as he sat, thrilling to a symphony which played on in the truck’s low rumble long after Custis was no more. And Robert might have released the brake, allowing Custis’ motor to idle the old truck in through the opened gate and onto the raceway’s time worn clay. And just as the truck’s rumble was haunted by a youthful Custis, the very act of being on the track again would have undoubtedly created a shadowy mirage of Eldridge Langley in Robert’s aged mind, fabricating ghostly images of a young man with a Churchill cigar expertly working the levers high atop a Caterpillar tractor as he labored out his love.
Having witnessed it on many occasions, I would call it likely that Robert used his bony knees to keep the idling truck in it’s lane as his shaking hands fumbled a cigarette from a shirt pocket. Whilst pinching the filter-less Pall Mall between dry lips his eyes must have squinted pitifully against the sun and smoke as, just like in olden times, his body became one with the truck’s mechanizations; one foot pressuring in the clutch, one arm grinding reluctant gears into place, the other foot increasing the throttle, the eyes searching the rearview for lead-footed rednecks, a mouth drawing in smoke as the ears waited impatiently for the RPM’s to peak so that they might begin it all again, only faster this time. He is old. The machine is old, but the two know each other well. They have cared for one another these many years, and have somehow become old together.
The truck would likely have gathered some speed on the backstretch. An elbow might have hung out the window, it‘s shirtsleeve beating against the wind, the pair circling fast enough now that man and truck would have had to lean together into what was once turn three, though grass is grown up now along that embankment. At the old mark Robert would yank the wheel down, just as though it was a Saturday night, way back when. And the truck would want to respond. It would try to slip into a slide, it really would, but it is too old, too tired and too heavy. The truck is too weighty, it’s tires too grooved, it’s speed not nearly enough, so that instead of performing a graceful slide through the turn it bogs, it’s right front tire finding a drainage rut in the un-maintained clay and bounding upward, only to fall back into another, but with the throttle still mashed and the engine still roaring and the transmission still torquing and the tires still fighting for traction atop the broken clay; it is hopeless.
Over she goes.
There is barely a sound now; a hiss from a shattered radiator is all, and the whir of a well-greased wheel as it spins lackadaisically upon an upturned axle. And from down below the shattered steel what might have been a gasp. Whether that gasp was emitted from man, truck, or racetrack, who is to say? I certainly cannot, though I can say that I am saddened by it, and forever the lonelier for it.
It is done. His race is run. The great “Croc” Odell is dead. The upper Rockbridge Valley has fallen silent once more… though down below a worm writhes, and up above a buzzard circles.
The next “heat” in the Valley has begun.
of another “racing against life” story by Charles T. Morris.
Upon the grass.
My feet crunch under leaves and atop green, dewy grass. I take my seat next to my friend, they aren’t one for talking especially not when tired like now, but I enjoy company.
I grunt slightly leaning against the leafless tree to a sitting position, a smell of dirt and freshly cut grass fills my nose while cold air pierces my skin.
“October 10th huh?” I ask, I know they are to tired to respond, but I decided to talk anyways.
“It’s here much faster then I thought” I pluck a singular small flower stray from the ground pinching it between my fingers.
“I’ve been thinking” I crush it between my fingers reaching into my grey bag and grabbing a small box with both our favorite candy.
“I wanna go with you” I don’t dare turn my head and I don’t dare hope for a response, yet I still sit in silence for dozens of seconds pointing my eyes at the ground.
“I know you disagree with me”
I place a small piece of candy near my friend and putting one in my mouth filling it with gooey sweetness that disappeared down my throat quickly leaving only the aftertaste.
“But things are so hard lately, my job fucking sucks” I’ve always tried to be positive, but I couldn’t help but feel the persona corrode away into raw emotion.
“My family fucking sucks, this town fucking sucks, I don’t wanna stay” warm tears fill my eyes and start to roll softly down my cheeks, there is no comforting arm around my should only the cold biting air and light mist starting to rain down.
“I can’t stay” memories replay in my mind quickly and painfully, memories of family who; even when they try their best they mess things up.
Memories of this shitty, small town that I wanted to abandon for my dreams for years no matter who it hurt, I certainly didn’t consider my parents, selfish that may be.
At this point, words can’t choke out. Despite the cold air my whole body is warm while I choke out sobs and tears drip off my chin and I tuck my chin into the balled up body.
Minutes that pass feel like hours, but when I can finally manage to speak it felt like it ended as quickly as it started.
“I’m gonna join you, only a few more days” I leave a rose on the floor lifting myself up using the grave of my friend to lift my weak body up, one last time I look at the name I loved so dearly written along the gravestone along with a short, sixteen year period between the beginning and end.
On the grave is my friends information that I memorized long before he died with no quote, not even one from his many poems he loved so dear.
October tenth, the one year anniversary.
As I stand staring much longer then I Intend to I can’t help but mutter.
“Only a few more days my friend”
Rhea worked for the biggest polluter on the planet. Despite her appreciating this and not oblivious to the world jeopardy to which she contributed, its leader, owner, and patriarch, Peter Harper, was the one who signed her checks. When she cashed each one, she rationalized that the world would be no safer were she to resign in protest. The perspective of her replaceability comforted her.
Day in and day out, two cubicle mates punched in and punched out, twice, work segments separated by a one hour abeyance at the behest of lunchtime hunger. In the corporate cafeteria, she and Penny enjoyed the privacy afforded by a half-wall that was an architectural mistake; it hid their favorite table from all the gossippy patrons.
Penny wore her daily lunchtime look of disapproval, because Rhea again was eating too fast. But then, thin people could do that. Rhea already had completely soiled her napkin and reached for Penny's when she sensed someone staring at her. It was none other than Peter Harper himself, creator and owner of Ensley-Mix, Inc.
From over their short wall Harper struck his usual cliché—a pose—of his commanding vantage over the masses.
He was the discoverer of the miracle chemical, Ensley, that changed the world. The multibillionaire—the Überman himself—peered at the gauche Rhea who now tried to swallow not only an overambitious mouthful in one gulp, but her head, too, and with it, the rest of her humiliated body.
Penny sat frozen, her eyes darting from Harper to Rhea repeatedly. It would have been no more startling had the President of the United States strolled up to them. Peter Harper, the god of commerce, stamp-signer of paychecks of thousands, and with all his power, was god to them, also. Forcing onward every speck of food that had been in her mouth, Rhea dared to speak only when she felt every last calorie was well past the first set of sphincters somewhere.
“You’re Mr. Harper,” she announced needlessly to him, her nervousness evident in her tremulous voice. Penny peaked over the half wall to see the entire cafeteria mesmerized by this man’s presence.
“It’s really not fair that you know who I am, but that I do not know who you are,” Harper said, his mannerism twinkly, betraying the fact that of course he knew who she was. Was this a come-on, Rhea wondered in disbelief?
“You sign my check,” Rhea offered nervously and stupidly, her mind a blank for witty coyness which she so desperately wished for at this very moment. Penny recovered the fumble, and she did it for her team.
“I’m Penny Stenton,” she proclaimed, holding out her hand.
Harper turned his gaze to Penny, as if in distraction, almost as if in irritation. He focused intensely on her and his expression hardened. After an uncomfortable and protracted moment, she blinked first. His expression softened, but not in a friendly way. She couldn’t read it, but decided to withdraw her hand.
“I know who you are,” he answered Penny dryly. “I sign your check as well.” And this put to rest any notion on anyone’s part that he might be interested in anyone else but Rhea, whom he now regarded again with a look that baited her for an introduction. Rhea looked at Penny, then back at Harper.
“Rhea,” she said, “Rhea Rosalea Rainey.”
“How lovely,” he said, appraising the name with a fluttering of his eyelids. This temporary blindness afforded Rhea the opportunity to shoot Penny a perplexed look. Penny wished she could have answered the question in that look, but she was still somewhat unsettled by her own brush-off. He was to be forgiven, of course, because he was one of the world’s great human beings, and Penny stared at him expecting orders. She noted that he was exquisitely dressed. The continental double-breasted dark blue suit was silk. His tie had the smallest knot in it. It was so tiny and tight, Penny observed, that it couldn’t possibly be untied. Yes, she concluded, a man like Peter Harper never wears the same tie twice. His couture hung well on a person who could pilot past those who invoked the hardened expression Penny had just suffered.
Rhea observed nothing. She was so stunned that she wouldn’t be able to recall anything about the man later, even had he been on fire.
“Well, Miss Rainey,” Harper said, mischievously accenting the Miss, “I like to travel from center to center from time to time, and it is my custom to choose from the, ah, how do I put this, from the ‘non-executives’ a person to show me around, to give me the inside scoop...” He trailed off. “...give me the dirt on this place.”
“Where shall we all start?” Penny asked hopefully, trying once again to worm her way in. Peter Harper merely looked at her with total lack of amusement on his face. The mogul in him reared its ugly head as he spoke.
“We...are not going to start anywhere. You...are going to go back to your cubicle; the computers are up there, and so should you be.”
Penny snapped up immediately, an obedient movement; it was a continuum that followed through from a pivot away from her chair into a striding off without looking back.
“Bye, Rhea,” were her only trailing last words, launched into her own forward direction which, if Rhea had not been ignoring them, would have been hard to hear anyway.
“Rhea Rosalea Rainey,” he said to Rhea, the music of her name and the charm of his voice complementing each other. “Trochaic, isn’t it?” he asked, more to himself. “Like what is so common in children’s rhymes.”
“English,” she responded. “Except for the Rosalea. That’s Italian.”
“It sings to all languages,” he said with a flattering admiration. Rhea blushed. “Please,” he now said with a slightly more business-like tone, “meet me for a private lunch in the CEO’s conference room at noon. And please, take off the rest of the morning until then.”
And with that plus a smile he removed himself from the architectural mistake. This left Rhea Rosalea Rainey alone in the solitude that the little round table, protected from the come-ons of “the little people.” Their eyes, en masse, tried in the hardest of ways to see through the half-wall to the focus of Peter Harper’s attention.
Rhea felt that her one-to-one with Harper was a denial of Penny before the cock crowed. Was she wrong not to have begged Penny in when it was clear she was not invited? She had fielded her position brainlessly star-struck, solo by default, being the right person at the right time. But had she handled it clumsily by not hooking Penny for the ride on her coattails? And coattails for what? Career brownie points? Her rational mind told her she had no reason to feel the rat, but the rat nevertheless she felt. And within this indictment she arose to slither back to her cubicle to assess any damage done to the relationship she had with her friend.
Penny, on the other hand, had felt no such betrayal. She sat at her squeaky, wheeled chair at her terminal, entering the volumes, weights, and other parameters that certified the cash flow for the company. She entered the data via format-by-rote while thinking about the recent episode on another level altogether.
What a break! she thought. She admitted that it would have been better had she been the one, or had she been even included, but still this was a break of unprecedented proportions. And it was a perfectly natural sequence of events: she was always the also-ran when compared to Rhea. Socially, the attention without exception always went to Rhea. Penny always figured she got more than would be her fair share were she alone. She always fared better with Rhea there, just from the spillover. And even though she was gay, she liked the attention that anyone would like.
And she certainly could be patient for whatever spill-over might come this time.
Thinking it through, being the best friend of the one selected by Peter Harper was the second best career-enhancer she could expect—that is, if he just happened to befriend Rhea on his bureaucratic mission, and he just happened to think so much of her that he would not limit his liaison to business only, and he just happened to feel that any friend of Rhea was a friend of his, worthy of the most expedient of promotions. Rhea was the logical choice because Rhea liked men. Her Pollyannaish daydream went on until she heard the muffled painstaking footsteps on the blue carpet.
Rhea approached cautiously. Penny sensed her guilt and was determined to take advantage of it just for the fun of it. “Hey, thanks a lot,” she told her friend. Rhea slinked into the cubicle with all of the phantom pain that a missing tail between the legs induced. “Come on in, join the party,” Penny continued. “We’re having chopped liver. I’m the main course.”
“Penelope?” Rhea crooned, cajoling forgiveness.
“No problem, my so-called friend,” Penny snapped, firing away at her keyboard.
“Penelope?” Rhea repeated, forming the widest of smiles she could flash into her friend’s peripheral vision.
Penny lost. She suddenly jumped at her friend and hugged her vigorously.
“This is so great,” she said, squeezing her tighter. “So great, so fabulous.” And they both started jumping in place with each other, shrieking in their excitement like two cheerleaders who had just made it past the cut. Soon the unwelcome head of Dwayne Cody peered around the opening of the cubicle to investigate, as was the responsibility of his job. His tenor voice tried its best to take charge.
“Girls, girls, tone down. This is a business.” He was his usual repressive self, his sparse eyebrows wrinkling together in disapproval. It was his usual expression, and it was just another thing about him that made both Penny and Rhea hate him. He didn’t let up. “Mr. Harper himself is coming in from Atlanta this week to check out this center. I make out the report, and if you want to figure favorably then you’d better shape up.” He had a magazine rolled up in his right hand, and he tapped his thigh with it emphatically as he spoke.
“Well, we just happen to know Peter Harper’s here already,” Penny said in a tone she had always wanted to use with Mr. Cody.
“Yea, sport,” Rhea added, “and I think I’ll just take a lunch with him to report on you, O.K.?” Mr. Cody suddenly laughed out loud in a forced way, an outburst of mocking disbelief. A little spit flew and hit Penny. She rubbed her cheek vigorously. Dwayne composed himself for effect and spoke firmly.
“Not only is there more of a chance of you going bowling with the Pope than there is of taking a lunch," he emphasized with air quotes, "with a man who is the planet’s industrial icon, but you should fear that you’re in big trouble right here and now—in-danger-of-losing-your-job trouble.” He smirked a victor’s smirk.
“Well, you can laugh if you want, Coody,” Rhea said nonchalantly, breezing past him on her way out of the cubicle.
“It’s Cody and where do you think you’re going!” he shouted at her. His voice cracked under the strain. “Get back to your terminal!” Rhea stopped abruptly, visibly irritated with this torment. She turned slowly back around to address her supervisor.
“If I’m going to do lunch with Peter,” she boasted, dropping names, first names at that, “then I had better freshen up.”
“First of all, your self-destructive joke had better stop right now,” he warned her. “Secondly, if making yourself presentable is your goal, you had better take a sabbatical.” He was pert and spoke with invulnerability as he stared her down. “A lengthy sabbatical.” And with that Rhea did something she had never done before in her life. Cody was unprepared and didn’t avoid her fist, and he recoiled in pain and astonishment. He clutched his nose with both hands struggling to muffle the pain. The prairie dogs of the whole floor popped above the dividers, then snapped back unseen.
“You...struck me? What? Is it that time of the month for you?” he seethed. Penny bristled. “You’re fired!” he said to Rhea sternly and hatefully through his fingers. “Unless, of course, lunch turns this around for you. Collect your things.” He snapped around and stormed off.
“Time of the month?” Penny asked angrily for all of the women of the world. “You don’t know,” Penny said to her hero, “how I’d love to do what you just did to him.”
“I heard that!” he shouted from over several cubicle walls.
“What did I do? Shit on me, Penny. God, this lunch thing better not be an hallucination,” Rhea said with a strained expression, visibly subduing herself to over-compensate for her assault.
“It isn’t an hallucination, Miss Right,” Penny encouraged her. “But you better figure out a way to cram that foot of yours into his glass slipper, or you’ll have to remove it from your mouth.”
“This isn’t a date, you know; it’s business. Just what are you expecting, anyway?”
“One shot, Rhea,” Penny warned, raising her fist to present an upright thumb.
“Well, if lunch doesn’t make this Cody thing the most unimportant concern this company has ever had, I think I’ll be walking out of there with that foot firmly swallowed. But I promise you this—I will leave with him knowing I’m normal and worth keeping. I’m not worried that I can’t get a word in edgewise to clear me.”
“Rhea, he wants the dirt. You’re good at that. I don’t know how he was able to perceive that—”
“Hey, it’s me, after all,” Rhea interrupted.
“Well, he did pick you, and the dirt in this company is in good hands.”
“Wish me luck.”
“At ya, Rhea.”
“Thanks,” Rhea said back and smiled at her friend. She looked at her watch. “It’s a little after ten. I’m going to run down to KwikKlips and get them to do me up. I think I’ve got time.”
“It’s daytime, Rhea; fluorescent lights. Easy on the make-up. Harper’s got class, O.K.?”
“I’ll hit you, too, Penny—I swear,” Rhea warned her, still facing her as she drifted backwards. “It wouldn’t hurt for you to use a little make-up yourself, Earth-Mother.”
Rhea looked good from the front; when she snapped around, she also looked good from the back. Penny admired the female form in her. But then she sighed. She was daydraming rags-to-riches success stories for Rhea until Cody re-entered. Her eyes slowly refocused on the real world and on a real problem. Cody stood in front of her, his arms folded.
“Do you have anything to say?” He had a wad of toilet paper shoved up his left nostril that looked ridiculous.
“No, sir,” she answered. Not yet, she thought. She tried not to regard his stuffed nostril.
“You had better watch your step, too, Miss Stenton,” he told her, as if he were doing her a favor. Penny stifled her laughter when a wisp of toilet paper shot out of his nose when he spoke, only to rock back and forth on an invisible seesaw of air as it fell. He quickly replaced it with a new, pristine wad of toilet paper he fished from his pocket.
Watch my step? she thought. I’m going to watch the step of my foot up your ass. She masked her thinking through a conciliatory expression, knowing she would most likely laugh before showing any anger. As hard as she tried, she couldn’t keep from looking at his plugged nose, which forced him to keep lowering his head to re-establish line of sight with her eyes. Finally an impish metaphor won out and a comment with a life of its own rolled out of her mouth before she knew it.
“What?” she said, pointing at his nose and the bloody smear below his plugged nostril, “Is it that time of the month for you, too?” Her conciliatory expression had collapsed into one of indignation, and she wore it for all her gender.
Rhea’s own expression, moments later, was one of ecstasy which the beautician incorrectly assumed was due to the massaging of her wet scalp. Her hair was short and slightly darker than auburn. Being as short as it was, it was easy to have it done by lunch.
“Don’t cut anything,” Rhea directed the obese woman, Francesca, who had done her hair dozens of times before. She turned herself around in the swivel chair. “Just style it like this.” She handed Francesca the picture she had cut out of a magazine which she was keeping in her purse for times like this. It wasn’t that this was to be a new look for her; she just wanted Francesca to do her hair right yet again, just like the way she had been doing it since the day she had chopped it all off seven months earlier.
“This again?” Francesca asked. “Rhea, try something different. You like different. Let’s have some fun, O.K.?”
“Not today. Just do it this way and get me going. I’m meeting a VIP for lunch.”
“Oh, really? Who?”
“Only Peter Harper, that’s who,” Rhea beamed.
“So who’s Peter Harper, anyway?”
“Oh, just this multi-multi-balillionaire who’s really cute and wants me to have lunch with him and just gossip and then I hope dinner and then dates and then rendezvouses and then his first child and then his third child when I marry him a second time after partying away my fortune from the pre-nup agreement on the first marriage that ended in divorce, that’s who.”
“Then I guess you want make-up, too,” Francesca offered.
“Yes, ma’am. I do. And I’d like that done perfectly, if you would.”
“That will be extra,” Francesca laughed.
“Our accountants will take lunch,” Rhea responded. She was getting quite used to the idea of taking lunch here and there, as desired.
In the CEO foyer and reception area, Peter Harper swung open the giant brass door and entered to find Rhea already there. She stood up as if awaiting her directions. She felt so stupid just standing there with him, but she didn’t know what to do next, so just standing was the plan until something better cropped up. How many people got to go through that brass door? she wondered. Thos anteroom served as an air lock that opened for the very few into the pressure flux of the inner sanctum.
“Rhea,” he offered, opening the door through which he had entered. His left arm gently aimed its outstretched palm in the direction of a hallway beyond it. She graciously accepted his invitation past him into this hallway. She walked down its beautifully paneled path, extending a finger along the wood at times, to feel it.
“Sequoiadendron giganteum,” he announced. “Giant Sequoia. A secret gift from Robert Redford.”
“Who?” she asked. He didn’t answer.
From his voice, she knew he was right behind her, and she knew she was looking good from behind in her short black skirt. Soon, however, the rearview scrutiny she sensed eroded her self-esteem, perverting into a self-conscious anxiety. She wondered just how long this hall was. In a moment, unable to tell how far behind her he was, she slowed her stride and turned her head around toward him.
He was only an inch away!
She jumped with a little gasp, and he chuckled at her surprise.
“Keep going, Rhea,” he warmly and charmingly instructed her, so she turned her head back and continued her pace as before, feeling studied as before. Certainly this hall was so long, she thought, that it must jut out the side of the building. He was obviously feeling much more comfortable than she, and she laughed when she caught herself thinking that he was walking around up here like he owned the place. The very sweep of this hall was symbolic of his strength and authority, and he smoothly graced its length as they walked; and if the effortless disregard for Penny was Rhea’s foreplay to power, then this hallway was her tunnel of love.
“Now stop,” he said abruptly.
They were in a part of the hall whose walls had shed their sequoia for granite. Art deco sconces appointed the area. The heavy brass motif was back, and golden metal planters with inset, hand-painted tiles held impeccably radiant plants. She leaned down to smell the fragrance of the large bloom.
“Oh,” she recoiled. The unpleasant bouquet was unexpected.
“Rafflesia Flower,” he pointed out. It’s from Indonesia. The malodorous fragrance is easily offset by the fact that it is the world’s most endangered plant. And we have a pair of them. Secret gifts from the Sierra Club. Enjoy, but don’t tell anyone.”
The porcelain-appointed pots bookended another brass door, very similar to the massive entrance door from before, and although reduced proportionately to a standard size, it still presented the same formidable impression.
Mr. Harper reached across her waist to turn the central brass doorknob, and as he did, this heavy threshold was easily open to them as hinges obeyed with silent and effortless rotation. His movement allowed his forearm to caress her belly as he grasped the knob, causing her to draw in her abdominal muscles involuntarily. Now he retracted his arm and urged her silently into the room.
Some conference room, Rhea thought as she entered. There were real oil paintings on the walls that by their frames alone she just knew they were by famous people. A large, immaculate salt water aquarium displayed a group of seahorses. Rhea walked over to the tank.
“The Knysna seahorse,” Harper boasted. “The most endangered seahorse in the world. From Africa. A gift from the Cousteau Society.”
“A secret gift, I suppose?” Rhea asked.
“Yes,” Harper answered. Rhea turned back around toward him.
“So I shouldn’t tell anybody, right?” she teased. He smiled.
A rectangular conference table—of brass, of course, with three brass pedestals of support—was the center of the room. Inlaid in the brass frame-like design of the table surface was a solid black marble slab that had white and green veins. The table, she figured, was probably large enough for about ten people. It was set for dinner, but with eight less people than it could handle. The two dwarfed place settings were next to each other, one at what was the head, the other to its right.
He gallantly pulled out the chair for her to sit upon, which she did, and he perfectly allowed for the perfect slide of it under her, with her, so as to have her at just the right position one would like for eating over a plate. He then attended to himself with the same fluid elegance. He was the one at the head of the table, a presumption that went without saying.
Strangely enough, her nervousness had given way to a spectator's anticipation. She couldn’t believe she was a common tool in this company and that she was eating with the very man who ruled over it. So she was somewhat interested, in this spectator sort of way, in what would happen next. Slowly, she felt poise descend upon her, and her nervousness waned, which made her feel like she was on his level. He apparently sensed this too, for he, now for the first time, appeared a little nervous.
On a server whose black marble matched their table sat a small wooden box. It was a symmetrical cube of some unknown wood, for it was coated in a thick, highly glossy black paint. She guessed it was probably a secret gift from someone.
“What’s in the black box?” she asked him innocently.
“Leave the box alone!” he blurted nervously.
“I wasn’t going to handle it. I was just curious.” Harper, realizing how abrupt he had been, toned down.
“It’s something very important that I need.”
“Like corporate strategies or secrets?”
“Yes. Something like that.”
“Why is it here, then, if I can’t touch it.”
“It rarely leaves my sight,” he answered. “You ask a lot of questions.” This was a burp in her poise, a faltering in her feeling of being on his level, and she cast her eyes downward. Once again, he caught himself. “It’s so important, it goes everywhere I go.”
“It’s not the formula for Coke, is it?” she asked, raising her eyes to his, resealing the rent in her poise, laughing. He paused, then shared the laugh, but he was faking.
“Better than the formula for Coke,” he answered with a tone of finality that officially and irretrievably closed the subject. He lifted a bottle of red wine that was in an iceless silver bucket. “And so is this.” It was already open at the ready and she noticed a slight shake in his hands as he poured her a glass.
“I own the vineyard,” he said to her in a debonair manner that was antithesis to his hand tremors. He likewise poured himself a glass, the slight shaking continuing.
“Thank you,” Rhea said to him as she reached for her glass to drink.
“No wait,” he spoke, “a toast.” And as he reached for his glass to catch up with her lifting of her own, he clumsily toppled it in her direction, the unforgiving red wine flooding her way.
So perfectly had she and her chair been tucked into the table that there was no escape, as her silk blouse, her favorite silk blouse, the white one which had been on layaway for three months, clashed with the splash that attacked her. Clumsiness upon clumsiness compounded the damage as his napkin smeared the stain’s borders.
Since she was with the god, however, she laughed it off as nothing really, and laughed again when he reached for the matching cooler with the white wine, offering the explanation that white wine removes red wine. And she also suffered this surprise splash with mirthful aplomb, for this, too, was nothing really.
The fiasco continued until he ran out of corrective overtures. Her continued nonplussed charade had withstood the entire onslaught with a passing grade.
“I am so sorry, my dear,” he apologized, his tone once again being that of the industrial giant that he was.
Send me the bill would be nice, Rhea thought through the charmed smile she sported, and she was content to sport it all afternoon long if she had to.
She had to.
Some anonymous server, the kind from the best of restaurants that you’re not supposed to notice, served the appetizer. Peter Harper signaled to her and he picked up his smaller fork.
“Grace?” she asked glibly.
“You’re at the head of the table. Are you going to say Grace?” He chuckled away the suggestion. She had invited the prayer with a tone that made it impossible to know that she was teasing. She was a teaser, but it didn’t matter.
“And give thanks to whom?” he said, smiling, gazing intently at her. “No, I’m not.”
An uncomfortable silence ended when he returned to his fork and began without her. She smiled back and reached for her own fork. She remembered her mouthful from the cafeteria, determined to keep the food out of sight when she spoke.
She needn’t have worried.
Peter Harper was an animated conversationalist while he spoke, spitting pieces of Oysters Rockefeller dressing as he spoke, these very minute specks which she hardly noticed, so she tried to make it seem. His slice of tomato slid off of his fork at salad, plopping into his plate, droplets arcing her way, adding a touch of dressing to her blouse. The lemon, of course, was squeezed right into her eye instead of onto his fish at the entree.
And Rhea, for the life of her, could not figure how he managed to drop the whole fish onto the carpet between their shoes, seeing the incident out of the corner of her eye. She wondered if she was being pranked on some reality show. She pretended not to notice, but this whole scene was becoming surreal. He forced her to notice, staring at his empty plate with a refusal to remedy the situation.
“Here,” she offered, “let me get that for you.” But she was too slow. The unheard, unseen attendant had already scooped it up, rolling it with a napkin, and then unwrapped it back onto his plate. Harper glared at him as he did.
“Get out,” he told the attendant sternly. He seemed to be inspecting the fish, but then lifted his eyes to Rhea.
“Do you mind?” he asked her, then resumed staring uncomfortably at his dinner, now sitting once again on his plate after its retrieval from the floor.
“Do I mind what?” she asked back, having no idea what he was getting at.
“Would you mind switching plates?”
“Excuse me?” Rhea asked in disbelief.
“Would you mind switching plates with me? You haven’t touched yours, so I don’t mind eating yours.”
“But you mind eating yours now that it has fallen on the floor.”
“Exactly,” he said. “You see, I have this thing with dirt and germs and the like. I would suppose it’s a rich man’s neurosis,” he chuckled again. She complied, privately suffering the indignity. This had better get me some alimony in the future, she thought, distancing her skeptical self from her enthusiastic self.
They spent the entire time having her try on dinner. There was no talk of business. No dirt at all was bantered. The only conversation that came close was when he sensed that she was upset at how he had treated Penny, which surprised her as an uncommon and un-Harper-like sensitivity.
“It’s obvious you’re a creature of harmony. Say the word, Miss Rainey,” he offered, “and I’ll get your friend to come, in your place, and dismiss you.” His tender smile soothed despite the message that came with it. But this had put an end to shop talk. The rest of the lunch revolved around catastrophes that occurred at each course, some of which he noticed, some he did not. All of them, she wore.
So she couldn’t figure why the lunch. With her. Therefore, maybe he’s a letch, the god on the prowl at the easy pickings that were his drones. But that was OK, she thought, if it were for truly meeting and wanting to get to know unassuming women as a refreshing change of pace. After all, there was letching and then there was letching. It was a shot for her, certainly, so she could allow herself to be letched upon by a billionaire. And if she were explored and then not selected to favor his romantic life, it was still the shot.
Hmm, she thought, how is this not like prostitution?
What she didn’t want was to be used as a spare tire. She didn’t want to be a pro temps whore while he dallied at this, one of his many centers. She didn’t mind him letching after her affection, for that can always lead to appreciating her affection. Yes, she thought, she’d take her best shot at a romance, but not as a masturbation machine. Then she realized she wouldn’t know the difference until after it was over. When one considers a rapport with billionaires, she decided, there are worse things to do than giving him the benefit of the doubt. She had done this with a politician once and had lost. Politicians were now on her pariah list. She would be willing to put billionaires on the list as well, should today make such a blanket condemnation necessary.
After dessert, they retired, at his suggestion, to a soft blue leather sofa at an end of this very large room. The inconspicuous servant made sure that the wine followed them. Red for spilling, white for the solvent. They passed the buffet which held the little black box. Rhea was tempted to slide her finger along it as she passed, but resisted.
“Now, my dear,” he spoke softly, reaching to hold her hand.
Here it comes, she realized, either a letch after my body, or a suitor after my soul.
“Tell me what I can do to make this company more personable to its employees.”
He really was being the prudent mogul for his enterprise! She was so blown away by the letchlessness that she sighed dreamily. He appeared to find great beauty in her reverie, which she felt was a positive attractant, and she fantasized her lips gravitating toward his in a path of least resistance.
“Tell me what I can do to make this company more personable to its employees,” he repeated in a gentle, close whisper, as she made herself, his employee, more personable immediately. Just who had cozied up to whom on the sofa was a moot point and to her utter astonishment, fantasy led to reality as one thing led to another, and ultimately they provided for themselves dessert that was much more rewarding than, but not as messy as, the exquisite caramel cup custard, some of which sat on the tie-dye silk blouse which had come to lay on the floor before the sofa. So expert was the technique of each of them, that each felt the other had been lured dreamily into the situation.
It was all over very quickly. Rhea hid her surprise. They lay collapsed on the sofa, cologne and perfume spoiling the delicate animal hide—a secret gift, perhaps. Just when she expected it was time for him to speak, perhaps to invite her to Sun Valley or Monte Carlo, he spoke as predicted.
“Could you please lift up, Rhea,” he requested.
“Oh, sure, why? Am I hurting your arm?”
“No,” he answered. “I’d like you to get back to work.”
Rhea laughed at his joke. Certainly a joke.
“Oh, I don’t know,” she said teasingly, “I know the boss.”
“Well then did you know the boss fires people without the slightest of hesitation.”
Now she was not so sure. She suddenly felt ashamed; she suddenly felt very naked with him. What was previously intimate now had ushered in exposure and helplessness. She was on top of him and she reflexly arched up above him to look into his face. She involuntarily crossed arms to cover her chest, some spinal reflex that attempted to make her feel safe. She reached down to grasp the condom, to hold it tight against him for his withdrawal, but he grabbed her hand and moved it away. He slipped out of her.
Without any type of signal she could notice, the unseen, unheard waiter came in with a small covered silver dish sitting on an open palm. The waiter unhinged the silver tray’s cover open, allowing Harper to discard the condom. The lid fell closed with a dainty clink and just as quickly and quietly the waiter was again unseen. She was defenseless against this unwelcome audience that came and went so quickly.
“You’re kidding, aren’t you, about the firing?” she asked with the type of nervous smile that, while displaying worry, also invited the undoing of any awkward feelings with the simplest of replies. A simple of-course-I-am-silly or gotcha-didn’t-I would do. But his expression became suddenly cold and business-like. She remembered how he had looked at Penny. With nothing but naked people in the room, all had suddenly become asexual.
“I could have your severance check ready in an hour,” he said, lifting himself up, and her with him, almost as if he were shaking her off like some dirt and germs and the like that had gotten onto his own clothing. Like a piece of fish sullied with carpet fibers.
She dressed quickly and was up and ready to walk in no time, and he did or said nothing to deter her. She gave him one last look to redeem the situation, but he passed by avoiding eye contact. Then again, he was Peter Harper, extremely rich tycoon of the age. He just lay there on his sofa, his forefront knee appropriately drawn up so as to block any vision of his sex organs. He had the black box in his hand. The servant must have slipped it to him. Harper opened the box a crack and was inspecting and shuffling some cards that it held.
And so Rhea Rosalea Rainey departed. She left the man who had managed to soil her as well as soil what she was wearing with every course of the meal. Like the silk of her blouse, she knew she could never rid herself of the soiling of this day; her fabric was too delicate, too precious to withstand such squalor.
She took the elevator back to her floor, her cubicle, and walked toward her friend. She stopped and looked down at her blouse that presented the culinary review for anyone who cared to read it. She considered turning around and leaving instead. For an instant she thought she might go to Human Resources, file a statement, resign, and then take the elevator down to the street so as to leave this place forever.
But she had a better idea. A man like Peter Harper deserved so much more.