Young heart

produce-stand-tomatoAuthor’s Note: This is the final chapter of a three part short story. If you would like to read the previous two chapters, please visit Hot dog and Chance encounter.

As he watched the bus pull away from the curb, Lloyd sat back down on the bench. He didn’t have another delivery until later that afternoon. He couldn’t help but intervene, or at least attempt to, in Derek’s situation. He wished someone would have done the same for him in his younger days – not that it would have been likely to make any difference.

Lloyd remembered the expensive suits, the fine dining opportunities that he relished so much, and the aspirations for a corner office on the top floor. He had lived in that world in some past life. He pushed everything that was ultimately important to him into the background – relegated to sometime later when he had accumulated the prestige and money to do what he really desired – open his own restaurant. He exchanged his time for money, unprepared for the realization that he would never get that time back.

It was the strangest day in Lloyd’s life. Dressed to the nines, walking down the street after a chaotic day in the office, he paused in front of a local produce cart on the street, looking for the perfect ingredients that comprised his infamous spaghetti sauce. He picked up a tomato and held it in his hands. He couldn’t explain it – and it never would do any good to even try – but it was as if the delicate texture of that fruit softened his own thick skin and allowed him to see what was really important to him, for the very first time in his life.

That chance encounter with a tomato – yes, a tomato – caused Lloyd to do the unthinkable. He left the security of his high paying career. What he also left behind was the chaos that accompanied it. He opened his own produce delivery service using only the decrepit bike sitting next to him and his own two feet. He always had a gift for choosing the perfect piece of produce. His discerning sense of sight, touch, and smell was appreciated by some of the finest restaurants in New York City. And they paid him quite well, relatively speaking, for his expertise. Did Lloyd have his own restaurant? No. What he did have though was a sense that he was helping to create the most magnificent meals, for tourists and locals alike, that he appreciated so much.

The knowledge that he was making a difference in the world, however small it was, in a way that he felt passionate about, caused Lloyd to smile inside and out. It took him longer to come this realization than he may have hoped. But, as they say, better late than never. Not only was Lloyd perceptive with produce. He had the same insight into human behavior. As confident and ambitious as Derek appeared to Lloyd, there was something in his body language that spoke differently.

And although Lloyd’s attempt to uncover the root cause of Derek’s situation was not welcomed, he felt that he needed to at least try. He hoped that time would not escape Derek’s grasp like it had for him. He had done all he could do at this point.

Seated in the city bus rolling out of downtown, Derek pulled the wallet back out of his pocket. Guilt washed over him for even feeling the need to check that everything was still there. Driver’s license, credit cards, social security card, not even a single dollar of the fifty-seven in his billfold appeared to be missing. As he thumbed through the bills, one by one, he finally came to the conclusion that there was nothing missing. In fact, there was actually something in the wallet now that wasn’t there before. It was a small piece of paper folded into four, about the size of one of those small pocket notebooks he used to record homework assignments as a child in grade school.

Unfolding the paper, written on one side was a message in a language he understood perfectly – In economics, opportunity cost is the next best alternative you give up when you make a choice. When we choose one thing, we refuse something else at the same time.

On the opposite side of that paper was a message that would make sense to him at some time in the future, after he had accumulated a bit more experience. Lloyd had hoped this particular message, although confounding right now, might help Derek short circuit the path to understanding.

It takes a long time to grow young. ~Pablo Picasso

luna-lovegoodDerek wasn’t sure why, but he felt an uncanny desire at that moment to purchase a blank canvas for the wall of his new apartment in the city – and to create upon it his own vision, to splash upon it colors in a random, yet redeeming way. The childhood artist inside him poked his head from behind the curtain of adult responsibility to reveal itself – momentarily. His ego would most likely intervene this time around, pushing such a frivolous and silly yearning to the back burner in preference for his lifelong ambition of wealth and prestige. One’s deepest desires, however, are very subtle – and persistent. His inner voice would continue to court Derek until he accepted the invitation. His physical body may have been growing older by the day, but Derek’s heart was growing younger – and wiser – with each passing minute.

Author’s Note: Thank you to everyone for taking the time to read and comment – may your heart continue to grow young in pursuit of your deepest desires.

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Chance encounter

wall-street-federal-hallAuthor’s Note: This is the second part of a three part short story. If you would like to read the first chapter, please visit Hot Dog.

Lloyd appeared homeless with his ratty brown hoodie, rickety bike, and unkempt facial hair. His actions were characteristic of someone short on luck – keeping to himself, and not making direct eye contact with any passersby. He may have even smelled a bit foul, or perhaps that was a piece of produce in his bike basket beginning to ripen beyond its consumable age.

The infamous proverb states that if it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and looks like a duck, it must be a duck. With that rationale, it was evident that Lloyd was homeless. There is another proverb, however, that beckons us to not judge a book by its cover. The push and pull of conflicting proverbs can often lead the mind into murky waters, awash with doubts of what is right and what is wrong – what is illusory, and what is real.

While casually eavesdropping on Derek’s conversation with his girlfriend, Lloyd proceeded to scribble several notes furiously on a page of his pocket sized notebook. Whatever it was he was writing, Lloyd was hyper-focused on transcribing what was in his head on to the tiny page posthaste.

After the phone call ended, Lloyd used his peripheral vision to catch a glimpse of Derek taking a bite of his hot dog. The aging gentleman quickly snatched a red delicious apple from his basket and took a big juicy bite, loud enough to invite Derek’s attention. Peering over towards Lloyd somewhat involuntarily, Derek quickly returned focus to his own personal space. That was all Lloyd needed though – a crack in the door – and now he was poised to kick it wide open.

“First New York hot dog?” asked Lloyd in a gruffly voice.

Derek pretended not to hear, but glancing to his left, he couldn’t ignore the sapphire blue eyes staring back at him. Without any recourse, other than getting up to leave, Derek responded curtly, “Yeah.”

“You know, it’s funny,” continued Lloyd, “the great American hot dog was invented by some German guy and you used to be able to get one for three cents apiece back in the day.”

Derek wasn’t sure where this line of dialogue was going. The commentary sounded like the ramblings of some old man running short on his sanity. He was getting ever closer to simply rising and retreating to the safety of the building lobby just a few short steps away. He could catch the next bus. His flight wasn’t scheduled to depart for a few more hours.

Lloyd continued on, not waiting for a response from Derek, “Money ain’t everything you know. Don’t matter whether a hot dog cost three cents or three bucks, if you ain’t enjoyin’ it, what’s the point?”

Derek was now gathering up his belongings. It was becoming evident that he had reached his threshold of patience with this babbling lunatic. He knew that he would eventually have to build up a callousness to these type of shenanigans as a New Yorker, just not now. Lloyd pressed further, “Name is Lloyd, how about you?” He took another accentuated bite from his apple, awaiting a reply.

Rising from the bench, Derek turned to leave. “Might not want to leave yet – Derek.”

Derek stopped in his tracks and turned around to face Lloyd, now with a smile on his face. “How do you know my name?” He was quite certain that his name had not arisen in his conversation with Missy.

“That’s what your driver’s license says.”

Patting his pockets, Derek looked to be performing a cheap knock-off version of the Macarena. With a confused look of disbelief spreading across his face, he turned his head, and narrowed his eyes uttering, “You have my wallet.” It was part question, part statement.

Lloyd withdrew the black leather wallet from his jacket pocket and handed it to Derek who was taken aback. This elderly man who had obviously come across difficult times could have disappeared with his cash, credit cards, and identity. He wasn’t sure how to react. Derek presumed that Lloyd was waiting for some remuneration for his honest nature. Opening up his billfold, Lloyd stopped him, “Not necessary, just promise you’ll think about what I said.”

dont-judge-a-book-by-its-coverIt was just a bunch of random gibberish as far as Derek was concerned. What was there to think about? Genuinely grateful now for the honesty of this fellow New Yorker, Derek offered a sheepish thank you as he began to climb aboard the bus now parked at the curb. Lloyd simply provided a smile in return, one that Derek could tell conveyed much more than a message of you’re welcome.

Author’s Note: This is the second part of a three part short story. The final installment will be published next week. Thank you for taking the time to read and comment – best wishes for an inspired day!

Hot dog

wall-street-nycSitting across from the executive on the fiftieth floor of the high rise in New York City, Derek’s hands were sweaty with anticipation. This was the final stop on his whirlwind day of interviews with one of the most prestigious investment firms in the Wall Street district. Everything had gone as well as he could have hoped. But, he knew that the ultimate decision concerning his prospective employment lay in the hands of the person sitting across from him.

Peering over his half-moon spectacles while carefully considering his notes, pondering the myriad of responses provided by Derek over the course of the day, the CEO reached across the mahogany desk separating the two and extended his right hand. “Derek, I think you are exactly the type of ambitious individual that this company needs. Welcome to our team.” Involuntarily, a genuine smile of satisfaction spread across Derek’s face, “Thank you sir. I really appreciate this opportunity,” replied Derek with a firm handshake to accompany his confident words.

Derek had been working towards this very moment for the past six years – perhaps much longer. Living in a small suburban town just outside of Chicago, Derek completed his MBA just three weeks prior – the last step in preparation for a life on Wall Street and all the perks associated with it. From his earliest childhood memories, Derek was consumed with numbers, trends, data, and the detailed analysis of it all. Most kids opened the newspaper and flipped straight to the comics. Derek, however, stopped at the business section, perusing the trends on his favorite stocks, always on the lookout for the next ticker symbol equipped to surpass street expectations.

As the floor number displayed inside the elevator approached the lobby level, Derek’s thoughts were already shifting towards his next ambition. He always dreamed of owning a penthouse overlooking Central Park with the finest art hanging on its walls. Numbers and fine art, they were the two things in Derek’s life that stimulated him more than anything else. As diametrically opposed as they were – art and math – his natural ability in one allowed him to enjoy the other.

To anyone who witnessed Derek strolling through the lobby, they would have thought him to be a seasoned veteran at the firm. The fine Italian suit, the wavy yet slicked back hair, the black wing-tipped shoes, and most importantly the confident gait was proof positive that Derek belonged in this atmosphere – on the surface, at least. Looks can be so deceiving.

Walking out of the quiet lobby and on to the sidewalk, the hustle and bustle of the Big Apple burst into action. The constant motion, honking horns, and murmur of shuffling footsteps was intoxicating to Derek. He felt at home around the busyness of big city life. The knowledge that this was now his new home brought upon a wave of euphoria. The scent of fresh hot dogs from the sidewalk vendor added to his feeling of exhilaration. In a seemingly underwhelming celebration, Derek had promised himself a genuine New York hot dog to christen his official acceptance into the city that never sleeps.

hot-dogStepping up to the gentleman situated under the faded umbrella, Derek barked out his order as if already a weathered New Yorker, “One dog – onions, relish, mustard, and ketchup.” Exchanging a few dollar bills for his celebratory meal, Derek ambled towards the bench beside the bus stop. Seated at the end of the bench was an older gentleman with unkempt facial hair and a hoodie pulled over his thinning gray hair. The old bike leaning precariously next to him had a basket on the front – in it were a bushel of apples and a few ears of corn still in their husks. He held in his one hand a tattered notepad, in the other a partially sharpened pencil.

Setting the hot dog beside him on the bench, Derek pulled out the ringing cell phone from his pocket. The incoming call was from his girlfriend, Missy, back in Illinois. The first words he heard were characteristic of his longtime partner, “So, are there Broadway shows in our future?” She was both witty and confident. Their relationship was proof that sometimes it was likes, not opposites that attract each other. The next several minutes involved congratulatory remarks, shared dreams and aspirations for a new lifestyle supported by a six figure income north of a half million dollars per year. By the sound of the conversation occurring between the two, it appeared that their first years’ worth of income – and then some – had already been spent.

“Miss you lots, love you more, see you soon.” It was their signature communication that was unique to them. As he pressed the button to end the call, he slipped the phone back into his pocket. Sinking his teeth into the hot dog, he couldn’t help but let out a sigh of contentedness through his nose while he closed his eyes and absorbed everything he had been dreaming of for so long. It was now becoming reality. He was the new dog on the block, and he was poised to establish himself as the next alpha male in the financial district.

journey-secret-destinationWhat Derek failed to notice was the furious scribbling that the elderly gentlemen had been penning on his notepad throughout his conversation with Missy. What also eluded his attention was the wallet that had come out of the pocket with his cell phone, resting beneath the bench he was seated on. The hustle and bustle of New York City seems to accelerate everything. There was no exception in this situation. The wallet sitting beneath him was there no more. Derek was completely unaware of its disappearance. As it turned out, Derek was unaware of so much more.

Author’s Note: This is the first part of a three part short story. Please stay tuned for the next chapter to be published next week. Thank you for taking the time to read and comment – best wishes for an inspired day!

Unspoken voice

its-all-make-believeI am nothing but a figment of your imagination. I am nonexistent in the physical sense. But even imaginary entities deserve a name. Mine is George. I know, it’s a rather plain name. Maybe that explains why it has been such a struggle to have my story told. You see, there are so many other imaginary creatures inside my author’s mind – he is real, by the way – I think. Anyway, these other voices have much more interesting names like Francesca, Isadora, and Anastasia – or Broderick, Ignatius, and Nicodemus. Forget for a few minutes that these voices come in male and female counterparts. That’s another story for another day, if I am able to be heard again. It was difficult enough edging my way into the conscious corner of my writer’s mind this time around.

All those other voices? They have elegant and pretentious sounding names. And the stories they beg to tell prey on the ego of its readers. They weave plot twists together to compose the most daring adventures. They hide magical talismans in the most unlikely but fortuitous locations that lead to wonderful tales of discovery. This is not one of those stories. So, if you are looking to travel around the world, discover hidden treasure, and be surprised by unexpected plot twists, you may as well stop reading now. Well, on second thought, maybe you do want to continue reading. Take a chance, why don’t you?

This is a story about a man. The entire story takes place on a park bench. Pretty interesting, huh? This man has a name, but nobody knows it. It’s Fred, by the way – his name that is. Another one of those plain names. Maybe that’s why his story has remained untold for so long. I can relate, but I digress. I must stay focused lest my creator banish me from existence. I have seen him do it before.

Seated on this park bench, Fred stares at the sidewalk in front of him. He wears a brown hooded jacket and tattered blue jeans that look as if they have been worn for the past week and a half. Truth is, they have probably been worn for much longer than that. He holds a can of peach slices in his one hand, picking out the pieces of fruit from the syrup inside with great care. He doesn’t want to waste the juice. It is sustenance that he needs to help him get through the day.

Fred tilts his head to the side as a mom walks by with her young son. He must be ashamed of his primitive existence here on the bench. He looks away to avoid eye contact. No one has seen his eyes, it seems. People waltz by talking on their cell phone, listening to their music, absorbed in their own world. They are oblivious to the existence of this other human being – one who deserves to have their story heard as much as anyone else. But no one stops to ask what that story is.

He snorts long and hard through his nostrils. The cold fall weather, his clothes that inadequately cover his extremities, and the evident malnutrition has probably led to some medical condition that will never be diagnosed, never treated, and will only cause his health to deteriorate further over time.

It seems like a sad life, doesn’t it? To our materialistic and egocentric selves, yes. But, you see, I think that is why I exist. If only for a fleeting moment, I am that unspoken voice that finally edges his way into the conversation to shed some light on reality – and the truth.

Remember when I said no one knew Fred’s name? No one cared enough to ask? I suppose that’s why I did ask. Well, I can’t ask of course. I don’t exist, remember? But, I somehow coerced my inventor to carry out this request on my behalf. It’s not something he usually does so I was quite surprised by his obliging manner. I was even more surprised – and I think he was too – by what happened next.

“Good morning, what’s your name?”

“Fred.”

Just one word was spoken, and yet the message conveyed through those steel blue eyes spoke a seemingly infinite number of words painted in the most charismatic hues. Time seemed to stand still. Yeah, I know, it’s one of the clichés you find in those other stories. This was no cliché, however – this was real. It was as if the rewind button had been pressed, the movie just witnessed was replayed frame by frame in the space between our collective eyes, momentarily locked upon each other.

Fred stared at the ground – he wasn’t mired in feelings of self-pity and depression. He was watching the line of ants navigating around the twig at his feet. Undeterred, the tiny insects always seemed to find a way to persevere and survive despite their lacking physical endowments. Inspiration from an ant – the same ants that are considered pesky and annoying to the rest of us.

house-wrenFred tilted his head – he wasn’t ashamed of his disheveled appearance or poverty stricken lifestyle. He was simply directing his good ear towards the chirping bird in the tree above him. The house wren was plain and simple in appearance. And yet, he was still able to create beautiful and exquisite music. No one could ever convince him that he should not sing his song to the world. Everyone else misses out on these simple pleasures. We have a cell phone to our ear. We have our latest mile time to beat. We have more important things to worry about. Not Fred. No, not Fred.

Fred snorts through his nostrils – he isn’t sick, not yet at least. No, he is grabbing hold of that crisp fall air as it blows by him. Pulling it back through his nostrils, he inhales it deeply into his lungs. The air, filled with the scent of fall leaves, sends a message to his subconscious mind. He is catapulted back to his childhood, recalling fond memories of jumping into the leaves that his dad had just raked into a tall pile under the giant oak tree in his backyard. He is struck with a sense of humility – and gratitude. Things can change in the blink of an eye. He appreciated what he had now, even if it was only a can of peaches and a second or third hand brown hooded jacket. It could be much worse. Of course, the rest of us look upon this situation and feel a mix of pity, remorse, maybe even anger – surely, it couldn’t get any worse than this – and geez, all you have to do is get off your butt and do something. You have control over your own life, after all.

listen-to-the-quietest-whispersHard to believe, isn’t it? All this from a glance into someone’s eyes. To be honest with you, I wouldn’t have believed it myself. Things are rarely as they appear on the surface. Maybe that’s the whole point though. We don’t really know how a story is going to unfold before our eyes. We can’t appreciate the seemingly insignificant or misconstrued details until we decide to listen to a story – deeply – whether it’s through our eyes, our ears, or those unspoken voices inside our head that we seem to neglect far too often.

Grace under fire

closed-doorAuthor’s Note: This is the final chapter of a three part short story. If you would like to read the first two chapters, please visit Choice words and Double helix.

For the second time in twenty-four hours, Quentin leaned against a closed door, seeking respite from the onslaught of personal accusations and their repercussions. The ensuing days left him feeling isolated and alone – physically and emotionally.

Taking offense to his outspoken opinion on the book ban petition, the town council had been persuaded by its constituents to expedite the removal of Quentin from his mayoral office. It seemed a rather nonsensical and knee-jerk reaction, but Quentin couldn’t be sure at this point in time. There were very few rational thoughts running through his mind.

He remained so self-conscious about the need to defend himself in public that Quentin sought refuge inside his home. He felt safe from any further public assaults, but the doubting voice of his internal conscience continued to swell in volume.

As days passed, the feeling of entrapment within his own house began to prey on Quentin’s sense of sanity. Although he still felt unprepared to confront questions from the community, the desire to escape from what felt like a confined box – its four walls seemingly closing in upon him – was overwhelming.

In what was a more courageous action than it should have been, Quentin picked up his attaché and headed out the front door. Making his way down the sidewalk and around the street corner, he mapped out the shortest and most inconspicuous route to the quiet coffee shop on the edge of town. Quentin felt this was the safest location to get some fresh air – and coffee – to collect his thoughts.

As he slipped through the front door, a bell overhead signaled his entrance. Quentin was pleased to see he was the only patron in the shop. Shuffling up to the counter, the owner seemed oblivious to the controversy brewing around town. Thank goodness for that, thought Quentin. Purchasing a double mocha latte, Quentin slunk to the back corner of the shop and stared into his cup of coffee, as if the steam rising from the surface held some elusive wisdom in its captivating tendrils. Alas, this hope evaporated from Quentin’s mind as quickly as the steam into thin air.

He felt guilt-ridden for expressing his opinion in front of town hall. Worse yet, he began to question his own ideals. If there were so many people opposed to his viewpoint, was it possible that he was off-kilter in the assessment of his moral values? These deteriorating thoughts brought along with it a domino effect of self-deprecating criticisms that left Quentin as nothing more than a fragile shell of his former self.

Setting his coffee cup to the side, Quentin reached down into his attaché and retrieved the object that initiated all the chaos over the previous two days. As he carefully creased the spine, he began to read the opening pages of American Dream. The first page was blank save for an opening quote that consumed his thoughts.

bell-above-doorQuentin thought he imagined hearing a bell inside his mind – signaling receipt of a message he was meant to hear at this exact moment. As it turns out, the ringing bell had originated from elsewhere. Whether he spent seconds or minutes staring at that page in the book, Quentin was pulled from his hypnotic gaze by two voices that had just rounded the counter. Two individuals, an older gentleman and a younger woman took up residence at the table next to Quentin, apparently unaware of his presence. There was something about the young woman that looked familiar. Not wanting to call attention to himself, Quentin quickly retreated behind the cover of his book. He wasn’t reading, however. He was listening.

As if in a collegiate debate competition, comments were fired back and forth between the two.

“Dad, why can’t you just accept who I am and what I want to do with my life.”

“Gracie, the front line of a battlefield is not the proper place for a woman.”

“So, tell me then Dad, where is the proper place for a woman?” retorted the young woman. Quentin was picking up on the general tone of this conversation as he hid behind the cover of his book – Dad thinks he knows best. Daughter disagrees and tries to prove otherwise.

“Now Gracie, don’t go and turn things around on me like that. You know that’s not what I mean. I just want what’s best for you,” pleaded Dad.

“Dad, you know I love you. But, I’m not going to let you steer my path through life like you did with Kelly. What’s best for me, Dad, is standing up for what I believe in – even if it means I stand alone.”

With the last statement, Quentin involuntarily let the book in front of his face drop below eye level. As if by fate, his gaze met that of Gracie. The long brunette hair, the distinctive jawline, and the penetrating hazel eyes – he immediately recognized the physical characteristics. Whether she knew what was held within the covers of that blue hardcover entitled American Dream or not, whether she even knew that her older sister worked as his secretary, Quentin could have sworn he perceived the slightest grin on her face. Quentin gave a slight wink and let a smile spread across his own face is if to say thank you.

Gathering up his belongings, Quentin rose from his seat. Passing the table occupied by Gracie and her Dad, he laid his copy of American Dream open to the page he had been so deeply contemplating before their arrival.

The mind is like a parachute. It works best when it is open. ~Dalai Lama

Quentin kept walking, past the counter and out the front door. He was a different man than when he entered. Slinking into this establishment less than thirty minutes ago, he now walked out with his head held high. He had not regained his position as mayor. Quentin had, however, reclaimed something much more valuable – a sense of self, a firm resolve to stick up for what he believed in.

to-be-yourself-greatest-accomplishmentThe gears began to turn as he strolled down the sidewalk. He wasn’t any more right or wrong about what he believed in as was Kelly, Gracie, their Dad, or – for that matter – any other member of this small, conservative town. What was wrong, thought Quentin, was denying someone the choice to believe in something that was meaningful to them.

With each subsequent step, the characteristic bounce returned to Quentin’s gait. His perceptive mind kicked back into high gear as he chuckled to himself and thought about the irony – grace under fire – he had so many reasons to smile, so much to believe in, and he wasn’t going to let anyone take that privilege away from him ever again.

Choice words

botanical-gardenQuentin reached over to press the intercom button on his phone, “Kelly, can you bring me the items left to resolve this week, please and thank you.” Within thirty seconds, the mayor’s secretary appeared in the small government office. “Here you go,” replied Kelly as she handed over a stack of manila folders each about a half inch thick. “The most important ones are on the top. And don’t forget you have the press conference at three o’clock today.”

Quentin couldn’t possibly forget the press conference. That’s what he enjoyed most about serving as mayor of this small southern town. He relished the opportunity to be in the spotlight, to provide leadership for the citizens of his community. And he was mighty good at it too. The majority of folks living in town not only approved of his representation, most also considered him a friend.

The press conference was scheduled in order to share plans for construction of a new town park complete with a paved biking trail and five acre botanical garden. Quentin was excited for an opportunity to share this symbol of progress during his term.

Rustling through the items that required his stamp of approval, Quentin flipped open each folder in succession – increased fines for traffic violations, a new bingo night request for senior citizens at the community center, as well as a few financial and legal documents pertaining to improvements on the town streets. He had become numb to these common requests that always seemed to end up on his desk. He never liked the paperwork aspect of his job. He much rather preferred the face to face interaction with people.

Glancing down at his watch, Quentin realized there were ten minutes remaining before he needed to be outside – time to glance at one more item. As he opened the jacket of the folder, he expected to see some other mundane legislation request, perhaps a further restriction on the leash length for pets being walked in public.

What he found inside that folder left him numb once again, not due to a lack of interest, but rather from shock. Staring back at him was a request in the form of a signed petition to ban a book from the shelves of the public library. The book’s title was innocent enough, American Dream, but the synopsis of the book indicated otherwise. The main plot line of this fictional novel told the story of a young couple seeking the adoption of a baby girl. The caveat to this otherwise normal plot line was that the adopting couple was not what everyone considered to be traditional. The two partners comprising the adopting couple were both men.

Quentin could feel his pulse begin to involuntarily accelerate as he perused the long list of signed names scrawled on the petition. These were people he knew – or thought he knew at least. Needless to say, it was now obvious that these people did not share the same stance on some of the more controversial issues facing society. It wasn’t that Quentin either approved or disapproved of the story told within the covers of the book. He simply felt that everyone deserved a choice. Equal opportunity was more than a catch phrase to Quentin. He believed it. He lived it. And he felt as though he needed to fight for it.

As he tightened the knot on his tie and gathered the notes for his speech to the crowd gathering outside, Quentin’s attention was not where it was supposed to be. The contents of that last folder had jaded the congenial attitude he had been carrying with him all day. As he passed by Kelly’s desk, she had noticed the mix of anger, frustration, and confusion in his gait. “Everything OK?”

“Yes … well, no.” And then, recognizing that he didn’t have the time to get into a drawn out conversation, Quentin continued on, “I just spilled coffee on my notes, no big deal, I can still make out the major points.”

Slipping out the front door, Quentin approached the podium outside town hall, greeted by a few dozen members of the community. By the time the top of the hour had arrived, the numbers of attendees had risen to well over one hundred along with several reporters seeking content for their column in the next edition of the local newspaper.

town-hall-meeting“Good afternoon,” feigned Quentin into the microphone. Everyone could tell that he was not his usual exuberant self. The details of the new park that were planned to be filled with hope and excitement came off sounding flat and uninspired. The final planned sentence rolled off Quentin’s tongue in a rote manner, “This new addition to our community will give us an opportunity to share and grow together over the coming months and years, for our generation and those that follow.”

Quentin knew he should have let things sit right there. He needed time to collect his thoughts. He needed an opportunity to subdue his raging emotions before broaching the concern in the forefront of his mind. What we think we should do is not always what ends up happening. Our emotions can be extremely persuasive, and Quentin succumbed to their wishes in the heat of the moment.

“And speaking of community and growth,” continued Quentin with a bit more conviction. “I feel it is important to mention our duty as citizens to respect the choices of others. So long as they are living within the bounds of the law, every individual should have the freedom to choose, among other things, the books they would like to read.”

true-measure-of-a-manSeveral heads that had been lulled into a state of complacency by the mayor’s flat speech were suddenly at attention once again. One by one, the look on their faces were transformed to convey disbelief. Although not explicitly stated, the crowd in attendance knew exactly what Quentin’s choice of words meant to convey. And the murmur that began to grow among the crowd let Quentin know that he had now indeed reached the end of this press conference. Retreating into the safety of his office, the press members in attendance were circling like vultures, just biding their time before they had the opportunity to spring on their prey.

Author’s Note: This is the first part of a three part short story. The second installment will be published next week. Thank you for taking the time to read and comment – best wishes for an inspired day!

Home again

Author’s Note: This is the final installment of a six part story. If you would like to read the previous chapters before the finale, please visit: Chapter 1 – The keyChapter 2 – Plus oneChapter 3 – The seedChapter 4 – Step by step, and Chapter 5 – Hope.

lighthouse-portland-maineDamon had a suspicion the numbers he found scribbled in the margin of that book by T.S. Eliot would be the last ones he’d encounter on this memorable journey – because he recognized them. There were no other clues to be deciphered, just the coordinates that would lead him back to his home in a seaside town just outside of Portland, Maine.

As he exited the public library, the two facial expressions staring back at Damon from the base of the marble steps held a look teetering back and forth between enthusiasm and anxiety. One was human, the other canine. Jo, the co-owner of a restaurant in rural Virginia had her eyes locked on the exit door in anticipation. Gryffin, Damon’s loyal golden retriever, began to tug on the leash when he caught a glimpse of his owner. Jo allowed Gryffin to lead the way, although not entirely by choice. She began to stumble as Gryffin pulled her along towards Damon, the distance closing quickly.

As they reached audible range, Jo not wanting to wait any longer, called out to Damon, “Did you find it? What did it say?” Gryffin followed suit with an imploring bark. The semi-confused look on Damon’s face left her with a feeling of apprehension. Damon was still attempting to process what he was supposed to do next, other than return home. “Was there nothing there?” asked Jo hesitantly.

“No, no. There was definitely something there. I’m just not sure what to do next,” responded Damon.

“Well, lay it on me. We’ll all figure it out together,” urged Jo.

“There was another quote – in the book, that is. It was highlighted and in the margin were a set of coordinates that lead back to my new house,” offered Damon.

“What was the quote?” asked Jo.

“It was by T.S. Eliot – We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” Damon recited the quote from memory. It had already been catalogued in his mental library.

“Well, am I missing something?” asked Jo. “It seems pretty obvious that you’re supposed to return home.”

“Yeah, I get that part,” responded Damon, “I’m just not sure what I’m supposed to do when I get there.”

faith-take-the-first-step“Hey, remember that parchment that came with the acorn?” asked Jo. Damon reached into his pocket to grab hold of the acorn, making sure that it was still there. Jo continued, “There was an important word in that quote. Remember it? Faith. Let’s just have faith that we’ll figure it out once we get there.”

“So, you still want to continue on with us?” inquired Damon. “I wasn’t sure if you would just want to return to the restaurant. It’s only a couple hours away.” Damon couldn’t believe that he was even proposing something so far against what he actually desired, to have Jo accompany him on the final leg of this journey back to his hometown. He chided himself internally for allowing something so foolish to escape his lips.

“No way, compadre, you’re stuck with me now,” smiled Jo. “I was serious about new beginnings back on that mountaintop. My sister can take care of the restaurant. It was always her special project anyway. This is my new beginning. I’m not sure where it’s going to end up, but I do know the next stop on the journey.”

With the sun beginning to set on another day filled with fortuitous discoveries, the driving duties were transferred back to Jo. With a desire to close the gap slightly between their present position and final destination, the truck and its three occupants began to head north on the interstate. The conversation was quiet as the speakers streamed uninterrupted tunes from the satellite radio. After about three hours, somewhere near the New York border, Damon shook his head slightly as if to keep his eyelids from involuntarily shutting. Looking over at Jo, he could tell that she was beginning to show signs of exhaustion too. It had been a long day.

Damon reached over, turned down the volume, and proposed one final layover on their journey. “How about we find a place to get some rest? We can get on the road first thing in the morning and be back in Maine before noon.”

“Sure, that sounds good,” said Jo as she allowed a yawn to escape mid-sentence. As if the offer of rest had provided her second wind, Jo felt compelled to share something. “You know, these last couple days, they have been a lot of fun.”

“Yeah, same goes for me,” replied Damon. “I’m just not quite used to so much spontaneity in my life.”

“Funny,” chuckled Jo, “I think that’s one of the things that made it so enjoyable for me.”

“Maybe you’re right,” smirked Damon, “I never thought about it that way.” Finding a pet friendly hotel just off the interstate, the last thoughts Damon entertained before succumbing to sleep left him with a smile in his heart.

The following morning brought with it an intense feeling of anticipation – the three travelers just weren’t sure what they were anticipating yet. The remaining few hours of their journey passed quickly. Damon had beaten his estimate by a good hour as he rolled into his hometown a little before eleven o’clock.

As he coasted into the driveway and turned off the engine, Damon stared ahead at the front door in front of him, “Okay, now what?”

“Well, you could give me a tour, you know,” said Jo smiling.

“Sure, right, where are my manners?” replied Damon. Gryffin was at the front door waiting to enter with his tail wagging excitedly. Damon guided Jo through a brief tour of the old house, boxes still strewn around each of the rooms they walked through. “It’s not much yet, but it has a lot of potential,” offered Damon somewhat defensively.

As they entered the bathroom attached to his bedroom, a thought occurred to Damon. The coordinates led him to his house. That was obvious. There was another clue in that library, one that he didn’t consider too closely until now. He recalled the quote once again, whispering it to himself – We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.

Where we started – that phrase stuck with him. This was the exact location beneath the sink where everything began. This is where the brass key still hanging around his neck was found wrapped in twine.

wooden-floorboardHe stood there, motionless, for a few moments before he recalled the dull thud that sounded when the ball of wet twine made contact with the wooden floorboard beneath the pipe. Damon returned to that floorboard, got down on his hands and knees, and looked at it a bit more closely.

Jo, sensing that Damon was on to something but not wanting to disrupt the flow, bent over to look but remained silent. The nails securing this particular floorboard were missing. Reaching his fingers into the tiny gap between the wall and floorboard, he noticed that he was able to pry back the piece of wood quite easily. There was a sealed container built into the space beneath the floor. Placed inside it was another piece of parchment rolled up and tied with a red ribbon.

Rising back to his feet, Damon untied the ribbon and unrolled the sheet with Jo standing next to him. Together, they silently read the quote etched in the same perfect penmanship that they had come to know so well.

I don’t believe people are looking for the meaning of life as much as they are looking for the experience of being alive. ~ Joseph Campbell

Damon just smiled. Of course. Had he known that the final piece of his journey was right under his nose when he discovered the brass key, he would have most likely jumped to the conclusion straightaway. And look what he would have missed out on – adventure, friendship, lessons in giving, receiving, and perhaps most importantly – love. Love of others and love of self.

“Wow,” offered Damon to Jo, “this certainly wasn’t what I was expecting.” And then he smiled and continued on, “But, you know what, I think that’s what makes it all that more special.”

“I guess I’m rubbing off on you,” smiled Jo as she bumped shoulders with Damon. “Hey, you know what,” said Jo with an intriguing twist in her voice, “I just thought of something. How do you spell your name?”

Damon wasn’t catching on quite yet, but he played along, “D-A-M-O-N,” replied Damon. “Why, what does that have to do with anything?” he continued.

“I was just thinking. Reverse the letters of your name, and what do they spell?” offered Jo.

“N-O-M-A-D. You’re a nomad, a wanderer. And what you have chosen to do over the past week has been exactly that – you have wandered from place to place for the sake of wandering, to explore, to be alive.”

Damon was beginning to appreciate this woman more and more with every passing minute. Maybe he was living life up until this point as his name – backwards. But he had more than a fleeting clue now. He had a revelation, and he certainly felt alive, more alive and vibrant than he had in his entire life.

flowers-of-tomorrowReaching into his pocket, he retrieved the acorn and placed it on his bathroom sink – a constant reminder to embrace new beginnings. “How about some lunch? I know this great seafood place just down the road. It sits right on the water.” Winking at Jo, Damon continued on, “I did promise, and I always do my best to keep promises.” An endearing grin spread across Jo’s face as she replied, “I’ll have to remember that.” As Damon took Jo’s hand in his own, another seed was planted in this wanderer’s life – one that he knew would flourish given time – and faith.

Author’s Note: This has been a wonderful adventure filled with discovery not only for Damon, Jo, and Gryffin – but also for the author. I hope that it has been as much fun and rewarding for you to read it as it has been for me to write it. I sincerely thank everyone who took the time to follow along on this journey over the past month and share their thoughts – it means more than you can possibly know. May the coming days, weeks, and years bring each of you wandering journeys filled with unbounded love and inspiration – a little faith goes a long way. ~Dave Cenker

Hope

nations-capitalAuthor’s Note: This is the fifth chapter of a six part story. If you would like to read the previous chapters, please visit Chapter 1 – The key, Chapter 2 – Plus one, Chapter 3 – The seed, and Chapter 4 – Step by step.

Although difficult to sleep with anticipation of another day filled to the brim with adventure and uncertain discoveries, the physical and emotional demands of the day allowed Damon, Jo, and Gryffin to receive a modicum of rest before the sun rose again on the following morning. At the crack of dawn, they were headed north towards the nation’s capital.

Jo had responded to the entire situation with the homeless man like it was completely natural. Damon always felt he was a benevolent and altruistic individual. And yet, he walked right by someone who was obviously in need. Maybe his perception of self was askew. He had wrestled with it in his mind in the moments right before falling asleep the previous night. About an hour into their trek north, Damon broached the subject engrossing his mind. “That was very kind of you, what you did for that guy at the gas station last night,” he offered.

“It’s something I’ve always done,” replied Jo. “Learning about the history of my ancestors, especially my great grandfather who took such a firm stand against slavery, it has sorta become a part of me. I seem to always look out for others in need and do what I can to help them.”

Damon was consumed with a feeling of hope – not for finding some profound meaning in the completion of this quest he was on, nor for the wish that his professional endeavors would take a turn for the better. No, he was feeling hope for humanity, that there were still individuals in society who genuinely cared for one another, who realized that we are all in this together, and who didn’t feel compelled to vie for the last piece of pie. There was plenty of love and happiness in this world to go around – when we choose to share it. One of those rare individuals who embodied this very essence was sitting next to him, and Damon suddenly felt fortunate to have been blessed by her presence.

Damon did some mental math and realized that he would need to adopt a heavier foot on the accelerator pedal in order to reach their destination before closing time. Fortunate to avoid rush hour traffic through the heart of D.C., they arrived at the library with a mere thirty minutes to spare. Racing up to the entrance, they were stopped by the security guard at the front door.

“Sorry sir, no pets permitted in the library.” Damon looked quizzically at Gryffin and then Jo, trying to figure out a solution that would work out for everyone involved. Jo chimed in, “You go ahead, I can hang here with Gryffin. You can fill us all in when you figure it out.”

public-library-dc“But …” began Damon. Jo cut him off before he could continue any further, “Get in there and figure this thing out. Gryffin and I will be right here waiting for you.” Realizing that resistance was going to be futile, and because he was running out of time with every passing second, Damon agreed, “Okay, I’ll be right back.” As he plunged into the depths of the library in search of his destination, Damon mentally refreshed his memory with the important inscription – 811 E42F 26. Upon reaching the dark corridors of poetry in section 811, Damon quickly began to comb each shelf in search of the desired volume. Running his index finger over the spine of each book, he could almost feel the energy of the poetry within each book, yearning to be heard. More than likely, however, his feeling was one of hope in finding a book with the call number E42F. With head tilted sideways to better read the print, Damon finally discovered what he had been looking for – The Four Quartets by T.S. Eliot.

Glancing down at his watch, he had less than ten minutes before the front doors of the library would be locked. He figured it would take them at least twice that much time to actually find him in these dark recesses of the library where far too few souls roam. Flipping the book open and fanning to page 26, Damon could almost smell the age of this book published more than a half century ago. There on the page was an unmistakable message that he knew was meant to be seen by his eyes. From the poem Little Gidding, the highlighted passage read:

We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.

four-quartetsScribbled in the margin was another set of numbers. Damon knew that his next destination would be the final one on this journey. He wasn’t quite sure how the adventure would conclude, but he was quite certain that he would be enlightened by whatever was ultimately revealed – his recent history had proven that fact to be true. With less than five minutes until the doors locked for the evening, Damon reached the front entrance of the library, greeted by an anxious face and a wagging tail that were clearly discernible, even in the diminishing sunlight. He couldn’t wait to share his findings. Partly for the information itself, more so for the person he would be sharing it with.

Author’s Note: This is the fifth part of a six part “not-so-short” short story about self-discovery. A new segment has now been published on each Wednesday in December. The final chapter of this story will be published here on Wednesday, January 7, 2015. Thank you for taking the time to read and comment – best wishes for an inspired day and new year!

Step by step

newfound-gap-sunset

Author’s Note: This is the fourth chapter of a six part story. If you would like to read the previous chapters, please visit Chapter 1 – The key, Chapter 2 – Plus one, and Chapter 3 – The seed.

With the sun hastily sinking below the horizon, Damon slipped the acorn into his pocket, giving it a small caress as a sign of appreciation for the wisdom it had recently bestowed upon him. He draped the brass skeleton key around his neck and placed the parchment back into the soil covered box that had just been discovered in a concealed burrow. Together with Jo, a waitress that he had befriended at a roadside diner less than forty-eight hours ago, Damon retraced his steps to his truck in the parking area. Gryffin, Damon’s loyal golden retriever, was following closely behind.

“What do you think those numbers mean?” asked Jo, referring to the three inscriptions on the parchment below the quote about new beginnings.

Damon knew the exact meaning of the first two numbers. Like the previous set of digits etched on the key now hanging around his neck, the numbers were coordinates to a new location, north and east of their present location. The third message etched below the first two, 811 E42F – 26, left both Jo and Damon befuddled.

Damon’s night vision had always been suspect. He had made every effort in the past to restrict his driving to daylight hours. This was one time when he was happy to have made an exception.

“Jo, would you mind driving us back into town. I’m not all that comfortable with night driving, especially on these mountain switchbacks,” Damon pleaded.

“Sure, no problem,” responded Jo. She had responded without really thinking, as if she was in some sort of hypnotic daze. Her thoughts were obviously elsewhere. Damon wondered where her preoccupied musings were leading Jo.

Damon had a secondary reason for asking Jo to drive. The night blindness pretext was just a veil to conceal his real motivation. He knew that Jo was on the cusp of diverging from their joint venture once they reached the base of the mountain. She had hitched a ride with him from her hometown in rural Virginia to locate her ex-boyfriend who had relocated – with a good chunk of her money – to the town just outside the park boundaries. Having Jo behind the wheel would put her in the driver’s seat, both literally and figuratively.

The signature chime originating from the dash of the truck spoiled Damon’s well laid plan. “Looks like you better get some gas when we get back into town,” offered Jo.

And just like that, the ball was back in Damon’s court. He wasn’t encouraged by her use of the word you instead of we. Maybe she would just grab a taxi from the gas station and disappear from his life in pursuit of her original objective. The thought of how he was going to handle the situation left him feeling quite awkward. He felt something more than a superficial companionship in Jo’s presence. He wasn’t ready for their newfound friendship to dissolve so quickly, but he didn’t want to appear desperate for asking what he really wanted – for her to accompany him on the next leg of his journey. As it turned out, Jo made the decision for him.

mountain-switchback“That quote, the one you found on that piece of paper,” began Jo. “It’s really made me think.” She carefully kept her eyes on the road ahead of her. With the road curving left and right every couple hundred feet, it was a prudent decision. However, she was doing so more because she wasn’t ready for the rejection that may come with her next request.

“I’ve always been one to go with my gut, and the quote on that paper you just discovered about new beginnings was a wakeup call. There’s something inside telling me that I should continue travelling with you, and forget about whatever story is unfolding as a result of my past decisions … if you will have me.”

Damon couldn’t help but smile, just a little bit. “It wasn’t I who discovered that piece of paper, it was we,” responded Damon. And right on cue, as if to take partial credit for the discovery, Gryffin echoed a bark of approval from the back seat. “And you are certainly more than welcome to join me. In fact, I would rather like that.”

With the emotional distractions resolved, Damon’s attention returned to the logistics of the hours that followed. “Maybe we can find a couple hotel rooms in town, get some rest, and start fresh in the morning?”

“Where to, though?” asked Jo.

“I think maybe we should find a hotel with a business center. With access to a computer, we can figure out where these coordinates are leading us,” responded Damon.

Upon reaching the outskirts of town, Jo pulled into the parking lot of a gas station with a convenience store attached to it. While Damon began to fill up the truck, Jo headed inside to get some local knowledge on a good place to stay for the night.

When he had finished topping off the tank, Damon had noticed that Jo had yet to return from inside the store. He gave Gryffin a reassuring scruff behind the ears, uttered “Be right back buddy”, and headed for the front door. Inside, Jo was at the front counter with a pre-wrapped sandwich, bag of chips, and soda.

“I thought maybe we could get a bite to eat and brainstorm about that last number,” interjected Damon before she passed her money over to the clerk. He wasn’t quick enough. Jo had already paid, but she responded back, “It’s not for me.”

“It’s for the guy sitting on the curb outside,” she continued.

homeless-signDamon hadn’t seen anyone outside. Who exactly was she talking about? As he craned his neck to see out the front window, he now noticed the disheveled man huddled over on the curb. Am I that oblivious to the world around me? thought Damon. He was slightly embarrassed, at himself at least, that he had filtered another human being out of the equation of his life so easily.

While contemplating these thoughts, he didn’t realize that Jo was already exiting the store. “You coming?” came Jo’s voice with one foot already out the front door. Following her over to the curb, Damon watched as Jo leaned down and offered the man her purchases. It would have been a mere snack to Jo or Damon. To this gentleman, however, it appeared to be a feast. And although the only two words that emerged from his mouth were “Thank you”, the genuine look in his eyes spoke a thousand words of gratitude.

“There’s a small hotel, up ahead on the right. The guy inside said it looks sorta like a dive, but it’s a great deal and they are pet friendly. And yes, they have a computer,” smiled Jo as they returned to the truck.

Sitting at the hotel computer, each was digging into a carton of take-out shrimp lo mein. “You know,” voiced Jo between bites, “I had a different idea in mind when I said I’d like seafood for dinner.”

Damon stirred through the sea of noodles with his wooden chopsticks, searching for the sparse shrimp which evidently had all been consumed. “Yeah, I’m right there with you. I guess beggars can’t be choosers. Seafood and mountains don’t necessarily fit in the same sentence now, do they?”

Placing his uneaten portion on the table next to the computer, Damon looked over at Jo who had found one last shrimp, and offered, “If we ever get the chance, I’ll treat you to some proper seafood.”

“Promise?” grinned Jo. Without hesitation, Damon responded with his own smile, “Yep, I promise.” Returning to the business at hand, Damon punched the new set of coordinates into the browser’s search engine. It felt like turning that brass key again, opening another treasure box.

welcome-to-dcThe map on the screen contained many familiar landmarks. It was obvious where they would be headed next – Washington, D.C. More specifically, the exact coordinates pinpointed a particular building in the District of Columbia – the public library. It was at that point in time, almost simultaneously, that both Damon and Jo looked at each other and shared a collective chortle of recognition. They immediately understood the meaning behind the third inscription on that parchment.

Author’s Note: This is the fourth part of a six part “not-so-short” short story about self-discovery. A new segment will be published each Wednesday in December with the closing chapter being posted on the first Wednesday of 2015. Thank you for taking the time to read and comment – best wishes for an inspired day and new year!

The seed

volunteer-stateAuthor’s Note: This is the third chapter of a six part story. If you would like to read the previous chapters, please visit Chapter 1 – The key and Chapter 2 – Plus one.

Gryffin, the loyal golden retriever belonging to Damon, couldn’t help but feel slighted. Now relegated to the makeshift back seat of the pickup truck, he didn’t have nearly as clear a view out the front windshield. Nor did he have the occasional scratch behind the ears from his master.

Nope, the front seat was now occupied by Damon and his new human companion. Jo, a waitress from the plantation house turned diner, joined the trek south towards the Smoky Mountains after the fortuitous revelation of her latest customer’s final destination on the previous evening.

Merging back on to the interstate, Gryffin got comfortable with his new surroundings, head resting on his two front paws. The flurry of chatter coming from the seats ahead of him was evidence of the budding rapport being established between his master and Jo. Damon shared the details of his adventure – as much as he knew anyway. He really wasn’t quite sure what he expected to find at his destination marked by a set of coordinates just off the Appalachian Trail.

Jo reciprocated the conversation by sharing some of the fascinating history in her family – the origins of their plantation from more than a century ago, the story about how her great grandfather fought as an advocate for the abolition of slavery even though it was against the mainstream way of thinking, and how it ultimately compromised his status in the community.

It was pleasant conversation, and perhaps necessary for two people who had known each other for less than sixteen hours. The topics provided a safe haven in which one person could become comfortable with the other, to feel each other out and begin to understand their way of thinking. They might as well do so since they would be spending the next ten hours or so together in a truck en route to the Volunteer State.

After about the first hour on the road, however, the conversation had begun to dry up. The silence was becoming more uncomfortable with every passing mile marker. Jo decided to take a courageous leap into slightly more tumultuous conversational waters.

“So, do you have a significant other in your life?” She attempted to catch herself from spewing this inquiry into the space between them, afraid that it would come off sounding like a pick-up line, but she failed miserably. It was now out there to be answered, even though the intent behind her question had a much different meaning than it may have initially sounded.

If Jo was worried that the question would be interpreted the wrong way, her fears were quickly assuaged when Damon responded with a chuckle, “Yeah, I have someone special in my life. He’s sitting right behind you. It’s always been Gryffin and I for as long as I can remember.”

Jo stared ahead, eagerly anticipating the question she expected would be returned to her. And just as she had given up hope that it would be asked, Damon replied, “How about you? With the significant other thing.”

Jo cracked open this door – on purpose – and now she was committed to pushing it wide open and inviting Damon inside, even if neither he nor Jo were quite ready. She had been desperately searching for an unbiased individual to share her story with, and she finally came to the realization that this may be her best opportunity.

true-friendshipAnd so began the story of Jo and her boyfriend – well, ex-boyfriend now, she presumed. It wasn’t a story that Damon was expecting to unfurl with a question as simple as “How about you?” But, each passing minute and empathetic exchange led the two passengers to become more than simply riding companions. They began to understand that they shared something in common, even if their situations were dramatically different.

Jo’s boyfriend had treated her quite well – initially. But, there had to be something extra going on behind the scenes. Excuses began to pile up when Jo proposed a getaway weekend together. And it probably wasn’t a coincidence, Jo realized, that the frequency of his visits decreased as her monetary contributions to his undisclosed business venture began to approach critical mass. It was a secret he had promised to share with her when the time was right. Apparently, that right time had never arrived. And it never would, for one morning when Jo worked up the courage to confront him at his apartment, she found it empty. She felt exploited, neglected, and abandoned. Jo reached out to several mutual friends. Each swore they were not privy to his business secrets. She had discovered, however, that there were rumors he had moved to precisely the location they were now headed. That was Jo’s personal business and ultimate reason for hitching a ride south – to discover the truth.

Despite the differing circumstances, Damon felt the same emotions inside – abandoned and taken advantage of in his professional endeavors. He didn’t feel it justified to compare the delicacy of these emotions in a relationship to his own situation, but he felt a connection to Jo’s emotions nonetheless.

welcome-to-gatlinburgThere are times when an individual gets into a flow state. Things begin to occur in a sort of surreal manner. Time both seems to stand still and speed by in an incomprehensible manner. That must have been what transpired between Damon and Jo, for they found themselves rolling into the outskirts of town just north of the Smoky Mountain National Park. More than four hours had passed since Jo initiated this conversation. Both were silent now with the same notion occupying their thoughts. Neither was prepared for the abrupt separation that would come to pass if Damon dropped Jo off in town, not after the conversation that had just materialized. The newly fashioned bond between these two riding companions turned friends was undeniable.

The ball was in Jo’s court, and she wasn’t quite ready yet to make a decision. So, she decided to stall.

“How about I help you find your … well, whatever it is you’re looking for,” offered Jo. Part of her was curious. Part of her wasn’t ready to confront the truth about her boyfriend. Perhaps the biggest part of her wasn’t prepared to sever ties with Damon at this point.

“You’re more than welcome to tag along. I really have no idea if and what I’ll find. It might very well be anti-climactic, but I do have a key,” he smiled as he grabbed hold of it and held it up in his left hand.

So, three riders remained in the vehicle, more than just disinterested passengers now. Each of them seemed to have some vested interest in the outcome of the situation in their own peculiar way. As they wound their way up the solitary park thoroughfare, the switchbacks and tight curves had Gryffin sliding to and fro in the back seat.

As their truck arrived at the summit of the pass bordering on the Tennessee and North Carolina state lines, the setting sun provided a stunning backdrop for the vista greeting them. It left them speechless with an awe-inspiring smile reflecting the beaming rendition provided by the landscape itself.

Opening the back door, Gryffin jumped out and began dashing along the path, as if he had the destination coordinates locked in his canine brain. Damon and Jo, for just a brief moment that seemed like forever, forgot about the coordinates. They stared out over the majestic landscape so eloquently painted by Mother Nature, and were held captive by her innate beauty in some unseen metaphysical world. Looking down, Damon and Jo both noticed the plaque that was serendipitously positioned directly in front of them:

Man has created some lovely dwellings – some soul-stirring literature. He has done much to alleviate physical pain. But he has not … created a substitute for a sunset, a grove of pines, the music of the winds, the dank smell of the deep forest, or the shy beauty of a wildflower. ~ Harvey Broome, Naturalist

Damon and Jo looked at each other, smiles still etched on their faces. No words were exchanged. None were needed. They had just shared a moment together. The wet feeling on Damon’s hand brought him back to the physical world. Gryffin was slobbering all over him, anxious to continue, almost understanding that something special was awaiting them.

appalachian-trail-newfound-gapDamon turned the dial on his watch to GPS mode and began to walk towards the trail head that he had seen depicted on his laptop screen less than forty-eight hours ago. It felt like so much more time had elapsed. So much had transpired in such a short period of time.

With the cooler weather and waning sunlight, Damon, Jo, and Gryffin found themselves alone on the mountain crest. The sun was descending below the horizon quickly. They would need to expedite their pursuit to have any chance of discovering whatever it was they were looking for before daylight escaped them.

Damon was assuredly happy that Jo was with him – to take part in whatever was to be discovered, and to help drive back down the mountain in darkness. He began to wonder what would happen when they returned to a lower elevation. Would Jo’s sense of adventure recede? Would she ask to be dropped off in town, never to be seen again?

While contemplating these questions in his own mind, Damon found himself navigating on autopilot to the exact coordinates indicated on the brass key around his neck. He looked at the inscription on the key again, then back at his watch to make sure they matched.

Looking around the area, nothing seemed to be out of place. Everything seemed to be undisturbed, to the human eye at least. Gryffin must have been a bloodhound in a previous life for he started to bark gruffly at a spot right behind the tree where Damon and Jo were standing.

“What’s up boy?” asked Damon.

Gryffin retreated back to his companions, and then turned around to return to his previous spot as if to say follow me. Both Damon and Jo picked up on the cue. At the base of the tree were a collection of leaves that had been displaced by Gryffin’s investigative efforts. What laid beneath those leaves was a large burrow. If anyone else had revealed this burrow, one would have thought it was the home of a wild critter. Everyone in its presence now suspected otherwise.

smoky-mountain-treeGetting down on his hands and knees, Damon reached his hand and arm – slowly – into the hole up to his elbow. “I feel something,” he said with a tinge of excitement in his voice. Pulling his arm back out brought with it a small container. It looked like an antique jewelry case. And on the front panel was a keyhole that looked to be just the right size.

He quickly, but carefully took the key around his neck and inserted it into the keyhole. Jo squatted down next to Damon, peering over his shoulder in anticipation. As he turned the key and opened the lid, he wasn’t sure what he would find. But, what he did find surprised him nonetheless.

Sitting in the box was an acorn and a rolled up parchment. Unrolling the leathery material, slightly yellowed with age, he found the following quote transcribed in beautiful penmanship:

Man is wise and constantly in quest of more wisdom; but the ultimate wisdom, which deals with beginnings, remains locked in a seed. There it lies, the simplest fact of the universe and at the same time the one which calls forth faith rather than reason. ~ Hal Borland

new-beginningsBelow the quote were three numbers. Two of them didn’t need decoding. The exact location denoted by the new set of coordinates was unknown, but Damon did know he would be next heading somewhere north and east of his present location. The third number was more mysterious and required mental contemplation. Damon was, however, becoming less concerned with the meaning of the number and more concerned with whether he would have a kindred spirit accompanying him on the next leg of his journey. Straddling the Tennessee/North Carolina state line, he was simultaneously straddling a state of mind. As he massaged the acorn between his fingertips, Damon reminded himself that new beginnings do indeed require faith. The metaphorical seed had been planted – the nurturing process had begun.

Author’s Note: This is the third part of a six part “not-so-short” short story about self-discovery. A new segment will be published each Wednesday in December with the closing chapter being posted on the first Wednesday of 2015. Thank you for taking the time to read and comment – best wishes for an inspired day and new year!