In the Dark

In-The-DarkI loosened my tie and sank into the sports coupe. It was Friday afternoon, the end of yet another sixty-five hour week. Despite the chaos of rush hour traffic, I willingly accepted the unpleasantness knowing that a cold six-pack and the Knicks game waited for me at home.

The chime interrupted the solitude inside the shell of my personal sanctuary. New text message from Kimmie.

Speaking in the robotic voice that I came to loathe, Don’t forget to pick up the pizza for family game night – smiley face.

Damn. I had forgotten that we moved family game night up by a day. And just like that, the chaotic traffic became an intolerable nuisance.


As I slipped through the front door with the two pizza boxes, I was promptly greeted by my six year old daughter, Lisa. Although I was disappointed about the change in plans that I should have remembered, the excited look in Lisa’s eyes immediately lifted my spirits.

“Hi Daddy,” she exclaimed while simultaneously jumping into my arms. I managed to balance the pizza in one arm and my little bundle of joy in the other.

“It’s my turn tonight … to choose,” she said proudly.

I didn’t need to ask. I knew exactly what she meant. At the front of her closet, in front of all the other toys and games sat Chutes and Ladders.

We played it every other evening, but it held special significance when played on game night. It began as a silly dare and had now evolved into a family tradition. If Lisa won, she could stay up as late as she wanted.

I always seemed to find more chutes than ladders. Tonight was no exception. On other nights, I might entertain the possibility of allowing Lisa to win. Not tonight. I was exhausted and ready to retire early.

I was three spots away from victory and probably a little too eager to win against a six year old. My tenacious attitude in the boardroom was leaking over into my family life. Kimmie kicked me under the table. I pulled my feet back. Just tonight, I thought, let me win. Nope, somehow I knew it wouldn’t happen.


“Yay! I’m staying up until midnight!”

I sank into the couch. My consolation prize was that I’d be able to catch the end of the basketball game. Flipping the television on, I was greeted by a blowout that wasn’t in my team’s favor. I flipped the power off and closed my eyes.


Sometime around 2AM, the duo dressed in black sidled up to the curb around the corner. The lights inside surprised them.

“What are they still doing up? We’ve been watching them for weeks. This doesn’t fit.”

Perplexed by the sequence of events, the accomplice suggested, “Let’s go for the house next door, it’s dark.”

Inside the house filled with artificial light, Lisa remained curled up with her dad on the couch, peacefully sleeping – one dreaming of chutes, and the other of ladders.

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First Class

first-classRachel watched as raindrops trickled down the pane of glass. The left one took a shortcut, veered to the right, and raced to the finish line at the bottom. These were the games of a bored six year old.

The temperature had spiked unexpectedly. The pristine blanket of snow that began falling on Christmas Eve was being slowly eroded by gloomy showers in the area. When the rain subsided to barely a drizzle, Rachel’s begging to play outside was met with little resistance.

She imagined herself as a frog, hopping between puddles, towards the safety of the next lily pad in search of prince charming. She always found the silver lining in everything. Everyone else saw the rain as a nuisance. Rachel playfully bounced through it. When she came to that coveted spot in the front yard, her cheerful smile transformed into an anxious furrow on her brow.

On the ground, in the same mound that she remembered depositing it a few nights ago, was the oatmeal. Rachel remembered Grandma telling her the reindeer liked it that way. It was easier to eat when it was in a pile. She scooped up the soggy flakes and scampered into the house.

“Mommy!” She screamed with dismay.

“What is it dear, what’s wrong?” Her panic subsided as she saw her daughter’s hands.

“Mommy, the reindeer must be sick. They didn’t eat anything at all.” Rachel held out her hand as pieces began to slip through her fingertips and fall to the floor.

“I’m sure they’re okay, honey. The neighbors must’ve put out extra this year. They were probably just full when they got to our house.”

“How do you know? They always eat. We should send them more, just in case.”

“Okay, sweetheart. Let’s do that.”

Grandma also said that oatmeal had magic powers that only reindeer could extract. In the right amounts, those oats would give them sustenance to last the entire time between their annual December journey.

Rachel’s mom pulled down the box of oats. Rachel retrieved the measuring cup. One quarter cup for each reindeer. An extra quarter cup for Cupid because he was Rachel’s favorite. They wrapped it up, and addressed it to the North Pole.

“Hurry mommy, he’s here!” Rachel ran outside.

Trotting behind her, Rachel’s mom called out, “Excuse me, we have a package.”

The mailman grimaced as the pestering rain dripped from the brim of his cap.

“Reserve oats. For the reindeer,” Rachel’s mom offered with a grin.

Upon inspecting the recipient’s address, the mailman promptly pulled the stamp from his pocket and branded the package with the words ‘First Class’. A proud smile appeared on Rachel’s face.

The two adults in Rachel’s presence couldn’t help but smile too. The drizzling rain caused both of them to blink. She found it odd that they blinked with only one eye, but Rachel was just happy to help those reindeer when they needed it most. Little did Rachel know that she was helping those adults even more.

Silent Knight

silent-knightThomas lifted the hammer into position. He used all his concentration and skill to strike the glowing metal in the precise location. The yellow-orange shower of sparks sprayed in a circular pattern, some of them traveling back in the direction of his exposed skin. It was a minor sacrifice to endure for the sake of the village.

His father was ruler. The small town was nestled among the hills, midway between the forest and stream. Thomas knew he’d never be ruler. That lofty distinction was reserved for his older brother. Thomas still took great pride in his work as one of the village blacksmiths.

A conflict was brewing with the neighboring village on the far side of the forest. Recently, tensions had been running high over the unjust bartering agreements of the last several fortnights. It was always the same. Three bundles of wheat in exchange for two sacks of wool.

Somewhere along the way, greed began to infiltrate this covenant. Three bundles of wheat became two, and the sack of wool was packed less densely in return. When the trio of pigs disappeared from the neighboring village, however, it was an act of aggression that couldn’t be overlooked. A militant confrontation was forthcoming.

The men of the village gathered ammunition. The woman prepared meals. The elder leaders took asylum to strategize. Even though Thomas’ father was aging quite well, he was in no position to be on the battlefront. Thomas, however, knew his father’s stubbornness quite well. His father would be leading his village gallantly into a battle that was senseless, but nonetheless necessary.

That’s why Thomas remained tucked away in the dirty shop behind the house. The periodic clang of metal complemented the commotion around him. This was a time to prove his worth, if not to the village, at least to himself. The leaders congregated in the village circle, dispersing rations and distributing weapons to each of the warriors now prepared for battle.

As the battalion set forth on their journey, Thomas remained inside to finish his work. As the sun began to set over the horizon, he emerged from the shop and walked through the door into the kitchen. Seated at the table with her hands wrapped tightly around each other was his mother, trying to keep herself together.

His father’s stubbornness may have been courageous to the village folk, but it was also detrimental to his family. Thomas handed his mother the ornately crafted trivet. He knew that baking was her way to cope with anxiety. Thomas wasn’t the village blacksmith chosen to craft weaponry, but that never bothered Thomas. He knew his place and did whatever he could with the opportunities presented to him.

His mother had dozens of trivets lined up on the shelf above her stove. She probably didn’t need another one. The feeble grin curling at the corner of his mother’s mouth and the tight embrace that followed let Thomas know that perhaps this was exactly what both of them needed.

Cassiopeia

cassiopeiaThis cylinder with precisely aligned mirrors is like a magic portal into another universe. I close one eye while I peer through the eyepiece, seeing light that has traveled years to greet me on this summer evening. I can still hear Grandpa Will’s voice sharing that fact with me as a nine year old girl. It has stuck with me for decades. Even though I have access to the most advanced deep sky observation equipment that research money can buy, I still pull out this little telescope on occasion to reminisce.


“Sweetpea, what’s a four letter word for portal?”

Grandpa was the crossword master. I knew he already knew the answer, but I’d play along. This was our special time together each evening in the living room.

“That one’s easy, Grandpa. Door.”

“Ahh, of course,” he’d say.

I’d sit curled up beside the radio, positive there was someone inside speaking to me. Between segments of my favorite show, Starwatch, Grandpa fed me questions that he knew I’d be able to answer. I was only nine, but not as naïve as he thought.

Tonight’s constellation was Cassiopeia. I’d always been fascinated by the mythology behind the stars. Each night, when the show was over, there was time for pajamas and teeth brushing before heading off to bed. Sometimes, when Grandpa was feeling gracious, he’d let me stay up an extra ten minutes listening to his favorite jazz show together. Tonight was one of those lucky nights.

I rotated the tuning dial. I knew exactly where his program should’ve been. All I could hear, however, was static.

“No stalling, Sweetpea. It’ll only be ten extra minutes no matter how long it takes to find the station.”

I’d used this tactic before, but not tonight. I kept nudging the dial, trying to find the smooth saxophone sounds. I never did find it, but I did hear a voice between the rumbles of static.

“Grandpa, did you hear that?”

“What?”

“That voice.”

“No, Sweetpea. How about we head out to the backyard and see if we can’t find Cassiopeia?”

We spent the remaining five minutes looking at the distinctive W in the night sky. Grandpa explained how half of the year it was a W, the other half it was an M. I was hooked, but I still couldn’t forget that voice.


I panned towards the stars in Cassiopeia, my heart beginning to flutter. The twinkling was presenting a message in Morse code. My heart beat faster with each letter revealed S-W-E-E-T-P-E-A.

“Ellie, did you find something?” asked Jack, my colleague across the way.

“No. Cassiopeia is just really interesting tonight.”

“Well, let’s get back to it. These new galaxies don’t find themselves,” quipped Jack.

“Yeah, right.” I smiled before taking one more peek through the telescope. The last twinkle to greet my eyes on that evening was like a wink, from my Grandpa Will and Grandma Margaret, somewhere in the middle of Cassiopeia, a galaxy away, but always right next to my heart.

Abandoned

abandoned

A black space
Where the door
Is supposed to be

A cloudy film
Layered on the windows
Obscuring the view inside

The splintered planks
From the facade
Evidence of neglect

Used to be filled
With effervescence and love
Now but an empty shell

Memories encrusted
In the weathered roof
And soot lining the chimney walls

Stationary
Unable to move
Begging to be noticed

She has no audible voice
To speak for herself
Not one that can be heard

Too many travel this road
Never giving
Even a passing glance

With time slipping by
She settles into
The depression in the ground

If only
Someone would shine a light
Inside that dark hollow

A hidden space
Would be revealed
Like a treasure

First
Just a glint
A tiny sparkle

Growing into
A luminous beam
Of warmth and fulfillment

The worn and tattered exterior
Dissolving in the radiance
Overflowing from within

Spilling through the crevices
Sealing the cracks
Irreparable damage reversed

Rescuing
A beautiful world
From abandonment

Ebb and flow

ebb-and-flow

Limitless
To the human eye
Stretching out
To eternity

A glimmer of light
Just beneath the whitecaps
Engulfing darkness
At its deepest depths

A tale of two worlds
Smooth and level on the surface
Craggy and jagged
Miles below

Pressure building
As one descends
The weight of the world
Resting on weary shoulders

Toes sinking
Into the grains of sand
On the threshold
Of this mysterious realm

Foamy tendrils
Outstretched, enveloping
Wrap themselves
Around my ankles

Luring me
With its captivating rhythm
First fear, then curiosity
Awakens me

The ebb and flow of salty waves
Cresting over my feet
Receding back from whence they came
Reminds me, I am alive

Encourages me
To feel
To love
To live

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.

Little things

chess-board“Joey, two steps to the left.” Cupping both hands around his mouth, Aaron bellowed to his right fielder, “Jack, take a few steps back.” Like pawns on a chess board, Aaron directed players to different positions on the baseball diamond. The left handed batter stepping up to the plate had not hit a ball to the left side all day. It was all about probabilities and percentages. The group of nine and ten year old boys kicking dirt and smacking fists into their gloves had overcome extreme odds to arrive in the little league championship game. Aaron wanted to do everything in his power to lead the team on the final step of their journey.

With two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning and up by one run, there were runners on second and third base. The batter at the plate was not the most fearsome hitter on the opposing team, but he was not to be taken lightly, and Aaron knew that.

As the batter stepped into the box, waggling his bat in the area of the strike zone he envisioned the ball arriving, the umpire behind the plate pointed towards the pitcher’s mound as if to say, “Your move.”

Aaron was never a chess player, but he couldn’t help but feel there were so many parallels between it and the game of baseball. He suspected that these conclusions could probably be drawn between many seemingly unrelated things in life when we chose to scrutinize them a bit more closely.

“Strike two!” Aaron had a way of slipping into a daydream state from time to time. It was both a blessing and curse, depending upon the situation. Coming back to the present situation on the field, he realized that the umpire’s call meant that his team was one strike away from hoisting the trophy sitting behind home plate. It was a little league championship game comprised of just eight teams, all playing within a ten mile radius of each other. To these boys, however, this game may as well have been the World Series.

A nervous habit adopted from his childhood days, Aaron adjusted the position of his cap and called out some final words of encouragement to his pitcher, “Here we go Jimmy, straight and true.” It was a mental reminder he had established with the ten year old over the course of the season – to empty his mind and let his arm release the ball straight and true, like an arrow.

Jimmy’s abbreviated windup had the ball traveling forward, four seams spinning in slow motion as the ball approached home plate. Desiring to hear a thump in the back of the catcher’s mitt, everyone in the stands instead heard the distinctive ping of aluminum bat meeting ball. The backspin imparted on the ball launched it airborne in the direction of right field.

Aaron could tell immediately that his decision to move Jack, his right fielder, back a few paces was the right decision. He didn’t need to move an inch. He was positioned in the perfect location to record the final out. He was one catch away from being the hero. He had shagged fly balls much more difficult than this countless times before. As the ball hit the leather in his glove, Jack squeezed tight feeling the security of the baseball in the back of his glove.

baseball-on-groundThe feeling of triumph was overwhelming. They had done it. They were victorious. They were champions. And as though some surreal and cruel warping of time had occurred, Jack realized that the final words of this heroic ending had not yet been written. The ball, hitting the fleshy part of his palm ricocheted into the webbing and out of the top of his glove. As he watched the ball, almost in slow motion, fall to the ground, he could simultaneously see the runner from second base cross home plate.

The celebration Jack had envisioned was taking place right before his eyes – for the opposing team. Staring at the ball laying on the ground, Jack pulled his cap over his eyes and hung his head. He wanted to climb into the gopher hole on the other side of the right field fence and disappear. With the rest of the team dejectedly trudging back to the dugout, Jack remained in right field, embarrassed and heartbroken.

Aaron had both hands gripped around the fence in the dugout. Even though every member of his team save one was now gathering around him, his eyes were focused on the right fielder who had his chin buried in his chest. Aaron could feel the anguish in this kid’s heart. Jack was not only Aaron’s right fielder. He was also his son.

Aaron realized that Jack would not make the walk back to the dugout on his own. The remainder of his team was coping with the loss in their own way – some cried with sadness, some threw their gloves against the dugout wall in frustration, and some handled it with grace uncharacteristic of a disappointed ten year old boy. Coming around the fence, Aaron began the walk out to Jack, trying to figure out with each step what he would say and how he would say it.

As the distance closed between father and son, Jack raised his head to greet his dad’s gaze some twenty feet away. Aaron could see the tears streaming down Jack’s cheek. Reflected in those tears was the memory of a time twenty-five years ago when Aaron felt exactly the same way.

The echo of sneers from the auditorium injected more pressure on the eleven year old Aaron than he felt he could handle. “Air ball, air ball,” came the pleas from fans of the opposing team. Standing on the foul line, the scoreboard behind the backboard showed their team down by one point with two seconds left in the final quarter.

He had just been fouled driving to the basket for a layup that would have put his team in the lead, surely securing a win in the semi-final game of the youth league tournament. He now stood, looking up at the hoop fifteen feet away. “One bucket to tie, two to win,” Aaron whispered to himself. Following through on the routine he had practiced so many times before, he took a breath, dribbled, looked up, and let the ball fly.

The arc of the ball looked perfect in Aaron’s eyes. Surely, the signature swish of ball meeting nylon net would be the next sound greeting his ears. Instead, the clang of ball meeting the back of the rim had the basketball flying back right at him. If his heartbeat wasn’t racing before, it was now. Aaron realized that he had just missed out on an opportunity to win the game for his team. But, he still could tie it up and force overtime. That wasn’t such a bad alternative given the circumstances.

Going through his routine again, Aaron hurried through the process so as to reach the desired outcome expeditiously. As if the pleas from the crowd had some tangible influence on the result of this free throw attempt, the basketball missed everything – no rim, no net, no nothing. As the clock resumed, one final second elapsed before the buzzer sounded. Aaron’s team had been eliminated because he couldn’t make one lousy free throw. Wanting so desperately to handle the situation with grace, Aaron couldn’t stop the tear from forming in his eye and trickling down his cheek.

The thirty-six year old Aaron realized that he was now face to face with his son in right field. As disappointing as that memory from his childhood was, he now had a smile on his face. Draping his right arm around Jack’s shoulder, dad squeezed and said, “I’m proud of you.”

sometimes-win-learn“Why? I dropped the ball,” uttered Jack between sobs. The look of confusion on his face was unmistakable.

“Did you try your best?” asked dad.

“Yeah, but we lost,” replied Jack.

“Sometimes we win, and sometimes we learn,” replied dad.

“What did I learn? I learned I can’t catch a fly ball to save my life,” whimpered Jack.

The smile on Aaron’s face was a knowing one. As much as his statement about winning and learning was directed towards his son, it was the memory of what happened after the missed free throw twenty-five years in the past that left him with a smile on his face.

As he coaxed his son back towards the dugout, Aaron kept a hand on his shoulder as if to convey that everything would be okay. “How about we stop and get some ice cream on the way home?”

“But … we lost,” questioned Jack as he looked up at his dad.

“Yeah, well ice cream always helped me after a tough loss. How about it?”

“Okay, sure, I guess so,” replied Jack not really understanding how ice cream helped to get rid of his guilt, disappointment, and embarrassment. Aaron thought to himself, dad knows best.

As they pulled into the parking lot of the old style ice cream parlor, dad and son approached the counter side by side. “Two vanilla cones with rainbow sprinkles please,” requested Aaron from the worker behind the sliding glass door. The smell of chocolate chips, strawberries, and fresh whipped cream escaped through the portal to the magical world of ice cream on the other side of the glass. As if the intoxicating scent of these ingredients was indeed medicine for an aching heart, Jack’s shoulders seemed to droop a little less. The frown on his face became a little less pronounced.

Handing one cone to his son, Aaron led the way to a picnic table around the corner. The creamy vanilla ice cream seemed to be a type of magic elixir, removing disappointment and replacing it with contentment, one lick at a time. Looking across the table, Aaron didn’t initially see his son. Instead, he saw a vision of himself from the past, sitting across from his own dad, sharing the same ice cream treat after facing his own disappointment on a basketball court.

As minutes passed, the conversation between Aaron and Jack slowly migrated from talk of the game to other topics, things ultimately more important than the result of some seemingly monumental baseball game. Looking across the table, Aaron started to chuckle as the ice cream mustache on his son had matured into a full-fledged beard.

Jack looked over at his dad and asked, “What?”

Aaron picked up the remnants of his cone and smashed it on to his face creating a matching ice cream mustache and goatee. “I think we could both use a shave,” chortled dad to son. Jack let out one of those unbridled authentic giggles turned into uncontrollable laughter – the kind that makes your stomach hurt in the best way possible.

little-things-are-the-big-thingsThe vision of his son covered in ice cream – and more importantly – a genuine smile on his face was more gratifying than any image involving him and a league championship trophy. More than any life lesson he hoped to share with his son, Aaron wanted Jack to know that little things become the big things – like the unforgettable memory of an ice cream cone and giggle with your dad. It took Aaron twenty-five years to grasp this truth. Better late than never, he thought. And if he could help one young boy discover this nugget of wisdom sooner, then it was definitely worth the wait.

Rejuvenate

holding-a-cup-of-coffee

Author’s Note: This is the continuation of a previously published story. If you would like to read the first part, please visit Submission.

The scenery of Jess’ life changed on an otherwise ordinary day. Of course, that’s how it always seems to work. Change arrives on our doorstep when we least expect it. Seated at her customary kitchen table position, Jess’ attention shifted from the space inside her head to the rumbling diesel engine applying its air brakes outside.

Pulling the kitchen drapes aside, just enough to catch a glimpse of the activity outside, the moving truck came to rest in front of the abandoned house next door. Arriving behind the truck a few seconds later was a small blue sedan. A young girl, about six or seven years old, bounced out of the back seat with the energy of a firecracker. She ran towards the front door, peeking behind every few steps to make sure that her mom was following. “C’mon mom, hurry up! I wanna see my new room,” exclaimed the exuberant child. Mom was indeed following behind with almost as much excitement as her daughter.

Jess let the drapes fall back to their closed position. She sat back down at the table to resume her daily session of contemplation, but her flow had been disrupted. There was no going back to her past today, maybe tomorrow. She may as well move forward with the list of chores needing to be completed before the evening schedule commenced. It was a crisp, fall day, zero humidity. The smell of autumn was in the air. It was a perfect opportunity to hang the laundry outside – more like a perfect excuse to get outdoors where Jess knew she belonged.

Clipping shirts on to the clothesline, one sleeve at a time, Jess was greeted by the young voice she already recognized. “Hi,” came the voice from the little girl’s head just peeking over the fence. Jess smiled, but before she could respond, a taller figure emerged behind the child. “I’m sorry,” she offered apologetically, “My daughter is quite the little socialite. We didn’t mean to bother you.”

“Oh, it’s no problem. I’m Jess. I guess I’ll be your new neighbor. Welcome to the neighborhood,” replied Jess.

“Thank you, I’m Claire and this is my daughter, Ella,” she replied placing a hand on her daughter’s head as she bounced up and down to get a better view.

Jess was never one to do what she did next, but something inside nudged her towards the words that came out of her mouth. “I know you’re new to the area and I’m really a complete stranger at this point, but would you and Ella like to come over for lunch later? I can make some sandwiches and we can have a little picnic on the back porch.”

“That is so very kind of you, but we wouldn’t want to inconvenience you,” said Claire. “Can we mommy, can we, can we, please?” exclaimed Ella.

“It’s really no inconvenience at all. I’d love it if you two could come over. I know how difficult and stressful it can be to move into a new place,” replied Jess.

“Well,” smiled Claire as she looked down at her human pogo stick, “let us get a few things in place and we would be delighted to accept your invitation. You are very kind, Jess. Thank you very much.” And with that simple decision, a new relationship was born – one that would prove to be rejuvenating for Jess, both personally and professionally.

Jess came to learn that Claire was a single mom. She and Ella had moved here looking for a fresh start. Running a home business online, Claire could choose to live anywhere. The schools were supposed to be top notch in this area. All thoughts were on Ella and her future as she was preparing to enter first grade.

Jess was an only child. Perhaps that is why she was so prone to solitary confinement. There was always a part of her, however – despite her genetic predisposition – that longed for the companionship of a sibling. Over the course of the weeks that followed, she felt as though she had discovered, in Claire, the long lost sister that she never had beside her.

Jess came to welcome the warm, compassionate, and honest connection that had been sown between these two sisters living in parallel universes. It became part of her daily routine to have a cup of coffee with Claire after both their houses emptied in the morning. Sometimes at Claire’s place, other times at Jess’ home, her coffee never got cold anymore. She conversed with ease about anything and everything – from the best crepe recipes to the dreams buried deep inside. It was ironic that the two individuals living next door to Jess felt more like her family than the three other people living under her own roof.

chocolate-coconut-crepes“You know,” said Claire one morning over a cup of coffee and her latest baking endeavor, chocolate coconut crepes, “I have an idea.” Smiling, she continued on, “You need to find a way to rekindle your professional pursuits. Not like it’s necessarily my cup of tea, but I can tell you are tormented by the lack of dirt under your fingernails.”

Jess gave a lazy, knowing smile. Of course Claire could sense this, but why didn’t her own husband? Claire continued, “Ella’s class is doing a unit on dinosaurs and prehistoric animals in science class. I know it’s not the prestigious and high profile research that you are used to, but I bet they would love to hear about what it’s like to be a real-life paleontologist.”

When two like-minded individuals put their heads together, the ideas that emerge become greater than the sum of their thoughts. That is how it came to be that Ella’s first grade class would be visiting her own backyard on a field trip. Transformed into a prehistoric dig site, twenty young seven year old boys and girls would learn just what it was like to be a paleontologist firsthand.

Jess was going to let her husband know about her plans, but it never came to pass. The robotic sequence of events once he returned home didn’t leave a single spare cycle to hold a meaningful conversation. It was dinner, homework with the boys, television, late night sync-up call with his customers in Asia, a glass of scotch, and snoring from the bedroom that soon followed.

That was alright. Jess had a much more willing and engaged companion to assist her. On the morning before the “Big Dig” as they were coining it, Jess met Claire at her back door. Work gloves on, shovel in hand, Jess felt like a kid in a candy store. She felt more energized than she thought she would. She hadn’t realized just how big the void created by her lack of a professional life had become.

shovel-with-dirtEager to get started, Claire began taping off the dig area while Jess put shovel to dirt. The assortment of turkey and chicken bones would constitute a majority of the planned finds beneath the surface. Jess had pulled out a few of her own special specimens collected over the years as special treats for the young paleontologists. She remembered the day she cracked open that rock along the riverbed to reveal a three hundred million year old fossil. She would do everything in her power to recreate a similar feeling in the malleable minds of these young children.

One after another, holes were dug. Would be dinosaur bones were planted and covered back up. Near the end of the morning, as Jess was digging one of the final holes, the shovel pierced the earth and hit something solid.

“Oh, no,” grimaced Jess as she turned towards Claire, “Do you have an irrigation system installed in your yard?”

“I’m not really sure,” replied Claire, “but I don’t think so.”

“Well, if you do,” said Jess, “I think I just severed one of your pipes.”

As she got down on her hands and knees, she grabbed a trowel and carefully navigated around the point of interest. She was surprised how easily it all came back to her, delicately working around an object to unearth it while still preserving its integrity. Removing the gloves from her hand, she began to use her fingers to clear out the space around the object taking shape. It wasn’t an irrigation pipe after all. It looked like it was a box, almost like an old style ammunition container.

With her curiosity winning out over a desire to preserve its integrity, she began to move the dirt more quickly, less carefully, in an effort to bring this curious exhibit above ground. “What is that?” inquired Claire.

Running her hands over the metal top, brushing the dirt away, Jess replied, “I don’t know.”

old-journalJess was hesitant to take the next step. This wasn’t her property after all, finding it in Claire’s back yard. “Well, why don’t you open it?” suggested Claire. Having been given permission to learn more about an artifact excavated from the ground, natural or man-made – Jess didn’t need to be asked twice.

She unlatched the metal clasp on the front and lifted the lid. As the metal hinges creaked upon opening, the words on the leather journal piqued her interest as much as any specimen she had recovered in her past – Mes secrets – Chapitre cinq.

Submission

white-picket-fenceThe words staring back at Jess from the final page of the journal were not in her native language. And yet, no translation was necessary to convey their meaning. Her fingers gripped around the leather cover were shaking uncontrollably. She felt her hands, dirty with soil, reflexively release her connection with the caustic energy transmitted through the emotions on those tattered pages. Jess had heard the phrase a hundred times before. Now, she understood its true meaning. A picture is worth a thousand words.

It all happened so fast for Jess. In a period of six months, she had moved to the suburbs, began her dream career, discovered the man of her dreams, got married, and moved into the perfect home complete with a white picket fence. As she stood over the skillets on the stovetop, one contained pancake batter turning golden brown, the other had bacon sizzling up to crispy perfection. In the midst of her morning ritual, she didn’t have time to wonder how she arrived in this new role. The two pre-teen boys, backpacks slung over their shoulder, sauntered into the kitchen and sat down. They had come to expect the same breakfast routine from their stepmom before school each morning. The growing bump on Jess’ belly provided further proof that this would be her calling in life for the foreseeable future.

“Good morning, love,” came the impassive greeting from her husband, Sean, following the two boys into the kitchen. It had become like clockwork. Pancakes and bacon for the boys at a quarter til eight, coffee in the tall travel container – just a dash of cream, two sugars – and a lightly toasted sesame seed bagel with butter sitting on the counter by the back door at five minutes before the hour. Ten minutes later, Sean had backed out of the driveway enroute to the office, the boys were on the bus to school, and Jess was left in the quiet solitude of her kitchen to contemplate what had transpired over the previous months.

She often found herself perched over a cup of hot coffee at the table. By the time she finally took a sip, it had turned cold. In between, she relived memories from her childhood, the most poignant being the sixth grade field trip to a local riverbed. Jess could still recall the unexpected joy that came as a result of the primitive tools supplied to her – a hammer and a chisel. Picking up rock after rock, positioning the chisel in just the right location, and lowering the hammer with a forceful thud split the earthly stone in two. She found an odd sense of serenity in this routine. It was a stress reliever and a treasure hunt rolled up into one. A single swing of the hammer on that day long ago would prove to transform this casual activity into a lifelong passion.

fossilMoving the chisel into a perfectly placed crevice on her latest rock, Jess swung the hammer down. Appreciating the signature crack of metal meeting metal, the energy from her own physical exertion travelled down the tool into the rock splitting it in two. As the pieces separated, one falling to each side, Jess’ view through the scratched safety glasses was crystal clear. Her treasure was revealed – the perfect fossilized imprint of a specimen that was later dated three hundred million years into the past. That was how Jess found herself, since that point in time, fascinated with the uncovering of details from the past, arranging the pieces to tell a story of evolution. She began chasing, with intense fervor, a career in the field of geological sciences – specifically, paleontology.

She had succeeded in turning a relatively obscure profession into a successful one for herself. And just as she was beginning to establish herself as an expert in the field, Sean and the two boys entered her life. Everyone believed she made the right decision – to stay at home, be a housewife, and care for the family. The problem was that everyone knew of her, but no one really knew who she was. Being a relatively quiet and solitary individual, Jess didn’t allow very many people into her world. One of those people that she did let in, however, would end up being the one that changed her life forever.