Wanderlust

Wanderlust Adventure
An enticing choice
We often dream about
But seldom resolve to engage

Hampered by the fog of uncertainty
The venturesome road
Leads nowhere
And everywhere

Cocoons give birth
Fluttering in our stomach
A barely audible whisper carried on wings
Nudges us forward

Encouraging us
Throw caution to the wind
Do something bold and daring
Unexpected

Into the darkness we plunge
Unaware and nescient
The initial fear dissipates
As the spark within intensifies

A seed is planted
We watch it grow
Ample sunshine and water
In the form of faith and love

Step by step
We trek forward
Hoping to discover
Meaning and truth

Wandering aimlessly
We stumble upon
The key to happiness
And contentedness

The decision to wander
Away from the comfort of familiarity
Carries us along a path
With many twists and turns

Accosted by fear, despair, and misery
We are rescued by faith, hope, and love
On an enduring journey
Back home

Author’s Note:
This poem is inspired by the short story with the same name. Wanderlust is now available in the Amazon Kindle Store. And for three days (Wednesday, May 27, 2015 through Friday, May 29, 2015), it is free to download. Experience the wonder of self-discovery as you follow the trail of adventure with Damon, Gryffin, and Jo. Included is a short passage from the author detailing the inspiration and thoughts behind the composition of this story.

Many thanks to my beautiful and talented wife for providing the stunning cover art for this story. Her photographic prowess has added depth to my words that I could not possibly have accomplished on my own.

If you found this short e-book enjoyable, I would sincerely appreciate any feedback in the form of a review at the book’s site on Amazon. To download the e-book, please visit the Shop link at the top of this page to see all books available by me, or visit Wanderlust. Thank you for taking the time to read and comment, and best wishes for an inspired day!

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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!

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!

Sizzle

skillet-shrimpThe subconscious mind works to protect us from perceived dangers, even when those beliefs are illusory. The challenge is to look beyond the veil of misconception and see the situation for what it is – an opportunity – for personal growth, and connection to kindred spirits.

The scent of fresh shrimp, just pulled off the local fishing boat, filled the air as the sizzle of several skillets was interrupted by a voice from the front of the room.

“Okay, everyone, now we add the garlic, two teaspoons precisely. And prepare to be delighted by the masterpiece that evolves. Let it dance through the air and tiptoe along the edge of your sensory perception. Court it as you would a young lady from across the ballroom. Welcome it slowly, but surely into your presence. Admire its beauty and treat it with a degree of reverence.”

The cooking instructor was a bit over the top for Bryan’s taste, but he was pretty sure that the taste of the shrimp scampi he and his partner were concocting would more than make up for it. Bryan found himself here as a result of good luck. He’d always been interested in consuming fine food, but he had never really perfected the art of creating it. The free cooking class that he had won as a part of his company’s holiday luncheon party carried him to his present position over the sizzling skillet – this was their tenth and final lesson.

His cooking partner, for they always worked in pairs, was Ted. One was responsible for ingredient prep, the other for managing the actual cooking process. If it were the goal of this instructor to pair two polar opposites together, his objective had been attained. Bryan was quiet, reserved, introspective, and unassuming. Ted was all that negated – boisterous, bold, extroverted, and somewhat pretentious.

While Bryan kept his thoughts to himself on the commentary of the instructor, Ted could not restrain himself.

“What a pile of crap. You know, if he put as much thought into his cooking as he did with his words, his scampi might actually come close to competing with mine.”

He spoke just loud enough for the redhead at the next cooking station to hear him. He smiled and threw her a flirting glance. It wasn’t Bryan’s modus operandi, but for some reason he found himself enjoying the hour each week he spent with Ted and his complimentary personality. Bryan was quiet, but it didn’t mean that he didn’t have a sense of humor, or sarcasm.

Being their final lesson, Bryan would most likely find himself slipping back into his normal routine of comforting activities – curling up in the corner of the bookstore with a book of poetry, listening to classical jazz on his headphones at work, completing the most difficult Sudoku puzzles he could get his hands on, and of course, cooking a few gourmet meals along the way.

Ted would do the same with his own set of diametrically opposed activities, but he wouldn’t be doing it alone if he had anything to say about it. His extroverted personality and appreciation for the unlikely camaraderie formed between he and his cooking partner brought about a suggestion – one that would challenge Bryan’s moxie to embrace the uncomfortable and unexpected.

“Hey, bro, you know this is the last lesson, right?” inquired Ted without looking up from the cutting board.

Well, of course both Bryan and Ted knew. Their instructor had been almost bawling over how far he thought they had all come. He continued to express, ad nauseam, how he was so proud to be sending new budding chefs out into the world, like a parent preparing his son or daughter for everything the world had to offer them. Yeah, he was just a wee bit overblown in his assessment of the situation.

“Yeah, it’s been fun. I might actually eat more than frozen pizzas and canned ravioli now. I might even need to kick Chef Boyardee out of the house to make room for my new culinary offerings.” Bryan tried his best to appear witty. He was getting better, being around Ted, but it still didn’t quite come off as planned.

piper-cherokeeFeigning a grin, Ted continued, “You know, I’m a private pilot. I just bought my own plane, a low wing Piper. It’d be cool if we could take a flight together, maybe to a small airfield down south. There’s a good restaurant just off the runway. I hear they got shrimp scampi on the menu. We can measure it up against our rendition.”

Ted elbowed Bryan in a relaxed manner, allowing just a bit of his flamboyant and pretentious personality to shine through. Bryan noticed none of it, however, because he was suddenly consumed with fear. He hadn’t been in an airplane for years. He had relegated all travel activity to car, bus, or train. He even once took a cruise to the Caribbean in order to meet up with friends who flew there. Herculean levels of mental strength and fortitude would be required to surmount this imposing hurdle. Caught in a tug of war between friendship and fear, the shrimp in the skillet before Bryan began to char, along with his sense of courage.

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.

Driven

food-driveKatelyn didn’t have a corner office on the top floor of a skyscraper in New York City, not anymore at least. She had given up those cushy accommodations and a six figure salary for the disheveled environment now surrounding her. The leaky roof left puddles on the unfinished cement floor. The occasional rat would use this shallow pool as a drinking fountain. It used to be Katelyn was aggravated by the lack of supercomputing power from her laptop. Now, she was fortunate if she was provided with an assortment of pencils to complete her work. It was a difficult transition, but one that Katelyn felt compelled to make on her accord.

Working for the inner city juvenile homeless shelter, Katelyn had seen countless numbers of young boys and girls arrive on her doorstep – some beaten, some famished, many both. She had crossed paths with many of these same individuals in her previous corporate America life. She was just completely oblivious to their existence. She recognized them as much as she noticed the miniscule ants navigating the cracks in the sidewalk beneath her.

It wasn’t until her company’s annual food drive that she was able to remove the blinders from her eyes. Like a racehorse sprinting for the finish line, her company had kept her focus on the straight and narrow: reduction in expenses, increase in revenues, and larger profit margins, nothing more. In a stroke of serendipity cast upon Katelyn, she had been volunteered to serve as the chairperson of this year’s drive. Although she tried to talk her way out of it, her management chain looked upon this opportunity as a check box to fulfill her charitable obligations set forth by her contract, duties which she had consciously neglected due to their perceived irrelevance to her primary goal, making money.

It’s not as if serving as chairperson entailed any significant piece of her time. A soft copy of the flyers that were provided by the corporate office showed up in her inbox. With a few clicks of her mouse, twenty-five copies were forwarded to the color printer. Navigating her way around the corridors, the cubicles she passed were a fraction of the size of her spacious corner office. Katelyn forgot how tiny and impersonal these workspaces really were. They were akin to tiny cages without a door. The mice inside were enticed to remain through the occasional piece of cheese tossed electronically through the payroll department and into their bank account. Katelyn had been there in her earlier days, the profit sharing aspect of the company culture driving her to excel in roles that would eventually land her in the corner office she now occupied.

Taping the last of the bulletins up on the end of the final aisle, she inspected the message displayed on them. With some cleverly placed clip art and an assortment of eye-catching colors, Katelyn recognized the marketing tactics that she knew would do their job. The same strategy had served her quite well with even the most obstinate clients. It was amazing how the manner in which one chose to portray a message seemed to be more important than the message itself. Two weeks, she told herself. That was the length of the food drive. After that, she could return to her normally chaotic life.

As the first few days turned into a week, Katelyn received confirmation that the campaign advertisements were indeed successful. The mounting pile of non-perishable items accumulating in the corner was beginning to impinge on her professional space. Partially out of her obsession with order and categorization, but more so because she found it minimized the impact on her working environment, Katelyn arranged each donation into separate piles: canned goods, boxed goods, single items, bulk items. She even went so far as to begin grouping offerings into potential meal pairings.

pastaWhen the three jars of spaghetti sauce arrived at her door in the hands of one of her colleagues, Katelyn eagerly accepted the donation and placed the glass containers with the boxes of pasta. Over the span of the food drive, her attitude had become more engaging and cooperative. It was almost like a version of a jigsaw puzzle being constructed before her eyes, the donations supplied by her colleagues the individual pieces.

The final day of the food drive arrived sooner than Katelyn expected. She had not entered into this endeavor with the healthiest of temperaments, but she arrived at the far side of it with a much more obliging demeanor. The final detail of her responsibility as chairperson was to deliver the donated food to the juvenile shelter the following morning.

After a week filled with meetings, phone calls, status reports, and marketing slides, Katelyn looked forward to a leisurely cup of morning coffee on Saturday morning while overlooking the wide expanse of Central Park from her luxury apartment in the sky. However, it was not going to be casual and unhurried on this particular weekend morning. Grabbing a large cappuccino from the drive thru, her coffee was consumed on the go while the several hundred pounds of food traveled in tow en route to the shelter.

As she turned left off the busy street, she double checked her GPS to be sure that she hadn’t misheard the instructions from the voice behind the purple route path on the display screen. With one turn off the main thoroughfare bustling with city traffic, she seemed to have entered a different world. Katelyn instinctively checked the locks on her car doors to be sure they were engaged. It didn’t look like the best part of town. As the toneless voice of her navigational unit indicated arrival at her destination, Katelyn was surprised that the message wasn’t accompanied by an additional warning – exit at your own risk.

old-doorAs she rolled to a stop, she looked left to find the dilapidated building that was her final destination. The weathered sign was hanging at an angle, being held by a single nail on one side and a strand of twine looped around the other corner and tied off to the bars over a second floor window. Her recently purchased luxury SUV stuck out like a sore thumb in this neighborhood. The smiling face that greeted her at the curb emerged from the door beneath the ram shackled sign with a large shopping cart.

“Hi, my name is Steve. You must be Katelyn,” said the young man as he extended his hand in greeting. “Thank you for supporting us again this year. Your company is always so gracious in helping us and we really appreciate it,” he continued as Katelyn opened the trunk of her vehicle.

“No problem, it is our pleasure to help out such a worthy cause,” offered Katelyn. She said all the right things, the things she was taught were proper to say in these situations, but she didn’t have any real emotion behind them. As she followed Steve through the doorframe and into the establishment, if you could call it that, she was immediately struck with a strong pang of guilt and compassion. One might say that crossing that threshold had opened up a new door in the life of Katelyn. Left behind were the corner executive offices, the high rise apartments, the overpriced cappuccinos, and the luxury sport utility vehicles. Gone was the obsession with target sales numbers and profit margins. They were replaced with an intense devotion to the lives of the young faces gazing back at her.

The tattered excuse for clothes hanging from their famished bodies was the least of her concerns. The facial expression characterized by despair, anguish, and distress left Katelyn feeling the same. One by one, as the children began to recognize the good fortune being cast upon them on this weekend morning, their little faces were transformed into tentative smiles of hope. Katelyn had frivolously tossed a five dollar bill at her barista this morning in exchange for a jolt of caffeine in her coffee. The caffeine had done its job, but the shock to her system from these young faces was much more profound and impactful. When a sleeve of salted crackers is viewed as a special treat, Katelyn could not rationalize the purchase and consumption of coffee that could provide a hot meal and smiling face to one of these boys or girls.

It was that day and that moment that led Katelyn to change courses in her life. It was because she begrudgingly accepted the responsibility for the role as chairperson that she was given a glimpse into the lives of those she chose to subconsciously ignore in the past.

As she sat at her new workspace, she had learned creative ways to keep the spirits of these young faces on the rise. Looking at the ledger, she realized that last month had been the first in three years where the shelter had been able to provide adequately for every youth that had passed through the door. The marketing flyers that she hung as an executive had been revised with a little extra punch, and they seemed to be working quite well.

“What do we have on the schedule today,” called Katelyn across the room to Steve who was looking at the calendar on the wall. “Looks like we have a donation to be delivered by the big wig accounting firm downtown,” replied Steve.

As the unfamiliar car rolled up to the curb, Katelyn caught sight of it through the window. “I got this one,” she said to Steve as she proceeded outside to greet the visitor. “Hi, you must be Jon. My name is Katelyn. Thank you so much for your company’s kind donation. You have no idea how much it helps,” offered Katelyn as she walked alongside Jon to the trunk of his vehicle. The response she got back was just what she would have expected, “No problem at all, it’s our pleasure to help out such a worthy cause.”

giving-is-receivingAs the two of them walked through the front door carrying an assortment of donated clothing and food items, she saw that look again, the recognition she had perceived through her eyes but a few months earlier, except this time Katelyn saw it in the eyes of their latest visitor. It was as if that transition from city street into juvenile shelter was a magic portal into the soul. Glancing over at Steve, Katelyn could see the grin of acknowledgement on his face. Surely they could squeeze one more desk in here if they tried hard enough. It was one problem that they hoped would require their attention.

Breakdown

redwood-highwayCruising down the long stretch of highway, a single lane in each direction, the eye could only perceive towering trees in both directions, like walls on either side of the road. The situation Gina found herself in felt about the same, with the walls closing in faster than she could handle.

With country tunes blaring from the red convertible, the boisterous wind was refused admission. Seated beside Gina was her best friend. Staring forward, lacking any emotion in her eyes, she supposed that was to be expected given Beth’s situation.

She had been dealt an awkward hand to play in the past week. The decision by her employer to outsource her position overseas left her without a paycheck. That was enough by itself. However, couple that with the unexpected death of her sister and the rift it created given the hidden secrets of her family’s past, and Gina could see why there was no emotion in Beth’s eyes. It had all been poured out in the tears that had now evaporated from existence.

In a desperate measure to help Beth cope with some of the overwhelming grief and disappointment that had been unfairly injected into her life, Gina arranged a weekend road trip to a resort on the coast. With a full spa and winery on site, there were therapeutic opportunities, of the physical and liquid variety, to help appease the pain. She had it all planned out.

Gina had always been good with actions, not so good with words. She was thankful for the loud music and wind. The less she needed to speak, the better it would be. It’s not that she didn’t want to talk. Gina just didn’t know how. She grew up in a family governed by strict rules and lectures. There was no questioning authority, ever. The consequences were proof of that. The scars on her psyche lived on for much longer than the lacerations on her back.

When given the opportunity to escape that physically and mentally abusive atmosphere, she fled with resolute intent. Working her way through college and graduate school on her own dime, she relied only upon herself. Trust, of anyone, was an issue for Gina. Rising to the executive level of her manufacturing company, she had earned the right to call the shots. Her motives, however, were misaligned. She didn’t thrive on the thought of being a leader. Rather, she feared the possibility of being controlled as she had in her childhood years. And so it had been for the past twenty years of her life, living a life based upon fear, doing everything in her power to remain free from the grips of authority.

The two hour drive to the resort was an opportunity for Gina and Beth to talk, but they didn’t. Beth was one of the few individuals in Gina’s life that she truly trusted. And yet, she had never fully confided in Beth. The countless thoughts racing through her mind never stopped long enough for her to grab on to them, to vocalize them. Or, at least, that was her explanation, even thought it sounded more like an excuse.

open-highwayAs they passed the wooden sign painted with white block letters, they left the national forest behind, the thoughts and secrets of the past fifty miles absorbed by the canopy of green foliage. The landscape morphed from towering trees to open land, the coastline less than thirty five minutes away.

Peeking over at Beth once again, Gina could see a solitary tear running down her cheek. She didn’t see how there could possibly be any left. Compelled to do what a friend is supposed to do in these situations, she attempted to persuade herself to reach over, turn off the radio, and actually have a conversation. Back and forth, she battled with her psyche to overcome her inner demons, but her two hands remained locked at ten and two on the steering wheel. As it turns out, that was a very good thing.

Gina had never heard a gunshot in close proximity to her. But what she heard could have been nothing else. Except it was something else. The compulsive urge for her car to veer over the white centerline towards the ditch on the left side of the road sent her instinctive action oriented mind into overdrive. Keeping her foot on the gas pedal and steering through the blowout, she slowly eased off the gas and gently applied the brakes until they came to a full stop on the left side of the road.

Staring at the manufacturer’s logo in the middle of her steering wheel, it took a few seconds for her mind to catch up with the crisis played out in the last thirty seconds. When she came back to her senses, she glanced over at Beth and shakily spoke, “Are you okay?” Beth, abruptly extracted from her trancelike state, responded in an unsettled voice, “Yeah, I think so.”

This is where Gina excelled. There was a problem that needed a resolution and she was already planning the required steps in her mind: get the vehicle off the road, assess the situation, and replace the tire. With Beth shadowing her, constantly asking how she could help, Gina kindly refused any assistance. She had it all handled. And, as it turned out, in a matter of twenty minutes, the spare tire was carrying them forward, if not towards their final destination.

It became perfectly clear after less than a few miles that something was amiss. The intermittent hiccup expelled from the vehicle’s belly became more frequent, like it had succumbed to the inevitable indigestion after a cheap and disagreeable burrito. They were miles from civilization. This was not the type of therapy on the agenda for the weekend. Uttering a silent plea beneath her breath to the powers that be, Gina coaxed the limping car forward, each mile requiring more persuasion than the last.

Just ahead, in the distance, Beth noticed the flashing light. “What is that? Up there?” she pointed to the blinking amber light. “I’m not sure,” said Gina, squinting and craning her neck three inches forward as if that would bring the object into focus. As the distance between the two friends and traffic light decreased, so did the cooperation of their vehicle. Sputtering more frequently, it gasped its last breath and rolled to a stop, wheels creaking as gravel crunched beneath them. Looking around, it appeared that those silent pleas were answered with a significant degree of sarcasm.

old-gas-pumpTheir vehicle had rolled into the entrance of a small town, one of those proverbial “blink and you will miss it” towns. The service station about a hundred yards ahead looked to be dormant for the last half century. The old-style gas pumps, the broken pane of glass, and the bedraggled exterior showed no evidence that this unscheduled stop was going to be useful.

As she put the car in neutral and opened the driver side door, she began to simultaneously push on the car frame with her left hand while steering, if that’s what you call it, with her right hand. Despite her desire to resolve yet another situation on her own, Beth was pushing with all her might on the trunk. Gina didn’t have any other choice.

As the gimpy car was ushered into the parking lot, rolling over the black hose, a familiar dinging sound signaled their arrival. Not expecting any sign of life from this sleepy establishment, it was even more surprising when the elderly gentleman emerged from the front door. Wearing tattered overalls and a newsboy cap reminiscent of the early 20th century, his five ‘o clock shadow looked more than a few days old, various shades of white and gray peeking through.

In a gruffly voice indicative of long tobacco use, he cordially introduced himself, “Name is Joe. How can I help you ladies?” Wiping his calloused hands on the shop towel, he extended his hand in greeting, a lost token, Gina thought, in modern society. “Where are we?” Beth interjected rather quizzically. “This lil’ town here ain’t even on the map,” Joe offered in return. “Well, our car seems to have broken down after we blew out a tire a couple miles back and we’re not sure what happened,” returned Beth.

“Well, lemme have a look at her,” smiled Joe as he circled around the vehicle. “Well, you done run outta gas ladies,” he said as he pointed with his index finger to the puddle of gasoline now leaking from the bottom of the car. “You musta hit somethin’ when you blew out that tire, cut your fuel line. What’re the odds of that?” he ponders to himself as he shakes his head. You’re telling me, thinks Gina, can’t we catch a break?

Although his elementary grammar school teacher would have been appalled at Joe’s use of the English language, there was something magnetic about him. There was an intangible charm to his persona. There was no better proof for this than the words that came pouring out of Gina’s mouth next.

Can you help us?” And as those four words were formed by her vocal chords and uttered out into the free world, she wished she could reach out with her hand, grab each syllable, and retract them, stuffing them back into the safe and silent confines of her psyche. Alas, she could not.

“Can do,” says Joe confidently. “Got me the gasoline right over there, but it might take a day to get a new fuel line in.” He could tell by the dejected look on their faces that this was not the news they were looking for. In a feeble attempt to save grace, Joe offered, “Got us a newly renovated place to stay just up the road. Tell Lenny I sent ya, he’ll give you a good deal. Stop back tomorrow afternoon and y’all be good to go.”

These are the situations that had always plagued Gina with doubt, anxiety, and apprehension. Instead, she felt an unfamiliar calmness and peacefulness wash over her. Asking for help from close friends and acquaintances had always been a challenge, and here she was accepting the generosity of someone unknown to her fifteen minutes ago. The air around her became lighter, the invisible weight had been lifted from her shoulders, and an appreciative smile spread across her face. “Thank you,” she exhaled. And in the proclamation of those two words, in the closing of a pact with a complete stranger, a new door was opened to her. That corner of her heart kept under lock and key was free to make its presence felt. Trust had emerged from Gina’s soul for the very first time in her life.

motel-signAs they settled into the modest hostel up the street, a new radiance began to illuminate everything around her, and Beth noticed it. Although the events of the past several hours had helped distract her from the problems still plaguing her, she felt somehow different about everything in the presence of her best friend now.

Taking a seat in the makeshift lounge adjacent to the lobby, Gina and Beth sat in the dilapidated excuse for chairs, fabric frayed from overuse in a previous life. The house wine they were sipping from plastic cups was not on par with the high end chardonnay and expensive goblets they envisioned at their intended destination. That world seemed an infinite number of miles to the west. But, it didn’t seem to matter. As the second hand turned round, thousands of times, minutes into hours, Gina opened her heart and let the emotions pour out. The floodgates had been opened.

Not only did she empathize with Beth about her job, her sister, and her family’s past. Gina also bared her own soul, sharing her fears, her dreams, and her insecurities. There were sympathetic tears, there were knowing smiles, and there was bubbling laughter. Most importantly, there was a connection.

During a brief gap in their conversation, as if in a momentary pause to catch their mental breaths, Beth looked up with heartfelt eyes. Her hands wrapped around the plastic cup, her emotions wrapped around Gina’s heart, she expressed “Thank you, really. I know this weekend didn’t work out as you planned. But, I think this is exactly what I needed.”

Thinking to herself that she couldn’t agree more, Gina offered up her plastic cup in a toast to Beth. “Hey, that’s what friends are for,” she proclaimed as their cups met. And although she had uttered these empty words so many times before, for the first time in her life, Gina finally understood what they truly meant.