Kraznir Complications: Busy at Home

After a hearty breakfast of eggs, sausage and fruits, we were called to the training rooms which had occupied our days before we were sent to see what Kraznir was up to. I worked on my sword skills which were sorely lacking while the others went off to study whatever they were learning on before our adventure began.

I assumed Little John was learning to lure bigger prey, things such as orcs and wargs, so to control them to follow his commands. If he could do that, it would weaken Kraznir’s armies.

Doughty was a warrior and hunter, already skilled. So what was he doing? I saw him head off with a master horseman, so perhaps he would use to combat with spears. That would be fun to watch, but my mentor allowed learning only one skill at a time.

I was given a wooden sword which felt childish after wielding a real one on our excursion, but I did as told. I worked on defensive moves, which I knew nothing about, until my arm ached and the nerves in my back sent waves of pain radiating up my spine.

The three of us met for lunch, a hearty stew accompanied by freshly baked bread. Little John was ginning hugely. “I can control those orcs and wargs now!”

“How?” I asked. “Can you teach us?”

He shook his head. “I pick up languages fairly quickly. So now I speak enough orc and warg to tell them what to do! It’s amazing!”

“How do you know it will work?” Doughty asked between bites of stew.

“I practiced in the dungeons with live ones! It was amazing. I told them to sit and they did. To stand, to turn, to stab. This afternoon they will be in the practice ring, heavily guarded of course, and I will learn commands for battle.”

“I worked with a sword,” I said. “I hate it. I’d rather learn more magic.”

Doughty shook his head then wiped his mouth from which stew oozed down his chin. “Magic is important, yes. But you also need to know how to fight so as to support the army in battle.”

He was right even though I didn’t want to admit it. So I didn’t complain when after lunch I learned how to ride with a spear. It was hard to balance while bouncing up and down, at the same time trying to keep the point of the shaft aimed at the heart of a dummy on the other side of the corral. I rode again and again, stopping only when permitted, but despite hard work and countless attempts, my skills never improved.

Feeling quite useless, I returned to the barracks for a bath and change of clothes, then sat in the common area waiting for my companions. None of them showed up, so when fatigue took over, I went to bed.

Kraznir Complications: The Dragon

Eventually we made it across which was good, for now we were only a few miles from Slinsil.  The bad news was that a small blue dragon greeted us as we disembarked.

“I eats dwarfs.”  Smoke streamed from the dragon’s nostrils.  Its long, spiked tail wagged back and forth like a cat’s.  “Gives me the dwarf as toll.”

Athor stepped forward.  He put on a display of some rather fancy swordplay that usually made grown men cower in fear.  “No dwarf, no toll.”

A jet of fire erupted from the dragon’s mouth.  Waves of heat washed over me, causing me to break into a goodly sized sweat.

“Gives me the dwarf or you don’t passes.”

Athor flexed his muscled arms.  “It’s me you want, right, Dragon?”

“Yeses,” he hissed.  “Do I knows you?”  The dragon’s eyes narrowed and its head lowered even with Athor’s.

“Yes, Pineki,” Athor said as he pounded his chest with his closed fist and then splayed his fingers in a salute.  “When I saw you last, you were running into the forest with scales missing from your belly.”

“You were the ones.” Pineki hissed, creating a fog around her head.  “You will die, dwarf.  This time Pineki wins.”

Athor charged, sword pointed at Pineki’s belly.  Little John and Doughty ran alongside, leaving me in charge of four nervous horses.

The fight was intense even though it was remarkably slow. Athor missed the dragon’s belly when she sidestepped to the right. Little John aimed for her talons and caught the nail on one, causing blood to drip.  This angered Pineki so she blew fire at Doughty as he moved toward her neck, confusing him enough that he missed.

For a little thing, Pineki had amazing skills. She leapt at just the right time, spun and danced like a King’s maiden, and spat balls of fire at each of the fighters. She was full of energy while we were weary from our travels and it soon became obvious that the dragon would win.

Just as Athor ran in for one last swipe at the dragon’s belly, Pineki bent her head and blew a stream of orange fire.  The dwarf’s body became entrenched and the stench of burning flesh caused me to lose what little lunch I had eaten.

Doughty and Little John watched helplessly as Pineki grabbed the charred Athor in her talons and flew off.  “I’ve gots me a dwarf, so you can passes,” she called.

Saddened to lose another friend, we didn’t feel like moving on so we built a primitive shelter out of branches gathered along a line of trees, tied our horses amongst tasty grasses, and sheltered for the night. I employed my invisibility spell, but Doughty, not trusting its effectiveness, refused to build a fire which meant we had to eat the crocodile raw.

It was disgusting and chewy, but I ate anyway. I needed nourishment and that was all we had. Afterward I wrote in my journal until it got too dark.  Little John gathered leaves for bedding, and Doughty stood guard for the first watch. I closed my eyes and tried to fall asleep, but my mind would not let go of the image of a charred Athor being carried off.

 

Because Slinsil was not far away and Kraznir’s invasion plans had to be made known, after a breakfast more raw croc we moved into the forest with heads drooped.  Two friends lost. How many more might we lose?

We rode as quickly as possible into Slinsil, fortunately without further excitement.  I had never thought the city to be beautiful, but that morning, with the sun glinting off the metal roofs offering a degree of safely and comfort, it seemed like the most beautiful city in the known world.

As we rode past shops and houses townsfolk greeted us with a cheer as they would any returning soldiers.  It felt good to be what had been my home since I was enlisted into the army, but my heart still ached for our dead companions.

We rode up to the gates of the palace, where, once announced, King Taden’s emissary invited us in for a bath and an audience with the king himself.  After a good soaking in the private bath offered me, a servant presented me with a clean gown of sapphire-colored silk. It fit perfectly, almost as if it was made for me.

I met my remaining companions, equally cleaned up and outfitted in bright white tunics, black leggings and leather belts. We were ushered into the King’s throne room. Taden stood when we entered, complicating things a bit.

According to protocol, if the King stands, we must also but our heads cannot be higher than his. For Little John this was no problem since he’s short of stature, but for Doughty and I, well, we had to stoop our shoulders and shrink into ourselves in order to keep our eyes below Taden’s chin.

Kraznir Complications: Almost Home

We rose before dawn, hoping to cross the river before any enemies passing nearby could see us. I’d like to say that we battled man-eating monsters, but that would be a lie.  In actuality, nothing interesting happened.  The water never rose above my mount’s knees.  Never once did my horse falter and no one fell into the water.

Just as the sun’s rays broke over the tops of the tall trees to our east, we entered the forests of Hagg.  The trees were so tall that it hurt the neck to look at the tops, and they were so wide that it would take ten men holding hands to encircle just one trunk.

We passed areas where entire sections of trees had been cut down.  I was sad to see that, for these trees were hundreds of years old.  Not in my lifetime would another tree grow as tall or as wide. On the other hand, it meant we were close to civilization and nearly out of the realm of orcs and wargs.

Around noon, after an easy ride in the shade we came to the River Siln.  To take advantage of clean water and to rest ourselves and our horses, Little John demanded we rest.  He wasn’t just thinking of the horses, but as we all knew, himself, for he hated horses, like all hobbits.  One time he explained that it felt as if he was riding on the back of a relative.  I understood what he meant for hobbits were covered in a dense fur much like a horse’s, and their course hair on their heads was like the swishy tail of my stallion.

Athor gathered tinder and got a small fire going, while Doughty captured two hares by lying in wait amongst a likely looking group of bushes. Without the benefit of snares, he enticed them with tempting bits of grasses he had plucked. The hares approached without fear. After all, when Athor lay on the ground, his eyes were level with those of a hare. When the first was within reach, he grabbed it, twisted its neck and stuffed it in his bag. He did the same when a second, obviously not knowing what had happened to the first, hopped up for a snack of fresh grass.

Using my wizard skills I lit the fire and before long we had a tasty meal.

After eating I walked into the river in order to finally rid myself of the filth that coated my body, but when the water was shin-high, Doughty hollered, “Get out of there!”

Like a petulant child I stood there, determined to have that bath.  Until I felt something brush against the back of my leg.  I bent to see what it was, fortunately, for at that exact moment, an arrow swished past, narrowly missing my right arm.

“Got him,” Little John said.  “I got me a croc.  Always wanted one of them.”

When I looked behind down there was a tiny dead crocodile, lying half out of the water with an arrow piercing its left eye.  While my heart ached for the dead reptile, my head was very glad that it hadn’t taken a bite of me.

Athor pulled out his arrow and slung the crocodile over his back.  He got a cloth out of a saddlebag, stretched it out on the beach and rolled the crocodile until it was tightly wrapped.  He threw it over the back of his saddle and tied it down.

“Thanks for saving my life,” I said.  “So, how do we cross if there are crocs?”

“Open your eyes, dope,” grumbled Little John.  He pointed a ways downstream where stood a large raft, held in place by two long ropes that ran from one side of the river to the other.

“Oh.”

We led our horses onto the bobbing raft, which was not easy as they were terrified of the up and down movement.  Doughty’s bucked and snorted, upsetting Little John’s.  When Athor’s horse heard the screams of Little John’s, she backed into mine, knocking us both off the raft and onto the beach.  Only when Doughty got his stallion calmed down, did Athor’s stop thrashing about and Little John’s stood as calmly as a tub of lukewarm water.  I finally got my horse on the raft, the last one to board.

We took turns pulling on the ropes and holding the horses.  The ropes burned our hands and sizzled our arm muscles.  My chest felt like it was going to pop open.

Holding the horses wasn’t easy, either.  You had to keep the reins for one in your left hand and for another in your right.  The horses stayed jittery the entire journey.

Kraznir Complications: Continued

Hoof beats pounded in our direction.  Pulling my terrified eyes from the warg droppings took a lot of will power, but I did, in time to see Athor riding toward us, his horse in a lather.

“Ride,” he screamed.  “Ride!”

Just as we had kicked our horses into a gallop we were stopped by a wall of wargs.  Their tusks gleamed in the scattered rays of sunlight that fell through the leaves. Each held a nasty-looking weapon: axes, broad swords and spears. And the drool…pretty disgusting tendrils of drool hung from their mouths as if they were anticipating a good meal. Which would be us.

Rather than being dinner, I rolled off my horse as silently as I could and slid under a log, just like in the children’s tales that I’d loved as a little girl.  I was pretty sure that no one had seen me, which meant that I was in a great position to keep an eye on what transpired and possibly try what magic I had to protect my partners.

One of the wargs grabbed Colwen by the head, lifted him off his horse, and then dropped him into his mouth.  Drool poured from its mouth as he crunched Colwen, bite by bite.

Athor, Doughty, and Little John fought valiantly.  They danced around those wargs, slicing at legs and then dashing away.  I was so proud of them!  I tried sending protection wards over my companions, but since I have yet mastered that talent, I didn’t think they worked.

Perhaps Little John and Doughty’s small size helped in the fight, for the injured  wargs screamed in anger and pain as my companions rushed their legs over and over again.

When one warg fell to the ground and couldn’t get up, the rest ran away, cradling slashed arms or limping on injured legs dripping blood.  Only then did I crawl out from my hiding place, find my horse, and rejoin my companions.

“Mount up quickly and quietly,” Doughty growled.  We complied, then headed in the opposite direction of the wargs even though we knew it would lengthen our journey home.

An hour passed of silent riding through the flat forest. I was glad when Athor called a halt along a slow-moving stream for my backside was tired and I was extremely thirsty. “I heard the wargs coming,” Athor said after we’d drunk and watered our horses. “That’s why I rode back in such a hurry. I hoped to warn you, but the wargs moved faster than I.”

“It’s okay,” Dolwen said. “We made it through with just a few cuts and bruises, and even though Colwen lost his life, none of the rest of us was taken as hostage.”

Athor brushed his dirty blonde hair out of his eyes.  “Do you think they’re gone now?  I’m too tired to fight another battle.”

“Quiet.” Little John cupped his right hand around his ear to amplify his excellent ability to hear, and sat completely still.  Seconds went by.  “They’re gone, but not too far from away. Let’s ride out before they find our trail.”

We were too exhausted to talk and there was little to say anyway. We all carried the image of Colwen being eaten alive. Our horses seemed refreshed, so we hopped on. Muffled our weapons to reduce sound, and continued toward home.

An hour later the forest opened up and we were at the edge of a rather steep cliff.  Down below was the River Siln.  Athor saw a deer trail to our right, so we followed it down, single file.  To our right, nothing but a wall of granite. To our left, a sheer drop.  I stared straight ahead, trusting my horse to get me down safely.

Kraznir Complications: Continued

The underground tunnel was the smallest I’d ever seen.  Considering that our sleeping quarters were guarded, we were lucky that the jailers got drunk and forgot to lock us in the night we’d hoped to escape. We waited until what we thought were early morning hours before tiptoeing past two sleeping guards. We had no idea where the rest were stationed, but we crossed our fingers that we could sneak past them all.

Colwen lead us through the cellars, Doughty opened the secret door, and Athor used his low-slung body to lead the way.  Little John, being a hobbit, only had to bend a little, but the rest of crawled on hands and feet.  The cellar tunnel was disgusting. It stunk of stale water and rat droppings.  Slime lined the walls and stale water pooled on the floor.  In two spots the tunnel was so small that even Athor barely got through, him having to pass through like we had been doing. We literally moved on our bellies.

We came out in the stables just as dawn was breaking, as hoped.  Colwen and Doughty saddled up our mounts that the guards had confiscated, while Little John wrapped their hooves in rags.  Athor found our bedrolls and saddlebags, still full of supplies, stuffed in an empty stall.  I nosed around the head groomsman’s office and found a variety of useful weapons which I carried in my arms until they could be strapped onto our mounts.

We headed for Rea Forest because it’s a great source of meat and well-overhung by dense trees, which at this time of year, were covered in dark green leaves the size of a large man’s hand. The terrifying problem was that strange and frightening things lived there.  We’d heard tales of giant spiders, but none of us had ever seen either them or their webs.

I’d seen wargs which have tusks that could rip a man’s middle out of him before a blink of an eye.  They weren’t tall, but wide as a dairy cow.  Beady eyes and small brains.  Wargs were said to be spirits of sailors who died on land.

I smelled the rank odor of Orcs who must have passed through recently. They were taller than the tallest known man.  Shoulders broader than two doorways and feet as big as plows.  Hands that could squeeze the life out of two men at once.  What was spooky about orcs, though, was that they only had one eye and no nose.  They were thought to be smarter than wargs, which was why Walerian loved them.  He taught many to read and write and when their skills were passable, he sent them out as spies into neighboring kingdoms.

Before entering the forest, Doughty said, “Touchfire, can you disguise us as we ride?”

I nodded. “I think so, but I’m not very good. My wards are better. I can surround us with an invisibility ward that should keep wargs and orcs away.”

Doughty nodded. “Well, at least it’s something. Do we have to ride close together for it to work?”

I closed my eyes thought about it for a bit. My mentor snickered the last time I tried to become invisible, but he’s a powerful wizard. Orcs and wargs have no wizardry skills that I know of. “Yeah, we’d better stay as close to one another as possible. Also we should mask anything that might jingle.”

“I have already done that,” Doughty said as he climbed onto his horse.

I didn’t need wands or powders for my magic to work, but I did need incantations. I spread my hands wide, encompassing the group than chanted, “Ing spe do nobly.” Nothing changed. I could still clearly see everyone. “Little John, since you’re still on foot, walk over by the burnt tree.”

After five steps there was a wave of light and then Little John’s figure brightened noticeably. “Now return,” I said. It was obvious when he came into range, for again there was a blast of light. I smiled. “We’re okay.”

We headed into the forest somewhat confidant that we could not be seen, but we didn’t take any chances. Wherever possible, we sought cover from any eyes that might be watching, whether emissaries from the castle or strange beings that might crush us.  We didn’t ride fast fearing noise that would give our position away, but we did move steadily.

The forest towered blocked out the early morning sun, making us feel somewhat better.  However, disturbing noises assaulted us from all sides.  Some we hoped were birds, others we feared were prey animals, but most sounded like the snuffling of wargs and the grunting of orcs.

Athor wanted to ride ahead to scout out the area as he was feeling nervous, even though he knew that as soon as he rode beyond my reach, he would be easily visible by any and all that might want to harm us.  Fearful that his departure might cause a ruckus, we pulled out our weapons.  I had a well-used light-weight sword, which was just as well, as I wasn’t too skilled in battle techniques.  In fact, if you could only pick one companion on a journey like this one, you’d be better off leaving me behind.

The longer Athor stayed away, the louder the snuffling noises became.  The hair on the back of my neck stood at attention, and I gripped my sword so tightly that my fingers turned white.

We rode on and on, trying not to think too much about what might be out there and why Athor had not come back. We grew tired and hungry, but Little John would not let us stop until he recognized big droppings.  Gigantic droppings.  The droppings of Orcs.  And not just a couple, but lots.

And intermingled among those droppings were small dropping.  Piles of perfectly round droppings.  Wargs.  That’s when I knew we were in trouble.  No, worse than that: in mortal danger especially since there was nowhere to hide. No handy cave, no standing remains of a house, no copse of thick trees. Absolutely nowhere that Orcs and wargs couldn’t find us.

Kraznir Complications: Part One

Day One:  My name is Touchfire.  I’m a wizard in the Army of King Taden of the House of Slinsil. Not by choice, but because all youth must join at the age of fourteen. This is my third year, the most crucial as I am learning warrior skills and can sometimes be sent out on “safe” excursions.

My friends and I were scouting the Rea Forest for game, following the River Siln, tracking a herd of deer when things went wrong. At first it was a pleasant ride under the shade of trees taller than any building I’d ever seen. At dusk we camped along the river even though we had intended to go much further. But fatigue drew us to the ground and so we stopped.  After a meal of jerky that we had carried with us over many miles, we crawled into our bedrolls and fell asleep.

When my mouth was pried open and a foul-smelling rag stuffed inside I awoke, terrified.  I fought as best I could, kicking and hitting, but my assailant was too strong.  It was only when daylight brightened the sky that I realized what had happened.

Our scouting party had inadvertently crossed into the Kingdom of Mariea, ruled by the evil king Kraznir.  Colwen, our scout, had somehow missed the boundary markings, a truly stupid error for it could cost us our lives.  If we ever got out of this situation, he would no longer have that job, that’s for sure.

The problem was that we were outnumbered because Athor, Little John and Doughty, the best hunters in our party, were off searching for more food, even though we already caught and preserved over a dozen wild hare, a handful of marten, and two large deer. Our people back home were hungry, not having had much meat in the past month, and so the men strove to secure as much as our pack horses could carry.

Colwen and I was hauled deep into the dungeons of Castle Kraznir. If the others had been there, perhaps we would not have been overrun, not have been captured, for they were all skilled with bow and arrow.

My skills were questionable.  As a wizard I could concoct a variety of spells useful for healing, warding off some evil, and enhancing skills like cooking, farseeing, listening and track reading, but nothing that would have protected us against a truly powerful wizard.

Despite my weak skills, the reason I was on this expedition was that I could read and write.  Our king loved having stories written about his warriors’ adventures, and so it was my responsibilities to record everything that happened, and then embellish it with acts of daring do. I carried a journal tucked in my saddle bag and before dinner, would spend at least an hour writing.

Day Two: Colwen the scout was taken from his cell this morning to be brought before the king.  While waiting for his audience, he spotted an interesting-looking chest nestled between two wine casks.  The guards went off to retrieve some other poor soul, leaving Colwen alone. He took advantage of the time to scoot over to the chest. It was tied with strong hemp rope. Having no tools, Colwen used his teeth to saw through.

Inside were newish-looking papers.  Since Colwen could not read, he deftly stuffed them up his sleeves, an amazing trick since his hands were tied together at the wrists.

While this was happening, news came that Athor, the dwarf, and Doughty, the warrior, were taken to the stables and put to work.  While mucking out the stalls, they overheard stable boys bragging about having snuck into the maidens’ rooms by way of a tunnel that ran from the wine cellar to the stables. This would turn out to be an advantageous bit of information.

Little John, my favorite hobbit, captured with the others, was scrubbing chamber pots large and small, fetid and nearly empty.  Considering that he hated water, this was the most despicable job he could have been given.  But being a most clever fellow, he listened to the guards while he pretended to be giving each pot a good cleanse.  He learned that all Kraznir’s guards slept inside the castle, none were stationed on the guardments high above.  After an evening of dice and wine, the guards were rumored to collapse and sleep the sleep of the dead.

Thankfully I was spared odious duties, but like a pet dog, Prince Ovido walked me about the fortification on a leather leash.  The little brat thought it was great fun when he commanded me to bark, growl, and crawl on all fours.  He fed me gnarled bones and gave me water in a trough.  I wanted to bite him on his rump, but Ovido was smart enough to not get too close.

At the end of the day, when we were returned to the dungeon, we all shared what we had learned.  Colwen’s papers were maps, inventories of weapons and supplies, and directives to Kraznir’s troops.  Kraznir intended to send well-armed troops into Slinsil.

This was shocking information. Slinsil was the richest kingdom.  It sat high in the Rajata Mountains, whose mines burst with precious metals.  There were also granite quarries that produced remarkable slabs.  Invading Slinsil would not only give Kraznir wealth, but also access to a defensible position.

I’ve never cared much for the people of Slinsil, for they tended to be arrogant towards the various people brought into serve.  My folk are farmers from nearby Thorne.  I was sent to Slinsil to become a soldier, yes, but when a wizard discovered I could do a few tricks, he took me under his wing.  Where I’m from, wizards are highly regarded, so it was with pride that I accepted his tutelage.

Even though I was a wizard apprentice, the Slinsilians treated me, a lowly Thornian, as if I were invisible.  Or perhaps filth.  Or maybe both. But however much I don’t care for them, Kraznir had no right to invade, for if he conquered Slinsil, the’d be in good position to take over all the rest of the kingdom.

Thus we decided that we’d escape as quickly as possible.

Learning Curve

She’d always heard that Catholic girls go wild when they enter college, but she didn’t believe it. That didn’t mean that Jessie wouldn’t wonder what would happen once her classes began. Would she adhere to the morals and values she’d had drilled into her head? Or would she date recklessly, use drugs and drink until sloppy drunk?

On her first day at Chabot College, her local community college, Jessie stepped on campus with her nerves a tingle. Everywhere she looked were couples. Some walked hand-in-hand with serene looks on their faces. Some sat on benches, walls and lawns, often with arms and legs entwined. Still there were others leaning against trees with lips locked and bodies pressed firmly against one another.

Which would she be? A wanton hussy? A tender lover? A lonely spinster?

Jessie didn’t know which description fit her best. All she knew and hoped was that someone, some nice young man would find her interesting. But she set her sights low as she was not pretty, not even comely, but a frumpy, old-lady-like ultra conservative spinster at the ripe old age of eighteen.

As days passed she got to know the names of people in her classes. There were the outspoken types who knew everything and wanted their voices to be the only ones heard. There were the silent, but giggly cheerleader-types with skinny bodies, lanky legs and long hair well past shoulders. There were some like Jessie, not many, with limp hair, blotchy complexions and puffy bodies, and they were the ones who always sat alone. Jessie thought about joining them, but realized that even at her age you were defined by your friends. She knew she was socially awkward, but didn’t want to hang out with her kind. She wanted to establish a new identity: that of a smart, datable woman.

Months passed. Despite using her mother-taught skills to sew more fashionable clothes, nothing changed. Day after day Jessie ate alone, walked alone, spent study hours alone in the library or in some alcove tucked into a recess. The only change that she noticed was what was happening to some of her classmates. Pregnancies blossomed as winter neared. Were those the wanton hussies she’d heard about? Catholic girls gone wild?

Jessie wanted to feel what it was like to be held in a tight embrace, to be kissed tenderly, passionately, until her body responded in the way she’d read about in books. Maybe not to the point of losing her virginity, but it would be nice to come close.

Second semester George Atwood sat next to her in Advanced Calculus. He was a good-looking guy, but not what you’d call handsome. Not built like a football player with broad shoulders, but more like a golfer. He smiled at her and said hi every class period.

One day he slipped her a note, like she saw kids do in high school. When Jessie opened it later, she discovered an interest quiz which George must have copied from a magazine. He had listed a variety of activities and placed a box in front of each. She was supposed to check all those she liked and then return the note during the next class.

This was exciting! A man was interested in her!

Jessie checked off bowling, walking, reading, movies. She didn’t know what spelunking was and didn’t like going underwater, so diving and snorkeling were out. She didn’t want to swim because she was ashamed of her lumpy body. She did mark sports because she enjoyed playing soccer, baseball and had bowled for many years, and she loved watching almost any sport on television.

When George sat down next to her at class, Jessie slid the note to him, then waited to see his reaction. His face remained blank, his focus on the professor.

Jessie’s heart was broken before it ever had the chance to fall in love. She sat with downcast eyes throughout class, struggling to contain tears that filled her eyes. Sadness sat on her shoulders like a huge weight.

But after class, instead of rushing out like he usually did, George lingered. He smiled shyly as he rubbed one toe on the carpet. “Want to go on a date?”

Jessie smiled demurely. “Yes.”

Without saying a word, George placed his hand on her back and led her outside the building. “Are you free Saturday?”

She nodded.

“What would you like to do? See a movie? Go bowling? Go for a ride? We could go to Garin Park and hike.”

“Garin Park would be nice,” she said. “I’ve never been there.”

“Great. Do you want me to pick you up or would you prefer to meet there?”

“I don’t have a car, so how about you pick me up? If you tell me what you like to eat, I’ll pack a picnic lunch.”

They exchanged information, then said goodbye. Jessie smiled all through the rest of the day. She smiled on the way home on the bus. But when she walked through the front door, her mother gave her a funny look and then the cross examination began.

“Why’s that smile on your face? What have you done?” her mother demanded.

“Nothing wrong,” Jessie said. “A nice guy asked me on a date. We’re going to Garin Park.” She wasn’t prepared for the snicker that erupted from her mother’s lips.

“You’ve got to be kidding. Any guy who dates you is only looking for one thing and you’d better not give it to him.”

Jessie’s cheeks burned red. She knew what her mom was implying and there was no way she was doing that. She’d never been kissed, but she wasn’t so naïve as to not understand the implications of going further. “Nothing’s going to happen. We’re going to picnic and hike. That’s it.”

“I’d better meet him first,” her mother said.

“Don’t worry. He’s picking me up.”

The next two days Jessie worried about what to wear, what to fix for lunch, and what would happen when her parents met George. She’d seen movies where the parents were rude, embarrassing both the daughter and the date. She was sure her parents would behave poorly.

When Saturday arrived, Jessie put on her best jeans, and a royal blue Warriors sweatshirt. She brushed her shoulder-length hair a thousand times, positive that when she was finished, that it was smoother and shinier. Jessie fixed ham sandwiches with mayo, tomatoes and pickles, plus a slice of Swiss cheese.  She put two cans of soda in a bag along with two chocolate chip cookies she’d made that morning.

George arrived driving a recently washed gray Hyundai Sonata. When he got out of the car, he smoothed back his hair, tugged the hem of his college sweatshirt and headed to the door. Before he could ring the bell, Jessie opened it with a smile on her face.

She escorted him to the front room where her parent lay in wait. Neither responded to his polite greeting, instead glowered at him as if he was evil incarnate.

“So,” her dad said, “why are you interested in her?”

George stammered a bit before responding, “Jessie’s nice and smart.”

“But she’s ugly,” her dad said as he shrugged his shoulders. “There’s only one thing a guy would want, and if you know what’s good for you, you’ll walk out and never come back.”

George grabbed Jessie’s hand tightly in his own. “I don’t think of Jessie that way. She’s a friend, someone I’d like to get to know better.” With that, he led Jessie out of the house and into the car. “Wow, that was intense.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t know he’d be like that. Well, I feared he would, but I had hoped not.”

“Listen,” George said as he drove down Mission Boulevard, “if you’re uncomfortable being with me, I can bring you back home.”

“No,” she said as she brushed her hand against his arm. “I want to be with you. Really, I do.” She folded her hands primly in her lap. She stared at her fingers as she said, “I mean, I should tell you that I’ve never dated before. You’re my first.”

All went well. They found an empty picnic table right away. George ate everything, even praising the cookies when Jessie said she’d made them. They talked, shared stories, even discussed Calculus problems, which was a bit weird for Jessie as she’d never talked about schoolwork before.

“Let’s go for a walk,” George said after they’d stowed the bag in the trunk. “There’s a nice trail that encircles the park. If we’re lucky, we’ll see some deer.”

As they walked, they talked about the blue sky dotted with cumulus clouds and the possibility of rain. About the flowers that were still in bloom, typical for California. The dragonflies that zipped about, the giant moths and even a herd of cows grazing near an apple orchard.

When no more people were about, when there were no sounds of laughter, kids playing or conversation, George led Jessie into a copse of trees. He leaned against a trunk as he pulled her to his chest. “I really like you,” he said as he brushed his hand over her hair. “You’re smart and kind and thoughtful.”

“Thanks,” she said as she felt her cheeks turn crimson. “I like you too.”

His breath tickled her neck as he gently kissed her, over and over.

Jessie had never felt loved, not even from her parents who had ridiculed her for her whole life. Called her ugly, dumb, stupid, idiot, and many other terms that she preferred not to think about.  George’s kind words filled her insides, making her feel light as air.

When his lips met hers, she kissed him back. It was wonderful. His lips weren’t squishy, but firm. Not too firm. She responded in kind, not sure if she was doing it right, but when George intensified the pressure of his lips, Jessie began to question the safety of her situation.

She pushed back, trying to put some distance between them, but George resisted, pulling her tighter against him. He ran his right hand up under her shirt, rubbing her back in circles that at first were soft and enticing, but soon became firm and painful.

“Stop,” she said as she took a step backward. “Remove your hand.”

George’s grip around her waist increased until she was smashed against him, barely able to breathe. His hand undid her bra, then moved to her chest.

“No. I don’t want this.”

“Yes, you do,” he said. “You said you’d never dated. You must have dreamt about this. I’m going to be your first. You’ll love it.” He bent over and kissed her breasts. His hands went under the waistband of her jeans, rubbing back and forth, back and forth.

“No!” she yelled as she grabbed his hands and pushed them away. Jessie pulled her sweatshirt down and ran back down the trail toward the parking lot. Tears coursed down her cheeks as she cursed herself for being so stupid as to think he liked her, really liked her for who she was, not what he could take from her.

George followed, whistling a merry tune. No matter how fast Jessie ran, she could hear him. She knew he was there, probably even smirking at her stupidity. Her foolishness.

When Jessie reached the parking lot, she realized her mistake. She had no way home. She had no money, so couldn’t call her parents to come get her. She wouldn’t do that anyway as it would reinforce their belief in how undesirable she was. How they had told her over and over that no many would marry her, that men would only want was her body, not her love.

The walk home was too far. Granted, she was in good enough shape to do it, but the park was at the top of a huge hill, on a street with no sidewalks that, on a Saturday, was filled with fast-moving vehicles. Jessie thought about flagging down a friendly-looking driver, but realized that was as dangerous, if not more so, than riding with George.

“I knew you liked me,” he said as he walked up to the car. He pressed her against the hood, forcing her to bend backwards. He resumed kissing her, fondling her, ignoring her mumbled cries to stop.

“Is there a problem?” a deep voice asked.

“No,” George said as he hastily pulled away.

“Yes,” Jessie cried when she saw the uniform of a park ranger. “Please, help me.”

“Sir, let the lady go.” The ranger glowered at George as he pulled Jessie aside. “Get in your car and drive away.”

“She’s got no way to get home. I’m her ride, so let her go.”

The ranger looked at Jessie. “Do you want to go with him?”

Jessie shook her head no. “But I’ll need help getting home.”

“Don’t worry,” he said. “I’ll take care of that.”

Once George left, the ranger led her to an information booth. He had her sit on a folding metal chair next to his desk. “Now,” he said, “did he hurt you?”

“No. I’m okay. A little shaken up, though.”

“Do you have money for a cab?”

She shook her head.

“Can someone pick you up?”

“No. My parents, but I don’t want them to know about this. Please, don’t call them.”

The ranger nodded as he picked up the phone and made a call. He walked her to the parking lot and stayed with her until the cab came. He handed the driver money, then wished Jessie a good rest of the day.

Jessie dreaded what was waiting for her at home. Her parents would laugh uproariously, making fun of her with an intensity she’d felt over and over as she grew up.

“Well, what happened?” her mom asked when she came through the front door. “Why didn’t that guy bring you home? Who paid for the cab?”

“Nothing happened,” Jessie said as she headed down the hall to her bedroom, her mother trailing behind.

“You’re lying.”

Jessie turned on her mother, her face contorted with anger. “You always think the worst. You never see anything good about me. You don’t trust me to know right from wrong. In fact, I’ve never heard you say you love me.” She closed the door to block out her mother’s shouts.

Jessie knew she’d have to see George again since he was her table partner, so she dreaded returning to class on Monday. But when the professor began his lecture, no George had appeared. She sighed. It was over. No love, no boyfriend, nothing except her parents.

Saddened, but relieved, Jessie wrote down copious notes.

 

Into the Medina

Mary had no trouble following the tour guide as the group descended from the coach and wound through the busy city streets of Fes. Even though her hat covered her eyes, just a bit, she could still see the red folder Stan held over his head. She followed his as best as she could from the rear of the group. She was always at the rear!  Last one to get off the bus, last one to cross the street, last one to see anything. It made her sad. She was an old woman; the oldest on the tour, but no one pushed her to the front or helped her when she was confused.

She trudged on, trying to keep her eyes focused on that folder, but there was so much to see! A variety of colorful goods bearing the country’s logo hung in doorway after doorway, beckoning her to enter. She so wanted to stop for just a minute…but Stan kept plowing forward.

Mary stumbled along on the cobblestone sidewalk, occasionally stepping into the street when the way was blocked by a parked car, truck or motorcycle. More motorcycles than anything. They were a nuisance. Not only did you have to step past the angled front wheel, but more treacherous where the kickstands that poked out, creating hazards for seniors like her.

It was hard to keep up. Mary had knee problems that plagued her. In fact, the more she walked on this lengthy tour, the slower she got despite doing her best to hurry. Even when by some strange bit of luck near the front, Mary fell behind until she was at the end of the twisting line of fellow travelers, especially when she stopped despite knowing that she shouldn’t, to peer inside a store.

She breathed a sigh of relief when she caught up with Stan who had halted before a large stone archway. He told everyone to turn on their “whispers”, cleverly designed boxes that allowed the group to hear whatever was being said, even from the back. Mary loved that link. It told her which way to turn, what to see, when to step carefully. But it didn’t make her legs go faster!

“It’s going to be crowded in here,” he said, “so we have to stick together. No stopping to shop. Keep your eyes pointed ahead. The crowds will jostle you. There are pickpockets that prey on tourists, so keep your hands on purses and wallets. Any questions?”

Mary put her purse strap over her head and clutched it firmly to her chest. She never carried all her money with her, leaving a good chunk behind in the safe in her hotel room, but she didn’t want to lose her ID and other important things zipped into pouches and pockets.

It was noisy and seemingly chaotic where they stood. Thousands of people milled about, coming and going and standing still. In groups of two or three or four. Sometimes alone. Children scampered around, taking off across the square before her or dashing up the narrow winding streets visible from where she stood.

Hundreds of voices filled the air. High-pitched women’s voices blended with the bass calls of store workers, all vying for her attention. And hordes of souvenir-totters were descending upon the group. Women in burqas holding out sparkling scarves. Men with browned teeth displaying colorful necklaces and silver bracelets.

Stan warned the group to ignore the beggars, to not look at them or nod or smile. To put all normal courtesies aside, for anything that seem like interest would encourage the beggars to follow, to harass to the point of misery. After one final look at the group, Stan took off into the square, skillfully winding his way this way and that, taking advantage of any opening large enough for the group of forty to pass through.

Mary worked hard to keep up because the hordes intimidated her. Even when she tried to dodge them, she was pushed from left to right, banged into from behind and shoved from the front. Each of the unwanted contacts throwing her a bit of kilter, making it harder for her to keep her eye on that red folder.

Stan led them down a narrow corridor. On each side were carts of limp-looking vegetables. Underneath and from above and from all around was the smell of rot. Maybe it was from the wood or maybe from the produce, but it was nauseating.

In the meat market slabs of raw meat hung from poles overhead or were layered on wooden tables. Flies buzzed landed on the meat. Mary pictured the eggs deposited and felt her stomach constrict. She stumbled over an uneven stone and looked down to right herself. Blood pooled below, so Mary moved aside in order to avoid stepping in it. The worst of all was when she spied a pair of live chickens being held by their necks as they were weighed on a metal scale. The poor things squawked and tried to flap their wings, but the vendor squeezed harder, immobilizing them. Mary knew they were going to be slaughtered. She hoped it was done humanely, but feared, because of what she’d witnessed, that they would not. She shivered with disgust.

Next came textiles. Huge vats of blackish liquid stuck out into the narrow walkway making it even harder to pass through. Mary saw the workers pull out dyed fabrics, twist each section to remove as much dye as they could. It ran down the street, along narrow gutters that overflowed into smelly pools. Mary tried to avoid the pools, but it was hard because she had to focus on the group, which moved on steadily, not seeming to care whether or not she kept up.

Mary found much of this offensive.  Yes, it was their way of life, their culture, the way things had been done perhaps for thousands of years, but it was still disturbing. She felt her nose wrinkle, then thought that this might offend the residents, so willed her face to smile.

When they turned to the right, the goods being sold changed. Colorful, flowing garments which Stan said were called djellabas. Mary stopped to write it down. In just those few seconds, Stan must have moved on, because she no longer saw the red folder.

Looking ahead while standing on her tiptoes, she thought she saw one of the men from her group turn to the right, so she went that way, stepping into a corridor so narrow that she could reach out and touch the walls on both sides at the same time. But she didn’t see Stan’s folder.

What to do? There didn’t seem to be anything of interest here, so she turned around and backtracked to the street of goods. There were vendors displaying kaftans for women. Beautifully decorated gowns with sparkly trim running down the front and on billowing sleeves. What looked like handmade buttons. In each stall, at least one man sat sewing. This intrigued Mary. She had been taught that sewing was women’s work, but here sat virile men, holding tiny needles between thumb and fingers, stitching in and out, in and out.

It was so mesmerizing that she forgot about keeping up. Until she was shoved aside by a burqa-wearing woman holding a tightly wrapped baby to her chest. That’s when reality called Mary back to the here and now. She hustled up the street, searching for a familiar head of hair or sweater or the red folder.

She thought she recognized someone familiar on a street to the left, so she turned that way. Ah, ha! She was right! There stood Stan, a worried look creasing his brow. “Where have you been?” he practically screamed. “I told you to stay with the group. It’s not safe to get separated in here.”

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m at the rear and I can’t keep up.” Tears pooled in her eyes.

Stan moved her to the front. “Stay close to me,” he said. “No matter what.”

Mary nodded and fell into place as the group took off. The street became a steep incline. No longer selling clothes, now the venders displayed tourist crap that called her name. Oh, the postcards! The porcelain! The jewelry! The figurines! The scarves and so much more! Mary wished that Stan would stop and let them shop, but he didn’t. He plowed ahead, an unfriendly couple that she didn’t know well pushing her forward.

Stan turned left and right. He climbed higher and then followed a street that dropped at a steep decline. The vendors no longer sold souvenirs, but sweets. Breads covered with flies! Strange-looking flat cookies and pretzel-shaped pastries also covered with flies! Nuts of all kinds. Some glazed with sugar. Some roasted. Some still in shells.

At one place Stan stopped to allow the group to taste the sugar-coated almonds. Mary didn’t like them, but many in her group did. Several bought some to bring home.

Mary would never have bought any of the food she’d seen. For one, there was no one at home for her to give them to. For another, how could she gift someone food that flies had been sitting on right before being scooped up? It just wasn’t right.

They moved on. To the right. Up a series of steps. To the left. Under a wooden archway. Straight ahead where remnants of roofs almost touched in the center. Looking up, there was a confused mass of hastily nailed boards holding everything up. To a Californian like Mary who was sued to earthquakes that took down buildings, it didn’t look safe.

Finally they entered a low doorway. Even five-foot Mary had to bend to enter. Inside were bathrooms that they were told to use and then to sit on benches that lined the outer walls. Hanging everywhere were carpets of intricate designs and beautiful, rich colors. Shortly after the group was settled, the sales pitch began. Carpet after carpet was unrolled on the floor. They were incredibly beautiful. The salesmen promised that they could be washed. That they wouldn’t fade or shrink or bleed, but Mary wondered how that could be possible. Supposedly each was made by a woman working alone for months or years. Each was unique, he said.

It was tiresome sitting there. The pitch didn’t end until someone decided to buy a small runner. That person was taken into a side room. Came out bearing a wrapped package. Two more bought carpets. Then they were allowed to leave.

Back into the winding streets. The crowd had thickened noticeably. Within a few blocks Stan was out of sight. Mary tried spotting the red folder, but not only couldn’t she see it, she couldn’t see a familiar face or jacket. She was alone. In a maze of narrow streets. Being jostled on all sides.

Before they got off the bus, Stan had cautioned the group that it would be easy to get lost. That the streets wound this way and that. That there was no logic that would allow a lost person to find their way out. He had cautioned them with the necessity of staying together. Mary hadn’t believed him. Until she entered the Medina. It was being in a war zone with sights and sounds surrounding her, confusing her.

Mary understood, from Stan’s dire warnings, that she could never find her way out on her own. At first she had tried to memorize what directions they had followed, how many rights and lefts and straight aheads, but in time, there were so many turns, so many streets, that she was totally confused.

She felt she was close to the carpet store. Maybe just a block away. And she believed that they could help her, so she turned around and went back the way she had just come. But at the next intersection, she paused. Had she come from the right? The left? Straight ahead? Mary didn’t know. Tears formed and began to drip down her cheeks. She pulled a tissue out of her coat pocket and wiped them off.

Mary peered down each direction hoping to find something familiar looking. To the right were carpets leaning against a wall. That must be it! So she hurried that way. But no, there was no low door. No step up. Just a stall like the hundreds she’d seen.

Thinking that this must be the right street because so far, all the goods being sold were clustered together, Mary continued that way. There were numerous carpet vendors. But still no doorway. She went on.

Carpets changed to shoes and leather bags. A stench filled the air. She thought it was from the leather being processed but she didn’t stop to ask. Mary knew her group had not passed this way, so she searched for a friendly face. Someone who might help her.

The men scared her even though she couldn’t those feelings. There was something about the determined way the vendors stared at her, as if she were a sandwich to be devoured. The women weren’t an option because they were all in too much of a hurry. She tried stopping one, but the woman shouted at her and slapped Mary’s hand away.

Mary stumbled forward, staring beseechingly at one face after another. She knew time had passed since she got separated from her group, but how much time? She didn’t know. Her one great fear was that she was so incredibly lost in the Medina that she’d never get out. That her group would board the bus and leave without her.

They almost did once. In Madrid they toured an amazingly beautiful monastery. Mary had been intrigued by the tapestries and stained glass windows. The gold figurines behind the altar. She knelt to pray. She closed her eyes and thought of her kids at home, hoping that her grandkids were doing okay. That her cat was well.

When she opened her eyes, her group was gone. Mary hustled down the center aisle and out the huge double doors. Followed the sidewalk to where they had disembarked from the bus. Just as she arrived, the doors closed. Mary screamed and walked as fast as she could. Fortunately someone must have heard her or seen her because the doors opened!

What if the bus had driven off? She didn’t know the name of the hotel. Didn’t speak Spanish. Didn’t know how to hail a taxi. Thank goodness she was saved.

But now she was in Morocco, a totally unfamiliar country, language, culture. She wasn’t in a big city where there might be police officers who could help. Or a store that beckoned lost travelers. Plus she was lost in a maze so confusing, so terrifying that even if she had a phone, she couldn’t tell anyone where she was.

Mary stumbled along, continuing to search for comfort. Tears streamed down her face and her arms and legs felt rubbery. Just as she was about to give up a boy wearing a soccer jersey appeared before her. He had a huge smile on his face. His eyes sparkled. Mary smiled back.

“Do you speak English?” she asked.

“Yes,” he said. “I study English in school.”

Mary sighed. She understood him perfectly! “I am lost. Can you help me?”

The boy nodded. Her took her hand and led her in and out, down and up, left and right. Ahead appeared the huge square and the stone gate! “Thank you,” she said. “You saved me.”

“Let me walk you to where your bus will stop,” he said. “I will wait there with you until your group appears.”

He led Mary to a low wall and indicated that she should sit. It felt good to be in the sun, out of the dark maze. Here the crowds were further away, giving her a chance to breathe, to relax.

The boy stayed with her, as he said he would, until Stan appeared, the blessed red folder over his head. Mary cried out, held her hands in front, beseechingly. “You left me behind,” she cried. “I was scared.”

Stan glowered at her. “Mary, this is not the first time you’ve fallen behind. Why didn’t you stay near me?”

“When you left the carpet store I was the last one out. You left me,” she said. “This nice young man helped me. If not for him, I’d still be inside, lost.”

Stan smiled at the boy. “Thanks for your help,” he said as he handed the boy a coin. “Mary, follow me to the bus. Don’t look inside any stores. Stare at the folder. Only the folder. Understand?”

Mary nodded and did as she was told.

Back in the hotel she reflected on her narrow escape. Who was at fault? Herself? Surely not. She had tried to keep up. She had told Stan at the beginning of the tour that she was slow. It must be his fault, right?

Whoever was to blame, Mary swore to herself that from now on, she’d stay with Stan. The scare of being left behind was too frightening to contemplate.

 

 

No Excuses

This is me. I am nobody special. Just a guy. A teenager who likes things organized. Like my room. I like my blue bedspread and matching sheets. When Mom does laundry I can’t stand going in my room until the bed is made again, just the way I like it.

And my schedule. I have to follow it. When Mom messes things up by wanting to go somewhere different it upsets me. So she has to warn me way ahead of time. I keep a calendar on my wall above my computer. On it I write my activities.

Mondays and Wednesday I go to the Adult School where I take computer classes. I am learning to write code. My teacher says I am good enough to get a job, but I keep going to class anyway because there is more I can learn. Class begins at nine and ends at noon.

Tuesdays and Thursdays I go to the same gym my mom belongs to. She goes to a Zumba class that begins at nine-forty-five. It lasts for forty-five minutes. I swim laps. I can swim half a mile and then shower and be dressed by the time she’s finished.

Fridays we go shopping. I hate the grocery stores because there are too many colors, too much stuff to choose from, too much noise, but Mom makes me go because she says it’s good training for when I live on my own. Like that’s ever going to happen.

Saturdays we go to Lake Chabot and walk the trail. Down the hill, past the parking lot and one end of the lake, then up the hill and back to the car. It takes us almost an hour.

Sundays we go to church. Mom sings in the choir which means I have to sit by myself. I don’t like that, so I sit in a pew to her right, as close as I can get without being in the choir. You would think that I don’t like the singing because it is noise, but that’s not true. Because I’ve gone to church my entire life, I know the words and sounds of every song. I find it relaxing. And comforting like my favorite blanket.

I get up every day at six, even on weekends. I don’t need an alarm clock because I have an internal clock that regulates my day. The only time I have problems is when time changes because of Daylight Savings Time. It confuses me. I don’t understand why we have to move back an hour or jump forward an hour. I understand why it was so in the beginning when our country was based on agriculture, but that isn’t so anymore. I am not a farmer and so don’t need to change my clock. Mom says that next year I can vote and if a measure is on the ballet to stop Daylight Savings Time and I mark the box. I am looking forward to having my thoughts validated.

In the afternoons I walk around our neighborhood. I leave precisely at one. Even though I no longer attend school, I still walk the ten blocks to the high school, approximately 2,000 average-sized steps for someone six foot tall like myself. I have long legs, according to my mom, so my stride is longer than most people’s.

After passing the school I continue around the block. There is a little grocery store two blocks away which is where I buy a Milky Way candy bar, a bag of popcorn and a bottle of water. I wish I could turn back and go home but Mom says I can’t. She says I need tons of exercise now that I no longer take Physical Education at school.

So I keep going. I pass four houses where dogs charge the fence snarling and barking. Even though I know they are going to do that, I still get startled when it happens. Each time I step into the street, placing myself as far from them as possible in case there is a hole in the fence and one of them gets out. I’ve never been bitten, but there is always a first time.

Some of the neighbors want to engage me in conversation. I don’t like that either. I hate talking to strangers. Mom says that the neighbors aren’t strangers because I see them every day. I think she’s wrong because I’ve never been introduced to them. I don’t know their names and they don’t know mine. One of them, an old man who sits in a lawn chair in his front lawn, waves high every time. I wave back because Mom said it was the polite thing to do and I don’t want to be rude. I’ve never been rude. At least not since I was very small.

When I was a little kid I didn’t talk to anyone. Even my mom. She took me to a specialist who measured my hearing. I can hear just fine. In fact, my hearing is sharper than most. My mom doesn’t believe that, though. She says I am more sensitive to sound than the average person. I like that explanation because I prefer to think that there is something unique about me.

I am sorry that I graduated from high school in June. I miss the rules and regulations. And the schedule. I knew what to do, where to go, and how to satisfy my teachers. The problem was that I knew everything before my teachers presented the lesson. I am not a braggart. I read voraciously about a variety of things until I feel like I am an expert on any topic.

Many times I knew more than my teachers. I discovered this whenever I asked questions. My teachers would all turn red in the face, stammer, then change the subject. Mom explained that I embarrassed them and that I shouldn’t ask complicated questions, but I really wanted to know the answers. Who was I supposed to ask?

Mom says that when I go to college in September I won’t be such a pain as my professors will be experts in their field. I think she’s wrong. She signed me up for classes in May, so I’ve already been reading textbooks that I check out from the library and journal articles published by researchers because I want to know as much as I can about each of the classes that I will be taking. If my professors aren’t well read, then they shouldn’t be teaching. After all, a student should never know more that the teacher. At least that’s what I think.

Now you know a lot about me. What you don’t know, but maybe have guessed, is that I am a unique person. When I was little Mom worried about me because I obsessed over things. Such as dinosaurs. And John Wayne movies. I knew the name of every dinosaur and could recite the dialogue from every John Wayne movie after the first time I saw it. I have an excellent memory for detail. Mom says I have a photographic memory, which means that once I’ve read something I can quote passages in entirety and tell you on which page the phrase was printed.

I am also excellent at math. I passed all the math classes offered at my high school by my sophomore year, so I took classes at the local community college. I passed all those within four semesters. I have completed all the math requirements I need to get a Bachelor’s Degree in Computer Science, but I’d like to take more classes at California State University, East Bay.

I am terrible at making human connections. I have no friends. Throughout my education I participated in social skills exercises with the Speech Pathologist but nothing she told me changed the way I am. It’s not that I don’t want to have friends because I do. The problem is that no one wants to be friends with me.

I am autistic. Asperger’s Syndrome. Which means that academically I am advanced but years behind in social skills. Mom says I am like a two-year-old in that I can sit beside someone who is talking about sports while my mind is analyzing a complex mathematical problem and it doesn’t bother me that I am not talking about sports.

Why am I telling you these things? When I visited the campus I met with a counselor in the Disabled Student Services Office. Mrs. Meyers told me that to succeed in college I need to tell my professors about being autistic as soon as possible. She suggested writing a short paper that explained who I am. That’s what this is about.

I want you to know that although I am autistic there is nothing wrong with my brain. I think faster than most people, remember everything I read and hear, and desire to have excellent grades. I will complete every assignment as long as I understand what I am supposed to do. Because I am a linear thinker, I get confused when asked to formulate opinions. I don’t have opinions. I collect facts.

Thanks for taking the time to read this. If you have any questions, Mrs. Meyers said you can talk to her.

 

The Sound of Surprise

“It’s time for me to go,” Sunshine laughed as she tossed the last of her breadcrumbs to the ducks swimming around her legs.  Violating all rules, she had jumped into the duck pond, first splashing around like a child in the heat of summer, then reaching into a pocket of her shirt and pulling out a crushed bag of bread.  Wading in the murky water of the pond, the young woman sang in a clear soprano, “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine…”

Exuberant, lost in the moment, she spun in the water, moving as if enchanted by a water sprite, head tossed back, eyes closed, arms straight out with palms turned toward the sun.  She danced as she sang, circling closer and closer to a huge marble fountain spewing a constant spray of clear blue water.  She slid onto one edge, feet dangling in the duck-crowded water, arms raised, gathering the spray and pouring it over her hair, her face, and her arms.

“Young lady,” a bullhorn-enhanced voice traveled across the pond, awakening Sunshine from her play.  Looking around, she spied a park ranger, dressed in khaki uniform, standing parallel to the fountain.  “Young lady,” the ranger repeated, “please get off the fountain and walk to me.”

Sunshine laughed and waved a friendly “hello,” then resumed catching spray and pouring it over herself.

“Leave the pond now or you will be arrested.”

“I’m not doing anything wrong.”

“You’re breaking the law.”

“What law?  This is such a beautiful place to spend a hot afternoon.” Sunshine dove into the shallow water with the expertise of a master swimmer.  With strong strokes, despite the weight of her clothes, she quickly returned to her point of entry.  She ducked her hair into the water, smoothed it back over her head, and then stood.  She pulled her soaked peasant blouse over her head and then twisted it as tightly as possible, wringing out the water, unabashed by her nakedness.

“Please get dressed,” the ranger commanded. “Step up here next to me. You are creating quite a spectacle.”

She pulled her blouse over her head.  Imperiously holding out her right hand, Sunshine blessed the ranger with what would have been a regal smile were it not for her soaked clothes, matted hair, and dirt-streaked face.  “Help me, please.”

The ranger complied, as she knew he would.  Shee took in the ranger’s deep brown eyes, closely shorn hair, tight fitting sleeves, and bulky chest.  “Ranger Sanchez,” she said as she read his nametag.  “Too beautiful of a name for a government employee.”

“And you are…?”

“Sunshine.  That’s me.  Can’t you tell?  My father says I do.” The young woman twirled around, water flying from her skirt and hair, spraying Sanchez’s uniform.

“Miss Sunshine, you have broken at least ten park rules, but since you complied with my directives, I will not write you a ticket.  This time.”

“Thank you, thank you, thank you!  My father would be very upset if I got a ticket.  He really cares about that kind of stuff,” she said as she picked up her worn leather sandals and overstuffed backpack from the edge of the pond.

“Where are you going now?”

“I’m not sure.  I was thinking of just walking wherever the sun leads me.”

As Sanchez helped her settle her backpack into place, he said, “I hope you are not planning on camping in Central Park.  That is also against the law.”

“Of course not.  I have reservations at a hotel.  Why?  Are you asking me out for a date?”  She pouted, swaying suggestively.

Laughing, he took hold of her right arm and guided her away from the pond.  “I might.  If I said yes, what would you say?”

Clapping her hands and squealing with joy, she answered, “Yes.  I would say yes.  I don’t know anyone in New York except for some of the staff at the hotel.  We could go out to lunch and tour the city and maybe see a play on Broadway and then go to a nice restaurant for dinner.  Oh, would you do all that?”

“Miss Sunshine,” Sanchez replied as he bowed, “I would be honored to do all those things with you after you’ve had a bath and put on some clean clothes.  We can visit the zoo, walk through the flower gardens, and tour the castle.”  Sanchez led the still soaked woman down the cement path that wound its way to one of the many exits of the park.

“Oh, I am so excited.   This is almost as good as Christmas.  When can we go?”

“First, my name is David.  Second, I have Friday off.”

“ So do I,” she laughed.  “Fate has brought us together.  I feel it.  I was meant to feed the ducks and you were destined to greet me.”  Suddenly she wrapped her arms around David, squeezing him as tightly as a favorite teddy bear, and planted a delicate kiss on his right cheek.

“Hold on, you’re getting me all wet,” David laughed as he pushed her away.  “I’ll pick you up at noon, if that’s fine with you.  But I need to know where you are staying.”

A dark look flew across Sunshine’s face.  She frantically looked about, and seeing Dali’s Deli across the street, instantly brightened.  “I’ll meet you over there, at the deli.  We can buy sandwiches and picnic in the park.”

“Sure.  Why not?  What play would you like to see?”

“Can we see Rent?  Is it still playing?”

“Yes.”

“I would like that very much.  One of my friends has a part in the play.  I’d love to see her.  Just like high school days.”

Tipping his wide brimmed hat goodbye, David ambled down the path toward the pond.  He whistled as he walked, “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine…”

Once he was out of sight, Sunshine sped off.  She pushed through bushes, climbed over small boulders, squeezed through densely grown trees, seemingly with no direction in mind.  Eventually she came to a small meadow, where no light penetrated through the carpet of leaves overhead.  Placing her backpack against a large tree, she stretched out on the dirt floor, ignoring the crumbled detritus that quickly attached itself to her damp clothing.  She lay as if bewitched, frozen in place like the princess in an old story.

 

She dreamt of friends who had drifted away, leaving her behind.  At times laughing, others crying, she slept curled in a fetal position, her dreams playing games with her emotions.   At the screech of an overhead hawk, she abruptly awakened.  “I must go.  I’ll be late,” she said to herself.  She arose, picked up her backpack and pushed her arms through the straps.  Forgetting her sandals, she hurried away, heading east, knowing exactly where the path broke through the bushes, stopping only when she stood across the street from a grand old hotel.

She stood still for a moment, taking in the stone structure of one of the oldest hotels in New York City: the Park Plaza.  She loved its gray granite exterior, dark mahogany double doors, and circular stone steps that carried its patrons into a wonder world of beauty.  She felt as if the Plaza was her kingdom, to rule as she pleased, to live out her fantasies and revel in her dreams.

Dashing across the street, she bounced off the grill of a cab, fell against the side of a slow moving delivery van, and meandered through a maze of vehicles, until she arrived, slightly bruised, at the steps of the hotel, a smile of anticipation spread across her face.  Running up the steps as easily as a seasoned mountain climber, Sunshine brushed past the surprised doorman, and then flounced into the lobby.

She froze momentarily, as she always did, mesmerized by the hotel’s old world ambiance. Breathing deeply, Sunshine inhaled the orange-spiced furniture polish the staff used on the walnut tables and cabinets, the perfume of huge bouquets of flowers scattered about with seeming nonchalance, and the old, slightly musty smell of the Oriental carpets gracing the lobby floor.  It was as familiar to Sunshine as the smells of her home in San Francisco.

 

Taking a moment to scan the employees working in the lobby, she saw none that she knew. Disappointed, she headed for a quiet corner.  She spotted a group of rose-colored overstuffed armchairs near the front window, completely unoccupied, and shuffled over.  She slipped off her backpack and sat.

Her glow slowly returned as she watched a pair of hawks dancing on the air currents between the nearby buildings, the pair moving like old accustomed lovers responding to a song that only they heard. When they disappeared from sight, her eyes fastened on a Steinway grand piano to her left.  Sunshine ran over, pulled out the bench, and opened the lid. Closing her eyes, she launched into a series of compositions with the grace of a master pianist.

Her fingers caressed the keys.  A Mozart concerto drifted across the lobby as Sunshine’s tangled hair fell across her sunburnt shoulders. Her dirty bare feet worked the pedals as the music flowed, filling the lobby with the rise and fall of one piece after another.

The manager strode across the lobby; the tails of his tuxedo flapping like a jay’s wings.  As if sensing the manager’s approach, Sunshine jumped up and strode to a backlit display case.  Intrigued by a Swarovski elephant that seemed to lift its trunk in greeting, she waved in response.  Next she examined a collection of Ukrainian eggs on loan from a local collector, perfume bottles crafted by a French artist, and lace doilies made by fisherwomen on the island of Murano.

“Young lady,” the manager said in a starched voice, “what are you doing?”

She spun around, hands raised in a defensive position, knees bent and shoulders dropped.

“Please,” he hissed.  “You are creating a spectacle.”

“Oh, sorry,” she said. “I was just looking around a bit.”  Tossing back her dirty hair, her unwashed neck was clearly visible.  “Sunshine.”

“What?”

“My name is Sunshine.”

“Perhaps you are in the wrong place,” the manager said, maintaining the requisite stiff demeanor while wrinkling his nose at her raw smell.  “The youth hostel is across Central Park, Miss Sunshine.”

She strolled to her backpack and pulled out her MP3 player with the manager nervously tagging along.  She plopped onto a pale rose ottoman as she pushed the earphones into place and cranked up the volume.  She leaned back until her hair touched the ornate carpet, her legs akimbo. The manager’s unobstructed view of her underwear caused him to sway.

She raised her arms over her head, placing one hand on each side of her hair. As her shirt rose, her abdomen slid into view, exposing her pierced navel and tattooed belly.

“Please, cover yourself.”

“Don’t you have anything better to do than stare at my butt?”

Then, springing to her feet like an acrobat on a trampoline, Sunshine stared at the manager.  “Oh, you must be Mario,” she squealed. “I heard you were gorgeous, but I didn’t expect an Adonis.”  She smiled what would have been a beatific smile were it not for her stained teeth. “My mother says you give excellent massages.  I’m desperately in need of one.”

Mario blushed a deep crimson, brushed imaginary lint from his impeccably pressed jacket, pulled his body stiffly upright, then said, “Your behavior is inappropriate for the Park Plaza.  You look as if you just trekked across the Mohave Desert.  You smell, your clothing is disgraceful, and you act as if you are deranged. And I will definitely not give you a massage.”

“Sunshine.  You forgot to use my name again.”

Miss Sunshine, you must leave now or I will call the authorities.”

“I think not, Mario,” she murmured, as tears pooled in her eyes. A steel-like resolve filled the young woman. With shoulders squared, she commanded, “Take my backpack to the desk, Mario.  I will check in now.”

“What?”

“I will check in now.” She strode to the desk, leaving a startled Mario behind.

Gingerly picking up the backpack by its shoulder straps, struggling with its weight, Mario followed the girl.  “I think you are mistaken,” he huffed as he got within speaking distance.

Sunshine silently marched to the front of the line, unbothered by the scalding looks of  patrons who covered their noses with monogrammed handkerchiefs, eyes agog.

“I would like to check in, please.”

Mario dropped the backpack next to the young woman’s feet. “We have no available rooms.”

 

Anger and hurt marched across her face.  Looking deeply into Mario’s eyes, tears unabashedly streaming down her face, she said, “I have a reservation.  I know that you are holding a room for me.  Please stop embarrassing me.”

“Take your filthy bag and leave,” Mario whispered as he picked up the desk phone.  “I am calling the authorities.  If you do not leave before they arrive, you will be arrested and charged with disturbing the peace.”

“What did I do?  Am I some thief or murderer?  My father’s a millionaire.  He holds majority shares in this hotel.” Staring into his eyes with the fierceness of a cornered lioness, she continued, “I am his daughter. I graduated from Harvard University, suma cum laude, with a PhD in Music Theory.”

“I am happy for you, Miss Sunshine.”

“My father is expecting me.  I promised that I would arrive early enough to bathe, put on a gown, and meet him for dinner in the Atelier at 7:00 when he finishes with the Board of Directors.”  She pushed Mario aside as easily as moving a feather, and placed her elbows on the check-in counter.  Smiling at the startled clerk, she cheerily said, “May I check in now?”

The clerk opened the reservation book on the computer. “I have no reservations for Miss Sunshine.”

“Sunshine is my nickname,” she laughed. “I am Sarah Smythe, daughter of Dr. Paul Smythe,” she proudly stated, blue eyes flashing.  “I believe he has the suite on the 22nd floor.”

The clerk smiled as the reservations popped up on the screen.  Mario’s face went from red to ghostly white in seconds.  As the clerk printed up the confirmation paperwork, he scuttled off to wave away the newly arrived police officers before unnecessarily intensifying the bizarre scene.  Sunshine seemed not to notice the commotion behind her, standing with one leg tucked inside the gauzy skirt, debris still clinging as if part of the design.

“Do you have some identification, Miss Smythe?”

“Oh, yes, of course” she said as she unzipped the top pocket of her backpack.  She pulled out a handmade beaded purse, and then reached inside for her driver’s license.  Handing it to the clerk as if giving out a hundred dollar bill, Sunshine held her head aloft like a princess examining her court.  “You see,” she said, “ I am Sarah Smythe.”

“Yes, I see that,” the clerk replied as she returned the license.  “Welcome to the Park Plaza Hotel. You are staying in the Royal Suite, as you know.  It’s a beautiful room overlooking Central Park.  You should find everything to your liking, especially the high-powered telescope, the 700 thread-count linens, and the Frette candles in the bath.”  Smiling, the clerk gave her the room key and then hastily turned away, barely suppressing the hysterical giggles that threatened to explode.

“Thanks,” Sunshine said.  “You have been very kind.” Picking up her backpack as easily as lifting a bag of taffy, she marched up to Mario, stopping inches from his face. “I suggest you treat your patrons with more respect.”

“Yes, Miss Smythe.”

“Have you ever heard the expression that you can’t judge a book by its cover?”

“Yes.”

“Learn it if you enjoy working here. And my name is Sunshine.  My father says I am the sunshine that brightens his day.  Remember that.”  She spun around, marched to the elevator doors, and pushed the button for the express car to the suite.  When the doors opened, she stepped inside, flouncing her tangled locks in a wave of triumph as the doors closed.

She maintained tight control as the elevator arrived at her floor, as the doors opened, and even as she stepped into the plush suite her family loved.  She walked through the living area, poked her head into her parents’ room, and seeing no one, deposited her backpack in the closet of her bedroom.  Only then did she allow the tears to flow.

Sunshine loved her world in San Francisco, where people dressed as they pleased and no one held her in disdain.  Amongst her family’s friends, she was not considered “bohemian,” but rather quaint.  Respected for her musical talent, she frequently entertained the many guests of her parents, both of whom were prominent physicians at UCSF Medical Center.  Even when guests dressed in tuxedos and formals, no one scoffed when she showed up wearing gauzy shifts or tie-dyed t-shirts and faded jeans.  Eccentric behaviors aside, Sunshine danced through life, bouncing from one adventure to another.

While New York City was high on her list of favorite places to visit, she had never had the opportunity to play the role of tourist, despite countless trips to join her parents at one conference or another.  She longed to meander about the city with a handsome man as guide, but every man she met was only interested in her family’s money.

Dressing in “hippie” clothes gave Sunshine permission to act outlandish, to step outside of her role of spoiled rich kid. On top of that, by not brushing her hair or changing her clothes, she didn’t have to worry about attracting potential molesters or kidnappers. Unfortunately it also kept away anyone who might have penetrated her disguise and found the intelligent, talented woman beneath.

In New York her only friends were the ducks in Central Park and some of the staff in the hotel suite.  Rosa took care of her clothing and room, while Miranda brought her tamales and rice and beans to make her feel at home.  Sometimes when Joey was the concierge on duty, he escorted Sunshine safely across the hectic streets, and then bought her a gelato at a deli before returning to work.

Realizing that it was almost time to meet her father, Sunshine dried her tears and stripped as she walked into the luxurious bathroom, dropping her clothes on the floor.  Rosa had left her favorite bath gel and shampoo on the side of the tub.  Miranda had pressed the black chiffon evening gown her father purchased for this evening. Everything was perfect, as it always was.

She tried to pull out the tangles in her hair, but it hurt too much.  “Rosa, are you here?  Miranda?  Is there anyone here who can help me?”

“Senorita Sunshine,” Rosa responded as she hurried into the bathroom, “I am here.  What can I do for you?  Oh, my goodness!  Look at your hair!  What have you been doing?  Your father would be horrified if he saw you like this.”  Rosa sat the girl on a chair in the dressing area, and then slowly brushed out the tangles.  “First you take a long bath and then I’ll brush out your hair.”

“I know, Rosa.  But I forget to bathe when I get distracted.”

“You must behave like a lady at all times.  You cannot run around like a homeless child.  This is New York City, Sunshine,” she said as she finished.  “Come, child, into the bath.”  Rose threw the filthy clothes into a laundry bag as Sunshine stepped into perfumed water.

Immersed in the steaming warmth, she meticulously cleansed herself from top to bottom.  Burning candles filled the room with a cinnamon fragrance, while the flickering lights created mesmerizing patterns on the pale pink tiles.

“It is time, Senorita,” Rosa called as she held up a white Turkish towel and enshrouded the now clean woman in its soft folds.  “You must get ready.  Your father has already called for you.”

“I met someone today,” Sunshine beamed. “His name is David and he works in the park and he’s taking me out tomorrow.  Isn’t that wonderful?”

“Talk to your father first.  What do you know about this David?  Put on your underclothes while I press your dress one more time.”

After Rosa left the bathroom, Sunshine picked up a new toothbrush and paste.  Just as she put the brush in her mouth, David’s pleasant face appeared in her mirror, standing protectively over her right shoulder, shimmering in the steam of the bath.  She reached up to caress the fingers that were not there, smiling as she felt the ticklish hair on the back of his knuckles.  “I’ll be there tomorrow, David Sanchez.  You won’t be disappointed.  I’m your kind of girl, and you’re my kind of guy.  I knew it the moment you shouted at me with that foolish bullhorn.” She finished dressing, then caught the elevator.

As she stepped through the doors on the lobby floor, her father’s face lit with pride.  Sunshine ran to his open arms and fell into his loving embrace.  After exchanging kisses, she deliberately marched past Mario.  Dressed in black heels, gown, and shawl, she was the picture of elegance.

During dinner her father described the antics of the Board members, spoke about his turbulent flight in which several passengers became nauseous, and trivialized a recent surgery to repair a little Guatemalan girl’s cleft palate.  Normally she would have listened intently to every word, but not tonight.

“You’re not here, are you, Sunshine?’

“What?”

“Something’s on your mind. I don’t think you’ve heard a word I said.”

“Yes, I did.  Well, I think I did, but I can’t remember anything except something about an operation.  I’m proud of you, Dad.”

“So, what’s on your mind that you can’t listen to your old man?”

Picking up her glass of ice water, she drew tracks through the condensation.  “I met someone and  I think he likes me.  We’re going to out tomorrow.”

“Were you wearing that hippie get-up?”

“Yes.  But he doesn’t care.  He smiled, Dad, and held my hand.  And laughed with me, not at me.”

“How do you know he is someone you can trust?  He might be a rapist or a murderer.  You know the oddball types that you attract.  I don’t know why you won’t date the men at the country club or from the Haight Street Clinic where you work.  You exasperate me sometimes.  I worry that you are going to get hurt.”

Reaching across the table, she held both her father’s hands and looked deeply into his eyes.  “I’ve tried dating those types, but they bore me.  They’re all looking for a little woman to keep at home and take care of the required two children.  I don’t want that.  Plus as soon as they find out who my parents are, all they love is the thought of marrying money. I want someone who loves living, someone who is a free spirit, someone who doesn’t know about my background and still loves me.  I think this guy might be the one for me.  I want to give him a chance, anyway.”

“Okay,” he sighed.  “But be careful.  Carry your pepper spray.  And don’t wear those foolish sandals.  Wear solid shoes for running in case something goes wrong.”

She scooped up a huge bite of her newly arrived penne pasta.

“Where are you going with this David?”

“Oh, he’s taking me on a picnic and a tour of Central Park, then to a play, and finally out to dinner.  He said we could see Rent.  Jesse has the lead role.”

“I’m excited for you, Sweetheart, and I hope that this David treats you well.  You deserve to be happy.”

They talked as they ate, sharing stories, their love for each other obvious to anyone within watching distance. After the waiter brought the check, Sunshine left her dad at the table and hurried outside for a quick look at Central Park.  “I’ll see you at noon,” she whispered.

She smiled at the evening concierge and at all the desk clerks as she strode past, reveling in their obvious pleasure in her changed appearance.  She called her elevator, rode upstairs, went into her bedroom, undressed, and crawled into her bed, thinking of David and all her hopes that he might, indeed, be the one for her.

Dreams filled her night.  At times she ran in terror from an assailant who followed her down the streets of San Francisco.  Sometimes she danced like Cinderella in a grand ballroom, swirling around and around with David.  Once she broke into a cold sweat and woke, feeling David’s strong hands holding her to the floor as he moved rhythmically on top.  Fighting to push him off, she awakened, shaking and crying.

Unable to return to sleep, Sunshine passed the rest of the evening looking through the telescope at the stars and the moon and at the nocturnal birds stalking their prey.

Miranda appeared shortly after nine.  “Good morning, Senorita Sunshine.  How are you today?” Miranda removed the bedclothes and the still damp towel, placing them in her service cart, then remade the bed to its normal pristine condition.  “You are so quiet.  You have been crying, yes?”

Without responding, Sunshine staggered into the bathroom and looked in the mirror, hoping to see David’s apparition once more.  Only her pale face, reddened eyes and tangled hair looked back.  She slowly went through her morning ritual, and then stepped into the bedroom to see what clothes Miranda had chosen for the day.  Finding a silk blouse and matching blue slacks, she balked.

Not wanting to flaunt her family’s wealth, she dug into her backpack and pulled out a wrinkled pair of light blue jeans and a bright yellow t-shirt with “Angel” embroidered in pink thread dancing across the chest.  She put on her hiking boots and wool socks. She left her hair hanging loose, beautiful waves cascading down her back.

“Goodbye, Miranda.  Wish me luck,” she said as she stepped into the elevator.  Humming as it flew downward, Sunshine hugged herself, reveling in the love that she knew David would throw her way.

When the doors opened, she bounded out of the elevator like a freed tigress, shouting, “Wish me luck, everyone!  I’m off on a date!”  Spying Mario, she flashed him a huge grin, gave him a thumbs-up, and then ran out of the hotel, not waiting for Joey to escort her across the street.

She flew into Central Park, past the zoo entrance, under the animated cuckoo clock, around the rose garden, and over to Dali’s Deli with the hopefulness of a small child.  Still beaming, she scurried around a family blocking the entrance and peered inside. No David.  She went up and down the aisles, thinking to find him picking out a bag of chips.  He was not there.  She looked in the refrigerated section, hoping he was selecting a chilled bottle of White Zinfandel.  He was not there.

Worried that her date might be waiting outside, Sunshine ran out of the store.  He was not there.  Spying a green plastic table and chairs, she sat with her back against the wall, in position to see David approach.  Eyes pooling, she watched a nanny escort two small children into a playground just inside the park gates.  She chuckled as a young jogger dragged a Labrador puppy on a leash, jerking to a stop every time the dog found something intriguing to smell.  But still no David.

Her head fell onto her crossed arms and she sobbed a heart-wrenching cry.  Shoulders shaking, ribs aching, her grief filled the afternoon.

“Excuse me, Miss.  May I sit here?”

Responding automatically, she said, “Sure. No one else wants one.”

“Aren’t you happy to see me?”

Looking up, Sunshine discovered none other than her father sitting across from her, smiling and eyes sparkling.

“My meeting was cancelled, so I was hoping to spend an afternoon with my favorite daughter.  How about it?”

 

“Well, you’re not the man I longed to see, but I am pleased you came,” she said as she wiped away the tears with the hem of her shirt.

“Do you think you could spend the afternoon with your old man?”

“Yes.  Thanks, Dad, for coming.”

“Anything for my Sunshine.”

“How did you know where to find me?”

“I asked Joey,” her father laughed.  “He said you love the iced gelato they sell here.  Come, my darling. A picnic and a play and an evening on the town awaits us.”  He stood and offered his arm, humming, “You are the sunshine of my life….”