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.

 

 

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….”

 

Survivor

Weather-wise, there was nothing special about the day. No rain. No snow. Or smog or fog. Or heat waves radiating over the road. Nothing but feathery clouds scattered across a bright blue sky.

Stan Ellis sat right behind his father who drove staring straight ahead, one arm draped on the armrest, the other loosely gripping the steering wheel. Stan was too young to understand the mechanics of driving. At eight all he cared about was getting there. Sometimes he paid attention to whatever was happening outside the car, but mostly he read or listened to his parents talk or followed along with whatever song came on the radio.

On this day, July 14, they were going camping at Hebgen Lake somewhere near Yellowstone. Stan’s family had never been there before, but that was what made it special. They loved to check out new places and this was one that they’d heard good things about.

Stan’s mom had planned out the details. Food. Campground. Packing the station wagon. She had given Stan a list of stuff to bring and he had packed all that and more.

One thing his mom loved was music. Their station wagon was old, so it didn’t have a CD player. Only a radio. So his mom was constantly searching for a station that came in loud and clear.

Whenever a news program came on, his parents rehashed every topic. Stan didn’t understand politics and didn’t really care. Instead he read. He was currently immersed in a Louis L’Amour book, Down the Long Hills, a story in which a wagon train is attacked, only two surviving. Two kids. A seven-year old and a three-year-old. He imagined himself being there, hiding during the attack, then trying to survive on his own.

Just like the kids in the book, he would have to keep moving, searching for help, building shelter, finding food. Stan thought he would be thoughtful like the older kid, for he had grown up camping and hiking. But would he be too terrified to think clearly? Hopefully he’d never have to find out.

The road climbed into the hills, twisting and turning. His father complained about his limited view, fearing that a careless driver would cross the dividing line or that something would jump out in front of the car or that something would go wrong mechanically and he would lose control. When his dad worried, things got quiet. So no radio, no conversation, just tension.

When it happened Stan wasn’t paying attention. He’d leaned back and closed his eyes, picturing himself alone in the wilderness, searching for berries, not afraid, but approaching each task in his usual logical manner.

When the car suddenly swerved to the right and the tires screeched, he sat up, instantly alert. The crash jolted him, sending him forward, banging his head against the back of his father’s seat, then flinging him backward into his own, hurting his neck and shoulder. Shattered glass flew everywhere.

When the noise stopped, Stan realized that they were jammed up against the hillside to the right, the front caved-in, the windshield spider-webbed. Stan leaned over the back of his father’s seat and saw blood pouring down his mom’s forehead, the funny angle of his father’s neck. Stan knew enough from watching television shows that his parents were in bad shape. Possibly even dead. The only hope for their survival was him.

He slid across the seat and climbed out on the right side, forcing the door open with his feet. Once he was free, he surveyed the situation. The other car, a silver Honda, was jammed against the left side of their car. That driver was immobile, just like his parents. Stan looked inside that car and noticed that the man’s legs were at funny angles. And blood was everywhere.

Knowing he needed to have a strategic plan, Stan found a good sized boulder and sat in the sun. His first thought was that his parents would wake up and tell him where to go and what to do. But as time passed and they didn’t wake up, Stan figured he was on his own.

He got his bag out of the back seat, then took off down the road, heading back where they had come from. As he walked he sipped from his canteen, but also kept an eye out for a fresh water source.

The road wound down and down, twisting around one hillside, then the other. He never saw any traffic. Stan got tired, but knew he couldn’t quit. Too much was at stake.

Night approached. Stan saw no lights of nearby buildings, no indication that anyone was about, so he turned into the woods to seek shelter. The kid in the book used low-hanging tree branches as shelter, so that’s what Stan looked for. He found none, but he did find a hollowed-out tree with an indentation just big enough for him to squeeze into.

Before it got completely dark, he gathered fallen leaves into a body-sized pile for him to sleep on. Then he carried more over to use as covering. Even though it was summer, it would get cold as the night progressed.

Stan was normally a brave kid. He stood up to bullies when a little kid was being picked on, he volunteered to go to the blackboard whenever he could, and he explored his neighborhood with friends, always the leader. But this was different. At home he knew his parents would be waiting for him, dinner cooked, a soft bed, a warm embrace.

Out here he was on his own, and as it became darker, Stan lost confidence in his ability to survive. Every sound terrified him. Every snap of a twig was a predator coming to eat him. Every grunt was a gun-toting killer. Stan shook from head to toe, and not just from the cold.

He pushed himself as deep into the tree as he could, then covered himself with leaves, only his face sticking out. He hoped that he was invisible to whatever evil forces were out there. And when he got cold, he curled up, trying to contain his body heat as best he could.

When the sky lightened, Stan stood and brushed off as many of the leaves as he could. He picked up his bag and headed downhill, moving as quickly as he could. He was hungry, thirsty and tired, but he kept moving, taking only the tiniest sips of water in order to make what he had last as long as possible.

The land flattened out, thankfully, and off to the left Stan saw a ranch. When he got to the dirt road that seemed to be its driveway, Stan picked up his pace. He listened for charging dogs, not wanting to be bitten before he could get help for his parents.

Laundry swung from a rope line stretching from a pole to the barn. The buildings were bright white with green trim and seemed to be in good repair. No rusted-out vehicles or appliances were visible. Flowers bloomed in trim gardens running along the driveway. There was nothing threatening, nothing that indicated danger, so Stan approached.

Just as he was about to go up the first step, the door opened. A grandmotherly woman smiled at him. “Whatcha doin’ out here, young man?”

Stan told her about the accident and about the condition of his parents and the other driver. He held back the tears that threatened to fall, but it was hard. He thought of the kids in the book and how brave they had been. He wanted to show this woman that he was also brave.

“Come in,” she said. “Would you like some lemonade?”

“No, thanks. Can I wait out here?”

She smiled. “You’re a smart boy. I wouldn’t go inside a stranger’s house either. How about you sit on the porch while I phone the sheriff and then bring you something to eat and drink?”

“Thanks, ma’am. That would be great.” Stan sat in a rocking chair to the right of the door. He thought that someday he’d want a chair like this one, out on a porch so that he could look out over his land.

The woman returned with a glass of lemonade and a tray of sandwiches and cookies. “The sheriff is on his way. He’ll go up the mountain first to check on your folks. The ambulance is also coming. And the doctor.” She sat in the chair next to Stan. “Is there anything I can get you? A blanket or a jacket?”

“A blanket would be nice,” he said. “And can I use your bathroom?”

“Sure.” The woman opened the door, saying, “It’s down the hall. Second door on the left. I’ll wait out here so you feel safe.”

After using the toilet, Stan looked in the mirror. He had a cut in his forehead, but it wasn’t deep and had already quit bleeding, but it was bruising. Purple and blue and red radiated out across his face. He looked as if he was wearing paint for Halloween. Stan wondered if he looked that bad, what did his parents look like?

Stan didn’t see the sheriff go by, but he did hear the siren of the ambulance. The wait for information was horrendous. He rocked, ate, maybe even slept after he wrapped the blanket around himself.

In time, in what felt like late afternoon, the sheriff drove up. He knelt before Stan. “Hi,” he said. “Were you in that accident?”

Stan nodded. “How are my parents?”

The sheriff sighed as he put his large hand on Stan’s shoulder. “I have bad news. Both of your parents are dead. The only consolation I can offer is that they most likely died right away, with very little pain.” He sat next to Stan. “Now, let’s figure out what we can do for you.”

“Okay.”

“Who should we call to come get you?”

Stan thought for a bit. He knew he had aunts and uncles somewhat nearby where they lived, but he seldom saw them. His mother’s parents were both dead. All that was left was his dad’s parents. “My Grandpa and Grandma Ellis live near Bozeman.” He dug in his bag and pulled out a spiral notebook. He opened it to the back cover. “Their phone number is right here.”

“Can I borrow this?” the sheriff asked. Stan handed it to him and then the sheriff went inside. After a few minutes he returned, a smile on his face. “Well, the good news is that they were home. They are leaving now to come get you. Mr. Ellis said it would take them a few hours, but they wouldn’t stop along the way.”

The sheriff looked at the woman. “Ma’am, thanks for taking care of the boy. I told his grandparents that he’d be at my office, so we’d better leave now.”

Stan smiled at the woman. “I never asked your name.”

“Mrs. Willoughby. My friends call me Norma.” She handed Stan a slip of paper. “That’s my number and address. If you need anything, no matter how small, send me a note or give me a call. You hear?”

“Thanks,” Stan said. He followed the sheriff down the stairs and got into the back seat. On the way into town, the reality of what had happened hit Stan. Tears poured down his cheeks. He mourned his mom and dad, his home, his friends, his school, all the things that were gone.

Life with his grandparents would be good because they were kind people. Whenever he visited them, he was allowed to roam the ranch at will, as if it was his. Now it will be.

Change is Coming

When you’re sixteen, summer is the absolutely worst season of all. Unless you have money. With dollars in your pocket you could do almost anything, go almost anywhere and hang out with your friends.

The problem was that Andrew Nesbitt had no money, few friends and nowhere to go. He had no cell phone, no Internet and no cable TV. That left almost nothing to do except complete the endless chores that his mom assigned: mow the grass, wash the windows, clean your room, take out the trash. Boring.

He tried to find a job, but because of a depressed economy, no one was hiring teens when they could hire adults for kids’ pay. He was even willing to cut his shoulder-length hair if a future employer demanded it, but still no offers.

That meant endless days of reading or playing with his annoying younger sister Angela who he had to babysit for free.

One day as he huddled in his room reading a sci-fi novel that he’d checked out from the library, the doorbell unexpectedly rang.

His mom had strict rules about opening the door, but Angela beat him and so had it wide open, staring at an unusually-dressed woman holding a tall staff in her right hand.

“Who are you?” Andrew asked as he brushed his hair behind his ears.

“Your transport,” the woman said.

“Transport?” Angela asked. “Where are we going?” She leaned against her brother’s side, wrapping her arm around his slim waist.

The stranger stared into Angela’s blue eyes. “To Maru Island near North Carolina.”

Andrew, questioning the sanity of the peculiarly dressed woman, attempted to close the door, but her sandaled foot was firmly planted in the way. “We’ve vacationed many times in the Outer Banks. No Maru. You’re lying,” he said.

The woman grabbed Angela’s arm and pulled her onto the porch. “You’re coming,” the woman said. “You’re needed.” The woman’s body fizzled as if it was disappearing. Before she was completely gone, Andrew grabbed his sister’s free arm and held on.

The three of them were sucked into a vortex of swirling lights and screeching sound. It was difficult to breathe and took all of Andrew’s concentration to bring in enough air to stay alive. He worried about his sister. Were her lungs strong enough to withstand the pressure?

When Andrew’s feet touched solid ground, the swirl of colors and sounds abruptly ceased. His first thought was Angela. He tucked her against his side and asked, “Are you okay?”

She nodded.

What Andrew found odd was that although he was scared, Angela was not. A huge grin lit up her face, her cheeks were flushed and her eyes sparkled. “Look, Andrew,” she said. “We’re in the middle of a very strange village.”

They stood on a cobblestone street lined with odd-shaped cottages. No roof was flat, no windows aligned, no sides straight. And no two doors matched.

Some doors were circular with no windows. Some had one window at the top. Some doors were square and others rectangular, but the rectangular ones had the long sides parallel to the ground. Very weird. And all buildings were exactly the same height. No two-story buildings, no steeples, no towers.

“We must hurry,” the woman said.

Andrew stood firm. “Who are you and what you want with us?”

“I am Qutari, the shaman of Maru. Hidden inside one of these houses is a talisman that will stop the decay that is seeping into the heart of the city. Our mages have tried to no avail. They have decided that only non-magical beings can ferret out the talisman because of some kind of blockage. That’s why you’re here.”

“How do you know we’re non-magical?” Andrew asked.

Qutari tapped her nose. “I can sense magic. Both of you have none. But you have smarts. It’s been predestined that you are the ones who will save the city. Now, come. We will search until we find the talisman. Step up to the first door.”

Angela approached a powder-blue rectangular door. Just as she prepared to knock, the door opened. Out wafted wonderful smells of baking. “Chocolate chip cookies,” Angela screeched as she hurried inside.

Indeed, standing behind a speckled blue counter stood a tiny old woman, an apron tightly tied around her waist. She picked up a tray of still steaming cookies. “Have one, my pretties.”

As Andrew reached for his favorite flavor of cookie, Angela stopped him before his fingers came in contact. “No,” she said with wide-opened eyes. “There’s something wrong.”

The old woman cackled, sending shivers down Andrew’s spine.

Qutari leaned close to Angela and whispered, “Is it the cookies?”

Angela nodded, a terrified look on her face. “I sense danger,” she said as she tugged Andrew out of the kitchen and onto the tiny street. “Can you remove the danger? To keep others safe?”

Qutari lifted her staff high over her head and brought it crashing to the ground. A great earthquake shook the house into rubble. “Done.” She led them to the next house, one with a circular door. “Go inside.”

Andrew knocked and then as before, the door swung wide open. Inside a middle-aged man dressed in dark blue overalls sat in a comfy chair, book in his lap, smoking a pipe.

“Welcome,” he said with a sneer. “Have a seat.” He pipe pointed to an empty sofa.

Andrew tightened his grip on his sister’s hand and stood stock still. “Why?” he said. “What do you want with us?”

The man laughed a rather eerie sounding noise. “You want something from me,” he said.

Andrew looked about the room. His eyes locked on a wooden box on a shelf just behind the man’s head. “What’s that?” he asked.

“My treasure box. It belonged to my wife but now it’s mine.”

As Andrew picked up the box, a strange tingling traveled up his arm. He put it back on the shelf. “There’s something wrong with this.”

Angela took it from his hands and opened it. Inside was an old-fashioned skeleton key that was a bit tarnished. She said, “This might be what you’re looking for.”

Qutari said, “Tell me what you think it might do.”

Angela held the key against her forehead. She scrunched her eyes and her breathing slowed. She stood transfixed for what seemed to Andrew like ten minutes.

He ran his hand over his sister’s messy brown hair. “Angela, speak to me.”

In a voice that wasn’t hers, words poured out. The gravelly voice said, “Give the key to Qutari and get off the island as soon as you can.” The key fell to the floor, Angela’s eyes opened and then she reached for her brother’s hand. “Let’s get out of here,” she said.

Qutari tucked the key into a leather satchel that fell nearly to her hips. “Well done,” she said once the threesome was outside. “You found the talisman. But there’s a problem.”

Andrew sighed. “What do you need from us now?”

“To find the lock that the key opens.”

“No,” Andrew said. “You only wanted the talisman.”

Qutari shook her head as she ushered the children down the street. “I said that you had to solve a problem. Well, you got the key, but now we need to know what the key opens. Solve that and I will take you home.”

A stiff breeze ruffled Andrew’s short-sleeved shirt. He wrapped his arms around his body for warmth. Angela did the same. “I’m cold,” she said. “I wish I had a sweatshirt.”

Qutari banged her staff against the cobblestone street and two sweatshirts appeared before their feet, one dark blue in Andrew’s size, one bright red in Angela’s. The kids slipped them over their heads and then the trio proceeded down the street.

“We don’t have to go in every house,” Qutari said. “Let’s stand before each one for a few minutes. Close your eyes and allow your senses to speak.”

They stopped in front of a house with a red tile roof that slanted sharply to the right. A red door stood open and a sharp smell of rotting food floated about. “Something’s dead in there,” Andrew said. “We shouldn’t go in there.”

At the next house, one with a slanted green door, Angela nodded. “This might be the one. Look at the lock. It’s old-fashioned, just like the key.”

Qutari hesitated. “No one locks their doors here. But you can check.” She handed the key to Angela, who, after first trying the knob and finding it locked, inserted the key and turned. The door opened.

The sounds of children crying filled the air. Qutari entered first after telling Andrew and Angela to wait outside. Within minutes Qutari came out with at least a dozen kids of all ages trailing behind.

“You did it!” Qutari said. “You found our children! They’ve been missing for weeks.” A grin lit up her craggy face. She banged her staff on the ground and two men appeared wearing tan robes. “Our children have been found thanks to the young people. Please, take the kids home.”

The men led the children down the street. Some of the kids were Andrew’s age. They either clutched a toddler to their chests or tightly held the hand of a crying youngster. Some of the kids followed on their own. All of their faces were smudged with tears and their clothing was dirty. All of them smelled as if they hadn’t washed for a long time. They were thin and walked as if to a slow waltz, barely lifting their feet off the ground.

“I will take you home now,” Qutari said as she grabbed Andrew’s arm. “Hold on tight,” she said as they entered that same swirling tunnel from before.

When they settled on solid ground, Qutari bowed before the kids. “Thank you for your help. Those kids will be given a nice warm bath and some healthy food and then returned to their families.   We will be forever grateful to you.”

Qutari pulled two amulets out of a pocket of her robe. She handed one to Andrew, the other to Angela. “If you ever find yourselves in trouble, put these around your necks, close your eyes and allow my image to come to your minds. I will come.”

Angela wrapped her arms around Qutari and hugged her tightly. “Thanks for allowing me to help,” she said.

Andrew shook Qutari’s hand. “Me too,” he said. “It was fun. I’d go back to that village any day.”

Qutari pounded her staff against the ground and disappeared.

The two kids went inside. Instead of turning on the television, they sat together on the sofa and talked. One thing they agreed on was that their normal boring day and suddenly become one-of-a-kind.

A Trying Situation

Jennifer wanted nothing more than to have one good friend. Someone she could rely on to be there for her. Someone who cared for her like no one else.

The problem was that she was the most unpopular kid in school. Dressed in too big jumpers, hand-me-down white blouses and oxford saddle shoes, she was a pariah. Her long hair was always in pigtails or braids, carefully done up by her mother, but not the popular style among girls her age.

How do you make friends when you are so radically different from everyone else? Jennifer didn’t know.

During recess and lunch, Jennifer followed the popular girls around closely enough that she could hear what they talked about. It was gossip, pure and simple. They made fun of everyone that wasn’t them. They laughed at things the teacher said or did. They chaffed at the teasing of boys, yet encouraged them by their suggestive saunters and shortened shirts.

Jennifer knew that she was often the butt of the snide comments, and this hurt, but yet she still wanted to be part of that group.

At home she practiced the walk. She begged and begged for a haircut until her mom relented and let it be shortened to shoulder length. She brushed her hair every night until it shone. In the morning she brushed it again, making sure there were no tangles, twists or poking out strands.

She convinced her dad to let her get new shoes that weren’t oxfords. It took a lot of work, but boy, did she feel happy when he relented! She saved her weekly allowance until she had enough to buy new shoes. It was May by the time her dad drove her to the store, but it didn’t matter. She finally had shoes like all the other girls wore.

There was nothing she could do about the jumpers and blouses. New ones cost too much, plus the year was almost over and she’d need replacements for eighth grade anyway.

Was it enough? Jennifer hoped so. When she walked on the campus in her new shoes with her new hair, she squared her shoulders and smiled at the first popular girl she saw.

The girl snubbed her. It was subtle, true. The girl, Marissa, looked at Jennifer, smirked, then turned and walked away. Not the greeting Jennifer was hoping for.

Tears came to her eyes, which she hastily wiped away before entering the classroom.

Yes, everyone saw her shorter, more stylish hair. She was sure that they also noticed her more modern shoes. But her clothes were still someone else’s. Her jumper was faded and baggy and her blouse off-white with a pixie collar than no one else wore.

Jennifer skulked to her desk and slid onto her seat, her shoulders drooping.

How to be accepted? She didn’t know.

During recess she went into the bathroom. Fortunately none of the popular girls were there. That quickly changed, however.

Jennifer recognized Susan’s voice first. “Did you see Jennifer’s hair? Not in braids or pigtails.”

“Yeah,” another girl said. “I couldn’t believe that she’d cut off her hair.”

“I loved her long hair,” Susan said. “No she looks more like a boy with that horse-face of hers.”

The other girl snorted. “Come on, she’s not that bad looking. She’s fat, but not too fat.”

“What boy would want to date her? Name one.”

The girls were silent for a moment. “Peter Strauss.”

Chuckles filled the room. “He’s just as fat and ugly,” Susan said. “They’d make a great pair.”

Water gushed from the faucets. Paper towels were ripped from the dispenser, the door opened and shut. Only then did Jennifer emerge. She stood before the mirror and checked out her face. Was she ugly? She didn’t think so. True, her cheeks were a bit puffy. She had a dimple when she smiled. Her eyebrows were thick, but not bushy.

She tossed her hair back and tried to picture a boy with the same cut. No names came to mind until she thought of Peter. His hair was long, shoulder length, like hers. Brown like hers. Straight like hers.

She imagined him standing next to her in front of the mirror. He would be taller, his shoulders broader, his neck thicker, but he was also overweight. He stuttered, while she did not. He spoke in a whisper only when forced to respond by the teacher. Jennifer also spoke in a whisper but she did it because she was easily embarrassed.

“Oh, well,” she said as she shrugged and exited the restroom.

Once outside Jennifer looked for the popular girls. They were clustered together near the teacher lunchroom, their usual place. Jennifer thought about walking over there, but then she spotted Peter leaning against the wall outside their classroom.

“Hi,” she said. “What are you doing?”

“Nothing,” he said. “What about you?”

Jennifer shrugged. “Hey, what’s your favorite TV show?”

“American Idol. I like to imagine that it’s me up there.”

“Do you sing?”

“Yeah, but only at home. And at church. What about you?”

Jennifer smiled. “Same with me. I have a radio in my room. I keep it tuned to 97.3 because I like the music they play.”

“That’s my favorite station. Want to come over sometime and we can listen together?”

Jennifer thought about the ramifications. If she palled around with Peter she didn’t stand a chance of ever being friends with the popular girls. On the other hand, there was a real good possibility that she’d never fit in with them anyway. “Yeah, I’d like that.”

“How about tomorrow after school? My mom could pick you up.”

“Let’s say Friday. That’ll give me time to ask my parents and get permission. One thing I know is that they’ll want to talk to your parents before then.”

Peter pulled a crumpled paper out of his pants pocket and a pencil from his shirt pocket. He wrote something and then handed the paper to Jennifer. “That’s my number. Write yours at the bottom and tear it off. I’ll ask my mom to call this afternoon.”

When the bell rang, Jennifer was smiling. She had a friend! Her first real friend. Someone who wanted her to come over to his house and hang out. Granted it wasn’t one of the people she’d dreamt of having for a friend, but Peter was a loner like her. Together they’d make an awesome pair.

And that’s all that mattered.

One Special Day

Sherry watched woefully as her classmate Sabrina handed out bright yellow envelopes to the girls in the class. One by one eyes lit up and smiles creased faces as the envelopes were torn open. Squeals of delight filled the air.

Sherry crossed her fingers behind her back, hoping desperately that this time she would be included. As the pile slowly got smaller, she knew, due to years of experience, that once again she would be left out. It didn’t mean she couldn’t dream, however, that things had changed.

It brought tears to her eyes, watching all those happy faces, yearning to be among them as an equal. But she wasn’t equal Far from it. Her old-fashioned clothes made her stand out amid all the rest. Who wore seersucker skirts and gingham dresses?

No one. That’s who.

And her shoes. They didn’t help either. Her doctor insisted on saddle oxfords to support her weak arches. Sherry hated them.

She wanted Nikes or Keds: black and gray or blue and white, with the distinguishing logo on the side so that she could be like the other kids.

Even her hair distinguished her from the pack. Her classmates all had brown or black or blonde hair. But not her.   Bright red curls surrounded her head, forming a wild halo of color. No one else had red hari except for Billy, a rather odd-looking boy who often trailed after her, calling her names, pushing her from behind and pulling her hair while he cackled like a witch.

He was excluded from the boy groups just as she was from the girls.

Sherry had tried to convince her mom to cut her hair, to keep it close to her had so that she didn’t look like a crazy person, but her mom would have none of it. Her mom’s hair was just as red, just as curly, but she saw it as a source of pride, not embarrassment.

Sherry practically drooled as Sabrina neared her on the playground. Only one card left. Only one invitation to hand out. Only one girl not holding one.

As Sabrina walked up to Sherry, the girl’s face broke into a huge smile. Sherry trembled with excitement. This was it! She was no longer an outcast!

Sabrina’s hand slowly extended toward Sherry. Closer and closer the envelope came.

Was this going to be the time when she got invited?

Granted, when she was little she attended quite a few parties, but that was because of the rule that everyone got invited or no one did.

Those were the good days. Days when she didn’t feel different.

But in elementary school things changed. There were no rules, so kids could pick and choose who to invite. As soon as the teasing began in first grade, no invitations ever came her way.

She was in fourth grade now and should have known better. But she got good grades, never got in trouble, never teased other students, never gossiped. Surely the other kids noticed.

And so she smiled back at Sabrina. As the card got close enough to touch, Sherry extended her hand, ready to receive it with the increasing joy she felt welling inside.

Just as Sherry’s fingers neared the edge of the envelope, Sabrina moved past her. “Mrs. Allen?” Sabrina said. “Would you like to come to my party?”

Sherry turned around and looked at the smile on her teacher’s face.

Once again, she stood out. She was the odd girl. The one no one wanted at their party.

 

Sleaze Supreme

“Did you hear the rumor about our dear principal?”

“No.”

“Well,” said Tom Smythe, the senior Government teacher at Valley Christian High School, as he leaned back with a rather smug look, “it’s a really great story.”

Debbie Alsop, a first year teacher, asked, “What’s being spread around now?”

“Supposedly he’s been accused of sexual harassment, just like in his last district.”

“What do you mean?”

“Jim cornered a young teacher.  She filed a sexual harassment suite that looks pretty solid.”

“Come on, Tom, you’re always stirring up trouble. Don’t you think the director checked Mr. Perry’s record before hiring him?”

“You are so naïve,” Tom said as he leaned back in his chair.  “Wait until he puts his hands on you.”

“I don’t want to hear anymore,” Debbie said as she grabbed her pile of essays and walked away.  She was so angry rage spilled out of her pores.  Tom and his rumormonger friends ruined more than one teacher’s career, simply because they had the power to do so.  Anyone with a work ethic, anyone who was a good teacher, was a potential target.  Debbie knew she was their next victim thanks to an inside tip from a veteran teacher, and so she kept herself clear of Tom and his pack of liars.

Debbie stomped down the hall past a pair of teenagers locked in a passionate embrace, past a young teen defacing a hallway mural, and past a group of smokers who quickly formed a defensive circle as she breezed past, paying as much attention as a fly with cataracts. While students were expected to leave shortly after the last bell, it wasn’t unusual to find clusters of them openly defying the rules.  The first few days of school Debbie challenged the defiant ones, but when she was not supported by administration, she chose temporary blindness as a reaction. It was easier that way.

After unlocking her classroom door, Debbie plopped her papers on the worktable at the back of her room, turned on her stereo to a soft rock station, and then simply sat. Brushing off her anger, Debbie immersed herself in the essays, reading primarily for content, but hoping for glimmers of brilliance from her otherwise apathetic students.  She did not hear her classroom door open, nor the barely discernible touch of expensive leather soles crossing the carpeted floor.

When strong hands squeezed both shoulders, Debbie screamed.  She grabbed for the hands, trying to pry them off her shoulders, but to no avail. Suddenly warm breath tickled the hairs on the back of her neck, little puffs that sent shivers rolling down her spine. The hands held Debbie firmly in place, stopping her from pulling away or even turning to see the attacker’s face. She squeaked, “Who are you?  What do you want?”

“Relax, Debbie,” said a softly crooning voice.  “It’s me, your old pal.”

The hands released her as quickly as they had pinned her down.  Debbie’s chair spun around almost from its own volition, stopping only when she was inches from the hazel eyes of Jim Perry.  “You frightened me, Jim.  That wasn’t fair.”

“There’s nothing to be frightened of, now, is there?”  He spun Debbie back around, returned his hands to her shoulders and immediately applied a deep massage.  “I came by to see how you were doing.  You didn’t stop by my office today, so I was worried about you.”

She struggled to fight off the lethargy creeping from her shoulders down her back. While the massage felt incredible, something about his nearness repulsed her. Debbie shrugged her shoulders, trying to wrench away from Jim’s grip, but his hands refused to let go. “I have a lot of work to do,” she stammered. “I, uh, didn’t know you wanted to see me.”

“I had been planning to visit your classroom anyway,” he said as his right hand slid down Debbie’s spinal column, caressing each vertebra.  “I’ve heard that the student work you have displayed is phenomenal.”  The hand traced the line of her bra, moving from armpit to armpit, traveling around the front, stopping just as his fingers contacted the swelling of each breast.

Uncomfortable with the uninvited touch, Debbie tried to think of a way to disengage from the situation without angering the man who literally held her fate in his hands. “Tell you what.  Let’s go to your office right now.”  She tried to push out of her chair, but Jim’s hands flew back to her shoulders, holding her firmly in place.  He squeezed so hard that tears filled her eyes.  “You’re hurting me.  Please stop.”

“You’re fine.  So fine.  Just relax.”  Jim resumed his massage while keeping his left hand on Debbie’s shoulder. As his hand “accidentally” brushed her breast, he said, “Let’s stay here where no one will interrupt our conversation.”  His right hand tiptoed across her cheek, her neck, around the outside of her ear, and the outline of her quivering lips. “I locked your door when I came in, so we are quite safe.  Quite alone,” he murmured as his kissed her hair along her neckline.

Tremors shook Debbie’s body and tears slid from her eyes.  Again she reached for Jim’s hands, hoping to stop his increasingly incessant explorations of her upper torso, but he craftily avoided her bumbling attempts. “It’s time for me to go,” she said.  “My ride is waiting.”  Her heart pounded so loudly she thought for sure he could hear it.

“I’ll give you a ride home when we’re finished.”  His handsome face moved near hers again, his blue eyes glittering like ice, his cheeks crimson, and his breath coming in ragged puffs. “You are so beautiful and so smart,” he said as his index finger brushed her lips.  In an exaggerated motion, Jim then touched his own lips, inserted the offending finger in his own mouth, and caressed it with his tongue.

“Stop, please,” Debbie said.  “I really do need to leave.  My car is in the shop and my roommate is coming to pick me up.”

“There’s something on your cheek,” Jim said.  He leaned so close that she could smell his lunchtime latte and burger with fries.  She gasped when his tongue tenderly licked away tears streaming down her cheeks.  “Everything is going to be alright,” he crooned.  “Relax.  Jim Perry is a magician who makes all pain disappear.  Let me work my magic.”

He framed her chin with one large hand, pulled her close with the other, and kissed her, forcing his tongue into her mouth.  Gagging, Debbie pulled away, saying, “I’m, uh, expecting a phone call any moment to tell me my car is ready. I need to pack up my things.”

“You’re lying,” Jim said as he deftly pulled over a nearby chair and sat, knees touching hers, hands resting on her thighs. “I don’t think you’re expecting a call.  In fact, your car is right next to mine. I checked before I walked out here. Why are you playing games with me?”

“I’m not.  Maybe my roommate picked up my car for me.  Let me call her to check.”  Debbie reached for her phone, but his hand shot out and grabbed her by the wrist.  As Jim pulled her back to him, he twisted her hand until there was an audible pop.  “Stop!  You’re hurting me,” she cried.

As he pulled her to him he said, “I don’t like it when people play games with me.”  He leaned forward, staring into Debbie’s eyes, his own eyes hard and frightening.  He forced his tongue into her mouth, holding her head in a pincer-like grasp. Jim’s right hand went under her blouse, rooted around for her breasts, and squeezed so hard she gasped. “You are so beautiful,” he whispered into her left ear, his afternoon whiskers scratching her cheek.

Saying nothing, pretending to relax into the probing kisses, Debbie slid her hands up Jim’s chest and then pushed as hard as she could. Taken by surprise, he lost his hold, and the chair slid a foot away. Seizing the opportunity, she jumped up and ran to the opposite side of the room. “I have a lot to do, Mr. Perry.  I think you should leave now.”

“Since when did I become Mr. Perry? Aren’t we good friends?”  He languorously stood, brushing down the front of his black slacks while staring into her eyes.

“Yes. Of course,” she said as she silently slid closer to the wall phone.

“Haven’t I been a great help to you? Don’t I listen to your concerns?”

“Yes,” Debbie said as he strode toward her. “But I really do have a lot of papers to grade.  I think you should leave.”

“I think you need a break,” Jim said as he quickly cut off her path. He grabbed her arms, forcing her against the classroom wall. “Quit fighting me.  I know you want this,” he said as his breathing quickened.  He pulled Debbie’s arms up over her head, crossed her wrists, and then smashed them against the wall with his left hand.  He placed his right leg between Debbie’s legs, his chest smothering hers. Jim’s fingers found her buttons, and slowly, ever so slowly, he undid each one.  “That’s better,” he said. “Now you’ll be more comfortable.  It’s very warm in here.  Why don’t you turn in a work order to get the air conditioning fixed?”

“Please, Jim, stop.”

“Stop what, darling?” He blew into her ear as he ran his left hand under her bra.  “You’re my special project.  You know that, right?  The moment I met you, I marked you as someone I could work with.”  Jim slathered her neck and face with kisses.

His lips brushed hers once again, light as butterflies bouncing from flower to flower. “Stop,” Debbie mumbled as she tried to escape Jim’s amorous clutches.

Jim slid one hand down her chest, touching the waistband of her slacks.  He forced his fingers under the band, beneath her underwear, pushing deeper and deeper as his breathing came in ragged bursts. Debbie struggled, wriggling her hips in an attempt to get away, but that only seemed to intensify Jim’s probing.  The only thing she could think to pretend to relax into his embrace, then wait for an opportunity for escape.

“You like this, don’t you, Baby?”  He kissed her ears, her neck, and her breasts while his hand moved further down her body.  Jim was so preoccupied that he didn’t hear her cries, didn’t recognize her futile attempts at resistance. Jim slipped his coffee-enhanced tongue deeper into Debbie’s mouth, causing her to gag once again.

Empowered by nausea, she found the strength to push Jim away and ran to the nearest garbage can.  Bile filled her mouth over and over again.

“Hey!  You didn’t tell me you were sick,” he said as a look of horror crossed his face.  “My God, you’ve given me the flu!”  He took a starched white handkerchief from his pants pocket and wiped his lips and tongue.

“It isn’t my fault,” Debbie said as she shakily stood.  “You’re the one who kissed me.  Touched me.  I thought you were my friend.  Instead you’re as sleazy as the rumors say.”  She moved toward the phone, picked up the receiver and held it out like a weapon.  “This is an act of sexual harassment,” she said, surprising even herself with her strength.  “I intend to report your actions to Officer Young.”

Jim’s face reddened as he rearranged his mussed clothing and put his handkerchief away.  “I think you are mistaken, Ms. Alsop,” he said in a voice as sweet as whipped cream.  “I came to your classroom to talk to you about your lack of management skills.  To let you know that a pink slip will arrive before March 15.  Your teaching career is finished, unless you are willing to cooperate with me as your principal and mentor.”  He stared at Debbie, his eyes glittering with anger.

She punched in Young’s numbers.  She listened to four rings, saddened when Voice Mail kicked in.  Staring at Jim, she calmly said, “This is Debbie Alsop.  Please call me at 4366 when you have an opportunity.  I want to report an incident of sexual harassment.”

As she hung up the phone, Jim ran his hands down the sharp creases of his trousers. Staring at Debbie, he said, “If you report what happened here, you won’t be back next year. Maybe even next week.”  With that he slowly turned and headed for the door with a saunter that bespoke confidence in his ability to maneuver his way out of any situation.  “Not only that,” he said with his hand on the doorknob, “you won’t work anywhere in California.  I’ll file my own report which will detail how you tried to seduce me, despite the fact that you are a lesbian.”

Debbie watched dumbfounded as he opened the door and left.  Only when the door clicked shut was she able to move.  She scuttled to her desk, picked up her keys, ran to the door and locked herself in.  She sank to the floor.  Wrapping her arms around her knees, she cried.  She cried for his arrogance, for his betrayal of what she thought was friendship, for his threat to expose her sexuality, for the violation of her body.  Minutes passed.

Eventually Debbie stood, walked the distance to her desk, gathered her students’ papers, stuffed them into her satchel, picked up her lunch bag, and walked out.   She headed to the parking lot, unlocked her car and mechanically threw her bag onto the passenger seat.  She put the key into the ignition and with a feeling of satisfaction as the engine of her deep red Camaro roared to life, put the car into gear, and drove out of the parking lot.

At first she drove without direction, heading first north, then east, then finally turning into a shopping center a few blocks from home.  She pulled into an empty slot, stopped the car, and turned off the engine. Debbie leaned back into the soft leather seat and allowed the torrent of tears to flow. Even though Jim had gone way past sexual harassment, she knew she could not report it.  She could not risk the exposure of her sexuality. To be employed at the school she had lied on the professional integrity contract.  If he followed through with his threats she would also be promptly terminated, as sexual “deviancy” was not tolerated.   Plus there was the fact of the lie.  It proved that she was dishonest.

Wishing now that she had listened to Smythe’s rumors, Debbie revved up her engine and stormed away, heading for the safety of home and the waiting arms of her life-partner.  She knew that Sam would demand that she quit at the end of the school year, if not sooner.  No problem there.  Might as well start looking for another job.