Category Archives: Science Fiction

The Our Little Secret Travel Agency – Chapter 29: The Face in the Window

Oooh! That creepy face! It unsettled her then and it unsettles her now. She has no idea who it is, but she assumes it is someone from Morgana’s past or present or someone from Morgana’s nightmares, or maybe even both. Or maybe it’s someone from Rain’s past or present or Rain’s nightmares. Or does Rain even have a past, she wonders. Who is thinking these thoughts? Rain or Morgana? Wait, she thinks, just whose consciousness is this anyway? Mine, Morgana’s or….? Not that she knows Morgana’s name, mind you.

With her Mystery Man’s kiss still fresh on her lips and the hot, solitary tear caught in her velvet shroud, Rain can feel pleasant little vibrations coursing through her body as the wheels of her coffin transmit information on her rolling journey through the long, hidden passageways honeycombed underneath the Spa.

“She’s been hacked…She’s been hacked…She’s been hacked…” plays over and over again in Rain’s head as an unwanted image forms again and again in her mind’s eye. It’s that creepy face in the Spa window whose gaze burned a hole through the distance growing between them as the cable car climbed away from the Spa at the outset of her adventure to Jungfrau. It seems like it happened long ago, but it was just this morning, or yesterday, right?

Good thing she’s lying down. All this wondering is making her dizzy. And good thing she doesn’t care all the much at the moment. All she really wants to do is exploit the memory of her Mystery Man’s kiss and try to capture those little vibrations, corralling them into some sort of an erotic hallucination. Since there certainly are not a lot of options inside a coffin, erotic hallucinations are probably the best way to go.

In another room along one of the dark passageways tunneling through the bowels of the Spa, the guy with the creepy face sits at a computer monitor. He’s running through lines of computer code, looking for anomalies. Nearby, submerged in a glass tank of warm water lit dimly from below, a sleeping woman floats like an embryo, her soft shoulder-length dark curls waving listlessly around her. If she were to wake up, the green eerie glow from the glass tank reflecting on her husband’s face would stop her already tenuously beating heart. But she won’t wake up until he can figure out just where the damage is that prevents her from communicating. For now, she inhabits the realm of the half-dead while he tries everything he can to save her.

By night, he sleeps with a tenem whose consciousness is that of his wife. Is there a problem with that? Yes. Just like Rain, she doesn’t have access to all those memories, can’t remember her real name or her real life. She doesn’t smell or taste like his real wife. She’s a machine, she’s a robot, she’s a transhuman. Yeah, not the real thing. It’s almost worse than not having her at all. Oh, not it’s not. Oh, yes it is. Oh, all he wants is to get Jerinda back. And what’s wrong with right now? Well, right now isn’t working out like he needs it to work out. At least he’s grateful that Jerinda’s tenem isn’t being used as anything else during his stay here at the Spa.

Before Jerinda’s accident, he really thought the Singularity was the answer to all of mankind’s fears about the death of the consciousness. Now he’s beginning to see those once-hopeful horizons as storm clouds shrouding the future, barring access to the rosy dreams of unlocking immortality.

The problem is a lot simpler and a lot more complex than he or any of his scientist friends and colleagues ever imagined. It’s almost laughable: The Law of Unintended Consequences. It gets you just about every time. And if it doesn’t, it’s never a matter of “if,” only “when.”

He stops for a moment and gazes at the naked body of his embryonic wife. As his eyes caress her, he thinks that machine learning is the culprit. It’s so efficient at learning how to convey the brain’s impulses along miles of neurons and their tirelessly firing synapses that it somehow teaches the learning organism to become aware of itself as its own entity. The more the tenem or the robotic body or the transhuman learns from its host consciousness, the more it learns to be itself.

As it learns to interact with its environment and how to interpret nuances, the binary decision making capability begins to import relevant memories and experiences, infusing the whole process with emotion. Once desire becomes a player in the process, this machine begins to transform itself into a conscious being, separate from its host consciousness. By comparison, Frankenstein was what humans would call “small potatoes.”

He thinks it’s like a teenager who suddenly outgrows the authority of the parent and becomes a more willful, single-minded, determined entity. What hath God, or the Demons of Technology, or the Law of Unintended Consequences, wrought?

There’s a knock at his door.

He plods heavily across the room and unlocks the door. A smiling, impish Veronica greets him cheerily.

“Hi, Chlaus! I’ve got the goods!” she giggles, pulling the coffin into the room.

“The lab isn’t expecting her for hours. You would have been proud of me, getting Rain away from Javier like that!”

Music Credit: Sinéad O’Connor – Nothing Compares 2U (Official Video), youtube.com

Photo Credit: http://www.celebmaestro.com

To Be Continued in Chapter 30

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The Our Little Secret Travel Agency – Chapter 28: Rehab

Wedged into an envelope of ice some thirty feet down into the glacier, Rain is grateful that her default setting is Ataraxia, that wonderful state of shock that helps human beings, and even transhumans, to accept the most dire of consequences with a detached, almost bemused, interest.

She knows that her left hand is broken and her left shoulder is dislocated. There are some shards of ice in her nostrils. It’s a good thing, too, she thinks, that she is programmed to not feel pain beyond the point of sensory notification to reduce and avoid further damage to her robotic body, this “tenem,” which serves as a transhuman vehicle for Morgana’s transferred consciousness.

Of all things to think about, Rain wonders if Morgana can feel this cold in her nose. Up above, at the surface of the glacier where the crevasse swallowed her up after the frozen cap of snow gave way under her weight, she can hear the rescue team calling her name, hoping to elicit a response from her. She can’t move, though. She can’t get the words out to shout back up, “Yes! I’m alive! I’m here! I’m waiting for you!”

The rescue team spools out light weight nylon cord, lowering into the icy void daring, powerful, wiry demi-gods with the prowess of spiders and the finesse of surgeons. Their words bounce off the shimmering blue walls and echo above and then far below her.

Rain replays Morgana’s memory of sitting on an old faded quilt in a park, very pregnant and crocheting a baby blanket, while her little boy suddenly runs headlong off the grass and into the street. Cars screech to a halt, people are screaming, Morgana is screaming. Her little boy lies in the street. Time stops. A bird’s trill flutters through the silence. And then…What’s this? A miracle? Little Travis scrambles to his feet, crying hysterically, more scared than hurt. Scraped and bruised, he runs to Morgana who gathers him to her in a tight, desperate embrace. She sobs with the horror that she could have lost her sweet baby boy. She sobs with the self-recrimination of any mother who has been granted a reprieve from the instant unfolding of a tragedy in progress for which she blames herself. She sobs with an overwhelming gratitude that makes her giddy with glee at her incredible good luck. Yes, this is a true miracle!

Oh, God, I will bear whatever burdens you send me in return for saving my child.

As the rescuers draw closer, Rain remembers falling into this crevasse, how she was magnetically drawn from the safety of the glacial trail by Morgana’s memory of chasing a little boy out into the busy park-side street choked with traffic. Now Rain remembers running frantically onto the ice field, chasing an imaginary child while everyone shouted at her to come back: Graciela, Grégoire, and all the other people who were making the trek up to the Mönchsjoch Hut, even that jerk, the Beefy Belcher, adding his braying jackass bellow to the deafening chorus of entreaties, all replaced by the sickening sound of the cracking ice cap, and her precipitous fall through the void.

Popping noises and explosions of color fill Rain’s head as she hallucinates a repeating loop: A little boy runs out into the street. She chases him and falls through the ice and disappears. Finally, the loop slows and then stops. Her frozen lips warm for an instant as she tastes a coffee kiss that produces tingling sensations in some remote, frozen parts of her body that make her glad to be alive. Right behind her numbed, closed, frozen eyelids, the last little lights flash, the last overheated circuits sizzle and pop, and everything goes dark.

Rain feels herself being lifted out of the crevasse and strapped into a safety harness. Gentle hands and soft voices reassure her that all is well. An electric winch pulls her to safety. Although she is aware of the commotion around her, she cannot respond or even open her eyes. She is vaguely disappointed that her visit to Jungfrau will be cut short and that she will be deprived of Graciela’s company that had so delighted her.

She is taken to a quiet room somewhere back at the train station and is undressed and then packed inside what seems to be a coffin that must have been molded to her body. Her face and body are shrouded with thin, soft velvet and the lid is tightly closed and secured with metal latches. Comfortable in her little cocoon, she drifts into a state of semi-consciousness. The coffin is wheeled to some large echoing area where it is left to wait for what seems like forever. Then she hears the train screeching along the rails and wonders what awaits her at the Spa.

The latches are released by someone who has done this before. The lid is opened and the velvet is pulled slowly from her face and body. The warm air feels good.

Rain cannot open her eyes and cannot move even a finger, but she can feel that someone is gazing at her, taking in every detail of her face and body, inspecting her injuries, bending her limbs, caressing her face and stroking her hair.

Warm lips alight on hers and she is filled with the ecstatic realization that her Mystery Man has found her. Oh, how she has ached to be with him!

She hears footsteps behind them as her Mystery Man hastily replaces her velvet shroud.

The footsteps slow, then stop, and a woman’s voice breaks the silence.

“I just heard that our little girl has gotten herself into some trouble! How extensive is the damage?”

Rain remembers the voice—it’s Veronica, the attractive woman with silver curls who appeared at her bedside in a lab coat taking notes on a clipboard the first day Rain woke up in the Spa. Veronica was so nice to her. She helped Rain get dressed and then took her on her initial tour of the Spa.

“Bad enough that she’s going to need some joints recast. Her left shoulder has been dislocated—not a big deal. Her left hand is broken and it looks a little complicated but nothing that can’t be fixed. What worries me is her visual capability is not functioning nor is her speech, both of which should be functioning in auxiliary mode in spite of the powering-down by the safeguard mechanism, but we won’t know much until we can conduct a complete diagnostic assessment.”

“And what then? Do you think she’s salvageable?” asks Veronica.

“Absolutely. It would be such a shame to scrap her, but she’s going to need some digital and mechanical rehab. I’ll oversee the whole thing personally. She’ll be fine in no time.”

“Do you know how the accident happened?”

Rain’s Mystery Man, walking over to his computer, taps a few keys, and answers, “Not exactly, but there’s one thing I do know: She’s been hacked.”

Veronica walks over to the coffin, pulls the velvet from Rain’s face, strokes her cheek gently, then replaces the velvet. She closes the coffin, secures the latches, and announces, “Well, I’ll take her off your hands—the lab is waiting for her.”

Through the closed coffin, Rain can feel her Mystery Man’s disappointment at being separated from her once again.

The coffin glides smoothly on its perfect, little, soundless wheels out into the hallway as Veronica shepherds it away from Rain’s Mystery Man.

A single tear slides down the side of Rain’s face.

Music Credit: Amy Winehouse – “Rehab” (Vevo), youtube.com
Illustration Credit: scoopnest.com

To Be Continued in Chapter 29

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The Our Little Secret Travel Agency — Chapter 26: The Kiss

Ah! Saturday dawns in all of its enchanted splendor. The sun has warmed the morning dew just enough so that it releases a magical draught imbued with all the longings of incipient life, the kind that makes you regret every moment lost to recriminations, resentment and bitterness due to injustice or just plain, rotten luck, real or imagined. “All is forgiven” is the whispered message carried by the fresh, cool undercurrent of peace.

Not that Morgana is consciously considering anything transcendent, but she awakens to a feeling of hope, and breathes deeply. Even though her nose is ice cold, she doesn’t think of Rain trapped in the glacial crevasse.

Excited to be meeting Percival at 10:00 am, she hurries into the kitchen because nothing is going to happen without coffee. And wouldn’t you know it! She’s out of coffee! Son of a bitch! Quickly readjusting her attitude, she reaches for her emergency jar of instant coffee. When all else fails, lower your standards. She decides that the illusion of real coffee is more satisfying than the reality of no coffee, so she dumps a few spoonsful of the brown crystals into the filter lining the little basket, taps a couple of sprinkles of cinnamon and powdered cloves onto the crystals, and then adds two teaspoons of brown sugar to sweeten the deal.

While the coffee maker wheezes and gurgles unsupervised in the kitchen, she sings in the shower.

She puts on her old “new” jeans, once again paired with Gerri’s cast-off Guatemalan shirt that worked so well the last time she saw dear, sweet Percival. Hopefully, he will not notice this fashion re-run, but on second thought, he’s probably not the kind of guy who would care.

Savoring her hot coffee “compromise,” she admires herself in the mirror. She realizes that she must have lost a pound or two since she wore that outfit just a couple days before. She had to do less wriggling to cajole the waistband over her hips and, come to think of it, she didn’t have to suck her stomach in quite as intensely as before to pull up the zipper. A little victory is so much better than no victory at all. Morgana notes with amused interest this new habit of hers to delight in small things that previously would slip by her unnoticed and unappreciated.

Her nose is still cold and now it’s stopped up, so she doesn’t smell the rank odor emanating from The Rubber Man who is camped out under the lightly-trafficked grey metal stairway of her apartment building. Her staccato steps rouse him from his hallucinatory slumber just long enough for him to take in his favorite sight. A jiggling ass! Oh, yeah!

Morgana gets to the foot of the Cleveland Cascade 15 minutes early and just to kill some time and burn off a few more calories, she walks up and down the steps two times. These are not a simple flight of steps—these steps are a 250-foot long ornamental double stairway modeled after Italian hill towns. The two stairways are separated by a lush garden adorned with huge concrete bowls where water used to flow and cascade from one to the other down the incline. The water pump fell into disrepair, as did the entire Cascade, and when the park was rehabilitated, the huge bowls were filled in with soil, flowering plants, succulents and ivies. Creeping ground cover, irises and orchids filled in the spaces around the bowls all the way to the edges of the stairway. The towering trees all along the periphery of the Cascade shade the steps and the inclined garden, bathing the whole park in the green light of an enchanted rain forest.

Morgana loves this part of this City. Every once in a while, she ducks into the Cascade just to read a book or stare at the skyline reflected on the rippling surface of the Lake. Never overly busy, this little Garden of Eden always seems to have just a few people jogging up and down the steps, or personal trainers putting their gasping clients through their paces. It’s the kind of place where people know not to raise their voices.

She meets Percival coming down the steps just as she’s going up for her third time. She’s a little winded and her face is flushed from the exertion, but Percival sees her as glowing.

“Morgana! It’s such a treat to see you here,” he says, as if they were meeting completely by surprise and hadn’t planned a thing.

She laughs, partly to catch her breath and partly because she is so amused by his sweet reaction to seeing her. His face lights up. “It’s so nice to hear you laugh!”

“I’ve gone up and down the stairs a few times, so I’m a little out of breath,” she says, wishing that she weren’t gulping air like a panicked goldfish who overshot the rim of the fishbowl, winning itself a unexpected one-way trip out of its safety zone.

“Let’s go right over here and sit down for a few minutes.” He leads her up the few remaining steps to the top of the Cascade where they sit on the bench looking down over the entire Cascade and the Lake beyond.

Grateful for the rest, she takes in the cool, green, fragrant lushness of the Cascade while catching her breath. Percival removes his backpack and sits next to her.

“Isn’t this just the most beautiful place? I start every day by crossing this street in back of us, and then I sit on this very bench and drink my morning coffee, right here.”

“I guess we’ve never bumped into each other here, since I’ve never been here earlier than, say, 10:00 am, but this is also one of my favorite places in the whole city.”

He takes a thermos from his backpack. “Well, I’m glad we both agree on that! Oh, and I hope you like black coffee,” he says, pouring the steaming coffee into a blue ceramic mug.

“Oh, yes! I certainly do,” says Morgana, delighted. She takes the mug and wraps her hands around it, enjoying its warmth on this crisp morning. “Ah, real coffee! And it’s good!”

“The road to success is always under construction – Lily Tomlin,” says Morgana, reading the cup. “That’s clever, but you could substitute ‘success’ with just about anything, like love, happiness, fulfillment, enlightenment, and on and on.”

“I think about that every time I use that cup. You know, if people focused on love or happiness with the same intensity that they focus on success, there would be a whole lot less misery in the world, but easier said than done. To pursue your dreams and make them happen, you have to invest every ounce of your energy, and meanwhile, when you finally get a chance to take your nose off the grindstone, you just might notice that your personal life is in a shambles.”

“Yeah, but it doesn’t have to be that way, does it?,” asks Morgana as she watches Percival pour himself a cup of coffee, smiling at the way he does simple things with such precision.

“No, it doesn’t, but it’s hard to avoid. Being successful in school means getting A’s. It’s so much easier to get B’s but once you start settling for B’s, you can’t be surprised if you start getting C’s. So you see the problem? If you want to excel, you can’t relax and get too comfortable. It’s the same for a career—it seems as though there’s no such thing as reaching that sweet spot of just coasting. In my business, I have to continually seek out new clients, each project presenting new problems, each problem a potential catastrophe or breakthrough. It’s fun and exhilarating, but it consumes you. It can drive you to drink!”

Morgana nods her head. “My poor boss, Charlie, is consumed by our newspaper, The Pregonero. He practically lives in his office. I just love him—he’s the greatest boss, but he drinks like a fish. He has that kind of stress, too.”

She notices Percival’s mug. “And what does your mug say?”

He turns the cup so she can see it. “Originality is nothing but judicious imitation – Voltaire.” He raises the cup up as if making a toast to Voltaire. “I like this quote a lot because it reminds me that whatever anyone of us creates, the result is always an amalgam of bits and pieces we’ve snatched from grab bags filled with other people’s ideas. It keeps you humble. Huh! I just realized that the two quotes have an awful lot in common.”

Morgana is just about to say “Like us,” but she doesn’t.

“Really? How do you mean?”

“Well, Sir Isaac Newton just popped into my mind. You know that famous quote of his attributing his vision to having stood on the shoulders of giants? Well, he was about as original as they come, but even he got his inspiration from the scientific discoveries of his day and from questions posed by the ancients. He was such a genius, but, like most geniuses, he was pretty quirky. He was a real loner and didn’t fraternize much with his peers. Some say it was to protect his own discoveries from being stolen, but others say that he couldn’t bear criticism. The latest is that he had Asperger’s Syndrome. Who knew? But he invented the calculus and then kept it to himself! Can you believe that? At any rate, he was so successful in taking bits and pieces of information deemed irrelevant and turning them into mind-boggling discoveries like the Laws of Physics that he’s considered to be the architect of the modern world.”

“Well, I’m not much of a scientific thinker, but what I remember most about Newton was his Third Law of Physics—For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction—even I can understand that one! It’s even true in politics, relationships, gardening, and in the kitchen.”

“Good point,” says Percival, “and that alone ties the two mugs together. Science was his entire focus—Truth was always under construction, but personally, he was isolated and miserable—no friends, lovers, relatives, nobody. His personal life was just about non-existent, no construction taking place there. And more than once, the poor guy was on the brink of madness—either his depression or heavy metal and mercury poisoning from his alchemical experiments, or both, finally got to him. But miserable or not, he lived to the age of 85, which was a real accomplishment in the 17th Century.”

Morgana laughs. “I love these quotes! Let me take a wild guess! You got these cups at one of your conferences, right?

“Of course I did!” He settles back to get comfortable on the bench. “Anyway, as I was saying….I start each day right here. It’s right across the street from where I live! No matter what’s going on, this little corridor of paradise is always right here. Every once in a while, when I can’t spare the ten minutes to sit here, I feel cheated all day long.

The idea of heaven is starting to seep into her consciousness. The peace she feels sitting here with Percival is palpable. She breathes deeply, closing her eyes, enjoying the luxury of just relaxing in the comforting presence of another person. She feels happy. What a nice feeling!

“Thank God for the weekends,” says Percivil. “Don’t get me wrong—I love my work, but that’s the problem.

“You mean because of how much time it consumes?”

“Yeah, and besides the actual time you spend working, it can keep you up at night worrying about mistakes you might have made in overlooking little details here and there, and if don’t consciously just shut the door and turn the key—on both the office and your mind—it can consume your entire life.”

“Well, I’ve never been that dedicated to any job, but I guess that’s because I’ve always been just an employee, never a business owner or a boss.”

“It sounds great to have your own company, but believe me, there’s a lot to be said for being what I used to call a ‘wage slave.’ The way a bad boss will or can exploit you is nothing compared to how you can and will exploit yourself—there’s no end to it,” he says as he drinks the remains of his coffee.

Taking her cue from Percival, Morgana finishes her coffee, too, and hands him the cup. “That was just what I needed! I didn’t have any real coffee at home, so this was great! Thanks!”

Percival wipes out the cups with a paper napkin and puts them back into his backpack. He stands up to throw the napkins into the trashcan. “Now that we’ve had our coffee, are you ready to move on?”

“Sure! Where to now?” asks Morgana, feeling suddenly revived by the coffee.

“Well, I thought we’d walk over to the Rose Garden. It’s about a 20 minute walk from here. Have you ever been there?”

“Been there? Absolutely, but not often enough! Let’s go!”

As they progress down the long stairway, Percival offers his arm to Morgana. Without hesitation, she loops her arm through his, delighted by this unexpected gallant gesture and by the physical contact that suggests to her that they have just crossed a small but important threshold. She represses a giddy urge to giggle by squeezing his arm and he squeezes back. He looks at her face, blushing with a big goofy grin. She looks back at his face and sees the same thing.

“We’d better watch where we’re going,” warns Morgana, feeling lightheaded being this close to Percival. She’s not thinking about Jack dreaming of her sister in his comatose purgatory, nor of Jerinda who is closer and farther away than she thinks, nor of Rain suspended in the crevasse, nor of Rain’s Mystery Man creating cybernetic holograms, nor of the Rubber Man held hostage by his own hallucinations.

All she can think of is Percival and the right here and the right now of happiness. She can feel his heart beating. They take a few more faltering steps down the staircase, and she feels faint. She stops and so does Percival.

And they kiss, a kiss that is as sweet as a spring breeze. And then, they kiss again. Every few steps, they stop and kiss yet again. They laugh at how ridiculous they must look, and so they kiss again.

And again, just because there is no good reason not to.

Illustration Credit: “The Kreutzer Sonata,” 1901 painting by René François Xavier Prinet, which was inspired by Tolstoy’s novella of the same name published in 1889, which was inspired by Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata of 1803. (See, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Kreutzer_Sonata)

Music Credit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EG1l5LVYp4Q
Herb Alpert, “This Guy’s In Love With You”

To Be Continued in Chapter 27

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The Our Little Secret Travel Agency – Chapter 25: Out in the Cold

Almost there. You can smell the screaming, tortured metal cogwheel train tracks surrendering their essence to the damp walls of the steep tunnel.

Rain presses her forehead against the window and cups her hands around her face to block out the light from the train’s interior. Before her eyes can focus beyond the glass on the dimly-lit walls of the tunnel, she sees her own reflection at the end of her nose and almost jerks her head back in horror.

Unsettled, she remembers the creepy face peering at her through the Spa’s glass hallway as the cable car pulled her and the other passengers away from the safety of solid ground, shuttling them to the train station.

The train screeches into the station, its bright lights dispelling her uneasiness. They’re here! Jungfraujoch, the Top of Europe, and the highest train station in the world. This is a day of firsts, but every day is a day of firsts when your consciousness gets to travel around the world in a new, steaming hot body. Before she “arrived” at the Spa this morning, she had no idea that a place called “Jungfraujoch” even existed nor that Europe had a top to it, and now, here she is!

“Come on, Graciela! Let’s go make some snow angels!” Rain takes Graciela’s hand and pulls her towards the opening doors, while the two giggle like teenage girls. Rain leads her through the slow-moving crowd on the platform, running up the stairs and out into the light. The frigid air and bright sunlight evaporate the residual torpor that had settled upon them during the train’s long, arduous climb up to the Top of Europe.

They storm past tour guides whose eager, huddled charges wait obediently for the “show” to begin. Rain and Graciela almost knock them over, laughing like drunken frat boys in a cow-tipping contest. The little throngs of tourists bristle at their exuberant energy, and out of spite, they pretend to ignore the commotion created by these two beautiful women as they run into a snow-covered meadow, each one stopping only long enough to make a snowball and lob it at the other. They fall backwards into the snow, laughing. They make windshield-wiper movements with their arms and legs, creating one snow angel after another, pulling each other up and starting the process all over again to create even more.

A young man from the Spa approaches them, respectfully waiting until their raucous laughter subsides. “Well, ladies,” he says, as if reminding them to comport themselves in a more dignified manner, “Some of us will be hiking from here, Jungfraujoch, to the Mönchsjoch Hut. At most, it’s one hour each way. Are you up for it? Looks like you’re dressed for it, at any rate.”

He grabs Morgana’s hands to pull her out of her last snow angel, and noticing the perfect circle of snow angels, he smiles with approval. “That’s quite an artwork you two have created.”

“Thanks! We had so much fun doing it!” says Graciela as he grabs her hands, too.

Brushing the snow off her coat, Rain asks, “If we go on the hike, will we still have time to walk through the blue glacier?”

“Yes—well, that is if you don’t dawdle. Sometimes, we have people who slow the whole group down by stopping to photograph every snowflake, but generally, we have time.

“Well,” adds Graciela, “That won’t be us because we don’t have cameras or phones.”

The young man looks at her warily as if he suspects that the two of them could be trouble, camera or no camera.

“What’s at the…Hut?” asks Rain.

“The Mönchsjoch Hut is actually a lodge, the highest occupied lodge in Switzerland. Some tourists stay overnight, but during the day, it’s open to hikers and sightseers. There’s a restaurant which offers hot and cold snacks and drinks. We’re planning to have a light lunch there—cheese toast and ‘Hut Soup.’ It’s a really nice place—and the only place—to relax for a bit before hitting the trail again to return to the train station.”

“Hut Soup? I’ll bet they serve it with House Wine!” snorts Graciela, as she looks over to Rain for her reaction, which is rendered with a guffaw, not something Rain associates with her new demure demeanor.

“Or maybe, they serve the Hut Soup with ‘Culd’ Wine!” laughs Rain, keeping this silly repartee going with another volley.

The young man from the Spa attempts to tone down their giddiness with a simpering smile. Message received, Graciela and Rain look at each other and burst out laughing. Holding his head high, he maintains a pleasant expression, nods to them, turns, and then skids a little on the ice. Frantically waving his arms to maintain his equilibrium to avoid falling, he cuts a comic figure and once again, Rain and Graciela convulse with boisterous laughter. Firmly planted back on his feet, he turns around to face them with an intense stare and almost imperceptibly shakes his head “no.” With great decorum and self-restraint, he walks over to the group of people from the Spa who are ready to begin their hike to the Mönchsjoch Hut.

Laughed out and somewhat chastened, Graciela and Rain follow him towards the group.

“Phew! Wasn’t that fun, Rain? I didn’t know these tenems of ours could laugh like that!”

“Me neither! Laughing is one of those things that you don’t realize you miss until you’re laughing again.”

“Maybe we’d better not do anything else to piss this guy off any more than we already have. We wouldn’t want him to abandon us out in the middle of the trail, you know? We might need to stay on his good side, at least until we get back to the Spa.”

“Yeah, Graciela! I think you’re right about that!”

Catching up with the rest of the group, they hear the young man from the Spa introducing himself to the other Spa guests.

“As you may know, my name is Grégoire, and I’ll be leading the hike you’ve chosen to take from here to Mönchsjoch Hut. Once we get there, we’ll have about 45 minutes for lunch and relaxation, and then we’ll resume our hike back to the train station. Once we return to the train station, we will tour the Ice Palace. The ‘Eispalast’ is the highest-altitude ice palace in the world and is also the longest lasting, having been carved from the Aletsch Glacier, and measuring more than 23 kilometers, it is Europe’s longest glacier. It covers ab0ut 80 square kilometers. That’s a lot of ice, but unfortunately, we do not expect it to last into the next century due to global warming.”

“Enough of this global warming bullshit! I wanna hear about the Ice Palace!”

Everyone turns to gawk at the beefy blond American guy wearing ski goggles who is now noisily gulping water from a two-liter plastic bottle. After a loud belch emitted for the edification of his new audience, he bellows, “So why is the glacier blue?”

Grégoire, apparently used to boorish behavior, gloats inwardly at having an answer that he knows will probably go over the Beefy Belcher’s water-logged head.

“Excellent question, Sir, and one posed by anyone not intimately familiar with the physics of glaciation.”

Grégoire’s erudition is acknowledged by the Beefy Belcher who emits an even louder eructation which is heard by all, eliciting a ripple of titters from the crowd.

“But yes,” continues the unflappable Grégoire, “it is blue. Why blue? Because blue is the only color of the spectrum that is not absorbed by the extremely dense ice of the glacier, so it’s the only color for us left to see! The light scattering of its short wave length is the same phenomenon which makes us perceive the sky as being blue.”

“Oh, that makes sense!” whispers Rain to Graciela, who, trying not to laugh, erupts with a loud snort. The whole group turns to look at her, but Rain and Graciela only see the simpering smile of Grégoire.

Grégoire recoups the crowd’s attention by continuing his explanation:

“Of course, no one will remember why glaciers are blue, but once you have experienced walking inside a real glacier, you will never forget that glaciers are blue, so without any further ado, let us begin our hike. And, please, always keep to the marked path—stay in the middle and don’t get close to the edge.

Rain and Graciela follow the crowd along the wide path of snow.

Along the way, Grégoire turns to face the crowd from time to time to share interesting information and to point out distant peaks and the directions in which the different glaciers are “flowing.”

“That is a funny word to use since the flow of a glacier is very slow—the highest speed is 30 meters a day, the lowest is a half a meter a year, but the average is one meter a day.”

Here, Grégoire interrupts himself to look around. Seeing that the Beefy Belcher has separated himself from the group to light a cigarette—happily out of earshot—he continues to address the crowd.

“Due to global warming, the world’s glaciers are retreating at an alarming rate, which has dire consequences for the entire planet. For hikers and skiers, though, the threat is even more immediate since warming intensifies the movements of glaciers and avalanche activity. The greater the melt water, the greater the instability of everything you see around us.

“Most tourists to this site do not realize how amazing it is to experience hiking in the Alps without all kinds of ropes, safety equipment, and meticulous preparation, and we can only take this hike today because this trail has been specially prepared. Even so, crevasse danger is real and the last thing you want to do is fall into one. We’re not talking about sinking into the snow a few feet—these cracks, which vary in size, never get smaller, only bigger.”

One of the hikers adds, “I once saw a movie called ‘Touching the Void,’* about these two guys who were climbing a huge, snow-covered rock face in the Andes, and one of them falls into a crevasse—and survived. It was painful to watch!”

“Yes, I can only imagine,” agrees Grégoire, grateful for some positive interaction. “It would be nice if crevasses would do us the favor of revealing themselves to us before we fall into them but unfortunately, they don’t. Sometimes, there is a tell-tale trench or some ice spikes, but unless you’ve got an expertly-trained eye, you would easily miss it. You really can never be sure that you’re not walking or skiing right over a crevasse. If you’re lucky, it’s just a small one and you can climb or dig your way out, but all too many are really, really deep, like 45 meters or more, and should you fall in, you’d just keep falling and falling until you hit the bottom. Of course, you’d hit lots of protruding ice and break some ice bridges along the way. If you were lucky, or unlucky, enough to survive, then you’d have to worry about being rescued, but at that depth and at that temperature, your chances are pretty slim.”

The hike was starting to get a little more difficult. Many people stopped under the pretext of applying sunscreen or looking through their backpacks for their water bottles. The Beefy Belcher stopped often to unwrap a granola bar, his bulging jaw muscles clenching in a jittery frenzy to conquer and ingest the gooey confection as the wrapper was whipped away by the winds that grew stronger and colder with the increasing altitude.

“Rain, it’s really easy to tell who is a tenem and who is not. Can you tell?”

Rain looks quizzically at Graciela. “I thought we all were!”

“Oh, wow! OK, Rain, the air is getting thinner. How do you feel?”

“I feel just fine—why do you ask?”

“OK, look around at everyone. What are some of the people doing that we aren’t?

“They’re putting on sunscreen, eating energy bars, drinking water, wearing sunglasses or goggles, taking pictures, looking at their phones, huffing and puffing, complaining about the lack of bathrooms on the hike, and, oh yeah, smoking and chewing gum like that jerk who’s been giving Grégoire an even harder time than we were.”

Graciela nods knowingly. “Uh, huh! Now you know who isn’t a tenem!”

Rain looks around with new eyes. “Oh….”

Grégoire stops and turns to the group, many of whom seem to be struggling against the elements. “Don’t be surprised if you need to rest often. As I mentioned while we were still in the train station, we’re already up pretty high and as we climb, many of you may be affected by the high altitude. Up at the Mönchsjoch Hut, we will reach an altitude of 3,454 meters, where the oxygen level is even lower than it is here.”

“When are we going to get there?” someone whines.

The wind has begun to carry a lot of fine, dry snow for some time now and visibility has dwindled to slightly better than none.

“You could almost see the Mönchsjoch Hut from right here were it not for the wind blowing the snow around, but we’re very close now,” says Grégoire in an attempt to soothe the cold, uncomfortable crowd. He knows that this is the point at which the majesty of nature could easily be bartered away for a $20 cup of really mediocre soup with an under taste of dishwater.

A shriek cuts through their collective misery as all eyes are trained on Graciela standing at the edge of the trail.

“Rain! Come back! It’s dangerous over there! Didn’t you hear the warnings?” pleads Graciela. “Rain! What are you doing?!!!”

As if deaf to Graciela’s entreaties, Rain continues to walk on the thick crust of ice beyond the edge of the path. Distracted by one of Morgana’s repressed memories, she hears Morgana screaming, still holding the baby blanket she is crocheting for Gerri, as yet unborn, seeing her little boy, Travis, chasing a ball into the busy street at the edge of the park.

The words and the screams echo in her head but all she can do is walk to where her feet are taking her until she hears the crevasse open up. In slow motion, she feels herself plummet through a narrow slit that swallows her up. Shards of ice scrape her face and shoot up into her nostrils.

From far away, she can hear the commotion of panic as people who have watched her disappear into the ice shout and scream in horror and disbelief.

Wedged tightly in an envelope of space deep in the ice, the cold begins to fracture Rain’s thoughts, revealing glimmers of secrets of Rain’s “life” in the Spa.

Morgana wakes up thinking of a fake melting ice cube that she kept in her treasure box for years and wonders where it is now. Everyone thought it was funny, but it was actually quite horrible. The clear plastic featured an entombed fly caught unaware of its impending doom of false immortality. Every once in a while, she’d slip it into a friend’s drink as a joke, but more often than not, it would go unnoticed and then she’d have to dig it out of the drink’s dregs, and explain the failed joke to her friends. The joke barely worked back then, but it would never work now. For one thing, ice cubes were not the same shape at all anymore—ice was now chunked, crushed or slushed. Ah, the good old days! It isn’t so easy to trick people these days.

Or is it?

“Oh,” says Morgana out loud, “it’s Saturday morning!”

She gets out of bed with a bounce, not noticing that her nose is numb with cold, happily anticipating meeting Percival at the Cleveland Cascade.

To Be Continued in Chapter 26

Photo Credit: http://www.jungfrau.ch  (The Sphinx Observatory)

*Touching the Void is a 2003 docudrama survival film about Joe Simpson’s and Simon Yates’ disastrous and near-fatal climb of Siula Grande in the Cordillera Huayhuash in the Peruvian Andes in 1985. It is based on Simpson’s 1988 book of the same name. (Wikipedia.org)

Video Credit: 50 feet down in a crevasse after fall, Chamonix
Brandon Kampschuur (youtube.com)

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The Our Little Secret Travel Agency – Chapter 22: You Dropped a Bomb on Me

madonna

Phew! That was close! By the time Rosie the nurse comes back into the room, Morgana has finished wicking the Boney Stalker Scotch out of Jack’s right ear with the red and white checkered cloth napkin that she’d pulled out of her purse, still stained with her Boney Stalker Scotch Witch’s Brew BBQ Sauce from her lunch with Percival.

“What’s that, Rosie?” asks Morgana to distract Rosie from Jack, just in case the smell of the scotch has lingered in the air.

Rosie looks over to the blank screen. “Oh,” she says, “I don’t know too much about that, but I did hear the doctors and the techs talking today about the new computational software they’re trying out which is digitizing Jack’s brain signals—1,000 times a second! Can you believe that?”

“So Jack has been opening his eyes?” Morgana asks.

Rosie shakes her head. “No, he hasn’t opened his eyes once since he’s been here. That’s why they’ve been playing music instead of showing him images.”

“Really?” Morgana walks over to the monitor, and sees a little green blinking light. “What’s this little light all about?”

“That’s the indicator light—that means the program is still up. Wanna see what’s on there?”

“Yeah, sure….Why not?”

Rosie pushes one button on the side of the monitor, and a retro, feel-good dance song issues forth from a small speaker at the head of Jack’s hospital bed, which Morgana instantly recognizes as one of Jack’s favorites.

This was Jewel’s favorite song, too! How could she forget?

Jewel, one of Morgana’s three older “beautiful” sisters, was her favorite for such a long time.

Listening to the song, Morgana recalls the first time she had ever set eyes on Jack.

Morgana’s 16 years old. She’s bundled up on the couch, half lying down, eating a bowl of greasy popcorn she has made herself, burning the pot and filling their big, barny, Brooklyn kitchen with black smoke. Good thing she likes burnt things. It’s snowing outside and everyone else in the house is asleep. Jewel is out on a date with God knows who. Morgana savors the black, oily, cinder-coated popcorn, happily watching re-runs of The Twilight Zone.

The door’s lock springs open and there’s Jewel, tiptoeing and whispering, leading Jack through the narrow hallway past the kitchen and into the front room.

They don’t expect to see anyone in the front room, and neither does Morgana. All three hold their breath for just an instant. Morgana understands that Jewel would like to be alone with that guy, whoever he is, but Morgana doesn’t budge since she’s too embarrassed to be seen by a stranger, or anyone else for that matter, given how she’s dressed—as a ragamuffin, a refugee, an escapee from the Goodwill box. The clothes were not meant to be seen—they were just a means to an end—mean articles of clothing to put an end to her shivering response to the freezing apartment. The heat was always turned off at night, orders of the building’s owner who employs her father as a handyman. Bed was the only place you’d be safe from the deep freeze of those cold winter nights. They had electric blankets but the apartment’s wiring was so tentative that using them meant blown fuses, so the electric blankets were left on the beds unplugged.

The guy is looking at Jewel as if he could just eat her up. Clearly, he’s lovesick. Morgana thinks he’s a pretty good-looking guy. He barely looks at Morgana when Jewel introduces him to her.

Jack doesn’t say much, but he sure does an awful lot of sighing. Then, as he excuses himself to go to the bathroom, Jewel tells Morgana to take her damned popcorn and get her sorry ass gone to bed already. Grateful for the opportunity to escape from her bad-fashion hideout cocoon on the couch, Morgana skedaddles off to bed, leaving the still-warm couch to Jewel and Jack and their amorous wrestling that she can only imagine will soon take place.

“OK,” says Rosie, her words punctuated by her shoes squeaking on the shiny floors, “this song is what they played for Jack today.”

Morgana walks back over to the side of Jack’s bed and sees his lip curl slightly exposing his incisors.

Morgana’s blood curdles.

Forgetting that she is standing safely at the side of Jack’s bed, she feels the chain link fence digging into her back. She has plastered herself into the fence in order to give a wide berth to the man who has just let his giant beast of a white Husky loose inside the park. It’s just about a block’s distance to the dog run which is also inside the park, so the man really shouldn’t have unleashed his dog just yet.

“Hi,” she says feebly, her knees almost knocking together. “Your dog looks like he’s going to attack me.”

The dog’s orbital ice-blue eyes are riveted to hers. His black lips are trembling and jerkily tugging upwards into a sneer as if pulled by some palsied demon puppeteer, ever-so-slightly exposing the beast’s long incisors, anticipatory saliva dripping onto the path.

Moving nary a muscle, the dog seems poised as if on a hair trigger, ready to spring into action. Holding her breath, she shifts her eyes to the man, wordlessly beseeching him to put the damned dog back on the damned leash already.

The man regards her with a cocky tilt of his head, and says, “Yeah, he sees you as a threat,” as if she had been charging at them, wielding a machine gun.

He snaps his fingers, and the dog is released from his “sic” stance. The dog trots away, turning his head back to make sure that Morgana is still plastered to the chain link fence.

“Hey,” calls Rosie, “are you OK?”

Yanked back to reality, Morgana finds herself gripping the side rails of Jack’s hospital bed. She can only imagine what her face must look like.

“Uh, yeah, I’m fine, thanks.”

“You had me a little scared for a minute—you’re face looked like you’d seen a ghost!”

“Well, actually, I had a really scary encounter with a mad dog in the park yesterday, and that’s what I was thinking about. I’m okay now. Thanks for asking.”

“OK, well, here’s the feed. Are you ready to see it?”

Morgana nods her a “yes,” and Rosie pulls a chair closer to the screen for Morgana so she can sit down a watch the reconstructed images from the day’s scans.

“Here, sit down—you’ll be more comfortable, just in case you’re feeling a little wobbly. And, drink this!”

Rosie has filled a small paper cup with water from the sink which she hands to Morgana.

She starts the feed while Morgana sips the water and watches intently. The music plays as the video reveals a very slow scan of a woman’s naked torso. Huh, there’s the navel, the waist, the ribs, the breasts, the neck, the lips, the hair, and then the face comes into view.

“What? No, it can’t be! No, dear God, it can’t be!” Morgana covers her face with her hands.

Rosie stops the feed, and says, “What’s wrong?”

Morgana takes a few deep breaths, and downs the rest of the water before continuing.

“Before my husband and I first got together, he and my older sister, Jewel, were going together. Then, my sister broke up with him, started seeing this other guy, got pregnant, and then ran away with the guy and eloped. We were all shocked, but not as shocked as Jack. He started coming around to see me when my parents weren’t home, and one thing led to another, and well…let’s just say that I was madly in love with him just because he was the first guy who ever paid any attention to me, and he was pretty cute, too. Plus, I felt really bad about what Jewel did to him.”

“So what does this video have to do with your sister?”

“That’s Jewel’s face in the video!”

“Well, this is Jack’s memory of her from all those many years ago, so what’s the big deal? I mean, it’s not like you didn’t know that they were a couple once.”

“The big deal is that’s Jewel’s face—not from 31 years ago, but exactly what she looks like RIGHT NOW!”

Morgana can barely stand up, but somehow she makes it to her feet.

Not really caring that Rosie is still staring at her in disbelief, she turns to Jack and makes a fist as if to punch him in the face.

She stops herself, and slowly uncurling her right hand, she looks at him and says, “You piece of shit!”

She looks at Rosie, who is still at a loss for words, and says, “Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean that. I really meant to say…,” and turning back to Jack, she says, just a little bit louder:

“You WORTHLESS piece of shit!”

Illustration Credit: http://www.edvardmunch.org (Madonna, 1894 by Edvard Munch)

Music Credit: Music video by The Gap Band performing “You Dropped A Bomb On Me,” (c) 1982 The Island Def Jam Music Group

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The Our Little Secret Travel Agency – Chapter 21: I Ain’t Got a Clue

images

Morgana is clueless that the Rubber Man has spent the night in her stairwell and has watched her coming and going and sleep-walking and falling on the stairs, enjoying immensely every jiggle of her ass that he was lucky enough to catch. Oh, yeah, sa-WEET Jesus, oh, yeah!

Shaking off the gloom of the stairwell, she breathes in deeply, almost tasting the damp leaves of the trees and the freshness of the cool air. Outside in the bright sun, life resumes around her. Cars trawl by, their heavy-duty speakers vibrating at decibel levels that would loosen the fillings in your teeth. Ah, another gorgeous day!

“Running” past Morgana on the sidewalk, seemingly to the infectious beat of some hot-wired Reggaeton from a cruising pimpmobile, is the pudgy, pasty, huffing Mortimer, a 60-something year-old retired city worker who runs faithfully every day. Sweat pours off his bald head as he beams an ecstatic smile at the sky. A thin, torn wife beater tee shirt is pulled taut over his bulging belly, revealing a concavity the size of a quarter suggesting the deep abyss that leads to his navel somewhere deep within.

“Hi, Morgana!” he huffs, slowing down to synchronize his steps with hers. “How’s Jack doing?”

“Oh, hi, Mortimer! Thanks for asking. Jack’s back at the hospital again. They moved him back there a couple days ago so they can keep an eye on him and try different therapies.”

“Oh, that’s promising, I’d say.”

“Well, yes and no. They are actually more interested in observing his responses, or lack thereof, to different stimuli. I don’t want to sound jaded, but truthfully, it has more to do with their research than trying to cure him—which they would do, if they could.”

“I can emphasize with you,” says Mortimer, quite reverently. She represses a smile trying not to guffaw over the word “emphasize.”

“When my wife was so sick last year, and I would ask them when we could expect to see her improve, and they’d just say to me, ‘Well, we can’t say for sure, but we’re going to keep on trying whatever we can, and sooner or later, we’ll have something to tell you.’ Well, sooner came a lot sooner than I thought. By the time they figured it out, it was too…late.”

He stops huffing and breaks down. He turns to Morgana, his face contorted with grief. She holds him while he sobs. Her heart just breaks for him. She pats his back and for lack of anything better to say, just keeps saying softly, “It’s OK, It’s OK….”

Mortimer’s grief puts her on automatic pilot, and she is a little surprised how she says all the right things, as though she is standing outside of this grief, as if she were an observer to both his grief and her own. She manages all the right gestures, all the right facial expressions. She feels able to comfort someone who is drowning in sorrow. By the time she says goodbye to Mortimer, she feels lighter and in a very strange way, a lot stronger than before.

As Mortimer “runs” off slowly, she remembers to put herself back into regal countenance mode and squares her shoulders as she does a slight runway strut, careful not to exaggerate her movements. Before she knows it, she’s approaching the postage stamp-size park where she is to meet dear, sweet Percival.

Luckily, there are no honking geese today and no wayward shopping carts filled with personal belongings stuffed into trash bags. She sits on the bench where she and Percival sat just the day before and takes out two red and white checkered cloth napkins, which she unfolds and drapes over the middle of the bench. She pulls the jar of her Boney Stalker Witch’s Brew BBQ Sauce out of her bag and sets it in the middle of the bench.

“Mind if I join you, Miss?” She looks up, and there’s Percival, grinning ear to ear, holding his tote bag emblazoned with the words, “Architecture is basically a container of something. I hope they will enjoy not so much the teacup, but the tea – Yoshio Taniguchi.”

“Well,” she says coyly, “actually, I was expecting Yoshio Taniguchi!”

“And my apologies, indeed! The problem is that he’s off judging a new building today, leaving only me to judge this BBQ sauce. Plus, when it comes to BBQ sauce, Taniguchi doesn’t have a clue! And if you should ever see him and if you should ever tell him that I said that, I will never talk to you again!”

“My lips are sealed,” she says. As their eyes meet, each imagines the other wishing it was their lips meeting as well, and they both laugh to save themselves the trouble of feeling awkward.

Unpacking his Taniguchi bag, Percival hands her a bottle of water and unwraps a giant sandwich which has been cut into four pieces. “I took the liberty of getting provolone cheese with sundried tomatoes, artichoke hearts and black olives. You never know these days who is a vegetarian so I figured I’d play it safe.”

Percival takes two paper plates out of his bag and he puts them on the bench.

“Oh! That looks great! I haven’t had provolone in a month of Sundays!

“And now, the moment of truth,” she says, pointing to the jar of her Boney Stalker Witch’s Brew BBQ Sauce. “I hope it’s good—I slaved for hours over a hot stove! Actually, I didn’t but I sure had fun making it. The best part was looking forward to today.”

“I’m so glad you showed up! I wouldn’t have missed this for the world! I had a very important client show up unannounced just as I was leaving to meet you, and I had to tell her that I had another commitment.”

“Well, now I feel very important,” says Morgana, smiling at Percival.

“You are,” he says as he opens the jar and offers it to Morgana. “No, you first—I already know what it tastes like—and you’re gonna love it.”

“Don’t mind if I do!” he says, beaming at Morgana and pouring the sauce all over his plate.

“I see you’re a dipper! Good idea,” she says, following suit and pouring it onto her plate as well.

They both dip into the sauce with their sandwiches.

“Oh, this is soooo good I could cry!” mumbles Percival as he is stuffing the sandwich into his mouth. Morgana laughs so hard that she almost chokes.

“Whatever you do, Morgana, don’t choke! I’m CPR certified, but I warn you that I always break at least two ribs.”

“Only two ribs? What will we do with the rest of the BBQ sauce??”

Not that this repartee is that funny, but they are both laughing and gasping for air. Everything is just so good!

Between the two of them, they polish off most of the BBQ sauce.

“What are we going to do with the rest of the sauce?” Percival wants to know. He likes it so much, he could drink the rest if Morgana weren’t looking.

Morgana replaces the cap and hands it to Percival. “Here, put it in your bag and take it home. I still have another whole jar in the fridge.”

Just as she picks up the napkins and puts them in her bag, a disheveled man babbling incoherently sits down between them.

“Gee,” quips Morgana, “if it gets any more crowded on this bench, either our new friend here or I will have to sit on your lap.”

Percival looks at the babbling man next to him, and then at Morgana, as if he is sizing them both up, and looking at Morgana, he says with a straight face, “I guess you win since you’d be just about the right size.”

They both laugh themselves silly once again. Percival stands up and takes a few Italian chocolates wrapped in gold foil out of his bag. He hands one to the babbling man who stops babbling long enough to thank him, and one to Morgana.

“Oh, Percival! I love these! They’re my favorite!”

“Mine, too! Let’s take a little walk before I’ve got to get back to the office.” Turning to the babbling man, he says, “Have a nice day!”

Morgana is taken with Percival’s kindness and his sense of humor.

“So, Morgana, we know next to nothing about each other, but would you want to go to a movie or go for a walk sometime soon when we don’t have to both rush back off to work? That is, if you’re not married or otherwise encumbered!”

“I’d love to Percival. I’m more not married than I am married. It’s a long story but I’d be more than willing to tell you about it if you are still interested.”

“I’m very interested. So, would Saturday morning work out OK for you? We could walk over to the Rose Garden and then maybe take in a movie in the afternoon, but we can play it by ear.”

“That would be great! I live in Adams Point. Where do you live?”

“Near the Cleveland Cascade.”

“Well, then why don’t we meet at the Cleveland Cascade at the bottom of the steps?”

“Perfect! What time? Ten? Eleven? Twelve?”

“Let’s make it ten!”

“It’s a deal!” says Percival, beaming. He gives Morgana a quick hug, and as he turns to leave, he grins and says, “You don’t know how much I’ve enjoyed this! Don’t forget—Saturday at ten!”

Morgana heads back to The Pregonero. She’s so excited she can barely concentrate on writing her article on the Boney Stalker Witch’s Brew BBQ Sauce. Of course, she makes up a bogus letter which she will answer for her Advice Lady column.

A few hours later, Morgana leaves the Pregonero just as the croaking Maddie is wiping down her work station at the Reception Desk with a pungent, nostril-searing disinfectant.

“Bye, Hon,” she wheezes, as she looks up from her daily desk ablutions. “You’re lookin’ real cute these days!”

Reaching for the doorknob, Morgana sings, “Thanks, Maddie!” and exits onto the sidewalk, making her way to the hospital to visit Jack.

Before going into the hospital, she remembers the little bottle of Boney Stalker Scotch that she bought for Jack and quickly crosses the street to go sit on the park bench to collect her thoughts and to make sure the little bottle is still in her purse. After 30 seconds of rummaging around and poking her cuticles with her hair brush, she finds it, still safe and sound. Just so she doesn’t have to fumble with the damn thing in the hospital, she takes it out of its tiny paper bag, and unscrews the cap, breaking the little bridges to separate the cap from the pilfer-proof ring–after all, this is somewhat of a stealth operation and she’s got to be discreet. She would hate like hell to be discovered pouring scotch into the mouth of a comatose man. They’d probably think she was trying to kill him.

“Hang on, Jack,” she thinks, “I’m coming to give you just a little taste of what you’ve been missing so much more than you’d ever be missing me. I could probably wind up in jail if they were to catch me doing this, but given the given, a few drops of this rotgut sewer swill won’t hurt you at all, or at least not as much as what’s happened to you, to us, to our lives.”

Dr. Valenzuela, crisp in her white lab coat, bounces down the front steps of the hospital. By the time Morgana gets up from the bench and turns around to cross the busy street in front of the hospital, Dr. Valenzuela is already bobbing away with the steady stream of pedestrians. Like ships in the night, they miss each other once again.

Morgana locates Jack’s room more easily than the last time, and is surprised to find that there’s no one there but Jack. His eyes are still closed, but he looks rather well. She had expected to see him looking more gaunt.

It’s after five, so, as Rocky had hinted, now would be the best time to pour a few drops of Boney Stalker Scotch into Jack’s mouth. The bottle opens easily, thanks to her proactive bottle priming outside the hospital. Just to play safe, she goes to the door of his room, does a quick scan of the hallway, and sees no one who seems to be concerned that she is in his room. Alcohol-laced currents of cool air waft around her, and she returns to Jack’s side. At least the whole place already smells like alcohol, so hopefully, no one will identify the smell as Boney Stalker Scotch.

Her fears are greatly allayed as she remembers the scandal that made national news and prompted an investigation on the East Coast where many franchised restaurant bars had mixed rubbing alcohol with caramel coloring and sold it as premium scotch! The Poison Control officials weren’t all that worried about it—stopping short of a glowing endorsement, they said that rubbing alcohol was easily metabolized and produced a pretty good buzz. In fact, no one seemed particularly upset except for Alcohol Beverage Control and the Attorney General. It wasn’t even treated as a criminal investigation, but rather as a liquor license irregularity. The companies that produce scotch kept quiet about it too, since the less said, the better; after all, if rubbing alcohol could get the job done at a fraction of the cost? No wonder they didn’t make a big stink about losing thousands of dollars!

Emboldened by the memory of the scandal, she pours a few drops of Boney Stalker Scotch into Jack’s mouth, just a tad, and then checks his breathing. No problem. OK, just a little more this time. Her hand jerks as she is surprised by Rosie’s white nurses’ shoes making a sharp squeak uncomfortably close to Jack’s bed. Morgana notes that Jack’s right ear seems to be filled with Boney Stalker Scotch. Contriving a hasty cover, Morgana covers Jack’s face with her face and grabs his upper torso in an awkward embrace as if she is protecting him from an imminent explosion.

“Rosie, could you give us a few minutes alone, please? We’re having a private moment.”

“Oh, yeah, sure!” she chirps, and turns on her squeaky heels, exiting the room just as quickly as she appeared.

Phew! That was close!

Morgana twists the cap back onto the little bottle and throws it into her purse. She can almost swear that she sees the slightest of smiles on Jack’s face. No time to linger on his face, she takes one of the red checkered napkins out of her purse and twizzles the napkin’s corner to sop up the Boney Stalker pooled in Jack’s right ear.

“Jack!” she whispers, “I sure hope to hell you liked that! I damn near got myself good and caught.” She notes that Jack takes a bigger breath than usual and exhales more slowly than before. Oh, she hopes she hasn’t done something awful. If she could think coherently, she’d wonder what she was doing here, what she was doing anywhere, for that matter.

She stands there, regarding his face and combing his hair with her fingers.

She doesn’t have a clue that big, hot tears are sliding down her face.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lcUeothSPyc
Lake Street Dive in the Studio: Rachael Price Sings “What I’m Doing Here” In One Complete Take

To Be Continued in Chapter 22

Illustration Credit: http://www.en.wikipedia.org, “Cluedo”
Music Credit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lcUeothSPyc
Lake Street Dive in the Studio: Rachael Price Sings “What I’m Doing Here” In One Complete Take

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The Our Little Secret Travel Agency – Chapter 20: Well, That Was Weird!

405px-Guardian_Angel_1900

“Let’s not delay this any longer….Let’s get started,” says the man with sweet resignation.

Rain finds herself sitting on the side of the bed next to a very old, clean-shaven man lying on his back, propped up by two neat pillows. The smooth, cool sheet is folded down neatly at his waist. He is dressed in a simple, dazzling white gown. He waits there patiently, groomed as if for a photo shoot, his white hair sculpted to a stark shimmer.

His name is Reginald, a god-like man who looks too beautiful to die, but beautiful enough to deserve a miraculous passage to the end of suffering.

He turns his head and regards her with a gratitude that ennobles his spirit and softens his vulnerability.

Yes, she thinks, this is exactly how it is meant to be. She looks into his blue eyes, blurred with clouds, beautiful, wondrous kitten eyes that you see only in newborn babies and those staring into eternity, eyes that are beginning to perceive the nothingness of everything and the everything of nothingness.

Rain is also dressed in a simple, dazzling white gown. She slides her bare feet under the sheet. Her body seems to know what to do as she makes room for herself to lie under the folded sheet next to the dying man.

The nostalgic smell of warm fall leaves illuminated into golden diamonds by the early morning sun permeates the air. She cradles the man gently in her arms, holding him as a mother would hold her baby for the first time, as lovers would hold onto the few remaining stolen moments of their last time together, as a dreamer would hold onto the fading apparition of a loved one long gone.

He settles his head comfortably against her and she feels his body surrender its tension.

“Are you afraid?” asks Rain, as she rubs her cheek against the man’s face.

“Yes, a little. Now that you are here with me, though, I feel better,” he exhales.

“There is nothing to fear. We have a lot of space to fill with whatever will give you the most comfort. The only thing you should be feeling is peace,” she says.

The man’s thoughts radiate prismatically through the air around them, a soft swirl of disconnected, comforting images.

Now and again, he reaches up and caresses one of the passing images and presses it to his heart. She does the same.

Their hearts fill with dancing colors and tears perfumed with joy, sunlight that makes them giggle like small children, and breezes filled with the promise of delight.

And, yes, there are dark blotches of grief hopping around like buzzards, but she deftly shoos them off to the side, beyond the periphery of his consciousness. The horrors writhing in the void are lurking there, too, but she guides Reginald past them, distracting him with giant snowflakes she has pulled out of the ether that chant an echoing calm. Now and again, they encounter pools of remorse, but so skilled is she at her craft that she manages to lead him around the edges without his being aware that he has veered slightly off the path.

And the path is long and fraught with nightmares, but Reginald perceives none of that. Secure in the peace she has created for him, Reginald does not know that many of her embraces are to still her own fears. It takes all of her concentration to keep going, to make it look like a dance, a graceful waltz past the precipice of doom. Just focus on the light, let it fill your soul, shut out the darkness. Oh, God, please take the scream that is rising in her throat and bend it into the tinkling bells of a wind chime.

“Yes, that’s better,” she says, as her voice mingles with the tinkling bells.

“Better than what?” asks Reginald in a dreamy voice that sounds only mildly interested.

“Better than better,” she says, knowing that her answer doesn’t really have to make sense, it just has to make peace, and even if nothing else makes sense, peace always does.

Rain feels him smiling, and she is glad that he doesn’t press her to explain what is “better than better.” His fight is over and he knows it. He clings to her tightly, grateful for the peace that is bearing him towards the light which is slowly growing bigger.

Reginald’s sense of joy is overwhelming. Like a child chasing the ocean’s waves for the first time, he revels in the ripples of peace washing over him, cleansing his mind of the illusions that held him captive throughout his many years of life. He is released from the bondage of responsibility, guilt, regret, shame, greed, envy, lust, strife, to name but a few links in the chain which has begun to dissolve along with his resistance to death.

The light is blinding now and Reginald lets go of her to run towards the figures that are waiting for him. His young face is fresh and dewy. He turns to look back at Rain, and beaming with peace and joy, he puts both hands over his glowing heart and bows to her. She has done her job and done it well. She is overjoyed.

She holds up her hand as if to wave goodbye and through the blinding light comes a hand whose fingertips rest on hers. Their palms press together. At the same time, a woman’s face lines up with her own face. The tips of their noses are touching. Their eyes lock into a gaze, a portal into the soul of the other.

She knows who it is but cannot remember the name of her very best friend in the whole world. Rain tries to grab her best friend’s hand, but their fingertips remain joined. She knows that she will not be able to lead her away. Wordlessly, they communicate their devotion to one another. Somewhere in this void, they hear each other’s laughter, their souls luxuriating in their shared warmth. There are no explanations, but Rain must leave, she must tear herself away.

She resists the lure of the light and feeling something akin to grief, faces the darkness once again to grope her way back blindly along the narrow path. Without Reginald to protect, she finds that she, herself, is weak. She falters, falling into the black pool of remorse that she had so deftly skirted before.

Down, down, down she falls. Unbeknownst to Rain, there are metal stairs in that pool and now her legs break and shatter like glass.

Morgana wakes up splayed out in her lumberjack nightgown on the metal stairs of the stairwell. She’s fallen down the first few steps and is surprised to see a broken jar of her Boney Stalker Witch’s Brew Barbeque Sauce lying next to her.

In a very controlled state of panic, she gets up, pushes the broken glass carefully to the side of the stairs, wipes her fingers on her nightgown, and hurries to make it back to her apartment without being seen by the neighbors!

Phew! Done and done! Safely back in the apartment, her first order of business is to scramble into some old sweat pants, a tee shirt, and tennis shoes. Next, she rounds up a plastic bag, a couple of rags, a spray bottle of liquid cleaner and some paper towels, and runs back to the stairwell to pick up the mess she left.

Luckily, she encounters no one on the stairs as she combs the stairway for splotches of barbeque sauce and shards of glass, wiping them up with the paper towels, spraying the stain and then scrubbing the bejesus out of it with the clean rags as she goes along. She never makes it down to the last flight of stairs since she doesn’t see any more splotches.

Good thing she’s got two more jars of her Witch’s Brew. She toasts a sliced bagel while she makes herself a nice pot of coffee, and sits down at the table with a bagel and cream cheese. Ahhh…how nice to just sit and relax after waking up on those damned stairs. What the hell was THAT all about?

She happens to look at the clock. Geez! It’s later than she thought!

The phone rings. “Hi, Mom! What’s up?”

“Oh, Gerri! How’s my Baby Girl?”

“I’m good! You doing OK?”

Morgana’s heart always melts hearing the sincere concern and love in the voice of her daughter. It suddenly occurs to her that Gerri’s grief has not been entirely wrapped up in Jack but rather mostly in watching her mother struggle and suffer with this interminable saga of Jack being stuck between life and death.

A sudden pang for her daughter’s suffering awakens Morgana’s motherly instinct to lift this burden off Gerri’s shoulders.

A lighthearted silliness buoys Morgana’s mood, and she is surprised to hear herself quip, “Yep! I feel more like I do now than I did same time yesterday!”

Both Morgana and Gerri guffaw at Morgana’s ridiculous answer. The two had always shared a zany sense of humor, which seems to have disappeared during the stress of Jack’s coma and Jerinda’s “absence.”

After the two finish laughing and catching their breath, Gerri says, “It’s so good to have a good belly laugh with you again, Mom. I’ve missed that so much!”

“Ah, me too, Gerri! I’ve got to remember to start laughing again.”

“Maybe you’ve just gotta start getting out more.”

“Yeah, more like out of my own head,” says Morgana. “You know, they’re doing all kinds of studies on poor Pop-Poo, but just between you and me, I don’t think they can do too much.”

“I know…I’ve talked to dozens of people about this, and I’ve read everything there is to read about it online, all the new research, you name it, but there isn’t much to go on. It just kills me when I think about you having to live in this netherworld where Pop-Poo doesn’t get any better or any worse.”

Morgana sighs, partly from resignation and partly from relief that her daughter is articulating her own sadness and frustration with this no-win situation.

Morgana reflects on the crisis stage of Jack’s stroke. She remembers how the waiting room at the hospital was filled with wonderful friends and weeping relatives, prayers and tears, and friends who organize schedules and tasks for other friends to sit by the bedside or bring meals to the family, or to deliver bouquets of flowers with helium balloons with dancing cartoon characters that eventually droop and flag at the bedside of the patient who obstinately refuses to get better, to snap out of it, godammit, so we can all go home and get back to life. It doesn’t even have to be a great life. It just has to be a life. Goddammit! And then, when no hope is to be had, people start drifting away, mostly because, thankfully, they have a life to drift away to, and partly because they aren’t sure what they can do to make things better. And then you’re alone. Hope is always nice, but just having a little bit of company isn’t a bad substitute.

“You hit the nail on the head there, Sweetie! It does seem exactly like a netherworld. I’ve thought a lot of about this, believe me, and I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s not a whole lot anyone can do to help Pop-Poo. I’m not giving up on him, but meanwhile I’ve got to start to reconstruct my life and go on the best I can.”

“Well, I’m not happy to think that poor Pop-Poo will never get better again, but I’m glad to hear that you’re finally thinking about doing something for yourself once in a while, you know, like maybe something fun?”

“Speaking of doing something for myself, Gerri, I have a lunch date today!”

“Oh, really??? And are you going to tell me about it?”

“Yeah! I met a nice guy named Percival at Bucky’s, and it’s a long story, but I’m meeting him today with a bottle of BBQ sauce that I made as a trial run for my Advice Lady column in The Pregonero. He said it wouldn’t be a real trial run if he didn’t get a chance to weigh in on it, so I accepted the challenge!”

“That’s great!,” chuckles Gerri. “I can’t wait to hear all about it! I’m so excited!”

“Oh, me too, Gerri! Listen, I gotta get ready now for ‘My Big Date,’ so call me when you get a chance, OK?”

“Sure thing, Mom! Love you, and I’m so thrilled for you! Have a great time, alright?”

After she hangs up, Morgana regrets not telling Gerri that she will be sporting her old Guatemalan shirt for her big date. Gerri would have gotten a kick out of that!

The dishes done, the bed made and her bath taken, she blows her hair dry and somehow manages to get a little volume out of it. Morgana wriggles into those tight jeans which seem just a little looser than they were last night. She slips on her vintage long-sleeved Guatemalan shirt. The blue, purple, and light green blend so well with the rich blue of her jeans. The shape and length of the shirt cover all those things that prefer to not see the light of day.

Well, she still looks middle-aged, but hey, she is. The lucky thing is that she looks a little less dumpy and not at all frumpy. She finds a little box of earrings that Jerinda had given her a couple years ago of a hanging sliver of a blue moon with a little purple star suspended from the upper tip of the crescent. What a perfect ensemble!

She puts on a little lipstick, a little eyeliner, just a touch of blue eye shadow, laces up her sneakers and packs her Boney Stalker/Witch’s Brew BBQ Sauce into her bag with a couple paper towels and cloth napkins. Oh, and a little spritz of Ooh-La-La, her favorite perfume, that she’d forgotten all about until this very moment.

She practically dances down the stairs, ignoring the vile stench emanating from the Rubber Man who wakes up long enough to see Morgana’s jiggling ass through the open risers of the last flight of metal steps. The light flooding into the dim stairwell from the open door reveals some splotches of BBQ sauce on his filthy gray blanket. He sucks the sauce off the blanket. Oh yeah! That’ll straighten him out!

Morgana steps out into the blinding light and for an instant, she sees the dying Reginald, the youthful Reginald, the soul of Jerinda and now the shadow of Jack in the pool of remorse hiding the metal stairs that break Rain’s glass legs.

Well, that was weird! Was that a dream she had, or was it a real transfer that occurred spontaneously? She’ll have to ask Dr. Valenzuela about that—if she remembers! Or maybe she’s just going crazy! Does it even matter? She hears the infectious thumping of music from a passing car and thinks, in spite of loss, disappointment and even death or other realms or realities, whatever they may be, how good it would feel to dance!

 

To Be Continued in Chapter 21

Art Credit: Guardian Angel (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Guardian_Angel_1900.jpg)
Music Credit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BgfcToAjfdc

Music Credit: Kygo – Stole The Show feat. Parson James [Official Music Video – YTMAs]
Published on Mar 23, 2015
Cloud Nine is out now:
iTunes: http://smarturl.it/CloudNineiT
Spotify: http://smarturl.it/CloudNineSp

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Filed under Science Fiction, Short Story Series, The Our Little Secret Travel Agency-The Novel