Category Archives: Short Story Series

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

The Our Little Secret Travel Agency – Chapter 18: A Cup of Tea is Still a Cup of Tea

Blowing Water

Morgana regards the little bottle of her former nemesis, Boney Stalker Scotch.

“Good choice!” encourages the Jimmy Buffet look-alike as he chucks the mini
bottle into a small paper bag which he twists firmly around the bottle’s neck.

“It’s not for me,” says Morgana, getting a bit defensive. “It’s for uh…a…friend!”

“Uh-huh! That’s what they all say!” he says with a knowing laugh, scooping some change from the cash register after it finishes kazizzling its way through the transaction.

Feeling a little cheap, she blushes and leaves the store, almost knocking over a tropical display of scantily-clad, hot-looking women advertising some kind of drink mixer. She hears the clerk laugh as the door closes behind her.

She walks to the end of the plaza, and just as she is about to step out into the busy street, she is distracted by someone calling to her from behind.

“Morgana!!!”

She turns and sees a good-looking man whom she instantly recognizes as that really nice, handsome guy in the suit she met in the Bucky’s supermarket just a couple days before.

“Oh, hi…,” she stammers, not remembering the man’s name.

“Percival,” he reminds her, his big grin revealing his delight at seeing her again.

Still flustered, she manages to sputter, “What are you doing here?”

“Well, it’s lunch time, so I came over here to get myself a sandwich and a bottle of water. If you’re not in a hurry, why don’t you join me? I’ve got more here than I can possibly finish!”

“Well, that depends…,” she says, stalling for a way to not appear too gung-ho on his offer.

“On what?” he says, sensing that she’s being somewhat cagey.

“On what kind of sandwich it is!”

“OK! Ready for this? It’s mozzarella with sun dried tomatoes, an olive tapenade and a lot of oregano on a foot-long French baguette! Now tell me you don’t like that!”

“Oh, I hate oregano!” she says jokingly, but as his face drops, she rescues the moment with, “Just kidding! I love oregano and I’d love to join you!”

“Phew! You had me worried there for a second!” says Percival as he leads her across the street.

They head towards the little postage stamp-size park with ginkgo trees, rose bushes and newly-painted, glossy green benches. At the other end of the little park a shopping cart filled with refuse stands guard over its slumbering de facto owner who is sprawled out on the grass, oblivious to the geese surrounding him, picking silently at the ground.

Stopping at the first available bench, they both sit down and Percival puts his bag between them and unpacks their lunch.

“How impressive that you’re carrying your own bag! I try to do that, too!”

“I’ve got dozens of these. Every conference I go to gives you your registration materials and one or two little novelty gadgets in one of these.”

“What kind of conferences do you attend?”

“They all have to do with architecture, building design, engineering and construction. I’m an architectural technologist. Architects sometimes design things that don’t work, so I make sure they do. The last thing anyone wants to do is construct a building that isn’t functional. Aside from the structural integrity of the building, the most important consideration is that the building facilitate the activity for which the building was conceived; only then can you hope to enhance the experience of those who use the building. This quote on the bag really hits the nail on the head!”

Morgana reads aloud the bag’s message:

“Architecture is basically a container of something. I hope they will enjoy not so much the teacup, but the tea – Yoshio Taniguchi.”

Morgana contemplates the quote for a moment.

“How philosophical! The tea is the reason for the cup.”

“Yes,” agrees Percival, “Form follows function, or at least that was the popular mantra of the 20th century.

Unwrapping the sandwich, Percival smiles, pleased that not only does Morgana seem to appreciate his bag, but the bag’s message as well.

“Taniguchi is one of my favorite architects—his work reflects a Japanese aesthetic of simple elegance, stark beauty, intransience. He redesigned the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Just imagine the pressure of designing a building to house modern art! The building itself would have to be a work of modern art.”

“Intransience?” asks Morgana, stealing a quick look at the homeless man sleeping so peacefully under the watchful gaze of the growing gaggle of geese, waddling silently on their big, rubbery webbed feet. She takes the half sandwich that Percival has re-wrapped in the paper liner. “How does architecture manage to suggest that?”

“Glass…and lots of it. The project was very controversial, and still is. But Taniguchi recognizes that culture keeps changing to keep pace with technology, so the space had to change as well. It seems to be focused more on the people than the art. The guy’s a genius!”

“So’s the guy who made this sandwich,” says Morgana appreciatively.

“Isn’t it wonderful?” Percival takes a bite and unscrews the cap off the bottle of sparkling water. “We’re going to have to drink out of the same bottle—I hope you don’t mind.”

“Actually, I don’t mind, but look at this!” Morgana digs into her bag and fishes out a plastic cup.

“You’re a real girl scout, Morgana! How did you happen to have a cup with you?”

“I carry it because I use the water fountains around the Lake, and it’s faster and easier to fill up a cup than to drink directly from a fountain—if the pressure is too high, I get my hair wet, and if it’s too low, I can’t get a good drink!”

As Percival pours half the bottle of sparkling water into Morgana’s plastic cup, her open purse picks this exact moment to keel over and plop off the bench, ejecting the little bottle of Boney Stalker Scotch that rolls its way out of its little paper bag, as if the damned thing had a mind of its own.

“Well, there’s a good drink right there!” exclaims Percival.

Oh, shit, thinks Morgana. Now Percival is going to think she’s a lush instead of the mostly-virtuous water drinker she really is! She can’t tell him she bought it to give to her comatose husband—he’d think she was stark-raving mad. Plus, she doesn’t want to ruin the moment by including non-present spouses, comatose or otherwise. She doesn’t like to lie, but she really can’t avoid it.

Retrieving her purse and the renegade bottle, she collects herself and manages a laugh.

“No, that’s what you would drink if you like the taste of broken glass. This stuff is the bottom of the barrel! I bought it because someone wrote to the Advice Lady asking for a good way to get rid of it without drinking it or throwing it away.”

“So what’s the answer—use it as paint thinner?”

Morgana is really starting to like Percival.

“You know, I hadn’t thought of that, but I’ll add it to my list. I was thinking that it would be good as a disinfectant for minor cuts and abrasions. You can also pour it into your windshield wiper fluid to prevent it from freezing. On the hot side, you can always upcycle it as a flambé. I also hear that it’s a good addition to gravies and sauces, especially BBQ sauce. So, before I reply to the letter, I thought the Advice Lady should give the Boney Stalker Scotch BBQ Sauce a trial run. What do you think?”

“I think you ought to make the BBQ sauce, put it in a jar, and walk it over to this very park and to this very bench where I will be waiting for you with two sandwiches and two bottles of sparkling water. Now, that’s only if you want to give it a real trial run. If you want to give it a substandard trial run, then I would not put it in a jar and I would not walk it over to the park. But as you know, investigative journalism demands that one go the extra mile.” Looking away, he adds, “And, I’d love to see you again.”

Morgana smiles and is at a loss for words.

Her voice cracks as she says, “So I take it you like BBQ sauce?”

Suppressing a laugh, Percival says, “Oh, I do! When you do have to respond to the letter?”

“Day after tomorrow—so we’d have do the trial run tomorrow. How’s that sound?”

“It’s a date!” he concludes.

Of course, Morgana notices that Percival is not, in fact, blushing, but his voice sounds like he is. Realizing that she’s not the only one who feels self-conscious, she feels a little more confident. He looks at his watch and frowns.

“Thanks so much for lunch, Percival. I really enjoyed the sandwich…and the company was even better!”

Their eyes meet in a meaningful gaze that neither one seems willing to end, but it ends in an awkward gathering of garbage, brushing off of crumbs, and mumbled goodbyes. Oh, boy! She can hardly wait to get home and start making that BBQ sauce.

Percival looks at his watch. “Morgana, I’ve got to run! See you at noon tomorrow, right?”

They shake hands like two horse traders, and Percival turns, and takes off in a youthful trot (probably for her benefit) back to work.

Morgana sits back down on the bench and smiles at the prospect of seeing Percival again tomorrow. Luckily, she was dressed so nicely. It really paid off that she took the time and the trouble to do it. And lying? It’s usually not a good thing, but she can’t help but feel good about this lie. Who would have ever thought that a little lie could reap such big rewards? And that rotgut Boney Stalker Scotch owes her a good turn once in a while.

A commotion of goose honks wakes up the sleeping man who has rolled over onto a thick blanket of freshly-deposited goose doodles surrounding him and is now flailing around in disgusted agitation. His sputtering and cursing have drawn the more aggressive birds closer as they hiss and peck at the poor man.

Good time to leave, thinks Morgana. She gets up and walks with purpose back to the liquor store since she now needs another bottle to make the BBQ sauce—using the bottle intended for Jack for another man could only generate some bad karma.

“How’d your ‘friend’ like the Boney Stalker Scotch?” taunts that nasty Jimmy Buffet look-alike.

“So much so that I’m buying him another one. And who knows? If you’re real lucky, I might even be back for more! But don’t hold your breath!”

She feels his malevolent gaze burning into her jiggling ass as she stalks out of the store.

She walks to Bucky’s and once inside the supermarket, Morgana does a search on her phone for “BBQ Sauce made with Boney Stalker Scotch,” and reads, “Bourbon Whiskey BBQ Sauce. Lots of good stuff goes into this terrific sauce: brown sugar, ketchup, hickory smoke crystals, steak sauce, hot pepper sauce, a few other yummy ingredients and almost one cup of whiskey. The ribs won’t know what hit them.”

Whatever the “other yummy ingredients” are, she makes a quick decision not to worry about them. It doesn’t have to be great BBQ sauce, it just has to be BBQ sauce. The only things she has to buy are the brown sugar and the hickory smoke crystals, which fit nicely into her purse.

Instead of going home, she makes a detour into The Pregonero. She slips into the office completely unnoticed because there’s no one there. She turns on her computer and finds a letter for The Advice Lady in her inbox.

Dear Advice Lady,

This letter doesn’t come out of one experience, but a general malaise I am suffering from.

I’m a nice person, or as nice as anyone else. I find that people say the rudest things to me, and I try to let it roll off my back and not return the barbs. This is true of my family, friends, and other acquaintances. Are people like this with everyone or is it just me? I keep feeling that I have to stay under the radar to avoid these little attacks. Yes, I have my faults, but so does everyone else. I’m more than happy to accommodate everyone else’s quirks, so it really surprises me when people zero in on mine.

Any advice you can offer me will be greatly appreciated.

Yours,
Annoyed in Illinois

Dear Annoyed,

You suffer from a common ailment. The good news is everyone feels the same way. The bad news is that it’s not going to stop anytime soon. I’m sure you’ve said things you have regretted the moment you said them. Well, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Add to that all the random comments we make that are misinterpreted because of poor word choice, lapsed judgment or background noise. And let’s not even mention facial expressions and body language! The only way for any of us to avoid getting our feathers ruffled is to never leave the nest.

In the meantime, remember the Golden Rule–and be nice to everyone, and give them the benefit of the doubt. Do what you can to slow down and edit what you are going to say, try to choose your words more judiciously, and give yourself permission to not react when someone says something hurtful to you. As difficult as it may be, don’t take anything personally. You’ll save yourself a lot of grief.

I quote the poem my dear Aunt Phylene used to recite to me:

Make sure the words you say are sweet—
You never know which you’ll have to eat!

To which I add my own poem:

A Cup of Tea is Still a Cup of Tea

I dearly love my friends
Who love me even though
I might not be their cup of tea
Or whom they’d choose to know.

When I see they’re happy
To find I’m not so bad
I feel so haute that it floats my boat—
The one I’ve never had.

I know I’m not perfect
But neither are they
And yet I still love them
Any old way.

I’m thankful for their patience
Putting up with who I am
And I vow to never let on
That I do the same for them.

Were we ever to part company
I’m sure we’d all survive
But being friends is a lot more fun
And in that my joy resides!

Good luck and let me know if this helps!

The Advice Lady

Morgana saves the document and shuts her computer down. Charlie teeters in after his three-martini lunch, three sheets to the wind as usual, and is surprised to see Morgana.

“Hey, Morgana! What are you doing here today? I thought this was your day off!”

“Oh, hi, Charlie! I was just leaving! I thought I’d put in an hour of work today because I’m having lunch with a friend tomorrow, and I didn’t want to have to hurry back. So if I’m a little late tomorrow, you’ll know why.”

“Well, have a good time, Morgana!” says Charlie as he flops on his couch for his afternoon snooze.

“Thanks, Charlie! See you tomorrow!” She closes the door softly, and hears him saying, “You’re looking really good today!” She opens the door just a crack and says in a quiet voice, “Love you, Charlie…,”and exits before Maddie, the frog-voiced receptionist, even notices her.

On her way home, all she can think about is making the BBQ sauce and her date with Percival. Oh, and what to wear? She’ll come up with something good. Just like the sauce. This is going to be one hell of a witch’s brew. And she has the feeling that it will go down smooth!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0LhsE-uqqE0

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

Music Credit: http://www.youtube.com, Lake Street Dive, “You Go Down Smooth”

To Be Continued in Chapter 19

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

The Our Little Secret Travel Agency – Chapter 13: To Itch is Human, But to Scratch is Divine

image13

The intense sunlight of the early morning glows through Morgana’s eyelids. She’s just spent the night passed out on the living room couch in her well-worn street clothes. Armhole seams, zippers and buttons, bra straps, taut panty elastic and a tight waistband have conspired all night long to torment her by digging grooves and boring indentions into her pudgy cushion of fat. Informed by low-level pain and general discomfort, she awakens to the disgruntled feeling of having been cheated out of a comfortable night’s sleep.

The steaming, magical elixir that summoned her into her ecstatic swoon just the night before is now just an abandoned cup of cold peach tea on the edge of the coffee table. The “Shift Happens” mug strikes an innocent pose akin to a long-suffering bystander awaiting the arrival of a bus that never comes.

Fighting the urge to get into her own bed for an hour of restful sleep in her soft, lumberjack flannel nightgown, she rearranges the pillows on the couch and carries the cup into the kitchen. She dumps the tea down the drain, squeezing the water from the tea bag and the spent slices of ginger before tossing them into the trash can under the sink.

Setting the wheezing, gurgling coffee maker into production, she pops in on Jack who is still sleeping the sleep of the dead. All she wants right now is to slip into a nice hot bath and not think about him, so she takes his still-comatose condition as a green light to a hot soak.

Ahhh! Peeling off those stale clothes provides instant relief. She regards the still-warm clothes on the floor with disdain, thinking that she never wants to wear them again. The hot water soothes and smooths her outraged skin.

Out of the tub, she wraps a towel around herself. While the luke-warm water glugs down the drain, she walks down the soft, Berber shag-carpeted hallway and into her room. She drops the towel in front of the full-length mirror. The image of Rain in her black, lacy underthings flashes for just an instant in her mind’s eye, but is replaced by what she actually sees: a not-unattractive woman “of a certain age” in a neglected body with about thirty pounds of extra weight that can’t relax due to the standing-room only nature of nowhere else to go. Suffice it to say that extra weight has the unjust propensity to distribute itself in a consistently artless fashion.

Morgana is not one, though, to dwell on her imperfections. It is what it is—not that she likes it, but over the course of her 47 years, she has become a person of faith (albeit non-religious) who sincerely believes that everything can always be just a tad better than it is right now. Of course, self-loathing is always an option, but she’s been there, done that, and knows from bitter experience that it’s one rabbit hole she doesn’t need to fall into.

She opens her closet and finds some blue pants and a bluish top that match more than they don’t. Even though they are snug and not as comfortable as she’d like, she’s surprised that they both fit—the last time she tried them on, they didn’t! Pleased, she figures that the tightness will serve as a reminder to not eat all the calories-be-damned goodies that seem to find their way to her always-appreciative, non-discerning palate.

Her hair? Hmmm…needs some work. That’s the good news. The bad news is that there’s not much to work with. She doesn’t think about her hair all that much…and it shows. She usually brushes it straight back and tucks it behind her ears. It’s hard to say what color it is these days. Her natural color, which has grown out a good four inches, is mousey-brown with more silver threads every day. She dyes it a richer shade of brown once every six months, whether it needs it or not. Almost shoulder length, her hair is as straight as a board, and never did hold a curl. Adding insult to injury, it’s been getting thinner over the years, and the ends have all split, giving them a dry, bushy appearance.

“OK,” she thinks, “Gonna have to do something with this hair. What, I don’t know, but anything would be better than nothing. Maybe some time this week? Yeah, why not? But for right now, behind the ears it goes!”

She puts on some lipstick, which was not easy to find, and then goes hunting for some earrings. She manages to locate a nice pair of small silver bangles.

“Stand up straight!” She says to her reflection in the mirror, channeling her father. He always reminded her to put her shoulders back and to hold her head high, because a round-shouldered appearance did not inspire confidence. It’s surprising to her that this actually makes a difference.

The doorbell rings. It’s Rocky!

“Hey, Morgana! Where are you going, all dolled-up like that?”

“I thought I’d go to work a little early today. Got time for a quick bagel before I leave?”

As soon as he says, “Sure,” and sits down at the kitchen table, she pulls two frozen, already-sliced cinnamon raisin bagels from the freezer and pops them into her four-slotted toaster. She pours them both a steaming cup of coffee.

Rocky sips his coffee with apparent appreciation. “Well, I’m glad I caught you. How would you feel about Jack being moved back to the Stroke Unit at the Medical University Hospital? The therapy I’ve been able to administer has been fine in terms of maintaining his health, but we were hoping for a little more progress.”

Morgana feels a mixture of sadness and relief. She puts two plates and two knives on the table along with butter, jelly and cream cheese. The toaster pops up. She barely notices her burning fingertips as she transfers the hot bagels over to the plates on the table.

“Well, sure, Rocky—whatever’s best for Jack. But what can they do for him there that they can’t do for him here?”

“Like they say in real estate, the three most important things are location, location and location. At the hospital, there is a whole care-giving community of professionals in one place. They can keep sending people here individually, but the continuity of care could make a bigger difference. No promises, but it doesn’t hurt to try, right?”

“I’m with you on that. Of course, I’m always open to miracles, but I guess the type of miracle we’d be hoping for would be more likely to happen in a medical setting than here at home.”

“Well, the nice thing about miracles in a medical setting is that the doctors get to claim the credit! The humble ones share it with God. Oh, and one more question: Would you consent to our using some newer experimental techniques?”

“Well, why not? Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Jack couldn’t be any worse off than he is right now—true?”

“In a perfect world, that might be true, but I always like to remind myself that there’s no good thing that can’t be better, and there’s no bad thing that can’t be worse.”

Rocky and Morgana share a guilty laugh, each hoping that the other doesn’t think that the humor is somewhat at Jack’s expense.

Rocky clears his throat and reaches into his therapy bag which is on the floor, leaning against the leg of the kitchen table.

“I have the consent forms here for you to sign if you are comfortable with the arrangement.”

“Rocky, if it’s got your seal of approval, then I say, ‘Let’s do it.’”

As she signs the papers, Rocky slathers his bagel with cream cheese.

“We can move him today. If you like, you can go to work as you had planned. I’m going to do a therapy session with him while I’m here, and after we’re done, the hospital will send a transport team over, and I will accompany them back to the hospital.”

“But shouldn’t I be there, too?”

“No, it’s not necessary. I’d say you’re better off coming to visit him tomorrow morning—any time after 10. If there are any problems, I’ll give you a call right away, but I don’t anticipate anything going wrong. What do you think?”

“This is all so sudden, but something’s got to give. Just speaking for myself, though? I really don’t know which way to turn about this.”

“I know, Morgana! It’s tough. Strokes are so common—you’d think we’d know more than we do, especially with severe strokes like Jack’s. We can keep people alive for years, but that’s not the point—the point is to restore them back to living again. Once we exhaust all our best practices, all we can do is just keep trying new things. And that’s where we are right now.”

While Morgana is talking to Jack and kissing him goodbye, Rocky is in the kitchen rinsing their plates and cups.

Before leaving the apartment, Morgana gives Rocky a long hug.

“Don’t worry, Morgana! I’ll take good care of Jack. The change of scenery just might do him some good—so let’s keep our fingers crossed!”

As she leaves the apartment, she feels almost free. She takes the stairs rather than the elevator, and walks, rather than drives, to work. It’s only about a mile from her house.

As she walks along the Lake, she calls Gerri to tell her the news about Jack.

“Oh, Mom! I’m so happy! I think this is great news! You deserve a little break from all this—you can’t tell me that this hasn’t been just awful for you! And besides, poor little Pop-Poo will be in good hands over there at the Medical Center.”

“Yeah, I’m starting to think it’s a good thing, too. I wasn’t sure at first, but dear, sweet Rocky will be there to keep me posted. Now that I’ve spoken with you, I feel a lot more confident about this whole thing.”

“Mom, I hate to cut you short, but I’ve got a meeting I’m running off to right now. You let me know if anything comes up, OK?”

“OK, Gerri! Love you, sweetie!”

“Love you, too, Mom. And don’t worry—all’s well, and if it’s not, we’ll deal with that, too!”

Stepping into The Pregonero, Morgana surprises Maddie who looks up suddenly and croaks out an automatic “Good Morning” to Morgana. She does a double-take, as she notices her nice blue outfit.

“Good gravy, Morgana! Look at you, all gussied up! I hope I’m invited to the same wing ding!”

Maddie laughs at her own corny comments, her laughter turning into a cigarette-induced coughing jag.

“Maddie, you just made my day! Thanks!”

Morgana enjoys the compliments! That makes two so far this morning!

She knocks at Charlie’s door, and goes in. He’s surprised to see her. A guilty look sweeps over his face as he tries to withdraw his right hand from under his shirt without her noticing, but she notices anyway.

“Morgana! You’re a sight for sore eyes! What are you doing here so bright and early in the morning?”

“Hi, Charlie! It just seemed like a good morning to get an early start! Got anything you need help with?”

“As a matter of fact…yes! I’m miserable! I woke up this morning with a full blown rash all over my stomach. If I didn’t have such a big gut, I’d show it to you. It burns and itches like a son of a bitch, and I’ve tried every goddamned thing in my medicine cabinet and nothing works. I’d go to the doctor, but you know how I hate doctors, so no dice, but I’ll tell ya, I’m just about that desperate. Got any ideas?”

He scratches his stomach with a focused agitation while he waits for her answer.

Morgana digs into her purse, and removes the biggest obstacles impeding her search: her reading glasses, her cellphone with its accompanying charger and earbuds, her hairbrush, her plastic bag full of plastic forks, spoons and knives (just because you never know when some edible-but-messy-delight-sans-utensils might present itself for immediate consumption), a Stanley Power Lock 25-foot tape measure, a Victorinox Swiss Army Knife, and a good supply of napkins and wadded up tissues. The bottom of the bag is now accessible, and amid the matchbooks, paper clips, safety pins, rubber bands, and a few rogue, lint-covered aspirins, she locates just the thing she remembered was there: a nice little packet of perfectly good lemon juice that would have been thrown away had she left it on the table in the little diner near the Lake, The Buttery Crunch, where she had lunch with Jerinda just a couple months ago.

She waves the packet of lemon juice like a victory flag and hands it to Charlie.

“Look what I’ve got! This is just what the doctor ordered!”

Charlie looks at the packet with skepticism. “And what am I supposed to do with this? Put it in my tea?”

“No…you’ll rub it on your stomach! And it’s going to burn and itch unbearably for about five minutes—but whatever you do, don’t you DARE touch that rash! Just let it burn and itch! The payoff is huge! I promise you that you’ll get relief all day and all night long. It won’t itch, but be careful not to scratch it just for old times’ sake, or you’ll set that itch off all over again, and it will come back with a vengeance!”

Charlie takes the packet and can only manage a ham-fisted fumble with the jagged edge. He hands it back to Morgana.

“Here, Morgana—can you get this damned thing open for me?”

Morgana makes a slight tear through the jagged top edge. “OK, Charlie! Put your hand out.”

Charlie puts his hand out to her and she squirts half the lemon juice into his palm.

“Now, without letting it drip all over the place, carefully rub this all over your stomach.”

He turns around so she can’t see his stomach when he lifts up his shirt.

“Oh! Whoa! Whoa! Whoa! Whaaaa! Ooooo! Son of a BITCH!” He huffs, puffs and pants.

“Here, Charlie! Quick! Rub the rest on while it’s still awful! No sense suffering twice!”

By the time the second application is on, over and done with, Charlie is standing up, facing her and gripping the edge of his desk, muttering every foul word he’s ever learned and, by the sound of it, making up a few new ones just for the occasion.

Morgana pats Charlie’s hand as the expletives run out of steam. Exhausted, Charlie sits down, breathes a sigh of relief, a breaks into an ear-to-ear grin.

“Morgana, I gotta hand it to you! You’re one class act! How did you know about the lemon juice, and how did you even happen to have some on you?”

“Good luck, a love for home remedies, and a purse full of random things that I never clean out.”

Morgana, what on earth would I ever do without you! You’re a life saver! Do you feel like doing me another favor?”

“Of course, I do, Charlie! Whatcha got?”

“If you feel like taking a walk, could you pick me up a bottle of lemon juice?”

This is the part of her job she really loves–getting paid to go out gallivanting!

“As you must have already figured out, I love shopping for lemon juice! Is there anything else you want?”

“No, but pick up something for yourself, too! Here’s ten bucks. You keep the change!”

“I can’t take your money, Charlie!” she insists.

“OK, it’s your choice—I’ll just bring you back two desserts today, then, instead of just one!”

“Tell you what, Charlie! Just between you and me, I’m trying to lose a few pounds, so while I love the desserts you bring me, I’ve just gotta stop eating them. So, I’ll take the change instead!”

“That’s my girl!”

“OK, then, Charlie! I’ll be back with your lemon juice, tout de suite!”

She leaves the office practically skipping down the street. Oh, how she loves solving problems with good, old-fashioned horse sense! And best of all? Charlie, that sweet, wonderful, kind, indulgent man, really, really appreciates her!

Back on the walking/jogging path that encircles the Lake, she plugs into an oldies podcast. Listening to the song, “Poison Ivy,” a bounce comes into her step. With a smile on her face, she takes long, spirited strides that seem to pump up her already-elevated mood.

To Be Continued in Chapter 14: Five Dollars for Sister Jane

Art Credit: http://www.museumofbadart.org/coll3/image13.php
HEAD FROM HELL (NOT SUITABLE FOR CHILDREN),Tina Thomas, created in Austin, Texas, ~ 1986-1990, Acrylic on canvas, Donated by Susan Grant

Music Credit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NJz2EY6AlQw – The Coasters (with lyrics and dancing girl) – “Poison Ivy”

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The Our Little Secret Travel Agency – Chapter 12: What’s in The Box?

pandora-closing-the-box

Like Sleeping Beauty, the tenem known as “Rain” lies inert in her room in the Swiss Spa. No longer on the bed, the tenem is stored in a box that is more like a hard-shell violin case than a coffin: The inside is upholstered with plush red velvet covering the dense foam molded to cradle every contour of the tenem’s form. The box has its own suspension system to absorb shocks and a built-in hygrometer/humidifier to measure and maintain the humidity of the tenem. The hinged top is closed over the now red-velvet- shrouded/snug-as-a-bug-in-a-rug tenem, and latched tight as a tomb with two large brass trunk drawbolts along the right side. Like a suitcase, it has small, unobtrusive, retractable wheels and handles which allow for efficient conveyance. It’s also stackable and can be stored horizontally, vertically, or laterally. For right now, though, it’s stored under the bed with two other identical boxes.

Rain’s visiting consciousness has already been transferred back to its rightful owner, who is lying in the Pink Lab on a gurney on the other side of the world.

Morgana’s chilled body is suffused with a golden warmth. The greyish pallor fades from her skin as her lucidity finds its way back home, exploring the recesses of her mind like a traveler returning home after a long absence, checking each room with a sense of relief tinged with vague disappointment. Morgana takes a deep breath and hears herself sigh.

The transfer is complete. Not yet fully awake, Morgana is aware of something throbbing. It’s her big toe, the one that remembers its robotic counterpart kicking a box under the bed in the Swiss Spa. Too groggy to just sit straight up and examine her toe, she bends her left leg, and grabs her foot under the heavy blankets, almost sitting up as if she expects to get a closer look at it. She struggles to get past her sagging belly but doesn’t quite make it—a cramp seizes her stomach muscles. Still hanging onto her foot, she arches her back to unclench the cramp that seems to be somewhere under her ribs—maybe in her diaphragm; her weight shifts over to her left bent knee, which now extends beyond the edge of the gurney. Too late to catch herself, she is falling off the gurney in slow motion, thanks to the covers hindering her descent. As her toe throbs and her stomach muscles contort, she watches the floor coming closer to her unprotected head and, BANG! The left side of her head smacks the floor, her neck bends at an unusual angle, and her left knee takes a pretty good hit. The rest of her soft, fleshy body must have followed with an unceremonious thud while she wasn’t paying attention.

The left side of her face is still plastered to the floor. She doesn’t move for a couple minutes, trying to assess just what the damage is. There is a little puddle of tears on the floor just below her left eye. Her open mouth drools into its own puddle, and there is a sharp pain on the right side of her head.

“So that’s it!” she thinks. “This is how it all ends—no heroism, no poignant last words, no wailing violins—just tears and drool.”

She breathes in some gritty dust and makes a mental note to vacuum more often, and in a wave of giddiness, almost laughs at the absurd notion of vacuuming on her way to meet the grim reaper.

Now fully awake, Morgana finally remembers that she is in the Pink Lab. With great care, she disentangles herself from the covers and lifts her head with slow deliberation. To her great surprise, nothing is broken! Her neck feels a bit stiff, her knee is sore, and she can feel with her fingers that there’s a little swelling where the side of her face hit the floor, but she’s fine. Not even a headache–that awful pain on the right side of her head has somehow vanished!

It is at times like this when having one specific God to thank would be a blessing. She sits on the edge of the gurney and puts her head in her hands and thanks her lucky stars that she is unhurt, and silently expresses her gratitude to Buddha, Vishnu, Ganesh, Jesus, St. Christopher, and Astarte, and all the other gods and goddesses whose names she cannot recall, just in case.

She examines her no-longer-throbbing toe…check; she rubs her knee and imagines a pink heat penetrating and soothing the ache…check; she places her palms on her stomach and wills it to never cramp up on her ever again…check; she massages her neck while rotating her head with caution, hoping that the pops and clicks are just the positive sounds of readjustment…check; and then there’s her head. She gets up and looks in the mirror on the pink wall. Huh! She still looks the same. No worse for the wear. The swelling, which feels like a burn, is hardly noticeable and will go down.

Morgana realizes that she has dodged a bullet, and vows to take it easy after the spill she just took. Luckily, the gurney had been lowered to only two feet from the floor.

Partly from embarrassment and partly to avoid a lengthy medical examination that would certainly ensue should her fall be discovered, she decides to get back onto the gurney and pretend that she never fell. She picks up the tangled blankets from the floor, smooths them to their pre-spill neatness and slides back under them for a few more minutes of sleep before Dr. Valenzuela arrives to check up on her.

Awakened from a deep sleep by Dr. Valenzuela taking her pulse, Morgana surprises her by chirping a cheery, “Good morning, Dr. Valenzuela!”

“Well, good morning to you, too, Morgana! Actually, morning happened a long time ago! Remember? But better late than never, right?”

Morgana tries to remember. “I don’t know! Can you give me a hint why it’s not morning?”

“Normally, you would access your tenem at night, during the time that you would usually be sleeping. But since it was your first time, your initial transfer was done right here so we could keep an eye on you and make sure all was well.”

“Oh, that’s right! Now I remember!”

“So how was your visit?”

“It was wonderful! I felt so young, so hopeful, so attractive and sexy. Oh! And cool, too! Can you imagine? Me? Cool? What an experience! I can’t tell you how I loved being there as ‘Rain.’”

“Was there anything that was upsetting to you or anything that made you uncomfortable?”

“No, I don’t believe so. It’s all rather hazy.” Morgana looks up at Dr. Valenzuela with a worried look. “I’ll be able to remember it all, right?”

Dr. Valenzuela nods to reassure her. “Yes, you will. Within an hour or so, you should remember just about everything. Should you have any questions or any desire to discuss your experience or your impressions with me once you get home, promise that you’ll call me, OK?”

“Thank you, Dr. Valenzuela! I appreciate that so much!”

“And you do remember, though, how to access your tenem, correct?”

“Yes!”

“Just to play safe, explain it to me.”

“OK. Let’s see…I lie down in bed, preferably on my side, I close my eyes, mentally count backwards from ten to zero, and spell ‘Morgana.’ Then I breathe normally and wait for the transfer to engage. How did I do?”

“Perfect, Morgana! Would you like coffee, juice or water before you go back home? Maybe a little snack to tide you over until you can get something to eat?”

“No, no thanks! I feel fine. I’m looking forward to settling down for the evening and just reflecting on that amazing visit to the Spa that I just experienced.”

In the drone on her way home, she contemplates the miniature city below, thinking how inconsequential we all are. What does this all mean? All those little lives, all playing out their little dramas in those little houses, little prayers being said for special little favors in little churches, little books scattered in little schools, little buses bringing little children to and fro, little people driving their little cars. All those little people worried about their own little problems while the infinite worlds outside of theirs spin with a wild force that comes from God knows where along a predetermined trajectory, oblivious to all those little people and all their little matters that matter so little or not at all in the grand scheme of things.

Morgana feels quite little herself until she looks down and sees her stomach protruding through her open blouse. It appears that the bottom three buttons must have popped off during her fall from the gurney! Her mother was right, after all—you should never sleep in your street clothes—not that these particular clothes were all that fit for street wear anyway!

The cloud-camouflaged drone hovers to a gentle landing. The door swooshes open and the mechanical embrace releases her.

“Have a nice, evening, Morgana, and please watch your step as you exit the cabin,” intones the metallic voice bidding her a perfunctory adieu.

“Thank you,” she answers, not knowing if the drone or whoever is operating the drone can hear her.

Stepping out onto the roof of her building, she suddenly thinks of Jack and hurries inside. She makes her way to Jack’s room, opens the door and goes in.

“Hey, Jack!” she calls out in a sing-song voice in an attempt to sound lighthearted.

He doesn’t open his eyes. She’s disappointed, but grateful to not have to wonder whether or not he can see her, which is unnerving to her. She kisses him on the cheek, and at a loss of what else to say to him, she says, “Sleep tight…Don’t let the bedbugs bite.”

She immediately regrets it—not only does it sound stupid to say such a thing to someone in a coma, it’s also a shame that she has nothing of substance to say to this person with whom she has shared two children and a good chunk of a whole life.

While she looks in the fridge for some inspiration, she wonders how long this will go on for. What kind of a life is this? What is she doing? She’s living in this house with a dead man who is still breathing. Why won’t he just wake up so she can tell him to shape up or ship out? She doesn’t want him to die, but sometimes, it just hits her that she can’t keep pretending that life is normal. What’s normal about not having a life? What’s normal about being stuck in some great cosmic traffic jam? She’s in Purgatory, but it’s beginning to feel a lot more like Hell.

“No exit,” she thinks.

“Wait a second,” she says out loud. “There is an exit…The Our Little Secret Travel Agency.”

She slices up a lemon and some ginger, reflecting on her first trip to the Spa.

She pours some honey and boiling water into her favorite mug, a slanted cup with an earthquake icon on it that says, “Shift Happens,” and adds the lemon and ginger, throwing in a little bag of peach tea. The orange color of the tea box conjures up the image of that delicious orange tube dress. Just wearing it, she thinks, was such a sensual delight.

That first sip of almost scalding tea warms her and permeates her thoughts with a soothing calm. Her hands cover as much of the burning hot ceramic surface as they can. She sips the tea, savoring the perfumed heat of this magical elixir. This simple pleasure reawakens the gratitude she felt only an hour or two before.

In an absent-minded amble, Morgana wanders into the living room, which is now steeped in the deepening twilight.

The heat of the tea stirs something inside her and she remembers her mystery man. Her heart beats in an unfounded anticipation of his arrival. In an olfactory flashback, her mystery man’s perfumed essence envelops her.

Unaccustomed to swoons, Morgana is taken unawares. She’s on the edge of something scary and tantalizing. Summoning all the coordination and control she can muster, she puts her hot tea down safely on the coffee table just in time to flop onto the couch in a heavy heap. She has almost fainted and feels so weak and dizzy but at the same time her body is abuzz with an electrical orgasmic current. It goes on and on and on. The fourth button from the bottom of her blouse has just popped off. She is paralyzed by the current, but given her druthers, she wouldn’t have it any other way.

Music Credit: You Tube – The Beat Goes On, Sonny and Cher (1967)
Illustration Credit: readmedeadly.com (Pandora Closing the Box)

To Be Continued in Chapter 13: To Itch is Human, But to Scratch is Divine

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The Our Little Secret Travel Agency – Chapter 11: I Could Get Used to This

2010 mary portas painted mannequins

Rain can’t seem to get the word, “spabot” out of her mind. She keeps a watchful eye on the comings and goings of all these beautiful people, secretly trying to figure out if there are any real humans here.

Rain is just a tad tipsy from the one glass of wine she’s been sipping for the last hour with Veronica at The Piano Lounge.

“How many hours do I have left before I have to ‘go back’?”

“Three hours. You’ll know your time is up because your internal clock will start to play the Westminster Quarters. You know what that is, right?”

Rain’s mind is flooded with the memory of herself as an eight-year old child, sitting in their little branch library, savoring the smell of books and timelessness. How she loved that old grandfather clock with the sun and the moon and all the little dials on the clock’s face.

More than once, she had the pleasure of watching the old librarian tip toe over to the grandfather clock and open up the glass door with a special key. The only noise permitted in the library seemed to be produced by the old grandfather clock with its chimes and gongs, and the sound of the weighted chain being expertly tugged by its loving custodian. Pulling the trusty chains would raise each weight to its highest point. The weights would then continue their relentless descent towards the bottom of the pendulum, like a persistent child pulling on her mother’s hand. It seemed as if the weights were in a hurry to get back down to the bottom of the case because they wanted to upstage the pendulum’s golden disk by obscuring its midpoint swing. The poor pendulum would be reduced to a peek-a-boo motion, appearing on one side of the weights and then the other. That’s how the librarian would know that it was time, once again, to wind the clock back up.

The old librarian, secretly called “Lady Griselda Grey” by Morgana’s older sister, Jewel, was generally not in a good mood, but one day, she smiled at the little girl, just as the clock was chiming, “Bing, Bong, Bing, Bong…Bong, Bing, Bing, Bong,” and the little girl screwed up her courage and queried as politely as she could, “What’s the name of that song, Miss…please? Oh! And thank you!”

The librarian, touched by the little girl’s courtesy, told her to wait just a second, and she came back with a pencil and a piece of paper. Then she sat down at the table with the little girl and explained that it was called “The Westminster Quarters,” because it was eventually played by the chimes in the clock tower of the British Houses of Parliament at Westminster. The tune was written by William Crotch in 1794, and the words to that simple tune were, “Oh, Lord our God / Be thou our guide / That by thy help / No foot may slide.”

She probably would have forgotten that whole explanation, but the old librarian had written it down in nice block letters for her. She took that paper home with her that day and recited the information to anyone who would listen to her. Mostly everyone laughed at the name, “Crotch,” including the little girl, but they were mightily impressed that she knew this interesting tidbit of information, complete with names and dates. Most impressive was that she was able to recount the whole story coherently, quite a feat for an eight-year old child. That’s actually when people started to consider her to be “one smart cookie,” and that’s when she started to think that maybe being smart, or at least passing for smart, wasn’t that hard after all.

Lost in her thoughts, Rain is summoned back to the moment when Veronica rephrases the question, “You know the tune, ‘Westminster Quarters,’ right?”

“Right,” says Rain, somewhat absent-mindedly, answering Veronica’s question, and now, fully back in the moment, she adds, “But can everyone else hear it, too?”

“Oh, yes—at least, that is, those people who are here on an eight-hour visit, and that’s most of the people you see here. At that point, you have 15 minutes to get back to your room, remove your clothes, hang them up, put on your ‘nightie’ and get back into bed.”

“Well, what happens if, for instance, I’m really enjoying myself and I ignore the reminder?”

“That’s not a problem since there’s an override system that will take over for you. Your tenem will excuse itself, return promptly to the room, proceed to undress, put on the nightie, and get into bed to await the transfer, all without your input or cooperation. The same override system will engage should you be here for a ‘visit,’ and there is some emergency at home that demands your immediate attention, like someone frantically banging on your door during the middle of the night or your smoke alarm going off.”

“I feel relieved to know that I can’t screw this up, but also a little creeped out at the thought of not being fully in control,” says Rain.

“But there’s another way to look at this, Rain—the most important thing is that you will be able to react and respond as normally as you would were you just sleeping, which is perfect. Remember, this whole venture is a secret. That override system is necessary to protect your secret. If anyone were to discover ‘Our Little Secret,” it wouldn’t be the end of the world, but there could be devastating consequences for you and your family if you were not available to deal with a potential crisis in a very timely manner.”

“So, once I’m back in the bed, regardless of how I get there, then what?”

“The Brain Computer Interface chip will then transfer your consciousness from your tenem back into your real body. When the transfer is complete, you will wake up in your real body feeling well-rested and refreshed. You will remember most, if not all, of your experiences here at the Spa. You’ll be glad to know that you will know your real name once again! Your tenem will be waiting patiently for you when you decide next to access it.”

“It’s a little bit sad to think of my tenem, this wonderful body, just lying there like a corpse until I decide to animate it with my presence!”

“Well, don’t worry about it too much—your tenem won’t miss you at all, as difficult as that might be to accept.

“Yes, but, it’s got my DNA so I’m thinking that my tenem should have SOME loyalty to me, you know?”

Veronica laughs. “Loyalty is the stuff of consciousness. Right now, you—Rain—are a conscious being, even though you are in a bio-engineered robotic body. Right now, you are loyal to those you love or to those you think you should love. Once you’re back in your regular body, your tenem doesn’t think about you, doesn’t know who you are, and doesn’t care. It’s merely a vehicle for your consciousness. All I’m saying is don’t get too attached to it, and don’t go giving it qualities that it doesn’t have.

“It’s hard not to—after all, it’s the only other body, or vehicle for that matter, I’ve ever had that looks so great in an orange tube dress!”

“So let’s take it for a spin, then!”

Back in the glass hallway, they stop into a gym filled with exercise equipment. There are people here “spinning” on stationary bikes, running around a track, using stair climbers and elliptical machines, lifting weights, climbing walls and ropes and doing calisthenics.

“Here you go, Rain—Just like I said: Take your tenem for a spin.”

Rain perches on the nearest stationary bicycle and begins pedaling faster and faster.

“Why would we bother doing this? My tenem can’t be healthy–it’s basically a machine!”

“Yes and no. Your tenem needs to develop its coordination and equilibrium to refine its large and small motor skills. You and I have already spent a good deal of time talking. You might think we were just chewing the fat but what we were actually doing was increasing the fluidity of your speech while I’ve been checking your response time and the appropriateness of your social interaction.”

“So how am I doing?”

“You’re doing great! Everything’s working just as it should! And even though you move just fine and seem to walk with poise and stability, the exercise will increase the ease with which you move. A little bonus for you is that some of this should even transfer to your real body.”

“Really? How does that work?”

“As your brain perceives the activity, whether it be walking, talking, dancing, swimming, exercising, etc., it establishes new neural pathways or reinforces the ones that already exist. This ensures that your tenem will be able to perform competently the many tasks and activities you will expect from it. It’s a lot like breaking in a new car, only this is much more delicate; and as for your real body, don’t be surprised if you wake up feeling motivated to do some exercise.”

Rain is obviously pleased. “I’m glad to hear that! I do walk quite a bit, but otherwise, I’m really out of shape!”

Rain gets off the stationary bicycle and heads over to the elliptical machine.

“Here…Let me help you with that,” says Veronica, adjusting the setting for Rain right where “easy” ends and “challenging” begins.

“The contrast between what I look and feel like as ‘Rain,’ and what I look and feel like as…Oh! How I would love to know what my real name is!—what I look and feel like as my real self is as different as night and day.”

“That’s true for everyone else who is here, too. This place, believe it or not, is real life, just like everywhere else except that—and this is a giant ‘except’—all the factors that can make life pure hell just aren’t here—there are no obligations, no bosses to kill your spirit, no spouses who can drive you crazy, no demanding children, no spiteful neighbors, no annoying pets, no illness or malaise, no obvious problems. Thanks to technology, all the people who are here look just perfect. Plus, you probably don’t know this yet, but your new brain has a programmed tendency to maintain itself in ‘Ataraxia,’ which is a state of lucid tranquility. In your tenem mode, you will find that illogical fears will wither away, leaving you calm and anxiety free–for the most part. In a sense, this spa is much more of a vacation than you would have ever imagined.”

“I could get so used to this! By the way, Veronica, who said ‘Hell is other people?’”

“Jean Paul Sartre did, in his book, ‘No Exit.’ Funnier yet is the often-repeated misquote, ‘Hell is other people at breakfast,’ which has always made me laugh.”

Rain laughed, too, at the stunning truth of that misquote, remembering how much she always loved early mornings when no one else was around. How she absolutely hated it when her husband would occasionally get up early and destroy the calm by lumbering around like a bull in a china shop, bitching just for the sake of bitching and banging things that just didn’t need banging. At such times, instead of sipping her cup of coffee and enjoying the slowly brightening sky as she watched the sunrise with wonder through the kitchen window, she’d be jumping out of her skin and tripping over her own feet trying to “fix” what was wrong so her husband would just leave her in peace. She now recalls dispassionately the disappointment and anger she would often feel after one of his early morning “fits,” that she had missed the sublime magic of the sunrise to deal with some mundane nonsense that really could have waited, just another five goddamn minutes, goddammit.

“So, what about this ‘Ataraxia’? I’ve never heard of it before.”

“Most people haven’t. It’s a medical term, but it has its roots in Greek philosophy. The meaning varies somewhat, depending on whether you’re an adherent of Epicureanism, Pyrrhonism or Stoicism, and like all things, everyone puts their own spin on what it means. For me, it’s freeing ourselves of our notions about gods and their punishment, and assumes that hell isn’t a physical place—it’s when other people control us or we let them control us. Hell is that realization that we have somehow lost our dignity and our power, perhaps under the guise of responsibility, obligation or by dint of sheer trickery, ignorance, or laziness. Really, there are so many forms of Hell lurking in the human psyche. So the phrase, ‘Hell is other people’ covers a lot of territory, since a never-ending source of personal torment is seeing ourselves as projections on the screen of own fears of what other people think of us.”

“I’m surprised all that meaning can fit into one little word!”

Veronica smiles at Rain’s naivety. “To be truthful, I’m a little surprised that there isn’t some kind of psychotropic drug with the same name.”

Rain hears the Westminster Quarters and notices other people getting off the exercise machines and ending their conversations.

Veronica turns to leave but waits for Rain to catch up with her. They exit the gym and go back to Rain’s room. Rain surprises herself by taking the lead and going to the exact door which is hers, holding up her palm to a diamond-shaped sensor, and stepping through the door as it pops open.

“How did I know which room was mine and how to open the door, Veronica?”

“It’s part of the program! Pretty amazing, huh?”

“I’ll say! I could get used to this!”

“You already said that!”

“I guess I must really mean it, then,” wisecracks Rain, as she tends to the business of wrapping up her visit. She peels off her orange tube dress, and hangs it up in the closet, unhooks and slides out of her lacy black brassiere, eases her black panties down around her ankles and steps out of them. She tosses the underthings into the hamper in the closet and then locates her white nightie, a cute little white satin chemise, and slips it over her head, wriggling it neatly into place.

“And, here I am, all set and ready to go!” She stands once again in front of the mirror and admires herself in that sweet white chemise. “This has been so much fun. I can’t wait to come back!”

Rain walks over to the bed, and her foot kicks a box underneath the bed frame, but doesn’t pay it much mind since the pain is minimal and she’s still thinking about her sweet white satin chemise and maybe, just maybe, her mystery man seeing her in it.

Rain gets into the bed and lies down on her back, sinking her head into the springy pillow. Before allowing herself to fully relax, she reaches back to the nape of her neck, using her fingers to spread her beautiful, long, dark curls out over the pillow. She looks like, feels like and is a vision of loveliness.

Veronica sits in her chair at the side of the bed, taking notes on her clipboard and smiling at Rain who is now closing her eyes, drifting off to her transfer.

“We’ll be waiting for you,” she whispers.

Rain doesn’t hear Veronica. She is dreaming of her mystery man.

To Be Continued in Chapter 12: What’s in the Box?

Music Credit: “Deep Purple,” by Nino Tempo and April Stevens.

Photo Credit: 2010 Mary Portas Painted Mannequins

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The Our Little Secret Travel Agency – Chapter 10: A Rainy Day With The Spabots

robot-covek-seks-tocka-2015 (2)

The French retro parody punk band continues to belt out the infectiously thumping new-wave dance anthem, “Ça Plane Pour Moi,” through the energized, vibrating air of the dimly-lit room. Colored fairy lights twinkling overhead rescue the space from the darkness.

Never much of a dancer in her real life, Rain surprises herself by flicking her hips with expert precision and doing something like a shimmy with her shoulders, her little breasts bouncing happily in time with the driving drum beat.

No longer the dowdy, insecure person she had slowly morphed into long ago, she was having fun, and felt sexy and confident for the first time in years, if indeed she had ever felt that way before. But wait, there was something else, something completely new that she had only observed from afar, and now she was actually experiencing it herself! Damn! What was it? Oh, she felt…hmmm…Connected? Grounded? In the know? In the groove? In the mood? Whatever it was, it was the complete opposite of out-of-it, schleppy, matronly, chubby, lumpy or frumpy. Yes! That’s it! She felt cool.

“How insipid!” she thinks. “Imagine me, so shallow as to actually think about being cool! Like, really, who cares?”

Obviously, she does because that “who cares?” attitude—valid, reasonable and adult though it may be, is dragged out of the spotlight by her mental bouncer, and thrown down the stairs, making short order of the apathy that must have hitched a ride from her real life into Rain’s tenem.

The song ends and she notices Veronica watching her with amusement.

“So you’re a dancer! Who knew?”

Rain laughs, appreciating the sound of her own voice that reminds her vaguely of wind chimes.

A man approaches her as she watches his strong, sculpted face emerge from the shadows. His thick, black hair is just long enough not to be short but is still neat and stylish. His magnetic black eyes drink in Rain’s lovely image. Stunned by his beauty, she is suddenly aware of her aching soul.

A new band takes the stage, and the music changes tempo. A young hipster couple begins to sing a slow, moody song that captures what Rain is already feeling.

(Embedded Audio https://kidtrails.bandcamp.com/track/september – Artist: Patrick Jeffords of Kid Trails)

As if on cue, the beautiful man asks, “May I?” as his right hand glides across the small of her back, his fingers reaching the side of her small waist; his left hand enfolds her right hand, drawing it gently against the left lapel of his sharply tailored suit.

Without answering, Rain melts into him as they sway in time to the music. She feels faint being this close to the sexiest man she’s ever seen in her entire life. Her whole body feels charged with an electric current that is both titillating and maddening at the same time.

She is beset by a panic that settles into her titanium bones, knowing that she has fallen in love with a total stranger who is probably a stranger even to himself. She knows she must have him.

Have him? What do you mean by that?

The question hovers around her as she tries to ignore it, concentrating on the melting sensation, riding the waves of that electrical charge, alternating between a bucking bronco and a beguiling undertow.

Inhaling slowly, she savors the intoxicating essence of this beautiful man. When her synthetic collagen/elastin Gore-Tex lungs can expand no more, she sighs with a desire already steeped in addiction, laced with impossibility.

The music ends and the man’s face brushes against her own. The abrasive feel of his almost five-o’clock shadow sets off an itch deep inside her which longs to be scratched.

Their eyes meet for what should have been an eternity.

“Thank you,” he says, holding her hands and rubbing their smooth skin with his thumbs. He brings her hands up to his lips and kisses both lightly. He looks deeply into her eyes, and then it’s over. He closes his eyes as if to fix her image in his mind, reluctantly lets go of her hands, and walks back into the shadows.

Having been swept off her feet, Rain is surprised to feel them striding with confidence towards Veronica who is waiting for her at the bar.

“So? How was it?”

“I’m speechless. I don’t know what to say or how to describe what just happened. I feel like I’m 16 again. All these emotions are overwhelming me.”

Veronica puts her arm around Rain. “That’s normal at first. You’ll see. It’s all so new right now—your new body, your newfound confidence. But it is rather unbelievable, isn’t it, how much bearing our physical body has on our emotional state.”

Rain nods in agreement. “I had no idea until right now how much I’ve been ignoring my poor out-of-shape body, how I just left it to its own devices and didn’t worry about it. Never in my wildest dreams did I entertain the possibility of feeling this young again, this hopeful, this alive! So many highs, but I also got a glimpse of some corresponding lows—I know they’re there, too.”

Veronica’s smile is benevolent. “Life, whether it’s your real life or your Spa life, is a great teacher. You can’t have the highs without the lows. That being said, the lows can be fully appreciated from the surface—you don’t have to dive in and hit your head on the bottom of the pool.”

“I guess I’ve always known that. I’m not reckless enough to hit my head on the bottom of the pool—I would say that wallowing is more my style.”

“Well, while we’re on the subject of pools, there happens to be a marvelous pool right here,” segues Veronica, “and if you’re done dancing for a while, I can take you to see it!”

Morgana takes one more stealthy look around through the darkness trying to catch a last glimpse of her mystery man. He’s nowhere in sight, but she’s knows he’s there somewhere. She fights the compulsion to stay and find him, and instead follows Veronica back out through the smoky-glassed doors of The Lounge.

Walking through the glass walls of the hallway, Veronica keeps the conversation going. “You know, Rain, this experience can be about whatever you want it to be. I think it will be interesting for you to mix with the others here at the Spa, to get an idea of how to get the most out of your ‘vacation.’ Of course, everyone goes about it somewhat differently, depending on what motivated them to ‘travel’ with us.”

“Well, speaking of ‘experience,’ did you see that guy who asked me to dance? Who is he?”

“I’m not sure—I don’t know everyone here. I generally work with the women, and not all of them, so there are tons of people here I don’t know at all. If I do, it’s only by sight. Plus, as you are aware, there are three 8-hour shifts of visits.”

With this crazy desire still raging within her, she decides to drop the subject of finding out who this guy is, but that won’t stop her from searching for him. His face has been branded onto her retinas, his essence still fresh in her mind.

Veronica opens another tall glass door for Rain and they both pass through the entryway. Rain’s eyes are assaulted by the shocking blue of the water in the pool and the sky through the tall windows of the natatorium.

“Ahhhh…,” is the only thing Rain can say. Seized by a sudden urge to just jump in, she thinks better of it, and settles for kicking off her sandals.

“Veronica, do you think it would be OK if I just sat here for a few minutes with my feet in the pool?”

“Sure! You have a few swim suits in your room if you decide to get serious about this, you know!”

Rain promptly sits down in front of the circular steps that lead into the pool at the shallow end and rests her feet on the first step under the water.

Veronica does the same and the two sit there, enjoying the refreshing coolness of the water, chatting away.

“So what do you think so far?”

“This is incredible! I’ve never been to a place like this before. It’s so luxurious! And that’s just the inside! I’m itching to get outside, too, and explore the mountains. Except for Nassau and the Bahamas, and, of course, small forays into Mexico and Canada, I’ve never really left my little corner of the world.”

“Well, this is one way of doing that, isn’t it?”

“Yes, I would say so! And what really makes it special is that I’m an almost-completely different person, but seeing it all through my own eyes. It’s nothing short of miraculous! I feel like I have a new lease on life.”

Veronica gets up and pads over to a stack of white towels, grabs two and returns to the pool steps.

“If you can bear to tear yourself away from the pool, I want to show you the rest of the Spa. Are you ready?”

Rain spreads her towel out next to her on the floor, then swivels to the right, putting her feet onto the thick velour. She carefully dries her feet, working the edge of the towel between her toes, paying meticulous attention to each little detail, examining the soles of her feet, bending and stretching each toe, poking and prodding each foot as if she were expecting it to poke or prod her back.

“What do you think of your new feet? An improvement over your real ones?”

Rain looks up and smiles. “An improvement? I’ll say! My feet have always given me some trouble. I’ve always had a very high arch and wide feet. When I was a kid, I had to wear orthopedic shoes, which I hated with such a passion.”

“No wonder the first shoes you wanted were those crazy platforms! They’re as un-orthopedic as you can get!”

“The shoes themselves weren’t all that ugly. It’s just that they were brown oxfords which, as it turns out, never did and never will look good except maybe in a box on their way to the Goodwill Store.

“But they made me miserable not because I didn’t like them, but because the kids at school would make fun of me. At first it was just whispers and giggles and pointing, but then a really cute boy—all the girls, including me, were crazy about him—called me ‘Clodzilla.’ It broke my heart that he, of all people, made up that name.

“If I’d complain to my mother, she would tell me how hard she and my father had worked to be able to buy me those special shoes, and that the only thing I should feel was gratitude. And if that didn’t do it, then, goddammit, she’d take me to a children’s hospital where the kids had no feet, and if that still didn’t do it, then, goddammit, she’d beat the shit out of me.”

“Did she really used to beat you?”

“No, not really! Her bark was worse than her bite! Once in a while if I really ‘needed’ it, she’d give me a good, solid whack, but since I was the youngest of four girls, I’d learned quite early on how to stay out of her way when she was on the warpath. To her credit, though, she’d always give us plenty of warning. So, it’s like you said before about appreciating or observing things from surface—there’s no need to dive in and hit your head.”

Rain could remember her mother’s face, smiling as she slipped on her cork sandals.

“And my mother…she had the right idea—it’s so selfish to worry just about yourself and to let the little things get to you. She always said that if I didn’t count my blessings, then God would send me a passel of worries, and then I could count them, goddammit. She would so totally disapprove of what I’m doing right now!”

“Easy does it!” warned Veronica as she scrambled to her feet and steadied Rain as she stood up.

Back into the glass hallway, their next stop is The Piano Lounge. Here there are people sitting on low sofas and armchairs, with drinks and snacks in front of them, quietly chatting while a pianist plays a never-ending medley of unobtrusive romantic tunes.

Veronica leads Rain to one of the many little sitting areas. A waiter arrives almost instantly and runs down the list of drinks. Veronica and Rain both ask for the red wine. A dark, willowy woman with limpid, green eyes appears with some small bowls of pretzels, peanuts and chips, and asks if she can bring them anything else. They thank her, and just as she is leaving, the waiter brings the wine.

“So, it’s OK to eat and drink?” asks Rain before picking up her wine.

“Oh, yes! And thank goodness! What kind of fun would it be to not eat and drink?”

“Well, I don’t know if fun can ever be bad, but I think not eating and drinking would be a bad kind of fun.”

They both chuckle as they dig into the snacks and sip their wine.

“So, Veronica, it’s my understanding that tenems don’t have to eat and drink, so why bother doing it? Other than the fact that eating and drinking are so much fun!”

“You just hit the nail on the head. Part of the joy of being in new surroundings in a new body is experiencing what you normally enjoy doing. But this is better because you won’t be tempted to overindulge. Your new ‘brain’ is equipped with sensors that monitor your intake of alcohol and food, and you honestly will not want more after a rather modest amount. The ‘pleasure centers’ of your brain are digitally configured to remain stimulated long after you’ve stopped eating or drinking, so there’s no chance of becoming addicted to anything. Nice, huh? No drug addiction, no alcoholism, and no weight gain. I wish we had that type of control in real life, don’t you?”

“Definitely! If that were the case, I probably wouldn’t be here, come to think of it.”

“And neither would many others who are here, Rain.”

“So what about sex and love? Are we immune from that, too?”

“Actually, no. Good thing, too—right? The pleasure centers of your new brain are still stimulated by neurotransmitters like dopamine and norepinephrine but the digital version, since we can’t download your brain’s chemical production.

“One more question, Veronica. Are we robots?”

Veronica looks at Rain, whose face is beginning to register some sadness.

“No, not exactly. While you are in tenem mode, you are controlling your tenem. Your tenem, without your downloaded consciousness, would be a robot. The technical term for what you are right now would be a ‘transhuman.’ When you talk to other people here, though, you will hear the term, ‘spabot,’ which I find rather crass and pejorative.”

Rain takes a deep breath, remembering her beautiful mystery man, and exhales another soul-aching sigh.

“Is anything wrong, Rain?”

“Well, it’s my first day being Rain, and I’ve already fallen madly in love with a ‘spabot.’”

To Be Continued in Chapter 11: I Could Get Used to This

Photo Credit: Womansneed.com (Photographer/Artist: Franz Steiner)

Music Credit: https://kidtrails.bandcamp.com/track/september

“September” originally by Kurt Weill, arranged by Patrick Jeffords, released 17 February 2015
Patrick Jeffords: Vocals, Guitars, Synthesizers
Andy Woodward: Drums
Joe Costantini: Bass, Lap Steel
Chaz Bundick: Piano
Claire McKinzie: Vocals on “September”
Pat Jones: Wizardry

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The Our Little Secret Travel Agency – Chapter 9: The Initialization

transhuman

Morgana’s eyeballs feel like they are being sucked into an electro-magnetic vortex as her consciousness corkscrews through some other dimension. The Brain-Computer Interface has been activated and fully initialized.

Her inert body, now covered head-to-toe with a lightweight insulation blanket, lies cadaver-like on the gurney in the pink lab. Her body’s functions have slowed almost to a standstill and her skin takes on a greyish pallor. Its flame of sentience reduced to a flickering pilot light, her old body is a mere flabby bag of bones, an empty house: lights off, nobody’s home.

She slowly wakes up in her new body, hot off the 3D press.

How strangely different is this new body! Relaxed just short of the seductive tranquility of death, she subliminally perceives the undulating sensation that she is floating in a warm, blue sea of peace.

Her tenem opens its eyes, their gaze fixed on sylph-like hands as they show themselves off to her newly-dawned and utterly-amazed awareness, each of their long, tapered, young, flawlessly-manicured fingers moving gracefully. The hands seem to be on a reconnaissance mission as they reach for the top of her head, the fingers burrowing into the soft tangle of long curls. They trace their way over her high cheek boned, dewy face, the smooth contours of her long, willowy neck, over her satiny shoulders and trim, toned arms, the smallish breasts, soft yet so firm, the tiny waist, the slim hips, and the flat abdomen with just the slightest hint of roundness. Her “delta of Venus” is already pulsing with new life. She wiggles her new toes, flexes and stretches her feet and ankles, stiffens her legs and then bends her knees and hugs them up to her chest. The hands massage her left foot, and then her right, caressing the curves of both legs as she draws them gently upwards, exploring their cool perfection. This new body, so deliciously alive!

“Rain? Can you hear me?”

She now realizes that not only is she naked, but that she is not alone. Instantly, she is embarrassed that the sensual delight she has just experienced has been observed.

Rain turns her new head and sees an attractive older woman in a white lab coat sitting next to the bed, making notes on a clipboard.

Disoriented, Rain tries to remember her “real” name, and cannot. So powerful is this urge to remember who she really is that she almost cannot think of anything else.

“Rain,” says the woman, “My name is Veronica. I know your mind is racing, trying to reconnect to your real, physical self, but please focus on me, right here, right now.”

“Who am I?” demands Rain. As the words come out of her mouth, she is surprised not only because she uttered them, but even more so that she doesn’t recognize her own voice.

“Your name is ‘Rain’—the name that you chose for yourself and your ‘tenem,’ your new body. Your real name is not accessible to you while you are in tenem mode.”

Veronica checks Rain’s facial expressions to see if she understands.

Rain nods her head. “Yes, it’s coming back to me now.” She likes this new voice of hers, and thinks it’s an improvement over her old voice. The pitch is just a tad higher and has a mellower, more pleasant quality—not at all nasal—not that she ever thought about it before. Even though she’s not quite sure how to classify the accent, she does know that it sounds rather refined.

Veronica continues slowly, careful to enunciate clearly and evenly. “Good, very good. Your memories are somewhat accessible, but you will not be able to recall the city or state that you live in, the names of your family and friends, employers, etc. You will recall enough general information so that who you are as a person remains intact, but not enough to enable you or anyone else to encroach upon your present, real-world life.”

Rain’s focus sharpens as Veronica’s silver curls and soft features fill the frame of her vision.

“Yes, I remember now…The Our Little Secret Travel Agency…I’m finally here—in Switzerland…”

Veronica smiles. “Good! We’re on the right track! Let’s work the kinks out of your tenem and see if there’s anything that needs our attention. Before we do anything, though, let’s make sure that you can see properly—it just wouldn’t do to have you stumble around and ruin that beautiful face the first day you’re using it, right?”

As soon as Veronica props Rain up in bed with two fluffy pillows and tucks the sheet modestly high across her chest and under her arms, she produces a stack of large cards with random pictures of shoes, a truck, vegetables, a computer, and other items. Rain’s task is only to name what she sees and does so with no hesitation. A quick examination using an eye chart confirms that she has 20-20 vision. Veronica’s check list of mini-tests shows that Rain is able to track motion with no delays, and has the peripheral vision, depth perception and hand-eye coordination of a teenager.

Next, Veronica offers a hand mirror to Rain. She sees herself for a delighted instant and her image is immediately blurred. She blinks away the first few tears of emotion, and her vision is even sharper than anything she has ever experienced before.

She takes a deep breath and exhales a very contented, peaceful sigh.

Veronica gets up from the bedside and opens the closet behind her. A rack of beautiful, brand new clothing is illuminated by soft interior lighting.

“Any special requests? We’ll be taking a tour of the Spa facilities! Anything you choose will be appropriate. For today, we will not be going outside since this visit is just to get you accustomed to your tenem and to acquaint you with the Spa and some of what it has to offer.”

And just because she can, Rain chooses a slinky, strapless, orange tube mini-dress that fits like a glove with high platform shoes.

“The shoes are great, Rain, but I’d go with something lower until you get your bearings. Walking shouldn’t be a problem but your equilibrium has to refine itself. Those platforms will still be waiting for you next time.”

Rain considers the wisdom of practicality and quickly agrees.

Veronica locates the perfect alternative and holds them out for Rain’s approval.

“Meanwhile, how about these cute little cork-wedge sandals with these sparkley orange and turquoise gemstones?”

Rain slides her feet into the sandals which fit perfectly!

“I would never wear something like this in my real life. The old me would look incredibly ridiculous in this whole get-up,” she laughs.

Veronica guides the sheet-draped Rain from the bed to the dresser, where she chooses a pair of black, lacy bikini panties and a matching strapless push-up brassiere. Her modesty gone, she quickly dons the sexy underthings and wriggles into her orange tube dress. Veronica hovers nearby to make sure she doesn’t fall.

Looking this good, feeling this toned, this sexy, this attractive, is a new experience, almost spiritual if it weren’t so carnally exhilarating! This could never get boring, she thinks, as she remembers not her name but her real body, the one lying inert on the gurney in the pink lab. Oh, how she hates to be so wrapped up in her physical being, but how delectable it is to have a physical being such as this to be wrapped up in!

“What are you thinking, Rain?”

Rain twirls and sashays in front of the mirror, totally smitten with her reflection.

“I can’t believe this is me! I’ve got to be dreaming.”

“You will be happy to know that you will always be delighted by your tenem because the contrast of going back and forth between your real body and your tenem will keep this thrill alive for the duration of your ‘travels’ with The Our Little Secret Travel Agency.”

Rain tries not to think of the day when her tenem will no longer be hers.

“Are you ready to see the Spa?”

Rain does a final twirl in front of the mirror. “Absolutely!”

Veronica puts her chart on the dresser, takes off her lab coat, folds it and places it on top of the chart. She is dressed to the nines. Suddenly, she doesn’t look that old. Old people just don’t have faces and bodies like that, right?

Offering Rain her arm, she says, “Shall we go?”

Rain takes Veronica’s arm as the door closes behind them.

“Oh, how lovely! It looks like I’ve got a heart-shaped birthmark on my hand!”

“Oh, my!” says Veronica, examining the back of her right hand. “Indeed you do! I’d take that as a lucky sign!”

They walk slowly down a plushly-carpeted hallway with glass walls to keep the blue-cast, glacier-covered mountains at bay. Gaining momentum and fluidity, Rain’s first tentative steps turn into a confident, graceful stride.

“The first stop is The Lounge. You can come here anytime you like. We have twenty-four hour a day live music, if you’re in the mood—and around here, it seems like most people are! And there’s always a good crowd of people in there. Do you like to dance?”

“Oh, yes! How I love to dance! I just haven’t done it in years!”

“Well, good thing you’re here now. I have the feeling you will make up for lost time!”

As they approach the lounge, a small crowd of gaily chatting and laughing people exit through the smoky-glassed doors, bringing with them the driving, deafening music that would wake up the deadest of the dead for one last dance:

Music Credit: Embedded Youtube Video, ‘Ca plane pour moi’ version 2010, by Lou Deprijck

Illustration Credit: www.gnosticmedia.com

To Be Continued in Chapter 10: A Rainy Day with the Spabots

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Filed under Proto-Novela, Science Fiction, Short Stories, Short Story Series