Category Archives: The Our Little Secret Travel Agency-The Novel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There’s a knock at his door.

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

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

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

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

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

To Be Continued in Chapter 30

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The Our Little Secret Travel Agency – Chapter 28: Rehab

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you know how the accident happened?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

To Be Continued in Chapter 29

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The Our Little Secret Travel Agency – Chapter 27: One Enchanted Saturday

The coffee kiss, so warm, so sweet, so addictive. They are breathing the same breath, dreaming the same dream, oblivious to the world around them, which seems to have stopped in order to focus on the only thing that matters: right now.

“MOM!!! Is that YOU???”

Morgana disengages herself before Percival realizes that the kiss has moved on, and for a split second, he has the tipsy look of a drunk about to fall over. Luckily, Morgana doesn’t notice, nor does her daughter.

“Gerri! Wha…wha…what are you d-d-d-doing here?” stammers Morgana, wiping her mouth as if she were a cat trying to brush away the canary feathers.

Gerri covers her face with her hands to hide her eyes welling up with tears.

Percival watches in horror as Morgana embraces Gerri, blubbering, “I’m so sorry, Gerri! Please forgive me! This is not what it looks like! Well—yes, it is—no, it’s not!”

Percival pulls a clean, white, folded handkerchief out of his pocket, flaps it open and hands it to Morgana. Taking the handkerchief from him, she looks into his eyes and senses immediately that Percival understands how in need of comfort she actually is. While she dries her eyes and blows her nose, his hand on her back reassures her that everything will be okay.

Gerri’s red-rimmed eyes peek over her hands. She observes the kindness being shown to her distraught mother by this very sweet man.

“Gerri,” he says, hoping he’s heard her name correctly from Morgana, “I’m sorry about all this. I take full responsibility for this indiscretion. Your mother is innocent. My name is Percival and I’d love to have a second chance to make a first impression on you,” offering his hand to her.

A relieved smile spreads across Gerri’s face and the redness seems to vanish from her eyes. Captivated by Percival’s charm and forthright manner, Gerri shakes his hand.

“Of course, and I’d like a second chance, too, Percival. It is I who should beg your pardon, so I hope you’ll forgive me for sticking my big nose where it does not belong.”

Both women are now beaming a big smile at him. Percival, channeling Ricky Ricardo, says to Morgana in his best Cuban accent, “Lucy, you got some ‘splainin’ to do!”

The tension is officially broken as all three share a laugh. Grateful for Percival’s attempt to lighten the moment, Morgana reaches for his hand and gives it a little squeeze.

“Mom, I’m so sorry to startle you like that!” says Gerri, looking over at Percival to include him, too.

“And I’m sorry, too. Let’s just forget the whole thing, Gerri! So what are you doing here, if you don’t mind my asking.”

“Just visiting a friend, but I’ve got to talk to you. There’s so much stuff going on right now and I’ve got to run—as usual, right? But can we get together tomorrow? How about I take you out to lunch—would that be okay?”

“I’d love that, Gerri! Just let me know the time and the place and I’ll be there!”

The two embrace, and as Gerri starts to walk away, she goes back and gives Percival a little one-armed hug. “So nice to meet you, Percival. I hope to see you again—and thank you for being so sweet to my Mother.”

Morgana and Percival hold hands as they watch Gerri trotting up the steps.

“Phew! That was weird!” says Morgana, “And you’re right—‘I got some ‘splaining’ to do!”

Laughing from the sheer exhaustion of what just happened, they link arms and make their way down the Cascade’s steps to head over to the Rose Garden.

Bringing her free hand up to her face, Morgana nuzzles her nose into the hollow of her curled up fingers. The warmth from her hand brings the feeling back into her nose. At once, she is struck by the sensation of Rain wedged into a glacial crevasse, small shards of ice intruding themselves into her nose, her hair and into the sleeves of her coat. Momentarily shaken, she stumbles, but Percival hangs onto her arm and prevents her from falling.

“Whoops!” says Percival, “Don’t tank on me now! We’re just starting to have fun!”

Morgana recovers her gait, shaking off the visceral flash from Rain’s predicament. If she were ever to tell Percival that she transfers her consciousness into a 3D printed sexy robot body named “Rain” who cavorts around Switzerland, he’d think she was stark raving mad. Not that she was planning to tell anyone other than Jerinda about this…

“All that kissing has left me a little light-headed,” she says, throwing a shy glance at Percival, who draws her a little closer and plants a kiss on her forehead.

“I’ll bet you didn’t eat anything for breakfast! What do you say that we stop into the Saturday Morning Market at Grand Lake and grab a little something to tide us over until lunch?

“Sounds good,” agrees Morgana, as he guides her across the street and under the overpass where on the other side of the chain link fence, parked cars share the space with a few homeless people who are just beginning to contemplate the disheveled reality of their asphalt morning.

Percival and Morgana navigate the lumbering flow of Saturday strollers crowding the market. Percival makes a bee-line for a small food cart and buys two tomato, mushroom, and squash galettes from an old hippie guy with long silver braids trailing out from under a faded blue bandana.

“Good to see you again, Chief!” he says to Percival, handing him his change as Percival shuffles one of the two galettes to Morgana.

“Good to see you, too!” he says to the old hippie guy, and including Morgana, he adds, “I just had to have my weekly fix of one of your galettes! I’m almost hoping that my friend here doesn’t like galettes, because then I’d get to eat both of them.”

“No chance of that!” says Morgana, taking a proprietary bite of her galette.

“Of course, there’s no place to sit!” says Percival, looking around, hoping to prove himself wrong.

“I don’t have a problem with walking and eating, do you?” asks Morgana.

“Not at all,” says Percival, as they both tuck into their respective galettes.

“A galette, huh? I never heard of that before! It sure is good. It must be French.”

With a deft maneuver, Percival flips the small slice of tomato that has flopped over his chin into his mouth before Morgana can notice, and, without missing a beat, explains what a galette is.

“Galettes are buckwheat cakes or pancakes and they can be flat and square or flat and round, or really any shape at all, with some kind of savory mixture on top, like a pizza. If they’re pancakes, then the mixture might be stuffed inside. Either way, it’s a pretty good idea. And you’re right, they’re French!”

“I’m impressed that you know that!”

“Don’t be too impressed—After eating them for about a year, I finally just asked that guy to bring me up to speed on what makes a galette a galette.”

“Well, then, let me tell you that I’m so impressed with how you handled that whole situation with Gerri just now. You’re such a gentleman, Percival. I’m so glad I met you, and I’m even glad you met Gerri, but I’m sorry about that scene we made.”

“Morgana, we don’t have to talk about it, if you don’t want to.”

“No, it’s fine. To make a very long story short, I’m still married but my husband, Jack, is in a coma and has been for a few months. He’s not coming out of it anytime soon, probably never. That’s not what ended our marriage, though. The marriage was doomed from the beginning. I just found out that Jack has cheated on me that whole time—with my sister!”

“Oh, no!” says Percival, almost choking on his galette. “That must have thrown you for a loop!”

“It did! It completely blew my mind, but then everything started to make sense after so many years of blaming myself or chalking up our problems to Jack’s drinking or stress or what have you.”

“So how are you dealing with it?”

“You know, so much better than I ever would have imagined. Don’t get me wrong—I’ve done my fair share of crying, but I was so unhappy for so many years that I feel like I’m all cried out now. When Jack first had his stroke, I was wracked with guilt because I was always so angry with him, but now that I’ve found out what the truth is, I can understand a little why he was the way he was. I think we each tried in our own way to make a go of things, but like I said, the whole marriage was a mistake from beginning to end. I don’t really blame him, and I don’t really blame her.”

“Well, that’s big of you! I don’t know that I would be so generous.”

“The person I’m most angry with is myself. How could I have stayed in such a lousy relationship all those years? How could I have put up with such shabby treatment and pretended that things would get better? My biggest comfort, though, is Gerri. She’s the bright spot in my life.”

“Does she know about Jack and your sister?”

“No, and I’m wrestling with whether or not I should tell her. It would kill her to find out. And now I’m wondering if my sister’s kids are Jack’s!”

“Oh, that’s a real dilemma! Do you have anyone to talk this over with?”

“No, Percival. Both my parents are dead, and my best friend, Jerinda, is somewhere in Switzerland recuperating from aphasia—that’s another story. I can’t imagine keeping this a secret from Gerri forever, but I also can’t imagine telling her about her father. She idolizes him. She’s always been Daddy’s Little Girl, and in so many ways, she’s been my best friend. She does know, however, that he’ll never recuperate, and she even knew that I had a date to see you—and she was happy to know that I was interested in someone.”

“Well, then, I guess seeing us wrapped up in that kiss was a little much for her!”

Morgana laughs, blushing at the memory. “Yeah, I guess so! How embarrassing! But it was worth it.”

“So I’m the only person you’ve told about Jack and your sister?”

“Yes, you’re the only one for now, and the only one I’m even comfortable thinking about discussing this with, maybe because I don’t know you that well, but I feel like I can trust you.”

“Same here, Morgana. I’ve been alone for years now. I blame myself for my marriage ending. It was one of those things that happen while you aren’t paying attention. I became obsessed with my career and before I knew it, my wife had had enough. No big deal, no drama, but one day, I came home and she was gone. She left a note on the fridge that said something like, “Just in case you noticed that I am not here, I would like to confirm that you are, in fact, correct in your observation. And one more thing: I’m not coming back. Have a nice life. I know I will!”

“Wow! Was it a surprise?”

“I’m ashamed to say it was! I loved her and she loved me, but I thought that being together was all about sharing the same address and filing joint tax returns. Turns out I was wrong. I wrote to her and begged her to come back, but all I ever got from her was the divorce papers to sign. Irreconcilable differences, no kids, no divorce settlement—she just wanted out.”

“Did the divorce change you?” asks Morgana as she notices the old Grand Lake Theater, looking forward to maybe catching a movie there with Percival sometime soon. She thinks how nice that would be—it’s been ages since she’s been there.

“Yes! It made me realize that play is not a luxury, it’s a necessity, and that we should never take for granted all the people or things that make us happy. And no matter how fascinating our work might be, the most important thing you can to do is put a limit on it. I have to keep reminding myself that I work to live, I don’t live to work.”

As if on cue, a big, fat orange cat saunters out of a sidewalk café and rubs against Percival’s leg. He bends over and scratches the cat’s head while the cat purrs loudly to elicit more attention.

This Percival is one nice guy, thinks Morgana. He’s sweet, kind, thoughtful, likes animals, and is such a gentleman. And he’s so handsome and charming.

They walk up the hill to the Rose Garden and as they pass through the arches, they both become aware of the magic that awaits them.

They stop, and look into each other’s eyes. “Now where were we before we were so rudely interrupted?” asks Percival. They both feel each other’s heart beating madly as they resume that blissful kiss that began way back at the Cleveland Cascade. All of a sudden, right now is right back where it should be.

Yes, this was the kiss they were both looking for.

Art Credit: Wonsook Kim, “Lines of Enchantment,” (http://galleries.illinoisstate.edu/exhibitions/2016/lines-of-enchantment/)

Video Credit: Dusty (True Stereo) “I Only Want To Be With You,” HD (Posted by “themotownboy1”who writes: “Published on Aug 16, 2013. Re-upped & tweaked, Dusty’s first hit from 1963, with my remastering of the stereo mix and special video tribute. I hope you enjoy it!” Also, “Dusty Day” information can be found at http://www.dustyday.co.uk/

To Be Continued in Chapter 28

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Really? How do you mean?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To Be Continued in Chapter 27

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s at the…Hut?” asks Rain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I feel just fine—why do you ask?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or is it?

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

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

To Be Continued in Chapter 26

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

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

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

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The Our Little Secret Travel Agency – Chapter 24: The Devil is in The Details

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Robots of all kinds swarm through the black, silent, cold hallways. Most of the robots here at the Spa process visual information, and those that do, also have the ability to navigate and interact with their environment without light. Not all the robots “know” this. The ones that don’t, are not programmed to access their auxiliary night or infrared visual capabilities, and will be as clumsy or as helpless as a human being is when confronted with darkness.

Rain is wandering through a dark hallway, running her fingertips along the damp, cold wall, treading lightly just in case the floor isn’t where she thinks it is. The darkness is so black that her mind conjures up the memory of light in protest. When she sees a glimmer of light in the distance, she believes for a moment that her mind is playing tricks on her–but no, it’s a light alright!

Approaching the light spilling through the glass panel of an office door, her eyes ache as her pupils contract. She sees the back of a man’s head. He is sitting at a computer, manipulating 3D images on a screen, rotating them, making changes, tapping the keys. On a long table next to him, holograms of naked women two feet tall parade past him. Each one turns to him and waves or blows him a kiss or twirls as if for his amusement, and then moves on to allow the next woman her five seconds of attention.

The man swivels around on his chair to face her as she walks through the unlocked door. They are both surprised to see each other.

Rain’s Mystery Man’s face is wondrous with adoration. Rain’s gaze is locked onto his burning eyes. Every fiber of her being draws her towards him. She straddles him and sits high on his lap. She melts into him, and locked into his embrace, she drinks in his deep, hypnotic kiss.

The holographic parade continues at their side. The naked women continue to blow kisses and twirl in their direction, seemingly oblivious that their audience is otherwise engaged.

Rain wakes up, stretching, aware of the beautiful white chemise teasing her expectantly charged skin underneath. She moves her almost too-warm feet until each finds a cool spot on the mattress. Her toes wriggle while her eyes scan the smooth ceiling. She smiles, remembering that she is back at the Spa, beginning a day that will be like no other, an adventure, in a body that is an adventure in itself. Remembering her real body makes her appreciate all the more the eight hours she will enjoy in this sexy, sensual body, her “tenem.”

She is glad there is no one sitting by the bed, taking notes and/or perhaps unfair psychological advantage of her slowly-awakening state of consciousness.

Kicking the covers off, she inspects her long, thin, shapely legs and feet, running her hands over every inch of herself, reveling in the perfection of what is just too miraculous to be anything associated with her real life self. She hears herself laugh with joy, and is delighted all over again that her voice reminds her of tinkling bells. She remembers that in real life, she paid an awful lot of money to transfer her consciousness into this tenem, this body that she herself designed, but at the moment, all she can think of is how grateful she is to be here, and how this feeling is worth whatever fortune she may have invested in (or squandered on) this endeavor.

Holding her hands in front of her face, she smiles at the little heart-shaped “birthmark” on the back of her right hand, and reflects that all glitches in life should be so sweet. Maybe a lot of glitches are sweet but we just don’t realize it because most glitches are not heart-shaped.

Remembering the closet, she practically springs out of bed, and slides the door open, knowing that whatever is on the hangers will give her some inkling of what she can expect to do today.

A black turtle neck sweater and a pair of stretchy black pants, and a beautiful pair of sleek black boots with a rippled sole. Oh, and there’s a gorgeous white coat of faux fur with a hood. It occurs to her that she’s probably going outside. Somewhere inside her, there is a five-year old jumping for joy at the prospect of building a snowman or sledding downhill on a Flexible Flyer.

Pausing in front of the mirror, she admires the beautiful woman looking back at her. Every woman who is not beautiful appreciates the assurances of loved ones that she is beautiful. Being loved or appreciated does give one a sense of beauty, but actually being beautiful, seeing oneself as objectively beautiful? There’s no other feeling quite like it in the world. Why should that even matter? Only a woman who isn’t beautiful can answer that question. A beautiful woman could afford to say that it is disappointing to think that beauty had anything to do with personal worth. Oh, but who cares about personal worth anyway? Feeling good feels good, no matter the reason.

Touching her lips, she gasps as she experiences for a moment that passionate interlude with her Mystery Man. With butterflies in her stomach, she wonders if that really happened or if it was a dream or a hallucination. Whatever it was, she’d sure like to experience that again.

Out in the glass hallway shimmering with light reflected from the Alpine snow surrounding the Spa, she follows the aroma of freshly brewed coffee. Noticing the red headed beauty she met in the café last time, she hurries to catch up with her.

“Graciela! Good to see you again!

Like Rain, Graciela also has her coat slung over her arm.

“I’m so excited, Rain! Do you know what we’re doing today?”

“I have no idea, do you?”

“Yeah! After breakfast, we’re taking a train to the top of Europe, and we’re going to explore some blue glaciers! Ever done that before?”

As giddy as school girls, they find their way to the buffet breakfast, and help themselves to little croissants, cheese, mango jam and grapes.

Graciela steers Rain over to a comfortable booth. A handsome young waiter offers to pour coffee for them and, all smiles, yesses and thanks, they nudge their coffee cups over to him.

Both fuss over and pick at their dainty little breakfast.

“Don’t you just love the clothes here? In my real life, I feel like my closet is filled with sack cloth and ashes. And it’s not like I don’t have the money—I do! But I have no sense of what looks good on me, and believe me, not much does. What about you?”

Rain puts her little croissant down and fiddles with the grapes.

“I feel the same way. Part of the reason is that a body like this would make sack cloth and ashes look almost fashionable. Tell me the truth—what’s your real body like?”

Graciela laughs and shakes her beautiful red curls.

“Do you really want to know?”

Rain giggles. “Of course, I do!”

“Well, let’s just say I haven’t looked in the mirror at my real body forever, because it’s too depressing to see what’s happened to it. I got rid of all full-length mirrors in my home years ago when I was a mere 40 pounds overweight. From there, it just got worse. Now I’m about 100 pounds overweight. I don’t worry about how things look anymore, only how they feel. If something fits and I can move in it, and if the colors and patterns don’t clash, good enough. What about you?”

“Well, I’m the same way really, but luckily, I’m not at the point of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. To tell you the truth, I was never all that vain to begin with, but I did go to hell with myself for quite a few years. I ate whatever and whenever I wanted. But the surprising thing for me is that having this incredible body feels so good that I find myself making some positive changes in my real life. And you know, what started out as an escape from my lousy life is beginning to feel like I’m discovering bits and pieces of the life that I could have had. Like maybe, not only can I salvage some of the good, but also create something a lot better than what I had before.”

Rain surprises herself with that realization and wonders if Morgana, whose name she wouldn’t be able to recall because she’s programmed not to, will remember this.

“Well, I wish that were the same for me. I find that all the great experiences I have here make me more dissatisfied with my life. Each ‘visit’ leaves me more resentful of all that’s gone wrong for me. The only time I’m happy is when I’m here. And I’ve only got nine more visits left.”

“Can’t you just sign up for another 30 visits?”

Graciela shrugs. “No, not really. I already went into debt with the first 30 visits, so no. This is it.”

“Maybe you could come back for a real life visit. That could only cost you a few thousand dollars,” suggests Rain.

“Come back here in my own body in my own clothes? Now that’s depressing!” snorts Graciela.

They both chuckle at the stark truth of Graciela’s reaction.

The waiter approaches their table. “Ladies, there’s a train leaving for Jungfrau in ten minutes. If you are planning to go to the Top of Europe, please proceed to the glass hallway within the next few minutes. Don’t forget to bring your cold weather gear!”

Rain and Graciela join the crowd assembling in the glass hallway. They are led to cable cars taking them to a small mountain train station.

As the cable car begins its ascent away from the Spa, Rain recognizes a man peering out from the glass hallway. Morgana would recognize him as Chlaus, Jerinda’s husband, but Rain can only puzzle why she should know him. She wonders momentarily if Morgana will remember who he is or why he is here.

The train waits in the glittering snow, huffing out clouds of steam, as the excited crowd boards, each little group finding and staking out their favorite seats.

The train’s whistle hoots out a warning that they are about to depart. The doors close and the conductor walks through the aisles making sure that everyone is settled in and comfortable. Screens from the ceiling slowly descend and everyone is treated to a short film that explains the excavation of the tunnel and the building of the miles of train tracks that made this arduous journey possible.

After the film, attendants with rolling carts walk through the train’s cars with hot coffee, teas, and hot chocolate.

After an hour which passes so delightfully, they emerge from the tunnel into the blinding whiteness of the mountain top.

Outside at last, Rain hears little popping noises inside of her head. “Graciela, do you hear any popping noises inside your head?” she asks nervously.

Graciela laughs. “Yes, I do, but don’t get nervous, Rain. Remember that you left the real you, the flesh and blood you, back at your house. However real this body may seem to you, it’s just a machine, and those popping noises are the stresses caused by the change in temperature and pressure. No matter how perfect these bodies may seem to us, keep in mind that we are an experiment and that they’re still working the kinks out of us.”

“Eeeuuwww,” says Rain. And they both laugh. But Rain, in all truthfulness, never realized, until this moment, that she was just an experiment.

And neither did Morgana. Not that Morgana will remember this.

It’s all there, in the small print; you know, the stuff that no one reads.

Music Credit: The Chemical Brothers – The Devil is in the Details/Beats High Quality (You Tube)

Photo Credit: Sociopathlife.com

To Be Continued in Chapter 25

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The Our Little Secret Travel Agency – Chapter 23: Will The Real Me Please Stand Up?

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“If you can’t close the book, turn the page.” Morgana’s footsteps pound out those words over and over again. She has no idea where she has heard that phrase, but it works nicely to fill in the gaps between one excruciating thought and the next.

Still stinging from the revelation that Jack had never ended his involvement with her sister, Jewel, Morgana walks aimlessly home. Her Regal Countenance Mode forgotten, she plods along the Lake path in what can only be described as a “schlep.”

Oh, Jack, Jack, Jack, she thinks. How many times can you disappoint me? Good thing that I’ve already given up on you. Good thing I see nothing to mourn over except my own inability to have my own damned life.

Oh, and Jewel! My favorite sister! You must have been so mad at me when I married Jack. How the hell was I supposed to know that you still loved him when you screwed around on him, and then ran off with another guy?

Oh, Jack, how could you have used me to get back at Jewel? How could you have treated her little sister like the whore you believed Jewel to be after she betrayed you?

Yes, she thinks, I was only 16—Jack took advantage of me.

When the word “Bullshit!” echoes through her head, she realizes that her conscience was listening.

Stung again, Morgana admits the truth to herself. Yeah, I was only 16, but I knew what I was doing all along. It felt good, I can’t lie—punishing Jewel, the secret, hot, steamy romance with an older, good-looking guy. Yeah, I knew it wasn’t right to pick up with someone else’s “leavings,” as her mother told her upon discovering just who this “Jack” guy really was. Bad enough that he was too old for an innocent 16-year-old girl…but the jilted lover of her sister, Jewel? Really? How could she stoop so low, her mother wanted to know.

Her mother made it sound like Morgana was displaying a loss of pride, but had she called a spade a spade, “betrayal” would have been a more accurate characterization of Morgana’s behavior. To be fair, though, both Jewel and Jack had betrayed each other first.

Had Morgana been accused of “betrayal” instead of “a loss of pride,” perhaps it would have made a difference in her decision to marry Jack, but second-guessing with what-ifs after the fact is just running a fool’s errand.

It wasn’t easy dealing with that ill-fated decision. It had cost her many years of subliminal, seething enmity from her family. In spite of Jewel’s scandalous behavior, Morgana’s transgression of picking up with Jack and marrying him was regarded as the worst betrayal of all.

But who knows what betrayal really is? In this very moment, nobody better than Morgana! The realization is visceral. Betrayal is that nasty, opportunistic boogeyman lurking in the darkest corner of your soul who sacrifices loyalty on the altar of really bad decisions, sanctioned by the avenging angels of teenage angst. She is nauseated by the very thought.

It seemed like a good idea at the time.

The only thing that kept Morgana going all these years was her resolve to see herself as the victim in this relationship. Only now can she see how she made a bad situation worse, how her complicity in Jack’s retaliation against her sister, Jewel, only served to keep them apart officially but locked forever in an unholy alliance of Morgana’s own making. As inlaws, the bond between Jewel and Jack would never be completely broken, since there would always be weddings, funerals, graduations, christenings, and holidays which would occasion all kinds of get-togethers and family dinners. The spark between Jewel and Jack could be easily overlooked by the casual observer, but it was always there, come to think of it.

She shudders to think that her mother, her father, her sisters, everyone but her, watched Jewel and Jack exchanging furtive glances all these years, never forgetting what happened, never forgetting that thanks to Morgana, this scandal would be a permanent fixture in their lives.

Little did Morgana know, after all these years, that not only had Jewel and Jack buried the hatchet long ago, but that each had continued to harbor resentment against Morgana, seeing her as the real impediment to their happiness.

Up to this moment, she had always regarded herself as a cog in a wheel that she, herself, did not put into motion. Now she recognizes that this illusion gave her a false immunity from any blame.

She remembers now how, ever since she married Jack, she’s always felt like an outsider among her own sisters and parents. Jack’s family hadn’t been particularly warm and fuzzy either, but that’s just the way they were; her own family had never been that way before. Never one to fully trust her own hunches, she ignored those little glimmers of truth. There were always cakes to bake, dishes to wash, and kids to bathe.

She thought of her friend, Angie, who always said that Karma is one pissed-off, self-righteous bitch! It suddenly occurs to Morgana that the only thing that made her a victim was her own Karma.

Too tired to take the stairs as she does in her perkier moments, she gets on the elevator. She doesn’t see any of her neighbors, which is a relief. There’s no one she wants to talk to right now. If she liked the taste of alcohol, she’d probably just get drunk.

Back in her apartment, she retrieves her red flannel lumberjack nightgown from the dresser drawer, kicks off her shoes, and heads to the bathroom. She peels off her clothes as the tub fills with steaming hot water.

She kicks her bag over and out rolls the little mini bottle of Boney Stalker Scotch. Without a second thought, she uncaps it and downs the rest of its contents. Ugh! The bad taste makes her eyes tear and her nostrils burn but it quickly fades as she feels a tranquilizing warmth rippling through every fiber of her body.

It’s all OK, she thinks. Everything is everything.

Soaking in a nice, hot bath, she lets her mind go to some other place where she is neither the victim nor the perpetrator. She concentrates on the perfection of water, and how it just has to obey a few rules and everything’s fine. So simple.

Music Credit: Matt Simons – Catch & Release (Deepend remix) – Lyrics Video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1LXsm9y-z3I)

Photo Credit: “Haunted Mirrors,” by artist Allison Diaz

To Be Continued in Chapter 24

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