“Untrained Circus” by Kandi McGilton

Prompts:
An animal trainer
Cornfields
Doughnuts
“Don’t eat that!”
Spending $4
Owls

***

Untrained Circus

By Kandi McGilton

Running away was easy; it was putting a roof over her head at only fifteen that was the hard part. After eight months on the road she found her home in the traveling circus and even there she felt like an outcast, unwanted, and strangely like a normal human being. There were all types of weird and unusual people on board the train, Sullivan’s Circus’ permanent traveling home. After only four days as janitor, she’d already created enemies. During last night’s show in Colorado, she may or may not have been the cause of the tent falling down on the entire clown routine. She tried to explain that it had been one of the animals, but since she didn’t know which one, no one believed her.

Frilly costumes and props of all shapes and sizes swung above head and clattered to the rhythm of the train as it cut through the mountain side. Cece had to hunch and duck out of the way to avoid another egg size knot on her forehead as she maneuvered to the front of the car. It was only her first week, but she’d already managed to make that mistake a half a dozen times. Making it through the next three to the food car without incident was a miracle in itself. She was starving and knew that the box of doughnuts she’d been eating from just wouldn’t cut it anymore. Brushing leftover crumbs off her lap, she opened the door and the aroma hit her right in the gut. At the same time as silence that filled the cramped space. All eyes were on her and suddenly she’d lost her appetite, the car was full of the clowns who all hated her now. Glancing at the prices, she thought there was no way she was spending $4.00 on a hobo sandwich.

Pulling her from her thoughts, “Who found her anyway?” One of the clowns whispered loudly to his neighbor. She couldn’t match a name to the face since he wasn’t wearing any of his required clown makeup.

Hasn’t she ruined enough for one night?” Another said as he pushed his meal away.

Cece hung her head and turned around to leave but as she reached for the handle, something bounced onto her back and pulled her hand away.

“Hey!” she looked over her shoulder to see the money who had already wrapped itself around her torso. Smiling, she scratched the top of its head and asked to no one in particular, “What’s his name?”

The animal trainer of the circus stood up and was already stomping towards her. “His name is Doughnuts and you give him back right now!” The whites of her eyes shone up at the man as she tried to protest that she hadn’t taken him to begin with. He was a tall, broad man and had she not seen him only hours ago sticking his head down the mouth of a lion, she would have assumed he was the one who claimed to be the strongest man on earth. His wide hands reached forward to procure his animal and that was when all hell broke loose. Again.

Doughnuts screeched at his trainer and in one mad dash, flung himself from Cece and onto Derek, knocking her tiny body back against the door. One minute she was standing there, the next she was flat on her ass, a welt forming at the back of her skull. It was hard to focus on one particular thing in the room because it felt like everything was spinning. The screeching, screaming, and all out panic didn’t help Cece regain her focus. She jumped when she heard glass shatter and her eyes shot up to the far left window just above the cook.

“No!” Derek yelled as he hurled himself over the counter in a failed attempt to capture the crazed monkey as it jumped through the window. She stood up and was surveying the mess and dazed patrons whose shock must have mirrored her own. Outraged, he turned and shoved his way through the wreckage that had become the dining area and jabbed his finger against her collar bone. “This is YOUR fault!”

Baffled, Cece shouted back, “Excuse me? How is this my fault?” She waved at the tornado like wreckage. “That was YOUR monkey, not mine!”

“Because every time you walk into a room, something bad happens! You’re nothing but bad luck!” He turned to the group of clowns who were all a mess, food and drinks covered their clothes, some with ripped shirts, and one even missing a shoe. “I say we drop her off at the next town and say good riddance! Who’s with me?”

The small mob shouted back in unison, “Yeah!”

Spinning on her heels, she pulled open the door and swung it open hard. In the same moment, it connected to Derek’s nose and he flew back against the other men, his nose completely shattered, blood spewing down his chin. Without looking back, Cece ran towards the front of the train, adrenaline and fear pumping through her as she stumbled from car to car.

As she reached the ringmaster’s quarters, she stopped. It was forbidden for anyone to enter. Cece held onto the railing as she tried to catch her breath. Her long, auburn hair whipped around her in the wind, and she was suddenly chilled to her bones as she realized there was nothing but darkness and clear skies above her. She glanced through the tiny window behind her and saw no trace of the men who wanted her gone. How was she to blame for all of this? It wasn’t her fault the monkey had suddenly gone crazy.

“I don’t belong anywhere.” She breathed to the sky and then let out a yelp as the tiny face of the monkey popped into her line of sight, obstructing her view of the galaxy. She grasped her heart and yelled at it. “Oh, you stupid monkey!” It made a sound as if mimicking her voice and she let out a frustrated grunt at it swung down from the roof of the train and onto her shoulders. It began digging in her pockets and down her sweater.

“Hey! Stop that! That tickles!” She squirmed and tried to push the monkey off her and when he finally let go she saw that he had shoved something into its mouth. “What the?” Just as she was about to reach for him, the whistle sounded. She covered her ears and then stumbled forward into the rail as the engineer began to break. “That’s going to hurt in the morning.” Cece muttered as she held her ribs and stepped off to the right to see why the train was stopping so suddenly.

“This is your fault you know.” She accused Doughnuts as he swung in front of her as if looking too. He stuck his tongue out and blew a raspberry at her before climbing to the top of the train only to disappear once more.

Shaking her head, she continued to watch as to cold mountain air began to warm up, and realized that somewhere back there, they had cleared the mountains altogether. As the train slowed, and her vision adjusted, she noticed the tall wisps of wheat and grains and taking a deep breath, a smile curved her lips. She’d made it to the country side.

“What’s all that noise out there?!” Cece gasped at the ringmaster’s voice, and did the only thing she could think to do as she heard all of the locks clicking open. She climbed the ladder and hid.

“What’s going on out here?” Sullivan yelled to no one as he flung his door open. His frown deepened as she looked around at nothing and with a disgruntled shake of his fists, he barged into the car and proceeded to yell again. She could hear him moving though this one and to the next and didn’t dare climb down until he was well gone.

As she peeked through the window, there wasn’t a soul to be found. She looked at Sullivan’s door that gently bounced to the sway of the train. Open, unlocked, unoccupied… forbidden. She was about to turn around, to chase him down to explain when Doughnuts pushed open the door and disappeared inside.

“Shit!” On gut instinct, she rushed in after him and then froze in her tracks. Treasures from faraway places she’d never even dreamed about covered every nook and corner. It was stuffed so full she couldn’t even tell where that damn monkey had gone until she passed the little table and chair where he had been hiding; waiting it seemed, for the right moment to grab her hand. She yelped and then growled at him. “Would you stop doing that? Come on, we’ve gotta get out of here!”

Ignoring her, the monkey climbed on top of the table and began popping grapes into his mouth.

Stop, don’t eat that!”

She tugged at him and to her surprise, he went willingly. She got to the door and swung it open and that was exactly when the train came to a complete stop. It jolted her, slamming her into someone. As her green eyes looked up, it wasn’t just anyone. Sullivan’s ice cold glare told her he’d already been informed of the mess back in the food car.

“So you think you can steal from me?”

“What? No! I wasn’t… It was Doughnuts!”

“Liar! Then what do you call this?” He pulled a ruby necklace from her pocket and she gaped back and forth between the him and the monkey now hanging on her hip.

“I swear I’d never steal anything! It was him!”

“Tell that to the authorities!” Sullivan reached for her but suddenly Doughnuts was between them, growling and clawing at the man. As if matters couldn’t be worse, she held her breath and leapt from the train. Her knees gave way and she hit the dirt rolling, the monkey tumbling to her side. Aching, she began running away from the train, from her accuser, and the rest of the circus that seemed to come spewing off the train in an attempt to catch her.

Cece had to shield her face as she ran through the cornfield. She knew it was just fear, but it seemed as if the stalks were grabbing at her, slicing at what bare skin was showing trying to slow her down. The voices seemed to shout from all around her and she came to a stop when everything went silent. The blood pounded in her ears, only the quiet hooting of owls could be heard in the distance.

Owls… owls needed a place to perch. Trees, a barn perhaps. Shelter.

“I’ve got the monkey, forget the girl!” Cece whipped her head in the direction of Derek’s voice and almost turned back around. Somehow she felt she owed it to Doughnuts to go back. Just as the thought crossed her mind, he heard the man yell not two minutes later, she was tackled to the ground. Wide eyed, she looked up at the crazy monkey and without a word, scrambled to her feet and began running again.

Two months later Cece found herself sitting outside a doughnut shop, her pet sitting next to her as they attracted customers inside. While she had been fine getting paid minimum wage, her monkey thought he got the better deal, being paid with his favorite treats. As she watched him bite into his afternoon payment she laughed.

“We’re going to have to give you a better name…” She had to duck from the piece he threw at her and shook her head, holding her hands up in surrender. “Alright, Doughnuts it is, Doughnuts it shall be.”

© 2013 Kandi McGilton

“Three Owls Diner” by Gretchen Wehmhoff

Prompts:
An animal trainer
Cornfields
Doughnuts
“Don’t eat that!”
Spending $4
Owls

***

Three Owls Diner

By Gretchen Wehmhoff

James pulled the last nickel out of his pocket, wiped off the lint and laid it with the rest of his change – two crumpled bills and a handful of coins. Four dollars and seventeen cents. Spending a portion of his last four dollars on a grilled cheese sandwich seemed irresponsible, but standing outside in the downpour was the uncomfortable alternative. The walk over from the bus stop had soaked him. Here, inside the diner, he was dry. He opened the sports section of the newspaper he found by the door when he had come in. Three of the four pages covered local prep football in the southern Iowa town.

The diner was fairly quiet, a couple of men wearing John Deer hats and Carharts sat at the soda bar drinking coffee and providing occasional bursts of boos or fist pumps directed at the ball game on the large television mounted behind the bar. Two women spoke softly at a table in the corner. One ran a hand slowly through her hair while fidgeting with the straw of her soda with the other. She seemed to listen to her companion, but looked deep in her own thoughts.

The only other customer in the Three Owls Diner was a young woman occupying the booth in front of James. It was a corner booth. She sat quietly, nearly invisible, nurturing a cup of coffee. The waitress had filled her mug twice since James had sat down. She looked up long enough to say thanks, then looked back down at her hands. James thought she seemed tired, defeated. Her light brown hair hung in damp, uncombed strands. Not tangled, but certainly not brushed recently. She wore a dark, knitted stocking cap and a green raincoat over a dark hoodie. James had watched her off and on between innings.

“Do you want anything else, hon?”

The waitress held a coffee pot in one hand and James’ check in the other. A cup of coffee could extend his stay in this dry, warm haven.

“How much for a cup of coffee?”

“Today it’s free. It’s Tuesday. Free coffee on Tuesdays at the Three Owls.” she said, waving the pot. “Not sure what’s so special ‘bout Tuesdays, but the coffee is on the house today.”

James indicated he’d have a cup and took note of her nametag.

“Thanks, Connie.” he smiled.

She grabbed a cup from a nearby table and filled it for him. Her dark, graying hair stayed up in a bun behind her head, a pair of worn, but sturdy shoes kept her moving. Connie was all business. She stopped by the next table and topped off the woman’s cup.

The young woman looked up long enough to see James’ gaze then quickly focused back on her hands.

On the wall above her, a thumbtack held a promotional calendar similar to those companies hand out to clients. The theme must have been something to do with farming or seasons. The month of August displayed a brilliant blue sky outlining a field of strikingly even, green rows of corn. James had grown up around cornfields in Nebraska. He and his brothers used to run through the neighbors fields playing capture the flag until the neighbor lost his sense of humor. The boys spent the next three days hauling and husking corn for the community picnic. James knew there were machines to do the work, but this small amount of discipline had made a difference. He held a greater respect for hard work and the beauty of a healthy cornfield. The rows seem so perfect. Life should be so easily sown. He could use some work now. Husking corn actually sounded desirable.

“Excuse me,” the quiet woman motioned Connie over. “Do you have a job application?”

Connie nodded and headed to the cash register. James stopped her, “do you mind grabbing one for me while you’re there?”

The woman in the booth smiled at James. “Can’t do much else, might as well work.”

James smiled back. “I’m James.”

“Kari”

“Good to meet you, Kari.”

James looked down at the back of the check Connie left for him. A picture of three, horned owls resting on a tree branch in front of a wooden sign was printed on the back. Why three owls? Why not two owls? The center owl had a strange gaze. It was looking at him. He turned the ticket over and looked at the menu in the holder on the table. The front of the menu showed the same picture, only in a photograph. How did someone get three owls to sit still for a photo in the daytime? The center owl in the photo had the same, strange gaze, looking into his eyes with an, eerie, knowing focus. It knew the truth. Be wise, it’s eyes expressed. Be wise.

“Here you two go. Need some pens?” Connie dropped a pen off at each table. “Have either of you worked in a restaurant before?

Kari nodded, “Back home, I worked at a Howard Johnson’s before they closed up” She didn’t tell her she had only run the cashier and scooped ice cream.

James smiled, “Not in a place as nice as this, but I used to prep for a place back in Nebraska. Did dishes, chopped onions, stuff like that.”

Connie gave a nod with her lips drawn in a curious smile then walked back to the kitchen window and spoke with a man in a white t-shirt and ball cap.

James looked back to Kari. She quickly put something in her mouth then wrapped the rest of her snack in plastic wrap and stuffed it in the front pocket of her hoodie. She caught James’ curious look.

“It’s a doughnut,” she said quietly. “I haven’t eaten in a day or so. I grabbed this from the gas station.” She saw his face change to sympathy. “I really need a job.”

James picked up his sandwich and coffee and moved to her booth. He reached a long arm over the back of his seat to grab his application and pen.

“Here, have half of this. I’m full,” he lied, pushing the plate with half a grilled cheese across the table.

Kari looked at the sandwich. “No, it’s yours. I’m fine.”

Before the sandwich shuffle could continue, Connie reappeared with the man in white from the kitchen.

“You two looking for work?”

Nods from the table indicated they were not only looking for work, but they could also use some food.

“Well,” the man in white continued, “I’m not sure what you’re made of, but you came by while I’m in a tight spot. School’s startin’ next week and I’m gonna loose my kitchen help and one food server to the football season. If you two want to give me a day to see what you’re made of, I can give you two meals and any tips you get by the end of the day. If it works out, I can put you on part time for a bit.”

Kari looked at James, then turned her face up to smile at the man in white, “I’m Kari and I’d love to give it a shot.”

“Same here,” said James, rising from his seat to shake the man’s hand. I’m James.”

“Harold, but you can call me Hal. Most folks do,” he drawled. “So, which one of you wants to work with me in the kitchen?”

James grabbed his backpack, ready to work. As he left the table the center owl kept him in its gaze.

Three hours later Kari was crying. Who knew chopping onions could be such a tearful experience. She had two more to go then she’d be working on the line with Hal. Kari was sweaty, hot, smelled of onion and felt content. She’d found a pair of clean black pants in her backpack. Her mother had told her that a woman who wanted to work should always have a clean white shirt and a pair of black slacks. She wore an oversized white apron and a baseball cap with her hair tucked away from her face and the food.

The service window looked out from the kitchen into the dining area. A series of heat lamps hung over the stainless steel counter between the cooks and the servers. A round, metal turnstile hung to the left with clips for holding paper tickets. Two orders had come in – teriyaki burger and a jalapeno burger. The jalapeno burger ticket was written in beautiful cursive, with the name “Jerry” circled on it. The teriyaki burger was written in clear, box letters like one would see in a cartoon.

The new guy, James, seemed to be having a good time talking to customers. If this was a bar and he was a bartender, he’d probably be hauling in the tips, thought Kari.

James had borrowed a shirt from Hal and changed into a pair of tennis shoes. Connie took him through the steps. Keep the coffee going, place the order, take out the drinks, then the food, then deliver the check. She’d handle the cash register. This was good – and a great deal more fun than husking corn.

The door opened and a tall man in cowboy boots entered, removing his hat.

“Hey Jerry!” called Connie. “The usual?”

Jerry nodded, smiled and sat down next to the men in Carharts. They had gone through two pots of coffee and the game was in the eighth inning.

A few minutes later a small woman in a leather coat and high heals bustled in. Connie motioned her to a front booth and nodded to James. James took his cue and filled a glass with fresh ice water.

“How are you today?” he asked the woman, setting down the water in front of her. She was older, maybe in her mid sixties. Her hair was a bold, natural looking auburn red, curled to just below her ears. She set her coat next to her and removed her driving gloves.

“I’m fine, dear,” she nodded, “I’ve been driving for quite awhile and thought I’d take a break.

“Oh, where you headed?”

“Chicago,” she looked up, “I’m headed to the national dog show. I’m one of the judges.”

“Wow.” James was impressed, “how do you get to be a judge at the nationals?”

“Oh, honey, I’ve been training dogs and other animals since before you were born. This is my ninth year as a judge.”

James smiled and gave her some time to look at the menu while he visited the other tables. Circling back he took her order – a teriyaki burger, coleslaw, no fries and a chocolate milkshake. This was a good day. He wrote the order clearly and slipped it in next to Connie’s order for that other guy, Jerry.

Back in the kitchen Hal chuckled when he saw Jerry’s order. He disappeared into the cooler and returned with a handful of small, green, narrow peppers.

“Old Jerry keeps telling me our jalapeno burgers aren’t hot enough. I’ve been waiting for him. These are habanero chili peppers. They pack a punch so hot he’ll melt a hole in the stool.” Hal diced two of them up, mixed them in with the fresh ground beef patty and dropped it on the grill.

“You take the next one.”

Kari looked at the order, dropped a patty on the grill and checked the recipe notebook for the details. She found pineapple circles in the cooler and teriyaki sauce on the line. Two buns were toasting. Minutes later the burger was done. She placed the meat on one bun, decorated the other with lettuce, onions and the pineapple, set it on the shelf and rang the bell twice, indicating James had an order. Hal was just finishing Jerry’s burger and setting it on the shelf when James came up. At the last minute Kari realized something was wrong. She pulled her plate back and ran to the cooler.

James grabbed the plate on the counter and took it to the red-haired animal trainer.

Connie came to the window. “Hal, what’s keeping Jerry’s burger?”

“It’s right in front of….hell, where’d it go?”

Kari came out of the cooler, dropped a scoop of coleslaw on the plate and set her plate back on the counter. James was coming back for the coffee pot and heard Kari call his name.

“Here it is, James. I forgot the coleslaw.”

Connie’s jaw dropped. She looked at Hal, then turned to James sputtering, “you took my jalapeno burger!”

James froze. He saw the burger on the counter and Kari smiling, albeit a little confused with everyone’s reaction to her finishing her first burger. “Oh shit!” He turned to the red-haired woman across the diner.

“Don’t eat that!”

James flew over the counter. Condiments shot everywhere, coffee spilled and there was a sound of breaking glass. He reached the table, grabbing the hamburger out of the woman’s hands. A confused look crossed her face. She had already taken a bite.

“Oh man! I am so dead,” moaned James, under his breath. This was not a good first day. The burger in his hand drooped with the weight of the meat. Five or six habanero peppers fell to the floor.

The red-haired woman’s face raged a deep red, her nose winced in pain and her eyes held back tears. She wasn’t sure what was in her mouth, but it wasn’t teriyaki. She grabbed her only napkin and spit out a semi-mashed mouthful of meat, bread and habanero peppers.

“I am so sorry, Ma’am. This wasn’t your burger. “ He grabbed the napkin concealing the regurgitated mistake and the woman’s plate. “Let me bring you your dinner.” The woman could hardly speak. “Hot!” She whispered. “Hot!”

“Here’s some milk, dear. That should help.” Connie set a tall glass of whole milk in front of her. The entire room had turned their attention to the new waiter and his redheaded customer. One of the men seated at the bar wiped a dark stain off his pants. Hal emerged from the kitchen and took to wiping down the bar and handing out free coffee. Kari brought out the woman’s teriyaki burger, and set it down gently.

It took a few minutes before the woman could speak. She downed the milk and ate a piece of bread Connie had set down. Water only made it worse. She took a few bites of the coleslaw and that seemed to make a difference.

“I am so sorry, Ma’am,” It’s my first day, but I should have known that wasn’t the burger you ordered. I don’t know what I was thinking.” James sat in the booth across from her. “Hal said dinner is on us, tonight. I hope that helps.”

The red-haired woman took another sip of milk, focusing her eyes on James. “What’s your name, son?”

“James.”

“Well, James. I have to tell you. I stopped in to wake myself up a bit before I drove on to Chicago. You certainly did the job. What kind of peppers where those?”

“Habeneros. The hottest damn pepper you can find,” said a deep voice from the bar. “Hal was trying to make me sweat, and I think you ended up in the hot seat.” Jerry grinned.

“Well, James, I’m Lena,” she smiled. “Thanks for the excitement.

No more customers came in. The television displayed red bulletins across the bottom of the screen warning people to stay off the roads, there were flood warnings and the highways were ripe for hydroplaning. Lena had stopped driving at the right time, if you take away the burning hamburger mistake.

The diner was empty. Lena found a room in the motel next door and the two women in the corner headed out into the rain, as did the men in Carharts. The game was over and their team had lost. Jerry grabbed his hat, waved good-bye and went out to his sixteen-wheeler and the bed in his cab.

Kari came out of the kitchen, taking off her apron. Hal was locking up the coolers. She had just finished mopping the red tile floor. James sat in the booth counting out four different colors into sugar holders; white, pink, blue and yellow. He lined them up neatly, like rows of corn.

“Where you staying,” Kari asked. She didn’t recall James from around here.

“I guess where I stay depends on if I still have a job,” He answered.

“Oh, honey, I think you did fine,” Connie said from the next booth. “I’ve never seen anyone jump across the counter. I don’t think I ever have. That was entertainment.”

James smiled. Looking back it was pretty funny. “Thanks, Connie. You know Kari, I may just treat myself to a room at the motel if they’ll take …. thirty-two dollars and seventeen cents,” he says, counting his tips.

“No need, young man,” called Hal from the kitchen. “If you don’t mind a hard bed, I have a bunkhouse out back. You can use my shower. You earned it. I think that animal trainer was sweet on you.”

Kari laughed. Things seemed to be lining up. She tossed the remainder of her day old doughnut in the trash. James wiped down the menus and stacked them near the cash register. He could have sworn the middle owl winked at him.

© 2013 Gretchen Wehmhoff

“The Main Attraction” by Becky Benson

Prompts:
An animal trainer
Cornfields
Doughnuts
“Don’t eat that!”
Spending $4
Owls

***

The Main Attraction
By Becky Benson

Prologue
I’m not sure one really sets out to ‘run away and join the circus’. Well, not usually a thirty-four year old many anyway, at least not a sane one. Not that it was really a circus, some would consider Wall Street more of a circus than this. The funny thing is, I think about running away now more as an adult that I ever did as a child. Anyway, I guess some would say I was running away. To me though, it feels like coming home.

***

Robin Bixly was growing tired of his posh penthouse office. Growing sick of steak tartare luncheons and late night business meetings entertaining potential clients. Even though everyone said it suited him, much like his custom made Armani, he always felt out of place. His sixteen by sixteen foot, window lined walls were closing in on him. His own persona was strangling the life out of him. It’s not the he didn’t recognize himself when he looked in the mirror, it’s that this guy was all he could see, he didn’t recognize the person he used to be. He was an outsider in an inside world who’d somehow managed to worm his way in. In the rise of the late 90’s dot com boom he was in and out before the collapse and suddenly had a tract record of achievement behind his name. It wasn’t long before the start-up investment firm; Steinbeck House took notice the young prodigy and snatched him up. In the fourteen years he’d been with the company he’d changed.

The final straw (or so he thought) was being backed into a corner by his boss, who’d agreed to entertain one of their newest potential clients by escorting her to P. T. Barnum’s Live Siberian Extravaganza in Las Vegas (by her request, and definitively one of the more eccentric they’d encountered). Just imagine how coincidental it seemed that Andrew Steinbeck’s Hampton cottage had been the only house along that particular stretch of shore hit by a rogue tidal wave the very day before the trip, and as such he’d passed along the escorting duty to his “Star Player”.

Now, at five o’clock Robin found himself packing little more than three garment bags and an overnight kit, and hailing a cab to take him to JFK for the eight o’clock flight to Las Vegas. Truth be told, he wasn’t that out of sorts over the trip itself. The reason was though, that he’d let Andrew know he’d be staying out of town an extra two days to make a visit back home since he was coming practically all the way across country anyway (in reality he just needed to clear his head away from the perpetually fast paced noise that was Manhattan).

Portland, OR had always been home. His center. His rock. The quaint farm house he’d grown up in and the pine crisp air always refreshed his senses. Once he got there he’d venture down to the Burnside Bridge to meander through the market, then over to Voodoo Doughnuts for the classic bacon maple bar. Then he’d end up back home with mom for some of her Sunday night goulash. By far better than any steak tartare or yellow fin sushi he’d ever had.

The house was old, built in the 1920’s as a dairy farm. His parents had owned it for forty years now. They’d long since sold off the herd of cows that came with the twenty four acres once Tillamook stopped putting out small local orders, and for the last thirty five years it had been a sort of wild life refuge/abandoned animal shelter. He didn’t mind the discolored wood floors or the dirt driveway. It felt real to him, better than suits and high -rises. He wondered how a boy from the Great Northwest ever got mixed up in any of that Manhattan High-rise mumbo-jumbo anyway.

The house, the trees, the doughnuts would have to wait. First he had to meet Mrs. Evangeline Wallis at the New York New York. See, even when he was getting away from New York he couldn’t get away from New York. He’d be in and out. Wheel her, deal her, wine her, dine her, seal the investment, and he’d be off.

“Mom”, he chirped. “I’ve got great news! How’d you like to get a look at your long-lost son in a couple days?”

“Oh Robbie, are you visiting?”, she squealed. “I can’t wait. When will you be here?”

“Sunday afternoon, I’ll fly in at four o’clock.”

“Perfect, I’ll make-“

“Goulash, right, mom?”

“How’d you know?”

“Just a wild guess. See you soon.”

“See you soon, Robbie.”

He handed his ticket to the airline attendant and proceeded to take his seat in row 2, seat B.

“When the company pays”, he mused to himself as he ordered a vodka tonic.

Ok, there were some things about this corporate life that weren’t all that bad.

Four and a half hours later they landed in Las Vegas and after he’d picked up his bags he was off to his room for what was left of the night. He would meet Mrs. Wallis for brunch at the Belagio and then remain with her throughout the day and evening discussing business (which meant flattering her in every way possible), then ending their day of business by escorting her the tiger show. What was it about Vegas and tigers? Why in the world did the two seem to go hand-in-hand? For right now though, he was tired, and parched. Not that he didn’t get his fill of vodka tonics on the plane, dehydrated was more like it. He looked around his room. The bottle of Figi would have to do, although truth be told, he didn’t mind spending $4.00 on a bottle of water when, once again, it was on the company tab.

Awakening the next morning, Robin got up, showered, dressed, and strolled his way down to the Belagio where, having never seen her before, he instantly recognized Evangeline Wallis immediately. Wearing a long leopard print tunic over ankle length black leggings, her red cat-eye sunglasses stuck out along the edges of her face almost as far as her hot pink nails grew past her fingertips.

“Vegas, baby!”, he muttered to himself with a chuckle. He could see, now how the tigers fit in.

“Dahling, today you are my best friend!”, she quipped with a raspy excitment, and stretched her arms open wide to embrace this man she’d only just laid eyes on for the very first time.

“Mrs. Wallis, it’s good to meet you.”

“Oh, you must call me Evvie. I’m so happy to have you accompany me today. Tell your Andrew how sorry I am to hear of the issues with his home. I hope it will all be alright, but today we will not let anything dampen our spirits. I am excited for you to see the show this evening.”

“Thank you, Evvie. I’ll make sure to let him know of your concern. I also want you to know that Steinbeck House we will take care of-“

“Oh, no no no no no. No business just yet. We have all day, let us enjoy the atmosphere of each other’s company. We have so much to see today.”

“Certainly. Shall we eat? You must be famished.”

“Wonderful idea”, she agreed.

It was quite late into the day, and although they were going for brunch it was really lunch time by now. Robin had a feeling Evvie kept these hours in general though. They took their window seats in full view of the fountains that were just beginning their dance for the day. It really was a spectacular sight. He ordered the eggs benedict, and found out then that Evvie sustained herself on little more than the decorative fruit that accompanied her seltzer water.

“Do you know why we are going to see the Siberian Extravaganza this evening?”, she asked.

“Well, I assume it’s a wonderful show”, he replied.

“It is! But that’s not why.”

“No?”, he asked.

“No. It is because my husband trained those majestic creatures himself. He worked for many years as an animal trainer and he contributed to the production of this show, and many others. He loved the tigers. They were more than just animals to him. They were his passion. He brought some of them over to the United States many years ago on a cargo ship when he came from Russia as a boy. They once belonged to a Czar, but he had grown tired of theme and cast them off. Others he rescued from the wealthy who thought they could own a creature such as these as merely a pet. You simply cannot do such a thing with this beauties. They have their own ideas, their own thoughts and feelings. You cannot control them, only seek to understand them, and my Yuri did. He would get them healthy again, but these tigers can never go back into the wild. It’s sad for them, living such a life they were not meant to live. They cannot change their stripes, you know. “

“That’s amazing”, Robin genuinely replied. “I had no idea. What a wonderful story. What an interesting life I can imagine it has been. My family owns it’s own little animal rescue/sanctuary outside Portland, Oregon. We’re a much smaller operation though. Mostly dogs, cats, horses. We did have an owl for a while. She had a broken wing when we found her. My mom nursed her back to health and she was like a pet for a while, but when she was strong enough we had to let her go. I was only six and my brother was eight so it was hard for us. We wanted to keep her. My mom explained that she wouldn’t be happy here and she needed to fly.”

“Your mother is a very intelligent woman. She understands these creatures are not here to be our possessions. And your father?”

“My father is the one who turned our farm into the animal retreat. He was kind of an animal whisperer himself. It was a dairy farm when my parents bought the place. He passed away six years ago. It was pancreatic cancer. Advanced and aggressive.”

“I am sorry for your loss. Loss is hard. No matter what or who you have lost, loss is hard. It’s been two years since my Yuri passed. Two years and everyone is telling me that it’s time to tie up the loose ends with his business affairs. I don’t want any part of it, to be honest. I just want someone who can handle it for me and let me know how it’s going from time to time. Speaking of such affairs, Manhattan is a long way from Oregon, Robin. How does a boy raised on a farm get to Wall Street?”

“I have a gift for numbers.”

“And do you have a passion for it?”

His inner self imploded. He suddenly realized that in fourteen years, he had never once asked himself that question. He guessed that he’d just assumed that having a gift for something begat a passion for it. He knew right then and there that this is where his discontent came from. It had been a kettle bubbling up to scream since the beginning. He admired Evvie. He could tell, knowing her now for little more than an hour, that she lived deliberately, and that everything she did was with passion. It seemed like a wonderful life to him. Although, it also occurred to him that he was there to secure her as a client.

“I think I have many passions. Well rounded, I hope.”

“And these numbers, they are one of those passions?”

Geez, she really was backing him into a corner. How to address this, he wondered.

“I suppose in a way, they are. I like many things about numbers, most of all, what I can do with them.”

Good, he thought. That sounds like something a money-hungry Wall Streeter would quip. It sounded like someone who would invest wisely, right?

“I’d imagine so”, she replied with a slight airy laugh. “Now, when we meet again this evening I do so hope you will be ready to be thoroughly entertained.”

“Of course”, he replied, “But there is still the matter of us discussing the business we are meeting here for”.

“Already done, my dahling. I now know everything I need to know. See you at six.”

With that she floated up from the table and sauntered away.

Had she really just called him out on his career choice? Was she calling him a fake? He wasn’t sure, but he did think that she seemed to like him. Now that he had the majority of the afternoon to himself he decided that while he waited out the hours until his final meeting with Evvie Wallis, he should do a little more research into those business affairs so he would properly understand how to woo her into investing them with Steinbeck House. Now that he’d met her he would figure out exactly what needed to be said to meet the demands of her personality in just the right way so that the firm would win her over and she would comfortably trust them to take care of her assets.

The problem was, that he didn’t care about it now. Now that she had pointed out that he had no passion for the life he had created he ultimately realized the facade was sucking the real life right out of him. He thought of his father. His father, who had told him many times while he was growing up the stories of riding the rails. One day he just decided to ride. What today many would call an aimless drifter, to him, it sounded so romantically exciting. He remembered the tales of the salt air bristling his father’s face as the train steamed along the coast. He remembered how he told of the dessert so vast you couldn’t see a beginning or end, and how magnificent it was that they could have built all these railways through such a seemingly desolate place. His mind wandered to the acres of waving wheat in Nebraska and forest like storied cornfields of Iowa where, as everyone in his family knew, was when he’d hopped off looking for a piece of apple pie in a diner and wound up meeting the waitress he’d wed just three months later.

That was passion. He wanted to run away just like his father and find himself in the middle of nowhere. To create a life he could be proud of in terms of anything other than numbers. Not only did he not have a passion for numbers, but he was beginning to despise them. Even his brother, Mark who, though he had no interest in animals still wasn’t selling his soul the way he was. Mark lived somewhere near Berkley and was a professional beat poet. Suddenly, he couldn’t wait to be back home and with the animals he’d loved so when he was growing up. His mother had recently told him how she’d found a fawn with a broken leg on the edge of the property lying in a ditch. Most likely the little doe had tried, unsuccessfully to cross the road. Then there were the rabbits, and the chickens, and the horses, most of which had been turned over to them, some anonymously when the price of feed got too high for people look after them any longer. Thank goodness the mortgage had been paid off for years, but still, he knew that even with the 4-H clubs, bake sales, donation cans, and ‘suggested’ care offerings for anyone surrendering an animal, his mother was running out of options in keeping the growing number of the needy furry friends.

He decided to stroll around the stores that the world famous shopping area of Vegas has to offer. Maybe he’d bring something back for his mom. Still feeling a little guilty for missing out on Thanksgiving last year, no doubt. In his defense, he did think spending time with Fiona’s family and getting to know them better seemed like a good idea. At least when he thought they were moving in the direction of marriage. Turns out she was, just not with him. Not two weeks later he received a modern day ‘it’s not you, it’s me’ in the form of an email, nonetheless.

He took a look around. Ferigamo, Tiffany’s, Coach; this was clearly not prime shopping for a farm woman in her late sixties. Maybe he’d ask Evvie what a nice haven’t seen you in a while/coming home present for his mother would be. She looked about ten years older than Nancy Bixly, but he assumed that she’d have a better idea than he, and that she’d appreciate the question. Speaking of Evvie, it was time to head back to his room and change into proper dinner attire.

Even tying his bowtie nauseated him now. He was actually looking forward to the evening at hand, because to be honest, it was the most interesting thing he’d done in, well he couldn’t remember since when. He felt oddly like high society about to attend an opera, and reminded himself that he was actually in Las Vegas about to go see the Live Siberian Tiger Extravaganza.

Upon meeting Evvie he wasn’t surprised to see her in her flowing lime green Grecian garb complete with some sort of silver loafer. Interestingly enough, it set off the silver in her hair quite nicely. This woman knew who she was, he thought, and she makes no apologies for it.

The ate rather quickly, her of her watercress salad, and he of the croque au vin, and spoke mostly of the impending show. Soon thereafter, they made their way to the entrance and took their seats. Robin was expecting more of a circus like ambiance. There was no tent and surprisingly, the whole arena was quite sophistically decorated with wine colored drapes, complete with gold tassels, and tables, not rows of bleachers. There were balconies and servers, and even programs like it was a broadway show. There was still a curtain, and in the center of the stage, as the lights dimmed, the crowd hushed, and the announcer called for the opening, was the main attraction.

Six white Siberian tigers sat perfectly still in pyramid formation while the Grand Marshal (complete with top hat) quickened his pace as he ran around them gesturing for applause from the crowd. The magnificent creatures each got heir turn in the spotlight entertaining the crowd with acts of juggling, leaping, and growing with open mouths. They were beautiful and well cared for. Their coats shined under the lights, and their eyes glistened.

Robin peered over at Evvie to see her watching with baited breath in complete amazement and adoration. She gasp along with the rest of the crowd at every amazing feat the regal animals displayed. Again and again she grinned widely in appreciation. He saw her love for these tigers, and her love for her husband. When the show was over the crowd sprang to their feet and the applause was near deafening.

“Marvelous”, Evvie cheered. “Bravo, bravo”.

They left the show and Evvie glowed. Robin wished he had such a spark, a zeal in life for anything the way this woman did.

“You must tell me, Mr. Bixly. What made you decide to escort me to this show this evening, aside from being assigned the duty by your firm, of course?”

“I thought it seemed so outrageous that it would be astronomically entertaining.”

“Wonderful! And how do you feel now?”, she asked.

“That is was more entertaining, and informative than I ever could have imagined”, he replied.

“I’m glad you came she let him know.”

“Me too”, he said. ” There’s just one problem”, he told her.

“Problem?”, she asked. I thought our meeting was going very well.

“It is”, he laughed. “Too well, in fact. You see Evvie, I’ve decided I’m not going back to Steinbeck House after this trip. Actually, I don’t think I’ll be going back to New York at all. I’ve decided to stay in Oregon and help my mother with running the sanctuary, and tending to the farm itself. I was thinking we could turn it into a hobby farm. Sell the eggs, and have birthday parties, and a petting zoo. I think I could really help her revitalize the place. I did want to ask you on thing though. I was looking for a little coming home present to bring to my mother. What would you suggest?”

“Are you kidding, dahling? You, of course! All a mother needs is her children, and maybe a tiger!”

They both erupted in laughter.

“Well how fitting that you are not returning to New York. I was going to have to tell Steinbeck House that I have decided not to invest my money with them anyway.”

“You were?”, he asked with an air of shock.

“Yes, you see I have enough money to last me eons and I’ve recently decided I don’t need to the using it to help the Ritchie Rich’s of Wall Street get any righter, especially since I’ve found out about a nice little business I think I can partner in creating which would allow me to indulge my passion. Furthermore, the young gentleman who is starting it is quite passionate about animals they way I am and I think he will be able to pour his heart into his work and do some good with is new hobby farm. Now we shall celebrate! Let us go and eat. How about steak tartare? I’ve always wanted to try it.”

“No Evvie, don’t eat that! Don’t ever eat that!”

© 2013 Becky Benson

 

“The Ideal Partner” by Sheila Sine

Prompts:
An animal trainer
Cornfields
Doughnuts
“Don’t eat that!”
Spending $4
Owls

***

The Ideal Partner

By Sheila Sine

“So,” Mum said, “how is Vanessa?”

Harold repressed a sigh, he’d known as soon as she rang that his mum would get around to asking about the latest woman he was dating. It was what these calls always boiled down to sooner or later. He hesitated, and confessed: “I’m not sure it’s going to work out.”

“What? Why? You’ve only been on two dates. What’s wrong with her?”

Harold pinched the bridge of his nose. It was always the same conversation with every woman his mother tried to set him up with, from Clarissa the animal trainer from the London Zoo to Helena the new age tattoo artist who always smelled like mint.

“She’s just not my type,” he hedged, his standard response to see the conversation through to the end, it was easier than explaining the real reason.

“Harold, she’s a human being and as such she will have faults. The perfect woman isn’t going to fall into your lap. Relationships take time and work.”

“I’m willing to wait and work when the right person comes along, believe me.”

There was silence from the other end of the connection. At last his mum said, “Harold, dear, you’re a jewellery designer and I know many men in that field play for the other team, which is perfectly fine as long as they are happy and healthy. If you happen to be like those men, I would hope you’d feel comfortable enough to tell me and your dad.”

He frowned, wondering how long she’d been waiting to ask that. “No, Mum, I prefer women.”

She didn’t seem to hear his flat response and kept talking, obviously ready to say her piece as a supportive parent: “It’s alright if you are. Your dad and I will love you no matter what your sexual orientation.”

“I’m not gay, Mum! I’m bloody straight.”

“Well, then I don’t see why you don’t give Vanessa another chance.”

Harold paused, taken aback by quick backtrack to Vanessa. He sighed, he was so sick of this. “Look, it’s getting late and I’m still getting over jet lag. I should go.”

“Harold, wait! I’m only badgering because I care. You’re my only son and you’ve worked so hard, I just want you to be happy.”

His shoulders drooped as his annoyance dissipated. “I know, Mum. And I’m not unhappy.”

“I just worry about you, traveling so much and coming home to that empty flat every night. It’d be nice if you had someone to waiting for you.”

A girlfriend is not a pet that waits for you to come home, he thought. If you want me to get a dog or a pet fish you should just say so. But he knew that’s not what she meant. He enjoyed being his parent’s only child, especially after seeing the frustrations and bullying that went on in larger families; but because he was an only child, it meant his parents had placed all their eggs in his basket.

He said, “You shouldn’t worry about me, Mum. Think about all the things you and Dad can do now that he’s getting ready to retire, like holiday on the Isle of Wight. Besides, with all my new work and the negotiations with the buyers, it’s almost a relief to come home to a quiet flat at the end of the day. I’m thirty-one years old; you don’t need to worry about me every second of the day.”

“Maybe you’re right. Your dad has been saying the same thing for years.” She yawned. “I had better get ready for bed, and so should you, if you’re still not sleeping well.”

“Goodnight, Mum. Thanks for the call.”

“Goodnight, dear. And think about Vanessa, won’t you? She’s a lovely, successful girl and you two are positively striking together.”

“I will, Mum. Goodbye.”

“Goodbye. I love you.”

“Love you too.” He disconnected and set his mobile on the counter, stretching his arms and rolling his neck to relieve his stiff muscles. Harold took a sip from his wine glass, knowing his mum had a point. Vanessa was engaging, beautiful, and a successful solicitor . He liked her and knew that many men would envy him for his good fortune. She was not the problem at all.

Rising from his seat at the granite top counter in his kitchen he crossed the unlit living room, easily avoiding the sparse furniture, to the large windows that overlooked his back garden and the private park beyond. The reason things weren’t working out with Vanessa was his fault, again. Harold had never been outgoing at the best of times, and his coldness had frightened people off before. But there was always something wrong with the women he dated, often it was awkward, sometimes they parted as friends, but he’d never loved any of them. There had been some lust but that was it. The reason behind this was something he’d never told anyone for fear of sounding like a misogynistic bastard.

Harold closed his eyes, leaning his forehead against the cool glass. Her image rose from the corner of his mind where it always resided, ready to come to him when he was distracted. Dark, curling hair, hazel eyes, full lips parted in a smile; her skin was tanned and she was clothed in a loose white dress. He felt himself relax as he thought of her. She was more than just beautiful. She is guileless and wholesome, with an open heart, prepared to love everything she sees.

Straightening, he opened his eyes. The thought and emotion that came with it, adoration, had crossed his mind more than once when he thought of her. But they didn’t feel like his words. He could not imagine himself saying that to any woman. On the other hand, both the woman and the way she made him feel was familiar as if she was someone he’d known intimately before.

He shook his head and turned from the window. How thick are you, he thought, pining after a woman who only exists in your bloody caveman fantasies?

But she wasn’t just a fantasy, he knew things about her. She likes pomegranates and baby animals and gardening and making love early in the morning because she’s a morning person.

 

Harold covered his face with his hands running them through up his hair, making it stand on end.

His mum was right, there was no such thing as a fantasy woman, no matter how detailed that fantasy might be. This schoolboy fantasy had warped his thinking. He would give it another shot with Vanessa. In fact, he would call her in the morning and see if she was free on Friday.

Harold returned to his place at the counter in the kitchen and drained the last of the pinot noir from his glass. Warmth flooded his stomach as his mind turned to his agenda for tomorrow. Yawning he went upstairs, concentrating on the next day to avoid thinking about what awaited him when he slept.

~*~

The woman did come to him that night. When he awoke, all Harold could remember was approaching her through a field of flowers that rippled in a gentle West wind. His morning workout and shower helped to shake off the image. As he sat in his robe drinking coffee in the kitchen, watching the light shift across the Spartan furnishings and unopened boxes stacked in the corners of his living room, she returned to him. Despite living here for over three months, the flat barely looked lived in. He’d spent most of his time working, finishing the “Wealth of the Earth” collection and traveling to the States. Coming home late and leaving early to get to his workshop had reduced his living room to just another room he had to walk through to get to and from the front door. Now in the early morning light, it looked less real to him than his dream of the woman.

Harold downed the rest of his coffee and went upstairs to finish dressing, perhaps he should just get a dog. He hadn’t had one since he was seventeen. When he came downstairs and took down his coat, he looked through the window at the walled garden and the park beyond. A dog might not be such a bad idea.

Later that day, he called Vanessa just before noon. “Hello?”

“Hello…beautiful,” he said and winced. Could he have tried any bloody harder?

“Harold?” she asked, sounding surprised.

“Yeah, sorry,” he said. “I was just ringing to see if you were free this Friday.”

Pause, then Vanessa said, “Okay. I’m actually going to be in court all week but it’s fairly straightforward so I should be free by Friday evening. Did you have any place in mind?”

“Uh, no. Any place you’d like to go?”

“I heard about a Greek place in North London that’s supposed to be pretty good. We can go there.”

He smiled slightly. “Right, that sounds fine. I’ll see you on Friday, around eight o’clock?”

“That’s fine. Do you want the address?”

“Oh, of course,” he said, grimacing.

She gave it to him and they said their goodbyes. Harold slipped his mobile into his pocket and leaned forward to organize the sketches on his drafting table. They were preliminary designs for the collection he would release in the spring. Now that his “Wealth of the Earth” was becoming a major trend on runways and in shops his designs were in higher demand than ever before. However, with all the back and forth he’d been going through with his American buyers, sketches were as far as he’d gotten, he didn’t even have a firm theme in mind. Harold made a note on a design for a pair of cufflinks. The studio phone rang. A glance at the display confirmed that it was long distance from New York. I’m hard pressed to get any work done here without a moment’s peace, he groused. Harold answered it, wondering why metals and precious stones were easier to understand than people.

~*~

Friday evening, Harold was late. It was only ten minutes after eight o’clock, but he was late nonetheless. Luckily, Vanessa was still waiting to be seated. She rose when he entered. With ginger hair, a willowy figure and considerable height for a woman, Vanessa knew how to use her appearance to make an impression and hold the attention of everyone in a room. This ability undoubtedly served her well in a courtroom but right now it made him feel like an oaf. He shot her an apologetic look and motioned her to precede him as they were led to their table.

The accusation of tardiness hung between them as they ordered and Harold knew for certain what he had supposed after the first date. The tension between them was compounded by a pair of patrons at the next table, and older man and a young woman who were arguing.

After the waiter left them Vanessa folded her hands together, her gaze flicking toward the next table where the pair had descended into stony silence. “I take it your trip to New York went well,” she said.

He nodded. “It did. The flight was uncomfortable, but I’ve always hated flying. However, it seems that as long as they keep holding Fashion Week in New York City, then I’m going to need to go there now and then.

She nodded and sipped her wine. “What else is new?”

Harold pinched the bridge of his nose. “One of my buyers and I are having some creative differences, which why I’m late. When they approached me about the collection they said it was because I managed to combine the raw, natural beauty of precious stones with sophistication that can flatter almost anyone. Now they want me to do something similar for teens, something ostentatious and trendy, like capitalize on the owl or skull fads.”

Vanessa snorted delicately as her posture relaxed and a small smile crossed her face. “It sounds like they want to pay you to make things for them to sell, not sell the things you make.”

“Exactly,” he said, leaning back in his chair. “Tell me about your case.”

Vanessa’s eyes rose to his, alertness touched her face as it usually did when she talked about the courtroom. “As I said on Monday, it was fairly straightforward, a woman was suing her husband for divorce; we won. He was a cheating bastard, she deserved so much better.”

He raised his glass to her. “Congratulations.”

They talked of inconsequential things after that, echoing one another’s opinions about politics and football until their dinners came. Both of them made noises of approval and gustatory pleasure, but only as a token show of appreciation as the man at the next table kept up a steady commentary about the quality of his food. His comments were loud and usually negative, much to the chagrin of the young woman who seemed on the verge of her patience.

Harold felt his attention wander as he tuned the complaining man out. The smell of the Greek cuisine was stirring up distant memories that he was reluctant to put any effort into giving them form or definition. He had a good idea where they would lead. Vanessa also seemed abstracted.

As the man lectured the young woman about seasonings, Harold said the first thing that came into his mind. “I’m seriously considering getting a dog.”

Vanessa focused on him, shaking her head at little. “Oh, what kind?”

“A big one. I’m a big guy and I have a lot of space. I’ve heard a lot of good about Great Danes. I’m looking into a few rescues.”

Vanessa nodded. “That sounds nice.”

Harold nodded in return. He was about to initiate conversation again when the man at the next table exclaimed: “Four dollars for a cup of coffee? What do they brew it with? Holy water? I’m not spending four dollars on a cup of coffee.”

“Pounds, Dad,” the young woman said. “We’re in Britain, their currency is the Pound not the dollar.”

I wouldn’t pay in pounds either,” he replied. “They’d be lucky if they got ounces. I don’t know why we came here; the food is barely worth the price.” He leaned across the table toward her. “I’m telling you, Lucia. The only place to find good Greek food is in Brooklyn or at your cousin’s restaurant in Atlantic City.”

The young woman—Lucia—clenched her fists on the tabletop. “I hate it when you do this, and you do it every time we eat at a Greek restaurant you’re unfamiliar with. You complain about the food or the authenticity of the decorations. You’ve never been to Greece! None of these places are going to be like the fake Greece that exists inside your head so why don’t you shut up and move on? Everyone else has!” She stood up and stormed out of the restaurant. The man rose to follow her but was approached by a short waiter with bushy eyebrows. Grumbling, the man shoved a handful of notes at the waiter and left.

“I do apologize for all that on behalf of the other staff,” the waiter said. Some patrons made noises of commiseration and then conversations resumed.

Harold turned to Vanessa who was staring into her wine glass, turning it in between her fingers.

“Is something wrong?” he asked.

Her gaze lifted to his. She seemed to be debating something, finally she said: “I’m trying to decide whether I should get drunk enough to sleep with you tonight.”

He blinked and sat back. “And…”

“And, I’m not sure.” She put a hand to her forehead. I’m sorry, I’ve been thinking about this all week, about us, where these dates are going.” Vanessa looked up at him. “Honestly, when you first called, I thought you were getting ready to say that we should stop seeing one another.”

Relief warred with disappointment, but surprise numbed everything for now. Vanessa kept talking: “You’re an intelligent, driven, handsome man, and I’ve enjoyed our time together but sometimes when I look at you it’s as if you’re not here, like you’re lost in another time.”

“Do you think we should end it?”

She looked at him, he could tell that she was sorry to cause him hurt, but sorry for him was all she felt. For his part, Harold felt cold.

Vanessa said, “Yes, I think it’s time.”

He nodded. “So do I.” Lifting his hand, he beckoned the waiter to bring their bills. They paid separately and in silence.

When they left Vanessa paused before getting into her car. “I’m sorry, Harold. I hope that we can still be friends.”

“It’s not your fault,” he said. Smiling slightly, he added: “I’ll call you if I need a cracking good solicitor.”

She returned it. “Good luck with the Americans, I hope your taste will improve theirs.” He chuckled without humor. “And Harold, I hope you find someone to love.” His attempt at good cheer vanished. Vanessa took his hand and squeezed. “I really do,” she said.

“I wish you the same,” he said. She released him and his hand fell to his side. Vanessa got into her car and he walked to his own.

When he got back to his flat it seemed even emptier than before. As if a ghost lived here instead of a man, he thought, his footsteps echoing on the laminate of the kitchen. That evening Harold got so drunk that he slept like the dead, dreamlessly. That realization was of little comfort to him when he woke up hung over the next morning.

~*~

A week later Harold was ending a call with the advertising agency. who had called to tell him the “’Wealth of the Earth’—Cornfield” ad would start running later that week, when his mobile rang.

“Hello?”

“Hello. Is this Mr. Harold Cedricson?”

“Yes.”

“My name is Quinn, I’m an adoption officer with the Great Dane Rescue of Great Britain. I’m calling about your application to rescue a Great Dane. Some of your particulars were a little vague so I wanted to get some more information.”

“Alright.” Harold frowned, then the foggy memory returned, the weekend he’d gotten pissed he had filled out an application online.

“You say that you previously owned a dog,” Quinn said.

“Yes, when I was a boy. We had a mutt for ten years, he died of old age when I was seventeen.”

“I see. And you say you live in a rental property.”

“Yes, pets are allowed. I just need to pay a fee to my landlord to cover any damages. I can get you the lease.”

“I will need to see that. You’ve indicated that you will need to leave your home for at least four hours a day. Do you believe you can meet the social needs for a Dane?”

“I do,” Harold said. “I’m basically self-employed. I can make my work schedule more flexible or bring the dog to work with me if I need to.”

“I see. And you said that you prefer a male puppy. Why is that?”

“Because I thought a male dog would be less intimidated by me and I want a puppy or a young dog because I want to have one for as long as possible.”

“Thank you, Mr. Cedricson. I’ll call you once I find the right Dane for you.”

Harold did not hear from the adoption officer for two more weeks. Until one Friday: “Hello, Mr. Cedricson? This is Quinn, the adoption officer.”

“Yes, this is he,” Harold said.

“I think I’ve found a dog for you. Are you free this weekend?”

“Absolutely,” Harold answered, feeling more hopeful than he had in weeks. Quinn gave him the address of a foster home in the Midlands and they agreed on a time.

When Harold arrived on Saturday he was met with half a dozen Great Dane puppies that boiled out of Quinn’s front door. Quinn was a lean man just a few years younger than Harold.

“I see you’ve met them already,” Quinn said, smiling down at the black and brown dogs. “Come inside, I’ve got some doughnuts and biscuits; we’ll have a cuppa and you can get to know them.”

Harold met the pups one by one, a few were reluctant and gave him plenty of space when they were allowed to leave, and a few were friendly but found other things to interest them. By the time he’d seen the all, he knew which was the right one.

“His name’s Spoticus Rex,” Quinn said, gesturing to the black and brindle puppy trying to climb into Harold’s lap.

“That’s an awfully long name for a puppy,” Harold replied, giving the pup a boost.

Quinn shrugged. “This lot are rejects from a breeder. Spoticus is a brindlequin, black with brindle splotches, and that makes him unacceptable as a show dog.”

Harold shook his head and looked down at the pup just in time to see him try for a bite of one of the doughnuts on the coffee table.

“Oye,” Harold said, “don’t eat that!”

The puppy flinched back and Harold worried that he’d been too forceful. Spoticus looked up at him his tongue hanging out and his tail wagging, the picture of innocence.

Harold looked up at Quinn, “Let me know when we can draw up the adoption papers. I think Spot and I will get on just fine.”

When he brought Spot home that evening, the puppy wasted no time in exploring the entire flat and had completely worn himself out by the time Harold went to bed. But after turning out the light, he felt the mattress dip and the slight jostling of something small walking across to lie down next to his legs. Lifting his head, Harold could make out Spot curled up next to his shins. He smiled and fell asleep.

He dreamed of the woman again for the first time in weeks. She stood in the field of wild flowers and he walked toward her out of some dark place. He opened his mouth to call to her; her name on the tip of his tongue. She turned to face him before he could voice it.

For the first time, she spoke: “Husband, I have missed you.”

He replied, “Persephone, it’s been so long.”

© 2013 Sheila Sine

“Søren’s Girl” by Amy K. Marshall

Prompts:
An animal trainer
Cornfields
Doughnuts
“Don’t eat that!”
Spending $4
Owls

***

Søren’s Girl

By Amy K. Marshall

“That makes two of us!”

His expression hardened and it was easy to pick out the lines that had only lately thawed around his eyes. “I deal with dogs!” He thumped the lavender papers with the backs of his fingers; he shook them at me. “You’re not welcome!”

I never thought I was.

Welcome, that is.

My mother had written the missive on lavender paper: “It’s soothing,” she had said, briskly straightening the pages, creasing them, sliding them into the envelope. I watched her turn it over. “Søren Jaakoppi.” She had written his name on the front. “Lavender is soothing.”

I had said nothing.

It might as well have been a red flag in front of this bull of a man.

My father.

I had shown up on his doorstep, Mother’s lavender note in my hand. It sounds so easy to say: “Well, I just showed up on his doorstep.” Except…his doorstep was miles from anywhere, really. I didn’t have a car. No buses ran that remotely. I had taken a bush plane, and then walked.

And walked.

And walked.

“So, you’re Søren’s girl.”
The pilot’s name was Josh. I suppose his name still is Josh; nice smile, bright eyes. Had I been unfocused, I’d have thought him dreamy. But, the sound of my dad’s name had made his tourist-winning smile falter.

“Sure,” he had said, “I can give you directions to his place.” His hand was braced on the wing support of his plane and he turned to reach inside the cabin. I had assumed he was going for a pen. “Got a compass?”

He loaned me one.

Just in case.

“You know how to use one, right?”

I held it flat on my palm. The needle shifted lazily.

“Got bear spray?”

He loaned me some.

Just in case.

“Don’t think I’m thrilled about this, either!” I sounded tougher than I felt. I hoped. For good measure, I glared at the man who stood, blocking the entrance to the cabin.

“What the hell am I supposed to do with you?” he demanded.

Like I knew.

I stood my ground. I think I crossed my arms to make a point; of course, just what point, I can’t have imagined.

Getting to my old man’s place was no easy hike. There was a trail that led up out of what passed for a town in this part of Alaska, but it wasn’t much of a trail. Once I got out of the trees, though, the views opened up. I didn’t need a compass past that. The curl of smoke about two miles off could only have been his place. I hoisted my pack further up on my shoulder and put my head down. Keep walking. Just keep walking. You’ll figure it out when you get there.

It wasn’t like I could have sneaked up on the place, either.

The barking and baying started while I was still nearly a quarter of a mile away. I don’t know if the thirty dogs heard me or smelled me, or if they were just barking because barking in the yard is something sled dogs do.

Did I mention my dad is a musher?

I guess I should have said that my dad was a musher.

At twenty-one, he was one of the youngest and definitely one of the best when he had been on his game in 1985. Yukon Quest, Iditarod, Copper Basin 300, the Pedigree down in Wyoming, he’d done them all. He had a way with dogs, just like he said, a way with dogs that he didn’t have with people—mom and me included….

***

“Sucks that you have to go,” Matt offered. It was August in Iowa and the sun was bright in the cloudless sky. He reached down and took my hand. I smiled and fell into step with him.

“I’m trying to think of it like an adventure.”

He hesitated. Around us a breeze stirred the cornstalks that hid us. We had run off together into cornfields for as long as I could remember. We had met when I was six and Matt was eight. Two years didn’t make a difference to him or me. We had become fast friends. Matt’s mom had died when he was four. Mom and I were alone. I think we both thought getting our parents together would have been great, but they were too different. So, we concentrated on us.

“We could run off,” he said.

I brushed back a stalk. “Run off? Where would we run?”

“I’ll be eighteen next month,” he said. “We could run off together and just start living.”

“Start living?” I ventured.

His tone turned bitter. “Away from here.” His hand was warm around mine and he pulled me after him. “I dream of being away from here…”

***

“Can I come in or am I going to live on the porch?”

It never occurred to me that he would stop and consider that an option.

He didn’t answer me. His eyes narrowed suddenly. He was looking past me.

“Into the house!”

I stumbled as he wrenched me forward.

“Bolt the door!”

Before I realized what was happening, he had grabbed his gun and slammed the door.

“Hey!” I rounded on the door and yanked it open.

He had leapt from the porch, and, gun in hand, was racing toward the back of the dog yard. There was yelping and barking. A dog screamed. The hair on the back of my neck stood up. I had never heard anything like it—an almost human-sounding scream.

The gun’s report shattered the chaos.

The dogs quieted instantly. I felt myself stop breathing.

Minutes passed.

Two or three dogs whined plaintively, but beyond that, there was no sound.

“Oh…my God….”

Søren strode across the dog yard, the gun spent and hanging in the crook of his elbow, and in his arms, a bloodied animal. Its head lolled strangely. Its eyes were open.

“Out of my way, girl,” he growled and pushed past me.

Startled, I shifted and made room for them.

He swept into the room and gestured at his kitchen table. “Clear it!”

Shaking, I started to set aside papers and pens.

“Clear it!” he barked.

I jumped and swept my arms across the table—scattering everything.

He nodded. “Good girl.”

Looking back, he must have meant that as high praise.

“Is it dead?” I asked, my voice breathless.

“Dodge ball,” he said, turning from the broken, bleeding dog. He pulled open a cabinet and rummaged through it. He came up with a kit that he opened on the kitchen counter. “His name’s ‘Dodge ball,’ not ‘it.’” He glanced back at the dog before turning back to the kit. “Damn bear.”

Without another word, he tended to Dodge ball’s wounds.

***

Søren Jaakoppi, in the 1980’s, had been one of the greatest mushers in the world. That’s not my hyperbole. That’s the hyperbole of history. Mushing was hardly a blip on the competitive sports radar at that time, but had it been as popular then as it is in 2003, Jaapkoppi would have been a household name. Everyone knew my father. Everyone had respected my father.

Had respected.

Now, at 38 years of age, he is old and broken and mostly forgotten.

Even though mother had spirited us away to the wilds of Iowa, I managed to find out bits and pieces of the story. It happened during one of the most grueling stage races of the year–the Kuskulana 600. The incident trained a stark spotlight on a sport that many felt was cruel just by its existence. Staunch Swede that my father was, he had said nothing in the defense of his actions. It had happened on the trail. To this day, he does not speak about it.

Still, younger mushers recognize my father’s talent with dogs. They come to learn all he can teach them. They come to purchase dogs he’s trained.

I am amazed that he still wants dogs around.

I am more amazed that he still tolerates mushers around.

***

I tried to be quiet as I opened kitchen cabinets in search of tea or coffee. Dodge ball lay, bandaged and breathing easier, in a dog bed near the wood stove. The old man sat, his head back, his eyes closed, in a tattered easy chair. I watched his brow furrow and unfurrow with every breath the dog took.

The kettle atop the woodstove began to whistle lamely.

I hurried to pull it from the heat.

I never asked my father if he wanted tea.

It’s an Alaskan thing.

We all just assume.

I stood over him. The steam curled away from the cup.

“Milk, two sugars,” he said without opening his eyes.

I felt my smile twitch. “I remembered.”

He raised his head and opened his eyes. “Guess I won’t be shot of you.”

“Sorry.”

***

The next morning, I woke in the cabin’s loft to a smell that shredded the time we’ve been apart into nothingness. I swung my feet around and scrunched my toes to feel for slippers. I glance down the ladder and see him bustling around the kitchen. Dodge ball remained in the dog bed, but was looking better.

“You’re up.” He nodded brusquely. “Good. Get dressed. We’ve got chores.”

“But you made–” I started lamely.

He bristled. “They eat first, then we eat.”

That was my introduction to the dog yard.

There’s not much difference between barnyard work and dog yard work. You slop dogs like you slop pigs, you clean up more feces than you think can be possible to exist in the world, but the difference is, the dogs react differently to you. Chickens don’t care if you’re there or not. Horses will look condescendingly at you if that’s their mood. Dogs? They regarded me warily, but when the old man walked out into the yard, it was like a rock star had walked into their midst. They pulled and jumped and clamored for attention; they were desperate to catch his eye.

“We’ll have ‘em pull today.”

“There’s no snow,” I replied.

He chuckled. “They’ve eaten. Your turn.”

Say what you will about the old man, but he makes killer doughnuts. That was the sticky-sweet smell that pulled me from my sleep much earlier that morning. The doughnuts are really a type of fritter or dumpling. The recipe comes from his Far Mor and is completely unpronounceable to a non-Swede.

The tang of wild blueberry bursts against my tongue and I am five again. My mother is there in the cabin with us. My feet kick the air beneath my chair and my senses fill with the smell of warm sweet dough and blueberries and coffee. Søren always made the doughnuts, and when he did, it always had the feel of an offering to the family.

***

August turned to September and the trees that could manage change changed and dropped their leaves. The mountains ringing the cabin glowed bright gold streaked with bits of orange. The fireweed burst and was gone. The chance at the lingonberries came and went. We pulled salmon from the river and he showed me how to put it up for winter. The daylight began to slip away from us in earnest. Three weeks after the bear attack, Dodge ball finally returned to his place in the dog yard.

In the middle of the month, I woke to hear Søren deep in conversation with a young man at the kitchen table.

“Oh, hello,” he said quickly as he got to his feet.

“Hi,” I replied and looked to my father.

“My daughter,” Jaakoppi said dismissively.

“Oh,” the young man replied, “nice to meet you.”

“Michael here will be staying a few days and keeping an eye on the dog yard.” Soren rose and turned back to the kitchen counter. Silence rang through the cabin as he poured himself another cup of coffee.

“Here?” I felt suddenly vulnerable.

“We’re going to town.” It was more of an announcement than a statement.

“Town?”

“It happens,” Søren said, his lip twisted into a wry smile.

***

Town is Fairbanks, and “Going to Town” is something not to be taken lightly. There were lists and lists of lists. There were inventories and second guesses and checks. Town is a twice-a-year destination. Other than those two “shops,” everything the old man did was subsistence-based.

“We can’t be long,” he said, his eye darting to the top of Fireweed Mountain. “I gotta get back and get a moose in before the snow’s too deep.”

We flew out with Josh. Not so focused this time, I could appreciate his smile, his eyes, and his wit. Weeks earlier, I had returned his compass. He would not hear of taking the bear spray back.

“How’s Dodge ball?” he had asked.

Did everyone in the valley know everyone’s business?

“Healing,” I had replied.

He had nodded and pressed the bear spray back into my hands. “That’s good. You keep that. The bears are aggressive this year.”

During the flight, we had chatted over the headsets. Søren remained silent, his blue eyes trained down on the passing forest, the taiga, the mountains.

Alaska from the air is beautiful.

We crossed the twisted ribbons of rivers, up through Isabelle Pass and into Fairbanks.

“How long are you in for?” Josh asked as the engine ground to a halt after our landing.

“Just a couple of days,” I said.

Jaakoppi made a disapproving sound in the back of his throat.

“Well, enjoy it.”

I felt myself smile.

***

“Four dollars for a cup of coffee?” The disapproval in my father’s voice was palpable.

I averted my gaze and took another sip. “Thank you?” I hazarded as I lowered the paper cup.

The old man let himself smile as he turned back to the racks of harnesses against the wall.

“That’s him,” the young man’s voice in the pet supply store was a mere whisper. “That’s the guy.”

“Nah, it couldn’t be,” whispered back his companion.

The first young man, who couldn’t have been more than twenty-five, gestured to another young man. “Brett, look,” he started in a stage whisper, “that’s him, right?”

Brett looked past the old man and met my gaze.

Jaakoppi, oblivious to the stir he was creating, continued to peruse harnesses. His eye appraised each one, his fingers feeling at the webbing.

Brett smiled and walked boldly toward us. “Hi!”

I glanced at Søren before I returned the smile. “Hi.”

“Can I help you find something?” he offered.

“You work here?”

“He lives here,” the first young man replied readily as he jogged over to us. He shot me what he just have thought was a winning smile.

“My name’s Brett,” he said and put out his hand. “Nice to meet you.”

“Brett,” I said carefully as I took his hand.

“Are you a musher?”

I felt my father stiffen beside me. “No,” I replied.

“Oh.”

I could hear disappointment in his voice.

“Are you?” I asked.

“Yeah,” replied his friend. “Brett’s a natural.”

“Hmph.”

That came from the old man.

“Are your Søren Jaakoppi?” Brett asked.

I felt my heartbeat quicken. I swear my hands started to sweat.

The old man turned an icy blue eye to Brett.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, sir,” he said and put out his hand.

“Time to go, girl.” My father’s voice was a growl. He released the harness.

“I meant no disrespect, sir,” Brett said quickly. He shot me a panicked glance. “I was just so happy to meet such a mushing legend.”

I shook my head unperceptively and hoped my wide eyes were enough to warn Brett back.

“I’m doing the Kuskulana 600 this year, sir,” Brett continued.

Stupid boy, he was completely unfazed!

“Now, girl!”

I shot Brett an apologetic glance and turned to follow the old man.

“That was rude,” I admonished my father.

“He was rude,” Søren corrected me.

I shook his head. “He just wanted to talk mushing. You have Michael out at your place tending your dog yard. What’s the difference?”

Søren shook his head. “Michael is a known.”

“I’ve heard of Brett Andersen. He’s a known, too, you know.”

Søren chuckled. “A known, you know.”

My eyes darkened. “Don’t mock me.”

Jaakoppi’s smile vanished. “Don’t tell me my business, girl.”

“Your business?”

And that was the end of that.

***

Three days in town did not make up for the eternity of winter that I knew stretched before us. Four days back at the cabin, and I was already restless. Søren was oblivious. He and Michael continued to work the dogs. I would sit out on the porch and watch the two of them hitch them up to the ATV. Søren would pop the machine into neutral and call out to the team. Off they would go. I stayed on the porch and Michael would watch until they disappeared down the path; then, he would return to work.

“Why are you here?” I asked one afternoon after Søren and the team were gone. I handed Michael a mug of tea, which he accepted. He smiled and slid his hands around the ceramic mug, warming his hands.

“I’m learning,” he replied, his gaze trained on the path by which the team would return, as he took a sip of tea. “Good tea,” he said as he spared a smile for me.

We sat in silence.

“I didn’t know Jaakoppi had a daughter,” he said finally.

I let slip a rueful chuckle. “Does he?”

Michael’s brow furrowed. “Well, you’re here. I just figured you were family.”

“We were.”

Michael nodded and stared down into his tea. “Must’ve been hard after the Kuskulana.”

“What do you mean?”

“Gee!” Søren’s shout reached us from beyond the trees.

I watched Michael scramble to his feet. He shot me an apologetic smile. “Gotta go.”

***

“You’re baking?” Søren’s voice was tinged with skepticism.

“Pie,” I replied.

“I like pie,” Michael offered as he turned from hanging up his coat.

I hadn’t noticed before how green his eyes were, how nice his smile was. Søren noticed that I noticed.

“We’ll have it with dinner,” Søren said.

“Get cleaned up,” I continued, turning back to the stove, “I’ve got that just about ready, too.”

“Why?” the old man asked after Michael had left to clean up for supper.

“I dunno,” I replied. “I guess I just felt like it.”

“Smells good,” he conceded.

I believe he meant it.

“Thanks.”

And then it happened. Sitting around that table, Michael and I talked. Søren kept mostly to himself, interjecting a remark only here and there.

“That was great!” Michael sighed as he pushed back from the table.

Søren nodded. “Don’t forget, she made pie.”

I rose and turned back to the kitchen counter to retrieve it.

“That looks amazing,” Michael said.

I believe he meant it.

“I had to do something while you two were out running the dogs, so I went after berries.” I sliced the pie and dished it up. “There. Now, tell me what you think.”

Michael’s fork was already in his mouth as Søren’s eyes narrowed at the slice on his plate.

“Don’t eat that!”

Michael fell back as Søren got to his feet and swung at the fork. “What the–” he gasped.

“Søren!” I snapped.

Jaakoppi would hear none of it. “Don’t eat it, girl!” he thundered. His eyes were wild.

“What’s the matter?” I managed.

“That’s baneberry!”

“What?” Michael gasped.

“Quickly, girl! Ipecac!” Søren ordered.

Michael’s eyes shifted out of focus. “Blue…”

Søren wheeled around. “What?”

“Blue…,” Michael managed again. He slipped from the chair.

“Michael!” I kicked back my chair and raced for the First Aid Kit.

“Blue cinders waking,” Michael continued, his voice distant. “Hear? Over that tundra…”

My hands trembled through the kit. I shot a panicked glance back at Søren who had dragged Michael away from the table. He let Michael flop to the floor.

“His breathing’s going! Hurry up!”

“Take it!” I forced the bottle into my father’s hands.

“Hold still, son,” Søren’s voice softened.

“Blithe mists,” Michael muttered.

I spent nearly an hour cleaning up everything Michael vomited. I was happy to do it. It beat the alternative.

“He would have died,” I said quietly as I joined my father by Michael’s bedside.

“Yes.”

The old man never did mince words.

A silence fell between us.

“What happened?” I ventured.

“The baneberry,” Søren began.

“No, Søren,” I interrupted. “Out there. What happened on Kuskulana?”

“I saw an owl,” he replied, his voice quiet.

“An owl?” I echoed.

Søren drew a shuddering breath. “Beyond that, nothing I want to talk about.”

I believe he meant it.

© 2013 Amy K. Marshall

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