Champagne and Balducci’s

Champagne

Illustration by S.C. Watson

by Laurel Anne Hill

 

Real trees didn’t dance in kitchens or anywhere else, so what the hell was going on now? Just five feet away from Warren Lund, a scrawny redwood sapling pirouetted on root tips as though the New York City Ballet had opened a show in Fangorn Forest. The tree wiggled outstretched branches, split its lower trunk to form two timber legs and leaped in his direction.

Warren dodged sideways. The envelopes he held scattered like broken crackers tossed to pigeons. His shoulder hit the refrigerator hard. His dinner sack thumped against the floor. The tree vanished in a puff of cream-colored smoke, as though on stage. A whiff of fresh evergreen lingered.

This prank had to be his roommate’s doing. Arlo, a dancer and magician, was warped. Okay, where had he hidden? The pantry?

But Arlo had boarded a plane three days ago, had even said not to call except in dire emergency. Arlo had too much on his plate to sneak back to Manhattan for a gag. Sweat dripped off the tip of Warren’s long, narrow nose. His damp T-shirt clung to his chest. Another poof and the kitchen filled with lemon-yellow vapor. Who—or what—would he find when the air cleared? Tolkien’s Treebeard or Harry Potter?

The smoke dissipated, revealing a gaunt figure hunched over a three-ring binder, sitting on a wooden stool. The man bore a deadpan expression, like a crafty poker player dealt four aces. A cigarette dangled from the side of his mouth and shed ashes on his black pants and V-necked sweater. Why, this was Warren’s boyhood idol—Bob Fosse.

No way Fosse could have stolen into Warren’s apartment. The renowned director, choreographer and Broadway icon had died over twenty years ago, in 1987. Ghosts—like dancing saplings—existed only in the realm of fantasy. Warren would figure out a reasonable explanation for all this… wouldn’t he?

He rubbed his sore shoulder and glanced at the clock. Two hours before midnight. He had gotten off work at nine, after an ordinary humid July day. Ordinary, that is, until he had returned home, fetched the mail and flipped on his kitchen light. Fosse glanced up, as though in rehearsal for Chicago or Damn Yankees.

“You call yourself a dancer?” Fosse said. “You’ll never land a job on a Broadway stage at the rate you’re going, other than to push a broom. You barely made the chorus of an off- Broadway flop.”

An unruly lock of Warren’s curly black hair hung in front of his eyes. He ought to defend himself but Fosse had pegged the problem. It was time to return to California and become an accountant. Meet the right woman. Get a life. Warren stammered a lame remark, more syllables of sounds than words.

“That’s not good enough.” Fosse peered over the top of his granny glasses and shifted position. “I want more.” A column of beige smoke oozed up from the base of the stool. The icon’s image faded.

A husky, melodious voice called out Warren’s name. What now? A thin young woman with long legs stood in the kitchen doorway, her right leg raised high in a vertical split, toes pointed and ankle at brow level. A maroon leotard and tights, as taut as skin, hugged her petite curves. Where had she come from? Thick cocoa-brown hair draped her shoulders with sensual waves.

“It’s been two weeks since you’ve gone for a jazz class and three since you’ve hit the gym,” she said, still perfectly balanced. “Bet you’d tear a muscle if you tried this.”

How did she know what he did or didn’t do? Warren pressed his back against the refrigerator, studying her wide blue-gray eyes. They looked soft enough to melt. The mixed fragrances of Christmas trees and expensive perfume wafted to his nose.

“Who are you?” he whispered. “What are you?”

“A space alien.” She morphed into a pulsing gelatinous mass—an enormous fluorescent green blob with three maraschino cherry eyes. “Remember when you were seventeen and auditioned for that academy? They told you to pretend to be a bowl of lime Jell-O. If only you’d quivered more.”

A pressure surged within Warren’s head and throttled his temples. The lime Jell-O blurred with the scattered envelopes on the floor. He sank to his knees. Something was seriously wrong. Drugs! Some street wacko could have dusted the mailbox with crack or methamphetamine. Verizon had disconnected Warren’s cell phone yesterday for nonpayment. He crawled toward the living room and Arlo’s land line telephone. What was the number for Poison Control? Or had the government discontinued that service? It didn’t matter. The phone was gone.

The Jello-O giggled with a musical sound and sprouted two maroon-clad legs. “I’m not really from outer space. Now, it’s your turn to do an improvisation.” She balanced on the balls of her feet and rocked from side-to-side, like a metronome on slow speed. “Pretend you’re a ripe avocado or a rotting pear.”

Warren, still on his hands and knees, parted his lips, unable to speak. Nobody knew about his recurring nightmare—being backstage at the Ambassador Theater on Forty- Ninth Street, dressed in an avocado costume with a jammed zipper. Gene Kelly always belted out “Singing in the Rain” from a lamppost in the audience. Fosse always shouted for Warren to get on stage and be a pear.

The mustard-yellow sofa with the flattened cushions drifted in and out of focus. Warren hadn’t eaten much since six in the morning. Food might help. He crawled back into the kitchen and enlisted the support of the stove to stand. The woman in maroon opened the cabinet under the sink and tossed his white plastic sack into the garbage.

“That’s my dinner,” Warren protested.

Was your dinner.”

She opened a drawer, pulled out a large manila envelope and extracted one of the eight-by-ten glossy photos Warren handed out at auditions. She scrunched her face, then turned the picture upside-down.

“Know what this headshot says about you?”

He stared at the lackluster image with the dark complexion, boxy jaw and phony smile. The faint crinkles below its eyes suggested an older age, maybe forty instead of twenty-eight. He massaged his throbbing temples. What was he supposed to reply? That he was black-and-white, tired, and worked for cheap?

“This man,” the woman said, “eats disgusting leftover falafel from a fast-food hole-in-the-wall and lets balsamic vinegar the color of crankcase oil dribble down his arms.” She tapped the tip of her first finger against the photograph.

“I happen to like balsamic on my falafel,” Warren said. “And what do you expect on my income? Champagne and caviar?”

There was nothing wrong with the occupational perk of free food, even if it came from a third-rate restaurant. Okay, he danced rotten. But what right had she to bust into the apartment and pick apart his entire life?

“I can’t afford crab cakes from Balducci’s,” he snapped.

His stomach gurgled as he pictured the wheels and pie-shaped wedges of pungent imported cheeses in Balducci’s. The crusts on the fresh loaves of bread always looked so crisp. A sharp bite might make them shatter.

“It’s time you improved your image and got a real job,” the woman said. Her eyes crinkled to disapproving little slits, like lopsided sections of miniature Venetian blinds. “You can’t mooch off Arlo forever.”

“You think I like living this way?” The warmth of mixed embarrassment and anger spread across Warren’s cheeks.

He glanced at a framed portrait of Arlo in the vestibule, taken by Jason Leigh, one of Manhattan’s finest photographers. Arlo could act, sing or dance his way across any stage as though he owned it. He had just left for a three-month gig in Las Vegas—had even arranged to lease a pricey mid-town apartment upon his return. The photo radiated the image of his growing success.

Warren sat on the vinyl floor and drew his knees toward his chest. What was he doing, carrying on an argument with some phantom dredged from the depths of his own screwed-up mind? He smelled evergreen and recalled an audition for a school play in the third grade. He had wanted the role of John Muir but had been cast as a redwood tree. His hands tensed.

The woman in maroon did a slow horizontal split and landed. She stretched her torso forward until her elbows pivoted against the floor. Her palms rested under her chin.

“Poor dear,” she said, “you were mortified. Muir was manly, the epitome of the rugged mountaineer. And you had to stand at the rear of the stage for twenty whole minutes, decked out in cheap cardboard and waving two funky plastic branches, while some overconfident creep you despised stole the show.”

“I’m dying.” Warren buried his face in his hands. “That’s the only explanation.”

“No, you’re not,” she said. “I abhor trite endings.”

The woman stood and snapped her fingers. She wore a black tuxedo now, complete with gold studs and a rose silk cummerbund. She slung a soiled dishtowel over one arm, with a grand gesture, and opened the refrigerator door.

“My stage name’s Velvet Skye. I’ll be your waiter tonight. Among other things, the specialty of the house includes champagne, caviar and crab cakes from Balducci’s.”

Velvet transferred a plaid liquor sack and a green-and-white shopping bag to the kitchen counter. Warren inventoried the array of delicacies—crispy Roman artichokes and chocolate torte, even buckwheat blinis for the Beluga. The food looked so good.

“The crab cakes are cooked,” she said. “You don’t mind if we nuke them, do you?”

“That… that’s fine.”

He touched the neck of the bottle of chilled Mumm’s with the tip of his first finger. The vessel neither imploded nor vanished in a puff of smoke. He crinkled the edge of a paper wrapper. The wrapper seemed real, too.

“Set the table, or do I have to do everything?” Velvet laughed—a musical laugh, as clear as the tinkle of a glass bell. “Besides, I’m starving. I haven’t eaten in years.”

Warren pinched the skin on his forearm. Nothing worse than momentary discomfort resulted. He grabbed a sponge from under the sink and mopped off the gummy metal top of the nearby card table. He frowned, then rummaged through a drawer. A clean towel would have to do for a tablecloth. He washed two mismatched plates, some stainless steel utensils and a couple of ten-ounce plastic tumblers. Arlo hated to shop for housewares.

Warren folded paper towels for napkins. Blue-and-crimson lights flickered across them, like the images of flames in mirrors. He held linen now, not paper, and faced a mahogany table set with sterling silver, gold-rimmed champagne flutes and china. Velvet tilted each flute and filled the sparkling crystal with Mumm’s.

“What’s wrong?” she said. “Is the pattern on the Wedgwood too busy?”

“Oh, nothing’s wrong.” He swallowed hard, as though trying to clear a lump of meat from a dry throat. Nothing was wrong at all, in a way.

Velvet spread caviar on several buckwheat pancakes the size of silver dollars. She added dollops of sour cream and slid one of the appetizers into his mouth. The mild tang of the blini and cream muted the stronger but pleasing flavors of salt and fish. Warren chewed in slow motion. She had just transformed paper into linen and metal into mahogany. What the hell was he really eating—stale raisin bran and lumpy outdated milk?

“Table setting’s a fake but the food’s real,” she said, as though she had read his mind. She licked her fingers and tapped her crystal flute against his. “Your tax dollars at work. I walked into Balducci’s and the nearest liquor store this afternoon, projected the persona of our dear mayor and charged this whole damn meal to the City.”

Warren chuckled. She was outrageous—totally, wonderfully outrageous. He broke into unrestrained guffaws. Velvet laughed with him, her eyes sparkling like sapphires reflecting shafts of sunlight. Perhaps he was eating raisin bran. He didn’t really care.

After dinner, he and Velvet stood by the open bedroom window, against the backdrop of a wrought iron railing and a graveyard for cigarette butts. They did cold readings of dialogues by Shakespeare and Tennessee Williams. She closed the book and grasped his hand. They sat on his futon and listened to the honks and brake squeals of taxis navigating a Manhattan summer’s night.

“The theater’s a mistress,” she said. “But…”

Warren didn’t hear the rest. She toyed with his curly black hair, twisting the longer strands around her slender fingers. He cupped his hands around her petite breasts, her skin softer than clouds.

They made love on Arlo’s double bed, dancing an ancient dance on white sheets as though every movement had been choreographed anew. Velvet was Eve, Juliet, Helen of Troy—then Delilah afire. She ignited her Samson until his strength was consumed. A warm breeze slipped through the window, too humid to evaporate sweat from sticky flesh. A phantom light from the outside world played on the ceiling. Warren stroked Velvet from her head to her toes, afraid she might vanish.

* * * * *

Warren awakened to the annoying pulse of his digital alarm clock. Daylight streamed through the window. Morning was here. Velvet wasn’t. He called for her several times. Perhaps she was hiding, playing another game. He checked under the bed and dug through the closet. Had she turned herself into a piece of clothing or an umbrella? Warren sniffed Arlo’s leather jacket and inspected a polished loafer.

He stumbled toward the kitchen. Where was she? He noticed the cabinet doors under the sink, ajar, and flung them open. The shopping bag from Balducci’s was tucked inside of the plastic garbage pail, beside the empty champagne bottle. The trash smelled of Christmas trees. The aroma faded. Warren slumped to the floor, cradled the pail in his arms and cried.

The telephone rang. Velvet? Warren scrambled to reach the phone, hoping to hear her laugh. The male voice on the other end was effeminate and unmistakable—his agent, Larry. Warren tried to conceal his disappointment.

“I just lined up an audition,” Larry said. “Next Friday morning at ten sharp.”

Warren opened a drawer and grabbed a pencil and pad. Of course, he wouldn’t get a private audition. He never did.

“Another cattle call?”

“One for blue ribbon stock,” Larry gloated. “We’re talking best of Fosse.”

The new restaging of Fosse’s most spectacular musical numbers? The show scheduled to open soon? The pace of Warren’s heartbeats quickened.

“You mean,” Warren said, “on Broadway?”
“Well, I don’t mean the Brooklyn Bridge. Listen, an unexpected slot turned up. Not principal, but good. I talked you up big, okay? Said Bob Fosse was your idol and you could dance his routines in your sleep. The Broadhurst at ten—no, nine-thirty’s safer. And, for godsakes, don’t let me down and dance sloppy, or my reputation’s dead meat.”

The phone call ended. This was the potential break—the big one—and Warren had skipped jazz class for two weeks and dropped his membership at the gym. His credit cards were maxed. His headshot looked stupid. An eighteen-wheel truck might as well flatten him right now. Warren pounded his fist on the counter and swore. His dream girl had just gone virtual unreality and now this.

Warren needed coffee. He brewed the last of the house blend he had filched from the restaurant. Flashbacks of Velvet blazed through his memory like fireworks in a cloudless night sky. Could even a wacked-out imagination create a fantasy that real? The weak coffee tasted lousy. He downed it anyway and decided to audition.

Warren piled his meager supply of cash on the kitchen table and found his checkbook. It would take money to make money. He hunted through Arlo’s closet and dresser drawers, unearthing a MasterCard, two fifties, seven tens and a dozen twenties. Arlo’s money went on the left side of the table. His own stayed on the right. Warren put on his leotard and sweats, stuffed thirty right-side dollars into his pocket and caught the subway uptown.

The dance studio occupied the third floor. He plunked down the fee on the registration table and signed in. The instructor was new. At least the guy wouldn’t make any cute remarks about why Warren kept missing class. Warren cut to the rear of the room to warm up muscles stiffened from neglect. The ninety-minute ordeal seemed endless.

* * * * *

The next morning, Warren felt like a hood ornament after a head-on collision. He soaked in a hot bath. It didn’t help. His dancing sucked. He’d totally blow the audition. Larry would dump his portfolio into the East River.

He mushed some stale raisin bran with water. Arlo’s portrait seemed to watch his every move. Arlo had said not to call except in an emergency, would go postal if Warren woke him up to beg for money. Warren slurped down breakfast. How could he afford new shots? He covered Arlo’s photo with a dishtowel and checked the listings of photographers in the phone book. His guts ached, as though two hands twisted them. He’d never stolen money before.

It was Sunday. After jazz class, Warren headed for the Jason Leigh Studio near Grand Central Station. The steel gate was open but the place looked dark. He prayed and turned the knob. The door creaked open.

The proprietor’s bell tinkled with an old-fashioned sound, straight out of a Forties flick. Warren stood motionless in the doorway. A balding man wearing narrow-rimmed glasses emerged from the back room. His tight black turtleneck and jeans accentuated his broad shoulders and flat gut. The diamond stud embedded in the lobe of his left ear glittered. The man matched Arlo’s vague description of Jason Leigh. He coughed as though he smoked too much and cleared his throat. An air-conditioning unit, wedged in a small window above the front door, rattled.

“I need a decent headshot,” Warren said. “At least two copies by Thursday night.”

“Are you kidding?” Jason flipped through the appointment book on the counter. “I can’t even guarantee a shoot by then.”

“You did as much for Arlo Brandon last year,” Warren said, unsure if the guy would wink or throw him out.

Jason’s gaze shifted, obviously scrutinizing Warren from head to toe. Warren fidgeted with the lower edge of his sweatshirt. He dug out Arlo’s credit card and two fifty-dollar bills.

“I’ve got an important audition Friday morning,” Warren said. “The shot I’ve got won’t do. And Arlo claims you’re the best photographer around.”

Jason removed his glasses and rubbed his right eye. He squinted at the lenses, then eradicated a smudge with a linen handkerchief. Would he agree?

“You just can’t charge something to somebody else’s account. I don’t know you from beans.”

Warren offered his California driver’s license. Maybe he should have phoned Arlo. Too late, now. The photographer studied the license in the light from a goose-necked lamp. He ran his finger across the hologram of Warren’s picture and the State of California seal. He inspected the two fifties. Probably thought they might be counterfeit. Jason smoothed back the thinning black hair on the sides of his head, then gestured toward the back room.

“Put on the white polo shirt at the front of the rack,” Jason said. “Let me do your makeup, though.” The air conditioner seemed to rattle louder. “If you’ve stolen that card—if you’re lying—you won’t perform for anyone in New York again. Understand?”

Warren understood all too well.

* * * * *

Warren returned to the photographer’s on Thursday at three o’clock. The studio was dark, its steel gate locked. Where was Jason? Warren needed those new shots for the audition tomorrow. He rattled the bars and pounded his fists against the sun-warmed metal. Two middle-aged women in chinos and floppy blouses walked by and stared.

“You don’t have to bust my place in,” a voice said.

Warren faced the photographer. Jason frowned, the skin on his forehead as rutted as a ploughed field. He set a small paper sack on the pavement and dug a single key out of the side pocket of his white Dockers.

“I skipped lunch to finish your pictures,” Jason said. “A man has to eat.”

Warren’s mouth froze in neutral gear. A taxi driver wearing a turban wove his cab through traffic, leaning on the horn. A pigeon flapped by and landed on a discarded donut. Was Warren the only New Yorker who didn’t express himself worth a damn or know where he was headed?

Jason rolled the gate aside. He motioned Warren over to the counter and disappeared into the back room. He emerged carrying several eight-by-ten glossy photos stacked on a sheet of white mounting board.

“This is the real you,” he said. “I mean, if you ever grow up and calm down.”

Warren focused on the image of a soul in black and white. The eyes in the photo looked alert and sensual—almost alive. The lips were slightly parted, curved in a natural smile. The overall combination radiated artistic sensitivity… success.

“How can I ever thank you?” Warren’s tongue felt thick, as though he’d been drinking.

The photographer placed seven photos into a shallow nine-by-twelve-inch cardboard box. He rested his hand atop Warren’s, his palm warm.

“Get a good night’s sleep,” Jason said. His voice sounded genuine and kind. “You’re prettier than Arlo but you’ll need all the help you can get.”

Warren returned to the apartment. He left the box of photos on the living room sofa and hit the sack by nine. His brain chanted the photographer’s advice like a television set blaring an obnoxious commercial. Warren listened to the sounds of traffic for two hours. His leg muscles ached. He stumbled toward the kitchen to down his last three Advil.

One of his new headshots sat on the kitchen counter. The hairs on the backs of his hands stood as though spray-painted in position. The image of his eyes sparkled with an intense crimson light. Warren blinked. The light vanished. The room spun. He awakened in Arlo’s bed at sunrise. What the hell had happened the night before?

* * * * *

Warren arrived at the Broadhurst Theater at nine-thirteen. The shocking-pink lettering on a promotional poster challenged him from behind a brass-framed plate of glass: Sexy! Hot! Go! He stepped onto the green-and-white floor tiles in the foyer, his tongue daubed with a metallic taste. Apprehension always wacked his taste buds before an audition. He glanced up at a crystal chandelier, then entered the main theater and stretched his muscles to prepare for the test.

A thin, sandy-haired man with a clipboard set up a card table near the front row of seats. Warren signed a roster, filled out a card and placed his headshot on the table.

Eight other men arrived and registered, dressed in sweatpants and T-shirts. Several limbered their legs. A chestnut-skinned man with a stubby ponytail stripped down to his black leotard and tights. He practiced the splits in the center aisle, his thighs taut, and his movements smoother than a Teflon-coated zipper.

“You look terriff, Barry,” a dancer with one pierced ear said, obviously trying to ease the surrounding competitive tension.

Warren’s stomach churned, as though he was about to drill his own teeth. The other guys all seemed to know each other. They probably attended classes together or had worked some of the same shows. Only one person in Warren’s jazz class was employed as a dancer—the instructor. Warren exercised his feet and calves with a therapeutic stretch band. These guys looked so damned professional. What chance had he to get the part?

A high-pitched feminine voice drew Warren’s attention. A willowy brunette in stretchy white slacks strode down the center aisle toward the stage, accompanied by a man in his forties, probably a choreographer. They sat in the second row of seats. The brunette crossed her legs. A teal polyester blouse clung to her flat chest. The man with the clipboard handed her the stack of glossy prints, then turned toward the assembled group. He rattled off a string of instructions for the dancers. Each would cross the stage one at a time for a warm-up, doing steps from “Steam Heat,” a Fifties showstopper—sexy, smooth, precise and classic Fosse.

Warren and the others lined up single file by height in the wing at stage right. At five-foot-eleven, he stood third from the rear of the line. He breathed in, mentally counting to four. He counted to four again and exhaled. If only Warren were two inches taller, he’d go last.

The first man in line, the Barry guy, danced across the stage sideways, on his knees, facing his audience of three. Both his hands clutched an imaginary bowler. His arms—and the hat that wasn’t—drew a large, continuous circle in the air as he moved. Warren could almost hear the click of an advancing locomotive’s wheel against steel rail. No way for Warren to beat that.

Barry reached the opposite wing, stood and gave his name. The second dancer crossed the stage. The third. The fourth… Warren’s turn arrived. His heart pounded like a lead drummer high on drugs. Then the image of Bob Fosse, clothed in black, appeared in the opposite wing. The other dancers didn’t seem to notice. Fosse pushed a derby down over his brow and gestured toward center stage.

“Get out there,” Fosse called. He took a long, hard drag on a fresh cigarette while he stubbed the butt of the previous one in a translucent bucket of sand. “Be me and give it all.”

The theater darkened. Beams from twin spotlights pierced the blackness. Their golden pools hit center stage and flared. Velvet posed statue-still in the far beam, her sequined crimson tuxedo glittering like a chain reaction of light.

Warren’s skin tingled at the sight of Velvet. Was she truly there? She faced him, her knees bent and legs apart. Her pelvis rocked with sensuous thrusts. The red bowler in her right hand accentuated the suggestive rhythm. Her eyes glistened, pupils sparkling like two ruby sequins.

“Come on,” Velvet called to him. “Get hot.”

She belted out one of yesterday’s songs, as though she could be heard and seen by all—as though her song resonated fresh and new. Even her verbal mechanical sound effects, her banging-on-the radiator clicks and steam hisses, swelled fresh and new.

Warren moved onto the stage—cool, slow, sharp and very Fosse. Velvet might vanish in a minute, but for now she was vibrant and real. The center spots blazed red. She switched the step. Warren did, too. He entered the crimson beam beside hers.

They danced side-by-side across the other half of the He stage, under the hot lights. The mingled odors of woman, sweat and redwood permeated Warren’s nose, mouth and mind. Just short of the wing, Warren called out his name, facing a standing ovation from the packed house that wasn’t. He was Fosse, Arlo Brandon, John Muir—everything he’d ever dreamed.

The rest of the audition simply happened. Nine male dancers faced their critical audience of three. No one actually told Warren, “Don’t call us. We’ll call you.” No one had to. Warren read the expression in the choreographer’s eyes. Barry would get the part.

* * * * *

Warren walked away from the Broadhurst, the pack containing his dance gear against his back. He let the hot, wet midday air numb his feelings as it sapped his strength. He passed a closed theater. A cardboard-and-newspaper bed blocked the boarded-up stage doors. Was that his fate?

A sidewalk vendor hawked rice and kabobs. The smells of grease and chicken nauseated Warren. Water flowed along hosed-down gutters. He purchased a bottle of Crystal Geyser and sat on the stairs leading to the subway downtown.

He should have hunched his shoulders more during the audition and snapped his fingers less. His movements should have been more angular and clear. Warren gulped down the cool water, as though the liquid might evaporate. He fished a subway token from his pocket, hoping Larry, his agent, wouldn’t call today.

The stifling underground station appeared unusually empty. Warren mopped his forehead and gazed down at the tracks, then into the blackness of the bore. He had stolen Arlo’s money, couldn’t pay it back. The rumble of an approaching train drew him closer to the edge of the platform. He could smell the stink of his own sweat. The rumble intensified. A yellow ball of light hung in the tunnel, like a coastal beacon in the fog. His left foot inched into the void.

“I abhor trite endings,” a voice said.

Startled, Warren teetered backwards to safety. The train emerged from the darkness. His heart pounded. What the hell had he almost done?

“The theater’s a mistress,” the voice said, “but she demands all and belongs to all.”

Warren recognized the voice now. The words and inflection were Velvet’s. The voice was his own. He boarded the train and slumped in an empty seat, struggling to solve the intangible puzzle of Velvet’s identity. A boom box thumped rap ten feet away. A swarm of squealing kids buzzed into the car at the next station and out, two stations later. The train picked up speed again and swayed. Who was she? His inner self or some sort of muse? Nothing made sense.

Warren stepped off the subway and climbed the stairs toward daylight. A humid draught hit his face and a sharp click caught his attention. A translucent image of Fosse, holding a leather case, stood on the sidewalk. The gaunt icon lit a cigarette, coughed, and opened the case.

“You almost killed yourself down there,” Fosse said. “If you really want to dare the Devil, do it right, the way I did.” He offered three plastic vials of pills in his outstretched palm. “Poppers, Dexamil, Seconal, everything you need.”

The world undulated around Warren, cold as a dead halibut packed in ice. A ruby-red neon arrow flickered across the street, pointing toward the parking lot below. He smelled evergreen, then dug his hands into his pants pockets and walked away from Fosse’s image.

* * * * *

The telephone rang an hour later in the apartment. Larry must be calling. Warren should admit failure and accept the consequences.

“I know you didn’t get the part,” Larry said. He sounded as wound-up as a coil of wire humming with electricity. “Hey, sit down if you aren’t already. Madison and Moore—that hot new ad agency—wants you to do a commercial.”

“What gives?” Warren hadn’t auditioned for any commercial in months.

“Christine Phillips—one of their managers called,” Larry said. “Her younger sister was at the audition this morning. Christine wants to meet you Monday at eleven and offer a contract. To do a wacky commercial for the next Super Bowl.”

“The Super Bowl?” Had he misheard?

“A beer commercial,” Larry gloated. “Something woodsy with a tree dancing a pseudo-Fosse routine. Christine’s sister swears you’d be perfect. Claims she saw you on stage and could even smell pines.”

Warren’s elementary school play. The message hit as though a giant sequoia had crashed-landed beside him. The whole blasted country would watch him dance—and he’d be a damned tree? What would they have him do, hand Mean Joe Green a can of carbonated sap? Warren stifled the urge to deliver a sarcastic quip.

“That’s fantastic,” Warren said. “What’s the address?”

Warren hung up the phone five minutes later and burst into unrestrained laughter. Life had typecast him as a tree. He pretended to wave two funky plastic branches at the choreographer, Barry Ryan and the brunette in the teal blouse. He did the splits, his arms raised in mock triumph.

“Warren Lund,” he announced, “a dancer who puts his best root forward. A redwood for all seasons.” He laughed a hard, bitter laugh. “The theater demands all and delivers squat.”

Warren inhaled the odor of an old wooden stage sprinkled with sawdust. Images of him and Velvet dancing “Steam Heat” flipped through his mind. He recalled his own voice reciting her words with her inflection. He turned a mental key. Velvet had known he wouldn’t get the Broadway part. She had inspired him to dance his best for the brunette—the Phillips woman. Had somehow convinced the brunette to hire him. Why hadn’t he seen the whole truth before? Velvet really was a muse yet so much more—a little bit of him, Fosse and Broadway.

Warren rested his palms against the smooth vinyl floor. An ache of loneliness seared his mind and soul. The feeling retreated to the pit of his stomach and gnawed with the blunt teeth of emotional distress. Velvet didn’t belong to him and never could. She belonged to art, was the substance and illusion of theatrical art.

The front door opened with the sound of rushing wind. Velvet appeared in a puff of crimson stage smoke. The shopping bag she clutched bore the green-and-white Balducci’s logo. She uttered a strained giggle, then pinched her lips between her front teeth. Warren turned away. Should he order her to leave or beg her to stay?

“The theater could use a few good trees,” she said.

Velvet opened a bottle of champagne. The cork bounced off the kitchen ceiling. She jabbered about imported cheeses and beer commercials, her words all strung together, as though her voice were a recording played at high speed. She twisted a lock of her cocoa-brown hair around her slender fingers and laughed.

 

The Godmother

by Judith Glazier

 

Monday morning, Sally’s red Toyota accelerated smoothly from the traffic light. “First thing at work,” she muttered, “I need to call—”

Something orange dropped through the sunroof.

Sally jammed on the brakes, bringing her car to a screeching stop. Her eyes darted right to take in a little woman tidily tucking a pumpkin and brown plaid coat around her in the passenger seat.

“Good morning!” cooed the lady, straightening the purple butterfly button holding the garment closed.

“God damn!” croaked Sally, unable to get a full breath. “Who? What?”

“So glad to meet you.” The woman clicked her seat belt firmly. “Better drive, dear. We’re blocking traffic.”

“Where?” Sally struggled for a coherent thought. “Where should I go?” Her right foot lifted gingerly from the brake pedal. “I mean, do you need a ride?” Best to be polite, she decided.

“Oh, goodie. I love to ride!”

“You do?” Sally blinked, wondering if her passenger was tall enough to see out the window. “Who are you?”

“Ooh, ooh, take a guess!” The gray mop bobbed and shimmered in an engaging rhythm.

“How should I—aw, the Tooth Fairy.” Sally played along.

“So close, so close!” The orange and brown coat wriggled in anticipation. “Not the Tooth Fairy, but your fairy—”

Sally rolled her eyes. “—godmother?”

“You guessed!” The woman clapped miniature orange gloves.

Oh boy.

“What are you doing in my car?” Sally tried to steer the conversation back to the soothing waters of sanity. “Why am I so lucky?”

“You’re not the first! The others couldn’t see me!” giggled the little woman, as if sharing a wonderful joke. “That means I’m here for Sally.”

“Well, Sally’s awfully busy,” said Sally carefully.

The small woman smiled and wrinkles exploded around sparkling blue eyes. “Not too busy to make a wish, are you?”

“Right, the fairy godmother thing.” Sally turned left. “Tell me, why are godmothers always sweet gray-haired ladies?”

The woman morphed into a thick, balding man. “So, bambina,” mumbled Marlon Brando through doughy cheeks, “I should make you an offer you can’t refuse?”

“Whoa!” Sally gulped. “Stereotypical godmother is just fine.”

The Godfather offered his beringed hand for a kiss before reverting to little old lady mode. “Make a wish.”

“Really, my life is fine. But I’m sure there are others who would enjoy a wish,” Sally suggested courteously, wondering how long this could go on.

“Come on. One bitty wish.” Orange gloves fluttered with excitement.

Why not humor the woman? Maybe she’d leave afterwards. Sally dipped a cautious toe into magic wand territory. “Okay. Life is so hectic, I could use some quiet time each morning.”

The godmother stamped her wee purple Mary-Janes on the dashboard. The upcoming traffic light turned red. As the seconds ticked by, Sally tapped her finger impatiently on the wheel. After several minutes, her passenger asked, “Enough time, dear? I can hold it longer if you like.”

“For heaven’s sake,” chided Sally. “Turn it green. I’ll be late for my first appointment.”

“No problem!” Two twists of the butterfly button. “There. Appointment’s gone.”

“But I needed that meeting,” Sally wailed. “Forget the wish!”

“Oh dear, you’d better pull over.” They parked in front of Fredo’s Italian bakery. “Ooh, I smell cinnamon cannoli. My favorite.” The godmother sniffed lustily. “To save time, why don’t you try out my Top Three?”

“Top Three what?”

“Most frequent requests. True Love, Riches, and Beauty. Test one a day, decide which you like best. Can’t do world peace or immortality, so don’t ask.”

“Fine,” agreed Sally, desperate to get away without further damage. “Now, where can I drop you?”

With two shoulder shrugs, one ear pull, and what looked for all the world like flipping the bird, the old lady disappeared in a tiny bolt of lightning that scorched the Toyota’s upholstery.

* * * * *

Greg phoned six times that day, each call keeping Sally on the horn for valuable minutes while he described his enduring love for her and what he would do as soon as they were alone.

“Look, I love you too, honey,” she protested, running a distracted hand through her short black hair. “But I’m late for yet another meeting.” She kissed the receiver. “Keep thinking about tonight, though…”

Her husband arrived home bearing armloads of cut flowers. “I couldn’t wait to see your radiant face,” he murmured in Sally’s ear. “My love.” He had most of her clothes off before she could get the blooms in water, stopping only when she suggested wine.

They drank French champagne in bed, delighted in their passion, and exchanged sweet nothings until nearly dawn. Ah, bliss, thought Sally. True Love. Still, wasn’t this what they’d do every night of the week, if not for death by sleep deprivation?

So aside from the shrubbery and bubbly, what good was her fairy godmother’s first wish?

* * * * *

Tuesday’s Riches sounded more promising. Sally hopped from the king-sized bed and bounded into a palatial marble bathroom. The minutes lost figuring out the eight-headed shower left her little time to fling on her navy Chanel suit, Manolo pumps, and sapphire jewelry. She was due at a symphony board meeting in an hour.

Sally munched a piece of toast and shuffled through the messages stacked up by the housekeeper. Clutching a Saftonella mug filled with rich Colombian coffee, she slid into her black Jaguar and raised the garage door.

“How was True Love last night, dear?” Vibrant in a flowery green pantsuit, yellow tie, and red feathered hat, the godmother climbed in the passenger door.

“Uh, hello.” Sally twitched in surprise. She organized her thoughts, shunting aside the most obvious ones. “Last night was wonderful.”

“And you’re enjoying your Riches today?” The red feather fluttered across Sally’s face.

She pushed the feather aside and considered the question. “Being rich has its benefits, to be sure. But I’m busier than ever. Symphony this morning, hospital fundraiser at twelve, and three charities this afternoon.”

“Well, I love the Jag. And the threads and the bling-bling. Stunning.”

“Still, maybe Greg and I can grab dinner together after the art opening tonight…”

But her passenger was gone, leaving a charred spot on the burgundy leather seat.

* * * * *

Wednesday: Beauty. Zingy with energy, Sally luxuriated in her old, familiar shower. Hey, hey, whose boobs were these babies? She dried long, honey-blonde tresses, then discovered her closet overflowed with someone else’s wardrobe: short clingy dresses and feet-eating strappy heels. A hot magenta outfit and flamboyant makeup yielded miraculous results.

Singing with the Toyota’s radio, Sally wondered where her godmother was. Police lights flashed behind her. Uh oh. She beamed a warm smile at the officer. “Was I speeding?”

He reeled, managed to ask for her license, and waved her on.

At the office, clients signed deals before she explained them. Coworkers supplied coffee, and nary a hangnail marred the day. Gee, not bad. At 3:37, Peter asked her out for drinks. Sally couldn’t believe it. She and Peter had a great working relationship. Why ruin it? At 3:56, Mike made the same offer. By 5:02, Jim, Paul, and Randy had all stopped by.

Sally’s spiked heels clicked angrily in the parking lot. She didn’t need this! She was smart and successful just as she was. A wolf whistle startled her and she jerked open the car door.

Greg insisted on dinner at an expensive steak house and requested a table in the center of the room. Though annoyed, Sally didn’t object.

* * * * *

Anticipating a godmotherly visit on Thursday, Sally placed a folded towel on the Toyota’s passenger seat to prevent further upholstery combustion. Today her godmother would want Sally’s Top Three vote. Presumably she had ways of making the winner permanent.

But Thursday passed with no hint of fairy dust. And honestly, Sally didn’t mind. The Top Three were not all they’d been cracked up to be. After dinner, she made tea and mulled over how to explain to her godmother.

“Glorious evening, dear,” sang a melodious voice.

Sally nearly dropped her mug. Perched on the sofa, her godmother looked spectacular in a royal blue velvet gown with puffy satin sleeves. Teeny jeweled slippers dangled halfway to the floor.

“Don’t burn the furniture!” Sally exclaimed.

An itsy frown rumpled the godmother’s forehead.

Uh oh, thought Sally. “Here. Have some tea.” She thrust out the cup.

“Thank you, dear.” Dainty gloved fingers laden with glittering rings accepted the drink. “So, how did you like the Top Three?”

“Nice,” hedged Sally. “But I really don’t need them. You probably have a long list, so just cross me off.”

“I can’t. Everybody gets one wish.” The godmother sounded peeved. “It’s late and I’m tired, so please pick yours.”

“It must be hard to stay cheerful all the time,” Sally said sympathetically.

“Tell me about it! The selfish clods I deal with.”

“Don’t you ever get a day off? You sound as busy as me.”

The gray head shook mournfully.

Sally brightened. “Okay, here’s my wish. One day a month, you and I will have an adventure. We’ll be pirates, climb the Alps, dance with the Bolshoi Ballet. We can take turns choosing. No limits. And no penalty for taking time off. Whadaya say?”

The tiny frown deepened to a furrow. “It’s not nice to tease your fairy godmother.”

“No, really,” Sally protested. “That’s my wish!” She was relieved to see the silver eyebrows rise. “Just one condition, though—”

The godmother reached for her left earring. Not in the least interested in seeing the result of a tug to the lobe, Sally hurried on. “One condition. We wear matching outfits. Yours.”

The godmother’s eyes open wide. “Oh my!” She bounced off the sofa. “Oh yes!” Twirling like a sunbeam, she danced to the front hall. “Oh, my dear, such a wonderful wish. We’ll have marvelous times!”

Sally scurried behind, wrapping the tiny woman in a hug before opening the door. “Marvelous indeed, dear!”

With a smile and a nod, the godmother gave Sally the bird and zipped away. Only the welcome mat was scorched, and it could be replaced.

 

Banshee

by Christie Jeansonne

 

She tucked her dirty blonde hair into a messy ponytail as she flew like a banshee or perhaps a deranged witch child, her gray, patched dress streaming down the hallway, her bare feet slapping the worn concrete flooring that never got even the most threadbare carpet and her fingers brushing upholstery which had long since lost its glory. She could never go anywhere without touching everything, her dark blue eyes opened wide and her hand running along everything in her path as if she were taking in the texture of everything in the world at once. She rapidly devoured the feel of the peeling plaster walls down the hallway and the cold tile on her feet. She paused at the doorway to jam her feet into a pair of worn, ugly boots which looked much too small and possibly left over from childhood or picked up from an old lady at a bazaar. She slammed the door behind her, not looking back…

She walked as a blur of gangly limbs and dirty hair snapping through the air as she ran to her destination unknown. The foreign owners of the jewelry and spice carts, the weather-beaten seafaring men hawking fresh fish, and the fat butcher men watched her race by at all odd hours. They wondered about her, and that odd father of hers, and the strange noises that were sometimes heard issuing from their small, thatched-roof home: just like a banshee, they said. A wild banshee girl with long, dirty blonde hair and eyes that were dark blue haunted the house, except nobody knew her eyes were blue because nobody besides her father had ever been that close to her. The banshee girl screamed sometimes, randomly howling through the small, open-air marketplace, and she always needed to touch everything as she walked by. She usually left a trampled path of things knocked over in her chaotic wake and cart owners scrambled to fix their jarred trinkets.

Mr. and Mrs. Xe watched with curiosity as her fingers, as expected, brushed their ivory elephant that stood guard over their cart of finely carved statuettes and protective amulets and cringed, fearing as usual that she would knock it over. Ordinarily, she had unusual good luck and she certainly hadn’t toppled it yet after the millionth time of it almost tipping off the edge. Ordinarily, she stopped and apologized profusely, then shifted the elephant back to its normal guard position. Today her behavior, normally so predictable, changed. She breezed on by in her dirty old boots, her hair swinging mockingly at the Xe family in its messy ponytail, and continued on her hurried way.

Mr. and Mrs. Xe looked in wonderment at one another and shook their heads. The strange girl was always in a hurry, but it seemed like today she had somewhere especially important to go. “I hope she found a fine, young gentleman,” Mrs. Xe said, “She always seems so lonely and she’s such a homely, poor creature. An orphan, I’d bet. Maybe she’ll get out of this place.” Mr. Xe shook his head and said nothing as he readjusted the ivory statue.

Her destination wasn’t exactly what many would call important, but to her, a fine connoisseur of textures and memories, it was imperative. A new merchant market had opened a few alleyways down: there lay the enticing opportunity for new feelings under her caressing fingers after the same old, tired, worn fabrics and objects under her hand for so long. Even brushing against the spectacular, hard smoothness of the ivory statue had failed to give her a thrill today, and here was a whole brave new world for her to live vicariously through other peoples’ textures and scents.

Though the place was new, it still smelled old and of mustiness from the antique and used wares being peddled. She zeroed in on the very first booth. It was filled with odd glass bottles from some faraway isle, as the man claimed, and other glassware odds and ends he picked up on his travels, he told her proudly. She loved the feel of glass, and the faceted, multicolored prism of glassware glinted at her from all angles. The bright flash of colors invited her hands to touch the cool surfaces. She was especially careful here: she was well aware that her gangly awkwardness could spell disaster here, and she had no gold to pay for the items. The old merchant, his skin as brown and gnarled as an old tree branch, had hung careful hand-lettered signs warning about the high price the unwary would pay for breakage.

The girl’s eyes were wide and faraway with longing as she caressed the silky-smooth texture of a strange, smoky-colored flask wonderingly and noted it’s distinct milky feeling under her stroking fingers. She dreamed of the waves crashing on the distant shore where this lovely bottle had been made. A thin wisp of smoke wafted out of the small opening. A genie?

She gave a sharp, harsh laugh that sounded like a bark, or perhaps a croak; it had earned her the merciless teasing of her peers before her father had taken her with him to the city in the hopes of a better life. It was so funny to her: a genie. How common and quaint! Every day some poor, bedraggled peasant girl goes to a market and finds a pretty bottle that houses a genie. Perfectly natural, she thought. It was a joke to her at first, but became quickly undeniable that something was coming out of the bottle’s thin opening.

If it was a genie, which of course it was, she surmised, because what else would come floating out of a bottle in a smoky cloud after she rubbed it, it didn’t much look like one. No turban, no fancy outfit, no golden cuffs around its wrist. Once, long ago, she had found a cart with old books. The woman selling them, a lovely vision with jangling gold bangles about her wrist, had read some of the fantastic tales to the girl. The girl-child didn’t know how to read, and thus the gold spent on a book would be a waste, but how she longed for that book’s vibrant stories of genies and dragons now. Perhaps it would help her identify this thing; it was a light green hue and almost blurry. She couldn’t quite focus her eyes on it and it slid around her vision. The banshee girl squinted her dark blue eyes but the genie only danced around her line of sight, like a drunken child in a bad masque costume, or a rippling, fetid pond of alkali water.

The genie’s voice sounded like smoke, too: she couldn’t pin it down, or quite feel sure that the voice was coming from the direction of the fumes that formed a body, but she heard it, quiet and whispery, nonetheless. It was very obviously a genie: he asked her in a voice like the southern winds kicking up sand for her wish. She stilled her infinitely moving body, the questing fingers rising briefly to her lips, and she contemplated for only a few seconds.

“I wish that he would die,” she said authoritatively, utterly sure of herself. The genie trembled and his smoky body seemed to waver, then he sighed. “I can’t do that. I’m only allowed to do certain things and murder exceeds the boundaries of certain set laws of nature. There are some limitations, my lady. Wish again.”

She screwed her face up in thought and a split second later wished again, hopefully, “I wish that he would catch a terrible plague so that you aren’t killing him directly, but he would die anyway.” The genie shook his amorphous head, never bothering to ask whom “him” referred to; it was old and wise and knew quite well whom her intended victim was, but he still could not grant the wish. “It’s the same thing, almost. Wish again, my lady.”

She sighed and whispered very, very quietly so that no one around would hear and almost laughed because if anyone had been around they certainly would have noticed a genie hovering in midair. “I wish he would stop coming in my room at night and touching me. I’m not my mother. She died of the fever ten years ago, and when he brought me to the city for a better life, I never thought it would be a life as terrible as this.” The genie, whom had seen a millennia of greedy wishes, swayed slowly, sadly. “I can’t, see. It takes a lot of power to force someone to stop doing something that they want to do and have been doing for a very long time. If I could have my own wish, I would wish that I could make it all better, but it won’t work, and it won’t do any good for you to wish for me to have the power to do it, either. Most people ask for love, and there are plenty of sad young ladies eager to fall in love to be ushered their way. The rest ask for gold, and that’s easy too. Can’t you please wish again, my lady?”

She always looked rushed but collected, and now her face was splotchy and she was holding in tears. What was the point of actually being lucky for once in her life and finding a real genie if he couldn’t do anything to help her?

There was only one wish left in her heart, so she wished it fiercely.

“I wish to sleep an enchanted sleep forever, or until he can’t hurt me anymore. To sleep, and dream forever of all the lovely things in this world I’ve never been to see.”

The genie nodded slowly. He could grant this wish; she was willing.

She closed her eyes, and smiled. Mr. and Mrs. Xe would have gasped at the sight of her: in all their years working down the street from her rickety old house, they had never seen the banshee girl smile.

 

Everybody’d Eat Steak

by Diane Arrelle

Miss Eloise O’Banion leaned against the white wooden railing that encircled her porch. Sighing, she watched as the dying summer blooms seemed to wave their withered heads at the children as they walked and skipped past the old Victorian house.

“I wish,” she mumbled. “I just wish.” She shook her head covered by thin bluish-white curls and sighed deeply once again. “If wishes were fishes…”

Turning away, she grasped her walker with tight fists of anger and hobbled stiffly over to the wicker rocking chair. She backed painfully into the seat and slowly relaxed, watching the boys and girls make their way to the school two blocks away.

Here it is, the Tuesday after Labor Day and everyone is going to school, she thought bitterly. Everyone except me. She felt tears of frustration slide from her eyes and work their way down the network of wrinkles that were her cheeks. Embarrassed by this display of frailness, she let the tears stay, rather than wipe at them while outside in public view.

“I’m only 69,” she said to the dove splashing in the birdbath on the front lawn. “If I weren’t so crippled, I’d be greeting my new class right about now. Instead they retired me with a thank you and a luncheon. Is that fair?”

Too depressed to enjoy the warm September sunshine, she slowly pulled herself up and inched her way into the house. She put on the kettle for tea and then sat and waited for Mrs. Hillery who was due at 9 a.m. Eloise shuddered at the thought of the old biddy coming over to help her. “Imagine coming to this,” she muttered. “ A nurse-maid in the guise of a housekeeper.” She sighed heavily once more. “I wish I didn’t have to put up with any of this nonsense!”

A sparkle outside the window caught her attention and she turned to see what it was. Coming through the fluttering yellow curtains was a platter-sized globe filled with glitter like the children used on Christmas decorations. She watched as the sparkling bubble touched the floor, gaping dumbly as it exploded in a shower of gold confetti.

There, on the checkerboard linoleum, stood a beautiful young woman. Feeling more curiosity than fear, Eloise studied the intruder, taking in the layers of taffeta on the white and pink dress, the gossamer wings sprouting from her back, the long strawberry blonde hair topped by a jeweled tiara. She decided that the bubble and woman were too absurd to be a threat and said, “It’s terribly rude not to knock, my dear.”

The apparition waved a silver wand complete with a large star and said, “I am your fairy godmother, Eloise O’Banion, and I heard your wish.” The lovely fairy stopped and stared at Eloise in shock. “Oh my stars, Miss O’Banion! I thought you were dead!”

“That’s a nice way to greet your old fifth grade teacher, Mary Margaret Holmes!” Eloise snapped. “I always said that you were a flighty girl.”

“M-M-Miss O’Banion,” Mary Margaret stammered. “I’m sorry, I was just so surprised that I just didn’t think.”

“Hurrumph,” Eloise hurrumphed. “You never did use your head enough. Why I remember how you used to get Tony Lewis to do your homework for a kiss on the cheek. I wonder what ever happened to that foolish boy?”

“He’s a database manager,” Mary Margaret said then stared wide-eyed at Eloise. “Why Miss O’Banion, how did you know Tony did my homework?”

“Never mind that,” Eloise said and shifted slightly in the hard chair to look directly at the girl. “Why are you dressed up like Glinda the Good Witch, and as much as I enjoy visits from my students, why are you standing in my kitchen at 8:45 in the morning?”

“Miss O’Banion, I’m a fairy godmother. Your fairy godmother. I’m going to grant you three wishes.”

“Mary Margaret, did you join a cult or did you just get involved with drugs?” Eloise asked in disgust.

“No, no, Miss O’Banion. It’s my job. I was enlisted in the F-G Guild six months ago. You see I was having a hard time finding a job so I went to the ‘Dreams Do Come True’ employment agency. Now here I am, gainfully employed. In fact you’re my first solo assignment,” Mary Margaret said as she studied her reflection in the mirror that was hanging on the wall in the next room.

“You are such a vain girl, look at me when you address me,” Eloise said sternly and hid a smile. Children grow up, but they just don’t change, she thought with an absurd teacherly satisfaction.

“Sorry, Miss O’Banion,” Mary Margaret said and looked her in the wire-rimmed glasses.

“That’s better. Now my dear,” Eloise said. “I don’t know how you pulled off the bubble stunt, after all you never paid any attention to your science lessons, but I think you’d better go home now. By the way, how is your dear mother, are you still at home with her?”

“She’s fine,” Mary Margaret said automatically then frowned and added, “Miss O’Banion, I really am your fairy godmother and I have to grant you three wishes.”

“Mary Margaret, if I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times. If wishes were fishes everybody’d eat steak.”

Mary Margaret smiled, “I remember, Miss O’Banion, I remember.” Gazing at her with a perplexed almost cross-eyed look, Mary Margaret said, “I never understood what you meant.”

“I know,” Eloise said smugly. “You’re a nice girl but a little on the dense side. All looks and a little short on the smarts.”

Mary Margaret looked hurt. “What does it mean?”

“Never mind, I’m more concerned with your delusions. Fantasy is fine in books, but this is the real world.”

“Please Miss O’Banion, this is for real. Make a wish, not a small one, and I’ll grant it,” Mary Margaret pleaded.

Eloise snorted, feeling bitter and angry. The nerve of this cruel girl, coming back into her life to taunt her. Just the thought of being granted a wish filled her with longing and regret. “Young lady, I wish you would leave. Right now!”

In a huge puff of gold fairy dust, Mary Margaret vanished. The sound of her despairing wail echoed in Eloise’s ears.

Eloise sat immobile, staring at the spot where Mary Margaret had vanished. She was so lost in thought that she didn’t hear the teapot screaming for attention until Mrs. Hillery let herself in.

“Miss O’Banion! My goodness, you’ll ruin that kettle,” the housekeeper scolded as she fluttered around the kitchen like a hyperactive butterfly.

For once Eloise didn’t mind the company, it helped to take her mind off her disturbing visitor. Still, thoughts did creep in… What if it had been real? Never! But what if I could return to a fruitful life? Stop torturing yourself…

That evening, after Mrs. Hillery made dinner and left for home, Eloise was standing in the hall looking out the screen door when the bubble reappeared. Mary Margaret poofed into being in front of her. “Please Miss O’Banion, don’t say a word,” Mary Margaret said in a breathless rush. “You’ve already wasted one wish. Don’t waste another.”

Eloise shuffled slowly to the overstuffed sofa set in the corner of her dark living room and plopped down. “I have always secretly worried that a student would come back and haunt me,” she muttered shaking her head from side to side. “All right, Mary Margaret, what will it take to get you to leave me alone?”

A silvery tear trickled down from Mary Margaret’s right eye. “Oh, Miss O’Banion, why are you making this so hard? You always were too demanding and strict,” she said in a quivery voice.

Anger flared through Eloise, all feelings of despair dissipated, “You impudent girl! First you burst into my home, then you have the gall to criticize my professional techniques. How dare you!”

Mary Margaret held up her hands as if to ward off the verbal blows. “Miss O’Banion, you called for me! You made a wish!”

Eloise saw a gleam appear in Mary Margaret’s eyes as her voice softened. “Now, please, Miss O’Banion, don’t carry on so. After all, this is my first assignment, and you wouldn’t want people saying that one of your students failed in life because of you, would you? You don’t want me to be an unemployed failure?”

“Mary Margaret,” Eloise said. “After teaching over a thousand students, I’m sure many turned out far worse.”

She watched Mary Margaret give up rational debate and start to weep. Giving in, Eloise smiled kindly at the pathetically whimpering woman and said, “There, there, Mary Margaret, stop blubbering. I’ll let you grant my wishes, although I don’t believe in any of this foolishness.”

Her face brightening through the tears, Mary Margaret smiled. “Oh, Miss O’Banion, thank you! Now make a really good wish!” she bubbled.

Eloise abandoned good sense and said without hesitation, “I wish to be working again as an able-bodied educator. Now let’s see what you can do girl.”

Waving her wand, Mary Margaret said, “Granted.”

Several minutes passed, both women silently watching each other when the phone rang. Eloise got up and walked over to it. Picking it up on the second ring she froze, turned to Mary Margaret and stammered, “I… I walked!”

Mary Margaret grinned. “Yes, you did. Now answer your call.”

Eloise listened to the male voice over the receiver and finally said, “Yes sir, oh yes, first thing tomorrow morning!”

Hanging up, she skipped over to Mary Margaret and grasped her hands. “My dear, I’m sorry I gave you such a hard time. My Lord, I can skip! Thank you.”

“You have one more wish, you know,” Mary Margaret prompted.

“I don’t need it!” Eloise said with a laugh. “I’ve got everything I want. That was Mr. Jordan, Superintendent of Schools. They need me! I start tomorrow.”

“I told you, I could do it, now that other wish,” Mary Margaret urged. “The rules are clear cut, I have to grant three wishes.”

Eloise stopped hopping with joy and sat back down on the sofa. “I have everything I want. A wish is quite a responsibility, you know.”

Sitting, deep in thought, Eloise’s old, worn face suddenly creased into a grim grin. “It’s time that I practice what I have been preaching all these years.” She looked Mary Margaret directly in the eyes. “This will be a real test for you. I wish for an end to world hunger and war.”

Mary Margaret grew as white as her crinoline gown. “Miss O’Banion! Surely you don’t really want to wish for that.”

Eloise eyed the pale young woman coldly, “Too much for you? You were always an underachiever.”

“Wishes are supposed to be selfish. That’s human nature,” Mary Margaret reasoned. “Don’t you want to be young? Don’t you want a husband, children? How about wealth, security for your old age?”

Laughing, Eloise said, “Youth? God forbid! I’ve lived my life and I’m satisfied. I couldn’t stand another fifty years. As for a husband, it would have been nice… but… And I’ve had over a thousand children to mold and to love. No thank you, my dear. You’ve already granted me wealth.”

Silence filled the room. After a moment Eloise said, “I wish for an end to world hunger and war.”

“But Miss O’Banion, that’s impossible!”

Being firm, Eloise used her most teacherly voice. “Not a very effective fairy godmother are you? Maybe I’ll just wish for your superiors.”

“Come on, Miss O’Banion,” Mary Margaret pleaded. “Look, it’s not that I can’t grant your wish, it’s just that it would be wrong. You can’t go around changing the whole world.”

“Why not?” Eloise demanded, taking immense pleasure in tapping her foot.

“Because fighting is a human trait, it’s human nature to fight, and hunger is part of living on this earth. You can’t change human nature and not alter all of humanity.”

Smiling at her ex-student, Eloise exclaimed, “Now that’s an astute argument, Mary Margaret! You please me when you use your deductive reasoning. In fact you’re the perfect example of your argument, but I can’t accept that the world was meant to be such an unhappy place.”

Mary Margaret tried one more time. “Miss O’Banion, you’re going to put us out of work. People need to have things to wish for!”

“So, you’re just being selfish. Well, my wish stands. Grant my wish!” Eloise demanded, her cheeks flushed with anger.

Mary Margaret bowed her head sadly. “I’ll talk to my supervisor,” she mumbled and vanished. Eloise noticed the gold fairy dust looked duller as it settled on her dark carpet.

Three days later Eloise sat at her kitchen table shaking her head in annoyance while marking papers. A noise distracted her and she looked up. Standing before her was a very morose Mary Margaret.

“Watched the news earlier this evening, there’s still a famine in Africa,” Eloise said matter of factly. “And those Middle Eastern countries are still trying to blow themselves up.”

“Miss O’Banion, I’ve learned something very disturbing.” She hesitated then blurted, “Your time’s almost up!”

Eloise stared at her fairy godmother in shock. Trying to control the wild pounding of her elderly heart she asked, “You mean I’m going to die?”

Mary Margaret started crying. Sobbing, she blubbered, “Soon.”

“So, why are you telling me this?” Eloise asked, already accepting the inevitability of living and dying.

“I thought that you could use your last wish to extend your life. After all, your first wish has caused this. The strain on your heart from all this mobility.”

Mary Margaret looked embarrassed as she added, “You see, most wishes have a catch, that’s why we give you three so you can counteract the negative aspects.”

Eloise laughed bitterly, “So that’s it, still trying to save your job!”

“No, no!” Mary Margaret gasped. “I’m trying to save you! You’ve only got a few days.”

“Well,” Eloise said philosophically. “I’ve had a good long life, longer than all those young boys I taught who went off to war and died. My last days were made happy with your help, so…”

“Miss O’Banion, help yourself!” Mary Margaret wailed.

“No, all I can wish for now is to have an end to hunger and war. I’d like to die knowing that I helped mankind.”

Mary Margaret asked, “Is that it then?”

“Yes.”

“Believe me, Miss O’Banion, you’re making a terrible mistake. Please don’t make me do this!”

“Mary Margaret, if wishes were fishes, everybody’d eat steak. Well I want to know that nobody will have to go hungry. I don’t care if they eat fish, steak, or broccoli!” Eloise said. Turning back to her papers, she added, “Nice of you to visit.”

Weeping uncontrollably, Mary Margaret disappeared with a spray of tear-soaked gray ash instead of gold dust.

A few days later Eloise was marking math papers in front of the television when the broadcast came. A giant asteroid had apparently appeared out of nowhere and was hurtling to the earth at an astonishing speed.

Eloise clutched her hands in prayer and wept. “You really can’t change human nature,” she cried out, realizing her unyielding sense of righteousness had doomed humanity.

Carrying that burden, all she could do was look up at the darkening sky. Guilt heavy on her conscience and tears wet on her cheeks, Eloise joined the rest of mankind in wishing for a miracle.

 

Solitary Confinement

by Matthew King

 

Pickle Gap Road is a cold, lonely path wandering along the western face of Rogers Bald in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Solitude is a valuable and dwindling asset in the hills, and it was the last thing Rogers Bald had left to give. Only a handful of hikers ever made it to the trailhead. Those that did rarely fought through the tangled webs of blueberry bushes that had overgrown much of the path. A few made it past, and so the stories of its treacherous outcroppings and challenging slope made their way through the hiking circles. Ned Parker first read about it on the Pisgah Hikers’ Message Board and immediately made plans for a trip. He dialed his manager’s number while grabbing his pre-packed bag and tent from the closet.

“Todd Martin speaking.”

“Todd. It’s Ned.”

“Ned? Funny, Frank and I were just wondering when we’d talk to you again. We thought we might’ve been sending paychecks to an empty house.”

“Yeah.” Ned rolled his eyes. “Look, I’m heading out for the weekend.”

“Ned, it’s Thursday.”

“I know what day it is.”

“Then you also know we work until Friday at five-thirty.”

“You do. I work when I want to.”

There was a scratching noise on the other end like a hand muffling the receiver. A few seconds later, Ned heard his boss sigh heavily. “Do you have to, Ned? You know we need that new version out by next week.”

“Yeah, I do have to. And stop worrying about the next version. It’ll get out on time and be just as crappy as usual, my stuff withstanding. I’ll give it to you by Monday.”

“Monday? Jesus, Ned. Do you realize the bind you’re putting us in?”

Ned yawned dramatically.

“Why you little—”

“Careful, Todd,” Ned replied. “I’d hate to have Frank hear whatever you were about to say to me.”

“You may scare Frank, but you don’t scare me.”

“Really? Then you won’t mind if I give Microsoft a call to let them know my services have just become available. Maybe while we’re chatting we can also talk about some licensing issues I might have information on. I hear they’re especially hard on other software companies when it comes to stuff like that.”

There was another long pause before Todd spoke again. “Fine. Have it in my e-mail by—”

Ned hung up the phone and grinned. He leafed through a stack of CDs on his keyboard and picked out the one marked “Ver. 5.1.” Below it was a time stamp. Twenty-eight minutes total work, Ned gloated to himself. Another personal record. He dropped the CD in his computer’s drive and pre-posted an e-mail for Monday, five thirty-five p.m. With any luck, he’d still be out in the middle of nowhere by then, enjoying the lack of company and toasting to Todd’s ulcer.

*** *** ***

Once he’d exited the highway and made his way onto the fire roads, Ned understood why everyone on the board had hiked their way in instead of taking a car. The potholes were more like miniature canyons. When he wasn’t dodging them, he was veering from one side of the road to the other to avoid fallen trees. There were some decent-sized logs around most of them, but Ned decided against stopping to pick some up. Fires, even small ones, tended to attract people, and suffering through idle chit-chat with some hillbilly was the last thing he wanted to do.

Ned finally made it to the trailhead, and walked for the better part of an hour without hearing so much as a squirrel running through the leaves. It was better than heaven. Just knowing that he had the place to himself brought a wry grin to his face. Ned rounded the corner of the first switchback and stopped mid-stride. His smile faded. He looked up to see a dark silhouette staring down at him from a rock outcropping. It was a man, judging by his build, but his face was obscured by the shadows of the stone rocks jutting out from the mountainside. He sat motionless with one arm hanging over his bent knee and the other holding a longneck pipe.

“Nice day for a walk.” The man spoke in an even, elegant tone.

It was. Suddenly the afternoon didn’t seem so promising thanks to this. What was he anyway? A British tourist? Sounded like it. He considered walking straight by but the man spoke again before he could move.

“Camping on the summit tonight?”

“Yep.”

“Going at it alone, I like that. There’s something to be said for solitude, is there not?”

“If you say so.”

The man took a short drag from his pipe and blew away the smoke in a twisting column. He studied Ned briefly. “Do you pray?”

“Do I what?”

“Do you pray?” the man repeated.

Ned looked around in bewilderment. “No,” he said, finally dismissing the question with a snort. “Why would I?”

Ned couldn’t tell for sure, but he thought he saw a smile appear on the man’s face. Another plume of smoke billowed around his silhouette and then the man leaned over to pick something out from the shadows of the rock.

“Hey! Watch it!” Ned jumped back as a wrapped package landed on the trail at his feet.

The man rose and turned his back to Ned to walk up the slope. He moved with an uncommon gracefulness across the rock face and disappeared into the thick growth of rhododendron.

What in the hell was that? Ned stood in the center of the trail, too confused to move. He looked down at his feet, half expecting the package to not be there, but there it was. Ned looked around again to make sure he was alone before bending down to pick it up. The sides of it barely stretched over his palm. He held it for a moment trying to decide if he should keep it or chuck it into the woods. It couldn’t hurt to hold onto it, he finally decided, and what would be so bad about opening it once he got to the top? It could be the carrot that put him back on schedule for the summit.

Once he’d reached the top and staked his tent, Ned sat on a stump and sipped his tea as he stared at the bulging right pocket of his backpack. The square outline of the box was silhouetted against the last of the remaining sunlight, almost screaming at him to take it out. He took another sip and repeated to himself all the reasons he’d come up with to throw the box away, but he knew what would happen in the end. His curiosity would get the better of him. After one final chug of oolong, he threw the remainder in the grass and stood up to grab his pack.

The box had a certain unbalanced weight to it that he hadn’t noticed earlier when he’d picked it up. There was no bow, no markings to indicate it was any sort of strange present, it simply had a plain gray paper covering with seams sealed by a drop of wax. He shook it once more and the contents clinked against the side of the box. “Alright,” he said. “Let’s see what you’ve got.”

Ned broke the seal and the paper unfurled and fell to the ground. He eyed the simple wooden box left in his palm. It was smooth and undecorated on all sides except for a small button just beneath its top. Ned pushed it in, expecting a spring-loaded plastic snake to pop out, but the lid merely cracked open a hair. He lifted it open and turned his back to the sunset to shed light on the inside. It sparkled in the dying light, quickening his heart for a moment as he tried to figure out what it was he was looking at. Maybe that guy was a crazy philanthropist after all, one of those who take trail magic to the extreme. If it was jewelry it was worth a fortune! He flipped the box over and caught the object in his hand, immediately running his fingers over the shape. He stopped soon after and drifted into a stare.

“A doorknob,” he said absently.

It couldn’t be. He held it up to the light again and looked at the crystal dome, which had been geometrically cut to look like a diamond, but had a tapering bottom that connected to a short metal rod. There was no doubt about it. The dumb prick had managed to get his hopes up over a cheap glass doorknob of all things.

“Goddamn people!” he yelled. He reared back and threw the piece of garbage as hard as he could into the mud.

Ned felt like he was drowning in a sea of mindless halfwits. Humanity was a fucking menace. His facial muscles tightened to the point where his ears started to ring. Ned kicked the head off of a dandelion and out of the corner of his eye spotted the doorknob sticking up out of the dirt. Which way had the bastard gone? East? Close enough. He reached down to grab the knob and throw it as far as he could toward the eastern ridge, but the doorknob didn’t move.

What the… Ned yanked at it again and again, but the glass wouldn’t budge. He kicked it with his heel. Still nothing. He stared at it with a scowl until an odd thought crossed his mind. This is nuts, he told himself, but he couldn’t move his fingers away. Instead, they tightened, and he felt the sharp lines of the glass dig into his palm. Ned turned the knob.

Click!

The sharpness of the sound scared him and he jumped backwards, crawling away like a crab that’d fallen on its back. His chest was pounding so hard he heard it in his ears. Ned shook it off and got to his feet. To his right was the tent and he picked up the Mag light he’d stationed just outside the door. He scanned his surroundings again, half-expecting the man in the suit to be watching him from the treeline. He saw nothing but shadows. Get a hold of yourself, for chrissake, Ned thought. He’s gone.

After a few deep breaths, Ned forced his hand to grasp the knob again. He turned the glass clockwise and kept his hand there even after the Click! The pounding in his chest returned; Ned ignored it. He tugged the knob lightly at first, then with a little more force. Nothing. The dirt never moved. Ned cursed in disgust and hung his head. He was a fool. Even so, he did hear a click, didn’t he? He couldn’t have imagined that. Ned’s eyes flashed over where he knelt and the answer hit him. He moved his legs away from the doorknob. If it was a door, he was sitting right on top of it. Ned tried the handle again and this time felt the earth beneath it move. A small crack appeared in the dirt and spread outward to form a rectangular outline. Ned pulled harder and the door gave way finally pulling it back far enough until it fell against the ground with a deep thud! A matching glass doorknob stuck out on the other side, amidst a sea of grass roots. Ned got to his feet and looked into the hole.

The chasm appeared to be empty, but on second look he could make out faint pinpoints of light. There were a few scattered around the black void, each one flickering as though they were—

“Stars,” he muttered aloud. Yes! He was looking at stars, no doubt about it. There was a breeze also, a cold one that drifted up out of the doorway and tickled the hairs on his legs. It was sweet-smelling, like he imagined untouched air would be. Ned’s mind overflowed with curiosity. He picked up a small rock off the ground and held his arm out over the middle to drop it in. It disappeared into the darkness for a moment and then resurfaced, bouncing in the air before falling through the doorway again. Ned watched it fall back and forth until he stuck out his hand to catch it and break the cycle. Gravity, that was good, he supposed. It meant there was probably a surface of some kind to walk on. He tossed the rock back in, this time at an angle. There was a faint rustle on the other side that sounded something like grass.

Pros and cons, Parker. The mental order triggered the creation of two lists in his mind. What were the negatives of going through the door? Maybe he couldn’t breathe the air, but he didn’t think so. It smelled so good and clean. What if something over there killed him or tried to eat him? What about disease? How would he get back? Ned answered all of these questions almost as quickly as they had formed. He would simply leave the door open. If things went bad, he’d hop back into this world, at an angle, of course. And the positives? Only one came to mind, and it was the only one he needed. I could leave this crappy world forever.

Ned looked back into the hole and noticed that the sky on the opposite side had lightened somewhat. The stars were beginning to fade. His day pack sat beside him and he threw the straps over his shoulders and fastened the clips across his chest and waist. He wiped his palms to get rid of the sweat and re-gripped the Mag light. The lava flow of air coming from the doorway drew him back to the opening. He looked in again and picked his spot. Far side, dive straight through, prepare to roll. Ned backed up a few steps and took a deep breath. So long, suckers! He ran forward, smiling impishly, and jumped through to the other side.

*** *** ***

The hard ground rattled his rib cage as he fell face-first into a clump of thick, waxy vegetation. It was like swimming in a bowl of fake fruit. He couldn’t see much because of the darkness, but this world didn’t seem all too different from his own. He was high up, he could tell that from the cold air, and there were trees scattered about him, although their size dwarfed anything he’d ever seen, including the Sequoias out in California. They were probably twice that size, maybe three times even.

Ned felt a sudden urge to check the doorway behind him. He pushed himself up and checked the ground behind him. The doorway was gone! Ned fell to his knees and frantically searched through the grass with his hands, looking for the doorknob. His programming instincts told him to always have a rollback mechanism built in. Now his had failed. The growing halo of light in the skies ahead cast a crimson haze over the grass. He caught something shimmer briefly out of the corner of his eye and looked down to see a doorknob nestled in the brush. He reached down to grab it and cringed as the handle came free without resistance, confirming the growing realization in his mind that the world he knew was gone forever.

Maybe not, his mind shot back. Maybe I can use this to get back anytime I want. That’s what doors are for, right? They don’t close off things permanently. Besides, who’d want to go back to that hell hole anyway? His breathing eased back into a regular rhythm. It was an uneasy calm, but he’d take it. “Explore,” he said aloud. “Take a look around, Parker. Let’s see what we’ve got.” Ned rolled the doorknob around in his hand once more before placing it in the mesh side pocket of his backpack.

The red haze of dawn put off just enough light for him to begin walking around without using his flashlight. Nearly half of the horizon to his left was backlit from the rising sun. He could see the silhouette of a mountain range that carpeted the landscape from one end of the light to the other. In fact, everywhere he looked he saw peaks and valleys. The meadow he was standing in was repeated on a number of hilltops but the majority of them were covered with the wide trunks of what he was beginning to call the Steroid Sequoias. Ned put an ear to the wind, but couldn’t hear any birds singing from their limbs, or streams rushing through their forests. The air had become completely still, as though it was scared to move.

The grass beneath his feet squeaked against the rubber soles of his shoes as he walked. He bent down to look at the blades again and flipped the switch of his flashlight to see them in his growing shadow. In the halogen light, the grass looked like it was covered in a blanket of snow. Ned snapped off a piece to look at it up close. The outer covering was damp to the touch, almost as if it was sweating. He decided that the moisture had probably come from an overnight shower. The green blade of grass could barely be seen through the layer of wax armor. It was pliable enough to bend, but only a microscopic chip fell off when he scraped across it with his fingernail.

Ned felt a stinging sensation on the back of his neck and swatted at it. His skin was warm to the touch. The stillness of the air was broken by a growing high-pitched whine in the distance. It sounded like the first few jets of steam leaving a boiling kettle. Ned froze in place, afraid to move. Now the hand on the back of his neck was hit with the same sort of pain. He took it away and brought it under the flashlight. The top half of his hand was a deep, cherry red. Suddenly the hairs on the back of his head began to bristle. The hissing sound grew deafening.

Ned swung around and immediately threw his hands up over his face, dropping the Mag light. The horizon was filled with a giant red sun that raced skyward above the distant peaks. As the light hit him, it began to sear the palms of his hands. His clothes were starting to stick to his skin and he wondered…are they melting? Ned reached back to grab hold of the doorknob. The metal shaft burned itself into his palm but he didn’t care. Every exposed area of his body was pulsing with pain. A scent like burnt plastic filled his nostrils and his mind somehow accepted the fact that his clothes were likely on fire.

Still holding onto the doorknob, Ned jerked his backpack up until it covered his head and he turned his back to the red giant. He stumbled forward and collapsed on the waxy earth, whose grass now felt more like wet pasta. Ned looked over to make sure he was still gripping the doorknob. He could no longer feel it in his hand. He jammed it down and buried it an inch into the soil. The knob slipped through his sweaty fingers on his first attempt to turn it. He peeled a bit of his shirt away to help and was not entirely surprised to see bits of his own skin dangling from the fabric. He turned the knob and opened the doorway just as he heard his backpack pop like a balloon. Sweat filled his eyes, blurring the world on the other side. His skin cracked as he moved. Ned willed his legs into motion and lunged for the doorknob on the back of the door. He grabbed it and yanked backwards, falling into the hole and closing the door with him.

*** *** ***

For a moment, Ned felt like he was floating in air, but the feeling lasted only a fleeting second as his body crashed down onto an unforgiving and rough surface. His ear smacked against the ground, building a new network of cobwebs on top of what already filled his head. He kept his eyes closed and enjoyed the cool air on his skin. It was almost like he could feel each particle of wind as it crossed his body, and that’s when the pain hit. It was immediate and complete, touching every extremity and making him feel like he’d been…

Cooked.

Ned wondered exactly how close he’d just come to buying the farm. Or was he already dead? His eyes shot open. At first, his vision was filled with orange and red orbs pulsing all around him. Then his eyes started to adjust and he focused on a brick wall just a few inches from his face. Brick? Was it really?

Ned pushed himself up and wiped off a thick coat of slime from his hands. Everything around him was covered with a glossy layer of black filth. He patted the floor near his legs and found the doorknob resting against the bricks. The netting of his backpack disintegrated, Ned decided to keep it in the main chamber. He unshouldered the pack and felt around for the zipper, but he wouldn’t need it. A hole the size of his forearm was burned into the nylon. Everything inside was in shambles. The plastic bags filled with food had melted, as had his backup flashlight. Each of his three water bottles had ruptured and spilled. It made the dryness in his throat almost unbearable. Water first, his survival instincts told him. Water, then shelter, then food.

Ned looked up and saw a band of blue sky above him. He followed it, using it as an upside-down path out of the alleyway. He realized as he walked that his right leg was dragging lazily behind his left. He ignored it and instead concentrated on the growing hum coming from up ahead. The band of sky turned right and Ned followed it down until he saw a break in the darkness. He limped faster, falling twice against the side of the alley and grating his burned skin across the jagged bricks. As he approached the exit, he heard the cracking sound of an overhead speaker being turned on, then a booming voice shouted into the air, “LABOR DAY COMMENCES IN FIVE MINUTES! ALL WORKING MEN AND WOMEN REPORT TO YOUR POSTS! GOOD DAY!”

Ned’s eyes focused on the exit more clearly and he saw for the first time the sea of people mulling about the streets. In just a few seconds, he guessed that more than a hundred people walked by the alley, all of them wearing strange-colored suits that covered every inch of their body except the face. The sight of them made his stomach turn; he looked down at the doorknob for a moment and then tucked it away in his shorts. The other worlds could wait. He might as well try to find some water first, maybe some new clothes as well.

A series of shouts broke out in the street. Ned hurried ahead, catching himself before he became lost in the rush of people. The buildings along the street were gigantic, filling nearly every inch of space there was below the clouds. A stream of white smoke poured out of the sides of every building and filtered down to the streets. Gray, lifeless architecture loomed over a sea of off-white concrete. There wasn’t a shade of color in sight. And worse, Ned thought, absolutely no sign of natural life, not even a plant hanging in a window.

The shouts roared out again and Ned looked over to see a mob of people banging on the door of a tower across the street. Grown men were crying and jumping on top of one another to get inside. One of the larger ones tossed a skinny dark-haired man out into the street. The reject tried to muscle his way back into the crowd but was thrown out again by a woman wielding a metal briefcase. He stood in the middle of the street, crying, until he saw Ned watching from the alleyway entrance. He ran over and grabbed hold of Ned’s arm.

“Get off of me!”

“Are you a boss?” he asked. His teeth chattered as he spoke. “You gotta job for me, Mister?”

“Leave me alone.”

“Please, I’ll do anything. Anything! I have two wives and four young children. See?” The man pulled a rectangular picture from his pocket that had been printed on metal. Six sullen faces stared back at him. “I need a job, Mister. Can’t you help me?”

Ned jerked his arm away. “I don’t have a job for you.”

“Aren’t you a boss? I won’t tell anybody. We can do the paperwork right here, I—”

“I’m not a fucking boss!”

The man’s strained smile faded quickly as his eyes drifted into a stare. He paused for a moment as though he were solving a mental puzzle and then his smile returned, this time a bit more knowing. “Do you have any tanks?”

Ned shook his head. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“O, man! O! I need some, Paralos damn you! Can’t you see I’m losin’ it? Can’t you?! I’m down to a C-level! A migrant worker! Almost a shit-brained FEEB!”

Ned pushed the man away and he fell backwards onto the cement. Ned watched him writhe on his back and cry until he couldn’t stand it anymore. He stepped backwards onto the sidewalk only to become lost in a fast-moving current of people. It was impossible to escape as people pushed and shoved their way toward the nearest building doorway. They all had a panicked look in their eyes as though they were about to drown.

“ATTENTION!” the booming voice yelled out again from the tops of the buildings. “WORKING MEN AND WOMEN SHOULD BE AT THEIR POSTS IN FIFTEEN SECONDS FOR SCANNING. REPEAT, FIFTEEN SECONDS UNTIL FINAL SCAN!”

The speaker cracked as the voice faded away. Hordes of men and women began screaming and pounding on windows. Ned found himself alone in the middle of the street. His throat ached for water, but he couldn’t stand being in this world a second longer. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the doorknob. “Make it a good one,” he said, and bent down to poke the handle into the ground. The metal clanked against the concrete. Ned tried again and the doorknob bounced back. It couldn’t get through. Panicked, Ned limped over to a building wall, pushing people aside to get to the surface. He jammed the doorknob into a piece of glass and cried out as it ricocheted back.

“THE WORKDAY HAS BEGUN! CONGRATULATIONS TO THOSE MEN AND WOMEN WHO KEEP OUR SECTOR STRONG! GOOD DAY!”

Everyone paused for a moment to look up at the buildings. The steam that Ned had noticed when he first stepped out into the street began to dissipate into little more than a tendril. The sight of it incited a rush of people toward the dwindling cloud. Ned fell back against the wall and tried to make sense of what had transpired. He took a deep breath and found that he couldn’t fill his lungs all the way. He took another and coughed. Every intake felt more shallow than the other.

“Come on, boss! Give me some O!”

Ned felt a hand grab his shoulder and turn him around. The dark-haired man pawed at his clothes.

“Where is it?! GIVE IT TO ME!”

Ned tried to get away but fell back as the man tackled him to the concrete. He swiped lazily at the man’s head and missed. If only he could catch his breath.

“O. O, O, O!” the man wailed as he turned Ned over to search his back. Thrusting his arm backwards, Ned caught him against the side of the head with the doorknob. The man fell off and began babbling incoherently as he lay on the ground. Ned pushed himself up. He grabbed the man’s shirt to hit him again and his fingers dug into his flabby chest. Ned reared back to strike and then stopped. He fought off a wave of lightheadedness and stared at the prone man, rolling the layer of muscle and fat between his fingers. He brought the doorknob down and looked at the metal shaft. His eyes switched between the two until he saw the man’s unconsciousness starting to fade. Now! his mind screamed at him. Do it!

“Do you pray?” Ned asked him. His voice sounded far away.

The man looked confused. “What?”

“I don’t know. Somebody asked me that once.”

Ned let out a rushed laugh and brought the doorknob back behind his head. He jammed it down into the side of the man’s stomach until the shaft buried itself in the skin. A gurgling scream erupted from the man and Ned used his good foot to pin him down. He turned the knob and laughed through a hoarse cough as it greeted him with a click! He pulled back, opening a hole from the midriff to the shoulders. The man’s screams ceased. Shaking off his dizziness, Ned took hold of the opposite knob protruding from a patch of small intestine and jumped through to the other side.

*** *** ***

After his escape from the city, Ned auditioned and rejected a host of worlds until he stopped keeping track of the count. There was the planet made up entirely of water, where he had almost given up hope of reaching the bottom to open another doorway. He was saved by a riptide that forced him down through the pressure of the sea, nearly rendering him unconscious as he approached the sea floor. He turned the knob just as his eyesight began to fade. Other worlds followed, each one more terrible than the other, and each one, in his opinion, had a common cause for their state: humans. Ned had never hated them more. They were weak, slow-minded, and didn’t deserve the lives they were given. It got to the point near the end where he would leave a world at the first sign of human life. He held in his hand the key to unlocking doorways to an infinite number of universes. Why couldn’t he find one that wasn’t tainted by mankind?

After escaping a world overrun with murderous children, Ned traveled through the doorway and fell into a patch of something that felt like grass. I wonder if it has a wax covering? he thought. His eyes opened and a gust of wind made him narrow them into a squint. He was definitely on grass; it was mostly brown mixed with a few patches of new, green shafts poking through in spots. Ned rose to sit up and winced. His back and legs sent angry shots of pain up his spine. He ran his fingers across his neck and felt his hard, wrinkled skin. His left foot cocked itself awkwardly behind him, as useless as it was painful. His ears still rung from being forced under the ocean’s pressure. If the man in the woods had meant to kill him, it was taking a helluva long time. But that’s not the case, Ned told himself. He was given a gift to escape, he just hadn’t found the right destination yet.

Sunlight reflected off the doorknob sitting next to his hand. Ned stood and closed his eyes as he took a deep breath. The air was cool but invigorating. He peeked out of one eye and then quickly opened the other one. He was standing on top of a grassy bald in the middle of a mountain range. A hawk swung down into view and Ned followed it as it twisted through the air, guiding him through a panoramic tour of his surroundings. “I know this,” Ned said aloud. Everything around him triggered a memory. The knife-edge peak off to his right was Mt. Pisgah, he was sure of it. And if that were true, there should have been a road winding up to the top with a large parking lot nestled just below the top, but there was nothing. Just beyond Pisgah he saw Black Balsam, its unmistakable green dome towering over Graveyard Fields. But where was the Blue Ridge Parkway? Where was the pulloff and the signs telling people where to point their cameras?

A deer walked out from the treeline below him. The doe watched Ned as it chewed on a mouthful of grass, perfectly content to share the mountain top with a stranger.

I’m alone! he shouted in his mind. Ned screamed out in joy and listened to his voice ricochet off the sides of mountains. It was the first pure moment of happiness he’d had in a long time.

With a broad smile draped across his face, Ned scanned the scenery until he recognized a mountain leading out toward the east. He’d thought about hurling a doorknob that way once hoping that it would brain the crazy bastard who’d stopped him on the trail. Ned looked down and rolled the doorknob around in his hand. The smile changed to a sideways grin as he tightened his fingers around the glass. “You thought you could outlast me, didn’t you?” he said, raising his voice against the wind. “Thought I’d give up that easily. Nobody gets the best of Ned Parker, kiddo! Nobody!” Ned reared back and hurled the doorknob through the air, watching it sail against the blue sky and then disappear into the forest below. He laughed out loud when he heard the glass shatter against a tree.

Ned turned around and limped back to the top of the bald. He would need to set up a camp soon. Water, shelter, fire, food, the four basic survival needs in the wilderness. He couldn’t wait to test out his outdoors knowledge. Fire might be tough to come by, depending on the rocks in the area, but—

A rustle of leaves interrupted the quiet stillness. Ned froze and listened to the wind. He paused for a moment, nearly allowing himself to exhale when he heard the noise again, closer, and sounding almost as if it had come from a different spot. It was followed by a low, gurgling moan. In some obscure corner of his mind, Ned felt a brief moment of relief. The sound didn’t seem like it was human. He turned slowly on his good foot, ready to grab some sort of stick to fend off whatever animal was moving in on him. Soon after he’d focused on the woods below him, Ned felt a stream of hot urine flowing down his leg. His screams soon followed.

Moving out of the shadows of trees were hoards of naked men and women. Black hair fell like rivers of oil over their shoulders, covering mangled humps along their back. More emerged from underground, pushing their way up through the dirt with claws that were longer than their fingers. They sniffed the air with pointed noses and then turned to follow the group heading toward Ned. They inched up the mountainside, gurgling and whimpering like hungry dogs searching for food. Faces swathed with dirt looked from side to side, passing over him as they surveyed his scent. A dome of translucent skin covered their eyes. As they got closer, Ned saw rows of sharp fangs jutting out of mouths that hung open in a pant.

“Go on!” he cried out meekly. “Get out of here!”

The creatures whipped their heads around, honing in on his voice. Most were running now, snorting as they trudged up the hillside. Ned could hear more coming from behind but he didn’t dare turn around. His mind spiraled out of control, leaving him paralyzed. Think of something, Parker! he screamed inside, but the orders went unheeded. It was too late. What good would running do when everywhere he looked, he saw mindless, ravenous…

(people)

…beasts charging at him? It wasn’t fair! IT WASN’T GODDAMN FAIR!

The first of the dirt-dwellers reached Ned and latched a clawed hand onto his arm. The man tugged at him, using Ned’s screams as a guide to inch his other hand closer to the neck. Claws like needles raked across his jugular, lightly at first and then with growing pressure. He saw ribbons of skin—his skin—hanging off of the beast’s claws. It rushed them toward its mouth, sucking them in through the gaps in its teeth.

Ned screamed out and flailed his body around to no avail. Every movement dug the talons deeper into his arm. Another set punctured his back, and he felt a hot, steamy breath surveying his head. His eyes flashed wide as he felt the dagger-teeth take away a chunk of his scalp. The growing mob cheered with a chorus of inharmonious whelps.

*** *** ***

When the feast subsided, the dirt-dwellers retired to their homes deep within the mountain. Rogers Bald, a picture of solitude, resumed its watch over the Pisgah, providing a tempting lure to the passing traveler desperate to attain a brief moment of isolation. The discouraging grade of Pickle Gap Road was a memory long forgotten. But the prospective wanderer should not fear, for there are always passages available for those eager to escape the world around them.