Just Another Lunch

Ellie is twenty minutes late, and I stand just inside the doors of the restaurant beside the glass walls of the fireplace trying to appear nonchalant. The hostess gives me a quick look over the rim of her rectangular black glasses and smoothes her sleek asymmetrical black bob.

“Your friend will be here soon?” she says with a slight clip to her voice.

“Any minute. Traffic,” I say.

She gives me a brisk nod and guides a couple into the dining room. Ellie sweeps in, her gold bracelets jangling as she waves to me. She talks into her mobile phone.

“Have to go. Lunching today. Toodles.” She disconnects and gives me a wide, white smile. “Sorry I’m late, darling. It’s been a hellish morning. The decorator never showed up with my swatches. I don’t know how I’m supposed to redo the little parlor without swatches, though I picked out the most gorgeous wallpaper. Donald’s in a snit because it’s three hundred a roll or something, but it’s just amazing. White silk with a very thin ecru stripe. You have to see it.”

“I can’t wait.”

The hostess returns, and Ellie announces that we need our table at once.

“Oh yes, Ma’am,” the hostess says.

I take a breath. Ellie has a way of steam rolling people, but today I don’t mind.

Ellie leans closer once we’re seated. “So, how are you?”

“Well, I—“

“Oh, damn. That’s my phone. Just hold that thought.”

Ellie pulls out her phone. “Hello, Hello. Oh, yes. I can talk. No, nothing important.”

The waiter comes over to take drink orders. I order a Sauvignon Blanc, and Ellie waves her hand to indicate she’d like the same thing. I sit back as another waiter fills my water glass.

“What is this for?” Ellie holds out her hand and studies her nails, admiring her fresh manicure. I fold my hands together. I could use a manicure. I could treat myself to one so at least my nails would look decent before all my hair falls out.

“Is that right?” Ellie says. “Well, I hate the idea. I don’t want to host anything. Why don’t you ever offer up your house?”

“Well, if you must know. We’re redecorating, and we couldn’t possibly. It’s a tremendous burden. Yes. I have a hard time picking the kids up from school too.”

Ellie smiles at me, and I smile back, trying to look sympathetic. I haven’t even thought about picking up the kids. Who will do that if I’m too nauseated to drive?

“I suppose I’ll have to let Donna get them. Last time Donna drove she nicked the fender of the Mercedes.”

Donna is Ellie’s au pair. I’d like an au pair.

“Well, that would be nice if you want to have them over some time. I’m sure they’d love it. Yes, do stop over and see what we’re doing. We’re opening the pool at the end of the month. It’ll be great.”

I visualize floating in a pool of warm water and try to tune out everything around me, but Ellie’s voice breaks through.

“No. Of course, I’ll be glad to help with the faculty luncheon. I’ll just pull some volunteers together like always.”

I won’t be one of Ellie’s super-reliable volunteers this year. I’ll be getting my monthly chemo treatments starting in two weeks, but why remind her? She’s smiling at me with that anticipatory gleam in her eye while I take another sip of water. The waiter arrives and plunks down our wine. I take a long swallow.

What’s the theme?”

What is the theme? Survival. My youngest is only in fourth grade.

“I think we could do something with yellow and violet. That would be lovely. I’ve just got so much on my plate right now, let me think about it.”

The walls in my doctor’s office are painted soft yellow. He believes yellow is an positive color. He tells me it’s important to keep a positive outlook.

“Well, let me know, dear, and I’ll get back to you.” Ellie clicks off, and says, “Now what were we talking about?”

“Your wallpaper.”

She frowns. “No. I’m sure there was something else.”

I shake my head. I’ve already swallowed half a glass of wine. “No, Ellie, really. Tell me about you.”

Weird Science

“What d’ya think they’re doin’ up there?” Thelma scratched her head and stared up the road at the big factory at the top of the hill. A big sign read: New American World Hunger Elimination Program—NAWHEP—Keep Out. One side of the building glowed orange-red like the devil himself had come to brew some mischief. The other side loomed dark against the purple gloom of evening. Above a green streak splashed across the sky. God’s paintbrush, she thought. The bright pinpoint of light glowed about the house.

“Dunno. Don’ wanna know. It’s scientific business.” Elmer shook his newspaper and hunched over it. “Just want me boiled beef and taters.”

Thelma thought he was beginning to look like an old goat every day. Hair sprouted from his ears, and his shoulders slumped, and his voice had started to take on an annoying whine. “Elmer! Just come look at this.”

Sighing, Elmer stood. He shuffled to the door. “Dang it, Thelma. Can’t a man get any rest?”

“I’ll fetch your beef and taters in a minute,” she said. “Just take a look.”

“Fine.” He threw open the door and stepped outside. The wind began to stir up, and Elmer put his hands up in the air. “Sure is warm tonight,” he yelled. “Shut that door, Thelma. All the dust’ll blow in.”

Thelma closed the door and returned to the window. She wished she could what was happening, but the fine dust whirled in circles. Only that light penetrated the gritty air.

“Oh my,” she gasped before a white light seemed to shoot straight through Elmer and pin him to the ground. Thelma screamed and buried her face in her hands.

When she looked again, Thelma saw that Elmer was gone. She opened the door and ran outside but only an old white goat remained in the spot where Elmer had been standing.

“Elmer?” she said.

“Maaa, Maaa,” the goat bleated.

A man in a black hazmat suit waited in the field as Thelma came panting up.

“We warned you people. We warned you that the area was unsafe. NAWPEP still has kinks to work out.”

Thelma nodded meekly. “Will the effects wear off?”

“We don’t know. Probably not. Will you sell now?”

“I’ll sell, but what about Elmer?”

“We’d better keep Elmer.”

Thelma sighed. “Well, he’s extra. And you better remember to feed him good. He likes his beef and taters.”

The man in the hazmat suit smiled. “Don’t you worry about Elmer, ma’am. We’ll take real good care of him. Why don’t you come with me up to the main building, and we’ll get you your money?”

“Well, if you’re sure.” Thelma looked back at the house. Men in black suits were converging on it. They carried all kinds of strange instruments. It made her uneasy, but she let the man take her arm. “I’m gonna hold on to Elmer here,” she said.

“That’s just fine,” the man said. “We’ll go together.”

“Together.”

Elmer bleated, and Thelma got the strangest feeling she wasn’t coming back. She stared at the bright light and walked towards it.

Watching the Past Roll By

It’s three in the morning, and you’ve drunk enough that you have that buzz coursing through you. You don’t even mind the shitty electronic music throbbing and pulsing because you’re mellow, and there are lots of people mixing it up on the floor. You settle back and watch because since The Breakup you don’t feel like cruising.

You watch your best friend Katie on the dance floor and think she still looks like a dumbass when she dances, but she’s never figured that out, and you aren’t going to clue her in. Anyway, you’re only a guest, and it’s her party. You’ve been BFF’s since kindergarten.

You pour one more vodka from your private pint into an orange juice and try to ignore the fact that you don’t know anyone here, and most of the people haven’t bothered to learn your name. It’s just a party. Katie’s party. You don’t really mind that she’s ignored you most of the weekend because this is her life, and you’re just visiting. Maybe you haven’t been great company. The Breakup was rough, and maybe you are a little raw deep inside. Funny how Katie used to understand that, but she’s really busy these days. You don’t want to get in the way.

You’re chilling out when the guy Katie has been trying to impress all night sits down next to you and starts to talk to you. You try to ignore his big blue eyes and thick sun streaked hair. He’s majoring in economics but speaks Russian and has minored in history. He tells you he’s not really into partying as much as he used to be.

You say, “I thought you were with Katie.”

“We’re just in class together,” he says. “Econ. What are you studying?”

You tell him archeology and expect him to laugh, but he doesn’t. He starts to talk about Japan and visiting Joman sites, and you find yourself having a real conversation. Some of the heaviness in your chest lifts.

Katie walks over. She is smiling, but you can see by the way her eyes are slightly narrowed that she isn’t happy.

“Why’d you leave the dance floor, Jack?”

Jack shrugs. “I came over to talk to your friend. She was all by herself.”

“That’s ‘cause she’s a loser,” Katie says with a small mean smirk. “She doesn’t even go here. She didn’t get in.”

You don’t say anything because you can’t really believe Katie would say something like that, especially since you never even applied here. But it stings. You’re supposed to be her guest, and it strikes you that this isn’t the first time this weekend she’s acted like an asshole.

A couple of Katie’s housemates come over to get in on the action. They join in on the “She’s a loser chant”, and you just want to get out. You just stand up and tell them to fuck off, and head upstairs. The party continues.

You’ve been sacking out on the floor in Katie’s room, but it’s easy to gather your things. You were planning to leave on the early train tomorrow anyway. You slip out the door and head to the all night dinner four blocks down the street to sober up. You want to cry, but you tell yourself it isn’t worth it. You don’t feel better.

By six in the morning, you have a headache, and you sit at the train station waiting on the six thirty seven train. Your body aches, but you have drunk three cups of coffee, and ate some scrambled eggs and bacon. You’ll survive.

About fifteen minutes ago, you got a text from Katie apologizing for being an asshole, and you’ll probably forgive her because you’ve been best friends since kindergarten. But you know deep inside something has changed. The girl who practically lived at your house, the girl who helped you pick out your first prom dress, the girl who could finish your sentences, that girl could never have treated you like shit and called you a loser. Especially not over a guy.

The announcer calls your train and you head down to board. It doesn’t take long, and soon you’re moving out of the station. Grey light has broken over the countryside. You listen to the click clack of the wheels on the tracks as the train gains momentum.

You rest your head on the cold window and watch the past roll by.

The Iroquois

I watch the city people glide over the marble floors, moving from one exhibit to another. The past is enclosed in glass with stuffed animals, fake woods, and a painted background.

“Look, kids,” one father says to his three boys, “there’s an Apache. Think he’s gonna get a buffalo?”

He does not know the difference between an Apache and an Iroquois.

“I think you made the Apache sad,” says the smallest, a blond boy.

“Don’t be silly. He’s wax,” the father says. “Look. There’re some arrow heads over there.”

The boy stands in front of me, and squints at the square legend, his lips moving as he reads. “Iroquois,” he says. “You aren’t an Apache. You lived in New York.” He smiles. “You look very brave. Did your people march on the Trail of Tears?”

I want to reach out to this boy who has come all the way downtown to visit this place, but already his father is returning to reclaim him.

“Come on, David. Come see the arrowheads.”

The boy looks back at me, and waves. I hear him say, “Dad, he’s an Iroquois not an Apache. There’s a difference.”

I want to wave back but can only watch them disappear into the crowd.

The Wish

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We sit in a circle on the floor in Lucy’s room with the lights low and our shadows making ominous silhouettes against the neon grape walls of her room. Marissa, Hannah and I watch as Lucy brings out her trinket box, a carved wooden box trimmed in gold and placed it in front of her. Outside the wind sighs and the branches of the tulip poplar sway and creak; rain leaks down the windows. I expect to see glowing red eyes peering in at us, but there is only darkness. A spring storm.

We’re supposed to be studying, but first thing on the agenda is Tarot cards and gossip.

Lucy lifts out a packet of tarot cards wrapped in black velvet and looks around. “Who wants to go first? I’ve gotten good at this. I practiced a lot.”

Lucy and her cards don’t scare me. She thinks she’s a seer, but for one with the gift of sight, she didn’t realize Brad was cheating on her, and she never can tell you anything useful like if you’ll pass your next chem test or get a date for the Sophomore dance.

“The cards don’t always talk,” she says.

Marissa believes everything Lucy tells her, even when none of it works out, and she contorts the truth to fit her reading. “Now, I understand,” she says. “I asked wrong. It wasn’t the cards.”

Hannah’s too timid to say anything. After a reading, we ask her, “Did your question get answered?” She always nods and smiles. It doesn’t matter what the cards said. But Hannah’s cards always say the same thing, “Work hard, and you’ll achieve your goals.” What a big psychic revelation that is.

With me, nothing ever comes out the way Lucy says it will, so I never pay much attention.

“I’ll go first,” I say tonight. “Maybe you’ll answer my deep, dark question, and my dreams will come true.”

Since I’ve been dreaming that someone really cute will ask me to the Sophomore Dance, that’s as likely as me growing six inches taller and sprouting long blonde hair. I get tired of just being the smart girl in the back of the room. Why couldn’t I have big blue eyes like Marissa or pouty lips like Lucy or Hannah’s long blond curls? I guess if you put us all together, we’d make the perfect girl: smart and sexy.

Lucy sets down my signifier, the card that represents me: the Page of Cups. It’s close enough. I have brown hair and hazel eyes. I don’t think of myself as particularly romantic and sensitive, but under the right circumstances, who knows?

I shuffle the cards, cut the deck, and she begins to lay them out. I hadn’t seen these cards before: the Tower of Destruction, the Three of Swords—it looks ominous, a heart with three swords piercing it—a bunch of other cards meaning sorrow and sadness, and finally a card with a fat man surrounded by cups that Lucy calls the wish card. The last card is the Sun. She looks at the cards for a long time.

“Wow, Katie, these are some weird cards,” she says at last. “I guess I’d say you’re in for some really rough times, where everything will seem to go wrong, but it will turn out okay in the end because the Sun’s really powerful. Plus you have the wish card, so you should make a wish. Quick do it. Make a wish.”

Shrugging like I don’t care, I close my eyes and make my wish but feel kind of awful. Stupid, I know. Lucy reads everyone else. Her cards are especially good tonight, and Marissa says, “Oh, Lucy, maybe Jimmy Knolls will ask you out.”

Lucy blushes. “I don’t think so, but I think he’s so hot.”

I don’t say anything. Jimmy Knolls is a junior, but he’s already captain of the basketball team and one of the best lacrosse players in the state. He’s also smart. He’s signed a letter of intent at Dartmouth, which means he’s already been accepted at there even though he’s only a junior, so next year all he has to do is keep up his grades and play the way he already does. Every girl at school has a crush on him, but he’s like a god so he can pick anyone he wants. It isn’t going to be one of us.

We all laugh about our readings, but I feel off. Usually, I like hanging at Lucy’s, but tonight I’m actually relieved when my dad picks me up at ten.

My mom is super cheerful when I get home.

“I got a call from school today,” she says. “You won the J. P. Vesper Trophy for winter swimming. That’s exciting, isn’t it?”

“I guess.” I’m surprised. I was sure Lucy would get the trophy. Her times were better than mine all year, though I did come in first in the four hundred freestyle at conference championships and at state finals.

“Coach Roebuck said you were consistent, gave one hundred ten percent, and were a real leader. I’m so proud of you, honey.”

Mom hugs me.

I should be enjoying the good news that I finally won something at school, but instead I feel spooked. Stupid. Maybe Lucy read the cards wrong. After all, I had the Sun. That’s a good card.

“Do you believe in Tarot cards?” I ask my mom.

“Tarot cards?” She smiles a little. “Oh, maybe some people have some insight, but mostly I think it’s coincidence. When I was your age I was mad for them. But nothing turned out the way it was supposed to. Why? Do you want a set?”

“Lucy has a set,” I say. “She gave me a weird reading.”

My mom shakes her head. “I wouldn’t worry too much about Lucy and her reading. You make your own future pretty much, don’t you think?”

“I guess,” I say, but secretly I wonder if you make your own future or do things just jump in your path and push you in different directions? Why is it that some people are just riding along in their cars when a tractor-trailer jackknifes and crushes them? Is it weird Karma, and if someone read it in her Tarot cards, could she change it?

I go to sleep wondering.

In the morning, I set off for school feeling better. The sun is shinning, and I wear my new skinny jeans and riding boots with a black sweater and blazer. Everything feels a size too big, and I know I must look good when Jimmy Knolls actually speaks to me. He congratulates me on winning the swimming trophy and walks down the hall with me to my first period AP chem class.

“Hey a bunch of us are going out for pizza after practice. You should come,” he says.

A squeaking noise comes out of my throat before I clear it. “I . . . I . . .don’t drive,” I say, clutching my books against my chest like some moron from a romance novel.

“I can drive you.”

“I’ll have to let you know.”

He grins. “Okay. Later.”

“Maybe.”

I figure since we both play lacrosse and have afternoon practice, he’s just being nice. Still, he’s mighty cute, and he doesn’t wear those stupid saggy ass jeans. I decide not to tell Lucy that the god spoke to me.

I sit in my usual seat when Hannah comes in, her eyes red.

“What’s wrong?” I say.

“Didn’t you hear?” She wipes her eyes fiercely. “That big tulip poplar outside Lucy’s house crashed through the roof last night!”

“Are you kidding?” I feel a little sick. “Is she okay?”

Hannah’s shaking her head. “That tree fell right on top of her. She was crushed.”

I slump back in my seat remembering our card reading session last night. It was just a stupid game. It didn’t mean anything. When I wished Lucy would get my bad luck, I didn’t really mean it. I didn’t. There isn’t any such thing as card readings and charms anyway. I tell myself that, but I kept hearing Lucy say, “Quick make a wish. Make a wish.”

I lay my head on my desk. I want to curl inside myself and hide.

I killed Lucy.

The Burning

That day began still and quiet, like any day in late fall. The empty fields whispered secrets to the bare trees, and we began to gather as the sun crept into the sky. It was pale and weak.

We heard the cart before we saw it. Saw her standing inside stiff and proud. She looked neither right nor left. They set her on the platform and began to chant.

“Burn, witch, burn!”

She laughed even as the fire grew. We heard her cry out, “Curse you and your land.”

Then she was gone, and the fields have been barren since.