Blogtober #21: Sci-Fi Square Peg.

Growing up, we enjoyed an interesting variety of tv shows in my household. My Dad was a big lover of classic comedies and shows, which meant plenty of I Love Lucy and Leave It to Beaver. And oh, the sitcoms. Too Close for Comfort, Three’s Company, 227. My mom, on the other hand, introduced us to British television, private investigators (hello, Jessica Fletcher and Colombo), and science fiction. Hours were spent in our tiny living room, discussing intriguing storylines related to various incarnations of Star Trek and/or wondering what would await us on The Twilight Zone. (And wondering if we would have to shut our eyes, being that some of those eps of TTZ were intense. Scaredy-cat here, by the way, and unashamed of it. 🙋🏾‍♀️) It was all so fascinating.

Needless to say, I love sci-fi. Like, deeply. If it’s time travel or aliens or “exploring strange new worlds” (my fellow Trekkies recognize where that comes from), my interest is quickly captured. Reading it and watching it have always been pastimes. A few years ago, however, I wondered why I wasn’t writing science fiction. A natural question for me; challenging myself as a writer is always exciting. But I realized that a lot of the plot lines that pop up in my head have a sci-fi theme. It seemed a natural progression—if those ideas were coming, they needed to be written.

The Loftiest Thing has a sci-fi short story in the collection. I now plan on writing an entire collection related to the genre. One story you’ll find in that forthcoming new collection is provided for your reading pleasure below. Enjoy.

Tiny Pieces

Being in a time machine is less dramatic than you’d imagine. You stand in a medium-sized metal enclosure, quite similar to an elevator, the doors close, also like an elevator, and you move through the waves of time. Like moving up through floors. Yes: like an elevator. When the doors slowly open, however, you have not arrived in the plush, carpeted hallway that leads to your attorney’s office or for an appointment with your expensive dermatologist. You arrive outside your college dorm room in 1993 at 11:42AM. (Well, not specifically. It all depends on what time a person chooses to go back to. And you chose to visit your 19 year-old self. Someone else may choose to go to April 14, 1865, and convince Abe to avoid Ford’s Theatre. Really up to the person involved.)

You glance behind you at the metal doors that just closed and remember what they told you: the doors will disappear, disintegrate into the atmosphere, and will return when you come back to the exact spot where the machine dropped you off. Something about your DNA being linked to the machine. Science talk. You tuned out at the point. As promised, you watch the metal doors begin to shatter before your eyes, breaking apart in tiny, silver pieces until there is nothing before you. The process leaves you slightly breathless. But you get yourself together. With resolve, you turn around and knock on the dorm room’s door.

Nineteen-year old you (Teen You, officially) opens the door. You are momentarily dazed by familiarity, by a deep recognition. Thick curls in a bun on top of her head; big, brown eyes that communicate almost everything on her mind. Teen You is also thinner, of course, not yet a party to the mythical “eating for two” adage that you enthusiastically believed induring both of your pregnancies. Her baby face, with its unblemished dark brown skin, is not yet burdened by the pesky crow’s feet that appeared one morning and refused to bow before the cavalry of creams prescribed by your expensive dermatologist. She is the image in the mirror you stopped seeing so long ago.

And when she looks at you, her lips parting in a tiny “O” of shock, it’s quite clear that the deep recognition is mutual. No amount of crow’s feet and a thicker waistline could hide that. She doesn’t understand, but she knows.

But you also remember you at that age. A fighter of anything illogical, a doubter of whatever couldn’t be quickly explained. Just the Facts, Ma’am. Where did that woman go? you then wonder. Why did getting older make it easier to just say yes to everything, even the nonsensical? (Although, admittedly, no longer questioning the incongruous led you to an elevator that transported you back to the past.) Nevertheless, it’s hardly surprising when you observe a narrow-eyed frown slowly descend upon Teen You’s demeanor, replacing the shocked recognition. “Can I help you?” she asks you sharply.

You smile at her. “We need to talk.”

“Who are you?” she demands.

“I’m sure you know who I am.” With that, you place your hands on her shoulders and firmly guide her backwards into the dorm room. This moment, touching the woman you once were, is not lost on you. The sensation will linger long after this day. You close the door behind you. “I apologize for pushing you but we don’t have much time.”

She glares at you. “Get out of my room. You have no right to be in here, to put your hands on me.”

You gaze at her with admiration. “You’re so strong. I wish you had stayed that way.”

Momentarily, she cocks her head to the side, visibly intrigued by this statement.

“Anyway, you have Political Science at 12:15 and we need to chat before you go.”

“How—how do you know about my next class?” she questions.

“Since I’m sure you know who I am, it’s no surprise that I know which class you’re about to go to, is it?” Briefly, you peer around the dorm room. Teen You’s side of the room is neat, clean, the complete opposite of the unmade bed and various articles of clothing and things that crowd her roommate’s side of the room. Natasha Abulov was her name; an exchange student from Russia. You remember how excited she was to be in school in the United States, so excited that she was never around to clean her side of the room.

“Excuse me, but what do you want?” Teen You presses, interrupting your thoughts.

You return your attention to her. “Be patient with Natasha,” you tell her. “Several years from now, she’ll become one of your closest confidantes.”

Teen You raises her eyebrows at you in disbelief. Chuckling softly at her expression, you now lead her toward the pristine bed and sit her down next to you. “Look, there’s no real preamble to this—”

“Did I become a lawyer?”

You hold your breath.

“It’s what I—what we wanted more than anything,” she says carefully. “Did it happen?”

This would be harder than you thought.

“I’ve been working so hard, loading up on my classes,” Teen You continued. “I just really hope that it ended up—”

“In this Political Science class, your professor will be very late. Sitting next to you will be William Lyons, a junior you’ve seen here and there, but never paid attention to. He’ll say hi and ask if you want to ditch class for some coffee. At first, you’ll say no. Time will continue to pass by. Other students will start leaving. You’ll glance at the clock. He’ll invite you again. Reluctantly, you’ll say yes and you’ll leave class with him.” You pause, caught up in the memory. “Three months after today, Billy will ask you to marry him. He’ll say, ‘You’re 19 and I’m 20. We’re not kids. We love each other. I have a trust fund. What are we waiting for?’ You’ll hesitate. You won’t be sure. He will repeat that he loves you more than anything or anyone in the world. Reluctantly, you’ll say yes. A few days later, you’ll elope.”

Those big eyes of hers grow wider and wider.

“School becomes a foregone conclusion after you get pregnant, which happens pretty soon after you’re married.”

“I have a baby?” she whispers.

“You have two. A boy and a girl. Langston and Angela. And they’re not babies anymore. They’re 22 and 21.” You smile, envisioning your children, these two souls that have prevented you from losing the few marbles you have left.

She begins to nibble on her pinkie nail, a nervous habit that never went away.

“Needless to say, no, you didn’t become a lawyer. You stayed home and took care of your children and your home. You supported your husband while he continued to go to school. He graduated at the top of his class.” This is when you are reminded of why you are here, why you paid an obscene amount of money to some kids who weren’t much older than your son for the chance to travel back in time. You grab Teen You’s hands, which now tremble violently. “Listen to me, Pamela. Listen to me. Don’t leave that class with Billy.”

Tears suddenly appear in her wide, brown eyes. For a moment, your own eyes moisten, but you push away those rising emotions, determined to stay the course.

“Do not go with him,” you say. “Stay in the class. Tell him some other time. But do not leave with him. Do you understand me?”

“But—but if I don’t go, what happens to Langston and Angela?” she asks breathlessly.

You didn’t expect that question. But becoming a mother was something you’d always wanted, wasn’t it? “Langston and Angela won’t go anywhere,” you tell her firmly.

“But their father—”

You imagine him now, this man you both love and despise, this man who has betrayed you in the worst way. The two of you have become shadows in your home, living miles apart in the same space. You must fix it, you must come back together, and that is why you are here today. Just a few weeks ago, you recognized that everything began when you left that class with him. Things happened too fast; you fell too fast.

Squeezing her hands gently, you smile reassuringly at her. “We were meant to be, Billy and me. He will pursue me, undoubtedly. And somewhere along the way, I will fall in love with him completely and without hesitation. But we need time, Pamela. Make him wait. We need more time.”

They had explained it all with their science talk, those boys with the metal doors, after you had begged them to help you. You didn’t tune out that part. You’re not changing much from the past, they told you, so the present, time itself, will eventually acclimate. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle, ma’am. You’re just changing the scene, but the puzzle pieces, your life, will stay the same.

“Our relationship needs to happen differently, when we’re older and wiser. We made so many mistakes, Pamela. We blamed each other for so many things. If you stay in that class, it will happen another time. Langston and Angela will still come, I promise you that.”

She gazes at you for some time, tears spilling down her face, her wide eyes filled with surprise, confusion, and an array of other emotions. She is thinking, deliberating. Finally, Teen You nods.

You pull her into your arms, embracing her tightly. Later, much later, you will dream of this moment, when you held yourself in your arms like a child.

“Time for class,” you say softly. You stand her up and gently wipe her tears. You then pick up her backpack, hanging on the bedpost, and hand it to her. “Maybe the law career will come one day, maybe it won’t. We just need to save our family.”

Nodding again, she takes the bag and walks toward the door. Before leaving, she turns around and glances at you. “This is the strangest thing that has ever happened to me,” she declares.

“Wait until childbirth,” you reply, smiling.

Her eyes widen again before she disappears around the corner.

With a deep breath, you look around the room again before walking out. Back in the hallway, you stand at the precise spot where you “landed.” Almost immediately, those tiny, silver pieces that fragmented into the atmosphere appear before your eyes, shimmering as they re-form. The process ends with the return of the two metal doors that brought you to this place in time. They stand before you, sturdy, as if they had always been there. It was impressive, to say the least. The doors open and you step inside.

As the “elevator” moves through time, you find your eyes growing heavy. Yes, you recall what the boys also told you: coming back would render you quite fatigued, almost unbearably so. They weren’t wrong.

As your legs give way and you descend toward the ground, you unexpectedly feel the stirrings of an emotion you haven’t experienced in a long time, something far more powerful than your overwhelming fatigue.

Hope.

The End. (An original work by This Square Peg.)

On Harry & Meghan.

If you’re living on this side of Earth, you’ve heard that Harry and Meghan have decided harrymegsto significantly change their status with the royal family. (I won’t link to any articles because, whew chile, the bias.) In other words, H&M want to step back from being senior members of the royal family, become financially independent, and split their time between the UK and North America. I’m here for it. Let them live. Let them also live in a place where they’re not targeted viciously. I support it. The vitriol and abject racism I’ve seen for Meghan in the British media is indescribable. We talked about leveling up, didn’t we? Well, they did and I think it’s a fabulous decision. I won’t even discuss all the fallout and how Piers Morgan is just…no words. Team H&M. (I definitely hope Meghan resurrects her blog, The Tig. Wonderful writing. Wonderful voice.)

In that vein, I wanted to share a ‘lil short story I wrote inspired by the royals and my admiration for the Ginger Prince and his lovely wife. In case you’re wondering, 2020 hasn’t necessarily resurrected my creative writing. But I have hope. Read on, enjoy, and onwards & upwards. For everyone.

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The Queen and the Green

The queen had spinach in her teeth. The offending green vegetable was right there, lodged between her two front teeth for all the world to see. And the world would see it, because after this morning tea, the queen would announce to the free world that her eldest grandson, the prince, was engaged to his troublesome fiancée.

For the record, she, Margie King, was the troublesome fiancée. She was the American commoner, the former executive assistant to the prince’s solicitor, the woman who wore a dress that didn’t even reach her knees when he had first brought her to meet his grandmother. (Never mind that the dress, hastily purchased when he had made her aware of his plans, had shrunk in the wash and was short because of that and not because of some wicked attempt to shock the ruler of 14 countries.) She was also the woman who wanted to alert her soon-to-be grandmother-in-law that there was spinach in her teeth.

It baffled Margie that no one was saying anything. The woman was presiding over a grand, long table, flanked on both sides by various family members and relatives, and no one had the guts or decency to tell her about the spinach. Yes, Margie was aware of the rule that that no one could approach the queen without being summoned or being spoken to first. Clearly, propriety trumped sparing her from humiliation. Even the queen’s husband, the perpetually bored prince who seemed half asleep most of the time, openly observed his wife’s mouth as she spoke, his eyes widening with each word and subsequent presenting of the food in her teeth. Margie was pretty sure that the man wanted to laugh. Unsurprisingly, he, too, said nothing.

Where were her ladies-in-waiting? Did they even call them that anymore? Margie had done about a month’s worth of royalty-related research to prepare for this event, but wasn’t sure if she had read anywhere that ladies-in-waiting still retained that title.

She wanted to tell Frederick about it, to lean over and whisper in his ear that someone needed to help his grandmother. But Frederick was seated about twenty cousins down from her. Someone had muttered “royal protocol” as a reason why they weren’t seated together, but Margie didn’t buy it. She knew it was the queen’s way of prolonging what it would kill her to soon announce—even if that meant temporarily separating her grandson from his fiancée during tea.

She would never forget the queen’s face six months ago, when Frederick declared his intent to marry her. Rage. Confusion. Fear. Nausea. A bit of sadness. Her features twisted up like the worst scene in a horror movie, right before the end comes. Margie had stood off to the side, breathlessly observing a stately sovereign turn into a creature of volleying emotions. Well, the twisted features aside, there were no actual outward emotions being displayed. She had the stiff upper lip reputation to maintain, after all, even if the audience was just four people: Margie, Frederick, the queen herself, and her half-asleep husband.

For a moment, Margie forgot about the spinach and thought about him. Her regard moved from the queen and rested on Frederick (although she could barely see him), her Frederick, the man she didn’t know she had been dreaming of until they met.

It had been raining buckets that evening. Her boss, Mr. Knox, had requested that she stay late to assist with greeting a client that would be arriving after closing time. Margie knew that Knox had high-profile, top-secret clients, some unknown to even her (such as this one) but the image of trudging through the rain and the dark to get to the Tube instantly became that top-secret client’s fault. She intended on being as nonchalantly rude to he or she as possible.  

He had arrived precisely at half past six, calmly entering the lobby as if there weren’t oceans of rainfall and high winds behind him. No one was with him; you’d think the heir to a throne would be trailed by a sea of security detail. That being said, yes, she had immediately recognized him. Who wouldn’t? Everyone knew Prince Freddie, The Prince of All Princes, a title coined by the media. His handsome good looks (in real life, Margie quickly decided that “handsome” as a description was grossly insufficient) and famous girlfriends were well-known and well-reported. Standing up from her desk, she had greeted him—stopping herself from bowing—and led him toward Knox’s office straightaway, as her boss had instructed. “You move quite fast,” he had said from behind her. Margie gulped and turned around, glancing at him. He was smiling, his dark hazel eyes dancing at her. Instead of explaining that rapidly walking was her way of avoiding a royalty-related collapse, she had merely smiled at him in return and said nothing in reply. She doubted that her voice box would work properly anyway.

Much, much later, Margie watched Knox and Frederick speak to one another in hushed tones in the lobby. Their appointment had officially ended but the conversation continued. Margie then wondered if there was some sort of prenuptial agreement in the works; the prevailing rumor was that Frederick was close to proposing to his latest girlfriend, a French actress. Was that why he was there? Did royals even have prenuptial agreements? she then wondered. However, the presence of Mr. Knox now standing by her desk sharply interrupted that line of thought. She stood up. “Yes, Mr. Knox?”

“Our client would feel most welcome if you would allow his driver to take you home,” Knox replied.

Blinking rapidly, she glanced at Frederick, who again smiled warmly at her. “It’s rather awful outside and you’re here late because of me,” he explained. “Ridgely will take you wherever you’d like to go.”

“But…how…?” Her voice trailed off. At the moment, she wasn’t sure how to form a complete sentence.

“Simply say thank you, Ms. King,” Knox instructed under his breath.

Nodding, Margie turned off her computer and grabbed her handbag. After a year with Knox, she had learned to simply move quickly in spite of whatever questions she had about something. She approached Frederick and thanked him for his kindness.

“You’re quite welcome,” he had responded, holding her stare long enough to communicate that perhaps this wouldn’t be their last meeting.

It wouldn’t be. 

“Ms. King,” said Ridgely the driver as he pulled up to her flat in Clapham that rainy evening, “His Royal Highness would like to contact you for dinner later this week if you would like to leave your contact card inside that box next to you.”

His Royal Highness? Dinner? Her contact card?

“Did you leave your card?” her flat-mate, Dory, shrieked after Margie had dazedly informed her of the evening’s events. “Did you, Margie?”

In that moment, Margie’s her mobile phone vibrated in her palm. With wide eyes, she presented the text message on the display to Dory: I hope I’m not being too forward, but you’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever met. 

Many quiet dinners later, he confided in her that the French actress he was dating was a longtime friend from university that had agreed to attend all public events with him. He had long tired of questions about just when he would marry. “It’s exhausting, really, but I’m well aware that it’s the price we pay for this life. I’m hardly complaining,” he had remarked that evening. “They’ll simply have to wait until you say yes to me.”

Margie had nearly choked on her wine.

She gaped at him, waiting for him to continue. He gazed at her meaningfully and reached for her hand. It wasn’t the most romantic venue—Bernie’s Fish and Chips was a few miles from her flat and was the only place they could eat without being mobbed, being that most of the clientele were slightly inebriated, blue-collar blokes who thankfully had no idea who anyone was, much less the future king of their country—but Margie clutched his hand and recognized the moment for what it was.

“Are you asking?” she whispered.

“I’m imploring. Please marry me, Marjorie Lorraine King. I’m quite sure I can’t take it anymore, when you’re not next to me, and I’m also in love with you, so it just won’t do.”

She had laughed as tears cascaded down her face. “You have a way with words, Prince Freddie. You really do.”

He grinned at her. “So? Marry me?”

Margie said yes. Rather, she repeated it.

“It won’t be easy,” Frederick then said. “We’ll have a few mountains to climb: the prying eyes, the press, the questions.”

“The fact that I’m black and you’re white.”

Frederick nodded. “We live in a maddening world, don’t we?”

“Absolutely. But I’m ready for anything, Frederick.” She leaned into his tightened embrace and breathed him in.

“Believe it or not, darling,” he said, “the biggest issue, above all, will be my grandmother.”

Now they sat twenty cousins away from each other, his grandmother baring a portion of spinach in her teeth and everyone remaining silent on the matter. Some of them would likely laugh and wonder why Margie cared so much. Wasn’t the queen the same woman who muttered that she was troublesome when she arrived at the palace with the now discarded above-knee dress? The same woman who regularly leveled Margie with the kind of vicious stare meant for enemies of the kingdom? And yet she was also the same woman who  invited 10 year-old girls from low income areas to tea at the palace two Saturdays a month, something the media didn’t know about. The same woman who sometimes put her head on her half-asleep husband’s shoulder when they were walking around their country home (he was pleasantly surprised each and every time). It was just spinach, but it might as well have been a “Kick Me” sign on her back. Margie had learned about the court of public opinion since her courtship with Frederick had begun. It was the one place the queen had no power over, and no one deserved to be fodder.

The queen then abruptly stood, signaling everyone on both sides of the long table to do the same. It was time to hold the press conference in the Tudor Room. As she smoothed her dress down–brocade, tea-length, and gifted to her by her kind, soon-to-be aunt-in-law–Frederick quickly appeared by her side. “You look beautiful,” he whispered in her ear.

“Thank you. Your grandmother has spinach in her teeth.”

Frederick chuckled. “She knows. She does it on purpose to see who will have the courage to approach her unsummoned and inform her. I’ll be sure to let her know that you said something.”

Stunned, Margie then looked up and found the queen studying her, the latter’s demeanor not quite as stone-faced as it typically was when she placed her attention on her troublesome almost granddaughter-in-law. Her expression seemed…softer? The woman couldn’t hear that far, could she? Did she know that Margie had mentioned the spinach?

“Come, Frederick, Margie. We will be late,” the queen called over to them.

Margie couldn’t even recall when the queen had mentioned her name.

“Onwards,” Frederick said softly, lacing his fingers through hers.

And upwards and everything in between, Margie thought, as she watched the queen begin the processional as the first in line.  

In Plain Sight

“Gin and tonic, please,” he said to the waiter.

“My, how tame we’ve become in our old age.”

He smiled and turned around. She stood before him, grinning and still looking very much like the 21 year-old girl that had crossed the threshold of the gray building on Fairfax Street so many years ago. But her youthful appearance was in looks only; the woman in front of him brimmed with confidence and strength, a far cry from the terrified, shy girl they met that first day. Back then, their superiors had been–inexplicably in the eyes of most–convinced that Tamara Knight was blessed with the same keen abilities as her deceased mother, the incomparable Pamela Knight, and had recruited Tamara at once for the school. They had been wrong. Mara Knight was a complete neophyte; hardly ready to begin a rigorous training program that would result in a career as one of the Queen’s stable of international espionage agents.  

James stood and met her embrace, reminding himself to hold on just enough, not too long, not too close. Just enough. Of course, his resolve was interrupted by the kiss she placed on his cheek and, as a result, the dizzying aroma of roses and lilacs that she left behind on his skin. He was tempted to hold on to her one beat longer, long enough to communicate everything he had wanted to say since he laid eyes on her fifteen years ago.

He didn’t.

After the embrace, James escorted her to the other side of the booth. Moments later, the waiter re-appeared and took her request for a whiskey, neat.

“Where are you coming from?” he asked her after the waiter departed.

Mara softly chuckled. “Does it seem like I came from somewhere?”

“Absolutely.” He paused to study her, forcing himself to conduct only a surface appraisal and not the kind of intense staring he formerly engaged in when they worked in the same building. “South America, perhaps?”

Her large brown eyes gleamed. “How did you know?”

James pointed toward the sparkling broach on the left shoulder of her olive green dress. It was a flower with dark pink petals and a yellow/cream center.  “I’m venturing that it’s a rendering from the silk floss tree. Native to the tropical and subtropical forests of South America, I believe.”

“Spot on, as always. Two weeks in Argentina. Buenos Aires, specifically.”

Naturally, the details about her time in Buenos Aires would remain unspoken between them. They belonged to the same organization, yes, but the potentiality of traitors meant that there would be no detailed discussion about “work.”  

“Lovely, isn’t it?” she said, lightly touching the broach. “It’s always nice to honor the culture of where you are.”

In the beginning, Mara Knight certainly wasn’t interested in honoring cultures. During a field assignment in Indonesia (they had been assigned together; her first, his umpteenth), James recalled that she had spent more time vomiting on the side of various roads than taking in the culture around them. “My nerves…my nerves are shot,” she kept muttering whenever the truck had to pull over for her. He laughed at the memory.

“Something funny?” she asked.

“You dry-heaving on the side of the road in Jakarta.”

She joined him in laughter, tears eventually twinkling in the corners of her eyes. “Those were the days, weren’t they?”

They had all underestimated her, believing that the terrified, unsure beginner would remain that way. In the end, her mother may not have gifted Mara Knight with those astute abilities she had been famous for, but perhaps she had given her daughter something greater, something she would come to find nearly six months into her training: a tenacious will to succeed. That will led to her surpassing them all, in the end.

“I miss us working together, James.”

His knee-jerk reaction, to blurt out that he missed her, just her, and not working together, was ignored. “I don’t think you miss London traffic and morning fog, though,” James replied instead, smiling.

“Those things don’t matter,” Mara replied. “I miss seeing you every day.”

Had she transitioned to reading minds?

Nevertheless, James kept the smile planted on his face and said nothing. What could even be said?

“I miss walking onto our floor and waving at you from the elevator,” she continued. “How long has it been: a year since we saw each other?”

One year, four months, two days, 15 minutes.

James merely nodded, sipping his drink to avoid speaking what he simply couldn’t say.

“I tried to call you, you know,” Mara then said quietly.

Don’t choke. “You tried to call me?” he questioned, holding tightly to his composure. “When?”

Mara sipped her drink. “Many times. Times when your voice was the only one I needed to hear.”

Understandable, he quickly reasoned. It was the two of them as partners for a long time. Nine years, to be exact.  (Also recruited at 21, James Caraway had quickly risen in their ranks and was a mission lead by the time Mara came to them. The top brass had decided to place the two of them together, feeling that the closeness in their ages–James was four years Mara’s senior–would lend itself to her training. They had shared everything: from missions to near-death experiences to those tiny, quiet moments in between, when just being side by side provided a sense of comfort and safety that didn’t require explanation or discussion. And then, three years ago, their superiors promoted Mara to a special counterintelligence team that didn’t include James.)

“I wish I had known,” was his only reply. Perhaps those unlisted numbers were her. Perhaps, deep, deep down, he had known it was her calling and allowed the calls to go unanswered. It didn’t matter, in the end. She missed him as a friend and a colleague, nothing more.

Mara then peered out of the window, gazing at the rain-soaked evening. James took that opportunity to carefully study her this time, not a surface appraisal like before. He took in every nuance of her, carving a new image of her to replace the one he had placed in his mind when they last saw another. Her dark brown skin, far more luminous than a year ago; the full head of curls, longer and fuller; even her shade of lipstick, deep red and warm. That way, when he closed his eyes from this day forward, he would see her in the present, as she was now. It made things a bit more real.

“James,” she said, turning back to face him, “you, my friend, are a terrible, terrible actor. How you’ve been able to excel this long in espionage is beyond me.”

Taken aback, he shook his head. “I’m not quite sure what–“

She reached across the table and grasped his hands. “Did you know it was me calling all those times? Did see you those numbers and wonder if it was me?”

“Mara, I–“

“Why did you ignore my calls, James? Why don’t you reply to my emails? Why did you arrange this dinner through Michael?”

Michael Hanson was her handler. James ran into Hanson one morning at the office and had suggested the dinner, hastily speaking before he could take it all back. Of course, he had used the cover that it was high time that Mara and her former partner/trainer reunite.

Mara squeezed his hands, still leaning over, her brown eyes boring into his. “What have you been afraid to tell me? Why have you been afraid to say? Do you think I’ve never noticed you looking at me? Just like you were a few seconds ago? Do you think I’ve been blind all this time?”

Briefly, James noted that this interrogation technique, wearying the subject with rapid-fire, incessant questions, was something he had taught her to do.

“What are you afraid of, James? What are you imprisoned by? What keeps you from doing what you want?”

“Please, Mara. Stop.” How could a moment be so fraught with both desire and a wish for silence? How could he be so puzzled by her abrupt turn of behavior and equally aware of why she was behaving this way?

She shook her head. “I won’t stop, James. I won’t. I’ve stood by for fifteen years, waiting for you to say something, to speak the obvious, and I won’t stop now. I won’t stop until–“

James laughed despite himself. “You’ve stood by for fifteen years? Oh, Mara. You have no idea what you’re talking about.”

She grinned. “That’s the first loosely combative thing you’ve ever said to me, James. Thank you.”

Freshly taken aback, he felt beads of sweat forming on his forehead. He wanted to wipe them, but he didn’t want to remove his hands from hers.

“I can resume my questioning if you don’t say something,” Mara warned, her eyes twinkling.

“Are you playing with me, Mara?” James asked. “What is this?”

Mara stood up and walked around to his side of the booth. She slid in next to him, as close as she physically could. “This is us releasing each other from the prisons we built 15 years ago, James. You’ve been worried for so long about telling me how you felt–that’s the prison you built. I’ve been waiting for so long for you to confirm what I felt the moment we met each other–the prison I built.” She put her hands on his shoulders. “No more prison for me, James. I’ve wanted you for fifteen years. Your turn. Tell me how you feel. Open the bars. Come out of the prison.”

James inhaled her words and roses and lilacs and swore he would pass out. Was all of this truly happening?

“You only remember me getting sick in Jakarta,” she said softly, leaning in even closer. “I remember watching you fall asleep every night in Jakarta. I couldn’t sleep. I would stay up and watch you sleep every evening until the morning. Fifteen nights, just watching you sleep, feeling strange and confused and just…”

Fifteen nights.

Fifteen years.

Exhale.

Exhale.

Exhale.

He had been holding his breath for fifteen years. Apparently, they both had.

Mara smiled at him. She knew it, then, that he was letting go.

James reached over and gently caressed her cheek. “How did you…how did you know all of this?” he asked her.

She placed her hand over his. “I’m a super spy. I know everything.”

***

The Choice.

I haven’t shared fiction with you in a while, have I? Here’s one you’ll likely find in my third collection of short fiction. Yes, another book is coming. Call it a spoiler. Share your thoughts about it in the comments, won’t you?

Enjoy your Friday and have a bon weekend.

***********************************************************************

The Choice

The envelope sat on the picnic table next to her half-eaten blueberry muffin from that morning. Upon glancing at the sender’s name, his stomach dropped. He wasn’t in the habit of reading her mail, but privacy paled in comparison to the name in front of him. He pulled the letter from the envelope.

Cancer.

Dying.

I need to see you.

Gripping the iron chair for balance and the need to feel something firm and concrete—unlike the jelly that seemed to now permeate his body—Desmond continued reading. A plea to see her just once, to make amends. He swallowed thickly and placed the letter back into the envelope. Glancing at the muffin, he wasn’t surprised at her loss of her appetite.

 

The next morning, he watched as she quietly moved around the house, her demeanor unreadable. She occupied herself with her usual weekend routine of household chores: cleaning, dusting, vacuuming. He entered the kitchen from the patio just as she was approaching the sink. “I’ll take care of the dishes,” Desmond said. There were a few plates from their breakfast.

“You just mowed the lawn. I can do them,” she replied.

He smiled at her. “Let’s do them together.” With that, he pulled over a chair and sat next to her, as the sink had been modified to allow her to reach it from her wheelchair. “I wash, you dry.”

Liza gazed at him. “Deal,” she said, ruffling his hair.

While they washed, both silent, the contents of the letter ran around in his mind. He wondered how to reveal that he knew about it. But he wouldn’t have to wonder long.

“My father found me. He sent me a letter,” she said as she slowly dried a plate.

He didn’t reply, waiting for her to continue.

“He’s sick. Lung cancer. He wants to see me.” She looked up at him. “Tell me what to do.”

His heart thumped painfully. Every inch of his being wanted to do just that, to tell her to refuse to see him. But nothing about that desire was right or fair. “I can’t,” he said, gazing at her. “The decision is all yours.”

“What would you do?” she pressed.

“I really don’t know.”

“I don’t believe that,” she replied, suddenly reaching over and decorating his chin with a handful of soap suds. “You always know what to do.”

“Hey,” he mildly protested, returning the favor by piling suds on both sides of her face. It was a playful respite from the conversation at hand. He welcomed it, however brief it would be. And sure enough, as her laughter dissipated, he knew that they were quickly back to reality.

“I don’t know how to feel, Des,” Liza said quietly. “It’s like opening a door I’ve closed for a long time.”

Desmond nodded. “I know.”

 

“There’s no way I’d let my wife…” Rich Mooney shook his head, unable to finish his statement, and took a long swig of beer.

Desmond turned his empty glass around and around on the table, his mind a jumble of emotions and thoughts. While Liza napped at home, he had slipped out for a drink with Rich, his good friend and neighbor. Naturally, Rich quickly became a sounding board for Desmond’s present quagmire.

“The fact of the matter is, the guy doesn’t deserve anything from Liza,” Rich finally continued.

“Don’t you think I know that? But he’s her father.”

“I get that, Des. But father or no—he ruined his daughter’s life. Period.”

It was easy for Rich to carve the situation in simple black and white terms. He was the outsider looking in; the visitor to a situation that was older and far more complex than he knew. In the end, he knew that no opinion or thoughts on the matter, not even his own, could usurp whatever Liza decided she would do.

 

Later that night, as they both lay sleepless in bed, Liza released a long sigh. Desmond knew then that she would see her father. He wasn’t sure how he knew, how he understood, but the certainty of her decision was as plain as the ceiling above his head. “You’re not going by yourself,” he whispered, tightening his hold around her. “I’m going with you.”

Liza peered up at him, her eyes moist with tears. “You’re not angry?” she asked.

Desmond shook his head, nearly out of breath from the idea that he could ever be angry with her. It was impossible, even when they argued, to be angry with the woman he loved more than he could truly comprehend. “Never,” he firmly assured her.

 

Liza’s mother, however, had a far different reaction to learning that her daughter planned on seeing her father. That Monday morning, as Desmond sat in the usual LA morning traffic on his way to the office, Kate Harbor’s raised voice, on speakerphone, filled the confines of his car.

“How can you allow this, Desmond?” she cried. “That man is a monster. You’re pushing her into a room with a monster.”

For the past several moments following her phone call, he had remained silent as Kate expressed her outrage. If anything, he had surmised, her outrage was warranted. He shared it. Accordingly, there was no need to speak or to verbally agree to the feelings they shared. But the idea that he was forcing his wife to do this—Desmond needed to speak. “Kate, you need to understand that this is entirely Liza’s choice,” he interjected.

“It doesn’t matter. You should stop her.”

“I’ll do no such thing.”

“Desmond—“

“Your daughter is a grown woman, Kate. You don’t have to agree with what she’s doing, but you need to find a way to understand.”

After some silence on the other end, Kate cleared her throat. “I don’t think I can,” she whispered, her voice coated with emotion.

“But you have to try,” he replied softly.

 

Walter Harbor resided in a group home in a suburban neighborhood about 3 miles outside of New Haven, Connecticut. It was a stately three-story house that easily blended in with the other properties on the quiet street. A week later, as they sat in the car, Desmond watched his wife gaze at the house, her demeanor expressionless. Nevertheless, as she clutched his hand tighter and tighter, the fact that she experienced a range of emotions was indisputable. He leaned closer to her. “How are you?” he asked.

Liza shook her head. “I wish I knew how to answer that,” she replied, drawing in a prolonged breath. She then turned toward him. “But it’s now or never. I’m ready.”

Nodding, Desmond opened his door and made his way toward the backseat on the passenger side. He pulled out the wheelchair and positioned it firmly on the sidewalk. Opening her door, he carefully lifted Liza from the car and into the chair. As they headed toward the front door, he stopped himself from urging her into the opposite direction.

 

Perhaps more surreal than inhabiting a room with his wife’s father, a man he had never met or cared to, was watching him weep without feeling much sympathy for him.

Walter Harbor cried until the coughing fits that were a symptom of his cancer took over, turning his sobs into spasms that shook his frail body. Desmond watched from the corner of the room, mostly unmoved. He was solely interested in Liza’s side of the experience. For her part, Liza sat by the side of the bed and quietly waited for the coughing to subside until her father grew somewhat calm.

“I’m sorry,” Walter muttered, wiping his face with his hands.

“It’s ok.”

But almost immediately, fresh tears streamed down his weather-worn, hollow cheeks. “Seeing you—you’re so beautiful. I just—” He paused and held up his hand. “I’ll end up crying again. I’m glad you came, Liza. You’ve done really nicely for yourself. Your life, everything.” Walter nodded toward Desmond but didn’t look at him, which had been the case since the two had been shown to his room.

“Thank you. How did you find me?” Liza asked.

He grinned. “One of the guys from the force knew a private investigator, so I called in some favors. I was surprised that you left the East Coast. Thought you’d be a New York girl for the rest of your life.” He paused. “Is your mother—is she close by, in case you need her?”

“She’s close by.”

Walter nodded. “Good. I bet she wasn’t very happy when you decided to come see me, huh?”

“Can you blame her?” Desmond interjected, unable to stop himself from speaking.

Liza glanced at him. He mouthed “I’m sorry.” She smiled wanly and mouthed “it’s ok” in response.

“It’s understandable, yeah, her being mad about that,” Walter murmured, still not looking at Desmond. “I deserve her anger. I deserve your anger, Liza Marie.”

She shook her head. “Dad, I’m not angry with you. I stopped being angry at you a long time ago.”

He peered at her with wide, watery eyes, willing her to go on.

“I knew you drank too much. I knew you were sick. Deep down, I don’t believe you truly wanted to hurt Mom and me.”

Walter shook his head. “I went crazy that day, Liza. I never, ever meant to hurt my family,” he said fervently.

 

Her father was racing upstairs with a knife. After already hitting her mother, she knew he was going to kill her. Eyeing his left hand, which held the knife, 10 year-old Liza Marie Harbor ran up behind him and jumped on his back. She willed herself to be strong and to hold on tight. She was going to knock the knife from his hand.

Get off me, Liza, he threatened.

No! You won’t hurt Mom!

Without another word, he forcefully pushed her back, causing her to plummet backwards. When she finally reached the bottom of the staircase, sharp pains ran up her legs and her backside. She screamed for her mother until, strangely, the need to close her eyes came over her.

 

“You did hurt us,” Liza said simply. She leaned over and took her father’s skeletal hands in hers. “It was so hard for Mom and me, for so long. But 25 years later, Dad, I can only forgive you. I forgive you for everything.”

Desmond felt his chest tightening. A hard ball began to form in his chest; it was a paradox, this hard, tight ball, made up of rage for a man who he felt didn’t deserve forgiveness and heightened respect for the woman who had just given it to him.

Walter began to weep once again. “You can’t walk because of me,” he sobbed. “I’m so sorry, my darling. I’m so, so sorry.”

Desmond nearly rose to his feet. He ached to condemn Walter’s tears. He wanted to refute his apology.

Liza tenderly rubbed her father’s hands. “I accept your apology,” she said softly. With that, she leaned over and kissed her father’s forehead. “Be at peace with yourself, Dad. You’ve made your amends with me.”

Desmond shook his head, unable to stop trembling. Yell at him, he silently begged Liza. Be angry with him.

“You’ve made your amends me with me,” she repeated to her father, as if in response to Desmond’s silent plea. “Thank you for giving me life.”

Walter Harbor nodded slowly, gazing at her, his eyes brimming with tears.

Liza then turned toward Desmond. “We’re ready to go,” she announced. Her wide eyes, so much like her father’s, seemed to implore him to do what he struggled to do—to stand up and leave without another word to the man who painfully and irrevocably changed her life. Coming here was one thing. But Liza had to recognize that to leave without a word was too much to ask of him.

She held out her hand. Please, her eyes seemed to entreat.

Desmond stood up, his attention directed on his father-in-law, a man who couldn’t even look at him. But eventually, his attention was pulled toward the woman he loved, who waited for him with her outstretched hand. With a deep breath, he approached her and claimed that hand. Without looking back, Desmond pushed her toward the door.

“Desmond.”

He froze at the sound of his name. Slowly, Desmond turned around. Walter Harbor’s eyes were intently fixed on his. “You keep taking care of her,” he said.

She takes care of me, he wanted to reply. However, he merely nodded and departed the room with his wife.

 

They sat in the car, still parked by the group home.

“How could you forgive him, Liza?” he whispered. “Help me understand.”

“If I could, there are so many things in life I would have chosen to do. Have children. Dance at our wedding. So many things. But I had the power to choose this time, Desmond. And I chose to give my father something he’s never experienced in his life: peace of mind. That could only come from forgiving him.” She paused. “It was what I wanted to do.”

“But he took your choices away when he…” His voice caught in his throat. “When he caused your accident.”

“Yes, that is true. But without that wheelchair, I wouldn’t have accidentally rolled over your feet in Lecture Hall the first day we met.”

Desmond looked up at her, both taken aback and moved. Her words elicited the vivid memory of that day in college. He was still convinced that he had fallen in love with her on sight.

Liza beamed, smiling at him. “I choose to focus on that,” she said, “the effect rather than the cause. The cause was you. In the end, that’s all I choose to care about.”

From the beginning, he realized, this entire matter had been about choices. And he wasn’t about to take that away from her.

 

About your Author: Round-Up.

Seriously. Why are we doing this? You don’t have a book to promote. 
Is that why you think I do this feature? To promote my fiction?

What other infernal reason could there be?
We’ve talked about plenty of things via this feature. The weather, working out, health. It’s fun.

Debatable. Anyway. What’s going on? You got quite a bit of snow last week, didn’t you?
A “bit” is underestimating it. It was unreal. I’ve seen blizzards before, experienced them, but this…

Not so fun when you’re an adult. Right?
Right. Exactly. You know me so well, kitten.

Again, because I’m you. You’re essentially talking to yourself. You get that, right? Right?
Anyway, what else is going on? Let’s see. I’m making plans about the future.

ARE YOU GETTING MARRIED?
Mom, is that you?

What’s this about the future? What’s happening? What are you doing??
Just making some significant changes. When things become more concrete, I’ll discuss them here. Until then–

Until then we’re all supposed to be on pins and needles, waiting with bated breath, until you reveal the plans about your non-husband?
That cabin fever did wonders with your temper and sarcasm, didn’t it?

So, your writing. How’s that going?
I’ve actually been dabbling in science fiction lately. I included a very sci-fi-esque story in my recent collection and it certainly lit a fire. So I’ve been writing short stories in that vein. Pretty proud of the one I wrote a few weeks ago, actually. I even submitted it for a writing contest.

How would you define science fiction?
Themes that deal with time travel, parallel universes, things like that.

Interesting. Are you going to post your beloved new story on here?
In a few weeks, yeah.

What do you like about that genre so much?
Here’s how I feel about it: if I write about time travel, I feel like the science fiction genre allows me to go as far as my imagination will allow and beyond without having to go too crazy with research and facts. Because no one has traveled through time. If I write a story about Savannah’s legal system, it needs to be based on the actual legal system in Georgia. you feel me?

So this is your lazy way of avoiding research. I feel you.
You’re the worst.

And yet you didn’t disagree. 
I’m leaving you now.

*sigh of relief*
You really are the worst.

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

The Wedding and the Web: The End

*

It was a lovely wedding. There was an orchestra and ice swans and roses flown in from Marseilles. My sister Charlotte was rhapsody in white; my other sisters and I wore lovely gowns in various shades of blue. Even Irene Vine, as she cried in the front row, allowed Danny to pat her hand and comfort her. The webs were all around us: between family, husbands and wives, parents and children, sisters.

Notably, a curious new web seemed to be forming. Its long, shiny string drifted from the front of ballroom, where I stood, over into the audience where Andy Flood sat in the fourth row. He openly watched me during the ceremony, a fact that intrigued and delighted me more than the silver flask peeking out from the top of Carmen’s dress.

At the end of the ceremony, Andy stopped upon reaching me in the receiving line and handed me, not a red rose from Marseilles, but a yellow daffodil. “Your favorite, remember? From the flower shop on Baker Street,” he whispered in my ear. “May I have the first dance at the reception?”

“Yes,” I whispered back, after which I watched him move through the crowd until he exited the lobby.

I gazed at the flower. How long ago had I mentioned that I adored the yellow daffodils at the flower shop on Baker Street? That I bought myself a bouquet once a month? It had to be ages ago. But it didn’t matter. He was listening. He had always been listening.

The Wedding and the Web: Part 6

*

“Nervous about tomorrow?” Andy Flood asked as he walked into the break room that morning.

I stood by the counter, stirring my coffee and deliberating over my resolution from a few nights ago. “Actually, no. I’m kind of looking forward to it.”

“Good. I’m glad.”

“Mostly because of what Carmen may do.”

I watched him laugh. Andy Flood laughed at everything I said. He conversed with me every morning, every afternoon. He was kind and flexible, especially about the general craziness of this wedding time for me, all the time, really. He respected my dedication to my family, as he said, but seemed to be aware of the necessity of setting a few boundaries without communicating this in an outright, intrusive manner. Andy Flood was a terrific guy. I hoped whomever he had this crush on would be fortunate enough to find that out.

“So, Catherine, I’m pretty curious about this royal wedding. Can I crash?”

“Absolutely. Just be prepared to wear a server’s uniform. My mother will be eyeing that guest list like a hawk.”

“Hmm. Well, how about I just come? As your date?” He approached the counter and poured a cup of coffee.

I blinked a few hundred times. “My date?”

Andy nodded, regarding me, his demeanor unreadable. I waited for a punch line that never came. “But,” I croaked, “why?”

“Why not?”

My mind, slightly scrambled, searched for a response. “I’m—I mean—what do you—?”

“Black tie, right?”

I nodded slowly.

“I’ll be there. Email me the address.” With that, he smiled at me and left the break room.

Taken aback, I rushed to the ladies room and called Carmen.

“And Hot Lips Marta Weeks told you he has a crush on someone in the office?” she asked me a few minutes later.

“Yes, but—” It couldn’t be. Could it?

“Wake up, Catherine Vine,” Carmen said, as if reading my mind. “It’s you. You’re the crush.”

“But, why?” I asked for the second time that day.

“Why not, silly? Look, we’ve been conditioned to accept the opposite for far too long, but here it is: you matter, too. To this family, to Andy Flood. You matter. We all do. Deep down, even Bob and Irene Vine know and believe that. That’s the plain truth. All right, call me later; I’m trying to sew a flask into this gown.” With that, she ended the call.

Why not? I asked myself for the remainder of the day.

The Wedding and the Web: Part 5

*

At the co-ed bridal shower a few evenings later, I watched Sanford and Charlotte twirl around on the dance floor. Our parents had rented a much smaller ballroom in a smaller hotel for the event, but it was no less swanky, as it was a black-tie affair. Caroline, Danny, Carmen, and I sat at a table. We were surprised that Danny had agreed to come, but were nonetheless happy he was there.

“You know what?” Carmen began, accepting her fifth glass of champagne from the server. “That chauvinist pig really does love her. Look at them.”

I already was. Sanford whispered in her ear; he intermittently dipped her, to her delight; he made her laugh. There were times, too, unbeknownst to Charlotte, that Sanford simply gazed at his wife-to-be, stupefied and proud all at the same time. I swallowed thickly. My sister was not solely our parents’ miracle, but his, as well.

Caroline glanced pitifully at me, as did Danny. My heart sank. Did I truly believe that my sister hadn’t mentioned my feelings for Sanford to her husband?

“When she was 7, I think, she told me that she was a princess, but she couldn’t marry a prince because she was—she was sick all the time,” Carmen continued, slowly swirling her champagne around in the glass and gazing at the bubbles. “Remember how she was in and out of the hospital for all the bronchial stuff? But, I told her, ‘you can marry a prince, Charlotte. Your prince will love you and take care of you.’” With tears now glistening in her eyes, Carmen downed the contents of the glass and hailed a server for another. Caroline vigorously shook her head at the server and flagged another server down for several cups of coffee.

With Carmen’s words volleying about in my mind, I returned my attention to the couple, really to Charlotte. She was vision in a mermaid-style, black gown, her dark hair cascading down her shoulders in loose ringlets. She no longer dealt with bronchial and respiratory issues, although my mother still forced her to wear a coat during the cool San Diego evenings. At 26, she was a healthy, vibrant woman. Coddling her was no longer necessary, but I knew it wouldn’t stop, certainly not from Bob and Irene Vine. To them, Charlotte Mary Vine was still that baby in the NICU, struggling to breathe. But I had to put a stop to certain things; to babying her, to my parents’ requests that I baby her, to my feelings for her almost-husband. Let the princess alone, I told myself. Leave her to her prince, and do it quickly.

“Cath, would you like to dance?” Danny asked.

Slightly thankful for the interruption to my thoughts, I nodded and left Caroline to mind a belligerent-because-of-coffee Carmen. We walked out onto the dance floor and began to sway to a light jazz number.

“Easier said than done,” Danny said, “but I’m sure you know that you need to get over him.”

“I know. I’m resolved to do just that.”

“Good. But how?”

“Loyalty to my sister and just moving on with my life. It won’t happen overnight, but I’m confident,” I said firmly.

Danny nodded. “I believe you. What made you fall for him in the first place?”

“We were teenagers. But he seemed to care about what I thought about things, my opinions. Something about that stayed with me and didn’t want to let go.” I pondered it over some more. “He listened to me. No one seemed to be listening to me.”

“Someone will, Cath. I know that, we all know that. You’re worth listening to.”

I smiled at my brother-in-law. One day, my parents would understand that their eldest had indeed married up.

The Wedding and the Web: Part 4

            *

Charlotte eventually settled on a venue for the wedding—the grand ballroom of the Hotel del Coronado. Gradually, painstakingly, the colors were picked, the dress was finally chosen, and the bridal party wined, dined, and fêted the bride-to-be. Specifically, this bridal party consisted of the three of us: one matron of honor and two maids. Carmen was the last to accept Charlotte’s request to stand alongside her on her big day, but not without a promise to Caroline and me that she would arrive intoxicated to the wedding and any other wedding-related events. (We believed her.)

“So do you have to wear crowns for the royal wedding?” Andy Flood asked me that morning, after I filled him in on the final stages of the wedding planning. As usual, he stood before my desk.

“Not the ladies-in-waiting. Just the princess gets the crown.”

“Ah. I’m sure you’ll be relieved when it’s all over.”

“Incredibly relieved. I plan on taking a few days off, actually—until I’m tasked with being the wet nurse for their first child.”

Andy laughed. “Let’s hope you never get that phone call.”

Marta Weeks, another assistant, then rounded the corner and approached us. “Andy, you’re being summoned by Ed.”

He waved goodbye to us before heading down the hallway. Marta openly watched him walk away. It was no secret that she had a thing for Andy, as did most of the female population at Hardy and Malloy. “That Andy Flood,” she murmured. “It’s a shame.”

“What is?”

“The fact that he’s not the least bit interested in me, despite my efforts to change that. A gal gets tired of parading herself around, believe me.”

I raised my eyebrows and left that particular statement alone. Marta’s penchant for short and tight-fitted clothing was a point of discussion around the office.

“Rumor is he has a crush on someone in the office, though,” she continued.

“Really? Who?” I knew quite a bit about Andy and his background, but a crush had never come up in conversation. But then why would he reveal that kind of information to me? We tended to discuss general topics like work, family, and things of that nature.

Marta shrugged. “It’s not me, that’s for sure.”

“Well, it’s probably another lawyer. Rachel Neal seems popular.”

“It’s definitely not Rachel Neal. She’s engaged to an aide in the mayor’s office. Anyway, it doesn’t matter. Like I said, it’s not yours truly, so I really don’t care.” She winked at me before walking away. For a moment, I reflected on how difficult it was to actually like Marta Weeks.

Who did Andy Flood have a crush on?

The Wedding and the Web: Part 3

*

When I wasn’t sitting by Charlotte’s side during the wedding preparations, I was a litigation assistant for a law firm in the city. The world of lawsuits and trials was a significant diversion from frilly dresses and color swatches, and far more interesting. Nevertheless, my busy job didn’t necessarily mean I could escape from my family.

“Sweetheart,” my mother began when I answered the call on my desk phone that morning, “there’s a potential change in venue. Your sister heard about a lovely banquet hall on Catalina Island. You know how special Catalina is to her.” The island was where Charlotte and Sanford had their first date.

I sighed inwardly. “When is she planning to take a look at it?”

“This afternoon.”

Oh, God. “Mom, I can’t go. I need to be in court this afternoon. There’s a case, and—”

“Catherine.” Her voice had dipped into that lower register reserved for mothers ready to remind older sisters about miracle babies and providing them all the support they needed. I knew it well. “Your sister needs you.”

“Maybe Carmen can go. I know she’ll be free this after—”

“Carmen cannot possibly go. You know that.”

True, it was a silly suggestion. Carmen tended to get physically and verbally combative with Charlotte. Despite being largely incensed with our parents about, well, everything, this didn’t preclude her from taking it out on the baby. “Ok,” I replied. “I can check with Caroline, then.”

Mom breathed into my ear.

Oh, God.

“Catherine, it is important that you go. You know how easily turned around your sister gets, even with that GPS thing. She probably won’t find the harbor. And Sanford is in Sacramento today, so he’s unavailable. Can’t these lawyers understand that your little sister needs you?”

It was the typical guilt-trip triumvirate: Charlotte being alone, her well-being, and how those two things superseded everything. I held my breath and closed my eyes, hoping the phone would somehow disconnect. A slight tapping on my desk caused them to open. Andy Flood, one of the attorneys I supported, stood before my desk. “It’s ok; you can go,” he said softly.

“Are you sure?” I whispered, placing my hand over the phone’s speaker.

He nodded.

“Mom,” I said, “I’ll meet her.” I could practically hear my mother’s lips widening in a smile.

“Wonderful. Pick her up around 1pm, sweetie. ‘Bye.”

“Thank you,” I said to Andy after hanging up the phone. Having supported him for almost three years now, he had become well-versed in my family’s antics.

“I couldn’t help but overhear. Duties for the royal wedding, I presume,” he replied.

I laughed. “Exactly. But is it really ok? I’ve finalized most of the briefs, but there are few more left to finish.”

Andy waved his hand. “It’s 10:15. If you can finish the rest, Marta can take over and come to court with us. No worries.”

I thanked him again and got to work. I dreaded going to Catalina, but in the meantime, anything to take my mind off the island was welcome.

                                                                                          *

After Catalina and touring the banquet room (“it’s a possibility,” Charlotte had decided), I returned to the office a bit after 6 that evening. All in all, the excursion had taken a whopping five hours; my mother and sister failed to comprehend things like the hour it took just to get from the city to the harbor, where a boat took travelers to the island and back.

“Cath?”

I turned around, having walked past Andy’s office toward my desk without realizing he was inside. I approached his office.

“You didn’t have to come back,” he said.

“It’s fine. I have a ton of things to do.”

Andy smiled. “Be honest with me, Cath, really. Do you ever feel like saying no to your family?”

“All the time.”

“But you won’t. Or can’t?”

“Hey, are you a lawyer or a therapist?” I joked.

He chuckled. “I just kind of marvel sometimes, at your dedication to them.”

“You and me both.”

“Believe me, I love my family, too. But your patience is extraordinary. I respect that.”

“Thank you.” Later, the ideas that Andy “marveled” at my dedication and respected me struck me. I wasn’t sure why.

                                                                                            *

By and large, Caroline’s husband, Danny, didn’t interact with our parents. Their tense relationship started when our parents disagreed with their oldest daughter marrying an auto mechanic. It didn’t matter that, at the time, Danny already owned two successful shops. They still objected. In the end, only my father chose to attend their wedding in order to walk his weeping daughter down the aisle. Five years later and a few weeks ago, learning about the price tag of Charlotte’s wedding and their eager support of her marriage was all it took for Danny; Caroline and I had been forced to restrain him from getting into a car and driving to our parents’ home for a confrontation. (Carmen had cheered on his plans.)

The next morning, I sat adjacent to Danny in their kitchen as he sipped a cup of coffee and peered at me over the lid. “I heard you drove to Catalina yesterday,” he said.

I understood Caroline telling her husband everything, but I questioned the wisdom of informing Danny about these types of things, being that he was usually minutes away from burning down my parents’ house. And, along with everything else, my adventures with Charlotte, as dictated by my parents, didn’t rank high on his list of favorite things. I merely nodded in reply.

“What was that, like a six-hour drive?” he asked.

“About five hours,” I said, not meeting his eyes.

“And is she booking the venue for sure?”

“Danny…”

“Don’t worry about it, Cath. After breakfast, I’ll check out your car. I’m sure you’ve been logging more than a few miles on it lately.”

“Thanks, Danny.” I breathed a quiet sigh of relief.

Caroline entered the kitchen then, armed with a basket of oranges, strawberries, and other assorted fruits from their garden. “Fruit salad, anyone?” she asked, smiling at us. She playfully ruffled Danny’s hair.

He gazed up at her, beaming. Parental objections or not, not one of us doubted their love and affection for each other. It was another web, wasn’t it? I thought. Tested and challenged, but no less solid.

The person you want this kind of love with loves your little sister, a voice then reminded me.

Things need to change, Catherine.

Now.

But how?