Thursday, December 26, 2013

Murica: The Big Fat Ugly Truth

I have a confession. And it's totally secret. Which is why it makes absolutely no sense that I am about to share it with who knows how many people. But I think it needs to be let out. I think it's time for me to stop hiding it and come clean.

If you're looking for a post that will make you laugh or feel good, this isn’t the one. Normally, I try to be light and humorous. But regarding what I am about to lay on all of you, there is no way to make light of it.

You see, about five minutes before writing this, I was sitting on the floor in my walk-in closet, organizing my work out clothes (of all things…oh the irony), crying. Yep. As in bawling my eyes out which are now a lovely shade of puffy. 

And here is what I was crying about.

Me. My naturally curly and frizzy hair. The way my eyes are two different sizes. The moles and freckles that dot my face. My pudgy chin. My short but chubby neck. My thick eyebrows I need to make an appointment to wax. By boobs that are too big. The cellulite I have on my thighs. My skin being brown and not the peachy pale I wish I had. And the size 4 clothes I probably will never fit in again that are piled up on my ever hopeful shelf which serves as an everyday reminder of just how chubby I have become. And the thought that no man will ever, ever, see me on the street and think "My word, she is gorgeous."

Now I know what you are all thinking. "What is she talking about? Every woman feels this way. You should embrace all of those things." I know. I know. I've heard the drill. I know I should look in the mirror and see the beauty in myself. I know I need to shift my thinking. I know it could be worse. And I know that what is inside is more important and blah, blah, blah. And I know it sounds shallow. 

But I'm crying because even though I know all of that, even though I try to change the way I view myself…I can't. Why?

Because for my entire life, I have watched images of beauty on the TV. I've poured over the magazines like Cosmo, People, and 17. And before you ask, yes, I know they are airbrushed. You know what? Doesn't help knowing that. And here's why. 

I am a mutt. I'm part Mexican, Portuguese, and Welsh/Scottish/English with other parts of Europe thrown in for fun. Because of the Latina in me, the dark coloring and eyes, hair, etc is what is dominant in me. The perfect picture of diversity. And even as a little girl, growing up in beach cities in Southern California, this was a problem. Because everywhere I looked, no one looked like me. They were all carbon copies of Barbie, but with less bosom and a a better zip code.

Growing up, I dreamed of being beautiful like the people I saw around me. I made runways in my living room and practiced walking. At thirteen, I walked myself to the local modeling agency and asked to sign up. (They said no, obviously) I rehearsed interviews that I just knew someday I would be giving. And Oscar speeches, because like most models, my career would phase into acting. (Ha.)

I wanted so much just to look like one of them. The beautiful people. They were the ones who had dates. They were the ones who got asked to prom. They were the ones boys pined over and men wrote love songs and poems about.

So I had to learn how to make myself look like I belonged, like I wasn't a complete outsider. And in Southern Cali, that is no easy task. Because I did and still do not fit the typical image.

Me? I was always rounder. Thicker. Shorter. Half curly hair, half wavy, all frizzy. I'm petite in size but not in clothing. I have hips and boobs and a full face. Typical Hispanic features. I didn't have a squeaky cute voice or an amazing talent that would make me stand out. There was nothing remarkable about me. So, I did everything I could to make myself more like them.

I colored my hair. I tried to mold myself into a replica of every beautiful girl on TV and in pictures. I looked to the girls around me. The blondes with cute freckles, the girls with straight bodies and no curves, their hair glistened in the sun, their cheeks bronzed lightly from an unintentional tan, and they all could fit easily into a size 2. They looked just like the models, so this MUST be what beauty is. At least to me, it was.

They wore surfing clothes? So did I. They tanned? So did I. They bleached their hair blond? I tried. Came out orange. Nice. They were thin? I pretty much became anorexic. There was one point, at age 20, when I got onto the scale and saw 95 pounds, and the first thought I had, was "Awesome, now if I could lose another 5." Then I got off the scale, looked into the mirror and saw the fat still on my upper thighs and my pooch stomach. 

Those doubts and insecurities continued as each guy I dated would end up dumping me because he liked someone else better. She was always blond. Or redheaded. And thin. Awesome. 

That pretty much remained into my young adulthood. Then, finally, I met the man of my dreams and got married. Finally, my dream had come true. I'd found someone to love me and see me as beautiful. Except it wasn't like that. You see, he liked thin girls. Blond girls. Girls who looked like they were straight out of a magazine. For a decade, I was in a relationship where I was told I was too chubby, fat, starting to look overweight. I was told to go on diets and exercise and eat healthy. I was told "if you lose weight, we can have another kid." Or "You should get your boobs reduced, they're too big." "You should lighten your hair." I was never told anything remotely positive. So, not only did I not feel beautiful, I felt ugly. And it only reinforced everything I grew up thinking. By the way, throughout my marriage my weight was around 120. Sometimes a bit more, sometimes a bit less.

Yes, I know. He was a jerk. That is why we are now divorced. But I am still that girl, looking in the mirror, seeing how I compare to others. I see how men tweet about these gorgeously beautiful women, celebrities, and models. The pictures they use as "inspiration" for their writing. How is that so different from what my ex did? It really isn’t. It's still saying in no uncertain terms, that those women are the ideal. Because as much as I can look at one of those women and agree they are beautiful, I look back in a mirror and see how I look nothing like them. So what does that make me?

Because the reality is, and we women know it, what America sees as beautiful, becomes beautiful.

"But Carey, America is diverse now! We see tons of images of Latina and dark skinned women these days! There isn't one stock image of beauty! Rejoice! Your time has come!" you say.

Right. Because when we see guys drooling over models and celebrities, they're all ethnically diverse. HA. And realistic in size and proportion to what real women are. HAHA. One look at twitter says we haven't come very far in our unrealistic ideals. I see men and women alike, sharing pictures of these perfectly sculpted, gorgeous women and men, swooning and oo'ing and aww'ing because these people are somehow so much better than anyone else.

"But Carey! Look at Penelope Cruz! Salma Hayek! Jennifer Lopez! Selena Gomez! See? Dark is IN!" Please point me to the one who is over a size 6. Not to mention…these are not the women that show up when guys are tweeting pictures of what they find beautiful while swooning and OMGing.

"But, Carey, it’s all in fun. We are writers, readers, we want the fantasy!"

But isn't that the point? We can't want what is real and in front of us. We want to covet the things that are more beautiful than the reality. Because obviously, if a guy could get Jennifer Lawrence, don't you think he'd want that? Do you think in a heartbeat, if there were two women, equally as beautiful on the inside, and one was average height, weight, size (which by the way is 12 in women's sizes) and one was a replica of Jennifer Lawrence, and both of them wanted him equally, any man would pick the average one? They wouldn't. Then what does that make the rest of us? Second choice. 

And when we escape into a book, we want to picture our fantasy. This only exacerbates the whole problem. Because someday, a teenage girl is going to pick up that book, and the next one, and the next one, and the next…and after a while a clear image is going to emerge. That a heroic, amazing main character worthy of love and affection, is beautiful. And the Bella trope…you know the one…the girl who thinks she isn’t beautiful…but really is...that's so sweet that some authors attempt at making average characters average. Except that the "average" girl in these books is far from it. And we all know it.

And I'm just as guilty. When I write my characters, I don't picture me. I picture thin, bosom, blondes or thin, athletic redheads with cute freckles and blue eyes. Or pale beauties with ebony hair and waif-like features. So I'm just as bad as everyone else. I, of everyone, should be writing ethnic characters who aren't like everyone else. Ones who serve as an accurate portrayal of what girls and women actually look like. So why haven’t I?

Because when I think of beautiful, I think of what America tells me is.  Whether it is adorkable Zooey Deschanel, or quirky Jennifer Lawrence, or beautiful and funny Emma Stone, whether they have glasses or not, wear t-shirts and jeans, or wear Prada, none of them look remotely like me. 

So, I sit in my closet and cry. Because no matter what I do, I will never look like that. And I will always feel second. Because the truth is, some of you reading this, DO look like that. Two of my best friends DO look like that. So it's not that no one looks like that. It's me that doesn’t. And America, no matter how ugly or nasty it sounds, doesn’t like what's real. And we want the dream. We want the pretty. We starve ourselves, spend money we shouldn’t, we go to spas and hair salons, we fret over every flaw, because we want to be closer to beautiful. 

And for those women who can honestly say they don't? Those of you who, every day, look at themselves and think they're beautiful; bless you, because you aren’t the norm. And I'm not talking about telling yourself you're beautiful…I am talking about an honest to God, deep down, no doubt about it, knowledge that you are beautiful. I envy that.

For what it's worth, I never was asked to prom. Or a date until I was 20…ironically when I was anorexic…take that to mean what you want. 

So, I shared a lot. Probably over-shared. I tend to do that. But writing this blog helped. It didn't change how I see myself, and I certainly am not wanting or expecting a host of "You are beautiful" comments. That wasn't what this was about. This was about being honest with myself and how it feels being a square peg in a round-holed world. 

This was a reminder that, not intentionally, as writers, and as people, we often keep this ideal of beauty going in the words we write, the characters we create, and the images we circulate via social media and conversation. Every time we craft a deliciously perfect love interest or a stunningly gorgeous heroine, we are defining what readers young and old see as beautiful. And with that, continuing a judgement that those who don't fit that image, aren't. It's our job as writers to be aware of this. Then maybe, we can change this problem.

And I know I am not alone in feeling this way. And if you have ever felt the same, my closet door is always open. Bring Kleenex. And cookies.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Elephant in the Classroom: thoughts on the Common Core and why they aren't all that bad.

So I am a little irritated and I’m going to go on a teaching rant. I usually save my blog for things writing related, but since this has to do with the Common Core and reading in general, I feel like this is a good place to post it.

This is going to be a bit of a mash up of things. Common misconceptions of what the common core is, as well as what I see is the purpose of the Common Core.

To begin with, let me state for the record that when I first began teaching, I completely disagreed with the idea of standardized testing and general standards. They, I argued, went against how people develop at different rates and styles.

And indeed that is still true, but that is not what the Common Core attempts to do. What it tries to do is give sort of milestones where students should developmentally be at certain times in their lives. For example, as babies grow and develop, they are expected to hit different developmental milestones. Crawling around age 5-6 months, surfing at age 8 months, walking by 12-16 months. If children, who all develop at various speeds, do not hit a milestone within a given time, it usually happens eventually. But, if they never begin walking after 2 years, as parents we need to know that something is off.

I say this because this happened to me. I wasn’t walking at 2 ½ years old and my mom was worried. Why? What was going on that I wasn’t even motivated to do so? Well, it had to do with the fact that I couldn’t see. I was almost legally blind. But this hadn’t been figured out yet. Once doctors identified the problem, it made sense. I was too scared and unfamiliar with my environment to master that milestone. Had there been no target, how long may it have been until someone realized what was wrong?

This is the purpose of the Common Core. To develop a common standard of where students should be as determined by the cognitive abilities they have at a certain time period. For instance, you can’t expect a child who has not mastered ability to recognize that words have symbolic meaning and that symbols stand for sounds to learn to read. A child who has not yet learned to use different ways of solving a problem will have a hard time understanding math. It’s simple, yet complicated. And often, when criticizing education, people forget these basic understandings. Therein lies the problem in education.

What parents and the public see as trying a “one size fit all” education, is really just trying to identify the appropriate stages at which students can best learn. And standards, and the controversial standard based grading (which I do) is meant to be used as a guide to telling parents “hey, your kid isn’t walking yet” (metaphorically speaking). But it’s misinterpreted.

Myth #1: Common Core deemphasizes reading

·         INSTEAD it makes reading of ALL texts of primary importance. What’s more, it states that reading needs to be done AT GRADE LEVEL OR ABOVE, instead of what happens now, which is most of the reading material is far below grade level. While I am not saying things like picture books and lower reading levels can’t be used in a classroom in middle school, I AM saying that it should be used in CONJUNCTION with higher level material so students are exposed to vocabulary and the more sophisticated sentence structures found in higher level text. Because it’s not JUST about content.

Myth #2: Common Core emphasizes non-fiction reading

·         INSTEAD: It emphasized MORE nonfiction reading in specific content areas.

o   I am going to be honest and blunt here. There is a SEVERE problem in this country’s schools. And it has to do with a lot of things. It’s not a one problem issue. And parents…listen up.

§  Problem 1: Elementary schools aren’t doing a good job of pushing students. It’s a hard job, being an elementary school teacher. You have to know a little about a lot. And you are responsible for teaching science, reading, writing, speaking and listening, math, health, and more ie. social skills and penmanship. It’s crazy how much they do. And most elementary school teachers have a generalized degree. In all areas. So no single content is very specific. So it is up to the teacher to decide what and how they're going to teach. And up to now and the introduction of the common core, teachers have taught “what they like and know”. Which results in a phenomena I call “the Dinosaur Unit”. It represents a teacher’s favorite topic. And it goes like this:

·         “We’re gonna read about dinosaurs (nonfiction), then read a picture book about dinosaurs (fiction), then do dinosaur math, science about dinosaurs, make an art project about dinosaurs, cook a dinosaur muffin, you get the idea. And hey, who doesn’t love a good dinosaur lesson? I do. But the inherent problem is …what the hell do dinosaurs have to do with anything? Not a lot. And while they are pretty cool…next year when the teacher wants to teach about ladybugs, there is no real connection. Common Core will get rid of that. Because instead, the focus will be on something like this:

·         Compare information from multiple sources on a topic and evaluate which source contains less bias

Which one do you think is more rigorous? And hell…use a damn dinosaur book to do that. Yay dinosaurs. But do you see how the focus shifted? THAT’S WHY THE COMMON CORE EXISTS. So no matter where your kid is, if they are in a certain grade, they're all cognitively doing the same thing. And guess what? The materials are still (for the most part) at the teacher’s discretion. So there still is room for individuality.

·         Problem 2: The truth is, statistically, by the time a child is behind in 3rd grade, there is a 30% chance that the same child will be behind in middle school. If the child is still behind in middle school, chances increase that the child will drop out by tenth grade. The fact is, that by the time they hit middle school (which is where I teach) there is little TEACHERS can do to make the jumps they need to make to get to grade level. I simply a) do not have the specific background and b) do not have the time to teach students how to learn phonemic awareness consecutively while teaching kids how to comprehend a book like Night for theme and analysis. So the kid in my class, who reads at a 3rd grade level (books like Beverly Cleary or Captain Underpants) is expected to also be reading Night by Elie Wiesel.

So how did that kid make it to 8th grade without having the skills to be successful? Again, being blunt. Because we're so worried about their feelings and what they might feel like if we hold them back, that they get pushed forward. So, they weren’t successful in 3rd grade, they feel dumb in 6th because they still don’t have the skills to do what everyone else is doing, then they develop behavior and avoidance problems to cope. Then they are in 8th grade and completely feel lost and dumb, and like they don’t like school. Because who likes something when they feel like they fail at it every day? By the time they hit high school, they've already decided school is not for them and they drop out. It’s sad. So have we really saved them from anything?

Part of that issue is that most schools can’t legally do any kind of special education and developmental testing until…second grade. That’s right. They won’t diagnose a kid with reading or writing problems until second grade. But guess when most reading problems occur? That’s right…kindergarten. So by the time they can be tested, they already are behind. That needs to change. And if a parent doesn’t advocate for testing AND a teacher doesn’t advocate for testing, guess what? That kid could go through ALL OF SCHOOL with NO ONE EVER KNOWING WHY THEY MAY HAVE STRUGGLED. It’s both sad and discouraging when I advocate for testing for a kid in 8th grade and find out they had reading development issues that could have been helped in third grade had they been tested earlier. And sometimes, we teachers have to ARGUE against administrators, counselors, and specialists who don’t think they need testing. It’s ridiculous how hard it is to get a kid tested. Most struggling readers missed something in kindergarten and first grade…ie. they missed a critical understanding of chunking or phonemes, or fluency building, etc. If identified in first grade and if there were programs and extra help in first grade, it would be easily fixable. So, why aren't we doing that? Why do we wait until it becomes so difficult to fix? I don’t have an answer.

·         Problem 3: In middle school and high school, there is prevalence in the thinking that teaching reading is for ELA teachers (English Language Arts). To me, this is the problem that pisses me off the most.  I can’t tell you how many times students have come to me and said, “My PE teacher told me to write this paper and give it to you to grade? Or my science teacher said you would look and edit our science papers?” My reaction: Uh…hell no. I already grade my own assignments thank you. Your science teacher is completely capable of correcting your work. They even went to college.

And now, ELA teachers are buying into that line of thinking. They are being sold the message that it is now an ADDED responsibility to teach nonfiction texts to all we have to do anyway. Think of it this way, while before science teachers only were responsible for science content, ELA are and continue to be responsible for reading standards (non fiction and fiction), writing standards, and traditionally speaking and listening standards. So for every one standard science or math had, ELA had three. And now people think we need to add more to an already overtaxed load? No.

 Now that we have Common Core, there are many reactions from the ELA teachers (AND principals and districts, etc that are driving the reation) which is this:

“Oh no, there is an emphasis on nonfiction. We need our ELA teachers to teach more nonfiction and stop teaching and reading so much fiction. YIKES.”

Then there is this mass rush to read nonfiction texts in English class based on an incorrect assumption.

BULLSHIT. Math teachers are expected to teach math. Science teachers are expected to teach science. Guess what Literacy and literature teachers are supposed to teach….any guesses? That’s right. Literature. As in fiction. As in if I stop teaching metaphor and hyperbole and theme and symbolism and parallelism and idioms, who is going to teach it? Science? Nope. Math? Don’t think so. So, that’s my curriculum. And I should not be expected to nor does the Common Core expect me to stop teaching those. In fact, there is a HUGE strand of ELA standards specifically for literature that, for sure, won’t be taught anywhere else. So, if I don’t teach that, who will? So, to say, that the Common Core is making me, an English teacher stop teaching literature is bullshit, and anyone who tells a parent different is speaking out their ass. And should be directed to the ELA Literature standards. Period. Which FYI are here:

So, then how…do we get more nonfiction? Guess what….that means every single teacher in this country, regardless of what content they teach…are now responsible for teaching reading and writing. Novel concept. And people (teachers who aren't English teachers) will have a fit. But I don’t care. Because according to the COMMON CORE…it is now in their standards. So now, science has nonfiction reading standards IN SCIENCE. AND HISTORY has their own set. Which means, THEY need to pick up the slack in nonfiction reading skills, not dole more out to the ELA teachers who ALREADY carry the lion's share of standards. Because at the secondary level, they too…are teaching the infamous “dinosaur unit” just in a more developed way. Let me illustrate:

o   Science teacher Joe says: I can’t be responsible for teaching writing and grammar and reading. I have all my content to get through. I’m not a reading teacher. (if I had a dollar for every time I heard that, I would be Oprah.) YES. YOU. ARE.

o   Instead of say teaching cellular respiration, you are now giving students a text on cellular respiration, then asking (AND TEACHING THEM HOW) them to analyze charts, pictures, graphs (nonfiction reading) and perhaps teaching them how to read a cause and effect text structure to glean information. Or sequential text structure. Because WE READ NONFICTION DIFFERENTLY than FICTION. And THAT MUST BE TAUGHT. And where better to teach that, then in a class with NONFICTION CONTENT. The STANDARD/SKILL is what you teach, the CONTENT is what you use to teach that standard. And usually in science and history, the way most students are taught…are taught through…ding ding ding…nonfiction text. So, history teachers need to stop lecturing about all the things they know about (called the sage on the stage syndrome)…and instead have students read personal accounts, historical records, primary documents to learn about history. Read newspapers for current events. Read Popular Science articles to connect science to current issues. READING is how the content SHOULD BE delivered. Which will require a science teacher to teach READING STRATEGIES AND SKILLS to pull information, annotate texts, think critically about NONFICTION. And that is what the COMMON CORE IS ATTEMPTING TO DO. Because the best way people AND KIDS learn is by interacting with text, talking about text, making inferences, predictions, analyzing and evaluating text. Of all types. In all classes. Period.

In a nutshell, we need to, as teachers, increase the amount of time students spend on ALL TYPES OF TEXTS. Including fiction. And ELA teachers need to have time to teach their content. Because it is true, reading is the ONE skill that is a gateway to others. To get to be a better writer, what does everyone suggest? Read. To learn about history? Read. To learn how the solar system works and how tectonic plates shift? Read. Even math problems require certain vocabulary and teaching students how to READ to know what is being asked of them. Reading is hands down the most important skill we can teach our children. And to say it is only the English teacher's responsibility is not only asinine, but it's dangerous.
And as far as standards go, students SHOULD be held to high expectations in the classroom. Before standards, I could teach whatever I wanted. If I wanted to teach a poem unit, I would.  I never once thought about what I wanted the purpose to be. Now, it’s the first question I ask. And as a writer, it comes in pretty handy too. Fact is, I am a better teacher since I've switched from teaching “my content” and started teaching skills. And, I’ve been doing that long before Common Core told me to. It’s about time the rest of the country catch up.
Parents can help by becoming not only educated in the Common Core, but find the year of schooling your child is at, and familiarize yourself with the standards for that year. You have to read the voting pamphlets to vote (or you should), doesn't your child deserve the same attention paid to them as a political representative?
As a parent and a teacher, it is my responsibility to become aware, involved, and an advocate for my child, because who else is better suited to do so.

Finally, the fact is our kids have been graduating high school unable to keep up with the demands of college. And you only have to look at your schools approved novel list to see that. When you look at the texts being read and taught, most of them are at levels much lower than students should be able to read. We need to increase the amount and difficulty of text. And we need to prepare our kids with the skills to handle that text. So, the old way of teaching, needs to go the way of the dinosaurs. And the dinosaur unit. Because our kids deserve better.
End rant.

Monday, August 19, 2013

The Memory Project: The Conclusion by Carey Torgesen

Well, it's been fun folks. I really have enjoyed sharing the fabulous work from my friends. I hope you've enjoyed it as much as I have. It really was fantastic how things just seemed to all fit together, like some puzzle meant to be from the greatest writers I know.

So, I know you're all wondering how it ends. To be honest, for a while, I wondered myself. But then, like most things that are worth anything, the idea came to me. And of course, the man who started it all, my bestie Josh, was the inspiration for the perfect conclusion.

Oh, and by the way, many of these pictures were taken by one of my dearest friends, Jodie Andrefski. I want to thank her for allowing me to use them. She's not only a very talented writer, but an amazing photographer as well. Thanks J. I love you~ sent from my iHeart.

So here it is. Hope you like it as much I do. It's been fun. Love you all.

The Memory Project: The Conclusion 
By Carey Torgesen

I looked at the man standing before me. He wore a black brimmed hat, his hair was salt and pepper, with just fringes of bangs peeking out from under the dark fabric. He also donned a crisp, black suit, with the white shirt contrasting against the lapel and cuffs. It was a strange outfit to be wearing at this time of night, in the summer, in the middle of a small town like ours. I was sure he must be roasting like a ham on Easter Sunday.
Jesse stretched his arm around my waist, holding me so my back was close to his chest. I felt safe.
“D? What’s that for?” I asked.
“Donald. Agent Donald. Nice to meet you.” He held out his hand. I leaned forward, and took his hand firmly in mine. The moment our hands touched, a shock of electricity zapped me. I snapped my hand back. “Did you feel that?” With his arm still around me, Jesse held me tighter.
“Yes. Of course I did. It’s the same feeling I get when I hold the suitcase. Pardon me, but can I come in and sit down? I’ve traveled far searching for you, and I’d like to sit down with you and talk.”
Part of me hesitated. If I invited this…Agent Donald in, I would have to explain to my mom who he was and why he was here. I’d have to explain the suitcase, where we found it, the fact that we entered a house we should have never entered. I’d have to tell her about the scrapbook and pictures and what happened to me, and the fact was I could hardly understand it myself let alone explain it to another person. But, the other part of me, the one that was eager to invite him in, wanted answers. Relief washed over me because at his admission of the shock while we touched, I understood at once I wasn’t crazy. There were reasons for all these strange occurrences. And I was only an invite away to having all my questions answered.
I smiled and nodded. “Certainly, sir. Please, come in.” I stepped aside, Jesse mirroring my movements.
Before getting to the top of the porch, Agent Donald turned around toward a black car he parked down a ways in the driveway. The window was down halfway, enough for me to see someone was in there, observing this entire exchange. The man in the car nodded and the window rolled up.
“Who’s that?” Jesse asked.
“Oh, that’s Dr. Canterbury. He’s an old friend. We go way back.” Agent Donald smirked, then walked past us into the house.

Tonight, I was thankful that my sister had gone over to her friend’s house. We’d always been very different, Sam and I. Where I thought about books, swimming, and school, she’d be off having manis, shopping, and gossip. So she never would’ve listened to any of this with any real sense of belief. The four of us, my mom, Jesse, Agent Donald and I, sat at the round kitchen table, four glasses of sweet tea in front of us. I ran my finger around the rim of my glass, stopping only every so often to meet Agent Donald’s eyes as I explained everything that had happened this afternoon to my mother.
Her eyes bounced back and forth from Agent Donald to Jesse and then to me. She hunched over the table, her shoulders tense, and played with the end of one of the red and white gingham cloth napkins.
“So, this suitcase…this is what you’ve come for?” my mom asked.
“Yes,” Agent Donald replied, “ and no.” He gave me the strangest look, a mix of sorrow and fascination filled his eyes.
“What do you mean 'yes and no'? What kind of doublespeak answer is that?” Jesse said, glaring at Agent Donald.
“Well, that’s what I need to talk to you about.” Agent Donald picked up his tea, swirled it around and took a large gulp. “This is fantastic tea, Ms. Hamilton.”
My mom pressed her lips in a forced smile.
I sat quietly, listening to Agent Donald’s soft voice, the occasional tinkling of the ice against the glasses as people sipped from them, and my own heartbeat which thudded in anxiety.
“Well, the suitcase is part of what I’ve come for. About sixty years or so ago, I worked for the government. Top secret. I was a part of the administration that began the CIA. We created a new division, the NSA. I worked with an elite group of people, scientists,engineers, mathematicians. We were all working together on some high level assignments. Things that, to this day, I still can’t really talk about. Suffice it to say, some of that work had to do with time manipulation.” He paused and looked straight at me.
“Time manipulation? So, you’re telling me you studied time travel.” There was no way this guy was legit. He had to be some nut job.
“Not exactly. What I worked on did indeed have a time traveling element, but not exactly as you know it to be.”
Jesse balled his hand into a fist, and tapped his knuckles on the table. His mouth tightened.
“So explain it then.”
“Like I said, I can’t explain everything. Some of it would get me into deep trouble, some of it you wouldn't understand.”
“Try us,” Jesse insisted.
“Ok. Here goes,” Agent Donald adjusted his tie, and settled in his chair, folding his hands gently on the table. “A long time ago, as I said, a little girl went missing. I won’t get into the specifics of the case, but what I will say is that no one heard from her for a long time. Five years to be exact. Then she was found.” He paused and glanced around at all of us, probably trying to gauge our reactions.
“And,” Jesse said, pushing Agent Donald to finish.
“And the crazy thing was, she was the same age as when she had gone missing. Ten years old. We gathered some of the best minds in the world, gave them the case files, and working together we figured out what happened. How she could be missing for five years, yet be sitting there before us, unchanged. To put it simply, she was from another dimension. It’s called String Theory.”
“I know about that. It’s quantum physics stuff. Carl Sagan and Hawking shit.”
“Jesse! Watch your mouth, young man,” my mom scolded.
“Sorry, Ms. Hamilton.”
“Yeah, except it had been discovered before Hawking. He just popularized it, made it known. Now it's fodder for every science fiction story written. But they don’t have it quite right. The thing is, this girl was switched with the other one. Except, when we sent the girl back to her own dimension, the one from this one…never came back. So, since then I’ve been searching for her. Because, I think somehow, her disappearance was my fault. I made a grave error back then.” He lowered his eyes, and his brows furrowed. “I did something I shouldn’t have.”
“What?” I insisted.
“Part of the investigation, part of why the girl went missing, was somehow linked to a suitcase. THE suitcase. The one you have.”
“I don’t understand. How's the suitcase and the girl connected?”
“The girl was an anomaly. When her father was researching the time space continuum, he sent the suitcase into alternate dimensions. Somehow, the girl accidentally went with it.”
“Okay, I may be missing something, but the suitcase is here, we found it and brought it home. The girl is not with the suitcase.” I shook my head. This made no sense. Even though Agent Donald was speaking, nothing he was saying was making any sense. The more he talked, the less I understood. How did this have anything to do with all the weird things that happened since we found the suitcase and the scrapbook?
Agent Donald sat straight up. The color suddenly drained from his face, and his dropped his hands to his side. “I told you I did something. After the investigation into the girl’s disappearance closed, I took the suitcase home. I was supposed to leave it in the care of the Truman administration, and instead, I felt I needed to protect it. And I knew somehow that I can’t explain, that eventually, the girl and the suitcase would find each other. But when the NSA found out I kept it, I ran. I buried the suitcase in random locations. But then at times, I would come back to the location I'd buried it, and it would be missing. I’d go back to the location daily, and eventually, sometimes after days, sometimes months, one time a year, it would be back, in the same location. Almost the same as I’d left it.
“After the third or fourth time this happened, I started to notice a pattern. Intense electric storms. Strange weather patterns. All would occur right before the suitcase went missing, then again right before it would reappear. It was as if the very fabric of time and space was opening up.
“When I would look in the suitcase, there'd be objects inside that weren't there before. Then, I noticed the scrapbook. And the pictures. And as it jumped back and forth through varying dimensions, new pictures would appear. I started to catalog them. Organize them by some sort of system.”
“Things they loved. Things they lost. Things from other places.” The air in my lungs thinned. I inhaled deeply. The titles from the pages.
“Right. That’s them.” Agent Donald leaned his elbows on the table, settling his chin on his hands. “Thing was, it was like the suitcase was…looking for this girl. Trying to get through to the places and strings of time, the alternate realities, to find the girl it left with.”
I leaned back and tucked a few strands of hair behind my ear. “Okay, so let me get this straight. The suitcase came from another reality--you call it. And it took the girl with it. Now it wants to find the girl. Why? Why would it care?”
“Because, it wants to go back.”
“It wants to go back where?”
“To the reality it belongs in. But to get there, it must go back with the girl.”
“I'm so confused.” I put my head in my hands, and whimpered. “I don’t know why you even bothered telling this whole story. You could have just asked for the suitcase, I would've given it to you, and three hours of our lives wouldn't have been lost. Tell you what, sir, I’ll go get the stupid suitcase, give it to you, you can bury it or what the hell ever, and it can find the girl and everyone will be happy.”
“You aren’t understanding, Miss Hamilton. It has found the girl.”
It was as if the air had been sucked out of the kitchen. The tension was palpable.
“What the hell?” Jesse asked.
Agent Donald pulled out a picture from inside his jacket and slid it across the table, in front of me. Picking the picture up, I gasped when I saw the image. It looked exactly like me as a child. Maybe ten years old. Except it was in black and white, and the clothes I, the girl, wore, a light colored frilly dress, looked like something out of JC Penney circa 1950.
“It looks like me, but it isn’t me.” I shook my head.
My mom took the picture and examined it. “This, looks like you. But it can’t be.” She flipped the photo over. “A date stamp. April 14, 1950. This isn’t you.” She tossed the photo back on the table.
“Well, actually, it is, Ms. Hamilton. You see, your daughter, this one here, is not Natalie Hamilton. Her real name is Anna Robinson. That’s the name of the little girl in the picture. The little girl who went missing.”
“That’s insane!” Jesse stood up, bumping into the table, making my tea slop over the edge of my glass. “I think it’s time for you to leave.” He pushed his chest out, taking a step toward Agent Donald.
“Now just wait. Let me explain.”
“I think you’ve done enough explaining for the evening. I think you should go.” Jesse crossed his arms.
Agent Donald got up, but his manner remained calm. “Please son.”
“Jesse, let him finish. We’ve listened this long. We can entertain his silly story a little bit longer.” Jesse shot me a look, nodded his head, and looked back at Agent Donald, letting his arms fall back to his sides.
“Fine, finish.” Jesse sat back down, scooted his chair back from the table and leaned back in his chair, his long legs stretched out and crossed in front of him.
“Just hear me out and open your minds. What I’m going to say is, well, it’s damn hard to believe, but it’s true. Say every decision we make, spawns a new dimension. A new reality. Every one leads to a new "you" who made that decision and lives with the outcome. Turn left at the stop sign or turn right. In that moment, time splits and you actually live out both decisions. One in which you turn left and one in which you turn right. One makes you late to work, so you get fired. One puts you on a collision course with a truck. You get severely injured. But with string theory and alternate universes, both are true."
"It's like Schrodinger's Cat," Jesse said.
Agent Donald's jaw dropped.
"What? I read science fiction?" Jesse shrugged.
Agent Donald nodded and continued. "See, the thing is Natalie, this picture is you. You are Anna. And you went missing a long time ago, you never returned. But here's the part that's going to test your beliefs. Anna Robinson in this dimension is here. But she’s seventy-three. It’s YOU who doesn't belong here. You belong back in 1956. Where you'd be Anna Robinson from the case in 1950. The one that never came back.”
I narrowed my eyes, glaring at the man in the suit across from me. “But then how come I’m not ten? You said Anna before didn’t age?”
“There’s a lot I still have to ask you. A lot we need to talk about. And a lot I still don’t know. All I can tell you is you did two things I never expected. One, you jumped time. Which means so did the suitcase. And two, you aged. Although I would guess you came into this reality when you were ten, took on Natalie’s identity, and lived her six years here, all the while the suitcase has been trying to find you.”
“Wouldn’t I know she wasn’t my daughter? Where is Natalie then? And why does she look just like her?” My mom sat stiffly at the table, her face pinched in disbelief.
“This is bullshit,” Jesse muttered under his breath. He ran a hand through his hair, shook his head, then slammed his hand palm down on the table. My mom and I flinched at the noise.
Agent Donald sat calmly. He leaned over, reaching into his brown satchel on the floor. He pulled some papers from inside, unfolded them, and handed them to my mother.
My mother’s face fell as she scanned the papers. Tears welled in her eyes. “What the hell is this?”
“It’s a death certificate. And an autopsy report. Your youngest daughter died six years ago. In a tragic car accident. Along with your husband. It was just Sam and you left. Then you found Anna. Or should I say, Anna found you. You needed her. She needed you. The mind is an incredible thing. And it deals with loss differently. No one can say how one will handle a traumatic event such as losing both child and husband. But you replaced your Natalie with Anna.”
“And Sam?” I asked. “How would Sam not know?”
“I can’t tell you. Maybe your mom convinced her. Maybe at first, she was trying to make sense of it herself and the more your mom believed it, the more Sam did too. This whole thing has no easy answers. Like I said, I don’t even know all the details yet.”
“You’re some kind of con-man and asshole. You really should get out of here.” Jesse fumed. His face reddened and his jaw clenched.
But the more Agent Donald talked, the more I believed what he was saying. It wasn’t possible, but at the same time, when I tried to recall my life before the age of ten, it just wasn’t there. I had no real memory of it. I pushed myself from the table and I bolted upstairs. I kicked open the door so it bounced off my bedroom wall and closed behind me.
I put my hand on the suitcase, and a tidal wave of memories flooded me. I was on a doorstep. There was a flash of light. I felt lost. A Truman speech on the radio. My mom and my dad and I, at a church sermon with my uncle. It all came back. That was me. That was my life.
“My name is Anna Robinson,” I whispered.
Another hour was spent with Agent Donald explaining how this all happened. He found old family photos of the real Natalie. Agent Donald called her my doppelganger--someone unrelated who looked almost identical to me. And from what I saw of Natalie, her and I at ten, were practically identical twins.
My mother’s memories came back too. She sobbed hysterically. I imagined having to confront and accept your child’s death would have to be the single worst thing that could happen to a woman.
We all sat in the living room. I sat right next to Jesse. With my head resting on is shoulder, he held my hand. My mom and Agent Donald sat across from us, each in their own wing-back chair.
“So now what?” I asked.
“Now, we let the suitcase take us back.”
Taking my head from Jesse’s shoulder, I asked, “But what if I don’t want to go back?”
“You have to, Anna. You don’t belong here.”
I gripped Jesse’s hand harder. I didn’t want to leave. I loved Jesse. I loved my mom. And even if she wasn’t really my mom, she was the only one I knew. Although, along with the flood of memories came the emotions I had for my family back home. And I knew as much as I would miss my mom here, I missed my mom and dad back home, too.
“Can’t I stay, just a little bit longer?”
Agent Donald shook his head. “It’s just going to make it harder. And those episodes you’ve been having, they’re going to get worse, the longer you stay. You’re breaking down. If you stayed, eventually…you’d fade away. It’s basic physics. Matter can’t occupy the same place at the same time. And you and this reality’s Anna Robinson are occupying both the same space and time. I can give you a week, but no more. And if any more fainting episodes occur, you need to call me.” He pulled out a card from his satchel and gave it to my mom. “It’s imperative we don’t let anything happen to you, got it?”
I nodded. Jesse placed his arm around my shoulders, his thumb caressing the curve of my neck.
Jesse and I were inseparable the next few days. I wanted to spend as much time as I could with him. When I wasn’t down at the swimming hole or at his house, I was with Sam and my mom, just trying to squeeze what little time out of the week as I could.
The world around me cascaded in black and white almost half of the time, now. I hardly noticed the constant pulses of electricity that coursed through me on a regular basis. Memories would come to me through dreams, sometimes nightmares.
Two lives merged in my sleep. One with the people I loved dearly, and one with phantoms of people I knew existed, but seemed so detached from.
Agent Donald stood on the front porch, black suit still impeccably crisp, manner still completely formal, as if he hadn’t just singlehandedly ripped my life to shreds. “You ready, Anna?”
The name still made me shudder. Although it was my name, it didn’t feel right. I suppose that was something I’d get used to. I hoped. I nodded and turned around to face my mom, Jesse and Sam. Tears filled my eyes.
“Mom,” I wrapped my arms around her waist, and held my head to her chest, the thumping of her heart echoing my own. She kissed me on the top of my head.
“I have something for you. Something to remind you of me.” From the front pocket of her dress, she pulled out a string of pearls. It was the necklace she always wore on special occasions. It had come from her mother. “This is for you. Keep it. I love you, honey.” And she tipped my head up and kissed me gently on the cheek. I hugged her again.
I took a step toward Sam. My sister of six years. We’d fought and called each other names. We’d laugh about it all later and talk about how we’d be when we were older. She too, had tears in her eyes. She’d taken the news pretty hard, harder than I’d expected. But she also was incredibly strong about it. Armed with the same evidence Agent Donald had given her, my mom had explained everything to Sam.
“Hey sis, I’m gonna miss you.” She took my hands in hers and squeezed, then let them go.
I wiped away a stray tear which rolled down my cheek and pursed my lips. “I’m gonna miss you too. Take care of everyone.” I looked over at Jesse, who met my eyes then turned away.
“I will. Take care, you,” Sam said and she embraced me.
I stood in front of Jesse. This one would be the hardest. None of these people could be replaced, but Jesse most of all. He was my best friend. The one I told everything to. He knew everything about me, sometimes even more than I knew about myself.
“Jess,” I whispered. I could barely look at him. I’d never seen him so quiet, so crumbled.
His mouth quivered, jaw muscles tense. He took a deep breath and looked at me, his red rimmed eyes, still so brown and beautiful, broke my heart.
“I love you, Jesse. I always will.” I barely got the words out before I started to sob. He folded me in his arms, and swayed with me back and forth, his face buried in my hair. From his shaking, I could tell he was crying.
He pulled his face away, tipped my chin so for one last time could gaze into each other’s eyes. “I love you. Natalie Hamilton.” Saying my name, the one I had worn for so long like a favorite pair of jeans, felt comfortable and right. It was as if he defied all time and space, announcing to the universe that no matter what it said, I was his Natalie. And that would never change.
We kissed in that moment. Our lips were frenzied, his hands holding me ever closer to him. The taste of salt from our tears lingered on our tongues. I clasped the back of his neck, never wanting the kiss to end. My whole life with him was in that kiss: the way Jesse made me laugh, the playful teasing back and forth, the walks in the grass with him, swaying together on his hammock under the shade of the old oak tree, kicking knees under the card table as our moms gossiped, racing to the swimming hole, the endless summers catching fireflies and toasting marshmallows over a camp fire, and our first kiss on the day we found the suitcase. All those memories colliding in one cataclysmic kiss.
As we parted, our breathing heavy, we became all too aware we were not alone. I glanced around, and noticed Agent Donald was down by the graveled driveway, my mom and Sam sitting off to the side on the porch swing. I smiled and looked back up at Jesse.
“I don’t have anything to give you,” Jesse said, his lips turned down.
“You’ve given me everything I need.” I brushed his cheek with my hand and managed a smile. “Bye, Jesse.” I had to make it quick. I couldn’t stay there any longer. If I did, I may just stay forever. And if I did that, I’d be dead anyway. Better to leave a good memory, even if it wasn’t exactly a happy one.
I stepped slowly down each stair, closer to Agent Donald. Closer to the suitcase. I gripped my mom’s pearls in my hand.
It was true what she said. Memories are like pearls. Delicate, lovely, and lasting. And though to others, it may well be that the imperfections decrease their value, but to me, it’s what makes them unique and gives them character. In fact, those imperfections helped to shape and mold that single pearl, and therefore, the pearl would not even be there if not for them.
I walked up to Agent Donald. With one hand holding the suitcase, he held out the other to me. I took one look back. Jesse stood at the top of the stairs, hands at his sides, face blank, tears falling down his cheeks. My mom and Sam were still on the swing, hugging each other. My mom waved.
Large rain drops began to fall. A charge of electricity filled the air. Somewhere in the distance, thunder rolled.
I turned back to Agent Donald and nodded. I took his hand. Energy and heat shot through me for the last time. There was a flash of light. And then we were gone.

 The End

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Broken Side of Time by Rob Kristofferson

Rob Kristofferson aka Sir Huggleston is a very dear man. There are many things I could say about him, so I'll start with this, he always cheers me up. He's such a positive person. He hands out hugs like a bartender hands out drinks, and they make people feel just as good.  He and I have a lot in common; namely our love of science fiction, comic books (although I'm an occasional fan, he can tell you anything and everything  you've ever wanted to know), superheroes and the world of fandom and television (i.e. LOST). He's my go-to for information regarding any of those things. He's sweet, caring, and a good friend, and I really am so thankful to have someone like him I can count on.
Rob was a last minute add on this project, and I'm so glad he joined. I knew he was a talented writer, but the story he created for this, well, it had to go last. It closed this series perfectly. As fitting as Josh's story was first, this story begins wrapping up the chapter of the suitcase and drawing things to a close. And it couldn't have been better had I planned it myself. The photo was simple and interesting, and what Rob made it into is a story that takes all the things he loves about science fiction and weaves into a great narrative.
So, I'm so please to present, the last official story of this project, The Broken Sides of Time.

The Memory Project (continued)
Everyone left and it was just me and Jesse, swinging on the hammock, our legs entwined, my head resting on his chest. I breathed him in. This was the first time since finding the suitcase I'd been able to relax. Today had been a strange day, and I wondered where the adventure would take me, and if I'd let it.
I could always bring the suitcase back to the house with Jesse and leave it, as we'd planned. I didn’t have to keep it. Though the thoughts were tempting, a part of me knew it couldn’t be. I had to keep it.
The scent of citronella and heliotrope swept over us, the breeze soft, the perfect kind after a summer storm. Jesse played with my hair, wrapping tendrils around his fingers gently. I drew imaginary hearts on his chest. The visions had calmed down, and lost in this moment, I almost forgot they'd happened at all.
I walked Jesse to my front door, our hands locked together.
"Well, this has been an interesting day. Lots of new…" his voice went soft and he turned to face me, softly tracing his thumb along my jaw to my chin. His lips drew nearer to mine. "…developments." He kissed me, his lips warm and soft against mine. His mouth tugged gently at my bottom lip, and with his arm he pulled me close, our bodies occupying the same space. The starlight glimmered while the soft winds cascaded through small gaps between us as we kissed; nothing felt more right than this. It was like we were two parts of the same person.
Being so completely immersed in his kiss, I almost missed the footsteps coming up the stairs of the front porch. And they would have gone completely unnoticed had the air not suddenly changed, charged with something electrical. I pulled away from Jesse as every hair on my arms stood on end. The air became thick and I could hardly breathe. Instinctively, I turned around and saw a man, still cloaked in darkness.
"Sorry to bother you. I'm here for the suitcase. I'm D."
(to be continued)

by Rob Kristoffersen
To say there is more to life than what you see is as cliched as time itself. But what about the things you swore you experienced, and what if nobody believed you? Are the answers physical and will they drive you mad? I often wonder who was there at the beginning of time - gods, monsters, aliens, men?

Roll the question around your head for a while, and it will drive you mad. It did me; my few hours at Garfield Diner is long behind me, but not a day goes by that I don't remember walking in the front door of the diner that didn't exist.
As my son and I stepped through the doors of Greeley's Antiques, I wasn't looking for anything in particular. I felt drawn thinking maybe I'd find an item of the Second World War. I'm a buff of sorts, and I usually stopped in the shops on vacation looking for military items of the period. I have a nice little collection going - some war manuals, maps, clothing, even a luger, obtained illegally.
Greeley's doesn't have much, the typical small town antiques store, but there are some nice, quality pieces; first edition books, antique furniture, and various other old knickknacks, sheltered in dust.
"Hey, dad. Check this out." My son calls over to me.
 As I approach, his eyes are alight with excitement and intrigue. He points toward a wall, behind a showcase. Propped on a short metal shelf, leaning against the wall is a picture, unframed. Its color is as vibrant as the day it was taken, which, judging by the vehicle parked in the foreground, had to be late 80's/early 90's. The car is parked in front of a diner; the sign says Garfield Diner - the promise of telephone and food. The Diner looked date, a fifties throwback, that even in the nineties looked out of place.
"Do you think it's real, dad?"
"I'm not sure." I look out to see if a store employee is around, thinking a quick sneak behind the counter. Just as I'm to make my move, one emerges. A middle aged man, early forties at least, approaches. He wears a modest smile, along with a soft beard the same color as his hair: brown. The most prominent feature were his eyes. They were as blue as the deep parts of the ocean, but not too deep. Regardless, the impression he gave the ocean, but not too deep. Regardless, the impression he gave was that one look into your eyes and he was swimming deep in your soul, learning the deep facets of your consciousness and beyond.
"Can I help ya, friend?" He said with subtle tones. In fact, he barely moved his mouth at all, as if his voice would cause a mountain avalanche.
"Could I take a look at that picture." I pointed.
"Why certainly." His southern drawl foreign to the north, as far as Pennsylvania is concerned, but never feeling out of place. He carefully removes the photo from the wall, holding it with two hands, as if fragile, brittle, liable to crumble by a single falter. He takes another long look into my eyes. I feel him measure my worthiness. In confidence, he hands me the photo.
It burned in my hands, that is to say it felt like it did. There was an unnatural warmth that should have burned the photo by now, but not a scorch mark could be found.
"Do ya know the legend?" He says to me. Legend? Legends were old, weren't they? Older than this photo. But I did know it. I knew it quite well.
"A little bit. I've actually been there."
"Burned down in '85," the old man went on, as if he didn't hear me. "Quite a strange fire, too. Burned down entirely, nothin' left to 'er. Concrete foundation's all that's left. No charred wood, nuthin'!"
"How can that be, though, I was there a few years ago?" I  don't know why I said that. If you stepped through those doors, you'd know why, but I couldn't resist. I wanted to see what he knew.
He chuckles, "Legend goes that it was taken off this plane by demons, s'why there's no trace of it left. They just took it, and nobody knows why. But I have a theory, you see, that it appears every six years for thirteen hours, and inside you make deals with them demons that took it!"
"That's a hell of a yarn, my friend."
"You know, you damn well know!"
"I am so fucking lost." I utter to the empty space around me. No soul around to disturb but my own. I'd been wandering for a few hours, trying to make it to my hotel. I've been calling The Hotel December, the Massachusetts branch, my home for a few days. As a recent college grad, I was doing rounds of interviews, so far with no luck and no sense of direction either. You'd think after a few days, I would have acclimated myself to this place. When you're as lost in life as you are with direction, I suppose it's easy.
Looking at the street signs, I come across Boynton Avenue. Is that where it is? Sounds familiar. Fuck it, can't get any more lost than I already am.
The street was fairly dark, an uneven distribution of lights made the houses disappear, sucked into an unknown country. Halfway down the road, I spot a diner, looking dated and right out of the fifties. GARFIELD DINER, the sign read - the spelling seemed strange to me, why not GARFIELD'S? When you hear the rumble in your stomach, the diner could be called DENNY'S or LOOSE BOWELS, and it wouldn't matter. Not all who wonder are lost, but they sure as hell are hungry.
Walking up the steps, you could see a few customers, chatting, enjoying their evening meals. At least I wouldn't be the only one in here. The door had a bell on the inside, that jingled to call out a new customer had arrived or one left. With food, appearances can be deceiving. GARFIELD DINER was dark, stepping through its doors was like stepping into the nature of silence. It dwelled there and it was all around you. Except for a fluorescent light through the order up window, all was dark. From what I could make out, the decor was as dated as the outside; red vinyl booths, aged glass lights above each one of them. A stainless steel counter ran half the length of the diner, dated cash register and all.
I started walking the GARFIELD mile, touching each booth.
"Hello, are you still open? Saw the lights on from outside."
Nothing. I continue on, reaching the last booth and a small window.
I turn around and there sits a man in the final booth. A man I didn't see in the faint light. Of the details I can make out; he wears a thin, wiry face and a suit, black, white shirt, and a deep, garnet red tie. The gel in his hair reflects off the glow coming from the kitchen.
"Sit down, Stephen." The man's voice is raspy, as if he's going to lose it to a smoking habit. A moment later, a glimmer of cigarette burn alights, and the smell of smoke accompanies.
I comply, the great command for which I cannot ignore. "How do you know my name?"
"I know a lot about you Stephen Baxter. Recent MIT graduate, 3.95 GPA, focus in electrical engineering. You've been here looking for a job."
"That's right."
"What if I told you I could help with that? I could get you a job with General Electric or Emerson."
"Yeah, right. Some guy in a diner that I stumbled into can get me a job?"
"It's destiny, Stephen! I sell destiny for a reasonable price."
"Okay, I bet you do, buddy."
"You know Bill Gates, right?" I nod. What idiot didn't know him? "Well, I helped him get to the top?"
"You're full of shit."
"Come now, he's not even my finest work. That falls to the young Robert Johnson.
"Who the fuck was he talking about? I should get the hell out of here, but I can't. I must be crazy, but I want to hear him out.
"He was a musician, late thirties. Best Delta Blues man there ever was. I taught him how to play."
"You don't look like much of a guitar player to me, pal. More like a business man."
"Exactly! Well, that's certainly part of it, but I taught Robert how to play. Influenced Clapton, Keith Richards, B.B. King. I trust you know them?"
"Well, yeah. I've heard their music, but why haven't I heard of this Johnson fellow?"
"It's about legacy, he lives through them now." He says, followed by another puff of his cigarette. The burn is almost hypnotic.
"Let me help you, Stephen."
"But I have no idea who you are, I don't even know your name."
"My name is uninteresting, but you can call me Vincent."
"What can you do for me, Vincent? How can you help me?"
"I can make you famous, my boy. You'll climb your way up the ladder quickly. You'll be a pioneer of "digital" technology, take it to places no one has ever dreamed. You can have it all; the fame, the money, the women."
"Sounds great, pops," I return, a mocking, "but what will it cost me?"
"Just your ever loving soul, son."
I smile, I know of no other gesture to offer up. Is he serious or some deranged aging man sprouting lies?
"I tell only the truth, Stephen."
STOP FUCKING DOING THAT!!!! Get out of my head!
"Sorry, I'll stop." A grin begins to grow. "Just think about it, it's a guaranteed future. You have until three to decide."
Whatever force holding me lifts and I jut out of the seat and hi-tail it, putting Garfield-poor-fucking-grammar-Diner out of my view, but not before a familiar voice invades my mind: only until three, Stephen!
My bowels purge. This is all wrong; you couldn't buy fame, impossible. Fame didn't just happen like that, it couldn't.
I sit in a nearby park on Second Street for hours, pondering. I played "devil's advocate" at points, all that soul talk leading to God, Satan, and any other manner of the divine.
If the soul did exist, what made it worthy of payment? What could you do with the human soul that made it valuable enough for subhuman looking mother fuckers to come to the surface and barter?
I'm young, I've got time to establish myself. What do I need some demonic agent for? Yet again, I could buy my mom that car she desperately needs, she did help me get through college. I could do this for others. Yeah, sell my soul to help other I could do this for others. Yeah, sell my soul to help other 9 people, charity and shit. That would negate all of this, wouldn't it? Heaven, you haven't lost me yet!
By the time I collect myself, it's nearing three. My sense of direction is still failing me, I remember Boynton Ave. I find it around 2:59 a.m., round the corner and search desperately. A minute late, two, everything will be fine. He'll be there. I don't remember the street being this long… there it is, I think it's over there.
When I find it, there is nothing there, only a slab of concrete and a set of stairs that led to expired dreams. I was where I left off, a promising future waiting to bloom. At the beginning.
I'll never forget the day that I witnessed dreams vanished, even only if they appeared hours before. I'll never forget experiencing the broken side of time. I did know damn well. The shopkeeper releases my arm, a gesture of mutual understanding.
"How much you want for this?"
"Did ya feel tha burn, son?"
"Yes… I did."
"It's yours. It picks the owner."
I walk out of Greeley's Antiques with a commemorative piece of memory.
I've got a good feeling about this.

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