“Do you mind? Oh, it’s you.”
“Yes, me…and who are you?”
“You don’t know who I am? No, no, of course you wouldn’t. What does a great messenger have to do with a creature from the depths below?”
“We are in agreement on that.”
“You’re not the least bit curious?”
“Not really…unless your intentions are nefarious.”
“Me? What gives you that kind of idea?”
“I believe you’re the one that brought the black plague to London…”
“Oh, so you do remember me?”
“Is it Linda…Lucille-?”
“Yes, I remember now. Thank you for those happy days, really. Let’s not do them again.”
“I follow orders. Don’t you, oh great messenger, Gabriel?”
“Please, cut to the chase: whose life will you attempt to destroy today?
“Destroy? No, I desire to make them happy. Every. Last. One. It’s you who causes them to suffer.”
“Get on with it.”
“Oh, I do have a certain someone picked out. He has a one-track mind. Goes on for days and days thinking about only one thing. I like this one!”
“Which means I’m going to hate everything you’re about to do.”
In the Pursuit of the Dream
Everyone has that one dream…
The one that you constantly think about, the one that you would make happen as if your life depended on it…even though, in reality, it doesn’t, and life will go on anyway. There may be some pain and confusion along the way, but it does go on. Not…that…I’m speaking from experience, mind you.
Regardless, I believed in planning for the dream, and I had it all worked out—to an unreasonable degree—and as absurd or as crazy it may sound to you, I thought it was a winning proposal. I spared no expense, and everything was meant to be perfect, even if it meant getting a morning and afternoon paper route. It would be okay with me if I had to ask “would you like to super-size that” to the eight millionth customer. I could be destined to sell “World’s Finest Chocolate” door to door for the rest of my natural life because of it; but all of that didn’t matter. Not a thing on Earth could stop me from reaching the unreachable star: I was finally going to ask her out and do it in a big, awesome and spectacular way! If it was worth doing, it would be worth overdoing.
“So where are we going?”
“You know I can’t tell you that just yet. It would ruin the surprise.”
All I could do was stare deep into her eyes as I spoke. Every day, I would be lost in those eyes; they were a deep well of joy that I never wanted to stop diving into. And now, I had that chance.
“The fact that we’re on a cruise is enough of a surprise for me. Can you give me a hint, maybe, Jason?”
Every time she said my name, it felt as if my heart stopped.
“All will be revealed very soon.”
Okay, truthfully, I didn’t really have a plan. I was kind of winging it by then. I had only planned for the cruise. It was kind of an “I wasn’t expecting it to even get this far” kind of thing. I mean to walk up to someone at the spur of the moment and say, “Hey, I bought cruise tickets to a small island off the coast of Africa. Would you like to come with me?” and expect them to say “yes” is quite the proverbial long shot. It’s not even in the same league as throwing a basketball from clear across the gym, blindfolded, upside down, and still making the shot with nothing but net.
She did say yes though, and so there we were, heading for an island out at sea, with a cast of strangers with no faces. Because no one else mattered except for her.
The ship docked, and we walked onto the pier. I looked to the glimmering white sands of the beach in the distance.
“Are you ready?”
“For whatever you want to do. We’re here for you.”
We stepped off dock, onto the sparkling sand, and looked to the setting sun.
“I want to paint the perfect picture for you,” I said.
“It’s already perfect.”
“Yes, because you’re here with me.”
I took her hand and again stared into her eyes. There was so much I wanted to tell her, but where to begin? My thoughts rushed by at the speed of sound. Catching up to them and trying to think of something that made any bit of sense was not going to happen.
“What made you think of this place? In all of Earth, why here?”
“Because of its natural beauty.”
We stood on the beach and watched the sun set in the distance until I turned to her once again.
“There’s something I have to tell you.”
“I—” What I wanted to say, I couldn’t; my lips could literally not move. I was afraid, not at what she’d say…well, yes, I was still kind of afraid of that. However, at that time, I was more afraid of the dark twisting mass of clouds, like a tornado, with dark, red eyes…beading at me from afar.
“Don’t look behind you,” I whispered.
“I don’t think you’d believe me if I told you.”
The floating beast hovered a few thousand feet away with its hard-gazed stare, almost as if it was trying to read my mind.
“What do you want?” I asked.
The winds picked up and the waves, to what was only seconds ago a calm ocean, crashed on us.
I reached for her hand.
We took off at a haphazard run across the beach and jumped back onto the dock. We ran our hardest toward the ship, the ship that faded away with each pounding step we took.
“Keep running!” I screamed as the winds became deafening.
I looked back to the raging storm and then looked forward as the love of my life faded away. One moment she was with me, the next she was just gone. I couldn’t yell, not that anyone would possibly hear me over the roar anyway, but the shock of seeing her vanish from sight left me in such agony that I was dumbstruck. In her place was the tornado-like being.
“What did you do with her?”
It didn’t reply, well, it did by blasting a gust of wind. I ran ahead of it until I reached the end of the dock…with no water below it…absolutely nothing but darkness.
I turned to face the tornado as it barreled down and slammed into me with eyes burning brightly as they flashed “6…6:30…”
Awakened by the annoying buzzer of my alarm was both a relief and a tragedy, a relief that I was not torn to pieces by the dark forces of nature; and tragic because I was finally able to spend some time with her and couldn’t remember everything that happened.
That morning was once again a school day, a Wednesday, I believe. I knew my mom would eventually knock on my door and tell me to get up and get ready for the bus; so staying in bed in hope that I could fall sleep again wasn’t an option. The bus would arrive at seven to take me on a long ride to the school, and I didn’t want to walk it that morning.
Twenty-five minutes later, I stood on the side of the road, a few houses up the street from my own, next to Keith Grayson: my only friend at that time. He was thirteen as well, but he had that “over the summer” growth spurt, so he sort of towered over me, and he also had a bit of a mustache…so I admit, I had a smidgen of jealousy.
“Did you try to call her?”
“Wasn’t the right time,” I replied.
“And how many times have I heard that?”
“Twenty, at last count.”
Keith, being my friend, was commanded by the unwritten code of brotherhood to call out when I was being an idiot—which was something he relished with great delight whenever he could. Fortunately, he was only in one of my classes and had no classes with her.
There were multiple times that I talked over my “problem” with Keith, and he always gave the same answer: “Just go and talk to her.”
“I need to find the right time,” would be my constant reply, and that morning was no different.
“The right time for you will be two years from now. You’ll call directory assistance, even though she lives in, I don’t know, Missouri, and you’re living somewhere in Washington. Let’s see…that’s about sixteen hundred and thirty miles away.”
I looked to him and nodded, which when translated to teenager meant, “I desire to kill you, but you’re just too freaking tall for me to even try”.
“When she answers, all you’re going to be able to say to her is ‘Hello,’ and then, ‘How’s the weather?’ Because, you know, you’ll obviously have something in common by then.”
I looked down the street and envisioned her running my way, with that friendly smile and what looked like the wings of an angel, glimmering in the early morning light, which was one of the many ways she appeared to me, but it was only the flashing strobe light of the bus.
“Sixteen. Hundred. When you could have said something to her when you both went to the same school. Imagine that.”
We stepped onto the sort of overcrowded, kind-of-smelly school bus and sat down. The bus immediately lurched forward onto the school, as we were the last stop.
I opened my backpack, took out a binder, and handed it to Keith. We made a deal to compare notes, and by compare, I mean I worked the problems and Keith copied the answers.
“I’m looking for ‘that’ moment,” I replied as I looked out the window. “It’s got to happen a certain way, and just rushing into it won’t work.”
“I keep saying it, and I’ll say it again: Why don’t you just ask her?”
“I’m looking for a sign.”
“You want a sign?”
He opened the binder and scribbled out a note:
“Look…at…me. I’m…stupid. Thanks. That really helps.”
“You can give me back my English homework now.”
After the agonizing ride to school, with my body feeling every bump and pothole, we arrived at Prattville Junior High School, a school so old that Methuselah probably attended it when he was in seventh grade. It was made up of two buildings that created a square-like shape, or circle; let’s just say you could walk from the front and make a complete ring without doubling back—unless you had to go to the gym, which was a place I never really liked to go to.
I spent most of my school day in the new building (which had central air-conditioning, the rest did not); it included my first class, band.
The band room was cavernous, from the fact that it was two stories in height, and you couldn’t even yell from one side of the room to the other due to the acoustic material on the wall. The junior high school band was made up of four classes, which would combine to form one large concert band. There were fifty or so students in each class; but in my class, there was only one person in particular that really mattered.
I caught a glance of her as I walked through the room and to a file cabinet that held my music folder, and that was usually all it took for me to have a good day. I won’t compare her to a café mocha, but one shot…umm, look, and well, the day would be okay; I was able to see someone I cared about smile.
After I regained my senses, I walked to a storage area to grab a music stand. From there, I moved to my chair, which was on the opposite of the room. You know those times when you would just look at someone, steal glances from them, well, there was never really a good vantage point to see her, as I was on the front side of the room next to the flutists, and she played the clarinet, one row behind me and to the side.
I played the oboe in the band, a difficult instrument to play, let alone master. No one ever told me that it was more of a concert band instrument and that junior high schools did not have the sheet music for it. More often than not, our band director, Mr. Drose, would have to create handwritten versions of the sheet music due to my instrument’s timbre (sound). I was the only one who played it too, so if I made an error it was easy to hear it above all the other instruments. If played wrong, the oboe sounds like a dying duck. There were days that I played so badly I feared a swarm of hunters in camouflage and waders would storm the band room.
I would do what I could to prepare for the start of class and be at the ready. I talked to a few people while passing by with my stand or chair. Then I would grab my music folder (which was quite large) and hope that the stand I had would hold it without tipping over.
It was important to have everything ready before the second bell rang, as I didn’t want to look like a fool in front of her.
“Yes, Mr. Drose?”
“Where is your instrument?”
There were days that Mr. Drose would tolerate a little and days he would tolerate absolutely nothing at all, and you really couldn’t tell which way he was leaning, at least I couldn’t (if there was a handbook on how to figure out teachers, I was never got my copy). Some days, he’d just roll his eyes and tell you to get your gear together as he called the roll and told us of any announcements for the day. Other days, he wouldn’t acknowledge you until after the roll was called. He’d then say something like,
“Mr. Dennereck?” Mr. Drose’s words were always proper, even when delivered in pure sarcasm.
“You do realize we only have an hour?”
“So why do you feel like wasting the class’ time?”
I never figured out until a year later that he was always speaking rhetorically when he asked that, so I replied with “I don’t know, sir.”
He would then order the offender—me, in this case—to go out into the hall for the rest of the hour. At the end of class, everyone dissembled and placed their instruments in the storage room, moved their chairs to the back of the room and the stands to the far side of the room. They then would walk out the double doors and see me, with the proverbial dunce cap on my head, the scarlet I around my neck, and the sign above my head that read, “Girls, don’t date this guy. He forgot to bring his instrument to class today. Imagine what he’ll forget to do in high school. Or later?
He will always forget your anniversary!”
If that wasn’t bad enough, Mr. Drose then called me into his office and, basically, went over everything he said earlier with a more irritated tone. I nodded to everything he said, even when he said I should handcuff my instrument case to my arm in the morning so I wouldn’t forget it. So with a verbal lashing and a late note, I proceeded to my second period class in the old building: life science with Mrs. Smith.
Mrs. Smith, like Mr. Drose, spoke in rhetorical questions, but only when I knew the answer. Any other time, such as asking what the primary function of the Golgi Apparatus was or the chemical comprehension of cytoplasm, I was expected to know the answer. I have to be honest, I went from sixth grade science—where we made cells out of Knox Jell-O and various forms of buttons—to Anatomy 303 with a workbook possibly drawn and written by Henry Grey himself. I sat in the back of the classroom, not by choice, but I wasn’t going to complain about it, as it gave me some cover to try and complete a section of my workbook—which I had forgotten to do…can we sense a pattern here?
I had my mind on other things, things that could happen if I only had the right moment. Could I walk into one of her classes and give my heart to her? I mean, she already had it…but how could I tell her. There were days, contrary to what I have ever told Keith, that I thought I could ask her. I would go up right in front of the class and tell her what I thought about when I saw her for the first time, and then reality would literally kick in, knock me off my feet, and I’d abandon that thought for another day. I never actually got within five feet of her when I was brave enough. It was only when my stomach was full of butterflies and my tongue was as huge as a burrito that I could get near her. At that point, she would say “hi” and I would say “hi” back…and that was about it. I guess it’s a roundabout way of saying that I was interested in life science, just not on the cellular level.
* * *
“What happened?” Keith asked as I stood next to him on a dusty and rocky track in a pair of shorts, T-shirt, and old gym shoes. It was PE, a class I hated more than beginner’s algebra but not more than a trip to my orthodontist.
Why did I hate the class? It wasn’t because I was lazy. I had a fond disliking of the class because I wasn’t really good at anything except for soccer—which we seldom, if ever, played as there were over fifty-six kids in the class. It would be more of “mob ball” than any organized sport.
We had all assembled on the track that day to “run the mile,” or as I like to put it: “We don’t know what to do with all of you, and it’s a blazing hot day, so we want you to run until you throw up. So line up!”
“Forgot my instrument at home and got sent to the hall.”
“Ah, and I assumed she saw it then?”
“Witnessed the whole scene along with the rest of the class, like a firing squad. I might as well give up.”
“Have you even tried to begin with?”
“I’ve been working on it.”
“Just be glad she’s not in this class with you.”
“Oh yeah, I’d love her to see me cough and drag myself across the track. While I might get ‘bless his heart’ points, I don’t see it helping.”
“I hear you,” Keith replied as he took off in a sprint. I ran like the wind, or a light breeze, or…well, like the best I could without feeling like barfing up my lungs—which usually placed me in the back of the line and continuously lapped by everyone else.
I enjoyed physical fitness, and I liked running, like, say, after a soccer ball, or to the head of the line at Pizza Hut…or if there was a new and obscure-sounding Nintendo game that was just released. Oh yeah, I would be running, out of breath afterward, but I’d be there.
I turned to my side to a girl with long black hair running next to me. I had to blink a few times to make sure I was not imagining her.
I had never seen this girl before in my life…and she was talking to me. I wanted to think it was due to the sun and lack of oxygen getting to my brain.
“How are you?”
“You don’t remember me, do you?”
I really wanted to say something confident and smooth-like. But due to the sweat running down my face and my inability to hold a straight thought as she looked at me, I just blurted out, “No, I really…I wish I did, but—”
“—It’s a big school, I know. Sometimes I even forget where my classes are.”
I wanted to look at her more intently, but something told me to just keep looking forward. That, and I was still sure she was a mirage from the heat and she’d vanish in a ripple of light. I wouldn’t dare try to touch her…but I almost wanted to ask her to slap me to see if I was actually awake.
“Don’t you hate running this each day?” she asked as we rounded the first curve.
“I try to not think too much about it. I either run, stop, or pass out. Or I run, keep on running, and then pass out anyway.”
She slowed to a walk, and I slowed down as well.
“What if I told you that you don’t have to run around in circles?”
This girl—still didn’t know her name or anything about her, she looked like she was fifteen or something—brushed her hand near my wrist as she spoke. I just walked next to her, still clueless, still dumbfounded, still having no idea who she was. I could only stare at her as my brain was locked in neutral as this was a first for me. I mean, not the first time…umm, well, never mind.
“You know you’re not getting anywhere like this…I can help you.”
“Not what, who!”
And with a burst of speed, she took off ahead.
I started to run after her, but by then, the mob of runners had lapped me, and a few literally clotheslined me—there were more than a few jerks in the class. I tried to find her, but she was gone by the time I was able to get up and pick the rocks out of my back.
* * *
My next class was math, a class that took me several days later to understand the concept of what we were doing the previous week. I won’t say I zoned out during the lectures, but I also won’t say I heard every word Mr. Jackson said.
“And if you divide that answer…”
I thought about what she said: “to help me with who,” but who was she to begin with?
“And multiply it…”
I was certain I never met her before. I’d think I remember someone who wanted to actually talk to me without asking for the answer to a question on our homework.
“Then the problem’s resolution…”
Maybe she was a friend…? That had to be it. A friend of hers who knew what was going on and would take the step to bring us together. At least her friend was helping the situation more than Keith.
“If you turn to page forty-two…”
She’d tell her all of my good points and…and then I’d walk up to her and actually ask her…yes, I would…I knew just how to do it: calm and collected.
“Here we have a very difficult problem…”
What was I thinking? I couldn’t say more than two words to her without almost dying. It was probably an act of God that she even knew my name—
I tensed up and looked to the front of the class room, expecting to see Mr. Jackson’s face in its usual scowl. It was there, and he was scowling, but he wasn’t moving.
I squinted to see that he was frozen at the blackboard, chalk in hand. He wasn’t looking at the class, and he wasn’t looking at me either; like someone mashed the pause button of life.
“Jason?” a voice that didn’t sound like “old teacher” said.
“To your side there, buddy.”
I slowly turned my head to see an older teenager standing next to my desk, with his hands in the position to flip it over, and the expression on his face—one part “I dare ya to stop me,” second part: “No, seriously, I dare you.” He looked really out of place in a room full of seventh graders (or a room full of statue-ish students, except for me, to be specific), as he appeared to be in high school, had very long hair, and also had what looked like a scabbard hanging from his belt.
“My name’s Gabe. And do me a favor: for the next few minutes, try to not ask any more questions. It will only complicate things.”
I looked around the room and saw everyone else was frozen in the moment.
He walked up to Mr. Jackson, who stood next to the blackboard, and moved him over like a chess piece.
“Fair enough. All right now. Come up here.”
I cautiously crawled out of the desk and slowly walked up to the blackboard as he grabbed a piece of chalk.
“Let’s list some of your secrets.”
“What did I say about the questions? Follow along with me, please…let’s see…oh yes, well, that’s not exactly a secret, is it?”
“I’m a little—”
“Scared? Confused? Intimidated?”
“Curious as to where the video camera is. Do you work for George Lucas?”
He dropped the chalk into the tray, shook his head, and gave me a look that shouted, “I can’t believe you just asked me that.”
“Why are all of you so stubborn? They did the same thing in Jerusalem. Why can’t anyone just listen?”
In a lightning-quick maneuver, Gabe drew a sword from the scabbard, and the blade ignited into flames. And, likewise, in an equally fast maneuver, I bolted for the door!
“Seriously? This is tame compared to your imagination.”
“Yeah, but my imagination’s all in my head—and I’m praying this is too!”
I finally got the knob to turn and hurriedly opened the door, only to stare back into the same classroom. Gabe laid the sword down on the desk, and it vanished in a wisp of smoke.
“Praying? Yeah, that, like your homework, is something you don’t do much of.”
“Of course, if God was the form of a certain girl, then you’d probably have more incentive to worship him. After all, you worship her…but, interestingly enough, you never tell either how you feel.”
“How do know about Tiffany?”
“Wow! You’re already making progress—you can actually say her name out loud without freaking out for once. This may be easier than I thought. Best to sit down now.”
“What will be easier?”
With that, he faded away, and I found myself standing at the door of the classroom with a very awake Mr. Jackson looking at me…complete with the scowl on his face.
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