I am neck deep in non-fic work, plus a tutoring gig teaching conversational English. It has been a long and very busy week. This is Good For Me, because it seems the busier I am the more productive. I have edited up to Chapter 10 of “Athena’s Promise” (working title) and I’m happy about that. However, the hard part of plot tweaking is about to come up. Wish me luck.
Anyway, I was poking around in my 3 Words file, and found this story. To refresh your memory, this story is a result of a group of writers who thought it would be fun to write 100 words a day around three prompt words. We all took turns posting the words, and this is one of the results. Here it is raw and unedited, written one day at a time, and I’m actually pleased with how it turned out — I think by this time, I was getting the hang of it. I don’t have a listing of the prompt words, so you’ll have to guess. Enjoy
The Last One Standing
Her pearls are in my jewelry box.
They lay in their velvet prison, reminding me of other days, better days. Lost days.
I’ll light a candle, I’ll open the box, taking the cool pearls and running them through my hands. They’ll warm from my own body heat. They feel like tears.
Comfort? There’s none. She’s moved on and left me behind, waiting and wondering.
Her name is Sunny. I loved her from the moment I saw her.
It’s like something from an old movie. I was in a video store, looking for something to watch on a lonely Friday night. It’s a small video store, a faded dream in the age of corporate owned places, but very customer service oriented. I like that they call me by name, recognize me.
I said hi to Ray, walking over to the rack featuring movies from the forties and fifties. Not looking at what I was doing, I bumped into this girl.
“Whoops!” she exclaimed, as she dropped a load of video cases on the floor.
A flash of deja-vu swept over me as I stammered my apology. I bent to help her gather up the videos.
I never knew what hit me.
“Oh, it’s okay,” she said, “My fault, really.” I rose and so did she, and we got our first good look at each other.
I can’t tell you what she saw, but I can tell what I did. Short, with long brown hair in a braid. Hazel eyes, cat’s eyes, my mother would’ve said. It wasn’t that she’s beautiful in a conventional sense; it’s something about the configuration of her features that make her seem beautiful.
She literally took my breath away.
The red sweater she wore against the snow of this morning hugged her in all the right places, and although she would tell me later of her battle with her weight, she seemed perfect to me.
“My name’s Sunny,” she smiled, and the world pulsed with her song.
“I’m Jake,” and I offered my hand. I felt my spirits and heartbeat rise when I felt her small hand nestle inside of mine as if it belonged there, as if it had always belonged there. From the widening of her eyes, I was certain she felt it too.
Was I mistaken? Even today, I don’t know the definitive answer to that question.
Her pearls are in my jewelry box.
I had no idea what to say next, so I helped her gather up the videos, too upset with myself to even think straight. I’d spend the next two days arguing with myself, but that was for later. For now, I was tongue-tied and feeling nothing but stupid.
“This is really sweet of you, Jake.”
“Uh, s’ok. My fault.”
“Don’t be silly. It was an accident. Anyway, it was nice to meet you.” She flashed me a funny grin saying, “I’ll see you around, right?”
“I’m in here all the time – I’m sure we’ll bump into each other.”
Even I had to grin at that one. After a final good-bye, she went to check out and I resumed perusing the videos, my mind in a maelstrom. What just happened to me? I felt as breathless as if I had climbed a stairway all the way to heaven. I watched her out of the corner of my eye, not wanting to seem needy or desperate. I stood behind the comedy section (normally I wouldn’t be caught dead in the comedy section, but it gave great cover) and watched her economical movements, her gentle banter with Ray, her graceful exit.
I’m a fool. I can admit to that much.
Once she had gone, I waited a while, moving on to the mystery section. I was trying to be cool, but I wasn’t even fooling myself. I certainly wasn’t fooling Ray. Anyone who thinks they’re going to catch Ray sleeping on the job has a big surprise coming.
I picked a movie at random and headed to the check-out counter where Ray was waiting.
“Dude, you can get picked up for stalking, then you’d be stuck with Bubba as a cellmate.”
I didn’t even pretend to not know what he meant.
“You’re a funny guy, Ray. You should take that act on the road.” I wondered how cooperative he would be if I got the nerve to ask….
As if he could read my mind, he shook his head, long hair flying. “No, buddy, you know I can’t do it.” Ray might look like a dumb, hairy monkey but he’s a sharp guy. He guarded his member’s privacy as if it were his own.
I sighed. “Yeah, I know.”
I hated that expression. He considered this phrase the wellspring of wisdom — all it did was piss me off.
Ray grinned. “Don’t look so glum, man. I can tell you she’s applied for a job here.”
My heart jumped like a kite on the breeze. Although I tried to keep my expression neutral, I knew Ray saw right through the façade. It’s like he can feel the same tingle I feel. I think the word is “empathetic.” He’s like that. Can’t hide a damned thing from the guy.
He’s peculiar, but in a good way. At least, most of the time. I don’t think I’d ever want to get on his bad side – but, I’m getting ahead of myself.
“You going to hire her?” Nonchalance was thrown to the wind. What the fuck, I thought.
Ray scooped up a pile of DVD cases from the counter and stacked them on a cart. “Well,” he said, “I do need somebody dependable, and the winter season is fairly busy.” He pulled “Lost Horizon” and “The Green Mile” from the stack. “You ever see either of these movies?”
I watched his reflection in the bank of windows behind him. That’s Ray. He bounces from one subject to another and sometimes it’s hard to keep track of where he’s going. I still try.
“I’ve seen ‘The Green Mile,’” I replied.
He handed me “Lost Horizon.”
“Give me that drivel you have in your hand.” I didn’t even know what movie I had picked up. I was surprised to see “Bring It On,” with a picture of vapid cheerleaders gracing the cover in my hand. Yuck.
“You need to relax, dude. Take it slow. Watch this movie, think about it. Then, if you’re still inclined, when you run into her again, ask her out for a cup of coffee. Take it from there.” Ray bagged up the movie for me, no charge. “Let me know what you think, grasshopper.” He snickered.
I just nodded, took the bag and wandered home. Sure, I’d been hurt before and there was no sense trying to hide it, at least not from Ray. He sees everything, and he’d call me out on it if he thought it was getting out of hand. He’s a strange guy, I think I mentioned that. Hanging with him for any length of time is like standing in the shade for a bit, then stepping out into the sun. It’s a lot to take all at once; somehow, you feel blinded and disoriented until the world settles back to normal.
That’s how I felt, walking back to my place with my free movie and head filled with the sound of Sunny’s voice, her cool scent, the image of the red sweater baked into my memory. What the hell just happened to me?
The cold November breeze picked up and I shivered. It was a good day to stay inside, pop in the movie and chill out. Of course, I didn’t know at the time it would be the last day of peace I would have for quite a while.
Life is funny that way. One day you’re good – the next….
Again, ahead of myself.
I let myself into my dank, basement apartment. It was a mess, but I had a better idea of how to spend my day off than cleaning it. I work six days a week at a major home improvement store, and I have no interest in improving anything on my day off.
Since it was past lunch time and I was starving, I cut a slice of stale cherry pie for my noon meal, and sat down to watch Ray’s pick.
First of all, it was mis-labeled. The movie was actually titled, “Shangri-La,” not “Lost Horizon.”
The reason this struck me is because Ray is quite anal about labeling his movies. He never makes a mistake, at least not in my experience, so this had to be deliberate. He knows how much I hate seeing dead people in a movie, I thought, so I wonder what this is all about. There’s a message here, I knew it. I also knew if I tried to pin Ray down the next time I saw him, I’d have better luck holding a cup of water in my bare hands. I’d have to figure it out all on my own.
It was a typical old Hollywood type of movie, meaning I loved the atmosphere. No special effects, you know, all that hype stuff that’s in movies these days. They take all the imagination out of it. Still, the title thing kept bugging me, until I heard the wails and screams from my neighbors. The slamming door finally drove me over the edge.
I pounded on the thin wall – “Hey! What the fuck over there!”
I heard nothing but muffled sobs. So ended my hard-earned peace. Did I have to go over there? Yes and no. My mama raised me right.
I sighed and walked out my door and knocked on the next one. This was not a new drama, but I wouldn’t feel right if I ignored what was going on over there. I knew someday I would see that asshole Brian’s mug shot on the wall at the post office.
The door opened and Danielle stuck her head out, mascara running from red-rimmed eyes.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
She sniffled, and opened the door a little wider. “Yes. Wanna come in?”
“Sure.” Not sure this was a good idea, I took her cold hand in my warm one.
Danielle looked old and tired to me, and she was only six months older. Exotic dancing can do that to a girl, I’ve seen. She’s told me she feels like she’s dancing for vampires; all they want is to suck the blood out of her. It showed in her face today.
As she ushered me inside, darting nervous looks out to the hallway, I noticed she’d dropped weight, and she never had it to lose. Her blond hair seemed brittle, her face gaunt. She had the most marvelous ass, but it was lost in the baggy sweats she was wearing.
She seemed lost all over.
She plucked some Kleenex from the box on the coffee table, blowing her nose. The cupboards in her kitchen were standing ajar; the end table from beside the recliner in the living room — knocked over. Danielle stood wiping her wet eyes as I surveyed the wreckage.
“You don’t have to say it. I won’t make excuses. We weren’t playing tag, and it wasn’t an artist’s tantrum. He’s an asshole. I know it.”
I sighed. What’s the point? It’s a rough life, we’re both aware. I don’t judge. That doesn’t mean I wasn’t pissed as hell.
What I wanted to do was grab Brian by the head, punch him until he screamed like a little girl, then crumple him up, tossing him out with the trash. What I did do was straighten the end table, close the cabinets and kept my mouth shut. I’ve seen Danielle go through guys like this before. There used to be a core of strength inside her, but I see it diminish a little bit with each Brian.
“You gonna be okay?”
“Sure,” she sniffled. “He’ll be back, and he’ll behave. If he doesn’t, there’s plenty more where he came from.”
I grinned at that. It’s such quintessential Danielle at her best.
She brushed her hair back from her face, and asked, “How about a cup of tea?” Not waiting for my response, she went into her tiny kitchen, putting the kettle on. “Thanks for … well, you know.”
I sat on the worn sofa. All her furniture looked blurred around the edges. “Yeah, that’s what neighbors are for.”
“You need a good girl, Jake. You deserve a good girl. Not someone like me, someone with class.” She reached for the kettle and gave a little yelp at the hot handle. “What a day,” she sighed. “When it rains, it pours.”
I just nodded. My head was still in the video store. Sunny’s voice was still in my ears, and it was keeping the regular darkness at bay.
Danielle brought two tea cups and a bowl of sugar cubes over to the coffee table. She picked up her cup, and blowing gently across the hot liquid she studied my face. She smiled as I put two lumps in my cup, stirred, and raised the impossibly fragile and feminine piece of china to my lips. She knew right away something was up.
“Something’s happened to you, Jake,” she said. “You look like you just won first prize in a contest.”
I said nothing. I just sipped my tea.
“All right, I won’t push.” Danielle settled back into her chair. “I guess it’s putting the cart in front of the horse, anyway. You wanna know what I’m gonna to do about this Brian thing.”
I shrugged, my mind a million miles away. What was Sunny doing right now? Could she be thinking about me? Would she say yes, if I were to ask her out? Did I have the balls to do it?
I missed what Danielle said next, until she attracted my attention by punching me in the arm, a typical Danielle move when she felt neglected.
“Ouch! Are you insane? That HURT.”
“Pay attention, then. If you won’t tell me what you’re all in knots about, the least you can do is pretend you’re interested in what I’m saying.”
I blew her a kiss for an apology. “I’m not telling anything. There’s nothing to tell.”
“You’re gunning for a black eye, my friend,” she sniffed. “Fuck’re you doin’ here, anyway, if you’re not gonna listen to me?”
I had to laugh. The woman’s a nut case, this is true, but we’d been neighbors for over a year, and we looked out for each other.
“Okay. Sorry. What were you saying?”
“I said I’m sick of working, paying all the bills just so Brian can go out and play, having a good time.”
“And what?” she retorted. She shifted in her chair and crossed her magnificent legs. Although she was my friend, I could still appreciate a good set of gams.
“What are you going to do about it?” I picked up the teacup and took another sip of tepid tea. Gah, I hated the stuff. The things you do for friendship.
“You know, Jake, when we first started seeing each other, sparks flew. He didn’t mind me dancing for a living, and I didn’t mind he seemed to be the comforter for other girls. But now, well, it’s different.” She nibbled on her forefinger, a nervous habit she’d had ever since I’d known her. “It’s like real life slaps you right upside the head, and you never know what hit you.”
Is that how it would be with Sunny? I thought. Fine at first, then a slow decline? What’s worse? Living through the death of something fine, or being alone with your dreams?
“Look,” I said, “I can’t make a decision for you. Here it is, straight up — either you’re going to put up with this fruit loop or you’re not. I think you’re better than this, but if you don’t, I’m just wasting my breath.”
Some balm for the soul I am, but I confess I was getting irritated.
Danielle blinked her great blue eyes, becoming all teary again. “You do? Think I’m better?”
“It doesn’t matter what I think. What do you think?” I sighed and stood. “Dani, I love you, but you need to get your head out of your ass and face your gorgons. Small things turn into big things, and next thing you know your heart’s turned to stone.” I knew she had no idea what I was talking about, but I could feel a sense of purpose forming. I reached out, stroked her creamy skin, and she smiled. She’d be all right.
“There’s a girl, isn’t there?”
“Not yet, but I think…I think it’s a possibility.”
“I’m glad. She’s a lucky girl.” Danielle stood and took my hand, walking me to the door.
I walked back to my apartment, thinking about Danielle and Sunny. Thinking about how life sometimes kicks you in the balls. About how sometimes when you meet someone special, you can almost hear an audible “pop’ and your heart feels as warm as a southern breeze. Thinking how sometimes it seems only the stars in the sky understand how you feel.
When I walked in the door, the phone was ringing. Its shrill peal sent goosebumps up my spine. The last thing I wanted to do was pick it up. It refused to stop, so I picked up the receiver.
“Yes.” I knew it was Ray immediately, even though he had never called me before. The skin on my skull suddenly felt too tight.
“I thought you’d want to hear it from me, dude. Sunny came in just after you left. She wanted your phone number, but you know me.”
Yeah, I know Ray.
“Still, I gave it to her. I don’t know why I did, I normally don’t do that, you know.” His voice was shaking, and I knew I didn’t want to hear what was coming next. My legs felt heavy and there was a metallic taste in my mouth.
“She was acting a little funny, like she knew something was going to happen.”
“What happened, Ray? Stop fucking around and tell me.” I had to sit down, my legs wouldn’t support me any more.
“I’m trying to, man,” and I realized with some horror Ray was crying. He was crying.
“She took your number and left a box for you. She called them her ‘precious memories’ and said you would understand. Then she…she…left to catch the bus. You know the stop is right across the street.” Ray was practically blubbering by now, and I could see her as if she were standing right across from me, curls escaping the tight braid and that smile. My heart clenched and I was sure it was going to stop beating.
“Go on, Ray. Just spill it,” I said, my voice unwavering.
“It…it was a truck, Jake. A young kid, just got his CDL. I’m so sorry, man.”
I hung up the phone. What else was there to say, after that?
After I picked up the package Sunny had left for me, I didn’t go to Ray’s much. Actually, I’ve not been back. It’s not Ray’s fault, but it is hard for me to take.
Inside Sunny’s package were her pearls. I hold them in my hands, feel them warm against my skin and sometimes I can feel her close. Time ticks by and I’m left behind, wondering what could have been, what should have been, and what will never be.
It’s hard to be the last one standing.