Chapter Two - Fine Dining Experience
As soon as the driver retrieves us, the limousine sails away to the highway. My new home is still a bit of a ways off. I try to look out the window, but it’s starting to get dark.
I’m still hungry, but I don’t bother telling anyone.
Marlene falls asleep after fifteen minutes, with her little toy on her lap. It’s a cheap excuse of a mini Barbie doll. You’d think, in this day and age, McDonald’s would’ve thought of something better by now.
For some reason, I find myself ranting to my new companion about the evils of airports. It’s a one-sided conversation; I did all the talking, and he’s entertained. I guess I do that easily for him.
“The airport staff acts as if they’re doing you a favor,” I say. “But who’s working for a living? Me or them?”
Seph-chan opens his mouth to answer, but I don’t let him speak.
“And security! Don’t get me started on the security! They puff themselves out with their pitiful little badges, and they called me back for a chap stick. A chap stick! A bloody chap stick!”
“You should have snuck it in your pocket,” Seph-chan finally replies.
“I did!” I shoot back. “But they’ve developed a detector for that too! Those higher-ups sure have a lot of time on their hands! And to top it off, I had to hold Marlene’s hand throughout the whole nightmarish ordeal!”
“Commercial air travel sucks,” Seph-chan agrees. “Well, it’s good that you’ll never have to fly publicly again.”
I hear a “Halleluiah” chorus in my head, but I stare at him incredulously. He seems to read my mind.
“Tell me,” Seph-chan says. “What kind of house do you think we’re going to?”
I immediately tell him. I started out describing a two-story, five-bedroom house in some random suburbia. He gives me a dumbfounded look and stifles a snigger.
“What’s so funny?” I ask.
The driver turns on a speaker and tells us that we‘ve entered the driveway. Seph-chan coughs a few times before regaining his composure.
“You are in for a very rude awakening,” he informs me.
Whatever that means, I don’t know. I see him push a button on the door, and the window slides down. He waves at me to come closer to him. I unbuckle my seatbelt and slide over. He puts his arm around my shoulder and points out.
“Look,” he says. “What do you see?”
We’re on a long, granite driveway surrounded by large pine trees. The driveway’s going slightly upward in a slant, so I’m unable to see above it. I keep watching, and as we come up the small hill, the trees begin to clear, and I can see the top of the house.
It’s a mansion! And definitely larger than five rooms!
“Breathe!” Seph-chan instructs.
At first, I don’t understand what he means. I feel myself suffocating. I inhale as much as I can and let it out. It comes out in a gasp, and my chest feels heavy all of the sudden. This has to be joke, right? Me in a mansion? Where’s the camera!?
“Is it…” I begin.
“Yes,” Seph-chan answers. “It’s real.”
“Yes, this is the house…”
I pull myself away from the window and sink into the seat again.
“No,” he answers. “I’m not egging you on.”
A few minutes later, I shake Marlene awake, and the driver pulls up into the driveway and opens our doors. We’re standing in front of it, and a group of people is there to greet us. As the limo drives off to the car house, my knees go weak.
“Wow!” Marlene cries. “Is Miss Luciano a rich lady?”
I can’t move. Seph-chan gives me a playful push forward towards the entrance. A set of wide, wooden stone steps leads up to it. A young woman from the group comes down halfway and waits for us.
“Good evening and welcome home,” she says (as if I’ve lived here all along). “I’m Shera…pleasure to see you ag…um, pleasure to make your acquaintance.”
Shera is a small woman under a pair of glasses, with a British accent like mine. Her black suit doesn’t go well with her complexion, but it suits her all the same. Her manner is friendly but slightly mousy.
“I take it you know our names already?” I ask.
“N-naturally…please come with me.”
The rest of the group greets us openly and bows their heads. Unlike Shera, most of them are much older. They gradually lead us inside. Marlene stays behind me the whole time.
The first thing I notice about the house is that the halls are not very wide. Right in front of us, there was a life-sized replica of a terra cotta soldier guarding the entrance; it even has a long-edged spear. The walls have Chinese and Japanese décor, matching the tastes of my mum. The tile floors are porcelain.
The group leaves to return to their duties, but Shera stays behind. Marlene walks over to the statue and taps on its curious armor. I dart forward and urge her away.
“Be careful with that,” Shera says. “You don’t want to knock down that spear. It’s sharp. I’ll show you to your suites.”
I turn around to see if my new companion would come with me. But Seph-chan has completely disappeared.
Suite is the correct term for it. From the moment we stepped in, Marlene opened her mouth in delight and started prancing around like Bambi. I just opened my mouth in shock. Instead of a bedroom, I see a small living room with a couch and TV set. A bouquet of white tulips is sitting on a table.
I know this room must be Marlene’s room…because the overall color scheme makes me shudder.
A pink striped couch and a circular, pink chair (with pink throw pillows) are sitting on a Persian rug over pink carpet. On the wall (which is painted with pink and white stripes), there’s a painting of a geisha in a pink kimono, with a pink frame. The bathroom has pink and white tile patterns and pink towels. In the bedroom, the bed is decorated with pink ribbons, and it probably has baby pink sheets underneath. I think the TV set is pink too.
“This is so cool!” Marlene sings (literally). “Is this all mine?”
I pray to God it is! I hope.
“Yes,” Shera replies. “The Madame had it decorated especially for you.”
As a boy, I feel as if I’m going blind. I suck it up for Marlene’s sake and try to focus on the white vanity. With a vase of bloody, pink roses.
“Such an adorable room,” Shera says. “Don’t ya think?”
I cough and reply yes.
“Your place is up ahead,” she tells me. “Five doors down from Marlene’s…on the opposite side. Just past the sitting room. The Madame thought it would be good to give you both some space.”
We pass by the sitting room, and something familiar catches my eye. The room’s mostly black and white, and the furniture’s nothing to fuss about. But in the corner, a black piano is sitting by the window. And it’s not just any piano.
By now, I’ve forgotten all about my new room, and Shera notices that I’ve stopped walking. The piano’s standing open, cleaned and undusted, just like I saw it last. I approach it carefully for some reason and run my fingers along the side. It’s smooth…as always.
“Your room is two doors down,” she says anxiously.
“That’s alright,” I reply. “I’ll see it later.”
Shera frowns but leaves me be. The piano and I are then alone.
Oh, I couldn’t be gladder to have it. After not seeing it for months, I thought that a relative might have pawned it off. And I see no scratches on the paint… otherwise, I’d have a conniption.
I sit down on the bench and press on a few keys. It’s been tuned. The notes ring out beautifully…. as always.
This time I push another set of notes, the beginning notes of I song I know. One on the many songs I know. So far so good, but I get the feeling that I was expecting something else. I play the beginning notes of another song. No dice.
My hands fall away from the keys and I take a deep breath…something I haven’t done properly for a while.
My parents’ had bought me this piano for my fifth birthday, when we first moved to England. I don’t remember why they got it for me at such young age. I didn’t know how to play it then.
My hands reach for the keys again, and I play another tune from the beginning. But this time, I don’t think I’ve ever heard the song before. I let my fingers to the talking, and they play the next bit of notes.
For some reason, I can recognize the melody, but I know I’ve never played it before. I keep on playing anyhow. I close my eyes, as I usually do. Already, I’m playing the whole song, as if I know it by heart. After every few notes, there’s a jabbing sensation in the back of my head.
I open my eyes, and suddenly, the whole room has changed! The walls turned from white to dark green. The plain, white couch has turned into a brown one from another era, probably from the early 2000’s. The paintings on the walls turned into Chinese glass murals and one mother-of-pearl fan. On the other side, there’s a set of bookshelves.
A man is alone on the couch, reading a book. He turns a page and laughs at a funny line. He doesn’t seem to notice me, and I don’t try to get his attention. I’m already freaked out as it is.
The man… looks somewhat like me, except for being older, having a longer face, and no spiky hair, but I will admit it’s a similar style. His skin’s a bit tanner, his hair is a darker blonde, and his eyes are red hazel.
A knock comes at the door, and the man tells someone to come in. A maid comes into the room, pushing a cart in front of her. On the cart, there’s tea, a small plate of pastries, and a small jar of white honey.
I could probably use some of that myself right about now.
“On the table, please,” he commands.
The maid nods and sets to work. The plate clanks on the table with the silverware. The tea pours into the cup with the rich sound, and the smell fills the air. Earl Grey. My favorite. The maid twists off the top of the honey and finishes.
“There you go, Nicky,” the maid says. “Enjoy.”
“Thank you, Shera.”
Shera?! I look at the girl, but I can’t believe it. Unlike the Shera I had just met, this girl is strawberry blonde…and much taller! Her body’s a bit more promising too. She’s not even wearing glasses…
Nevertheless, “Shera” leaves the sitting room and returned to her duties.
Finally, Nicky turns to look at me. If I were six younger, I would’ve screamed by now.
“Why do you look so surprised?” he asked.
“That wasn’t Shera!” I blurt out. “That woman wasn’t…”
“Yes, that was her,” Nicky insists.
“Then who was the other girl I just met!?”
I can’t believe it! I’m talking to my own imagination!
“She’s also Shera,” he replies. “Or least, she’s the one who gets to play Shera now.”
Nicky lets out a snicker, and it crawls down my spine.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I reply.
“That’s right, you don’t remember, do you?” he teases. “Oh well…you’ll know eventually…one mustn’t hurry these things along.”
Ridiculous. I want to move, but my body won’t let me.
“Guess who you’re playing as,” Nicky challenges.
“I’m not playing as anyone!” I shout back. “No one else has my name! My name is Cloud.”
“Are you sure?”
I close my eyes and clutch my head. I’ve got to stop this. This has got to stop!
But when I open my eyes again, the room is suddenly back to normal. And Nicky has vanished.
My hands began to shake, and I can no longer play the piano. Before I know it, I’ve shut the piano and rushed out of the sitting room. No piano sessions anymore today.
I end up making a beeline for my new…suite. I don’t even take in the décor as I rush past the living room, as I find the bedroom, or even as I launch myself onto the bed. My face gets buried into decorative pillows.
I roll onto my back, panting heavily.
What was that? What in heaven’s name what that!?
Was I seeing illusions, or did the room actually change? Was that really Shera? And who on earth is Nicky!?
A knock interrupts my thoughts, and I quickly sit up.
“C-come in,” I stammer a reply.
The door opens, and Shera enters all smiles. She’s pushing a cart in front of her…with Earl Grey tea and a jar of white honey!
I’m speechless. I really am.
“Madame’s orders,” she explains. “I’m to bring you tea every evening. No exceptions. You can have pastries too, if you’d like. Just ask.”
As she pours the tea, I recognize the smell. I begin to quiver in fear. Either something’s wrong in the world, or I’m going completely nuts.
I don’t know which one is better.
“Is something the matter?” she asks with concern.
Well gee, Miss Shera, I think. I just saw and spoke with a man who probably doesn’t exist.
“I’m alright,” I lie through my teeth.
She raises an eyebrow but pretends to believe me.
“What would you like for dinner?” she inquires. “Our chef makes great stews and pastas...”
Saying that was a horrible mistake.
I’ve discovered that there is dining area in my…suite. Shera tells me that the every suite had one, but there is also a very large one near the kitchen. Marlene somehow convinced me to let her join in, even though she wasn’t hungry. A girl serves broccoli soup as an appetizer, which she receives with a grimace. She opens her mouth to complain, but I pinch her under the table. We’re polite guests after all.
“Where did Seph go?” Marlene asks.
“He had something to do, sweet love,” I answer. “Let him keep to himself.”
“We don’t know him, so we shouldn’t butt into his business.”
“But he’s our friend. He saved us from the ‘spies’.”
The broccoli soup tastes a tad sour. I’ll have to tell the cook about it.
“They weren’t dangerous spies,” I argue.
“All spies are dangerous,” Marlene says. “They all are.”
For some reason, I get the feeling that she’s right. But I’m not about to indulge her.
“You’re soup’s getting cold,” I tell her.
Marlene grimaces and turns her head away. “It smells funny.”
I take a whiff, and I realize that she’s right. I had been so hungry that I hadn’t noticed. I taste the soup carefully again, and I realize that something’s gone rancid...or sour. I push the bowl away from me.
“We should fire the cook,” Marlene mutters vindictively.
I reach under the table and pinch her again.
Dinner had been a complete disaster. After dismissing the broccoli soup, with soured crème, the maids served us shellfish pasta in red sauce. Perhaps I should have mentioned that Marlene and I had grown up on a kosher diet, regardless of us not being Jewish. I sucked it up and ate it all to spare Marlene, while she confined herself to dinner rolls. Dessert was worse: key lime pie. Since early childhood, I’ve hate pastries mixed with citrus. Marlene was happy to have a second slice though.
After that, we begrudgingly went our separate ways for bed.
While I think about all this, I’m lying down in my bed for the first time. It’s better than thinking about what happened in the sitting room.
My stomach starts to growl, and I feel rather ashamed. Crikey… I ate that awful meal, and I’m still hungry!?
No matter. Shera told me where the kitchen was, so I just go and get a midnight snack. I slide out of bed and leave the suite quietly. The halls are dimly lit, so it’s easy to find my way around.
Down another hall and around the corner, I find a very large kitchen with an equally large refrigerator. I dive right in without a moment’s hesitation. And the results are glorious in the darkness.
I find the most appealing root beer inside the door shelves. and there’s a leftover pot roast in the back, with mashed potatoes! Perhaps, there was a party before I got here.
My disciplined nature makes me get the vegetables. I shuffle all of my findings onto the counter and turn on the light to find the dishes.
But as soon as the lights went on, I know something’s not right. The kitchen itself looks out of date. The refrigerator is now on the other side of the room, and my food…has disappeared!
The oven’s on and something nice is baking. The kitchen island is covered with sliced ingredients: potatoes, celery, carrots, lettuce, cauliflower, broccoli, and tomatoes. On the counter, there’s a ridiculously large fish on a cutting board, bones and all! A knife is sticking in it with grotesque style.
A woman in an apron enters the kitchen from another entrance. The door swings behind her, like the one’s in the restaurants. I take a good look at her—the horror—and I recognize her immediately!
“Quite a feast, isn’t it?” the woman declared. “Everyone went to the grocery store to get more food, but they left me all by my lonesome! Care to help me?”
“You’re that girl,” I say.
She gives me a curious look and looms over to the fish. She yanks the knife out of its side, and in one fell swoop, she lops of its head! I thought it disgusting yet impressive at the same time.
“I’m about the gut the fish,” she says. “I could use some help.”
The trash bin is underneath her. She dumps the fish head with a startling indifference.
“You’re that girl,” I repeat.
“I saw you in my dream,” I explain.
“In the forest, right?”
I feel more chills go down my spine. Maybe, the death of my parents has had an effect on my mind.
“That was work,” she says sullenly. “But this is fun. Come on! Help me!”
She waves the knife over the beheaded fish.
“How can I?” I ask. “This is nothing but an illusion.”
“It might be more real than you think,” she replies.
To my own disbelief, I walk over to her and take the knife from her hand. She grabs another apron from a hook and fastens it onto me. Luckily, it’s not pink, nor does it have frills.
“But I don’t know how to clean a fish!” I complain.
“Yes, you do,” the woman corrects. “Just think…and remember.”
I stare the fish down for a moment and set to work. I begin by cutting off the tail. I cut in the middle, and when I reach the skeleton, I pull out as much as I can. I almost retch when I see its organs in my hand. I dump it all into the trash. Then, I keep cutting until the great fish is bisected. I feel like I’m hacking something.
“See?!” the woman chirps. “You remember very well.”
“But I’ve never done this before,” I reply.
“Yes, you have,” she argues. “And you’re rather good at it!”
“Who are you?” I ask. I didn’t get a straight answer the first time.
“When you say ‘who are you’, are you asking about my name or my personal life?”
I stop while pulling out more stray bone. I’ve never thought of it that way before.
“A name…I suppose.”
“I’m Nicoli…but you can call me Nicky!”
I shake my head and put the knife on the cutting board. I wipe my hands on my apron.
“You can’t be the Nicky I’ve seen!” I reply.
“I am,” Nicky insists.
“B-but y-y-you can’t be h-him!” I stammer. “You’re…”
“Who said I was a really a woman?”
For some reason, my ears grow hot. I take quick look at the cleavage showing under her apron.
I’m confused. I really am.
“You still have some work to do on that fish,” Nicky reminds me. “We can’t give the poor boy his freedom now!”
Despite everything, I find myself cutting the fish into quarters and scaling it.
“There you go,” Nicky says cheerfully. “Now I don’t have so much to do. When I actually did this, I was alone! Hey…give that to me. I’ll finish.”
Nicky takes the knife away and starts scaling the rest. After recovering a little from shock, I marvel at how much we look alike. Our eye shapes are similar, and we have matching noses. Even our smiles are quite the same…but I thought I got that from my mother.
“By the way,” Nicky says mischievously. “I wouldn’t eat that pot roast if I were you.”
“Why no?” I ask.
“Because it belongs to Sephiroth,” he (or she) informs me. “And if he finds out that you ate it…you’re in for a bad day, my dear!”
Both Nicky and I hear the door click open. We turn around to look.
Speak of the devil.
Seph-chan comes into the kitchen, and he’s surprised to see me. I turn back to Nicky, but he (or she) has already gone. The kitchen has switched to a modern style. I’m not surprised.
My companion is looking at my findings on the counter, and he has an irritated scowl on his face.
“Is this yours?” I ask.
“Yes, is it,” he replies coldly.
“I can’t have it, can I?” I ask.
He boars into my head with his cat-like eyes. I put all of the food away with a heavy heart.
So… my “illusion” was right. I’m not crazy after all!
But now, that’s become another problem…
“I’m rather selfish with my food,” Seph-chan explains.
“So am I,” I reply. “I perfectly understand. Why kind of cereal do we have?”