Chapter 14: A Languishing Luncheon
I barely stifled the exclamation before it escaped my lips. My eyes darted about in disbelief, rejecting the impossible scene. I glanced over them and was baffled by their fine appearance. Fred could have passed for a department store model with his well-tailored clothes, stylish sunglasses and fine leather jacket, and Christine was dressed no less impressively in enchanting blue, knee length skirt, designer blouse and a tasteful pearl necklace with matching earrings. Each was carrying a basket that I assumed held our lunch.
I stumbled back and furiously blinked my eyes, as if trying to get rid of a mirage. But try as I might, my eyes were eventually drawn to the intricate ring that adorned Christine’s left hand, a simple, yet stylish gold and diamond band with far more carats than I have ever given her.
Fred removed his glasses and wrinkled his brow, “Face, are you alright? You look like you just got hit by a car!”
It was then that I realized how strange I looked cowering in the doorway in front of my younger brother. I quickly regained some composure and replied, “Yeah, I’m okay. I just haven’t got enough sleep lately. Must be the medication.”
I chuckled nervously as I tried to put on a friendly face, though the sickening dread never left my stomach, “Come in,” I gestured forward with my hands, “you can set your coats on the rack.”
They stepped in, removed their coats, and embraced me. As Christine’s arms came round me for just a moment, I let out an anguished sob. I tried to cover it up, but couldn’t.
Man, if only I had been run over by a car. That would have been much kinder.
Christine jumped back, startled by my sudden outburst. She glanced knowingly at Fred and then at back at me, “Frank, I’m so sorry. I know you haven’t been yourself since the accident. Let’s go set up our stuff in the kitchen and we can talk more about it there.”
I nodded and followed somberly. This was one meal where I’m sure that I would have to try my hardest just to muster up an appetite.
As we went, Fred walked up and clasped his arm around me, “I’m glad to see you in one piece Frank. We’ve been really worried and all. How is the job hunt going?”
Job hunt? This is new.
I turned to look him in the eyes, but could not bring myself to do it. Instead I shrugged, as if I knew full well what was going on.
“Oh, not too bad,” I improvised. “I’ve got a company that I’m going in to interview with next week. They are just getting off the ground and they need someone to do their take over their advertising department.”
Fred nodded, “Excellent. You know, if that doesn’t turn out, I’ve got another proposition for you.”
He glanced at me, but didn’t wait for a response, “I put in a good word with the head of my department about your situation, and he says that he might have a position you can take over. I guess in light of my recent success he just couldn’t say no. Would you be interested?”
The fringe of haughtiness in my little brother’s voice surprised me. Is this the same kid I knew in high school?
“Sure. That’d be great. Why don’t you tell him I’d definitely give it a look? It’s probably better than any prospects I have now.”
I made a motion as if flipping a burger. Fred flashed his bright-as-headlights grin and rapped me smartly on the back, “That’s the spirit! Why don’t we talk about it a little more over lunch?”
I seized the opportunity to change the subject, “Yeah, lets…by the way, what is for lunch?”
Just as I thought Fred’s grin couldn’t get any brighter, he turned up the charm even higher, “Oh, you know Christine. She wouldn’t settle for sandwiches and lemonade. She’s cooked up some of her scrumptious fried chicken with fresh biscuits and pasta salad with coconut cake for desert. She said that’s your favorite.”
I fell silent as my blood burned in my veins, She still knows me…you pompous, wife-stealing…
I was glad that Fred, unlike Andrus, could not read minds.
I go through all the trouble to save you and this is how you repay me! You shouldn’t even exist! If I could just get the communicator to work I’d…
Seeing the futility in this line of thinking, I followed Fred into the kitchen where Christine was staring out into space, deep in thought. Fred spoke first, breaking her spell, “Hon, you okay? Why haven’t you started unpacking yet?”
Christine jumped suddenly., “Oh, sorry,” she grinned and her cheeks darkened to an enchanting shade of rose, “I was just thinking how nice the weather was today, and how pleasant it would be if we would take this lunch down to Eve Park and make a picnic out of it.”
She smiled ever so slightly and batted her eyes at Fred, “And besides, we haven’t been to our spot in ages.”
I furrowed my brow. I recognized the park as a pretty one on the outskirts of town to which I had only been a handful of times. However, I had no idea what “their spot” was, and the very sound of it turned my insides green.
Fred bobbed his head, stroked his hand over his chin, and turned to me, seemingly pleased with the idea, “Hey, it sounds dandy to me, but I guess it all depends on whether you feel up to it Frank. What do you say?”
It took all the effort of my being not to screw up my face, spit, and call the whole thing off. I was about to, but as my eyes swept from face to face and to the newly mopped floor, I could not say no to the eager expectancy that radiated from Christine’s blue eyes.
Instead I shrugged and answered nonchalantly, “Yeah, I guess I little fresh air never hurt anybody. Sounds peachy. Do you want to take my car, or yours?”
“I’ll drive. It’s the least I can do since you guys brought me lunch.”
Fred was already heading for the door, “Alright. I’m going to grab my cell phone from the car and I’ll meet you two out there.”
He walked off briskly, leaving Christine with the basket of lunch. I expected her to roll her eyes, but she did the opposite. Gently, she scooped up the basket and sauntered to the door humming a ditty under her breath as if she had caught a bad case of spring fever. I found myself staring at her.
She is so perfect for me. What am I if we are not one? Nothing, that’s what.
I caught hold of my stomach as it performed a flip that would make an Olympic judge proud, Does this mean that the only reason she married me, was that Fred died? But why? We are so perfect for each other.
Christine glanced back to see if I was coming along and our eyes met for an excruciating moment. In that moment an old memory stirred within me, and I realized that once again, I was King Arthur, and, true to the age-old fable, my Guenievere had been stolen away by the gallant Lancelot. But this time, the curtain wouldn’t fall and all would not be restored to its proper form. This was not the fantasy world of the high school stage. This was real. Terrifyingly real.
Christine’s gaze held for a second longer, and she leaned forward slightly. I wanted so much to take her in my arms, kiss her sweetly, and cry into her shoulder like I always did when I was sad, but instead, broke the gaze and cast my eyes to the floor.
“Frank,” said Christine, “are you coming?”
It was while staring glumly at my feet that I realized that all ten toes where open to the air. I gradually brought my head up, but not enough to meet her eyes again, “Oh, yes. Just meet me out in the car. I need to throw some socks and shoes on. The car keys are in the basket by the front door. You can get it started if you’d like.”
She smiled that intoxicating smile once again and left with a nod, leaving me alone to stew.
I made my way up to my room and as I rummaged around the drawer for a sock, I realized that there was something unusual inside. It felt tubular, like a scroll, but wasn’t any longer than a pencil. Intrigued, I removed the object and examined it in my hands. It was indeed a scroll, made of crisp, new looking, tan parchment, wrapped neatly with a red ribbon. I picked furiously at the ribbon until it come undone in my hands. The scroll fell away and I beheld familiar handwriting,
Good to see you in one piece, if not a little worse for wear. You are probably confused, but I’ll try to explain as much as I can. I transported you from this location before, and so I was able to open another gate for a short time using the same coordinates. However, you were not around when I did, and so I left you this message.
As you have probably figured out, by saving your brother, you have altered history significantly. Through events, which are unclear, the lockets are out of your hands. I need to contact you in person again very soon, and so I have provided you with another communicator. I delivered it to the place where you transported to my shop last. I’m not exactly sure where that was, but you should remember, right?
Come as quickly as you can. There are sinister forces at work, the likes of what you have never known. It is imperative that those lockets make it to a safe place.
Frustrated by Trezzlepeg’s complacence to my pain, I crumpled the scroll and cursed my luck. I had missed my first chance, but I would not miss the second one. I wracked my mind as slipped on a pair of white tube socks.
My car…I transported from my car. I’ll just go back to my car reach inside the glove box, and that will be that.
But even as the words ran through my head, something inside me urged me to go along with my brother and Christine first. I still needed answers, and the more answers I had, the more I could tell Trezzlepeg when I saw him. Slightly annoyed, I tossed the crumpled paper in the garbage can. Dejected, I slunk out of my bedroom, walking like a child pacing the long hall to the principal’s office.
I was reminded of the task at hand as a car horn sounded from outside, so I slipped on a pair of tennis shoes from my closet, and trotted out the front door where Fred had already taken the front seat and started the car. Leisurely, he rolled down the window, seeming unperturbed by my tardiness, “Do you mind if I drive, bro? I’m feeling the need for speed today.”
At once I knew he must have been joking. My old Cougar wasn’t a terrible car, but it didn’t nearly compare to his sleek silver Jaguar. However, since I knew I’d inevitably break into several fits of road rage if I drove, I took the back seat.
Not surprisingly, we didn’t say much on the way up to the park. Fred turned on some soft music on the radio, and cruised my car towards the edge of town. I was content to have only the picnic basket as company.
As we reached the familiar park, we passed a large, ornate fountain, which shot out streams of pure water in every which direction. Seeing the fountain, my brother slammed on the breaks, flinging me roughly into the seat in front of me.
I cried out, but Fred merely killed the engine and glanced back without so much as an apology, “All rightly, everybody out. This is the place.”
And what a pleasant place it was. A circle of hanging willows encompassed the central fountain, and a grassy field stretched on for what seemed like miles after that. Farther in the distance, a solitary group of amber-colored horses grazed leisurely in the field. The park was nearly free of visitors, except for a few people having a picnic under one of the towering, shady trees.
As I stepped out of the car, a tender breeze ran through my hair, and I paused to take in the beauty of the scene. The two others exited as well, retrieving both the basket and the blanket themselves. Fred turned to me, spreading his arms, “Isn’t this grand? I’m glad Christine suggested we come.”
I nodded politely. Under different circumstances, I would have agreed, but instead remained silent. Fred didn’t seem to notice my somber mood, “Well, you’re the guest,” said Fred, “where would you like to eat?”
I glanced about for a suitable location. Spotting a shady spot near the fountain I pointed and said, “That seems like a nice place by the fountain. Why don’t we try over there?”
Fred glanced back at Christine and grinned, “Sounds like a great choice.”
Fred took Christine’s free arm and we set out towards the designated spot. Frank pointed towards the fountain. “Hey, Frank, did you know there’s supposedly a network of tunnels under the town that starts at this fountain and goes all over the city?”
“They are supposed to date back to Prohibition when people were smuggling alcohol underground,” Christine added. “People think it’s an old wives’ tale, but we don’t see any harm in trying to figure it out.”
Christine lay out the checkered blanket near the fountain, laughing and talking with Fred.
Reluctantly, I took a seat and reached for a plate. A third wheel is a terrible thing to be. Why did they even bring me along?
However, my reluctance quickly melted away as I eyed the cuisine. Christine had already started unpacking the scrumptious-looking fried chicken and pasta salad, and from somewhere deep within me, the beast of hunger arose, demanding to be fed.
Greedily, I snatched the nearest chicken breast, spooned on a generous portion of the pasta salad, and helped myself to a handful of the flaky biscuits. I topped it off with a generous glass of her homemade lemonade, and dug into the grub. Perhaps my manners left something to be desired, but at the point, nothing more mattered than chicken, pasta, and lemonade.
Fred and Christine munched leisurely while I went back for seconds. I raised a second glass of the cool lemonade to my lips. When I finished, I lay back and clasped my fingers together behind my head.
“Hey, Face,” Christine said. “Did you go off and join the army without us knowing?”
I shot up, feeling my recently meal churn in my stomach. “What do you mean?” I asked, wondering if this were some other strange twist of fate I was going to learn about.
Christine pointed to my arm. “That tattoo you have on your arm. I’ve never seen it before. It looks like something you’d get in the military.”
My mind reeled for an explaination. The truth just wouldn’t do. Or would it?
I shrugged. “No, it’s just a brand from an alien warlord. I think he wants to kill me.”
Fred and Christine exchanged a befuddled glance. After a few seconds of silence, Fred moved to break the awkwardness. “What a feast, Christine!” Fred cried, “I hate to say it, but I think you even outdo your mother’s cooking.”
Christine shied away bashfully, “Thanks. Perhaps. But I must say-nothing beats your mother’s home cooking. Do you think she’ll do those cheese rolls for Thanksgiving again this year?”
The lemonade escaped my lips as if from a cannon. Mom’s alive?
I wracked my mind, and realized in a terrible instant that it was true, but could not even to grasp why. Both Fred and Christine stood gawking at me, concerned, “Frank, you okay?” Christine queried, “Personally, I thought the lemonade was excellent, but you’re entitled to your own opinion.”
I struggled to regain breath, hacking and coughing until my chest ached. Mom…this changes everything.
“Oh, no. The lemonade was lovely. Just went down the wrong tube.”
I was anxious to make everything appear as normal as possible, I quickly added, “I always do look forward to her pies as well. She makes a mean coconut cream.”
They both nodded, but then Fred drew back and gazed longingly into the horizon, as if vainly trying to remember some long forgotten age. After a few moments, he spoke, his voice soft and contemplative, “I hope we are going to be able to be home for Thanksgiving this year. I think my contract has me down on location in Tahiti on Thanksgiving, and I don’t know whether I’ll be done in time to make it back. My director wants to get this one out by the Holidays and were going to have to drive hard.”
His big money smile quickly sunk, “That would be a crying shame. I haven’t missed Thanksgiving at home for years. Everyone is getting so old. What’s going to happen when they all just aren’t around anymore? I’ll feel terrible that I missed even one.”
I didn’t have the heart, or the nerve to tell him that we both should have missed countless Holidays as a family.
“Oh, well,” he crooned, “this one is projected to be a smash at the box office. I’ll make it up to you guys by flying all of us to Hollywood to watch the premiere. Won’t that be something? My first major break!”
I smiled and answered halfheartedly, “That’s great Frank. I don’t think you’ve told me about this one. Could you fill me in?”
Apparently, he didn’t catch the edge of sarcasm in my voice and dove in headfirst without barely stopping to catch his breath, “I’m not really supposed to talk much about it, but I guess since you’re family. It all starts like this: There’s this guy who’s going around living his normal life, and then suddenly he stumbles on this secret doorway to another world. There he meets this funny little man who says he can let him go back in time to change a single day in his life. The guy did something really stupid when he was younger, I won’t spoil it for you, but so he goes back to correct it, and he’s successful. But…here’s the clincher, when he gets back, his whole life is all screwed up because he messed with the past. Then, he…”
Fred crumpled his face as if his stomach was giving him troubles, “Well, I can’t spoil the end, but it all turns out okay. It’s going to be a real blockbuster show.”
Can you sue for plagiary of your life story?
“What do mom and dad think about all this?”
Fred laughed, Christine withdrew the coconut cake from the picnic basket, and all three of us indulged on the decadent dessert,
“I called them last night, and they seem to approve. We didn’t get to talk to long because they were turning in early for the night. Mom is doing well, and Dad is taking her on a cruise of the Bahamas for their anniversary. I guess the doctors determined that the disease is in complete recession, and she can be out and about again. Good news.”
I don’t understand. What is the missing link here? Why didn’t the disease do her in?
“Yeah,” I replied, “it seems like she was sick for ages. When did we find out that she had it?”
Fred scratched his head and then his chin, “You’re right. It’s been so long…oh yeah, I remember. It was sometime during my junior year. I remember the first time dad rushed into my room during the middle of the night. Mom was…we’ll I’d never seen her that sick. Don’t you remember that night?”
I did remember. Dad had woken Fred and me in the wee hours of the morning and had asked us to watch the children. All he had said is that he was taking mother to the hospital. At first the doctors called it a minor infection and said that she was going to be home in a day or two. However, those days turned into weeks and months, and only rarely did our mother ever return home.
I swallowed and nodded gravely, “I do. I almost wish that I didn’t, but I’m glad that she’s doing better. Sometimes I wonder how she made it.”
Christine slid her arm around Fred’s waist and moved in closer, “I’m just glad that you both did. I was worried about both of you for a while. I remember that she always told me how happy it made her to watch those tapes of you two acting together. You remember that? We all used to go in together to visit almost every night after we got out of rehearsal.”
Fred winced as if the memory left a bittersweet taste lingering in his mouth, “Yes,” he said flatly, “those were interesting times.”
Then, Fred’s eyes locked mine, and they told more of a story than an entire library. I had not just given Christine to him by default. There had been an heated conflict. Pain and resentment lingered in his eyes, and my face flushed and heart pounded.
The potent emotional reaction within me surprised even myself, but before any of my thoughts formed themselves into words, Christine broke in, apparently sensing the invisible tension, “Are you two done with your cake? If you are, why don’t we head over to the fountain? We could show Frank that cool thing with the fountain.”
“Grand idea!” exclaimed Fred, his tension forgotten. “Let’s fold the blanket up and we’ll go have a look.”
I bit my lip and added, “Yes, let’s. Maybe with my help, we’ll finally crack this case.”
I turned to Christine and flashed a grin to melt ice cubes, “By the way, thanks for the meal. I haven’t eaten so well in a long time.”
Christine blushed noticeably and her eyes gleamed with wit, “It was nothing. You’ve been without the commodity of a good home-cooked meal in a while and I thought you might need the chance to stuff your face.”
I nodded and chuckled at the pun, and wondered if she had meant it. My doubts vanished with another glance at those sparkling blue eyes. It was comforting to know that she still remembered my nickname.
The meal now safely tucked away in our bellies, the three of us rose, stretching our sore muscles. Christine busied herself with repacking the basket, while Fred and I refolded the blanket. Glancing about, Fred placed the blanket and basket on the ground next to each other, “Doesn’t look like anyone is around,” he muttered, “so we’ll just pick them up on the way back.”
Fred gestured broadly with his arm toward the fountain, “This way Frank! It’s on the other side of the fountain.”
He slid his hand into Christine’s and pulled her playfully towards the fountain, leaving me alone with no one but my thoughts for company. Everything inside told me that I really didn’t want to play their little game, but not wanting to be rude, I decided to go along.
I let my mind wander to returning to Trezzlepeg’s bazaar. If only I could undo this, things would be all right again.
But I can’t just kill off my brother again, especially not at my mother’s expense. Somehow the two are connected-my mother lived because my brother did.
I ruffled my fingers violently through my hair, almost wanting to yank it out in frustration.
I rushed over to the edge of the fountain and peered into the rippling water. The Face that stared back at me was not the Face who stared back at me just a few days before. That Face had a family, a future, a hope, but the Face that stared back now shone as a picture of despair. His cheeks were sunken and his hair tattered. His shoulders slumped and his stubble sat unshaven. No vibrancy shone behind his hollow eyes. This Face was no long a true Face at all-this Face was merely a mask.