Face Value

By Michael Young All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy / Adventure

Chapter 2: A Little Rain on My Parade

“Frankie! You’re forgetting something!”

I turned around to met the gaze of my beautiful wife. “Oh,” I mumbled, “you’ll have to excuse me,” I continued with a smirk, “but I’ve forgotten what it is that I’ve forgotten.”

My wife, Christine, didn’t have time to remind me. A cherubic face with curly blond ringlets poked out from behind her. Annie.

“Daa-ady. You promised that you’d take me on the bumper cars one more time, you silly goose.”

I suffer from motion sickness and another round on the bumper cars sounded like a headache waiting to happen. However, one more look at those pleading, brown eyes convinced me.

“Alright daughter-of-a-silly goose, one more time.” My wife looked at me appreciatively and smiled.

“Yippee! Thanks daddy! I want a blue car with big steering wheel and I want to drive and want to run into a lot of people and-“

“Whoa, baby, slow down. You’re too young to work up your blood pressure like that.”

Annie wrinkled her brow and looked up quizzically at me. “Huh?”

“Never mind sweetie, just take my hand, and I’ll get you a nice Porsche with cruise control.”

Realizing that I’d better quit while I was ahead, I took my her hand without waiting for a response and led her carefully through the crowd toward the bumper cars. Luckily, the line wasn’t long and I quickly selected a shiny, blue car for my daughter and me. However, as we were about to sit down, Annie let out a horrible shriek. “Daddy, daddy, daddy! It’s a spider! Oh, smash it please, oh please.”

I swept the eight-legged beast off the seat, and Annie immediately calmed down and I hoisted her into the seat next to me. “Phew. Thanks Daddy. That was close.”

I chuckled and smiled a little.

Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad after all.

“Daddy, why didn’t mommy come on this ride?” Annie asked sweetly.

“It’s probably not good for the baby,” I replied

The corners of Annie’s mouth turned up in a smirk, “And she’s probably too big for the seatbelts.”

I furrowed my brow, but she just giggled. “Isn’t a new baby brother worth mommy not going on the bumper cars?”

Annie stopped giggling. “I guess so, silly goose.”

The ride attendant called all clear, and the cars around us came alive like a swarm of ants. I eased on the gas pedal and our car came to life. It didn’t take long before the namesake bumping began.

“Whee! Daddy this is fun!”

A red car full of teenagers blindsided us hard from the right, and I felt my stomach churn with the impact. “Yes, sweetie…loads of fun.”

I tried to focus on my daughter’s ecstatic face to take my mind off the motion. However, by following that philosophy, I found myself stuck in traffic and wedged into obscure corners of the track by competing cars.

How much longer can this last?

My daughter unbuckled her seat belt and was trying to get out while the cars were still moving.. “Annie! What are you doing?”

“Daddy! Look at that! It’s soooo cool!” she yelled back, frantically pointing her finger towards a small game booth outside the track. It contained a simple ring toss game and gave out odd-looking stuffed animals as prizes.

Definitely not something that I would jump out of a car for.

“Daddy, I want that blue one!”

“Honey, sit down!” I grabbed her and after a few seconds of struggle, I managed to secure her. Just then, the same bright red car full of teenagers rear-ended us.

“Annie, what on earth was that? You could have been flung from the car! Run over! What-“

I could feel the blood rushing to my face, and stopped myself before saying something regretful. Annie stared at me, her mouth slightly agape. “Daddy, you’re too young to work up your blood pressure like that.”

The comment melted me, “Annie, I’m sorry. I was just worried about you. Daddy was once in really bad car accident and Uncle Fred didn’t make it. I just want to keep my little girl from getting smooshed.”

Annie smiled, “It’s okay daddy. Now keep driving please. The ride’s almost over.”

Here we go again.

The second round was not nearly as bad as the first. As long as I stayed away from the raucous teens, the rest of the crowd treated me relatively mildly. At last the booth attendant stopped the ride, and our car came to gliding stop. Annie clapped her hands together . “Let’s go on that one aga--”

Annie caught herself and continued, “Uh, oops, sorry daddy. You only promised me once. Oh, well, I wanted to go play that toss game, anyway.”

“And win that big blue stuffed thing?” I guessed.

“Wow, daddy,” she replied, “you’re awfully smart for a grownup.” I chuckled and took her by the hand. I maneuvered us through the jovial crowd until we stood in front of the ring toss booth.

“Step right up, folks!” the man behind the booth bellowed, “only three dollars for three rings! Get the ring on the peg twice in a row to win one of our fabulous prizes! Step right this way…”

I didn’t have to ask what Annie was thinking. She had “please daddy” written all over her face. I nodded and handed over a dollar. The attendant, a large, beefy man with thinning red hair and glasses handed over three rings. I glanced down at Annie reassuringly and asked, “Doesn’t daddy get a kiss for good luck?”

I knelt down and she pasted a kiss on my clean-shaven face. “Good luck daddy. Don’t miss, pretty please.”

How hard can this be? I’ve played this game at parties ever since Kindergarten. Keep your eye on the peg. Right on the peg.

I focused my eyes on my target and gently tossed the ring through the air. However, instead of the satisfying swoosh of victory, I heard only a sigh of defeat from my daughter. “Daaaddy, come on! Mommy could do it!”

Yeah, she probably could.

I took a deep breath and sent the second ring flying and this time the projectile found its target, much to the delight of my daughter, “Yea Daddy! Now just one more!”

Encouraged, I set my sights once more on the prize. However, before I could toss the last ring, the group of rowdy teens from the bumper cars appeared behind me and started yelling taunts, “Hey batter batter…swing batter batter…hey, don’t mess up now…no pressure, huh? Don’t make the little princess cry now…”

They laughed hysterically after each taunt as if each one of them had a future in standup comedy.

Ignore them. They’re just punk kids. It doesn’t matter.

I wanted to nail the last shot and show them all, but I just could not bring myself to do it. I closed my eyes and thought,

Okay, on three. One…two…

A small stab of pain on the back of my head gave me my second rude awakening of the afternoon. I turned around to locate the cause, and found that the teens were throwing small rocks into the crowd I where I was standing. “C’mon, old man! You throw as bad as you drive!”

That does it.

I swiveled around abruptly; ready to punch the kid into next week, only to run directly into my wife who was carrying two large swirls of cotton candy. The remaining ring flew out of my hand and landed neatly on the peg. Annie cheered and I sighed in relief as I helped my wife to her feet.

“Honey, I’m so glad I found you. I went to buy some cotton candy and the line stretched out forever. I’ll tell you.” She gazed at the large pink swaths at her feet and then shrugged her shoulders, “Well, so much for that,” she said. She then turned to Annie and smiled, “Did Daddy win you something sweetheart?”

Annie beamed and replied, “Sure did! But you know, I told him he needed Mommy to do it!”

Christine raised an eyebrow and I leaned in close and whispered, “Just nod and smile.”

Although still puzzled, she did as she was told. By this time the booth attendant had ushered off the troublemaking teens and had made his way back to the booth. He flashed me a bright, cheesy grin and bellowed robustly, “Congratulations, sir! Which one can I get for you?”

“The blue one on the right will do just fine,” I replied.

“Excellent choice sir!” he boomed, “Enjoy the rest of the day!”

I nodded politely as the attendant whisked the odd looking creature from its place on the shelf and handed it to my daughter who squealed with delight. “Thanks daddy!”

I stopped and stared at the creature for a moment, and tried to identify what species it could have belonged to. It was short and squat with elongated ears and black, beady eyes, which squinted slightly. Its arms and legs were pudgy and its neck was almost nonexistent. Two spindly, humorously small wings protruded out of its back and a stubby tail from its backside. The creature was dressed all over in clothing reminiscent to a genie of the lamp complete with robe, turban, and golden bracelets. After a good minute or so, I gave up trying to classify it.

My wife placed a hand on my shoulder and asked, “Dear, do you want to leave now? Annie and I are getting tired and you said that you wanted to hike up the canyon –today being what it is. If you don’t leave soon, you won’t have much sunlight for the way up.”

I nodded, “That’s fine. I’d like to get a good start on it. I’ll let you and Annie have a little girl’s night out. I’ll try not to stay up there too long though.”

“Alright,” she agreed as she took Annie’s hand, “let’s go.”

As I watched my wife disappear into the crowd, I couldn’t help but think how much I loved her. After seven years of marriage, we were still in love. She had become my best friend to fill the hole left when my brother died in front of me. She had lifted me out of deep depression and had shown me that I could be happy again. I would be careful tonight at the canyon.

Not wanting to lose sight of the two most important people in my life, I followed at a brisk pace. The three of us reached the parking lot together and I helped Christine by buckling Annie in the back seat of our white Mercury Cougar. I took the driver’s seat and we coasted out of the park.

I drove north on the freeway until I glimpsed the sign signaling that the exit I wanted was next. I pulled the Cougar to the base of the trail and killed the engine. My wife and I then removed my hiking gear from the trunk.

I suited up with the thick-soled leather boots, a satchel with supplies, and a heavy college sweatshirt to keep me from the frigid night air. I then embraced and kissed my wife and daughter.

“Goodbye dear, I’ll be back by midnight. I have the flash light, the first aid kit, and the cell phone.”

“Great,” she replied, “as long as you haven’t forgotten anything. It’s a dangerous trip…”

Suddenly her countenance fell. She stepped in closer and gently ran her hands through my hair. “Just take care of yourself, okay? I’ll miss you. Every time you take this trip, I’m on edge the whole night wondering if you’ll be safe. The canyon can be so dangerous at night. You know that better than anyone. It always takes you a few days to get over this.”

Her deep blue eyes locked into mine. “Don’t go Frank. The trail isn’t going anywhere.”

My insides churned at the thought of leaving my wife alone with her worries tonight and my hardened resolve faltered for a few seconds. Softly, I caressed the side of her smooth face, “Honey, this is a trip that I have to make. I am directly responsible for all this heartache and pain to my entire family. I can’t live with myself without paying my penance. I’m so sorry that I have to leave you two, but I promise that I’ll try to return as soon as possible.”

I embraced Christine and Annie one last time, waved farewell, and started on foot towards the trail. A strange, foreboding sadness came over me as I trekked on in silence. Not even the birds seemed to enjoy this canyon anymore.

I glanced at my watch: 6:45. If I hurried, I could reach the designated area by 8:45 and still make it back home by midnight.

Maybe Christine will let Annie stay up and wait for me. That would make me feel much better.

It would be a long and lonely journey with only my thoughts, my memories, and regret to keep me company, but even so it was a journey I felt that I had to make despite my reservations. Even though riding down the canyon in a motorcycle or jeep would have made this a much easier trip, I didn’t even consider taking one. I had sworn that off with this canyon long ago.

I reached the summit in record time. My luminous watch dial only showed 8:27 as I reached the hole that seemed to form a gaping maw in the mountainside.

Why doesn’t this ever get easier?

I sat down next to the hole, slowly slipped the backpack off my shoulder, and began sorting through the contents. I retrieved the smooth, polished stone from where I had stored it and stood while raising it over the chasm. “This is for you Fame. I miss you,”

I lobbed the stone over the side and let the crisp mountain breeze carry it down to its resting place.

The deed was done, but, since I had made good time, I decided to stick around for a few moments longer. Morosely, I retrieved my flashlight from the pack and flicked the switch. The powerful beam barely penetrated the blackness below.

A horrible screech erupted behind me and me a step backwards. I whirled around to see a strange-looking bird whiz past me, barely missing my head. I calmed my nerves and watched the bird fly off in the other direction, realizing that all was not well. I had knocked over my precious pack and it had fallen to a small ledge a few feet down the chasm. I cursed my luck, took a few steps closer to the side, and shined my flashlight beam onto the ledge.

A little precarious. I don’t want to die here too.

I was just about to leave without it, when my flashlight beam reflected a small golden object down on the platform. Intrigued, and mourning the loss of my pack, I decided to play mountain man. I found a small foothold on the side and started lowering myself down the face of the canyon.

What I would do for a safety line.

The journey progressed nicely until I reached a smooth portion of the wall. Losing my grip on the wall, I slid a little so that going up wasn’t feasible and going down looked even worse. “Man,” I mumbled, “how do I always get caught in these lose-lose situations?”

I clung motionless to the wall for a good five minutes muttering prayers until I decided that I wasn’t getting any stronger and the rock wasn’t eroding fast enough to make me a new foothold.

I decided to take the proverbial leap of faith. My muscles taut as towlines, I braced for the pain and let myself slide down the wall to the platform below. Frantically, I tried to catch any nook to slow my decent. Unfortunately, I picked up a little too much speed and came crashing down for a very rough landing, painfully twisting my ankle.

Wincing, I sank to my knees and felt glad to be alive, though in pain. Slowly, I dragged myself over to the pack and withdrew the cell phone. I wasn’t going to make the trip back up by myself.

Before dialing, I bent down and focused my attention on the glinting object in the dirt. As I picked it up, my eyes became saucer sized and my jaw nearly scraped the ground. Suddenly, this whole daring romp had become worth the risk. I picked up the golden chain and handled it my fingers for a moment before undoing the clasp of the locket.

Its fine workmanship had been tarnished slightly from lying in the dirt all of those years, but I could still distinguish most of its features. Just as I had remembered it, it resembled a drama masks, its mouth turned up in an eternal grin.

What a strange gift to hand off to a secret admirer. I was half expecting a little cupid with flowing ribbons. Must have been a really interesting girl he was going to meet. There must be some reason that she gave Fred this particular locket.

As the clasp fell away, I realized that the locket did not contain the traditional picture, but only three short words done in fine calligraphy.

TO BE OR…

I read the words carefully over and over again. Something disturbing began to brew at the back of my mind, like an itch that lies just out of reach. The words should have had more significance to me, but they didn’t.

Oh, well. I’ll show it to Christine when I get home. Maybe she can oil up my rusty memory.

My stomach tightened as she imagined her reaction, which would probably involve a bittersweet mixture of hugging, crying, and punching his arm.

He sighed as he dialed her number. Maybe she was right. Maybe this should be his last year.

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