Staring at her hands to avoid the jurors’ intrusive eyes, she spat out answers. Each word bitter and heavy on her tongue.
A guilty verdict would surely dig a needle in his arm. So she swallowed the truth and set herself free.
He waited for an hour, a painful hour. And during that painful hour, he reread the note in his mind 227 times. Two hundred and twenty-seven!
Meet me at Wal-Mart 2nite—school supplies aisle.
He agonized over it. Maybe he should have made it sound more like a question. Meet me at Wal-Mart 2nite? Maybe he should have said Target instead. Margret Ann’s family probably shops at Target.
He paced among the back-to-school clearance leftovers, willing her to show up. Margret Ann may not have said “yes” exactly, but she hadn’t said “no” either.
When he finally saw her bouncy red curls and eight-year-old swagger turn the corner by the spiral notebooks, he shoved the pink gel pens behind his back. Waiting until her red Converse with the rainbow laces were just inches from his flip flops, he presented them like a bouquet of fresh carnations.
These are for you.
Eight Years Later
He waited for an hour, a lingering hour. Because that’s how long it takes high school girls to get ready.
So even though she said Pick me up at 7:00, he sat with her parents through Wheel of Fortune AND Jeopardy.
Margret Ann’s parents weren’t quite sure what to make of sixteen-year-old Toby Malarky, frozen on their couch with the best posture they’d ever seen. His favorite shirt ironed crisp and tucked into his “nice” blue jeans. Hair slicked to one side, school-picture-day style. Cologne overdosed by about two and half pumps.
When Margret Ann finally came down the stairs, pink lips the color of those gel pens in his memory, all the air Toby held inside his whole body seemed to get vacuumed out in an instant.
(Still) Eight Years Later
He waited for an hour, an indecisive hour. Before texting her after that first date.
He’d heard his buddies say, Don’t call her for at least three days, Malarky. At LEAST three days.
But they didn’t say a damn thing about texting. So Toby wrote, revised, erased, and rewrote texts for 60 fat minutes before settling on one identical to his first draft.
2night was perfect.
U r perfect.
Margret Ann danced around her pink bedroom before flinging herself on the bed, giggling with glee.
Ur perfect 2. xoxo -MA
Two Years Later
He waited for an hour, a panicked hour.
Sweat ran down his face like condensation on a Coke bottle. He wiped it away with the cloth napkin every chance she looked away, but she wasn’t looking away enough. She hardly ever looked away.
Margret Ann prattled on about Yale or Georgetown or even NYU. Five acceptance letters had arrived just that week. Her freshly-painted pink fingernails flew through the air with every animated word.
Toby couldn’t focus on her excitement. He nodded and smiled and munched on the most expensive meal he hoped he’d ever have to pay for. But all he could think about was the ring in his pocket, the question on the tip of his tongue.
After one hour and four courses he cut her off mid-sentence and blurted it out.
Margret Ann, marry me.
Immediately, he wished he’d made it sound more like a question.
One Year Later
He waited for an hour, a terrifying hour. Smack-dab in the middle of First Presbyterian. Standing by the altar with two best friends by his side, Toby’s insides bubbled like a pot about to boil over.
At first they said she was just running late, but as minutes swelled into half-hours, he knew it was something else. He saw concern and pity beginning to fill the eyes of the guests.
Staring up at the rafters of that old sanctuary, Toby willed her once again to appear. With his mind racing and face growing hot and pink, Toby pulled his phone from his jacket pocket. His fingers flew over the keys; he knew what she needed to hear.
Margret Ann, you don’t have to do this if you’re not ready just yet.
I’ll wait for you as long as it takes.
Minutes passed. You could hear a pink gel pen drop in that airy church.
And then you could hear the soft buzz of a phone vibrating. Toby took a deep breath and looked at the text.
On my way! Sry I alwys keep u waiting. xoxo -MA
Toby just shook his head smiling.
No need to be sorry, he thought. I love every horrible minute I spend waiting on you.
Beware of uninvited visitors, the slight slip of paper warned.
Sarah chuckled to herself: These fortunes keep getting weirder and weirder.
Staring out the open window, she crunched absently on the stale cookie,
never seeing the eight-legged enemy that tiptoed silently inside.
Image Source: WhimsicalPaintWorks via Etsy
“When did you know you were lost?” he asked.
“Well…I, um…I don’t know,” she stammered, caught off guard by his question. “I guess it was right before I hit the tree.”
She stared at the wine glass in front of her, swirling it out of habit. Juicy red slid up the sides.
The bartender let out knowing grunt, “Guess it was a little late then, huh?”
Gentry arched an eyebrow without meeting his gaze. “Yeah,” she shrugged. “I guess it was.”
She spun around the bar stool to evade more questioning, trying to piece together how she ended up at Nomads: Bar for the Lost.
She’d set out that morning beach-bound to visit her sister, who was spending a month at the coast, a sort of post-divorce sabbatical. She’d found a marsh-front bungalow in a quiet seaside town and quickly realized she wasn’t cut out for solitude. Grabbing a few postcards from the Center Street post office, she sent one to Gentry, urging her younger sister to come stay for the weekend.
She’d promised sand and seashells and peach sangria. And that was all Gentry’s overworked and underpaid ears needed to hear. She packed a bag, poured a week’s worth of food into the cat’s bowl, and was on her way.
Wanting to slip into beach mode, Gentry opted to power down the GPS and map out back roads to get to the shore instead. Four hours into the drive, while running low on fuel, she grabbed the map from the passenger’s seat to try to figure out the best town to stop and fill up.
And that’s when she realized she was lost.
That’s also when she stopped watching the road for a second too long and accelerated her ’93 Pontiac Sunfire straight into an oak tree.
Stunned from the impact, it took Gentry a moment to refocus. As smoke billowed from the hood, she tried opening the door, only to find it was jammed shut. She dragged herself across the console to the other side. The passenger side door opened enough for her to squeeze her body out, grabbing her phone from the floor board on the way.
Backing away from the wreckage in a daze, she checked the phone. No service, naturally. And with few alternatives in sight on that lonely road, Gentry began to walk back toward the direction from which she came.
She had only gone few, sluggish minutes when she saw the sign.
Nomads: Bar for the Lost – Turn right 0.1 miles
When she arrived, flinging the door open wide, the bartender barely looked up. But he poured her a glass of wine before she ever sat down.
Now she pondered the strangeness of the establishment: how it existed in the middle of nowhere, the bartender’s apathetic questioning, the fact that the wine she’d been sipping on since she arrived never seemed to diminish.
She swiveled back around to face him. “I could really use a phone, if you have one that gets service out here.”
He paused, considering her request. “Phones won’t do you any good here. You can’t call out.”
“What do you mean, you can’t call out?” she retorted.
He leaned on the bar with both hands, lowered his face until it was just inches away from hers.
“Look. You don’t come here to make phone calls. You don’t even come here to drink wine. You come here because there are only two places left to go. You’re waiting for your ride to which ever one you’re destined for.”
Gentry narrowed her eyes, trying to process what he was suggesting.
“I hate to break it to you, but you must have taken a pretty bad blow in that crash. But hey, at least that part’s over with, right?”
She shook her head with clear defiance. “No..No…No…No…No,” she whispered.
“There’s nothing else you can do, sweetheart. Now you just have to wait.”
Gentry’s voice grew desperate, pleading. “No. No. NO. NO! NO!”
The bartender threw his hands in the air. “You don’t have to believe me…It won’t change the truth though. And it definitely won’t change what happens next.”
Still shaking her head in disbelief, she looked him in the eye, “If it’s true…if what you’re saying is true…how did you end up here?”
The corners of his lips turned up at the thought.
“I got here the same way you did, doll…the same way we all do…I didn’t know I was lost until it was just a little too late.”
“Lousy, good-for-nothing scarecrow. Blasted crows peckin’ every damn tomato the frost didn’t nab.”
“Ain’t no point in fussin’ if you cain’t do nothin’ ‘bout it.”
“Betcha I can scare ‘em off.”
“I’ll make that there scarecrow look more like you.”
Photo credit: WildnisPhotography via Etsy
Gargleblaster #160: Answer the question “Why do birds suddenly appear?” in exactly 42 words.
As the LCD ticked away the time she had left, Joseph took her speckled hand in his.
“You’ve fought a good fight, old friend,” he choked. “But don’t you stay for me.”
“You never did before . . . And now it’s much too late.”
Gargleblaster #158: Answer the question “Tell me something, old friend: Why are you fighting?” in exactly 42 words.
Winter seemed reluctant to release its hold. But DeVera could still feel the subtle shift of the distant star drawing nearer, and with it, the warmth needed to bring her world back to life.
But for now, the young one had no choice but to stay inside, commit to her studies under the guidance of the elder.
“Bring the anatomy books, child,” Demaurus called from the cavernous study hall.
DeVera obliged with haste, rushing from stack to stack of texts piled high along the walls, pulling each one with the foreign word printed across its spine, hoping they would all be filled with exotic pictures of the plants and animals of earth, or even the humans themselves.
“An-at-toe-mee,” she rolled the word around with her sharp tongue as she reached for another volume. “An-at-TOE-mee. An-AT-toe-mee.” She tossed the syllables about, trying to land the tricky inflection Demaurus had mastered so well.
Her gnarled, smoky arms strained from the weight of the books, and she heaved a heavy sigh as she set her selections in front of Demaurus for approval.
Can’t we do art instead, elder? She pleaded with her mind.
He raised an eyebrow at this request. In human tongue, he commanded.
DeVera hesitated, pulling together the right phrases and asked again, this time out loud and in English, Demaurus’ favorite of the earthly languages.
He nodded, pleased with her efforts, but replied flatly “No. Today is anatomy.”
Demaurus tugged at the third text down in the stack and handed it to the child. “Page 42,” he directed.
Sitting down and spreading the book across her lap, DeVera flipped through the pages, following the numbers along the bottom. Forty-two was the start of the text’s third chapter, “Study of the Womb.”
DeVera’s round mouth dropped open and her eyes grew wide as she began to take in the hand-drawn images before her. Little bitty humans, like peanuts in their shells, were sketched from every angle across the pages.
She traced a bony, grey finger along the rough lines. The tiny, delicate ears. The five baubles of toes on the end of each soft, smooth foot.
Humans are just . . . beautiful, she thought to herself.
An impatient cough from Demaurus tore through her wandering thoughts, “Read, child.”
DeVera’s soft voice stumbled through the technical text, the elder correcting her pronunciation along the way. Em-BREE-o. FEE-tus. YOU-ter-us. Uhm-bill-eh-cul cord. To DeVera, it all sounded too fantastic to be real.
At the conclusion of the first section, she looked up at Demaurus, Who is responsible for these drawings?
He sighed at her for slipping back into mind-speak, but answered the same way, Leonardo da Vinci. A human from long before.
Did he practice medicine? she questioned.
No child, he was a great artist, an inventor, a mathematician, a genius.
Can I be a great artist too?
DeVera’s thoughts carried with them a tinge of hope. Demaurus could feel it just as he could feel her words. Sitting down beside her, he tried to summon patient tones. Destinies are never easy to explain.
Child, you are the farmer’s daughter, the last one of your kind. This is why you must study the womb. One day soon you will grow your own crop: human beings so perfect, those of earth will not be able to resist loving them, believing them, following them without hesitation . . . even to their own demise.
Your time has almost come, DeVera. And your harvest will be our salvation.
Nodding numbly at the answer she somehow already knew to be true, DeVera stared out the window at the frozen tundra stretched before her.
More than anything else, she wished that she was just another peaceful babe floating safely in her mother’s womb, in a world where she could be a great artist, inventor, mathematician.
Or anything other than a reaper of souls.