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By Elizabeth O'Kane
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2010 Elizabeth O'Kane
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Chapter OneFinley was thrilled with her new place. She danced in the kitchen with her clarinet, spinning between random notes. Zipper had snuck into the bathroom, where he sprawled in the tub and gnawed on the plug with great concentration. He stopped and looked up when the toaster popped and the microwave beeped at the same time. Fin stopped too. She put the instrument down, spread jam on toast and stirred honey into her tea. If tea and honey could just dissolve the remnants of last night's bad dream, (torn shirt, red sawdust) then absolutely everything would be perfect. She shook off the memory and sat at the cluttered little table to eat, surrounded by unpacked gadgets and the intangible glow of a new apartment.
It was only new to her; technically, it was old, part of an old building with old floors and old fixtures. Everything about the place had a gently faded feel, and though it was far from crumbling, there was a fatigue about it that made Finley feel energized by comparison. The place motivated her to unpack her boxes and arrange her stuff, probably in the same way the Peanuts gang had wanted to dress Charlie Brown's little tree. Now, she was celebrating the feeling of being settled in. She ate her toast while the sun streamed through her window, and she felt the coolness of her floor beneath her bare feet, and it made her smile.
When she finished, she tossed out the paper towel, put her mug in the sink and went to get dressed, letting out a disappointed "Zip-per!" as she passed the bathroom. The Mini-Schnauzer hopped out of the tub to see what the boss wanted, but she was just shaking her head at his antics and making for the closet. He nipped playfully at the hem of her nightgown, but she kept walking. He amused himself with a springy doorstop as she pulled on brown cord trousers and a red shirt, and tousled her chestnut hair. The constant, low "boooiiinng" made Fin laugh as she searched for her socks.
Once dressed, she went to the living room to grab the leash. She paused to survey the place and exhaled to a grin. Tall windows, brick red couch, bright wooden masks, computer, banjo, easel. The painted glass end table cast transparent colors on the hardwood floor. She spotted the leash draped over Zipper's little wicker cave bed and picked it up, checking to make sure the windows were closed and locked, second floor or not. After a last, admiring scan of the room, she threw her jacket on and hooked Zipper's leash to his collar, scratching his "radar dishes," those huge ears that stood straight up.
"C'mon, Zip. Let's go."
He scrabbled like a sled dog in the hallway. Fin waited for him to settle down before they headed down the stairwell and out the door. Outside, an abstract sky of blue and gray drifted slowly above the world. The sun brightened the grass and polished the wet parked cars that lined her street. At the end of the block, they turned right, avoiding the deeper puddles as they strode. They passed Fin's new favorite café, the bank, the bakery, and Zipper's favorite pet supply store, where he briefly turned into a stubborn, furry anchor with paws. Fin built his momentum by herding him from behind with tiny steps. They walked past the fire station and through a neighborhood of old houses and trees, Zipper making good use of those. At the intersection, Fin pressed the button to cross the one busy thoroughfare on the way to the park.
The park was huge. It spread for acres, a vase-shaped expanse of rolling lawn with all manner of trees and bushes. They stood thickest along the exterior curve where, outside the park's boundaries, a two-lane road paralleled its edge. Fin had been taking Zipper to this park since she'd moved in but had not yet explored it all. They had seen the part near the playground and, of course, the fenced-in off-leash section. But the rest of the park remained unconquered, mainly because Fin had been so busy with moving in. Today was different; there was only the chaotic kitchen left to deal with. As she walked, Finley relished the breeze and brilliant sun break, and decided what she really wanted was to stay outside all day, like a little kid. At least until I get hungry ...
Zipper pulled her to the gate of the Free-Fur-All zone and they went in, though company for him was sparse. He tried to engage a nervous Miniature Poodle and an ancient Scottie, but soon gave it up to chase his ball until he was panting and slurping water. Fin hooked him back up and they headed out deeper into the park.
She was so focused on Zip getting worked up over squirrels and training for "heel," that when she did look up, her mouth opened in surprise. They had stumbled into an outdoor sculpture garden. Fin was delighted. Well-spaced works peppered the landscape, varied in style and medium, some quite large, some cunningly hidden.
"Look at this, Zipper!"
Finley approached the closest piece, a fat dragon whose back was higher than her head. It wore a smug expression and appeared to be carved from stone. As she got close enough to touch it, she grinned. It wasn't stone after all. The scales of the pleased and overweight "mythological" were actually tiny plastic camels. Fin laughed. Zipper lifted a leg to appreciate the art in his own way.
"Not there, Zip."
Fin got him clear of the dragon sculpture and paused, scanning for what to admire next. This place was almost enough to make her wish she wasn't alone.
Almost. True, this was the type of situation one most enjoyed if one were two or three, but after only a twinge of regret at her isolation, Fin reconsidered. She'd rather keep her own company right now, nothing personal. People she knew were, naturally, all tied up with the past. Fin was all about moving forward these days; that's why she'd moved here, to a place where she had no ties. If that meant having no one to say "Wow!" to in a sculpture garden except for a Schnauzer pup, it was worth it ... although she was tempted to email Tad and Quinn about this particular find. She could decide later. Right now, too busy exploring.
Finley and Zip jumped through a giant topiary pretzel, and Fin heard her late mom's laughter in the back of her mind. They checked out a square of ivy-ridden brick wall that held a relief of a large face with oversized, splayed hands on either side, each brick sculpted to shape part of the design. They passed a realistic bronze of a little boy playing with a puppy, and followed the curves and loops of a forty-or-so foot long snake made of hundreds of smaller, tangled snakes, all striped in various colors. They veered off to the tree line to investigate what turned out to be a larger-than-person-sized Raggedy Ann doll of painted concrete. Her foot was chipped and her dress had been tagged with graffiti. Fin frowned down at her, thinking Creepy and a little depressing....
She steered Zipper back to the park lawn, where a baby acrylic elephant stood at the end of a bench with its front feet up on the seat, stretching its head and trunk upwards as if straining for a branch. Fin gave it a "thumbs up" before catching herself. She glanced around self-consciously and began walking up a gentle slope at a more brisk pace. It got steeper.
Zipper pulled Fin up the hill with the determination of a little draft animal. She tried to "heel" him at first, but then gave up, deciding to let him wear himself out. As they approached the top, she looked up. Her eyebrows lifted; her jaw dropped. An amazing thing loomed skyward in front of her. Zipper barked and lunged forward insistently. Fin broke into a run, letting him pull the leash taut and trying to keep up, but never taking her gaze from the giant piece of art. She could practically feel her eyes dilating in wonder as she got closer. The most awe-inspiring work in the park towered over them, a mosaic arch about three stories high.
The base of each side was like two tree trunks twisted around each other. They tapered as they rose and bent gracefully toward the apex in the sky above, where they met and entwined with elegance. The recent rain made the structure gleam in all manner of colors, thousands of gems formed of bits of shining ceramic and glass. Zipper sniffed at the base of the thing and Finley put her hand on it impulsively, craning her neck. Somehow, the riotous palette had an order that she could feel without analyzing. She was startled to realize that she tasted something sweet and lemony in her mouth as soon as the skin of her finger touched the smooth/rough surface.
Fin took a step back and removed her hand. The taste faded. She backed up and led Zipper in a wide circle around the imposing arch, with scenes and the soundtrack of 2001: A Space Odyssey in her head. She looked at Zipper with the formless question in her expression: Are you getting this? What do YOU think?
She paused and remembered to breathe again as the two of them made a few more laps around the arch. She almost tripped, and so instituted a policy of looking forward to scout the ground about six steps ahead before going on. She had a sudden urge to pass underneath it, but then an even stronger one not to slammed it aside. She rubbed her cheek and looked at Zipper again.
"Okay ..." she breathed, and looked around.
She spotted a bench at the bottom of the slope about 30 yards away.
"Let's go, Zip."
They traversed the damp grass, Zipper crossing and re-crossing her path with his nose to the earth. The bench was dry, so she parked herself on it, gave the Schnauzer a treat, and looked back at the arch from a more distant perspective.
It was nothing short of magnificent. Fin scanned for people nearby, so she could gage their reaction to the sculpture, but there was only an older couple strolling on the perimeter path, him gesturing, and her smiling, her hair dancing in the wind as she nodded. Fin sighed, relaxed, and took in her great discovery while the soft, constant sound of cars on the nearby road provided subtle background audio.
When the sky grayed again, this time murmuring threats of rain, Fin and Zipper roused and retraced their steps in the direction of home. In front of the bakery they ran into Fin's burly, good-natured neighbor, Jim, and his goofy Pit-Bull Terrier, Buttercup. She and Zipper said the usual "hi" with a sniff and began a game of freeze, and play, and freeze, and jump. While they danced, Finley made small talk with Jim about the sculpture garden until she found herself fidgeting with Zipper's leash and inexplicably avoiding a mention of the arch. She was thankful when Jim bent down and gave Zipper a farewell chin-scratch, saying, "Well, we should get going. Take care ... I'm sure we'll see ya later."
At home Fin busied herself with the kitchen, meals, banjo, painting, Zipper. Before bed she checked her email and answered a worried message from Theresa in Spain.
"I know you were ready to leave," it said, "but it just feels wrong here without you. I still think about your mom every day. You remind me so much of her. It was selfish to try to get you to stay, so forgive me for that, but now I'm lonely. Plus I worry about you. I don't mean to pry," Do so! Fin thought, "But why did you move so far from your friends and your job? You had such a hard time after the attack. Anna didn't let on, but she was a wreck worrying about you. Now she's gone and you're alone and I'm alone. It doesn't feel right. Come back anytime, please, hopefully soon! Barcelona misses you and Jerry from Figueres keeps asking about you. And please keep in better touch. And keep in contact with your friends (yes, I'm bossy ...) I know if I haven't heard from you in this long, they probably haven't either. And it goes without saying that if you ever need anything...."
That night Fin dreamt of Archie from the comic book, and of having an indestructible light bulb that was always on. She carried it through a dark field littered with rusty old tools....
Chapter TwoEach morning for the next several days, Fin walked Zipper to the park and sat on the bench near the arch. There was no question that she had a growing obsession with it. She began to think of it as her own. She would touch its bright surface to test the flavor, always lemon candy or strawberry, and then sit on the nearby bench and stare at it like it might suddenly start waving in the wind as if made of rubber, or spontaneously untwist itself. She watched people react to it, always able to tell those seeing it for the first time, and enjoyed the sense of amazement emanating from them in waves. It was a breathtaking work. She never saw evidence that anyone else ever tasted anything on physical contact with it, though. The silliness of the phenomenon amused her, but mostly she enjoyed the company of the arch, and so Zipper would chew a stick and she would sit there until she felt properly "recharged." Then she'd take Zipper to the Free-Fur-All where he would, of course, act like he had been joyfully shot out of a cannon.
As she spent more and more time at the park, life got neglected. Her banjo and clarinet went untouched; her unfinished painting languished on its easel. Her "job search" file would have been covered with dust if it had been actual paper and not stored on her hard drive, and the "just-moved-in" tidiness of her place was fast evaporating.
"We have to make a change, Zip," she told him. He looked up from his squeaky rubber chicken, and she nodded at him gravely. Another email from Theresa had sealed it; she'd been neglecting too much for the sake of her giant, silent, colorful new friend.
"I've been gorging myself on that thing. I have other things I need to do. I'll just ... savor it occasionally, you know?"
Zipper cocked his head at her with great interest in the concept. She grinned at him, got on the floor and tugged at his toy. She rubbed his head, dumped him on his back, and typed on his belly.
He wiggled on the carpet, panting softly in mammal-laughter, jumped up and shook himself off. Still grinning, Fin got up, got out a spray cleaner and tackled the accumulating mess in her apartment until her clarinet caught her eye. She played for a solid hour while pretending that the solid hour was her audience, and it expected to be entertained.
After four days of ignoring the arch like a junior high girl ignoring a crush, Fin couldn't take it anymore. She woke up on the fifth morning with no other thought, the giant mosaic arch filling her imagination completely. She and Zipper walked to the park straightaway, and she sat on her bench soaking it in until her stomach growled.
On the way back that morning, they walked by a homeless person (at least Fin assumed he was a homeless person by his appearance) sitting on the sidewalk next to an empty bus stop. He was wearing a filthy, oversized, striped sport coat over crusty pants and was drinking something from a squished aluminum can. His narrow face was unshaven, his skin grimy. The front of his dirty black cap asked her "What are you grateful for?" in bright green embroidered script.
She kept Zipper moving when he sniffed and focused on the man with uncharacteristic intensity. Fin noticed first the guy's hard stare, then the question on his hat. She turned her eyes forward again, thinking, What am I grateful for? Mind your own business.
As her consciousness launched the words, she saw in the edge of her vision that his expression had changed; eyes narrowed, lip pulled up like an angry rat. Though she and Zipper were past him in an instant, she felt a strange, mean satisfaction emanating from him. She hurried on, picking up a long stick for Zipper to distract them both. It was a relief to get to her door and put her key in.
Once home, Finley couldn't keep still. A soft anxiety hummed through her. She decided she needed to keep moving, and since her car had been sitting awhile, unused, she took it out for groceries, leaving Zipper with treats in a hollow toy and some reggae music. In the store parking lot, she hurried and looked about her with the caution of common sense, but the anxiety had faded and there was no panic in her. She came back with a good supply of healthy groceries and a few indulgences, and the rest of the day passed pleasantly as she worked on her painting.
Excerpted from Blunderland by Elizabeth O'Kane Copyright © 2010 by Elizabeth O'Kane. Excerpted by permission.
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