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By Laura Ryan Fedelia
Abbott PressCopyright © 2013 Laura Ryan Fedelia
All right reserved.
Crud muffin, poop, scat.
And definitely crap.
How in the heck did this happen? I asked myself skidding to a halt at the bottom of the staircase, before vaulting up them two at a time. At the top I took a quick moment to catch my breath and check for pursuit. So far, so good—the immediate area was clear.
Sprinting through an open door on my left, I closed and locked it in the same motion and then tiptoed toward the window across the room. Listening for the sound of hurrying feet or agitated voices as I went, anything that might indicate someone had raised the alarm, though it was hard to hear over my own heavy breathing
Approaching the casement at an angle so as to see without being seen, I scanned the grounds below. From what I could tell, so far no one had noticed that I was missing.
"Small favors," I muttered, pressing my back against the wall and letting myself slide to the floor. Bracing elbows on knees, I rested my head in my hands. My absence wasn't going to go unnoticed indefinitely.
The day had been going more smoothly than freshly-shaved legs into new pantyhose when suddenly, out of nowhere ... boom! The whole shebang had gone south. If I had any chance of getting out of this off at all, I was going to have to keep it together better than this. "Roll with the punches, girl," I muttered.
No matter what happened from here on out, the end of this day would bring freedom one way or another.
"Keep headed toward the light at the end of your tunnel," I encouraged myself, pushing against the wall to peep cautiously out the window again. "Yeah, and have faith it's not attached to a freight train," my more jaded side retorted.
The search was on. It looked like my time to come up with a plan had expired. I was going to have to do this on the fly.
"Oh well," I sighed, the first chords of the Mission Impossible theme playing in my head. "Might as well go down in a blaze of glory."
On the other side of the door, the hallway and staircase were still clear. There was only one way to find out if the rooms at the bottom were as empty. I supposed the chances were about even; in any case, I was out of options. Lightly galloping down the steps, I planned ahead, one move at a time. The rooms on either side were empty when I reached the bottom. I decided to go to the right. If I could get through that room undetected, I would stand a decent chance of making it outside. Rushing through that room and into the next, the door came into view at the far end of the adjacent space, and it was completely clear. I could hardly believe my luck, despite everything against me it looked like was going to be able to make my escape after all.
Throwing caution to the wind I made a break for the unguarded exit, trusting to my new found good fortune to see me through it safely. The arresting heaviness of a wide, beefy hand landing on my shoulder from behind announced the severity of my error. "Hey! Where do you think you're going?" demanded the wide, beefy voice that went with it.
The adventure-movie score filling my head slammed to a halt and was replaced with a fatalistic dum, dum, daaaam, as I was spun roughly around to face my captor. A squirrel; in my next life I'll be a squirrel. A squirrel would never have been caught by this buffoon. He was at least a foot taller than me and outweighed me by a hundred and fifty pounds, easy. Crud muffin. With escape no longer an option, I braced for what was sure to happen next. One way or another, I reminded myself, freedom is on the other side of this day.
His other hand reached out to encase my free shoulder. Giving me a smallish shake, he brought his face down to my level and pushed it forward. "This way, you," he ordered, steering me out the very door I'd been trying to get through and out into the yard prefilled with spectators to what was, I had no doubt, to be my imminent humiliation.
A quick little squirrel, I visualized as I was marched across the yard; with a fine, bushy tail and a thick red coat.
Everyone had turned out to witness the spectacle. Halting in the relative center of the crowd, he slung one flabby arm across my shoulders in a parody of a cordial gesture. Having positioned us for maximum visibility, he whispered from the corner of his mouth, "If you're a good girl and play along, this will be quick and relatively painless."
There was nothing I could do but grind my teeth in impotent rage as, switching to a booming half-shout that was meant to carry to all corners, he called, "I didn't get a chance to wish you a happy birthday yet. What happened? The doctor said it's a beautiful baby girl. April Fools! Hahaha!" He laughed at his own joke.
I, on the other hand, managed to keep from rolling my eyes. Barely. "Ohho, boy that's, yeah, that's, umm ..." I simply couldn't find a way to put a positive spin on that lame comment.
As it turned out, Bill didn't need encouragement. So pleased was he with the delivery of his first line, he moved right on to the second. Glancing around, making sure he had an audience—and he did—and putting some extra volume into his voice, he asked the yard at large, "I mean, born on April Fool's Day and named after a kitchen utensil. Didn't your mother like you at all?" A predictable guffawing ensued, helping Bill to really get into his stride. Squeezing me with the arm that was still hung like an overused dish towel across my shoulders, he kicked his voice up another notch to be sure he could be heard over the laughter at my expense. "Come on, tell us. What's your real name?"
This wasn't the first or even the hundredth time I'd been asked that question, so I didn't miss a beat when I answered. "Rumpelstiltskin." Another predictable round of laughter followed.
As people returned to their regularly-scheduled conversations, I made a point of catching my husband's eye. His toothy smile turned into a slightly guilty grin. Winking at me, he shrugged one shoulder, smirking in a way that clearly expressed, Come on; it was funny. I responded by increasing the intensity of what my grandmother had called the hairy eyeball. Undoubtedly it was the anticipation of just this sort of reaction that had led him to recruit his new best friend for the job of rounding me up. But in all honesty, I most likely would have forgiven him everything right then and there (how long can you stay mad at someone for throwing you a surprise party?), if having played my part, I had been let off the hook. Instead, Bill's heavy, sweaty arm, still slung across my back, directed me over to a clutch of hens who all knew their indelible place in the pecking order and were salivating at the chance to show me mine. Reaching the group, I was literally thrust into the middle of it. As the forms and finery of the women surrounded me, I caught a glimpse of Sedryck turning uncomfortably away. That's right, I thought, you are in trouble.
Standing in their midst in a frumpy sweatshirt, holey jeans, and the white canvas tennis shoes (embellished by my girls to resemble miniature Holsteins, complete with eyes, noses, and tails) that were my standard take-the-dog-to-the-groomer outfit, the contrast was comical. No wonder Sed had chosen this morning to take issue with my get-up.
He'd literally choked on his coffee when we met in the kitchen. Wiping his chin with the back of one hand , he'd waved the one, still holding the coffee cup, up and down as he spluttered, "What do ya call this, then?" Slopping the contents of the mug over his hand and onto the floor in the process.
"What, this?" I repeated his gesture minus the gravitationally-affected coffee, smiling archly. "This is all the rage in Paris; it's called faux sexy," I teased, striking a pose.
"I'll say—and heavy on the faux." Laughing at his assessment, I'd turned to go, but I suppose with the coming festivities in mind he had attempted a misguided appeal to my pride. "Come on, you don't really want people to see you like that, do you?"
Unfortunately for Sed, his affronted decorum affected me like a dare. Chuckling coyly, I went on my way without answering. In hindsight, I should have recognized the signs of a social event on the horizon.
Poor Sedryck; he must be somewhat mortified right now. But I wouldn't have chosen to embarrass him if I'd known. Then again, neither would I have chosen to be here, so I guess the moral is, if you're going to risk throwing me a surprise party, then you get what you get. Poor Sedryck.
While Bill did the required number of minuets, schmoozing each of the females individually according to which rung on the social ladder she occupied, I took stock of the situation. It had occurred to me that there was more going on here than celebrating the anniversary of my birth. Sed had always been fine in the past with passing over mine as long as his got extra-special attention. Surreptitiously shifting from one foot to the other in order to get a good look around without craning my head, I searched for indicators as to what the real agenda might be.
I registered about half a dozen of Sedryck's clients and friends and their families; not people I would have invited, but I figured Sed had asked them to fill up the otherwise dismally empty guest list. My friend May and her daughter would have been the only ones here had anyone asked for my input. I could practically hear what my extrovert husband would have replied to such a suggestion, his usually suppressed Scottish brogue becoming more pronounced in his irritation. "That's not a paartie," he would have said. "That's an old maid's waake." A grudging grin erupted over one half of my mouth. Still, I would have thought he knew better than this.
The sound of my name pulled my attention back to those around me. I pasted an inane grin in place and prepared to fix it there for the duration of the ordeal—I mean, party. The group was quiet, something that failed to strike me as odd as quickly as it should have. Belatedly, I realized that they were waiting for me to say something. Boogers. What was the appropriate way to handle this? I wasn't sure, so I went with honesty. "I'm sorry. I phased out for a sec there. What?"
Heh Heh. A chuckle that imparted a judgment about my intelligence traveled around the little ring of woman.
Bill smoothly spoke around it, negating its effect slightly by refusing it solo airtime. "I was just introducing you around to these lovely ladies." He interrupted himself to kiss the hand of the top-rung hen. "Sed was saying the other day that you still don't know too many people in the neighborhood. So I thought I would introduce you to a few of the local mothers. They all have children about the same age as yours. Part of my present to you. Ehh, what do you think? What could be better than the gift of new friends?"
Cash, I thought abrasively.
Giving him an is-that-really-how-you-want-to-sell-this look, I replied with a simple, "I see." Then, turning back to the gaggle of women, I added, "Sounds good in theory, but I should warn you that generally speaking, I don't like people." As usual, all those concerned mistook my blatant honesty for wry humor.
When the polite laughter faded, Bill rumpled my hair with one sweaty palm, using the other to lift the ringleader's hand in a half-salute, saying, "I'll leave you to it then." And he walked away.
The matron whose hand Bill had just released looked me over critically for a long, silent, uncomfortable moment, deciding how best to proceed with a specimen like me. The words to her first question practically scrolled across her forehead as they formed in her mind.
"So, Pan, that's, ahh,"
An interesting name.
"An interesting name."
Is it a family name?
"Is it a family name?"
"Yes, my parents were tinkers."
There was a moment of strained silence while the women around me blinked and stared. I took pity on them. "Just kidding."
A collective sigh of relief rippled around me. I gave in to temptation, "They were spies; Pan was my father's code name, Tinkerbell was my mother's." More awkward gawking. I repented. "Kidding again. It was a joke; you know, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy."
Blank confusion was the dominant emotion on every face for, I swear, a good thirty seconds. Then mother hen let loose a cackle of laughter, triggering similar espousals from her brood. "You are a pistol!" she declared, poking me in the shoulder with a perfectly square dark-red nail, flawlessly matched by the color of her earrings, necklace, and shoes. "Aren't you?!"
I winced as much from the uninvited contact as from the sharpness of both the nail and the underlying designation her comment had labeled me with. From now on, wherever I ran into one of these women, I would forevermore be known as "the pistol." Having sufficiently labeled me, momma hen delegated me to the lowest ranks of her order and, thinking no more of me, returned to the conversation Bill and I had interrupted.
Allowing me to observe and familiarize myself with the dynamics of the group. Any first-year anthropology student could have identified Mrs. Joan Worth as the leader of this troop by the way all the subordinate members gauged their appropriate reactions to her nonverbal cues.
The bulk of this little community were third- and fourth-tier members and knew it, with one rising above the others to claim second-in-command to Joan. Her name was Jennifer; the others called her Jen. Only Joan called her by her full name, probably to ensure that people differentiated between them.
Jen was younger than Joan, not quite as pretty or self-possessed, but she apparently made up for it by being bossy, nosy, and loud. When Jen spoke, she could be heard forty yards away. Unfortunately, she enunciated as though no one had ever explained to her the function of consonants; so although she was easy to hear, I could barely understand her.
Once implied permission had been given, the cackling began. Twelve separate threads of conversation took off in different directions, each dependent yet independent of the others, and each hen expecting me to be engrossed in what she had to say and only what she had to say. The deluge of unrelated information was overwhelming. Not to mention the touching; what was with all the touching? Did every ludicrous statement need to be accentuated with some form of contact?
If I didn't shut down and fast, I'd blow up. Giving up on feigning polite interest, instead I toyed with one of their sentence fragments that had run away from the conversation and was now hiding in my head. It poked around my subconscious, trying to tease a reaction out of me. Ugly as sin. Ugly as sin—the phrase stuck out its tongue at me, refusing to stand still and be examined but also declining to quietly fade into the background. Ugly as sin. How ugly is sin, I wondered. Is it even ugly? I didn't think so; not in the not-physically-beautiful way that they meant. Given the nature of sin, isn't it far more likely to be lovely, alluring, tempting? Yes, I decided that sin would be very pretty indeed. It's virtue that's plain.
I sighed heavily, wishing I could be just about anywhere else. I hated this, all of it—the pretenses, the networking, the games, this claustrophobic feeling of being trapped, boxed in by social protocol.
Unexpectedly, a pair of slight arms wrapped around my waist, and Cora's sweet contralto voice whispered, "You look sad, Mom. Did Bill hurt your feelings?" Out of the corner of my eye, I watched as my oldest daughter rested her chin on my shoulder, then tilted her head to nestle it on my neck. Grateful for the excuse to slip away I mumbled, "Pardon, please," as we eased our way out of the circle. Kissing the top of her head I answered, "No sweetheart, I'm fine. Sun must have been in my eyes. Are you having a good time?"
"Yeah, Mom. I'm having about as much fun as you are." We both giggled a little maliciously.
"Sorry to hear that."
"S'ok I guess," she offered tolerantly. "Anyway, can't last forever. Oh, I forgot to tell you ..." she let go of me, backing up a step. "You're it." And off she ran, past her waiting sisters, who screeched merrily and shot off in separate directions.
We played for close to an hour, the game getting more and more rowdy as the other kids at the party joined us. I finally called an indefinite time-out when Sed, catching the food table for the twentieth time, righted it and glared pointedly in my direction.
Okay, I could take a hint. Eventually. Time to act like an adult. Feeling sure that I had made my point, I dispersed my playmates, snagged a coffee to settle my nerves, and moved into a corner of the yard, content to watch the rest of my party unfold from the sidelines. Without my disruptive influence, the event quickly reshuffled itself into a sedate and orderly gathering.
Grownups were loosely assembled in the center, socializing amongst themselves. Children were scattered aimlessly about, left to their own devices and searching for something to do. Automatically, I noted the locations and occupations of my own.
Daphne and Melina were in the sand box, Daphne gleefully digging holes and filling buckets with moist sand for Melina, who soberly dumped, arranged and sculpted the contents.
Cora was playing an impromptu game of volleyball at the back of the yard with a group of boys about her own age. I breathed deeply and sipped my coffee. Outwardly watching the girls, I let my mind drift, filling it with images of what I would be doing later when I was free to celebrate my birthday my way.
Hhhuuummmmm, happiness is.
"Penny for your thoughts," someone prompted, playfully touching my elbow.
"Oh, it would cost you more than that," I parried, using the time it took my companion to absorb the comment to rally what little store of patience I had amassed in my few moments of solitude. A short, older man with a basset hound face, cigarette breath and bad teeth was standing in front of me, rubbing my arm familiarly, leaning in for an even more familiar kiss on the cheek.
"Ha, haaa, haaa, haaaaa, cute," he laughed, winking. "Happy birthday Pan! It's nice to see you again. How old are you now, anyway?" he asked genially, as though he was an uncle I hadn't seen in years.
"Thirty-six," I answered, matching his tone, madly trying to recall where he knew me from. Often people I had met no more than once remembered our encounter as being an important event in their lives. I put this down to the uniqueness of my name; it stuck out in their minds, lending more weight to our association than normally.
Excerpted from THE BOX by Laura Ryan Fedelia Copyright © 2013 by Laura Ryan Fedelia. Excerpted by permission of Abbott Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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