• miseri

Meeting the patriarch

I found Carolyn waiting outside the conservatory. She was wearing the red cocktail dress from last night, and she was sulking. Through the doorway, I could hear Aunt Martha fussing over the seating arrangements: were they too far? too near? should the chairs be arranged in more of a semi-circle? And Uncle Lawrence's odd, monosyllabic nods towards conversation, meaningless unless you were Aunt Martha and already knew what you wanted to hear.

"You told me your family would kick up a fuss if I didn't wear a dress," Carolyn said, crossing her arms in that "you got some 'splainin' to do" attitude. "Is there anyone I haven't met yet? Because they all seem really nice. Like they wouldn't have cared if I came down to dinner in jeans and a t-shirt, which is what I would have done if you hadn't made me wear this ... thing." She tugged at one shoulder strap and smoothed down her waist.

I wasn't going to tell her that she actually looked pretty good in a dress: she'd have kicked me in the head for that, skirt or no skirt. Instead I just smiled weakly and said: "Just bear with me until after the recital. Please?"

Carolyn's look could have stopped a charging rhino. But she relented -- she was a professional, after all -- and said: "Fine. But you owe me." Picking up her violin case, she flounced into the conservatory, where Aunt Martha was now fussing over the floral arrangements.

I don't know if Carolyn noticed the tension among the gathered family. Great-Uncle Theodore had yet to make an appearance, and if everything wasn't up to Great-Uncle Theodore's standards, then it would be the end of the world as we knew it. I exaggerate only a very little bit. He was a terror, and had only gotten worse over the years. Everyone was waiting for him, hoping that, if he didn't actually approve, he at least expressed neutrality over any recent family developments.

And we couldn't exactly warn Carolyn about him. She'd think we were nuts -- and then she'd probably do everything wrong on purpose, just to prove that we really had nothing to worry about. After all, Great-Uncle Theodore had been dead for forty years; and to a modern young woman like Carolyn, that meant he was quite out of the picture.
  • miseri

The beach at dawn

I was standing on the beach as the tide rolled in, with only a flimsy pair of trunks between me and the elements. The weather forecast had said that it was going to be hot; but at six in the morning, with a chill wind blowing in over the Atlantic, that was a little hard to believe. Eastwards, small swells in the ocean grew in size and power as they rolled up towards the shore and broke on the sand. The water swirled around my feet. I shivered.

Whose idea was it to get onto the beach at dawn, anyway?

I took a hesitant step forward into the surf. The receding water sucked the sand away from beneath my heels, and I felt myself sink an inch into the wet sand. Another moment, and another wave, larger than the first, smashed into my shins and left the bottom hem of my trunks soaking. This was a bad idea, I said to myself again. Why did I do this?

And yet I took another step forward. Ooh, it was cold, bad idea, why am I doing this?

I was knee-deep in the water when another wave came in. I remember looking up, horrified, at this wall of water that was taller than I was, and then I was knocked off my feet and drenched in salt water.

It wasn't actually so bad once I was immersed up to my neck in it. Getting out deeper ... a few more yards from the shore, and the waves were just ebbs and swells that dropped or lifted you as they passed. Without the wind on my skin, the cold didn't seem so cold. I found myself laughing as I bobbed along, bouncing off the unseen sand below with each passing swell, like a spaceman on the moon.

The sun was coming up, and in a few hours it would be blistering hot, and the beach would begin to fill with people. For now, it was just me and the sea and the rising sun.

I'd have to do this again tomorrow. But of course, that's what I'd said yesterday.
  • miseri

Courting disaster

He did not merely court disaster, not he, nothing so mundane. He stalked her down dark streets late at night, prowled under her window muttering bad poetry, ingratiated himself with her parents with all manner of insincerity and fairly bludgeoned her gates with little Russian matchmakers. He showed up on her doorstep at 6 in the morning with a diamond ring the size of South Africa and a mariachi band singing "My Funny Valentine".

Disaster was understandably put off by his attentions, and would have nothing to do with him. Whatever she might visit on other men, what wrack and ruin whole nations might come to, such things just passed him by.
  • miseri

Danger freak

Danger is like stress: some people -- perfectly good people -- have no stomach for it, while others take it in their stride, and still others thrive on it. And then there are the select few who cannot live without it. Case in point: me. I'm tightly chained to the nose of a specially modified cruise missile, pointed straight down through the core of the earth towards Beijing. I don't know if there's actually enough explosive power to carry it that far, or if the thing could survive the journey, or if the planet itself could survive the journey, but General Pain doesn't think these things through. Last thing he said before he and his goons evacuated the site was that he didn't care any more, as long as I got creamed in the process.

So yeah, it's a tight spot. How can I get out of this one? I've probably got a minute before the General gets to the control room and initiates the launch sequence. I take a second out of that minute to face the sheer desperation of the situation. It seems hopeless, I think to myself, this could very well be the end of....

Ah, screw it.

I snap the chains with a sharp tug -- either I'm getting stronger, or they're making these things flimsier than they used to -- and punch through the rocket shielding just as the launch sequence begins. I rip the fuel line away and quickly knot it: no fuel, no launch, no nuclear explosion in the bowels of the earth. Quod erat faciendum. General Pain needs an imagination upgrade.

My emergency alert radio begins beeping. Looks like Vixen is up to ... something ... in DC. I lick my lips. Vixen always comes up with the best deathtraps. I swear, the last time, I was literally a hair's breadth away from becoming superhero toothpaste. If I hurry, I can apprehend General Pain and toss him over to the authorities, and still make it to DC in time to "foolishly" get myself captured. I'm already planning my "you'll never get away with this" speech.

I know, one of these days I'm going to get myself killed. Honestly? That's kind of why I enjoy doing what I do in the first place.
  • miseri

Forty Years Later

The Anglican minister had invited Caleb to concelebrate at the funeral, but Caleb had declined. He hadn't officiated at Benj's funeral; he saw no reason to take a place at the altar at Kate's. He sat in a front pew, rising only to say a few words in her memory, and otherwise faded into the background.

With Kate's passing, he was the only one left.

Vic and Khalilah had been the first to go. Caleb remembered the fire, remembered how Vic had dashed fearlessly into the flames, emerging after several anxious minutes, coughing and black with soot, with Khalilah's husband slung over his shoulder. Ismail was practically thrown into Caleb's arms, and then Vic had charged back into the building for Khalilah. The roof caved in not a minute afterwards.

Only later, when Ismail recovered from smoke inhalation, did they learn of the scene that had ensued inside. Ismail and Khalilah had each insisted that Vic save the other. Vic hesitated only a moment and then, with one pained look at Khalilah, did exactly as she asked of him. Khalilah, unlike the others, had never managed to warm up to Vic; Caleb wondered if Vic had found approval in her eyes in that final moment.

Benj had never been quite the same after that. He'd married Cindy very shortly after Khalilah's arranged marriage to Ismail. All the world knew by then that neither Benj nor Cindy swung the right way, but, as Benj said, they had reached an age where one married for neither love nor lust, nor even procreation, but simple companionship -- only later did Caleb realise that Benj meant to imply that the same was true of Khalilah and Ismail's relationship. In any case, Benj and Cindy pursued their marriage with a sort of dogged persistence, the way a very unhappy man might down shot after shot of foul whiskey. In its own unhappy way, the marriage worked, and Caleb wasn't sure whether he should be pleased or horrified.

After Vic's death, Benj seemed determined to go out in the same blaze of glory. Then, one fine day, he simply disappeared. It took them a year to discover that he'd joined a group of African missionaries and was working in some obscure village with no running water. Caleb himself was tied down by his parish duties; Kate, Avi and Cindy had gone, and only Kate and Avi returned. Benj, they said, was dreadfully ill and feverish; he hadn't recognised any of them. Cindy had stayed because she was his wife and that was what wives did -- Avi said she had that look she always had when she meant to see something unpleasant through, if only out of sheer bloody-mindedness. A week later, she sent Benj home in a casket. She herself was staying with the mission in his place.

They did not see Cindy again until Avi's death from cancer ten years later. She and Kate took Avi's ashes to scatter across the Palestine, as per his wishes, and then she disappeared once again to the African mission. Kate stayed with her for a week before returning home. They received a card from Cindy the following Christmas, and then ... nothing. Through his contacts, Caleb learned that she had gone walking from the village one day, and never returned.

After that, it was just the two of them. Kate and Caleb. There had been children from the Kate and Avi's marriage, and these were now beginning families of their own. Kate was kept busy with her own commitments to her Anglican parish and with the successive births of various grandchildren. She played the part well; Caleb thought she seemed quite happily in the lot that had been given her. For his own part, the lonely ache that began with Benj's disappearance only intensified with the passing years. And now he was alone.

Forty years ago, did any of them think that this was how it would end?
  • miseri

Goatee of evil

Vic

Vic was in a sour mood, and Vic in a sour mood meant Vic hitting the gym especially hard.

It was not that he was unused to rejection. That sort of thing happened all the time. He'd been dealing with it since he first began dating: if you got turned down, you wrote the girl off as an arrogant bitch and moved on. Nothing to it. But somehow the appellation died on his lips when it came to Khalilah. She'd been firm but polite. Demure, even. Ladylike. If there was one thing Vic wanted more than anything in the world for himself, it was to be someone's knight in shining armour. And there was something about Khalilah that reminded him that a knight was also a gentleman. Only a true lady could do that.

She could reject him a thousand times, and he would never be able to write her off the same way he'd written off the countless girls who'd refused him in the past. This confused him, and therefore it upset him.

And then on top of that, he'd come home -- he was staying with his cousin Kate until he found a place of his own -- to find Kate discussing his romantic entanglements with her friends. He'd distinctly heard them say "...so they've both fallen for Khalilah, but she prefers Ben..." before they noticed him in the doorway.

Ben? That pencil-necked Papist?

Vic had seen Ben a few times before at the gym -- there he was now, as a matter of fact. The little twerp struggled under 150 lbs on the bench press. What did Khalilah see in him? What did Ben have that Vic did not? Vic watched Ben as the latter did his rounds on the weight machines, and even volunteered to spot him on the bench. Really, what was so special about this guy?

Of course, Ben had the advantage of a longer acquaintance. That was a head start. But Vic wasn't going to give up that easily -- not for the first woman who'd ever made him want to be a real gentleman. On the other hand, how did you convince someone of your better qualities if she wouldn't give you the time of the day? That was where personal appearance and first impressions came in. He'd have to impress her somehow, get her to look at him twice ... and quickly, before she and Ben really hit it off with each other.... Vic asked himself again, what did she see in Ben?

Well, Ben did have that goatee. Vic knew jack-all about Islam, but all the pictures he'd seen of Islamic communities showed men with beards. Maybe Khalilah had a thing for goatees. Vic remembered that one of the friends gossiping with Kate had been Ben's clean-shaven twin brother ... yes, the goatee must make the difference....

Benj, one week later

Benj had started spending more time at the YMCA gym once he knew that Victor had gotten a membership and was working out regularly there. Of course Victor was the sort who worked out regularly. A body like that didn't just happen out of nowhere. Benj didn't think he'd ever get tired of watching Victor shift all those weights around....

Benj was in many ways an innocent, and it had never occurred to him to peek at the object of his affections in the showers. But a week ago, he'd happened to look up at just the right moment to catch Victor looking in his direction. Victor had looked away rather too quickly ... only later did it occur to Benj that Victor might have been observing him.

And now, here was Victor in the gym again, this time with a goatee nearly identical to Benj's own.

Benj, to put it mildly, was delighted.
  • miseri

Flashback

Nine years ago

Officially, they were boning up for the next day's exam. Unofficially, "boning up" was pretty much all they were doing. Caleb was sure his brother Benj knew what he was up to -- it would be years before he discovered how wrong he was -- and he was secretly terrified that Cindy's parents would find out. They preached abstinence, as did his parents, and Caleb always felt a little guilty about their occasional slips. He assumed that Cindy, good little Baptist that she was, felt the same.

Cindy lay with her head on his chest, her long, dark hair spilling down on either side. How peaceful she looked. How gentle and peaceful and unaware. He gently stroked the back of her head; a coil of her hair slithered off his wrist as he lifted his hand, and not for the first time he was struck by an unreasonable sense of entrapment. Cindy sighed and slid a hand up to caress his face, and he automatically turned to kiss it because that was what one did.

For the past little while, Caleb had become more and more aware that he did not belong in the secular world. It was a Calling, he was sure of it now. And why him, he wondered. Why not Benj, who seemed to have no trouble whatsoever with sexual abstinence? Benj was by far the better twin ... Caleb sometimes wondered if he should grow a goatee and announce his status as the "evil twin". That might not go over so well in the seminary.

And what was he going to tell Cindy? Caleb glanced down at her. He thought she looked a little troubled, as well she should if she knew what he was thinking. Absently, he noticed for the first time that the gold cross she usually wore was missing, and he wondered where it was.

He took a deep breath. He could tell her there was another woman. Her name was Mary and she was over 2000 years old. Would Cindy take him seriously if he said that? People sometimes accused him and Benj of not knowing the appropriate boundaries of levity.

But it was Cindy who broke the silence. "This isn't working."

All of Caleb's reasonings and justifications fell over themselves in the rush to get out at the same time. Cindy slid off him and sat up on the edge of the bed. "I'm sorry," she said when Caleb didn't immediately respond. "There's ... sort of ... another woman...."

Today

Caleb stood outside The Witches' Corner, not really caring if anyone saw his clerical collar, or if he should burst into flames on setting foot in that place, as they sometimes said in jest. This was his first time visiting Cindy at her workplace, and he hoped he could catch her for a few words. If anyone could help with Benj's recent uncloseting, it would be Cindy. Doubtless she was helping -- she was now more Benj's friend than Caleb's, after all -- but Caleb realised that he needed help dealing with the matter just as Benj did.

"Benj!"

Caleb turned to see Khalilah approaching, her eyes bright with a look that Caleb recognised from all the weddings he'd presided at over the past year. That light went out as soon as Khalilah saw who he actually was.

Was that how things were? Things had just gotten a little more complicated....
Sorceror's Apprentice

That old black magic

"The Witches' Corner, charms and curiosities shop!" Cindy answered the phone with her usual cheerfulness.

"Hi, Cindy? It's Khalilah."

"Oh, hi! What's up?" Cindy's tone became even more cheerful, if that were possible.

"I was wondering... could we get together some time today?"

"Sure, I guess. Is something wrong? You don't sound so good."

"No... well..."

"What happened?" Concern flooded Cindy's voice.

"Oh, nothing. Nothing 'happened', not like that. It's just that... well, I need to talk to someone."

"Khalilah - you know I'll help in any way I can. What's the problem?"

"It's just..." Khalilah sighed, then continued hesitantly. "I'm thinking about things. Relationships. I've always assumed that my life would be a certain way, you know? That some things are expected, and that's just how it was going to be. And now..."

"Now?"

"Now I'm wondering if it really has to be that way. If it... if it even can be that way. You know?"

"Yes." Cindy felt her mouth going dry. "I know."

"I don't want to say too much over the phone - I'd rather discuss it in person. But I really need some advice. And I figure that you... well, you of all people know what it's like to make different life choices. And how to deal with it when people don't... approve."

"I guess I do." Cindy replied softly. It was true: when she had 'come out of the broom closet', her strict Baptist parents had reacted very badly. It had taken her years to rebuild something resembling a tolerable relationship with them.

There was a brief pause, until Cindy broke the silence. "Look, my shift ends at two - do you want to meet then?"

"I'll come by the shop." Khalilah sounded relieved. "We can go get coffee. And talk."

"See you then."

"Thanks, Cindy. See you then." Khalilah said, and hung up.

Cindy put down the receiver slowly. She took a few deep breaths, to try to calm herself in the face of an unreasonable surge of hope that threatened to overwhelm her. Could it be true? Was Khalilah going to say what Cindy hoped she would say? In all these years, she had never dreamed that...

But no, that wasn't true. She had dreamed it; of course she had dreamed it. In her heart of hearts she had prayed for it, even knowing it was selfish. For years she had looked desperately for hints that it was true. And at times she had even convinced herself that it could be.

So much of Khalilah reminded Cindy of herself before leaving the Church - her apparent shyness around boys, her quiet modesty. Before she had admitted the truth to herself, Cindy had used her Baptist religion as a foolproof way to divert unwanted romantic attentions: it was unassailable, yet completely respectable. She had often seen Khalilah do the same - the hijab alone was enough to ward off all but the most determined suitors. Cindy had wondered if Khalilah might be doing it for the same secret reason. What else could it be?

Now, Khalilah was questioning herself about 'relationships'. And 'life choices'. And was obviously expecting trouble with her parents as a result of this questioning.

Poor Khalilah. Poor, sweet, beautiful, wonderful Khalilah.

Perhaps now, at long last, Cindy would be able to tell her how she really felt.
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