Third Time’s a Charm – Ch. 13-15

This is not the beginning of the story. If you haven’t yet, please read Chapters 1-10 and Chapters 11 & 12, before continuing further.

**********************Chapter 13**************************

I don’t care what it is, everyone needs something to look forward to when you wake up.

No matter how big or small.

Something you can suddenly remember after consciousness assails you that makes a spark of happy.

Ow.

A spark that can burn away the cruft from before. Aches pains stiff and sore. Unpleasantness from nights before, dreads of days ahead.

Today’s spark: a new episode of anime straight from Japan.

Gotta love simulcasts. I cannot describe how pleasant it is to have good quality subtitled anime waiting to stream when I wake up.

Small pleasures. I tell you. Add ’em up and they tip the balance of any day.

Even when you’ve had the shit kicked out of you.

Okay, it wasn’t that bad actually. I’m just being dramatic.

Everyone deserves a bit of grandiose melodrama. Adds flavor to one’s narrative.

I haven’t checked my reflection, but I can taste blood on my split lip.

That was stupid. Wreckless. Fun.

They wanted an easy mark. Easily scared. Manipulated.

She the brains. He the braun.

I was in a mood though. Not a cooperative one either.

I got tired of people taking advantage of me long, long ago and I just wasn’t going to put up with that shit anymore.

And let’s admit it, I was looking for trouble, so when trouble just waltzes up to me, who am I to deny her?

I don’t know what in life caused their desperation. I don’t care either.

I should be more compassionate, yes, and if they had asked for help I probably would have.

But. They tried to rob me.

Tried to take my camera.

No.

You aren’t taking my soul. I don’t care what hard luck story you’ve got.

Deep breath. I feel my blood pressure rising.

It’s in the past though. No use getting upset over it. Wasting energy on that sort of negativity.

I smell bacon.

Isn’t that the sign of a concussion? Or is it burnt toast and a stroke?

Did I hit my head when I fell?

BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG

“JULIEN!”

BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG

I didn’t go to the diner today.

“JULIEN! Are you there! Have you seen him today, Thaddius?”

It’s not time yet. I was hoping to avoid what comes next.

“No, ma’am.”

“JULIEN!” Cheri calls again.

Options:

Escape out the window.
Ninja cling to the ceiling.
Fake a tiger attack.
Pretend nothing happened.

Lip is busted and so am I. Obviously Cheri knows.

She deserves better from me. She’s good people. I open the door before she beats it down.

“Well,” is all she says as she looks me up and down. “You are alive.”

In she barges as Superieur sneaks back down the stairs, abandoning me to my fate.

She grabs my face and looks at my lip – swollen and scabbed over – none too gently mind you.

Somehow mama bear types know just how hurt her cubs are, and where, with that one long look and how they treat you is directly proportional to how big a dumbass you were to get hurt. The bigger the dumbassery, the less gentle.

Apparently I’ve been adopted.

I’m touched she cares. Really. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt that warm, motherly affection – since my own passed – but at thirty-three, I’m not a cub.

I take her hand off my face, gently.

“Cheri, I’m okay.”

“If you were okay, you wouldn’t be avoiding breakfast,”

“I’m not, it’s not even after noon yet.”

“You were going to.” I was.

I was going to watch my anime. Nibble something soft to eat. And avoid going outside altogether.

Generally retreat.

Lick my wounds.

Defeated.

“Eat,” she said. “You need your strength.”

I sat at the counter in my own kitchen, Cheri stepped behind it. Familiar roles in a familial setting.

“Who’s watching the diner?” I ask. The diner without Cheri was unfathomable. I knew she did in fact leave, but I’d never seen it happen.

“It’s handled.” She put the usual in front of me.

Defeated. I munched my bacon. She’d also brought toast. Buttered. Soft.

“Derrick told me what that hussy did to you.”

That’s how she knew. Derrick had run them off after lights out.

I survived, thanks to Derrick, kept my camera (all I care about) and now have yet another improbable tale for my unbelievable collection.

“Derrick told me what you did, too.”

I ate a piece of toast. Not meeting her eyes.

“That was stupid. Wreckless.”

“Fun,” I muttered between bites.

“What was that?”

“Sorry, Cheri,” I said.

“Don’t you give me your ‘sorry’s Julien. I don’t want them.”

I said nothing.

“I’m not stupid,” she said. “I’ve been taking care of you for a month now. You haven’t said and I haven’t asked, that’s your business, but I care about your well being, Julien.”

“Cheri…”

“But if you’re going to harm yourself like this, tell me, and I’ll stop right now.”

I don’t know what to say.

She looks at me.

I never asked her to care about me. Never did anything to warrant it.

“Look at me, Julien.”

Tears are forming at the corner of her eyes. What kind of asshole monster am I.

A selfish one.

“It might be for the best, Cheri.” I feel cold.

Like the world is freezing over and crashing down around me. I don’t want to give this up. This life I’ve so carefully arranged to my liking.

I never meant to mean anything to anyone ever again. Even the girl who could make me smile. Keep the ties loose and casual so as not to hurt.

Now I was hurting Cheri.

“How much longer do you have,” she asks. She’s always known something is up.

I’ve been here too long. But it was so nice.

“Don’t you need to get back to the diner?” Cold.

Already planning my exit. Pack my life into a box and two suitcases. Out in an hour.

A moment of pain for Cheri but she’ll forget about me before I’m ever cold in the ground.

“It’s covered,” she says. “Don’t change the subject. How. Long.”

“Month. Two.” I push the plate away. Appetite gone.

Cheri nods. Suspicions confirmed. She tops off my drink.

“I’m sorry, Cheri.”

“For what?”

“Hurting you, you caring about me. I tried to avoid anyone getting attached.”

“I thought you were a smart boy, Julien. Quit saying stupid bullshit like that.” Perhaps the first time I’ve heard her curse. “That’s not what you should be sorry for,” she said. “You didn’t make me care about you. That was my choice. You didn’t hurt me on purpose, so there’s no need to be sorry for that. I misplaced my caring.”

That stung.

“You should be sorry for not caring about yourself. That shit is what hurts the people who care about you.”

“Cheri…”

“Cheri, Thaddius, Lamont, Harold, Holly,” she counts off fingers with the names. “That girl you’re crushing on but won’t admit it – I see how you look every time you talk ’bout her – obviously likes you.”

I open my mouth…

“Don’t interrupt. I’m not done being angry at you. When Derrick told me he saw you heading off with that trollop, I didn’t believe it. You’re better than that two bit bird. Then he said he found you bleeding and broken in an alley and my heart stopped. Then he said he deposited you upstairs, that refused to go to the hospital, wouldn’t even let go of your bloody camera.”

There was blood on the strap. Noticed it when I woke up, strap in hand.

“I don’t like doctors.”

“But you like hookers? Think that’ll heal you?”

“I wasn’t looking for that.”

“Then why follow her?”

Lie or the truth. Lie or truth.

“I fucked up.” Truth.

“I know, I’m asking why…”

“I’m getting there. I fucked up. At the play.”

I take a drink.

And recount the tale of my grand fuckery.

“Well you found trouble alright. Now quit moping and put some real pants on. I’ll wait.”

******************************Chapter 14***********************************

And she did.

She waited while I made myself presentable. While I wound my engine up.

It was raining outside. Hard. I could see it from the window in the bathroom.

Rain doesn’t bother me. Why should it? It’s water. Falling from the sky.

Now, I understand this notion terrifies some people and triggers their ‘end of times’ reaction – especially when driving – causing general hysteria.

It’s absurd. They take showers don’t they? Same difference, one’s inside and naked and the other’s outside and clothing optional.

Polite society prefers one to exercise that option though. Both of clothes and of showering.

Anyway. We aren’t made of spun sugar like certain witches, wickedness aside. We won’t melt. Yet we panic.

Over mild inconvenience.

Absurd.

It’s because we live apart from reality. Disconnected. Detached from our physical presence in the world. Divorced.

We send our thoughts into some device, become addicted, anxious for that rush of fake connection.

Three dots.

Three dots define our connection with others. Our validation.

Screw people right here, I want this particular person and that particular person to remember and recognize my existence from far removed.

I admit. I was addicted to my phone. To that rush. Immediate connection to others elsewhere. My broad circle.

There in the darkness when I felt most alone, separate, sequestered.

At least I had the dots.

Dots that never send.

Q

Some other mistyped missive.

The rain grounds me. Brings me back to present. I see it sheeting down the window. Drumming time out. Stepping out in it will connect me to the world more than any phone, this I know now.

Before I ran from the rain. Now I embrace it.

I hear clattering from the kitchen. Cheri’s still waiting on me. How long does it take to put on pants?

I check my face in the mirror.

Still ugly, but the lip isn’t too bad.

“My real name is…” Tranio’s card tucked in the frame triggered the memory.

My face heats up. What had she been trying to say?

Was it a riff on her script? “My real name is Tranio, that’s a secret between us,” she’d say with a conspiratorial wink bringing the audience into the ruse. “I’m standing in good Lucentio’s stead for various reasons,” she’d elaborate, showing her bare-lipped face as Tranio. A longer, more elaborate version?

No, they were speeding up for the rain.

Then… “My real name is Karen, I’ve been seeking you out each performance, trying to work up the nerve to talk to you. You see, I’m quite shy, really, and theater helps break the shell.”

No. I doubt she even remembered me.

Only one way to find out. Put on some pants and go forth into the rainy world.

“About time,” Cheri said. “Let’s go. I can only imagine what those boys have done to my diner.”

I choke a laugh. This I have to see.

******************************Chapter 15***************************

The diner was, in fact, intact.

Lamont, Harold, and Superieur had been sitting in the diner, goofing off, when Cheri decided they should do something useful. Like watch the place while she tracked down her reprobate.

“Take orders to Gene. Take food to the people who asked for it. Got it?” She had said.

It hadn’t registered.

“I said ‘got it?'”

They’d hopped to. “Yes ma’am.”

“Thaddius come with me.”

That was the short version of what I got from Holly who got it from Supe when she’d come by to see him.

The short version. You’re welcome.

Meanwhile, she’d put an apron on along with her brightest smile and started freshening up people’s coffee.

She had no idea what she was doing but it didn’t matter. It was Holly. They’d quickly run out of coffee, of course, and Mont tried to make some more.

It was more akin to motor oil. Thick and goopy. It was damn near the best coffee some of the customers ever had, so they swore to Holly as they dumped it in the window plants behind her back.

I’d get Cheri some new ones. Those poor plants were goners.

My fault.

I looked at the scene before me. My friends covering my slack ass. Cheri whapped Mont upside the head as she chased him away from the coffee maker. Supe stared at Holly as she worked her magic with the customers. He was quite smitten. Harold delivering the food with a smile and joyous noise. He smelled each dish he carried, his naked reaction alone sure to waken appetites. Life.

That thing I’d been looking for. I understood a bit better about Cheri now. And why this place drew me in my darkest time.

I had a place I belonged. Where we all belonged.

And I almost threw it away.

Dumbass, that I am.

Out the diner door, into the rain without a word. They’d understand, I hope.

I sloshed my way to the park.

I don’t know what I expected to find. It wasn’t time for the play and it was probably cancelled anyway.

Scenarios kept running through my head.

I’ll spare you the play by play but it goes something like you’d expect. She’s waiting for me when I get there. We talk awkwardly. Fall madly in love. Happily ever after.

Lives lived over and over again in my mind worlds away from the reality of me lying on the empty stage looking up at the rain stinging my eyes.

This might not be my brightest idea ever.

The play is cancelled. So says the sign.

No one is coming.

They’ve come already. And gone, seeing the sloshy mess of muck the park is, leaving their board warding others away.

I shut my eyes and let rain fall. Time drifts.

“My real name is Karen,” she says, hovering over me with a pink umbrella. It pours water right on my face. “Jerk face.”

I sit and look at her. Not what I expected.

“Well met, Karen Jerkface.”

She smirks.

“What are you doing out here in the rain?” She seems mad.

“Well I came to see a play, but seems most of the cast didn’t show up.”

She just stares at me. I can’t tell if she’s trying force a real answer from me or just doesn’t know what to say.

“What were you going to say when I interrupted you?”

“I don’t remember,” she said. “It was a snap decision. Why does it matter?”

“It’s honestly been driving me insane wondering what the next words out of your mouth were.” Straight up don’t even try to play it cool. “I keep replaying it over and over in my head. Why would you break character. Why even talk to me. Why do you stick out. Too many ‘why’s.”

There. Now she can see what a weirdo I am and never want to see me again.

“Then you shouldn’t have interrupted me. Jerk face.”

Not clever of tongue. She goes on.

“You know I’m not supposed to talk to you, right?”

Huh?

“Tranio is supposed to glad hand, flash the picture, and move on. Not engage in prolonged Shakespearian dialogue.”

“I thought it was part of the play, a bit to charm the audience like when Petruchio waltzes drunkenly through belting Earth Angel.”

“You’ll notice he doesn’t plop down next to someone for a personal serenade.”

“So why?”

“To fuck with you,” she said. “At first.” She kept talking, not looking at me. “You kept sitting in the same spot. Night after night.”

I did.

“It was so easy, why was it so easy?” She sits next to me.

Confused.

“But you never played along,” her face turned bitter. “You just nodded or grunted. You never said anything. Like I was bothering you. No fun.”

“Not clever.” I said, hand raised pointing down at myself.

“And THEN you showed up at Banefields the night of the fundraiser and that totally freaked me out. You walked right in, looked directly at me, and headed my way,” she looked me in the eye. “Except you didn’t. I thought you did and so I ducked and you walked right past. Straight to the blonde I had just been talking to at the photobooth.”

“You stole my wig,” I said.

“So you DID recognize me! When you didn’t say anything, didn’t even act like you saw me, well…I acted out.”

“I didn’t. Not until later,” I shuffle my feet.

She made a sound, like a decision being made. “I turned it up a notch when you kept moving,” she said. “It became a game.”

A game?

“You were avoiding me so I made sure you’d notice me.”

I laughed. Hard.

She glared. Hard.

“What’s so funny?”

“I was avoiding you, after the first few times, but only so you wouldn’t think I was a creepy stalker dude.”

She stared at me and laughed.

“I noticed you all too much,” I said. “I couldn’t help but notice you and I don’t have any clue as to why.”

Shyness creeped into her face.

“I enjoy the play very much. The first night I saw it and was transported away from all my cares. So I came back. Again and again. I always sat in the same spot because it was a good spot and usually open when I got there because Zakk and Tessa – yes I know their names, I know all your names – start off there and bound up to the stage to dance when the music starts the show off. I can sneak in and out to it easily.”

I really feel the need to fully explain my irrational rationalizations to her. Gut feeling, she’s run through as many scenarios as I have.

Time to be explicit.

“It also happens to be right along your path through the audience – again easy route out and around for you – as you glad hand. The first night it was a wonderful touch, giving me your card as a momento. I keep it as a touchstone for the nice things in my new life. But when I decided I was going to be coming back and you kept stopping and I kept being awkward because I lack a clever tongue that I’d best move so you wouldn’t think I only sat there to creep on you. And so others could perhaps experience the fun engagement. Plus that way I got to see the play from many angles and watch how you put it together, which was fun for me. But yeah, mostly to lessen my creep factor.

But then you followed, and I began to suspect, but I wasn’t sure if it was a good thing or a bad thing. I didn’t want to try to talk to you while you were performing, per chance throwing you off and ruining the play. You’d never forgive me for that. Though I didn’t know why I was worried about that, it’s not like I ever expected to know you outside of the play.

And no, I did not recognize you at all that night. Holly tends to make me glaze over – but please don’t tell her that, she’s super sweet – and I hadn’t ever seen you up close without that mustache. In fact, I didn’t figure it out until I scribbled one on your picture.”

“Horrible idea, that mustache,” she says, stroking her bare lip. “Itches.”

I keep going.

“And that’s when I fucked up. Because were I a clever man, I’d have played along with your ruse long before and said:

‘Well met good sir! Why yes, I have seen such as a person in my travels. Newly come to town I dare say. Over that way!’

Alas I am not clever of tongue, rather of word and so the lines came when the moments passed. Several times, I went over them in my head. Until they crashed into your plans.

Thus the script ends and awkward begins.

Overshare: done.”

“You’re weird,” she says.

Here we go.

“I’m aware.”

“I like that,” she says and leans her shoulder into mine.

Heart racing. Is this real? Am I drowning I the rain? I feel like I’m drowning.

“Why don’t you stay?” She asks. “To the end. When we finish and come out and talk to the audience. And I could talk to you out of character. And you could talk to me?”

I bite my lip and wince. Reality.

“I never imagined you’d want to talk,” I said. “I felt I’d be even more awkward.”

“You’re talking to me now just fine,” she said. So very close and warm.

“How about that?”

I put my arm around her.

“Ack, squishy, cold,” she shakes me off, drawing her arms and shoulders back. “Water, right down my back.”

I laugh and fling water at her face with my hand.

“Stooooop! Jerkface!” She laughs and runs away.

“You keep using that word.” I tease her as I give chase.

I feel suddenly playful as we run around the park. The rain stops.

She slips in a mud puddle. She tries to get up and slides.

“What, are you going to just stand there and watch?” She flings mud at me. “Jerkface.”

“I do not think it means what you think it means.”

I go to help.

It’s a trap. She pulls me down into the mud with her.

“One of the classic blunders!” She hoots.

She gets up and starts sloshing around in the mud around me. Splattering me thoroughly as she trumpets “I am so great! La la la la laalaa Everybody loves me I am so great!”

I grab her sloshing boot and pull her back into the mud.

So much laughter. Carefree. Both of us covered in mud.

A mess.

We kiss.

-j.e. pittman