Earl pushed the paper cap askew and wiped sweat from his forehead. The tiny kitchen was warmer than Hades.
As a kid, he dreamed of saving the world. He ran with his red cape streaming behind him. Flying in the sky, he shot lasers from his eyes and righted every wrong. He remembered the moment a disbeliever’s careless shoe squashed his purpose. Disillusioned, he became a hash-slinger, cooking meals for hungry customers regardless of their ability to pay.
A grimy hand returned an empty plate. “You saved my life, Earl.”
Sad eyes brimmed with unshed tears. It was payment enough.
Denise tried not to draw unwanted attention as she shifted her weight. The creak of the uncomfortable yellow leather couch betrayed her. Robert glared at her as she ignored him by examining her impeccable teal manicure, a perfect match to her turquoise and silver jewelry. She didn’t need to see him. She felt his annoyance. Robert’s voice continued, a dull buzz in the therapist’s office that reminded her of the irritating hum of a fluorescent light fixture.
The therapist must have hired a designer to furnish the spacious suite. Soothing grays, calming blues, and fashionable mid-century modern furniture made the space look homey and relaxing. The trouble, or maybe the desired effect was, looks were deceiving. The doctor occupied the Eames lounge chair with its matching ottoman. It was undoubtedly, an original and probably the most comfortable piece in the room.
The droning ended, and Denise realized someone had addressed her. Kind brown eyes regarded her, waiting.
“Do you have a response?”
She shrugged before looking at her hands.
“Surely, you have something to say.”
It was difficult to ignore eyes that seemed to care.
“He never asked the one question that would have guaranteed success.”
Denise waited, ready for Robert’s normal tirade, but the therapist’s raised hand stopped him.
“What’s in it for me?”
Robert attacked, throwing facts, statistics, logic, and rhetoric at her. His repetition offered nothing new, nothing she hadn’t heard a thousand times before.
“You’re not listening. Those things don’t matter. They never have.”
“I’m not gonna lie. This isn’t for everyone. In fact, I try to keep it a secret. My darkest secret. Can you imagine if this went viral? There would be lines. Hordes of people. The unwashed masses clamoring to join my procession. Let’s not mention the capitalists, the greedy sycophants, and the low-life scum whose sole purpose in life is making a quick buck. Whatever happened to hard work? Sacrifice?”
He paused in his diatribe, to push his face uncomfortably close to mine, and stare. I didn’t flinch. “What’s in it for me?”
There was no hesitation. It was almost as if he expected my question. I felt the tension, as the left side of his mouth twisted into a smirk.
“I promise. You’ll stay beautiful forever.”
His grin disappeared, his eyes narrowed, and I swear he winked at me before he stepped to the table covered with an odd assortment of paraphernalia.
“You assume that is important to me.”
When he turned, the lopsided sneer had returned, and an enormous glass ball glistened in his hands.
“My dear, what you don’t understand is my visions become reality. Oh, I suppose I could dwell on the whole ‘peace on earth’ Miss America sentiment, but that would be boring. Nobody enjoys boring, do they? No. Not when the ugly truth is so much more interesting.”
He rolled the orb, spinning, and playing with it, before he lifted it, holding it at eye level.
Reality’s wispy figments hung beyond her grasp. Days begun at four in the afternoon kept her translucent skin safe from the sun’s ravaging rays. Neon demons, crowded clubs, and illicit pharmaceuticals eased her into sensational poses. The paparazzi clamored for more.
Fellini scenes, gray-scale backdrops to life, encouraged Sylvia, sweet Sylvia’s whispers. Begging for peace, she scoured each avenue for escape from her manic world. Exhausted, detached, bordering on sociopathic but yearning for connection, she ended each dawn at the fountain in search of the answer. Hidden from the world for so long, she had forgotten where her soul drowned.
Twilight fell as storytellers crowded into the room. Ryu finished lighting one hundred candles. They gathered to repeat their favorite accounts of weird happenings, walking sprits, and vengeful ghosts.
They told tales of a man’s escaped from hell, monsters roaming misty woods, and bridges conveying the dead into eternity.
At each tale’s conclusion, the storyteller rose and extinguished the life of a single torch. The night progressed, the chamber grew darker, and shadows haunted foreboding corners.
Ryu earned the honor of the evening’s final story. With his last breath, he blew. His candle smoldered, and everything descended into darkness.
You’d expect me to hide from a formidable opponent, but my soul is hard-wired for defiance and committed to protecting those who cannot defend themselves. Black cumulonimbus clouds rise forty thousand feet in the air to provide Cyclops with his anvil. His forge is the birthplace of lightning, tornados, and hailstorms.
Plunged into darkness, frightened souls huddle. Sobbing like small children, they pray and beg for forgiveness. Despite deafening thunder, eye-searing lightning, and a pounding heart, I step into the downpour with my fiery purpose.
My schedule promised a marathon. Starting strong, my trainer pushed my outer limits. The nutritionist questioned the candy bar breakfast I inhaled while consulting the laundry service and the hack who called herself a housekeeper.
The stylist sneered at my messy ponytail, baggy tee-shirt, and leggings. “You can do better,” she said as I rushed to rouse groggy children. The crisis negotiator morphed into the childcare specialist, reminding me of the lessons with the student-teacher.
Meetings with the CFO, meal planner, and the head chef completed my morning. Exhausted, I wondered how many hats quarantine would force me to wear.