Graduation

Liz sat alone at the bar with a half-full cocktail glass in hand. Her peers at the plastic tables glanced at her and gossiped, but few would make eye contact. The boys bold enough to do so presumed potential in the neighboring stool, but she played coy much too coolly for even the most persistent alumnus.

Despite how casually the boys crept up to her, not one of them remembered her from high school. She wore her name on the tag stuck to her green blouse, but nobody could recall a Lizzy Smith in any of their classes, especially one as dazzling and unapproachable as the woman at the bar. Some suggested she might just be somebody’s escort, but they only did so after their attempts failed.

She remembered all of them. She had known some of them her entire childhood; time hadn’t changed them at all except for the wrinkles that hid beneath their foundation. In the few moments before she had moved to the bar, she overheard the same conversations she remembered in high school: the girls gossiped about old classmates as the boys pecked each other like peacocks. They used new words and dressed in expensive-looking suits and dresses; she found it cute.

After their efforts proved fruitless, the boys snubbed her as blatantly as the girls had done from the moment she entered the gymnasium. They repaid her apathy with silent scorn, escalating the race as she sat in place. After an hour of their fruitless stalemate, the boys no longer approached the bar except for drinks.

She no longer wondered if they remembered the girl in the corner; she now knew she never existed. In the four years she spent in high school, she had not made a single friend, but in the four hours she spent inside the high school gymnasium, she had made dozens of bitter admirers. With that, she tore off her name tag, flung it into the plastic trash bin, and proceeded out the double doors. The chatter, the eyes, and the nineties pop muffled into a slight murmur as she walked away from her high school and into her new car.

Tea Time with the Spinsters

Mary Ann and Sarah Lee sat at either ends of the brown leather couch with mugs of chai in hand as Mary Ann’s stereo played Hillsong. With thirty minutes before their weekly Bible study, the two women had about fifteen minutes alone before others would arrive.

“Has Robert called you back yet?” Mary Ann asked, casually sipping the steaming chai. Despite her slight Southern drawl, she had never left her hometown of Modesto except on the occasional short-term mission trip.

“No.” Sarah Lee frowned. “It’s only been a few weeks though. Maybe he’s busy.”

“Surely he can’t be too busy to call even for a moment.”

“True,” Sarah Lee admitted with a sigh. “What did I do wrong?” Mary Ann leant over and placed a hand on the younger woman’s shoulder.

“You did nothing wrong.” Mary Ann’s smile contradicted her serious tone. “He just isn’t spiritually mature.”

“True.” Sarah Lee rubbed her eyes. “He acted very strange when I discussed marriage with him.”

“He probably just wanted to hook up for the night!”

“He had the nerve to say, ‘It’s only the first date.’ Hello! I don’t date for fun! I’m looking for a serious relationship! Gosh!” She rolled her eyes and sighed.

“God has a better man in store for you. He’s just waiting for the time.”

“I know. I get lonely though.”

“When you feel lonely, just read the Bible. It’ll make everything better. God doesn’t want you to suffer. That’s why He won’t let you make the same mistakes that so many other women make. Like Jesse.” Mary Ann gnashed her teeth as she mentioned the woman’s name.

“I saw on Facebook that she and Manuel are getting married this weekend!”

“Me too! She didn’t even invite me!” Mary Ann flustered. “After all the years I mentored her into a great daughter of God, she abandons her friends and her church for some Mexican janitor she met online!” Sarah Lee gasped. “He doesn’t even go to our church!”

“Is he Catholic?” Sarah Lee gasped.

“Probably.”

“How awful! What does she see in him?”

“I know. He doesn’t make much; he doesn’t own his own house; he’s even shorter than her!” The two friends howled in laughter.

“She must’ve been desperate!”

“She tells everybody, ‘Manuel’s like so sweet,” Mary Lee imitated a high-pitched Valley Girl, “and he like even helped pay for like my mother’s surgery. Like, that’s so tubular, like!’ Gosh!” Mary Ann rolled her eyes.

“You have to wonder how bad their relationship must be at home.”

“I wouldn’t be surprised if he beat her. We should pray for her.”

“Okay.” The two knelt their heads and closed their eyes.

“Dear Lord Jesus,” Mary Ann began. Her Southern drawl intensified. “Please rescue our good friend Jesse. She strays into sin away from You and her real friends. Forgive her for her sin and return her to the flock. In Your name we pray. Amen!”

“Amen!” Sarah Lee followed. Mary Ann poured more chai into her mug and checked the clock.

“Speaking of prodigal daughters, I hope Mae doesn’t bring Jeremiah again.”

“Me too. I still can’t believe he had the nerve to hug you! Doesn’t anybody take temptation seriously anymore?”

“Exactly! Worst of all, he’s corrupting Mae. I’ve known her all my life. She was always this sweet, quiet woman, but ever since she met Jeremiah, she’s become this loud, obnoxious freak. It’s so annoying!”

“I know! She laughs like a hyena!” The two friends snickered.

“He even had the gall to ask if I saw that Hangover movie. What self-respecting Christian would ever watch such filth?”

“He’s even worse than his brother!” Sarah Lee exclaimed.

“Oh, don’t get me started on Pastor John! I’m still mad about last year’s sermon.”

“Me too. So, it’s hateful if you go to the queers’ parade and preach the love of Jesus, but it’s okay for them to insult you and make rude gestures? That’s ridiculous!”

“I know. I only spoke the truth: Gays are perverts. Why is the truth so offensive?”

“These are truly the end times.”

“Our church hasn’t been the same since Pastor Ezekiel passed away,” Mary Ann lamented.

“He was the best pastor we ever had,” Sarah Lee said even though he had died when she was only six.

“I miss the good ol’ days.”

“Me too.” Sarah Lee stared at the walls, her smile withering.

“What’s wrong, Sarah?”

“I miss him.”

“William?” Mary Ann sighed. Sarah Lee nodded, rubbing at her moistening eyes. “He wasn’t good for you. I’ve already told you this.”

“Everybody loved him though,” Sarah protested.

“Yeah, because they’re just as spiritually immature as he is. Why else won’t they come to our Bible study?”

“Everybody’s too spiritually immature for us though!” Sarah’s tears trickled down her cheeks. “William loved me. He understood me. He was perfect for me.”

“The only one perfect for you is Jesus! William wasn’t a real Christian. Heck, he voted for Obama!”

“So what? I miss him! I’m tired of this shit!” Mary Ann gasped as Sarah Lee cursed. Sarah Lee gnashed her teeth as the tears flowed freely down. “I made the biggest mistake of my life, and now I’m going to be alone forever!”

“I know how you feel.” Mary Ann rested a hand on her friend’s shoulder, but Sarah Lee shrugged it off.

“Do you really?” she snapped.

“I do. I’ve never had a boyfriend. I’ve never even been kissed. Sometimes I even doubt God’s master plan for me involves a good Christian husband. But that’s all right with me, but that’s all right with me, because I have something far greater than any husband, and that’s the sweet love of Jesus! That’s all that matters in life.”

“It doesn’t feel like enough.”

“That’s because you don’t pray enough.”

“I pray two hours a day!” Sarah Lee protested.

“Well, I pray three hours a day, and believe me, God has never let me down. He might not give me a husband, but He gives me peace of mind, and that’s all I need. I could spend the rest of my years alone in this old house and as long as I have a Bible on my nightstand and Jesus in my heart, I’ll be the happiest woman in the world.”

“Really?”

“It’s true. In fact, I pity those poor women like Mae and Jesse. They’re not happy like you and me. They’re running from their first love. Jesus is a jealous god. That’s why you’re still single. He doesn’t want to lose you too.”

“So, I shouldn’t regret breaking up with William?”

“Listen to me, Sarah Lee.” Mary Ann stared into her friend’s eyes. “You did nothing wrong.” Silence flooded the following few seconds.

“You’re right,” Sarah Lee sniffled. “Thank you so much!”

“Oh, Mary! Thank you!” Sarah Lee wrapped her friend in a tight hug. “You are such a blessing!”

“Thank you,” Mary Ann said.

The doorbell rang. Sarah Lee wiped away the evidence of her tears as Mary Ann rose to answer the door. Before her stood a casually dressed couple with bright youthful faces that contradicted the gray in their hair. “Mae! Jeremiah! It’s so great you came!”

Offense

Alice sat in silence on the bench as she waited for the bus. Her time at the hospital hadn’t been pleasant. She never could adapt to the all the moans and shouts that penetrated the thin walls of her room. The noise was merely an itch compared to the glares and scowls that attacked her among every corridor. She questioned if it was worth having that nurse fired as she stared at a group of teenagers skate around the parking lot of the Pentecostal church across the wide road, but quickly aborted the thought. The nurse knew the rules. Alice was the victim. How could nobody see that? Even own family offered her no sympathy. She was the real victim in the entire controversy! Satisfied and smug, she amused herself by watching SUVs and sedans drive down Coffee Road. A woman pushing an empty stroller walked by. She reminded Alice of her own mother. A tall slender dark-haired man took a seat beside her. She never met him but felt at ease with him as though she could share her darkest secrets with him.

“Aren’t you that woman who got a nurse fired because she offered to pray you?” he asked once he recognized her. Before she could grunt a reply, he continued, “I can’t believe how vicious everybody has been against you!”

“Uh, thank you,” she stammered, unfamiliar with such kindness after weeks of scorn. “I just did what I thought was right. It didn’t offend me, but it might have offended others.”

“You did the right thing. She should have been more thoughtful than to assume that everybody is like her. If somebody offends another, they should suffer the consequences.”

“Exactly.” The bus arrived then. She walked inside vindicated and triumphant for once. The man remained on the bench and watched the bus drive away.

“Exactly,” he said.

Two months passed peacefully since her time at the hospital. She was at the door of her new neighbors with an apple pie to welcome them to the apartments. Everybody always praised her gift of baking. An older willowy woman opened the door.

“Hello neighbor,” Alice said. “I live right next to you and wanted to welcome you to the neighborhood with this apple pie I made.”

“Apple?” the woman said feebly.

“Yes, apples from my son’s farm.”

“Daniel!” the elderly woman shrieked. A tall muscular youth with tattoos clothing his entire arms appeared behind her. “This woman is trying to kill me!”

“What? No, I-” Alice stuttered.

“You bitch!” Daniel shouted. “Don’t you know my mom is allergic to apples? You’re going to pay!” Before Alice could protest further, Daniel shoved his fist right into her face. When she woke up, her eyes were so swollen that she could barely see, but she could see that she was in the back of a police car in handcuffs. The absurdity of it caused her to faint again.

The jury needed no deliberation in convicting her guilty of attempted murder. The judge sought to make an example of her with a life sentence in solitary confinement. The entire affair happened so quickly that she expected to wake up as they led her into the cell. Months later, she lost faith in the idea that it was just a terrible nightmare. Yet, she still couldn’t understand how her simple gesture could be taken so offensively. She cried most days, but her tears stopped when the door opened and the beautiful man she met at the bus stop earlier that year entered the room.

“It’s you!” she shouted with joy. She ran up to him and hugged him. “Thank God you’re here!”

“It’s going to be okay.” He patted her on the shoulder. “I haven’t properly introduced myself yet. My name is Karma.”

“I’m-” He hushed her before she could say anything.

“Please don’t tell me your name. It’s easier if I don’t know.” She was confused yet obeyed.

“Please get me out of here! I want to go home!” She fell to her knees in tears. He smiled at her.

“Isn’t this where you want to be?”

“How could I want to be here? This is Hell!”

“You said it yourself. Those who offend others must suffer the consequences.”

“I didn’t do anything to that woman!” she yelled. He slapped her so hard she fell to the floor.

“Don’t you dare raise your voice to me!” he shouted. “That’s very offensive,” he softly said with a smirk. She stood up and glared right at him.

“Let me go!”

“Wait. Look.” He pulled a mirror out of his pocket and showed her her reflection. She barely recognized the woman she saw, but remembered her from forty years ago. Gold silken waterfalls of hair poured where gray bundles of straw once grew. Her pink face out-shined marble. Not one wrinkle or blemish tarnished the image. No makeup could improve her visage. She never looked so beautiful. “I restored your youth.” She was too dumbfounded to respond, so he continued. “I like you. I know you had a hard life dealing with wretched people like that nurse. Maybe that’s why you tried to kill that neighbor of yours. Therefore, I’m going to give you back your youth. Nobody’s going to offend you this time. I’ll make sure of that. Don’t worry. You don’t have to say anything. Your expression says all.” He smiled at her and kissed her on the forehead. Then he walked out the cell, locked it, and never returned. Alice remained there for the next sixty years sustained by morsels of bread and her own tears. Not one person ever spoke to her again. She lived the rest of her life blissfully free from the offense of others.

Brooke at the Bookstore

James never entered this bookstore before. He’d never been inside any bookstore before. Reading was not an act in which he indulged voluntarily unless the words appeared in bubbles connected to costumed men with incredibly biceps or women with incredible breasts. Never would he have had any motive to even humor a bookstore with more than a glance if not for the giftcard his literophilic aunt bought him for his birthday. It was a selfish gift: she hoped to spur in him the same attraction she had for books. Fortunately, he found better uses for the card. One of his closest friends, Anne, had a birthday approaching. She loved to read, so he would dispose of the card on a gift for her and spare his wallet the twenty dollars that books cost. Why are books so fucking expensive? he thought as he delicately maneuvered his cream-colored sedan across two parking lot spaces. His car didn’t warrant such gluttonous possession of space either in size or in price, but it was a precious machine to him. He wanted the world to know.

He walked down the trail to the bookstore and improvised a plan of blitzkrieg: find that book that Anne had mentioned, buy it, and get the hell out! He didn’t remember the name of it, but he vaguely recalled the cover: an apple against a black backdrop. He doubted he’d have trouble finding it. It was a very popular book. Even the supermarket had a shelf dedicted to it. Sure enough, he saw it immediately as he pushed open the double glass doors: a massive cardboard display of the book cover blown up to ten times its actual size. The shelves at the display contained hardbacks, paperbacks, and audio versions of the book. He stretched his arm for the paperback, remembered that he had a giftcard, and grabbed a hardback. He pivoted on his heels toward the registers when a statuesque sight hooked his peripheals and petrified him.

“Brooke!” he gasped just loud enough to beckon the attention of the tall slender blonde walking toward a jungle of shelves. She shifted her toward the sound, hesitated for a brief blink, and turned with a glittery face toward him.

“James!” she squeaked. She dashed to him with arms spread wide. He unfolded his own in time to welcome her embrace. “I haven’t seen you in forever!” She held him tightly and ended the hug with a quick squeeze.

“Yeah,” he said. It was all he could say. His cheeks flushed with a greater tint of rouge at his spontaneous muteness. She either didn’t notice or mercifully ignored it.

“It’s so great to see you.” Her eyes still glittered as her mouth displayed a tranquilizing smile. His nerves relaxed.

“You too. What have you been doing since high school?”

“Oh, nothing really.” Her words lacked the enthusiasm that beamed out of her a moment before. “Just been going to the JC and working here for the last few years. Meanwhile, Jennifer and Rebecca and Amy and the others are off at universities becoming doctors and architects and engineers. As for me, I’ll probably be stuck in this shitty town a few more years!” Her green eyes scuttered to the corner of her eyelids.

“Don’t say that!” James proclaimed with resurrected confidence. “You’re doing something with your life. At least you aren’t one of those losers who sits on his ass at home all day.”

“God, I’d kill myself if that was me!”

“I know! Same here! Be proud of who you are. So what if you don’t go to a university? After they graduate, most of them will be stuck in shittier jobs paying off their insane student loans. I see it all the time.”

“I guess that’s true.” A smile sneaked upon her lips.

“You’ll do great in life whether or not you end up at Harvard or Yale or whatever.”

“Oh, James,” she blushed.

“I’m serious.” His tone mimicked his words to show her their sincerity. “You’re intelligent and talented and sweet and most of all you’re unique, Brooke. I always thought so. You’re going to do great things in life.” Her face now flooded with a ruby shade.

“Oh, you’re so sweet, James. You know what to say to make me feel better. You’ve always known what to say.” A goofy giggle escaped his slackjawed mouth. She responded with a smile. “What about you? What have you been up to?”

“I work for my uncle. It’s really lame, I don’t really like it.”

“Well, it’s something,” she said with the utmost sincerity. She mercifully aborted the subject. Whether or not she knew it was a lie was unknown. “I really missed you, James I know we didn’t talk much in high school, but I always thought you were special.”

“Oh, thank you,” he blushed. “I really liked you too.”

“Really? I didn’t think you liked anybody,” she jested.

“I didn’t,” he laughed, “but you were one of the few exceptions.”

“Oh, I’m honored.” No sounds followed but a few affectionate laughs through untamed smiles. A middle-aged woman dripping flab from her neck broke the silence.

“Excuse me, Miss,” she said with emphasis on every word, “but I can’t find Earl Warren’s latest book, Mo’ Prayers Mo’ Money. I need you to help me find it.” James’ fisted clenched behind his back and teeth gnashed behind his lips.

“Yes, definitely, madam,” Brooke said. “Can you give me a second though?” The hag sighed.

“Fine, but I don’t have all day. I’m leading a group to witness to the lost souls at the Catholic church tonight. I’m a born again Christian as you might have noticed.” She fingered the golden cross that hung from her neck in a manner similar to a rapper’s. It even sparkled like a rapper’s harem of gold chains.

“Oh, me too,” Brooke smiled. James thought she must’ve rehearsed that smile for such customers.

“What I meant was that I accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior.”

“Uh, okay.” Brooke turned to James and pulled his hand near. “Call me. Let’s do coffee sometime.” She scribbled her number on the back of his hand.

“Definitely,” he exhaled.

“Bye, James.” She smiled as she pulled away.

“Bye, Brooke,” He tried in futility to muffle his puppy eyes with a forced smile. Mercifully, she didn’t notice how famished they were. He watched her until she and the fat lady disappeared behind a large aisle of books, then he floated to the registers, paid for the book with the cash left in his wallet, and walked to his car. He almost crashed a few times on the drive home. His entire attention centered on stitching every detail of that magical minute with Brooke into his memory. He painted every detail from her subtle botanical scent to soft flush of freckles on her ivory cheeks. He even gave attention to the small darkened impressions around her eyes.

He turned on his computer as soon as he arrived home. He closed the windows that automatically open to his favorite websites upon startup. Instead, he opened Microsoft Word. “Life Changes to Make,” he typed. He typed for an hour. Satisfied, he saved the document, turned off his computer, turned off the lights, and went to bed. “Tomorrow will be a new day,” he thought as he closed his eyes and gazed at his memory’s masterpiece.