The graduation was over. At one end of the football field, the band members were packing up their instruments and a work crew was folding up the chairs. The temporary stage, set up under the goal posts, was empty now except for the podium which two workers were getting ready to move. On the grass near the end zone, proud graduates and their families were milling about in clumps. Photos were being taken. Laughter could be heard.
A young woman, a new graduate in her blue cap and gown, pulled away from one clump and started walking down the middle of the football field toward the parking lot at the other end. She walked awkwardly on the grass in her high heels, and she held her hand to her head to keep her cap from blowing off.
Around the middle of the field, where there had been no one else but her, a man appeared. A homeless man. She didn't see him arrive because she had been looking down at her feet, but there he was now: a rough-looking middle-aged guy standing in front of her. He was dressed in worn jeans and a tired Hawaiian shirt and had about five days of salt-and-pepper stubble on his face. She was startled only for a second and kept walking.
"Hi!" said the man.
"Hi," said the girl, flatly. "You missed the ceremony."
"I'm sorry, babe," he said. "You know I wanted to be there but... something came up."
"It always does," she said, pushing past him.
He started walking, too, trying to keep pace with her. "Listen, I'd like to make it up to you. Can I take you to dinner?"
"No," said the girl.
"Oh, okay," said the man, stung for a moment. "I know you're not happy with me, but things happen, babe, things I can't control."
"I know," said the girl.
"I wanted a chance to talk to you. You have some big decisions to make right now, and I want to be part of them."
"I have my own plans. I don't need yours," she said.
"I know, I know, you need your own plans. I don't want to interfere. But still, there are things you need to consider. It's not like you can just go to college and pretend things are normal.
"I am going to college," said the girl.
"Yes, right, and you should," said the man, getting a little frustrated, "But you have gifts the other kids don't have. You have assets. You should put them to good use."
"How would I do that?"
"You could work for me."
She laughed and shook her head. "Thanks, but I'm going to college," she said.
"You can still do that. And I don't mean you'd actually work for me. You'd really be working for yourself, but I'd show you the ropes."
"No," she said.
He drew back for a moment, considering.
"Is that a hard 'No' or a soft 'No'?" he said.
She cracked a smile. "Asshole," she said.
"If you could just--"
His voice broke off and he stopped walking. His face went blank. Something was wrong.
She walked a few paces, then stopped and turned to look at him. He was holding his hands to his head, pressing them against his temples. Then he fell down on his knees, obviously in pain.
There was leakage. A hole in the wall. The sounds grew louder, to a screaming crescendo. It was like listening to a thousand radio stations at once, only it was more like a thousand cries for help, a thousand agonies he could do nothing about. He knew what it meant, and he knew what to do, but it took a few seconds to find the leak and patch it. When he did, the screams stopped.
He found himself on his knees in the middle of the football field. It hadn't been more that five seconds since the screams began, but when he looked up, the girl was gone.
* * *
At the beach. California or maybe Brazil, hard to tell. There was a broad expanse of fluffy white sand, sparsely populated by sunbathers and families sitting under big colorful umbrellas. There were high-rise hotels on the bluff above the beach, and on the other side, down at the water's edge, dark-skinned children built ambitious sandcastles. They shouted furious instructions to each other in futile efforts to protect their work from the advancing tide. They were speaking Portuguese.
Down the beach was a strange anomaly: a little blue dot. It was a young woman, a recent high school graduate in her blue cap and gown, walking just above the waterline.
Her dress shoes were useless in the sand, so she bent down and took them off. She carried the shoes in one hand while the other was still held to her head to keep her mortarboard and tassel from blowing away. As she walked, she searched the wet sand for interesting shells and stones, although she knew she would have difficulty carrying anything she picked up. She had pockets under her gown, but the pants were tight, so she could probably carry only one or two small shells. Anything she picked up would have to be really special. Warm waves lapped against her feet as her search became more focused. She settled into a scanning pattern as she walked, head down, losing consciousness of the rest of the beach.
Resting dead on a clump of seaweed was a Portuguese Man o' War, a little purple bubble about an inch long with fine tentacles attached to it. She wasn't afraid of it but figured this wouldn't be the best beach to swim at. She examined the creature for a moment, then moved on. As she continued down the beach, she let herself drift toward the ocean. She was about ankle deep in water when a something shiny caught her eye, some pretty sea bauble just below the surface. She wanted to pick it up but faced a conundrum: She couldn't reach with one hand or she'd get her shoes wet, but if she used the other hand, her mortarboard would surely sail off into the surf. She was pondering this dilemma when she looked up and saw her father.
He was standing on dry sand a few feet away. "It took me a while to find you," he said. "You're not trying to avoid me, are you?"
"Trying my best," she said.
She was annoyed by the intrusion but secretly happy he was there. He was the only person on Earth who could follow her, but he rarely did.
"You know," he said, "We could stop for a drink at one of those hotels. You're eighteen now. You can legally drink here."
The idea actually intrigued her. Alcohol! She had downed beer with her friends and had sampled plenty of wine at home but had never experienced any sort of cultured drink, like a martini or Bloody Mary. It was one of the things she wanted to explore.
"No, thank you," she said.
"Okay, then, we'll talk as we walk. Where are you headed?"
She shrugged. "Down the beach."
"Good idea. Mind if I tag along?"
"Do I have a choice?" she said.
"Of course you have a choice. We always have a choice. Even when we think we have no choice, we have a choice whether to believe it."
"Uh-huh," she said.
"Now how about that drink? Can't I tempt you with alcohol?"
"I thought maybe one of those hotels or restaurants up on the drive. I have some euros in my pocket. Maybe they'll take those."
She pointed with her shoe hand. "You mean like that hotel?" she said.
He fell for it! He turned and looked, and she was gone.
* * *
Not a pretty place. A war zone. There were bloated bodies on the ground, smoke in the air and the sound of gunfire in the distance. This was a desert battlefield, and the bare ground had been churned up to make foxholes, berms and gun emplacements.
And there she was again, an angel shrouded in blue striding through the fields of glory. Any wounded soldier who happened to look up would think he was in Heaven or would soon be going there. But there were no wounded soldiers here, only the dead.
The ground was hard and rocky, so Theo bent down to put her shoes back on.
Her father was close behind. As soon as he got there, he swung around 360 degrees, assessed the situation, and knew it was bad. He didn't see an angel. He saw a big blue shooting target.
"Shit, Theo!" he said. "This is not good! Where are we?"
"An angry place," said Theo.
"Angry is fine, but you're going to be killed. I'm bulletproof. You're not."
"Do you have any idea what it's like to grow up like this?" she said.
"Like what?" he said absently, preoccupied with the war still raging not far away.
"Like this," she said, motioning all around. "A freak of nature. A circus animal. Do you know how many friends I've lost because of this?"
"Well, Shannon Lund, my alleged Best Friend Forever, won't even talk to me because she says she doesn't trust me anymore. Natalie Swenson thinks I stole her boyfriend by casting some sort of spell on him. Noooo! She drove him away because she was being such a bitch to him. I'm not being invited to the cool parties, only the dumb-ass ones, and I don't blame them. I walk in the room, and the life goes out of it. I've heard so many whispers behind me in class that I think I'm growing ears on the back of my head."
"Get to the point!" said her father.
She turned to face him. "You dump this thing on me, then you go away. It's like there's no customer support. I'm supposed to work things out all by myself. Do you have any idea what it's like grew up as a lonely circus freak, able to do things no one else can, and have no one at all to talk to about it?"
"Actually," said her father, "I do."
Theo paused for a moment, then a little lightbulb went on in her head.
"Oh yeah," she said.
Then her father's face went blank and the screams began. There was another hole in the wall, but it wasn't a leak this time; he deliberately opened it up. He was looking for one scream in particular, one thread of thousands. He found it, reached for it, and pulled it back.
"GET DOWN!" shouted her father.
The panic in his voice told her to comply. They both sunk to the ground and something whistled through the air above them. KA-BOOM! It exploded behind a berm about 50 feet away. Dirt and gravel blew up into the air and rained down around them.
Theo's father grabbed her by the arm and pulled her into a semi-protected foxhole. At least they were harder to see.
"We gotta get out of here!" he shouted.
He was scared, and now she was, too. "Maybe not my best decision." she said.
"DON'T MOVE!" he commanded, and she froze. Slowly and carefully, he reached up behind her ear, then in one quick motion he grabbed something out of the air. He pulled his hand back, uncupped it and showed Theo what he caught: a bullet, intended for her.
He spoke calmly now, letting the bullet do the talking for him. "Theo, dear, we have to get out of here."
"Okay, okay," she said. "Turn away."
* * *
The Razor's Edge. A promontory in the desert. Either Utah or Tanzania. Here was a 12-inch-wide natural walkway between two larger rock formations. On one side of the walkway, a 1000-foot drop. On the other side, another 1000-foot drop. In the middle, on the Razor's Edge, stood Theo in high heels and a graduate's cap and gown.
"This is not much better," said her father, speaking from a more secure ledge a few feet away.
"Don't worry. I've been here before. It's okay."
She started walking along the ribbon of rock, hands outstretched, like a gymnast on the high-beam. It was no mean feat in those heels.
"You're doing this to annoy me," he said, "and it's working. You want me to be scared? Okay, I'm scared. Listen, I am bulletproof. You are not bulletproof. You can die. You can be maimed for life. You don't need to show me your fearlessness. I believe it. Now I think we should go home."
She stopped walking and sat down, straddling the walkway, one leg dangling over each abyss.
"So let's chat," she said.
He laughed. At least she was taking control. "Sure, let's chat," he said.
"So where have you been?"
He tried to dodge the question. "For the past few minutes, keeping track of you, saving your life, etc."
"I mean for the past 18 years. Where have you been when we needed you?"
He was obviously uncomfortable. "Oh, you know, doing things that needed to be done. And it's not like I was entirely gone. I came back to visit."
"I know, and it was always fun when you did, but that isn't exactly the same as being there."
"I paid my child support."
She remembered the money orders and packets of crumpled cash her mother had received from around the world: Singapore, Australia, South America. And even though she was 18 and he was no longer legally bound, the money kept coming. "Yes," she said, "but that isn't the same as being there."
He didn't have an answer. "I'm sorry, babe, I really am. It's not the way I wanted things to be. It's just the way it all turned out."
"And you're here now only because you want something from me."
"That's not true. I'm here because I said I'd come to your graduation and because I know you're at a point of transition in your life when you might need some fatherly advice, such as it is."
"But you want me to join this business of yours."
"It's just a suggestion. You have certain skills. I have similar skills. I've been doing this for a while and have learned something about how to use those skills for the best. You wanted customer support. If you could avoid making all the mistakes I have, wouldn't you want to?"
"The first lesson would be, 'Don't have children,' right? Children just get in the way of this whole saving-the-world thing."
She could see from his pained expression that her jab hit home. "Don't say that, babe," he said.
A light breeze from the desert below blew up one side of the razor and down the other. One side of Theo's gown rippled in the updraft, and she put her hand back to her head to keep her cap from taking flight.
"Okay, so what would my salary be in this family enterprise?" she said.
"Unfortunately, I can't pay you a salary. But with your skills, there are ways to make money."
"By stealing things? By spying on people?"
"No, there are other ways, honest ways, but you have to be clever."
"And would there be opportunity for advancement in this organization?"
"Right to the top, sweetie! Second in command from the git-go."
"Could I ever become the head of this organization?"
He thought about it a minute. "Possibly," he said. "To everything there is a season."
She realized, then, what she was asking him: Was he going to die? She had long wondered about that, but he was obviously getting older so the answer was probably yes.
He said: "So, what do you think of the possibility of a career with our organization?"
"No," she said. "Not for me."
"Is that a hard 'No' or a soft 'No'?"
She stood up again on the razor's edge, balancing on her high heels. Her mind was preoccupied, though, and she was paying more attention to her cap than her footing. As she took a step toward her father, one of her heels caught on a nub of rock. She teetered at first, and her father could see the terror in her eyes. Then gravity took over, and there was nothing anyone could do.
She went over the edge, straight down!
"Shit!" said her father.
There was a millisecond of analysis, then he draw back, pushed off a nearby rock, and he too went over the edge.
* * *
She felt soft and warm. There were faint sensations of light in the darkness. In the air was the almost imperceptible scent of tropical flowers.
At least there was air! Theo breathed it in, then opened her eyes. She was lying in on a soft bed of moss in some primordial forest. Above her towered huge trees with trunks wider than she was tall. Only thin shafts of sunlight poked through the canopy high above. Beside her was her father, also lying in the moss, looking over at her.
He touched her hand. "That was close," he said.
"Where are we?" she said.
"I don't know. You brought us here, I didn't. I can only follow."
"I was thinking about a fairytale, some book I read as a kid."
"You were really lucky. You had time to compose. You never want to put yourself in that position, to have to compose on the fly without time to regroup. If the first pass hadn't worked, you'd be dead."
"So where are we?"
"Madagascar is my guess. Look at the shape of the trees. It doesn't matter. We'll be home in no time."
"No," she said, "I like it here."
Indeed, it was very peaceful. There was no movement and few sounds, only the gentle breath of the forest. They both lay there silently for a few minutes, looking up at the patterns of dark and light in the canopy.
"Did you even know I had a boyfriend?" she said.
"No, I didn't."
"That tells me how long you've been away: almost a year."
"Wow, that long? What's this boy's name?"
"I'm sure he's a very nice boy. Do you love him?"
"Duh! He's my boyfriend, what do you think? The only trouble is, he's going to Princeton and I'm going to Brown, so it will be harder for us to see each other."
"Not hard for you."
"I thought that was cheating."
"It depends. And what's this 'Brown'. This is the first I've heard of that, too."
"It's a college in Rhode Island. You've been out of the loop, Pops."
"That I have."
Theo put her hand to her head. All of sudden she sat bolt upright.
"Shit!" she said. "Where is it?"
"My fricking motherboard thingy. My hat, my graduation hat. I have to have my hat!"
She jumped up and started searching for it--in the moss, in the ferns, in the vines at the base of the trees.
"It's just a hat, honey," he said. "We can get you another."
"It's not just a hat! It's my graduation cap. I earned it and I want to keep it."
"It probably didn't cross. These things happen. I've lost a lot of things."
"We have to go back for it."
"You mean back to the cliff? The wind could have taken it anywhere. We could be searching for days."
"You don't understand. I HAVE TO HAVE MY HAT!"
"Good God, why does it have to be this way?" he complained. "As long as I can remember, you've always left things behind, and you've always insisted we go back for them no matter how trivial they were."
"I'm very attached to my possessions," she said. "They keep me sane. They mean I will always have to have a home to keep them in and I will always have to go there. Unlike some people."
"Some people," he echoed.
"Wait, here it is!
She reached behind a knee-high tree root and pulled out her blue mortarboard and tassel, a bit dusty from the battlefield but otherwise intact.
"What a relief," he said. "Can we go home now?"
She put her graduation cap back on her head and adjusted it, making sure the tassel was on the left side.
"Not yet," she said.
* * *
"Where are we now?" he asked.
They walked through long rows of vines, neatly draped over wires.
"This is our vineyard. It's my dad's place."
"Oh, you mean ol' Whats-his-Name," he said.
"Howard," she corrected.
"That's what I said, ol' Whats-his-Name."
She turn to him with dead ernest.
"Listen," she said. "You don't mess with my dad. Howard has been good to us. He stepped in when you didn't. He has taken care of us. He has been there when we needed him, when I needed him. He's my real dad, not you. You're more like this fun uncle who drops in from time to time but who nobody really knows anything about. You're my honorary dad, and I love you, but you're not my real dad. You understand?"
He swallowed. "Understood."
"This vineyard is Howard's hobby. It's only five acres but we've got everything we need to make wine." She motioned toward some outbuildings. "We have a grape press, bottling machinery, even a cave, although to you it just looks like a metal building. We've been here for almost five years, and some of our product is just about ready for market."
"Sounds like a slow hobby," he said, trying to be diplomatic.
"It is. Most people in the real world live slow lives. They make commitments and follow through with them. I know this may sound boring to you, but that stability has been important to me. This vineyard is important to me. Even though I could go anywhere in the world, when I want to get away I usually come here. I'll do something stupid like clip the vines or make sure the grapes are hanging just right. The sameness of it is reassuring to me."
"I see," he said, realizing she was serious.
She walked down the rows of vines, inspecting them as someone who knew every inch. Where a vine had fallen off its support, she wired it up again. She tasted one of the grapes, which were still green, and she gave one to her father to taste.
"That's it," she said. "Let's go home."
* * *
They were back in the middle of the football field. There was no trace left of the graduation ceremony, just them. They walked beyond the far end zone, where her car was the only one left in the parking lot. It was a sporty little Toyota, obviously paid for with Howard's money.
"They'll be worried about you," he said.
"No they won't," she said. "They're used to it, my appearing and disappearing. They're not happy with it, but they're used to it.
She remembered a formality. "Are you coming to my reception?" she said, knowing the answer before she asked.
He winced. "I think I'll pass."
"Have you talked to Mom lately? The reception would be a perfect time to catch up, to make human contact."
"I'm trying to keep a low profile," he said.
"As you wish."
At the car, they hugged.
"We'll be in touch," he said.
"How?" she replied, with some cynicism.
"There are ways," he said. "We'll build a telegraph. We'll figure out a plan."
"Whatever," she said, with feigned disinterest.
In the driver's seat, she rolled down the electric window and said, "Bye, love you!"
He said, "Bye, love you!"
Then she drove off.
But when the car got to the end of the long parking lot, it stopped, spun around and headed directly back at him at high speed, as if to run him down. It swerved in the nick of time and screeched to a stop with the passenger door directly in front of him.
The passenger window came down, and she said. "Get in. You're coming to my reception."
He protested: "Babe, I--"
She repeated: "Get. In."
To her surprise, he obeyed, and they both drove away.
©2009-10, Glenn Campbell - Glenn-Campbell.com - Email: glenn(at)kilroycafe.com