by John Wyatt
copyright Oct, 2008
I sense something … in the darkness. Something Wicked is coming and I fear I cannot stop it. Jennifer’s in grave danger. She’s a Cosmic Nexus; if she comes to any harm, then the Universe will be forever corrupted and may even come to an end. I cannot warn her … but I may be able to send help.
I don’t know how that girl ever finds anything in this kitchen panty. Oh…it isn’t here either. “Jennifer! Have you seen the Tibetan meditation bowl? The large crystal one? I want to put it out for tonight’s meeting.”
“No – and I’m not Jennifer.” Jon retorted, glaring up from the bubbling stew pot.
“Oh! Sorry.” I turned around in time see my first born about to dip into my stew. I strolled over and took the spoon from his hand.
“No free samples! You’ll just have to wait until it’s finished.”
“Maybe I wasn’t getting it for me? Maybe I was – uh – getting some stew for Dad and Gary.” Jon was never very good at fibbing.
“And you decided to taste it, to make sure it wasn’t going to poison them? You’ll have to come up with a better story than that, young man. Jennifer was here a minute ago. Do you know where she went?”
“Maybe Kaylee knows” Jon replied as one of the twins whirled into the kitchen. Both girls have been staying here since we returned from our trip to Spain last month. They’re only 10 years old, but they are quite responsible for their age – like taking care of the garden and helping us build the kitchen extension. They’ve also been working the cash register.
“Yum! Something smells good!” she chirped.
“Kaylee,” I asked, “have you seen Jennifer? She’s supposed to be helping me setup for tonight’s meeting. We’re hosting a ToastMaker’s meeting and I want it to go perfectly.”
“No – I haven’t seen her. And I’m not Kaylee – I’m Julie. Can’t you tell? Kaylee’s the blond.”
“You’re blond.” I commented dryly.
“Yeah – but Kaylee’s ‘strawberry’ blonde. I’m ‘flaxen’ blonde.” She quipped, prancing over to the stew pot and picking up a large spoon.
For a 10-year old, she sure has a knack for arguing. Maybe she will grow up to be a lawyer.
“Well, JULIE,” as I snatched the spoon from her hand, “if you see Jennifer, tell her I want the Tibetan meditation bowl setup for tonight’s club meeting. Okay?”
“Ok” she pouted.
Honestly, you’d think that no one ever feeds these kids! I think they spend most of their time sampling my cooking! I suppose I should be flattered, but … why is the gas flame flickering? I feel a draft. Did someone leave a window open? Hmmmm…. No, not over here, maybe – wait. What’s this?
“JON!!!! GET OVER HERE RIGHT NOW!!!!”
Honestly! He promised to finish that back wall two days ago!
“Yes, Mom? Did you find the meditation bowl?”
“NO! Tell me, do you see anything wrong with that back wall? The one that was supposed to be finished two days ago?”
“Hmmmmm….I don’t see anything wrong. Why did you open the back window? It’s making an awful draft.”
“It isn’t open. It’s missing!”
Jon strode to the windowsill and peered around. “Gee, you’re right, Mom – it fell out. It’s lying behind the wall. It looks like some of the bricks fell out. I can’t image why – Dad and the twins finished the wall two weeks ago and I installed the windows just yesterday. I thought it was in solid. Two weeks should be plenty of time for the mortar to set.”
“Obviously , you were mistaken.” I snorted. “Please find your Dad and have him re-set those bricks and the window. Until then, can you tape some cardboard over the opening?”
“Sure, Mom. Or, I maybe could tape Julie across it! After all, she helped set the bricks!”
“Eeeeeppp!” Julie shrieked.
<giggle> “Whatever you think is best. I don’t want a breeze blowing over the stove.”
Uh oh. That can’t be good. It sounded like it came from the dining room. I’d better go find out what happened. “Jon, please cover that window right now” I instructed as I dashed out.
Honestly – having two more girls seems to have created four times the problems! There has to be some kind of metaphysical rule about that.
Kaylee (or is it Julie?)
Boy, they sure get busy over a bunch of suits coming for a meeting! Jon said my sister and I could watch if we’re polite (which we always are – even when we’re not). I don’t know what’s so special about a bunch of ToastMakers, anyway. I mean, making toast is really easy; I do it all the time. I like peanut butter and jelly on mine. Mom always wants me to use wheat bread, but I like sourdough best. I wonder if they have a WaffleMaker’s club? Waffles are even yummier!
“Kaylee?” Jennifer’s Mom hurried into the room.
“I’m Julie.” I replied automatically. Wait – I’m Kaylee, but they don’t need to know that.
“I just left Julie in the kitchen,” Mom smirked, “so you must be Kaylee. Did you hear a crash?”
“You mean, like a glass bowl dropping and breaking on the floor?”
“Yes, something like that” she spoke slowly and deliberately.
“Harumph! Is that a broom in your hand?”
“Uh – probably. I don’t know how it got there. Hey – here’s some broken glass! I wonder what happened? Well, as long as I have a broom, I should sweep up the glass. I guess it’s lucky I was here, huh?” I gave my best ‘cute innocent girl’ look. It always works on Jon.
“Lucky indeed.” She really looks mad now. I guess the innocent look only works on boys. I’d better sweep up. Well, if she complains later, I’ll just say that I’m my sister and don’t know what she’s talking about.
“Kaylee – or whichever one you are – I hope that wasn’t the Tibetan meditation bowl that broke! Wait – where’s the tip jar? I don’t see it on the counter.”
“The counter top is damaged! What happened? The whole top looks like something was scraped across it!”
Now she has her ‘Death Glare!’
“Honestly – I didn’t do it!” I wailed. “Really! I heard a crash like something broke. I grabbed a broom and came here. I didn’t break it!” I hate it when I whine.
“Ok – I believe you. If you say you didn’t break the tip jar, then somebody else must have done it.”
Whew! I mean, it’s true. I heard the crash and instinctively grabbed a broom.
“Where’s the money from the jar?” Mom asked.
“I didn’t steal it! Honest!” Now I was really getting whiney!
“I’m not accusing you of anything, dear. Really, I’m not. It’s just that this afternoon the jar was nearly full of coins, but I don’t see the money anywhere – just broken glass. Did someone empty the jar?”
“Maybe Jon did?” Whew! I was off the hook again. I don’t know why I’m so jumpy today.
“While you’re here,” Mom continued, “have you seen the Tibetan meditation bowl? I want to use it to start tonight’s ToastMaker’s meeting. This is an important club and I want to make a good impression.”
“Sorry, I haven’t seen it. I setup extra toasters though. I hope six toasters are enough. Are they bringing their own bread?”
Mom laughed. “That’s clever! I’m sure they’ll love the humor in that! Alright, I’ll leave you to your cleanup. I’ll keep trying to find that darned bowl.”
She strolled out chuckling ‘toasters!’ under her breath. I’m not sure I got the joke. Oh well. It’s almost 6pm and I still have to set out the dinner plates and flatware. I guess this club has a couple dozen people in it, and they’re all going to be hungry. At least the sun’s still up this time of year; they should love the view of the garden from the here. I’m really glad that Jennifer’s parents let us stay here while our own parents are on vacation. Now if I can just remember which sister I’m supposed to be…
I love helping Dad in the garden.
“Hey!" I heard a tiny voice cry from a small bush. "Watch where you’re going – road hogs!” Looking down, I saw a snail shaking its antenna at a passing pair of turtles. “Speed demons!” the snail cried as the turtles waddled past the bush.
“Awwwwkkk eeecckkk oookk!”
I looked up at the screeches in the trees. Those are my new pets – two apes that look a lot like the Gibraltar apes that we saw in Spain. I don’t know where they came from – they just appeared in the garden a week after we returned. They seem quite happy. At least they don’t steal Mom’s cookies! I don’t know why they don’t talk. Most of the other animals here can talk. I wonder if there’s something wrong with their vocal cords? I’d take them to the vet, but he keeps saying that animals can’t talk. I think they just don’t want to talk to him. Still, if they can’t tell me their names, then I’ll need to come up with some names on my own. They each had a fistful of stones and were throwing them at some of the turtles.
“Hey!” I called to the squealing apes. “Please stop throwing rocks at the other animals!” Ouch! One of the snap dragons just bit me on the leg! Something has the garden upset – I don’t know what.
“Jennifer?” Dad sounded worried. “The pond seems empty. Have you seen the koi anywhere? I put two dozen fish in here before we went to Spain, and now I can’t find any of them.”
Gulp. “Uh … No, I haven’t seen them, Daddy. Did you ask Nick and Nate?”
“Who are they?”
I guess Dad hasn’t met the two Australian crocodiles that Jon accidentally bought me for my birthday. I suspect that those two may know something about Daddy’s missing fish.
“Uh … just a couple of … boys. Maybe the fish are in school. I hear they do that.”
“Koi aren’t a schooling fish. Well, not that I know of, at any rate. And have you seen the pile of bricks for the wall that I was going to build around the pond? It looks like somebody has been filching bricks and path tiles – at least half of them are missing.”
“No, Daddy, I haven’t seen them. Bricks usually don’t cause much trouble – being so lazy and all.”
Daddy laughed! “That’s quite an imagination you have there, young girl! Well, can you go down to the shallow end of the pond and ask Gary? Maybe he’s been using the bricks.”
I shuddered. Gary scares me. Gary is one of the homeless people. He used to hang around outside, sweeping the sidewalks in return for food. He never came close to the Café during the day. Dad let him setup a tent in the garden in return for helping with the pond. Normally, the homeless people don’t scare me, but there’s something about Gary that doesn’t seem … well … quite right. He rarely talks, he doesn’t bathe or cut his hair, even though Mom and Dad let him use our facilities, and he has a high pitched voice like screeching gravel. He doesn’t come out much except at night, and he always wears heavy rags. Mom thinks he’s hiding scars or some disfiguration. Normally I like making friends with the homeless people, but there’s something about Gary that creeps me out.
“Maybe he’s busy. I shouldn’t bother him…”
“Nonsense!” Dad chuckled. “He’s never too busy for you. He always asks about you. I think he’s grateful for the way you always put out food for the homeless. Anyway, he’s not a bad guy – he’s just stand-offish. He’s not comfortable around people. Did you know he’s a potter?”
“No. What’s that? Does he put things in pots?”
“No!” Dad laughed. “He makes pots. I bought him a potter’s wheel. Mom offered the use of the large oven as a kiln. Say, I wonder if he borrowed the bricks to make a kiln? I don’t want him having fire outside, where the sparks could spread.”
“So, Gary’s a potter.” I commented. “Too bad he isn’t a barber. He could cut his own hair.”
“Yes, he is rather hairy. Well, please don’t be alarmed. There’s no need to be wary of Gary the scary, hairy potter by the water.” Dad seemed rather pleased with his alliteration. “Don’t be too long, either. Your Mom wants us all to help serve dinner for that ToastMaker’s club. I guess it’s a company club – some group of lawyers. Say, how do you know if you need a lawyer?”
“I don’t know, Dad.”
“You ask a lawyer!” Dad always laughed loudest at his own jokes.
“Alright. I guess it’s safer to go ask Gary the hairy potter than it is to stand around here and listen to lawyer jokes.”
“And be sure to tell him he can’t have a fire outside.”
“I will, Daddy.”
“And never stop calling me ‘Daddy,’ even after you’re grown up!” Now he was giving me his affectionate Daddy smile. He knows I can’t resist that!
“I won’t!” I happily promised. Sometimes I feel sorry for other kids – I think I got the best parents in the whole wide world. I hope other kids feel the same way about their parents. Daddy only has the path paved as far as the labyrinth. Eventually, it’s supposed to go around the entire pond. Gary’s tent is well beyond that labyrinth.
You can’t get lost in the labyrinth – the walls are only 6 inches high. It’s supposed to be for taking meditation walks. It has some nice benches and a peace pole in the middle. The pole says “Peace to the World” in fifty or sixty different languages. I can only read a few of them.
“Hey, Sheila! You busy?”
I saw Nick lying at the edge of the pond. Nick and Nate are the two crocodiles I mentioned earlier. They’re safe to be around – they’re vegetarians. Somehow, they got the idea that koi are a vegetable. I hope they didn’t cost Daddy too much money.
“What is it, Nick?”
“I’m Nate. Can’t you tell?”
“Well, it’s a bit hard. It’s like trying to tell Julie from Kaylee. Sorry.”
“That’s ok. I ain’t put out none. Say, can you do us mates a tiny favor?”
“I don’t know – I’m on an errand for my Dad. What do you want?”
“Oh, it ain’t gotta be done right now. Me and Nick was wonderin’ if you’s could make us a vegetable garden of our own. Somethin’ we could take care of ourselfs. Eatin’ been getting’ a bit slim here lately, and it’s bloody hard to chase down some of the veggies you gots hereabouts – them things is fast. Just a little garden of our own; it don’t gotta cost big bikkies.”
Now I was really getting nervous. “Um, vegetables can’t run. They don’t have feet.”
“Neither do we” remarked a nearby brick, “and we get around pretty well.”
“Go back to sleep!” I shouted. “And what have you got there?”
“Oh – nothing. Nothing at all. Just go on about your business.”
I picked up the brick and found a pile of coins underneath.
“Well, haven’t you got chutzpah!” the brick cried.
“Where did you get those!” I barked.
“Found them. Fershtay?”
“No you didn’t!”
“Yes I did! I found them – just before I took them. Yep. Found them.”
“Just laying about outside? I don’t think so.”
“Of course not! Pennies don’t live outside! They were in a big, glass bowl. It wasn’t using them, so I took them – to keep them safe. That bowl looked like it was trying to swallow them, so stop your kvetching.”
I picked up the coins and put them in my pocket.
“Hey! Those are mine! You’re a real fershtinkiner!”
“Not anymore – now they’re mine.” I picked up the brick and heaved it out into the pond as far as I could.
“Arrrgggghhhhh!!!!!!!! <splash! blurb blurb>”
“Thanks.” Nate whined. “Now he’s gonna be buggin’ us all night out there.”
“Sorry, Nate. Now, about your vegetable garden…”
“Oh, right! Nothing too fancy. Say, can you plant us some cats too? Cats is vegetables, ain’t they? They sure looks tasty.”
“Cats are not vegetables. Do not eat them.” I instructed as I stomped my foot. “I hope you don’t try eating the ducks that swim here!”
“Oh, na worries, Sheila. Ducks got feathers; that makes ‘em a fruit. We don’t eats fruit. Just veggies.”
I’d better ask Dad if he can build his wall higher. Maybe ten feet high. Or even twenty feet.
“Ow!” Nate cried as one of the apes bounced a rock off of his nose. “Hey, if you ain’t cross as a frog in a sock! Give a bloke a fair go before you starts chucking rocks about! Hey, where ya off to, Sheila?”
“I told you, I’m on an errand. I’m trying to find Gary.”
“Hey, don’t go too far that-a-ways. That guy gives us the creepies he does. You ever seen his face up close?”
I paused in thought. “Well, no I haven’t, now that you mention it. He always keeps his distance by day. Mom thinks he’s disfigured and is afraid we’ll be prejudiced. Dad thinks he’s just shy. Well, I have to finish my errands before tonight’s meeting. Mom’s having a bunch of lawyers over to make toast, or something like that. Say, you don’t eat lawyers, do you?”
“Na – professional courtesy. Well you have a spiffy evening ‘round them tall poppies. And be careful down by the shallow end. Somethin’ aint’ right about that Gary bloke.”
“I’ll be fine!” I called back as I skipped ahead.
“That one’s a real conch, Nick. Rather work and study than have a bit ‘o fun.”
“Right you is, Nate. Right you is. I hope she’ll be apples down there. Say, you wanna have a bit ‘o aerial pingpong with that brick?”
I could hear the two brothers splashing behind me. I need to get everything done before those Toast-people arrive. I walked for another fifteen minutes, past the labyrinth and the cherry grove. The trees are a lot closer down at this end of the pond. Say – could that be Gary over there? Gary hangs around the shallow end of the pond most of the time. The garden is lush at this end; can’t see very far. If it weren’t for the path I’d probably get lost.
Ack! It’s muddy, too. I’ll be glad when the entire path is paved.
It’s a lot darker here than I thought. It shouldn’t be sunset already – I wonder why it’s so dark? What’s that noise?
“ Gary – is that you?”
“I just hope it isn’t a table!” I put on my fierce face.
That shadow wasn’t there a moment ago.
“If you’re trying to scare me, it isn’t funny!” The shadow – it moved! It … no! It can’t be! “NOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!” Darkness engulfed me as I lost consciousness.
“Alright, sound off, men!” barked the Sergeant Major.
“SIR! We are IDIOTS! We are the Inter-Dimensional Instantly Operational Trooper System, SIR!”
“Right! So act like it! What’s on tonight’s agenda, Private Creak?”
“I’m Corporal Squeak, Sergeant Major.”
“Right! You all look alike to me. So, what’s on the agenda?”
“At Nineteen Hundred hours we have a meeting of the ToastMakers.”
“What’s ‘nineteen hundred hours’? Is that like almost two thousand hours from now?” the Sergeant Major demanded.
“That’s Earth military time, Sergeant Major.”
“Well, what’s that in normal time, Private Squeak?”
“Uh – 7:00 pm. I’m a Corporal, Sergeant Major.”
“Not if you keep confusing me with ‘military’ time.” The Sergeant Major grumbled. “Now, why is this meeting so important to us IDIOTS?”
“SIR!” Creak croaked, “ToastMaker’s have something called ‘ Table Topics’! And that’s where we come in!”
“Right!” the Sergeant Major replied. “Now men, we don’t know what’s involved in this thing called ‘Table Topics’, but we need to look our best. Private Squawk, arrange to have all of us wiped down and polished.
“La-la-le-la-la-la!” Squawk squawked, as if practicing for the opera.
“How do I look?” asked Crack.
“Maybe we could decorate ourselves with ribbons?”
“Anybody know if these ToastMakers are hiring?”
“Can somebody get these soup stains off of me?”
“Do we get paid overtime for this?”
<sigh – I need a vacation>
At this rate, I’ll never be ready in time for the ToastMaker’s meeting. Apparently, somebody had smashed the twins’ piggy banks and stolen their money. Ceramic shards littered the floor of their room.
“Who would want to steal our money?!!” Kaylee was crying. So was Julie, and right now I didn’t care which one was which.
“Look, girls,” I tried to soothe them, “we’ll replace your money. I don’t know who would steal from children, but I’m going to find out!”
“Mom,” Jon was picking up the shards of broken pottery. “They didn’t take all of their money. Just the coins. The paper money is still here.”
“Why would anybody want to steal our coins?!!” they cried.
“I don’t know,” Jon stood puzzled. “It has to be a crazy person. Only a crazy person would take just the coins and leave the paper money behind …” Jon’s voice trailed off.
“Yes, dear?” Jon had what I called his ‘Sherlock Holmes’ look – like he’s just figured something out.
“Don’t worry, Mom. Julie, Kaylee, I think I know who took your money. And probably the money from the tip jar, too. I’ll get to the bottom of this if it kills somebody!”
“I’m not Kaylee, I’m Julie.”
“And I’m not Julie. I’m Kaylee.”
Now I’m even more confused! “But…” I stammered, “… I thought Julie was flaxen blonde? Doesn’t that make you Julie?” I queried, starting hard at the one I had thought was Julie.
“Oh – I guess so. Alright, I’ll be Julie.”
“Does that mean I’m Kaylee again?” the other girl asked.
“Wait just a minute here!” I shouted. “Do you mean that you intentionally switch names! Is that why we can never figure out who is who?”
The girls hung their heads sheepishly while I rapidly tapped my foot. “Well, you see, our parents couldn’t figure out which of us was which, either; they always got our names mixed up. I was always being called either ‘Julie’ or ‘Kaylee,’ and so was my sister. We never figured out which of us was supposed to be Kaylee and which was supposed to be Julie. So, we decided we’d share our names. Sometimes we’re both Julie!” she giggled.
“Or Kaylee!” giggled the other.
Hummmppphhhh! I don’t know which is worse, a pond full of crocodiles, being attacked by cookie-eating apes, or these two 10-year olds!
“Mom,” Jon interjected, “you’d better see to the dining room. It’s about time for the ToastMakers to show up. I think I know where to find the girl’s money.”
“Alright. If you see Jennifer or your Dad, please ask them if they know where to find the Tibetan meditation bowl. I haven’t been able to find it anywhere.”
“Will do.” Jon darted out of the girl’s room. I gave them both a big hug and promised to let them help during the ToastMaker’s meeting. That cheered them. No matter what else they enjoy, they always like helping others. It sounds like the front bell is ringing; the club members must be arriving. Time to put on our business best!
I was standing at the front door directing the incoming club members. “We have the tables setup over here – oh, over there. I guess someone must have moved them.” Somebody had polished and decorated the tables, then moved them onto the patio under the paper lanterns. I’ll have to thank the kids later.
“I setup an old lectern that I haven’t used in years. I hope it’s ok.”
“Thanks, Mrs. Jones” the club president beamed. “It’ll be fine. You have a superb Café here. The patio setting is fantastic. I see you even decorated the tables!”
“Yes, the kids did that. Is there anything else I can do to help?” Club members were trickling in, all business types in suits, though a couple of them were built more like wrestlers than lawyers. I’d hate to tackle this bunch in court!
“Thanks, you can help distribute our meeting agendas around the tables. I’m setting up the sign-in book and name tags here at the front counter. Oh, we’ll need someplace to plug in the timing lights. We have strict time limits on our speeches. A table in the back would be best, so the speakers can see the lights while facing the audience.”
“No problem.” I quickly fetched the twins …
“Ok.” I smirked. “Which of is you Julie tonight?”
They looked at me puzzled. “Who’s Julie?” the girls snickered.
I picked up two ToastMaker’s name tags, two pens, and handed them to the girls. “Work it out between you, then please setup their timing lights on the far back table. You can use the same extension cord for all the toasters.”
“Ok. Did they bring their own bread?”
“No,” I laughed, “they don’t cook toast, they make speeches.”
The twins stared as if I were some kind of alien creature.
“Look, ‘making a toast’ means giving a short speech. So ‘ToastMakers’ is a speech club – not a cooking club. They don’t need any bread.”
“oh,” the girls were crestfallen. “Then, they probably don’t need this, either.” One of the girls held up a small bag of ice.
“What’s that for?” I quizzed.
“We heard that they were doing a couple of icebreakers. So we got them some fresh ice.”
“Yeah, and a wooden mallet to break it with.”
I couldn’t really argue with the girls – language is not always precise.
“An ‘icebreaker’ is a member’s first speech” I instructed. “Well, offer them the ice anyway. Maybe they’ll enjoy the humor in it.”
The girls brightened as they attached their name tags. Now at least I can tell who is who for tonight …. “Ok, what’s the deal with the names?” I glared at these two troublemakers while tapping my foot impatiently. Both of their name tags spelled out “BOB.”
“We decided to take time off from our regular names” the girls tittered.
“How can I tell you apart if you both have the same name?” I was growing more impatient.
“Oh, we don’t have the same name.” one of the twins commented.
“That’s right.” The other added. “Mine’s spelled backwards!” she beamed!
… Well, <giggle> at least they have quick minds! I should be grateful for that.
“Ok – Bob – and that means both of you. Please help setup their timing lights on the back table. Ok?”
“Ok!” they chirped in unison, bouncing away. I’m glad these two have good hearts. I’d hate to see what they’d do if they were malicious!
“Excuse me, lady.” I jumped as a cavernous voice boomed behind me.
“Er – yes, can I help you? I’m Mrs. Jones.”
“Yes – do you have a white board or flip chart I can setup in front? We forgot ours and I need to write the Word of the Day.”
“I should have something in the front closet. And you are…” I craned my head to look up into his eyes. This man was huge!
“They call me Conan,” he boomed. “Conan, the Grammarian. I listen to the use of grammar in the speeches and setup the word of the day for table topics. And I levy fines for offenses like dangling participles and split-infinitives” he made a chopping motion with his hand.
“Well, I’ll look through the closet – I’m sure I have something there. After your meeting, you’re free to wander the garden. We have the pathway lit by lanterns as far as the labyrinth. We built the labyrinth for meditation walks – you might like it.”
“A labyrinth?” mused Conan the Grammarian. “Sounds like a typical day at work – going around in circles and getting nowhere” he guffawed!
I thought I heard some tables squeak on the patio tile. Someone must be adjusting them. Another man came over, apparently lost. “Can I help you?” I queried.
“Oh, no. I’m just checking to see if all of the functionaries are here. I see we have our Grammarian.”
“And you are…?” I asked.
“Oh – Major General Stanley, at your service.” He snapped to attention. “Retired. I’m tonight’s General Evaluator. I am the very model of a modern General Evaluator!” he sang, to a somewhat familiar tune. Jennifer listens to music all the time … maybe that’s where I heard …
“Two Bobs!” I called, scurrying over to where the twins were setting up the lights. “Has anyone seen Jennifer? She wanted to be here for the meeting, and I still want that meditation bowl.”
The twins shook their heads. “Maybe Dad’s seen her? I think I just saw him go into the kitchen.”
MY STEW!!!!!! I had completely forgotten! I hope I remembered to turn down the stove! I ran as decorously as I could into the kitchen, all thoughts of Jennifer dispelled by the specter of burnt and coagulated stew.
Ooooooohhhhhh…… my head….what happened? Why am I so cold? I opened my eyes to dim twilight trickling through the branches. I moved my head a little to one side, trying not to move too suddenly.
“I think she’s awake” a tiny voice whispered.
“shhhhhh! You’ll wake her!” another tiny voice replied.
“not if she’s already awake.” the first little voice quipped.
“… oh … yeah .. that’s right. Man, that Gonif really clonked her. That’s just meshuggina. And to think, I got all farpitzs for this. Now what do we do with all this gelt?”
“I dunno. We was supposed to collect all this gelt so as to keep this gonif down here by the shallows, instead of lurking about the house. But now I don’t know what we’re to do. Oy Vey!”
Now I know who’s whispering.
“Sleeping brick?” I whispered. “Sorry about throwing you in the pond. Are you okay?”
“That musta been one of my brothers” the little voice replied.
“Or sisters” another tiny voice added.
“You stay away from my sisters” the first voice whined!
“Don’t be such a Yenta!”
“Kvetch, kvetch, kvetch! They’re mishpocha – family. So don’t you be such a nudnik. We didn’t shlep all the way down here just to fight. We gotta help our little bubbala, here. Say, you okay?”
“I … guess so.” I sat up, shaky more from fear than from pain. I’m not certain, but I think it was Gary who attacked me. Looking around I could see that I had been dragged to the farthest end of the pond and placed inside a large circle of several dozen reddish bricks. The path was dirt here, but someone had arranged several stone path tiles into a patio of sorts. Near the center of this makeshift patio I saw Mom’s crystal Tibetan mediation bowl, sitting atop a layer of bricks and partly filled with coins.
Turning, I saw Gary’s little tent. A hunched, bloated figure rose from the bushes near the tent, holding a small bulls-eye lantern that shed a weak, sickly glow. I recognized him by his shape.
“G-g-gary?” I stammered.
“Yessssssh, leeeetle Missssy. I isss Gary; yes, Gary I issss. I am so pleeeeshed finally to meeeeet you.” His voice sounded liked gravel screeching across hot rocks, sending shivers up my spine. He swayed towards me with that hunkering gait of his. I had never seen him this close – his eyes were like sunken pits, and his face was so gaunt and shriveled he almost looked like a mummy. His mouth was tiny and almost beak-like. So small, I wondered how he ever got food into it.
“Yesssssh, leeeetle Missy, Gary is now meeeeetings you here so that no one ever seeeees us. Only yousa seeees Gary up close. Yesssssh.”
He sat down next to a small potters wheel – the one that Dad had bought him. Shedding his rags, I could see that his belly was swollen and distended to the point of hanging nearly to the ground. And his spindly legs …. Noooooo. It couldn’t be ….
“G-gary,” I spoke timidly. “y-you’re a …. a preta, aren’t you?” My blood ran cold as ice; my arms felt leaden.
The form that called itself ‘ Gary’ shuddered. “You seeeeees meesha as I reeeeeelly is. Only at night’s can peoples seeeees meeeesha as I reeeelly is.”
Gary was a Preta – a Hungry Ghost. According to Asian legend, people who are consumed by insatiable greed become cursed to wander the Earth alone, trying in vain to fill their cavernous bellies through mouths so tiny that they can never eat their fill. A monstrous existence! I cannot imagine what it’s like to never be able to have enough – to have endless ‘wanting’ and eternal hunger. I shuddered in spite of the warm evening air.
Gary started a small camp stove and set a pot of water to boil. “I likes tea, yessssh. Doessssh the leeetle Missy likes tea too?” His tiny mouth hissed. I nodded numbly. The thing that called itself ‘ Gary’ sat in quiet muttering while the water heated, getting out two small cups and some worn tea bags.
I felt a gentle nudging at my backside. I turned to see a pair of bricks.
“Don’t worry, bubbala,” the bricks whispered. “We’ll protect you.”
I reached for one of the bricks, thinking that I could throw it at Gary and run! But something in me resisted. The thought ‘Do no harm’ came to mind – something my Dad had always said. I let the brick lay. No matter what Gary had done, I couldn’t bring myself to hurt him.
“We’ll guard the gelt” whispered the bricks that lay near all the coins.
“Did you take that money from the house?” I whispered, hoping that Gary didn’t overhear our conversation. But he was caught up in his muttering – going on about all of his lost opportunities for real wealth.
“The house didn’t need it. Besides, the Café asked us to bring the gelt here.”
“Why would the Café do that?” I couldn’t imagine our Café even being able to ask that … but then, here I was talking to a bunch of bricks that normally just sleep all day. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised at anything.
“The Café said that the preta would hang around the gelt” the brick whispered. “This way, we could try and keep it away from the house.”
“Oh – it also asked us to bring this” another brick whispered – this one bearing a placard that Dad had mounted after we first opened the Café:
Wisdom and Understanding are the food that fills the bowl and nourishes the heart.
– Ajahn Chah –
I always thought it was just another trite saying – like that bumper sticker ‘Honk if you love peace and quiet.’ An idea began to form. Mom once said ‘When the student is ready, the Teacher will appear.’ I was never quite sure what she meant by that, but slowly my idea took shape….
I rose and walked to where Gary was sitting. “Here, let me help.” I said, sitting as close to this ‘thing’ as I could bear. I handed him a cup and dropped in an age-worn tea bag. I tried to engage him in conversation.
“Well, we’ve never been properly introduced. I’m Jennifer. Tell me, what do you think will make you happy? What do you … want?”
Gary shivered, then hissed “the moneeey is veeery nice, yessssh, verrrry nice it is. I like the sparkle – the wealth – the powerrrr.”
The water was heating quickly. “So, Gary, have you ever had money – I mean, a lot of it?”
Gary tried a wan smile on his tiny mouth, then it turned bitter as his gaunt belly groaned. “Nevvvvver enough, noooooo, neeeevvvvver enough. Always more to have. I know how to makes moneeeey, yessssh, I does know how … I makes lots of money real goooood for long time. Moneeeey for meeeesha and my invesssssstors.” He spat the word ‘investors’ as if it had a foul taste.
“I guess your investors wanted some of the money, too?” I asked. The water was almost to boiling.
“Yesssshh. They alwayssssss want my moneeeeey. I nevvvver have enough. I had bigggg housssssh, bigggg boat, many niceeee clothes too. Never enough…. But I know how to make moneeeey real good. Me knows lots of thingsssss – just neeeeed chance to make more….Maybe after next big deal….”
I gingerly picked up the pot and began pouring hot water into Gary’s cup as he continued rambling about all the wealth he had made and lost. All the power and influence he had built and lost. As he talked I just kept pouring … and pouring … and pouring! His cup overflowed, spilling hot water into his lap. I just kept pouring.
“AAAAAKKKKK!!!!” Gary leapt as the scalding water soaked his belly and ran down his legs. “Clumssshy girl! Can’t you sssseeeee – my cup is full!”
“I can see. Can’t you see that I can’t put anymore water into your cup until you empty it?”
Gary paused and peered at me quizzically.
“And you simply can’t learn anything new until you empty your mind of all that clutter!” Now I sounded like my Mom! “You know so much, but has any of it brought you one single moment of real happiness?”
Gary paused in shock, then slowly shook his head. “Nooooo, leeeetle Missy. Not one moment of happys has Gary had. Alwayssss ssssso much more to get – and then people tryinggggg to take what I have. I alwaysssss afraid someone will sssteal it. Nooooo happys.” Gary sank to the ground, a pile of misery. My heart went out to this poor, lost soul who only wanted what we all want – to be loved and happy. I heard the bricks muttering plots to build a prison to hold Gary, then I remembered an old story that Mom once told us. I picked up a brick and began rubbing it on one of the path tiles.
“Hey!” the brick complained. “Watch it there! Mppphh!”
I clamped both hands over the brick and rubbed harder. Gary watched in utter confusion. Finally he asked “What are you dooooing, leeeetle Misssy?”
“I’m polishing the tiles.” I kept rubbing, heedless of the brick’s muffled complaints.
“But…why?” Gary quizzed.
“I’m going to polish it into a mirror” and kept rubbing.
Gary pondered this in utter amazement. He looked at me as if I were crazy, which I guess I am – trying to teach a lesson to a preta! But my brother J often says ‘When the fruit is ripe, it will fall and not before.’ Maybe Gary’s time has come; maybe he is ready to learn something new. Maybe all I have to do is give him a chance.
“If I just polish it long enough…” I redoubled my efforts.
“But, Misssy can’t turn a stone tile into a mirror.” Gary whined.
“Listen to the man!” the brick gave a muffled cry.
“Nope!” I firmly announced, tightening my grip on the complaining masonry, rubbing vigorously. “If at first I don’t succeed, I just need to try harder! If I keep rubbing hard enough, eventually it has to be polished enough to be a mirror!”
“But … Missssy!’ Gary spluttered. “You can’t turn ssssstone into mirror, noooo matter how long you polissssssh!!!”
I paused in my labor and looked up, the brick dripping what I could only assume was sweat. “What? Are you serious?”
“I AM ssssserious, Missssssy! Stone tile cannot become mirror! No matter how hard it be polished!”
“WELL,” I exclaimed, “then money can’t be turned into happiness, no matter how much you acquire!”
Gary was dumbstruck!
“ Gary,” I asked softly, “would you like to play a game with me?” His eyes brightened a little at my offer. I could hear a little sigh of relief from the brick.
“Yesssssh, leeetle Missy, maybe a game with …. Money?” Now his eyes narrowed to greedy slits as he rubbed his hands eagerly.
I gathered all of the pennies from the brick’s stash of money.
“Hey!” several bricks complained. “That’s our gelt!”
“Be quiet!” I admonished them “or I’ll build you into a doghouse.” I declare, those bricks actually sulked! I sat opposite Gary and handed him half of the pennies.
“The rules are simple. If you demand ‘Give me a penny’, then I have to give you a penny. And if I say ‘Give me a penny’, the you have to give me a penny. We’ll play for a few minutes and see who gets the most pennies. Ok?”
Gary bobbed his head in excitement – his thoughts filled with dreams of wealth!
“Ok – go!”
“Gimmeapenny!” he demanded. I handed over a penny.
“Give me a penny.” I said. Gary balked. “ Gary, we can’t play unless we play by the rules. I said ‘Give me a penny’.” He extended a gaunt, sulky hand with a tightly gripped penny.
“Gimmeapenny!” He immediately demanded. I handed over another penny.
“Give me a penny.” I responded.
“Give me a penny.”
“Give me a penny.”
“Give me a penny.”
After several minutes of swapping pennies we paused. “ Gary, how many pennies do you have?”
He quickly counted, his greedy eyes quickly sagging into hollow sadness. “The same as when I started.” He pouted. “I keeeeps demanding, but haves no morrre penniessss than I starts.”
“Me too. Now, let’s change the rules. Instead of demanding ‘Give me a penny,’ we each simply give a penny to the other. Then let’s see who gets the most. Fershtay?” Now I was starting to sound like those bricks!
Gary nodded glumly while gripping his pennies. I handed him a penny with a smile. He quickly snatched the penny and added it to his little horde. I sat and waited.
“ Gary, if we don’t give pennies away, we can’t keep playing. Ok?” He nodded slowly, meekly offering a single penny with trembling hand. I smiled and took his penny “Thank you! And here’s one for you.” I handed him another penny. Gary caught on, and soon we were handing each other pennies with wild abandon! Gary began to giggle as he handed out penny after penny, knowing that each time he gave one, he would get a penny in return. After several minutes I paused.
“ Gary,” I asked, “how many pennies do you have?”
He quickly counted. “Same as before. Issss same both waysssss.”
“Which feels better?” I asked. “Demanding pennies or giving them away?”
He sat in puzzled silence, then whispered “giving them away.”
“And has getting money ever brought you any happiness?”
“Noooooooooooo…” he wailed. “Nevvvvvver any happysssss for Garyyyyy…..”
“And how do you think I feel when I make sandwiches for the homeless people and give them away?”
Gary sat in puzzled thought, then ventured a weak “happppyy?”
“That’s because I’m doing something for others, instead of taking from them. You see, if I take, then I’m afraid someone will take from me. But if I give, then I’m happy, because I know that someone will give to me! I’m never really poor! Fershtay?”
Gary’s face softened, his mouth spreading into a grin. “Fershtay!” he clucked.
Soon the bricks joined in the game, though we had to move their pennies for them as they had no hands or feet. I still don’t know how they get around. Gary made sure that everyone had plenty of pennies, and we made sure we all gave as many as we got. Finally, Gary gave me his entire pile of pennies. “You keeeep” he said. “Me not need anymore. Me have something better than pennies.”
“What’s that?” I asked.
Gary looked up, beaming with pure radiance. “Friends.” I don’t think I’ve ever seen a happier person in my life. He looked as if the weight of the world had been lifted from his back. He even looked thinner!
“Now I know,” he said in a soft, gentle voice, “why it’s better to give than to receive. Can we play a different game, Missy? One that doesn’t have money?”
“Sure!” I beamed. “How about ‘toss-a-brick’?”
And every brick wailed “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”
What a night! Two hours of lawyers giving speeches and evaluations of speeches. Maybe I’ll top it off with a nice root canal. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that the speeches were bad – they were fine, academically speaking. I’m sure that there are plenty of people who care about things like “Trends in Criminal Jurisprudence” and “Derivative Conveyances of the Old West,” but I just can’t think of any.
‘Table Topics’ were more interesting. We all got to participate – even the twins. They asked us a random question and we had to speak for two minutes. I saw Conan the Grammarian and the Major General Evaluator scribbling furiously while I gave my short speech; but how was I to know that a ‘collybum’ was a legal term that had nothing to do with dogs?
At least the stew was perfect! The twins even made toast and served the stew ‘open-faced.’ Other than the lawyer-speak, the missing meditation bowl, and the piggy bank incident, it was a good evening. Still, where did that daughter of mine get off to?
“Look who I found at the far end of the pond?” Jon strutted into the dining room with two stragglers.
“Jennifer!” I cried out as she strolled into the dining room behind Jon. “Where have you been all evening? And who is that man?”
“Mom, everyone – this is Gary, the Potter. He’s been living at the far end of the pond – he’s shy. But now he’s ready to meet the whole family. This is my Mom and my brother.”
Gary nodded politely.
“And these two are Kaylee and Julie. They’re not twins – they just look alike.”
Did I hear right????
“Not TWINS???” I shouted, whirling to face the guilty parties!
“Well,” they cast their eyes downward. “technically, if you asked a lawyer, we’re cousins. But we live together and look so much alike, we just tell everyone that we’re sisters.”
“And so which of you is which?” I glared while tapping my foot.
“Well, we switched names so many times growing up, we kinda lost track of who was originally Kaylee and Julie. But, we like each other, so we don’t mind sharing our names.” They were giving me their innocent puppy-dog eyes, but I wasn’t buying it.
“Alright!” I announced. “Then each of you has to do both Julie’s chores and Kaylee’s! That way, you’ll always be busy!”
“Awwwwwwww…..” they whined.
“Oh, Mom,” Jennifer interjected, “ Gary found this money down by the pond. He didn’t know whose it was, so I thought we could put it in the tip jar.”
“OUR MONEY!!!!!” cried the girls so loudly, I could swear that even the bricks echoed their cry!
“So all’s well that ends well in the Dream Café” I commented. “Oh, before I forget again, Jennifer, have you seen my Tibetan meditation bowl? I can’t seem to find it anywhere.”
<Click here to see her next adventure : Jennifer Jones and the Tomatoes of Terror!>