Great stories about good people caught in difficult situations.

Chapter Four Hundred and Fifty-nine : Good morning?


Tuesday morning — 5:13 a.m.
New York City, New York

Seth opened his eyes when a garbage truck revved its engine. He closed them again. The bang of a trash dumpster being set on to the alley made him open his eyes again. He squinted and rolled over. He was pretty sure he was in his bedroom in Hell’s Kitchen but he couldn’t see anything. His hands went to his chest. He was wearing a pair of cotton pajamas. He scowled. Outside of when Rachel visited at home, he hadn’t worn pajamas since he was seventeen. In fact, these might be the very pair he wore. He flopped back onto his back.

The last thing he remembered was …

He sat up in bed.

“Slowly,” a male voice said.

Although he recognized the voice, it was nearly impossible to see anything.

“R.J.?” Seth asked. “Why can’t I see you?”

“You got one of them things on your eyes,” R.J. said. “You know, like rich folks wear.”

“I do?” Seth asked.

His hand went up to his face. He was wearing an eye mask. He pulled the eye mask off and smiled at his friend. R.J. had dealt the blow that removed his front teeth from his mouth. He’d also spent the rest of his working life driving Seth and eventually his mother all over Denver. The man had seemed ancient when Seth first met him, but he was only ten or eleven years older than Seth. R.J. smiled.

“You wear pajamas now?” R.J. asked as he sat down on the bed next to Seth.

“Uh …” Seth looked at the pajamas. “Did you bring me home?”

R.J. shook his head.

“I think a friend of Sandy’s brought me home,” Seth said. “She must have …”

He looked at the eye mask and shook his head.

“I wonder where this came from,” Seth said. He smiled at R.J. “I didn’t realize that you were in town for Big Daddy’s funeral.”

“I’m here to try to prevent your funeral,” R.J. said.

“My funeral?” Seth asked. “Am I in danger?”

“The way I heard it, you was being held captive,” R.J. said. “This friend of Sandy’s save your ass again?”

“I guess so,” Seth said. “I don’t know how I got here. I fell asleep and …”

“You talking about Oshun,” R.J. said.

“Hedone?” Seth asked.

“That chick that’s helped you before,” R.J. said.

Seth nodded.

“What’s an Oshun?” Seth asked.

“Female goddess of love and fertility,” R.J. said. “Nigerian. She told me that was her name. How can a woman so dark have a name like ‘Hedone’?”

R.J. snorted at Seth’s idiocy. Seth remembered that Hedone, like everyone from Olympus, looked differently to every person who looked upon them.

“Good point,” Seth said with a nod. “Mind if I use the toilet?”

R.J. shrugged. Seth got up to use the bathroom. When he returned, R.J. was sitting on a chair near the door. He nodded to Seth, picked up the newsletter, and lit a cigarette. Like he had most of high school, Seth got dressed while R.J. read the newspaper and smoked. When Seth finished, he stood in front of R.J.

“Breakfast?” Seth asked.

“Claire made them burritos?” R.J. asked.

“I’m sure there’s a stack of them in the refrigerator right now,” Seth said.

R.J. nodded and stood up.

“You’ll tell me everything?” Seth asked.

“As much as I know,” R.J. said. “Which isn’t a lot. You making coffee?”

Seth nodded and they went out in to the apartment.


Tuesday morning — 4:23 a.m.
Denver, Colorado

“Hey,” Erik said as he walked across Wanda’s room.

He leaned over to turn on the lamp next to her bed and sat down. Wanda opened her eyes. Her little brown dog, Frappuccino, jumped off the bed and ran out the door Erik had opened.

“I know it’s early, but today’s your big day,” Erik said. “You’re due at the hospital at six.”

Wanda groaned.

“We stayed up too late,” Erik said.

Wanda nodded.

“Your mom asked me to ask you if …” Erik said.

“I’m sure,” Wanda said. “Are you? I mean, I won’t ever be your boy again. Not after today.”

“Eh,” Erik shrugged.

“You used to care,” Wanda said. She scooted up to sit against the headboard. “A lot.”

“I did,” Erik said.

“Is it because Mom’s having boys?” Wanda asked.

“Your mom’s having girls,” Erik said. “Fraternal twins.”

Wanda gave an excited clap.

“Do not tell her I told you,” Erik said. “She’ll kill me.”

Wanda smiled at her dad. He grinned back at her.

“I can’t ever keep a secret from you,” Erik said.

Wanda nodded.

“I know I was an asshole,” Erik said. “You know, about everything. I just …”

Erik squinted at Wanda and then looked away. He was silent for what felt like forever. Wanda knew if she interrupted, he would get up and leave. Erik’s eyes welled with unshed moisture.

“We were so close. You and me. I’ve never been that close to anybody. Ever,” Erik said. “I figured that we were so close because you were a boy. When … you know everything happened and Sam Lipson finally got it through my thick head, I figured that you’d be a girl and we wouldn’t be close anymore. I mean, what do I know about girls?”

Wanda nodded.

“But then, there you were,” Erik said. “You. Me. We’re pals. Girl or boy, we’re still pals. I mean I’m still the dad and all, but … And I don’t know nothing about past lives or souls, like that Delphie talks about, but you and me — we’re family. I thought I’d lose all of that if you were a girl, but …”

Erik looked at Wanda for a long moment.

“I didn’t trust you and I didn’t trust me,” Erik said. “I didn’t trust that we’d be okay, but here we are. Then that guy tried to kill you and you responded in such you way but with a girly pen, I just …”

Erik shrugged.

“You don’t have to do this for me,” Erik said. “You don’t have to not do this for me. And I’ll tell you …”

Erik leaned in so his mouth was an inch from Wanda’s ear.

“You decide you want a penis again,” Erik said. “I’ll make it happen if I have to cut my own off to give it to you.”

It was such a weird and sweet thing to say that Wanda threw herself into Erik’s arms. They held each other tight.

“What are you doing?” Edith, Wanda’s mother, asked. “Wanda, get in the shower. Remember to use that disinfectant soap. Scrub everywhere. You might be a girl at heart, but you have the hygiene of an adolescent boy.”

Erik hopped up. He walked to her mother.

“Really, Erik!” Edith said. “You’re so irresponsible sometimes.”

“Yes, Edith,” Erik said.

He winked at Wanda and closed her door. She got up and went to the shower. She washed herself head to toe. She took special care to bless the body parts that would be removed today. They had served her well so far. She wished she’d felt like they belonged to her.

None of this would be happening if she’d just been normal.

But she’d never been normal.

She’d never felt like her body belonged to her. These parts felt more like borrowed shoes. She worried that she would feel the same way about her new body. Rather than think of it, she remembered what her father had said and laughed.

She dressed in comfortable clothing. She was pulling on her shoes when she heard Erik head to warm up the car.

“You ready?” Edith asked.

“Thanks, Mom,” Wanda said.

She hugged her mother tight. In the way of mother’s, Edith soundlessly wept for her daughter.

“We’d better go, or your father might leave without us,” Edith said with a laugh.

Laughing, Wanda went out to the car. Frappuccino jumped into the back and Edith got into the passenger seat. They drove to the hospital in silence.


Tuesday morning — 5:43 a.m.
Denver, Colorado

Tucked into Charlie’s little closet, Chet woke up screaming.

“Chet,” Tink said in a loud whisper. She shook his shoulder and called his name again, “Chet!”

His hands up in front of his face, the boy shook with terror.

“Chet,” Tink said.

“Tink?” Chet asked. “You have to get out of here! Go! Before you get caught.”

“What’s happened?” Aden came into the doorway carrying a shotgun.

Seeing Aden’s shadow, Chet screamed out loud. Sandy appeared in the door behind Aden.

“What’s going on?” Sandy asked.

“He seems to be having a night terror,” Aden said.

“Chet!” Tink said and shook his shoulder again.

His hand shot out and he punched Tink in the face. Tink flew back and landed against the wall. Sandy went to Tink while Aden nudged Chet with his foot. Tears flowed out of Tink’s eyes, but she was too stunned to speak.

“Charlie?” Sandy asked.

Charlie came into the room. He looked at Tink and then at Sandy.

“What …?” Charlie asked.

“Chet’s having a night terror,” Sandy said. “Help me with Tink.”

Charlie grabbed one of Tink’s shoulders and Sandy got the other. Tall and fit, Tink was not a light girl. They got her out into the hallway. Jacob picked up Tink and carried her to the living room couch. Jill moved into the room with Chet.

“Ice pack,” Jacob said. “Frozen peas, if you have them.”

Sandy pointed Charlie toward the kitchen. He took off. Jacob sat in front of Tink.

“Tink?” Jacob asked.

Tink’s eyes flicked to Jacob and she began to cry. Jacob stepped aside for Heather to take over. Sandy went to check on Aden and Chet. Aden was sitting with Chet’s head on his lap. Chet was weeping and shaking, but definitely awake. Jill was sitting next to Chet with her hands on his arm. The shotgun was leaning up against the wall behind Aden. Sandy picked up the shotgun.

“How’s Tink?” Jill asked.

“She’ll be okay,” Sandy said.

She left to put the shotgun away.

“Tink?” Chet asked. “Tink is here, too?”

There was movement in the hallway and Tink appeared in the doorway. She was holding a bag of frozen peas against her bruised eye.

“What happened to your eye?” Chet asked.

“You hit me, brother,” Tink said.

“I did?” Chet asked.

He rolled up into a ball and began to sob.

“I should die,” Chet started repeating over and over again. “I should die. I should die. I should die.”

Tink started forward but Aden held up a hand.

“He’s still in it,” Aden said.

Jill grabbed both of Chet’s arms. One minute eased into two minutes. They stood watching as Jill and Aden fought for Chet. Five minutes passed and then six. Chet gasped a breath, and then another.

Jill let go of him. Tink started forward but Aden shook his head.

“Give it a minute,” Aden said. He leaned over the boy. “What happened?”

“I was dreaming about …” Chet started. He blinked tears from his eyes. He mouthed the word, “Sex.”

“You are an adolescent boy,” Aden said with a grin.

“Bad,” Chet said. “Just … b-b-oom.”

Chet’s right hand made a fist and then extended until his hand was open. Aden nodded.

“And ‘I should die’?” Aden asked.

“That’s the thought of …” Chet said. “If I think about sex with a male, I should die.”

Chet nodded.

“Trigger, response,” Jill said.

Chet scowled at her.

“Do I know you?” Chet asked.

“I’m a friend of Heather’s,” Jill said.

Sandy appeared with a glass of water for Chet.

“If you’ll excuse me,” Jill said.

Jill left Chet to clean up her energy. She passed Noelle and Nash, who were standing in the hallway, and went into the kids’ bathroom. Aden touched the young man’s shoulder.

“It’s over,” Aden said to Heather who was standing in the doorway.

“Thank you,” Heather said.

Aden gave her a tight nod. Chet drank down the water. Grabbing Chet’s glass, Aden got up and left the little closet. Tink sat down next to Chet.

“Well …” Tink said. “Welcome to the Castle?”

Chet laughed.


Tuesday morning — 5:50 a.m.
Denver, Colorado

Ivan walked down the hallway of the second floor. He wanted to speak with Delphie in private. While he didn’t wish to wake her, or inconvenience her in any way, he wanted to speak to her the moment she was available. Her apartment door opened as he approached. Sam Lipson came out.

“She’s expecting you,” Sam said.

He clapped Ivan’s back and went down toward the stairs.

“Go on in,” Sam said, before he turned and went to the kitchen.

Ivan pushed on the open door. The door swung open to reveal Ivy.

“Hi Ivan,” Ivy said. “We made tea. Do you like tea?”

Ivan was so taken back that he just nodded at the little girl. She grinned at him and skipped off to the little kitchen. She poured water out of a little tea pot and added a tablespoon of loose tea.

“I cut up some melon for you,” Ivy said. “Cantaloupe.”

She set out a bowl of square pieces of cantaloupe.

“That’s a big knife.” Ivan pointed to the knife on the counter.

“I’m careful,” Ivy said. “It may surprise you but it’s not the most dangerous thing I’ve ever done.”

“I bet that’s true,” Ivan said.

Giggling, Ivy poured boiling water into a tea pot and dropped a knitted cozy over the top.

“Delphie’s getting ready,” Ivy said. “She’ll just be another minute or so.”

Ivy pushed the bowl of cantaloupe toward Ivan and nodded toward the glass with clean forks in it. He selected a fork and a cloth napkin from the stack.

“This is lovely,” Ivan said.

Ivy nodded.

“Where do you sleep?” Ivan asked.

Ivy nodded toward the little closet next to the kitchen.

“It was a pantry,” Ivy said. “It’s kind of small but really …”

Ivy leaned across the counter toward Ivan.

“It’s perfect for me,” Ivy said with a nod.

“You will get bigger?” Ivan asked.

Nodding, Ivy laughed at Ivan’s question. He grinned.

“My grandmother was tall like you,” Ivy said. “My dad too. My mom … well, I don’t know how tall she was, but Delphie’s not short.”

Ivy nodded.

“I just didn’t eat for a while,” Ivy said. “And you know everything …”

Ivan nodded.

“The doctors think I’ll catch up,” Ivy said.

Ivy jumped up and down.

“Any time now!” Ivy said, her voice filled with impatience.

Ivan laughed. Ivy blushed and tipped her head down. She grinned at him.

“You will catch up,” Ivan said. “I was small as a young child for the same reason.”

“Really?” Ivy gave him a gap toothed smile.

Ivan nodded.

“Sissy was always tall,” Ivy said. “Pan, too. But Pan’s a boy, you know?”

“Good point.” Ivan was so charmed by the little girl that he said words he hadn’t spoken in at least a decade. “My sister was very beautiful, a model, really. She was also small at your age.”

Ivan’s heart seized at the words. As if to capture the pain, his hand went to his chest. Behind him, Delphie’s bedroom door opened. Delphie rushed across the room. Ivan turned and Delphie hugged him. For a moment, he let himself be held in this tight, maternal embrace. When the pain eased, he let go and Delphie stepped back.

“The cantaloupe will help,” Ivy said, softly.

He speared a piece of cantaloupe and popped it into his mouth. To his surprise, the sweet, moist fruit seemed to help.

“I’m glad you came,” Delphie said.

Still chewing, Ivan nodded.

“You’d like to speak with your sister,” Delphie said.

“Mother, father, sister.” Ivan’s hand returned to his heart. He managed to add, “Apologize.”

Rather than argue, Delphie simply nodded.

“Would you mind if our Ivy sat in with us?” Delphie asked. “She’s learning. It would be good for her to see.”

“She is like you?” Ivan asked.

“It’s unlikely that she’ll be like me,” Delphie said. “There is usually only one of me in the world at a time. That’s why Abi is here, well, and the others.”

Delphie nodded.

“I see,” Ivan said.

“Ivy has talents,” Delphie said. “We want to train her up so that she can use her talents well. If she chooses this life, so be it.”

Ivy shrugged.

“She has a choice,” Delphie said, with a solemn nod to her own lack of choice.

For the first time since he met her, Ivan felt a real connection with Delphie. She looked at him and smiled.

“Now, let’s get to work,” Delphie said. “Ivy can you bring the tea?”

Delphie looked at Ivan.

“Your sister has waited a long time to speak with you.” Delphie turned her back and walked into her bedroom.

Stunned, Ivan watched her walk.

“Come on,” Delphie said with a wave.

“We’d better go,” Ivy said.

Ivan hopped up and followed Delphie into the room.


Tuesday morning — 6:03 a.m.
Denver, Colorado

Sissy woke up and Ivan wasn’t there. She quickly changed into her bathing suit and went out to the Castle hot tub. Charlie brought her a cup of coffee.

“You okay?” Charlie asked.

“Tight,” Sissy said. “Still. Every morning.”

“Me, too,” Charlie said.

“You should get in,” Sissy said.

Charlie nodded. He disappeared for a moment and then returned in his swim trunks. He got in the hot tub with his sister.

“Swanky trunks,” Sissy said.

“You too,” Charlie said.

“Crazy,” Sissy said.

“I know,” Charlie said. “I never get used to having money for stuff.”

“Food,” Sissy said.

“Clothes,” Charlie said. “You know, stuff shows up that Sandy bought for me — like the moment I need it.”

He plucked at his swim trunks.

“She sends me care packages,” Sissy said. “Clothes, shoes, this bathing suit.”

“Chocolates,” Charlie said.

Sissy chuckled.

“How is it with Ivan?” Charlie asked.

“Good,” Sissy said. “I mean, we have to make decisions about the fall. When we go back, I mean. We have meetings with the school and the ballet theater. Schmidty says I can go anywhere, but …”

Sissy shrugged.

“I don’t know what I want,” Sissy said.

“That’s hard to believe,” Charlie said.

“What do you mean?” Sissy asked.

“You’ve always wanted one thing — to be a world famous prima ballerina,” Charlie said. “You don’t want to do that now?”

“Oh,” Sissy said. “I guess, I’m kind of lazy now. I get to eat more food and I’m not so frantic.”

“Couldn’t you bring this calm with you when you go back to school?” Charlie asked.

Sissy shrugged. Charlie nodded.

“How do you like the Marlowe School?” Sissy asked.

“Well, I wear this cool uniform,” Charlie said.

Sissy laughed, and Charlie laughed at her laugh.

“I’ve only been there a little bit,” Charlie said. “I actually like it. The school work is getting easier. The other kids are there so that’s nice. Tink. It feels … normal, I guess.”

“Even though you’re eighteen?” Sissy asked.

Charlie nodded and shrugged.

“When Dad was eighteen, he was in Vietnam,” Charlie said.

“Having sex with lots of girls and boys,” Sissy said. “Doing every kind of drug.”

“A soldier.” Charlie nodded and looked away. “In the tunnels at Cu Chi. In the middle of a war.”

“You’ve already had lots of girls, and boys,” Sandy said.

Charlie’s head jerked to look for her judgement, but she refused to meet his eyes.

“You’ve done every kind of drug,” Sissy said. “I mean, if you want to join the Army or whatever that’s okay, but from where I sit, you’ve already been through a war.”

Charlie squinted.

“Me, too,” Sissy said.

Charlie couldn’t help but nod. She still didn’t look at him.

“We’ve been wounded,” Sissy said. “You’ve gone without food for weeks at a time.”

“You too,” Charlie said.

Sissy nodded.

“You’ve done enough drugs for both of us,” Sissy said.

“That’s the truth,” Charlie said.

“You still have Hep C,” Sissy said.

“Done with that,” Charlie said.

“Good,” Sissy said.

“I’m deadly virus free,” Charlie said.

“That’s kind of a war,” Sissy said.

Charlie nodded. He looked away from her to watch at the mountains Sissy was watching.

“That’s my problem, too,” Sissy said.

“What is?” Charlie asked.

“How do I just live?” Sissy asked. “You know, give up the war. I feel like I’ve been fighting my entire life.”

Charlie nodded in agreement.

“I don’t want to go back to ballet school because …” Sissy said.

“I don’t want to fight anymore,” Charlie said.

Sissy nodded.

“I’m not sure it’s worth the battle,” Sissy said.

“What if the fight is just going on …” Charlie pointed to his head, “ … you know, in our minds?”

Sissy turned to look at him.

“It’s something Aden says,” Charlie said. “‘We get so used to fighting that we continue battling long after the war is over.’”

Sissy leaned into Charlie.

“Is the war over?” Sissy asked.

Charlie smiled at her and Sissy laughed.

“Over or not, it’s up to us to choose to fight,” Charlie said.

“I don’t want to fight anymore,” Sissy said. “I don’t think I have it in me, anymore.”

“Me, too,” Charlie said.

“Now what?” Sissy asked.

“I guess we see if we can just live,” Charlie said.

Sissy nodded. They fell silent and watched the mountains light up with the bright yellow light of day.


Tuesday morning — 8:03 a.m.
New York City, New York

“Right, but that doesn’t make any sense,” Seth said.

“Sense or no sense,” R.J. said. “That’s what I was told. You was held captive, right?”

Seth nodded.

“Then, it might not make sense, but they’s coming for you,” R.J. said.

Seth scowled.

“Don’t give me that dark look, young man,” R.J. scolded Seth as he had when Seth was a child.

“The truth is the truth.” They repeated in unison, R.J. oft said admonishment of Seth. “Whether you like it or not.”

They laughed.

Denver Cereal continues next week…

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