Chapter 1: A Strange Day Indeed
He awoke in an abnormal state; it was late, he was confused, scattered, and disoriented. He felt like he’d lost time and space-like he woke up in a strange body and a strange bed. He slowly came to recognize the familiarity of himself and his physical surroundings. This is me, Ben, and I’m home with my family. I’m late getting up; I need to feed the animals, he thought to himself as he became aware of the growing cacophony of hunger and restlessness churning in the barn.
He thought about the last time he felt this way as he stumbled into the bathroom, pulled on his dirty coveralls and worn sweatshirt, which Natalie had begged him to turn into a kitchen rag, drove himself downstairs and out toward the barn. Definitely not feeling it this morning. It was two weeks ago, he remembered same hangover except he hadn’t had so much as a beer since Friday, and this was Tuesday. Natalie’s car was gone; she and Djuna already went to school. Good he thought, he didn’t want to face his family feeling like this.
He fed and freed the chickens, pigs, and goats for the day. He then milked the cow and hauled the milk inside. He returned to the barn to let Mrs. Piggy—Djuna insisted on naming the animals—out to the pasture, set to cleaning the pens and the coop. It was ten-thirty before he finally tasted coffee and was able to quell the caffeine withdrawal headache that was already setting in. Normally he would have had breakfast with Natalie and Djuna but whatever affliction struck him in the night prevented that. He wondered why Natalie didn’t wake him up.
Now with coffee and food in his belly he began feeling a bit more normal. He strolled the quarter-mile down the driveway to get the mail. Standing by the road he discarded the substantial pile of junk mail into the bin he left by the mailbox. This was his solution to carrying a load of junk mail to the house only to have to haul it out to the recycling center, which was some distance away. Among what he decided was junk mail were a few letters from various universities and two from Stanford, his alma mater and former employer; ever trying to lure me back he thought.
As he turned to go back he noticed that it was actually warm, hot even, and with his sweatshirt and coveralls he was sweating uncomfortably. Time to plant veggies he thought as he struggled to unhook his coveralls and peel his ragged sweatshirt over his head. He awkwardly attempted all this while still holding the mail because there was nowhere to put it down that was dry. His coveralls fell to his ankles as he drew his sweatshirt over his unruly head of unkempt hair and untended beard when he heard the approach of a slow-moving car. Peeking through one of the many holes in his sweatshirt, he caught a glimpse of Mrs. Kunkle. She drove by slowly and shot Ben a stern glare out of her SUV. It was at this moment that he realized he wasn’t wearing underwear. He was so tangled in his sweatshirt that he had to actually tear it off. What once was his favorite sweatshirt fell to the ground in tatters. Now that his arms were free and the mail was in a puddle, he frantically struggled to yank up his coveralls so quickly he wrenched a testicle, and tore out several pubic hairs. Wincing in pain and unsure how to salvage the moment, he held up his manure-stained coveralls with one hand, and plastered an exaggerated smile across his face while waving with the other. Mrs. Kunkle then sped away, leaving Ben to contend with her exhaust and his disheveled embarrassment.
The sound of a rooster crowing broke his hypnotic fixation on thoughts of Mrs. Kunkle nailing him to a cross and hanging a sign around his neck that read: “PERVERT”. He realized the sound was coming from his phone, which had also fallen on the ground along with the mail during the lurid exchange with his right-wing Christian neighbor.
“Ben?” his wife’s voice chimed.
“Natalie!” he burst out, a bit too loudly.
“Are you ok?”
“Um… yes, I think,” he lied, ”I’m not sure the Kunkles are going to make it to the potluck on Saturday.”
“Did you talk to Mrs. Kunkle?”
“We ah…communicated,” he replied. Before she could dig further he asked “Why didn’t you wake me up this morning?”
“That’s what I’m calling about I couldn’t get you up!” There was concern in her voice. “When your alarm went off you didn’t wake up. I tried to get you up and you told me to let you sleep and that you’d be along soon. Before I left you were still in bed, I tried again and you said ‘I’m getting up now.’ then I had to leave.” She was obviously unsettled, and now Ben was reminded that this was not normal; he had no recollection of saying anything to Natalie this morning. “I wasn’t sure whether or not to believe you but I didn’t have time, I had to go.”
“I’m ok, I think I was fighting off something, I feel fine now.” Feeling uncomfortable he changed the subject, “I re-purposed the sweatshirt, it’s now a kitchen rag like you always wanted,” he said staring down at the stained and torn remnants of his favorite winter sweatshirt. It’s getting warm now anyway.
Her voice started to break up, “I need…for…home…five…” then nothing. Ben realized that the phone was wet and now dead, probably for good this time. He pocketed the phone corpse, gathered up the now soggy mail, the new kitchen rags, and walked back to the house. The straps to his coveralls rubbed his nipples as he walked and it didn’t take long before they became quite irritated, I need to put on a shirt or get some Band-Aids or pasties or something, he thought chuckling to himself.
Despite the inexplicable and unfortunate start, it turned out to be a lovely day; the fruit trees were in full bloom and the birds that wintered elsewhere were returning, filling the air with competing amorous melodies. All seemed right again in his mind and body—minus a pair of angry nipples—as he poured another cup of coffee and set to laying out the mail on the porch to dry in the midmorning sun.
As he carefully opened bills, correspondences, and the job offers that managed to slip through his preliminary junk mail vetting, he heard the growing buzz of an approaching motorcycle. He didn’t pay it any mind until he heard it turn down the road that connected with his driveway. He knew the sound of every vehicle that went by—there were only a half-dozen or so—and this motorcycle wasn’t one of them. He then felt a twinge of…something; panic? Surprise? No, it was realization. He knew even before he was aware of the sound of the motorcycle that it was coming. The twinge he felt was from becoming consciously aware that somewhere deep down he expected this visitor. Before he was able to grapple with these unsettling notions the motorcycle turned, unsurprisingly, on to his damp dirt driveway. He could hear its engine change gears as it dodged puddles and came into view. The rider was wearing a nondescript grey riding outfit and a black helmet. He was riding a BMW with hard case saddlebags. Michael.
Ben walked towards the rider as he pulled up, took off his gloves and helmet, and walked towards Ben smiling broadly, “Are you John Benjamin Fullerton?” He asked in a smooth tenor voice.
“Yes,” Ben eyed the visitor with an uneasy mixture of suspicion and confusion.
“I’m a courier with Andras & Associates. I have a parcel for you, but first I need to see some identification.” The man was in his mid to late thirties, of African descent, was very handsome, and had striking green eyes. He spoke with a smoothness and eloquence that was both soothing and unsettling, out of place. Ben patted at his pockets and realized that he didn’t have his wallet, and was still wearing his stained coveralls without a shirt. Now he felt embarrassed again, faced with the formality of this well-groomed seemingly perfect specimen of the male species. I’m glad Djuna’s and Natalie aren’t here, they’d be fawning all over this guy. Hell I’m almost fawning over him and I don’t go for guys. This man doesn’t seem like a courier.
“I need to get my wallet.” Ben said awkwardly as he turned to go inside.
“Take your time sir.” This guy could be an NPR newscaster. He could charm the habit off a nun. Andras. Distracted by the familiarity of the name he rifled through the house for his wallet, and realized he had no idea where it was.
Ben went upstairs to look in the bedroom and it occurred to him that he should explain the delay to the “courier”. He opened the window to call down and noticed with surprise that the man—Michael—was at the fence with Natalie’s ornery mare—Mr. Boo-boo—burying her giant head in the crook of Michael’s neck while he scratched behind her ears. Mr. Boo-boo—so named by Djuna when she was five—was old, only liked Natalie and Djuna, and ran away from all others including Ben. Apparently the mare was not immune to Michael’s charm, and they were fast friends. Ben yelled, “I see you made a friend! I’m having trouble finding my wallet, make yourself at home!”
“Check by the computer!” Michael yelled up, now receiving sloppy horse kisses on his ear. Ben was a bit perturbed by this, the only time Mr. Boo-boo wasn’t avoiding him was when he was carrying a bucket of oats or had an apple in his hand.
“Would you like a cup of coffee?” Ben asked, trying to be polite.
“Sure, if it’s not too much trouble.”
Ben changed into a pair of jeans and a t-shirt, cleaner than the coveralls though he did pull them out of the overflowing hamper. Oh yeah, today is laundry day, another reminder of how shot-to-hell this day is becoming. Still he was happy to have this out of place stranger, he seemed very nice and Ben was beginning to warm to him.
He charged downstairs and put the kettle on, one of those antique copper affairs with the curvy spout and a wooden handle. He then went to the study and there his wallet sat, right next to the computer. This made Ben uneasy, he decided that he had two choices: freak out, or just go along for the ride. He chose the latter. When he turned to go back to the kitchen to make the coffee, Michael was standing just inside the front door holding a plastic briefcase, one of the type you see used for transporting electronics.
“I wasn’t sure if I should come in,” he said in perfect tenor mid-west English. Chicago maybe, very educated thought Ben.
“Sure, come on in, I’m making coffee. You were right, it was right next to the computer like you said…” He waited for Michael’s reply while they headed toward the kitchen, hoping for an explanation other than supernatural powers.
“I love your place. I grew up on a farm, this takes me back.” Michael said, sitting in the chair that Ben offered glancing around the 200-year-old renovated farmhouse. He placed the case on the table. “I like that you made an open floor plan, and that you obviously took pains to preserve the rustic charm,” he said pointing to the giant stone fireplace with the twisted slab of oak that served as the mantle.
“The fireplace is original, but the mantle is from one of the supporting beams from the old barn, which was about to collapse when we bought the place.”
Now eyeing Michael with suspicion Ben blurted out, “Michael, how did you know where my wallet was?”
Michael replied without hesitation, “how did you know my name was Michael?” before Ben, whose mouth was now stupidly agape, could rake together an answer Michael said, “I can assure you that I’m not psychic, it was merely an informed guess. I know that living out here forty miles from the nearest store you must make most of your purchases online, and for that you need your wallet next to your computer.”
How did I know his name was Michael? Ben repeated to himself dumbly. Weirder still, Michael doesn’t seem the least bit surprised that I somehow knew his name. Ben felt suddenly weak and sat down with a thud, his mouth still fixed open.
Michael added, “So I would submit to you that it is far more interesting that you knew my name than my guess about where your wallet was; there are millions of names and only a couple of likely locations for your wallet, most of which I assumed you had already eliminated when you called down to me from the second floor.” Ben’s stupefied trance was interrupted by the eardrum-splitting squeal of the kettle, which was now boiling. He realized that he hadn’t even ground the coffee yet, and moved to do so. He muscled the handle of the antique, wall-mounted grinder until the receiving cup was sufficiently full, and then filled the French Press.
“It’s ok, I was told about you, and I’ve done some research,” Michael said while Ben poured them some coffee.
Ben gathered himself and asked politely, “Milk or cream?”
“If it’s from that beautiful cow out there I’ll take cream please.”
Ben pulled a mason jar from the fridge, “it is in fact; the cream floats on top so just pour carefully.” While Michael poured the cream with a genuine smile on his face Ben said, “you have a way with horses, Mr. Boo-boo doesn’t let many people get near her.”
“I’m guessing your daughter had something to do with that name.” Michael said as Ben returned the mason jar to the fridge.
That smile could melt a glacier. “Yes she did. Djuna was five when we got her, and she had an infected wound on her hindquarter. Djuna kept saying ‘he has a boo-boo he has a boo-boo, we need to help.’ From then on she called her Mr. Boo-boo.”
After Michael took a metered swallow of the coffee he relaxed back in his chair with his eyes closed and a look of deep satisfaction. He spread his arms wide and held them there for a moment, and then with eyes still closed, Michael said, “Starbucks can’t touch this.”
“We’re trying to produce everything we consume, or at least get it from nearby. I can’t let go of coffee though. I can’t imagine life without it.”
“You and me both.” Michael said as he opened his eyes, sat up, and spread his arms before him, “I’d like to formally invite you to visit our little firm in Charleston, once you have had the time to peruse the contents of this,” he said now placing his hand on the case. “Jeanne Andras would like to catch up with you, and I would welcome more conversation with you, as I regret to say that I must cut this most pleasant interaction short. I have another appointment for which I mustn’t be late.”
Mustn’t? Who says mustn’t? “So you’re not really a courier.” Ben said flatly and Michael finished his coffee and stood up. Jeanne! Ben remembered his old college girlfriend.
“I’m a lawyer by training but I hate desk work, and I detest court. I have a certain knack for negotiation and reason, I’m a people person as it were, and Mrs. Andras makes use of my talents for certain larger goals, big picture aspirations which she and I share.
“I went to school with her.”
“Yes, I know.”
“We were very different.”
“You still are, but you do share something very important with her as you shall soon see.” With that he stood, downing the last of his coffee. “Thank you for the hospitality and the privilege to sample that magnificent cup of coffee,” he said with genuine appreciation. While they walked back outside Michael added, “I look forward to furthering our acquaintance Mr. Fullerton. While researching you and your family I’ve come to admire you greatly, and I look forward to meeting Djuna and Natalie. Please let me know when you plan to come see us.” He handed Ben his card, donned his helmet and gloves, started his bike, and roared off, leaving Ben to contemplate what was turning out to be a very strange day indeed.
“Wait, I never showed you my ID.” Ben muttered, mostly to himself as the sound of the motorcycle faded, then it sounded as if he turned towards the Kunkles. Ben shrugged, he’ll figure it out. He wondered why he didn’t feel creeped out by the whole thing: A smooth-talking stranger executive shows up on a motorcycle to deliver a package of who-knows-what, he instantly makes friends with a socially paranoid horse, he’s investigated my life, and he says that he admires me. The creepiest part is that I don’t feel creeped out. How the hell did I know his name and why wasn’t he the least bit phased that I did? The vision of Michael, his warm smile, and his unrestrained, seemingly euphoric enjoyment of the coffee lingered in Ben’s mind.
The sound of the motorcycle was replaced by silence, then birds; hundreds of enthusiastic birds celebrating spring and probably trying to get laid. Ben closed his eyes and spread his arms much like Michael savoring his coffee; only Ben was savoring life itself. He took it all in, the symphony of life around him, the warmth of the sun, the smell of last night’s rain mixed with the new blossoms, just opened. Ben couldn’t resist lying down in the damp grass and surrender to the glory of it all.
He fell asleep and dreamed. He dreamed mightily. It was a multi-ringed circus of insanity, complete with a barker who was a cross between a narrator and a dues-ex-machina. The audience was all him, and the performers were various friends, family, acquaintances, historical figures, and movie stars. The central figures were Natalie, Djuna, Michael the “courier”, Jeanne Andras, and Danny the neighbor kid. All were dressed in various colored sequin jumpsuits. Michael was doing tricks on his motorcycle while Natalie and Jeanne were doing a juggling routine. Djuna and Danny were performing scenes from Romeo and Juliette. The barker’s face seemed to always be obscured, Ben could never get a clear look at his face, he was jabbering nonsense and gesturing to various performance areas randomly without regard to whether or not anything was truly happening there; he was totally disconnected to the performance he was barking about.
Ben walked up behind the barker and tapped him on the shoulder. Without turning around he said in Ben’s own voice, “only you know what’s to come,”
At that moment a thought exploded in Ben’s mind: tidal wave, he shouted, “everybody grab something that will float!” Then he found himself drowning, under water, which way is up? He thought, swim that way follow the bubbles he told himself, or he was told, he couldn’t be certain, but he swam. Then he surfaced and was alone clutching onto a floating barrel, where is everybody? He was answered from within his thoughts, listen,… you can hear them,… follow the sounds. He listened carefully. All seemed quiet except for the sound of the ocean gently lapping against the barrel, then he heard the sound of voices. They were laughing about something, it was Natalie’s laugh, followed by Djuna giggling. There were other voices too but he couldn’t make them out. Ben let go of the barrel and swam towards the voices. He needed to pause from time to time and listen to make sure he was heading in the right direction. Then he was hit in the head by a life preserver and after he secured himself, was hauled up into a small ship. Now lying cold and wet on the deck his dog Seldom came running to greet him, then a serious licking session started…
Ben, now waking up became aware of an eager wet dog tongue making an heroic effort to evenly coat every inch of his face with dog spit, “Seldom!” Ben cried as he sat up. “Where have you been?” The dog had been gone since yesterday morning. The back of his shirt and his pants were cold and wet.
“He was at our house, I think he likes our dog.” Said an awkward male teenage voice, which cracked often.
Danny, why am I not surprised? Thought Ben.
“Are you ok Mr. Fullerton? When I saw you lying in the ground I thought I was gonna have to do CPR or something.” Ben’s dream was already a thousand miles away, and pushed farther away by Danny’s awkward voice.
Definitely not a candidate for NPR thought ben, with Michael’s voice still fresh in his mind, now being flushed out by the wavering adolescent cracks and squeaks of his neighbor Danny Kunkle; quite the contrast he mused as he tried to shake off the dream.
Ben, realizing he must have slept for hours turned around to see Danny on his bike with a very heavy looking backpack weighing down his scrawny shoulders. “Hi Danny. Aren’t you home from school a bit early?”
“No sir, we got out at 3:15, and since I don’t play sports or nothin’, I came straight home.”
Ben tried to hide how mortified he was that he’d slept away most of the day, a day that once had a long list of chores, but now was a list of reasons why he was experiencing the growing, nagging, feelings of guilt. “Well thank you very much for bringing Seldom home Danny. Would you like some juice or something?” He said, stiffly getting up and stretching. His clothes were wet and cold where he laid on the grass, but the day was still warm and beautiful.
“No thanks sir, actually he just followed me here from the road… I came to… ask….”
“Call me Ben, you came to ask what?” Why I’m a pervert who likes to expose himself to your mother?
“…Um…if you could….help me with school stuff?” Danny finally ground out. Ben breathed a sigh of relief. “…And I could maybe help around the farm?”
“Does your mother know about this?”
“Yes sir….err…B-B-Ben,…it was her idea.”
When he said “Ben” it sounded like he was being tortured to do so, It was awkward and painful, far worse than “sir”. He decided not to force the formality issue from then on. “Have you talked to her today?”
“Not since this morning before school.”
“Call her, I want to make sure it’s ok.” I might as well use this as an opportunity to face the music. Danny climbed off his bike and leaned it on its kickstand. He dropped his formidable backpack; it must weight fifty pounds or more. It didn’t seem to improve the look of his wiry frame, like it had permanently been molded by his daily burden. Ben felt a pang of sympathy for the boy at that moment, he must get teased and bullied at school.
“Mom?” Danny squeaked into his cellphone, “It’s Danny, I’m at the Fullerton’s and Mr. Fullerton wants to talk to you,” Danny handed the phone to Ben.
“Hi Mrs. Kunkle,” Ben said, trying to sound as unperverted as possible, “I’m sorry about earlier…I didn’t mean to flash you, I was trying to get my mail…”
“Is that why you were flailing and throwing your mail?” She squawked, “I guess I missed the flashing part, I’ll have to drive by more often.”
Ben felt his face redden.
“I thought you were having a seizure or something.” She chuckled. “I love your book Mr. Fullerton, or is it doctor Fullerton?”
“Ben is just fine Mrs. Kunkle.” He was truly relieved not to be crucified with a pervert sign and surprised she’d read his book.
“Well you can call me Dotty. Anyway, since you’re a famous scientist an all, I thought you could help Danny with his schoolwork, and he could help out on your farm.”
Ben considered Danny’s ability to buck hay with those skinny arms, then he considered the list of undone chores he had, “Sure, I don’t see why not.”
“Great! Have him home by 6:30. Thank you Ben, we’ll have a chat at the potluck, take care!” Before Ben could say anything she hung up. Ben handed Danny’s phone back.
“Well, looks you’re my slave and I’m your study-buddy,” Ben said jokingly. Danny lacked any expression. “Let’s head over to the barn.” Ben tried to help Danny with the backpack but Danny had already shouldered it, and was walking his bike towards the barn. Seldom gleefully trotted ahead. This kid’s either very shy, or he hates me. In an attempt to break the ice Ben asked, “what are you doing in school that I can help you with?”
“You know, in algebra, ‘i’.”
“Oh, yes ‘i’ the imaginary number. It’s one of the mathematical ‘Blue notes’.”
“Huh?” Danny’s befuddlement was as genuine as Michael’s enjoyment of coffee.
“It’s a way of implying a key that doesn’t exist by bending a note so that it’s between notes, it was a way of playing in a scale that our modern instruments couldn’t accommodate.”
“Huh?” Danny repeated almost exactly, his voice cracked both times; he was adolescing in the most awkward ways.
“In math it’s a way of cheating, sort of breaking the rules in the process so that you can obtain an otherwise unobtainable answer. Sort of the math equivalent of ‘the end justifying the means.’” The blank look on Danny’s face made Ben feel a bit pessimistic about this arrangement. “Let’s get a few things done here and I’ll show you, I have a fantastic white board in my study,” he said with genuine pride.
“I don’t think my teacher knows this stuff very well, he avoids it when we have questions.”
“Well I hope that I can straighten you out.” Ben knew he had a tendency to blur the lines between art, music, poetry, philosophy, and mathematics, and few educated adults could understand his math metaphors, let alone a teenage kid from the boonies, I’ll go easy on him.
Danny turned out to be quite helpful, and didn’t seem to mind the work. After they tossed down the last of the hay from the north loft, and cleaned it out, they loaded the Pinzgauer with fencing materials, and readied the tractor for discing the back field. They drove the fencing stuff over to the vegetable garden and unloaded everything just outside the main garden gate, which slouched under it’s own weight, much like Danny’s shoulders under the weight of his backpack. While they were collecting eggs, Natalie and Djuna drove in with Seldom barking gleefully jumping around the car.
Ben went over to the house to greet them, and Danny followed with a basket half full of eggs. “Hey you two how was school?”
“Dad, what’s Danny doing here?” Djuna asked, looking perplexed.
“Hi Danny,” Natalie said while receiving a kiss on the cheek from Ben.
“Hi Mrs. Fullerton,” Danny squeaked sheepishly.
“He and I are helping each other out. We have an arrangement.” Ben said in response to Djuna.
“Hi Danny,” said Djuna, not sounding very thrilled.
Ben grabbed the egg basket from Danny and followed the girls up the steps to the porch. “Ben why is our mail all over the porch floor?” Asked Natalie, sounding a bit perturbed.
“Oh sorry…um, the mail got wet, so I spread it out in the sun.” Ben had forgotten about the mail, and the strange briefcase. Seems like that was days ago. “There’s also a case on the table, I need to check it out.” They all filtered into the house, Danny trailing behind.
“Where’s it from?” she asked as she eyed it from across the room, “it looks like a flight box of some sort.”
“A man came by and delivered it to me. He works for a company that I believe is owned by an old college mate of mine.”
“Well don’t keep us in suspense, what’s in it?” She dropped her things and went over to it.
“I have no idea, I haven’t looked yet, I’d forgotten all about it until just now.” Natalie began to fondle the clasps. “I should tell you that it’s from Jeanne Andras, you know from undergrad days.”
“Oh, that’s why you’re acting so weird.”
“Who’s Jeanne Andras?” asked Djuna who had her head buried in the fridge.
“What if she’s trying to blackmail me or something?” He helped Natalie and Djuna lug their stuff in.
“She was an old flame of your father’s,” Natalie said to Djuna over her shoulder. Then she said to Ben, “For there to be blackmail, there has to be some sort of indiscretion, or something you’re ashamed of…and you have to have money which you don’t. You two dated in college for a year and a half, what could you possibly have done that would be worthy of blackmail?”
Danny, who had been standing just inside the front door was looking increasingly uncomfortable and said, “Mr. Fullerton, maybe I should be going home…”
“Nonsense Danny, what about your homework?” Ben walked over and grabbed the eggs. Before Danny could answer Ben put the eggs down by the sink and herded Danny into the study, and said to his family, ”we’ll open the case together, I need to teach Danny how to play a ‘blue note’ first.”
“What about dinner?” Natalie said as Ben closed the study door. “I think he’s uncomfortable talking about a previous lover in front of us.” She said to Djuna, who was now eating a cheese sandwich.
“Good because I don’t like hearing about it,” she said curtly, eyeing the case.
“You know I dated several men before your father.”
“Eww! Several? Mom, I don’t need to hear about your slutty past, no child should be subjected to that!” Changing the subject she asked, “What about Danny? I don’t get it, why is dad helping him with school?”
“I don’t know, he certainly doesn’t need help with my class, he writes beautifully.”
“Mom! Your not supposed to tell me that! You’re his teacher and I’m a fellow student and I’m your daughter, there are several conflicts of interest at play here!”
“I didn’t tell you his grades, simply that he writes well. Besides, he’s not even in your grade.”
“I know you well enough that means at least an ‘A’.”
“Only if he turns in all his assignments.”
“Anyway, that’s my point, there are rumors that he’s had straight ‘A’s since he was a kid, why does he need help with homework when he should be the one helping everyone else?”
“He’s very quiet in class, how does he get along with other students?”
“He doesn’t as far as I can tell, I’ve never once seen him talking to anybody except teachers; other kids just ignore him. He’s always got his face buried in a book.”
Now almost in a whisper, “You know he found his father’s body when he was six, I’m glad he’s spending time with your father, and you should make an effort to be his friend too.”
“Mom, he’s a grade below me, and he’s two years younger, that would be social suicide!”
“Would you please at least try?”
“When we moved here I was the big city freak from California, it’s taken me this long just to get accepted by these narrow-minded rubes, now you want me to throw all my hard work out the window?”
Natalie’s face grew angry and red at her daughter’s words and Djuna, seeing this, tried to smooth out her little explosion, “Look, mom, I’m sorry but I don’t think you remember what high school is like, and you went to school in an open-minded liberal city, things are a lot different here and I’m just trying to survive.”
Just then the study door opened and Danny walked to the bathroom without looking up at Natalie or Djuna. He knew exactly where the bathroom was; Natalie had forgotten that this used to be his grandparent’s house.
“We’re so not finished with this discussion.” With that Natalie went over to the sink and began washing the eggs. Then she loudly whispered, “I want you to examine what you just said, every word. In fact, I want you to write it down. Now!”
Djuna knew she’d lost this one, there was no redeeming what exploded from her mouth and she already regretted it. Without a word, she grabbed a piece of paper and holding back tears, wrote down word for word what she had said. It wasn’t that she’d lost another battle with her mom, it was that she was ashamed of what she’d turned into, what she’d had to compromise to survive here. These thoughts led to anger at her parents for moving her here, thoughts she visited often but with less frequency lately, since she started being more accepted at school. She decided to write down these thoughts too, this was a chance to make her case that her parents are to blame for who she’s turning into. She couldn’t wait to spend the summer with her uncle Josh, and her friends in California. She needed a recharge, just six more weeks of this bullshit, she thought. She couldn’t hold back anymore, all these thoughts and emotions were now right at the surface, she put down her pen and leaving what she’d written nearly ran into Danny—who was heading back to the study—ran upstairs to her room and slammed the door.
“Sorry.” Danny said softly as she bumped past.
Natalie saw him and asked, “Would you like a snack Danny?”
“No ma’am, err…Mrs. Fullerton, my mom packed me some snacks.”
“Here” she said, handing him an odd looking piece of what appeared to be a small pile of cow poop, “it’s a homemade granola bar…take it…you’ll be ever in Ben’s favor if he sees you eating one of his homemade granola bars.” Danny took the misshapen lump and nibbled at the edge, “it’s pretty good,” he lied, “I have to get back to Mr. Fullerton, he’s explaining how math is truth.”
“That sounds like him, good luck.”
Danny added, “I wish my algebra teacher was as good as him, thank you Mrs. Fullerton,” he slid back into the study.
“You’re very welcome Danny.”
When Danny returned to the study he said, “I think they were fighting.”
“The mother-daughter relationship is a very mysterious, fickle, and dynamic thing Danny, I’ve found it best to not get involved and to provide aid and comfort where needed and never until after the dust has settled. The trick is to appear to not choose sides, it requires a deft and careful touch.” Then he added remembering the disaster last week when he said the wrong thing and neither of them would talk to him or each other for the better part of two days, “I’m still learning of course, but I find that the interplay between them often evolves faster than I can revise my protocols and procedures for their emotional first aid.”
Ben turned back to his giant white board, now half filled with a fairly comprehensive summary of radicals, “Now that we’ve agreed on what radicals are and how we deal with them in some situations, what happens when we have the square root of a negative 4?”
Danny though for a second and shrugged, “you can’t, a negative square root isn’t possible.”
“Very true, but what if you wound up with one, which is quite possible while working with quadratics? Would you just give up and say there’s no solution?”
“I’m guessing this is where ‘i’ comes in, because it’s the square root of negative one.”
“Sorry to be so obvious but yes. So now how would you deal with the square root of negative four given what you know about radicals and ‘i’?” Ben said holding out a marker inviting Danny to the board.
Danny, timid at first, wrote the square root of negative four equals two’i’.
“You got it!” Ben looked at his cell phone to see what time it was and was reminded by the blank screen that it was quite dead. “What time is it Danny?”
“Quarter to six, I better be going, I have to wash-up before dinner.”
“Will I see you tomorrow?”
“We can stick with Mr. Fullerton for now, it sounds like you just guzzled vinegar when you say ‘Ben’.”
“Ok.” Danny said, cracking the slightest smile, the first one Ben had seen on the boy.
“I won’t make it Thursday, I have bible studies.” Danny then hoisted his formidable backpack on top of his meager frame and said his goodbyes to Ben and Natalie and left.
Ben moved to the kitchen to help make dinner, “he’s a lot smarter than his first impression….ah…impresses. Is he in your English class?” said Ben grabbing broccoli from the fridge and washing it in the sink.
“Yes, and yes.” Natalie said, not looking up from the papers she was grading on the table. “He’s actually one of my best students, and unlike most of his peers, he can write.”
“Is Djuna in her room?”
“Yes. I’m not very happy with her right now. She kind of burst out with this when I suggested that she make friends with Danny,” she said showing Ben what Djuna had written. “But now after reading it, I feel like it’s our fault.
“Let me guess,” Ben said, not looking at the note, “she expresses how she’s compromised herself in order to survive in an unenlightened world.”
“Has she been talking to you about this?”
“She’s dropped some hints… I think I should make ‘Djuna’s Comfort Casserole’” he said, he set his iPod to play a compilation of early calypso, Natalie responded with a smile and subtly bobbed her head and hummed along while she kept her focus on the grading.
Ben grabbed a box of Annie’s Noodles. He preheated the oven to 425, started boiling water for the noodles, and grabbed a bunch of broccoli from the fridge. “I’ll go talk to her, but not until she’s hungry and I have her favorite food to offer.”
“You know she sees right through your phony tactics.”
“That doesn’t mean they don’t work.”
The case now sat unnoticed under the paper-grading assembly line Natalie had created. This process as usual covered nearly the entire kitchen table. Ben grabbed a pound of ground beef from the freezer and put it in the microwave to thaw. Then he grabbed the large sauté pan and put a half stick of butter with a couple tablespoons of olive oil over a medium flame while he chopped a large onion, the broccoli, some mushrooms, a bunch of spinach, and half a head of garlic. He dumped the noodles in the now boiling water with some butter and olive oil, and sautéed the ground beef and onions, then added veggies and cooked until the broccoli was just starting to soften, then he added the garlic, mushrooms, and chopped spinach, stirred it all in, and removed it all and set it on the counter.
“I’ve had the weirdest day.” Ben said, now toasting some cut up old bread in the toaster oven.
“Considering that a normal day for you would be downright bizarre to a normal person, I hesitate to ask.” Then she looked up, “what happened to your phone? I tried to call back after we were cut off and it went right to message.”
“My phone took the same journey as the mail, I think its dead for good this time. Cell phones in my possession are all but guaranteed an untimely death; they should be forced to carry life insurance. ” Now he added the toasted bread, a hand full of Panko crumbs, a healthy pile of parmesan chunks, some salt, fresh ground pepper, and one teaspoon of paprika to the food processor and pulsed it until it was all smooth and well mixed.
“They do have life insurance, I’ve insured every one you’ve had after that first one when you fell asleep on the edge of the fountain at Stanford and inevitably rolled right in. It was caught on video, which is still circulating the Internet.”
“I should be getting royalties for that,” he said, without irony. He now drained the still somewhat firm noodles and returned them to the pot. He added butter, milk and the cheese packet and stirred, he then added the sautéed veggies and ground beef. He spread the mixture out on an oiled casserole dish and topped it with a layer of grated cheddar cheese, then topped that with the bread crumb mix and put the dish in the oven for 25 minutes. Ben had developed this dish for Djuna when she was younger to get her to like broccoli and other veggies. He tweaked it until she’d eat the veggies without complaint, it wound up requiring so much cheese as to counteract any vegetable benefits. Now it’s one of her favorite things to eat. Ben chalked that up as one of the few successes he’s had raising a kid. Dogs are far easier to train then humans, he thought.
When the casserole was in the oven he sat down across from Natalie and asked, “Don’t you want to hear about my day?”
She sighed and said with unrestrained sarcasm, “please…lavish me with every sordid detail.”
Smiling he said, “well if you must know, my day strangely began with sleeping in…” He went on to tell her the events of the day, including his unfortunate encounter with Mrs. Kunkle, the mail, the phone, the meeting with Michael, the case, the siesta on the grass, and the Danny arrangement.
When the timer for the casserole dinged, Ben pulled it out of the oven and set it on the counter to cool for a bit. It looked beautiful, the cheese was bubbling, and the top was lightly browned. He threw together a salad of lettuce, spinach, peppers, cucumbers, carrots, tomatoes, sunflower seeds and sprouts. He went up to Djuna’s room while Natalie cleared the table.
“Djuna” he knocked on the door. “Djuna!” he knocked louder. Now he heard her stir, and she eventually opened the door.
With one ear bud in her ear she said, “Dad can I just have dinner in my room?”
“Yes but only after your mom and I are both dead.”
“I made mom mad, and I don’t want to face her right now.”
“I made ‘Djuna’s Comfort Casserole, perhaps a quick ‘sorry mom’ would help all our digestion.”
“I don’t feel like it’s completely my fault,”
“Believe it or not, she’s aware of that. In fact, we both know that you’ve been thrust into a very difficult-to-navigate social universe, and your little out-burst is understandable.” He sat on her bed and continued, “Your choice of words was unfortunate and that’s where the immediate problem lies. Clearly there is a larger issue that needs to be addressed, but in the interest of my extreme hunger I’m willing to put that off for another time. What do you say? Just a quick ‘sorry mom’ and we can sit down and eat.”
Djuna let out a sigh that was intended to highlight her sacrifice and compromise and said, “ok, I’m hungry too.” They went downstairs where Natalie was plating up the casserole and salad.
Djuna sat down and said, “I’m sorry mom I didn’t mean to say some of that stuff.”
Natalie put a serving in front Djuna and kissed her gently on the forehead, “I know.”
They all eagerly dug in. Ben couldn’t help but be reminded of the case, which was still sitting conspicuously at the other end of the table. He did his best to ignore it while he inhaled his dinner. He caught Natalie watching him when he averted his gaze, and he looked over at Djuna who looked at him, then the case, then back at him and widened her eyes as if to say “open the case already!”
“Ok!” he belted out, “just let me finish my dinner!” Both Natalie and Djuna giggled.
Djuna said innocently, “What? I didn’t say anything.”
“If you’re trying to be subtle, you need practice,” said Ben. Djuna scowled.
“Aren’t you curious?” Djuna pressed, looking innocent again.
“Yes and no. I have questions: Why so elaborate? Why the extra secure case? Why have a lawyer drive it to me personally?” He paused and cleaned his plate. “Jeanne Andras was studying to become a neurobiologist, and as far as I know that’s what she became. Now it seems like she’s a CEO or something, it doesn’t add up.”
Before he could continue Natalie said, “What’s the worst it could be?”
“I don’t know, a bomb? A notice of right of way for an oil pipeline that forces us to sell our home?”
“I hadn’t thought of that,” said Natalie pensively.
“Here’s what I find the strangest thing about this,” he said gesturing toward the case, “I actually don’t feel the least bit afraid of it, or even the least bit cautious even though clearly I should. This is where I’m conflicted.”
“You’re way over thinking this dad, just open it; if you don’t I will.”
“I’m with your daughter on this one,” said Natalie.
“Two thirds majority is immune to a veto,” Djuna added.
Ben cleared the dishes, sighed and said, “You know it’s political conspiracies like this one that have destroyed this great country of ours. This is a perfect example of the same strong-arm tactics, bullying and manipulation of our political process that got us into the Iraq war, the Afghanistan war, and…”
“You’re stalling dear,” Natalie interrupted, batting her eyelashes. “Are you attempting a filibuster? You don’t have it in you, you’ll need to pee.”
“Oh my god! Dad!” Djuna, now exasperated, had clearly lost patience with the game.
Ben walked back form the sink and threw his hands up in surrender. “Alright you two, you win. If it’s a bomb and we all die I won’t be able to say ‘I told you so’ so I’ll say it now preemptively: I told you so.” With that he grabbed the case by its handle and tried the hasps without success. He then looked the case over carefully until he found an etched graphic of an eyeball just under the handle next to what appeared to be a lens. He raised his eyebrows and glanced over at Natalie, then Djuna, then back to the case. Their eyes were wide with anticipation and transfixed on the case. Ben instinctively put his eye up to the lens and the case immediately made a ‘click’ sound. He laid it down and once again tried the hasps, which now opened easily. Ben let out a breath he was unaware he’d been holding in, and slowly lifted the lid of the case.