Patty settled on the bench, watching her seven-year-old daughter, Melissa, race to join the others at the swing set. There were four in all. Tommy, Cathy, Melissa and Joe.
It was a warm, sunny Oregon afternoon. The Beaverton park was quiet because most people were starting dinner or on their way home from work. Patty liked to have a later dinner so they could enjoy the park without the crowd.
“I didn’t think you were coming,” Sandy, Tommy and Cathy’s mother, said dropping beside her.
Sandy was fat, there was no better word, with fuzzy blonde hair and light blue eyes. Poor plump little Cathy was the mirror of her mother without the damaged hair. Tommy had to have taken after his father because he didn’t resemble Sandy at all. He was thin, and had a swarthy complexion.
“I know. Traffic.” Patty leaned back against the bench, closing her eyes. She was a middle person, she thought. Middle weight, brown hair, generic clothes. She even had a middle job as mid-management. She was the mother of Melissa the Comet. Melissa had more energy in her small body than most of humankind.
“Are you ever going to teach her she’s a girl?” Sandy asked the same thing every week.
Patty felt herself smile. “I keep telling you, I’ll happily trade for a while if you think you can do better.”
“Joe is here by himself, as always,”
Opening her eyes slightly Patty saw Joe, ten, standing by Melissa, explaining something with wild gestures. He lacked the thick, black-rimmed glasses the rest of him said he should have. His brown hair clung to his skull; he had an overbite and no chin. His jeans were so short his ankles were visible and he wore a pinstriped, button-up shirt. He looked like he should have a laptop under an arm.
“Somebody ought to call somebody,” added Sandy.
Patty closed her eyes once more. Sandy was too ill to work. Or do much of anything as far as Patty could discern. Restless leg syndrome, insomnia, fibromyalgia, stress disorder, the list went on, the focus changing based on things Patty didn’t know and didn’t want to. Their kids played together. It was the only reason she associated with Sandy. Sandy’s constant criticism, opinions and discussions of her illnesses was tiresome and boring. And, Sandy always knew exactly what someone else should do.
“There they go,” Sandy’s voice was suddenly tense.
Patty bolted upright, wide-awake. She leaned over and pulled on the sandals she’d kicked off. “Enough is enough,”
“You asked Melissa?”
“Of course I did. And got nothing.”
“You’re her mother. You sound like she calls the shots.”
Patty felt a shot of rage at the woman’s audacity. “Do tell, Sandy. What did you find out?”
Sandy smirked. “Tommy clammed up on me. Cathy said they meet Grandpa.”
Rage turned to alarm. “They what?”
“Something about Grandpa. Tommy told her to shut up and I couldn’t get any more out of them,”
Patty didn’t bother stating the obvious. She scooped up her backpack, hitching it over a shoulder. “It’s time we find out.”
Sandy rocked herself to her feet. “I’m sure it’s harmless but I agree. Joe was leading the way. Odds are this is his idea.”
Patty walked away. Yes, Sandy, let’s fix blame first. Always the priority.
A month ago, Patty had noticed the kids would gather, talk a moment, and then disappear. Sandy said she’d already noticed. When Patty asked Melissa she’d been told ‘playing hide and seek’ and forgotten about it until going to the park had become a need. Melissa pitched a fit if they didn’t. Last week ‘I have to’ had slipped out. Patty couldn’t forbid the park. It was the only place Melissa could run in the grass. There was no other park and it pissed Patty off there was an issue at all. It was time to find out what was going on.
With Sandy behind her, she stepped into the woods of large Douglas fir that lined the park, slowing so she could listen.
“How will we…”
“Shhh,” Patty waved a hand at Sandy.
Patty turned. “Will. You. Shut. Up. For. Once!”
Patty didn’t care. She was tired, worried and had had it with Sandy’s self-centeredness. Her desire to talk was overriding finding the kids and Patty was sick of the sound of the woman. She heard a giggle and slowly crept toward it, not bothering to see if Sandy followed.
The four kids were in a clearing not very far in. Patty, tense though she was, still wondered how her apartment bound seven-year-old ball of energy could be sitting in one place, listening from the look of it. The other three kids were doing the same. Listening to the derelict of an old man sitting with them on the grass.
Unease shot to fear. She was about to bolt forward when Melissa piped up.
“Why did I choose Mommy?”
The old man turned his head toward Melissa. “Where is it? How does it work?”
Joe leaned forward. “It’s in the remembering, not in the asking. Soon as you ask, you know,”
“I don’t know.” Melissa cried.
“Because she’s pretty?” Cathy said.
“Who cares if she’s pretty? She’s always mad.”
“At least she’s not always sick. Or busy,” Tommy’s voice was high and sharp.
Enough! Patty started to rise and froze. In the center of the circle formed by the children, a light had begun to shine. The old man’s grimy hands were visibly empty in his lap.
“Help me build to help you remember.”
The light grew stronger; a swirl of varying shades of violet and blue and Patty thought she saw forms, faces in the ever-thickening mass.
“She will help me help her help me remember,” Melissa said in a dreamy tone.
“The mad?” The old man asked softly.
“At herself for not remembering. She can’t help me if she doesn’t.” Melissa’s voice rose, catching. “She’s hurting herself for me. I don’t want that. I love her,”
“You do. As she loves you. And love will win in the end.”
The light swirled more thickly resembling a rainbow cloud and there was no mistaking the faces of herself, Melissa, Tommy, Sandy…
“Leave them be!” The screech of Sandy shattered it all; the light, the children, and the wonder Patty had felt expanding in her chest.
“Remember!” The old man’s voice overrode the screech even as Sandy barreled into the center of them like a semi whose brakes had failed.
The children scattered. The old man vanished. The light disappeared.
For a moment, for Patty, the world froze. However, with Sandy, silence was not to be tolerated. “Thomas. Catherine. Get over here. Now.’
The children were lurching about the way, Patty realized, she felt when she’d been woken from a sound sleep by an emergency. Knowing action was necessary but not grasping ‘what’ enough to have a direction.
“Thomas. Catherine.” Sandy stood with her hands on her hips, chest heaving, and arm fleshing quivering.
“He’s gone,” Joe said.
“You. Go home. Now. My children know better than to talk to strangers. This is your doing you…filthy delinquent.”
“Sandy, ease up.” Patty stepped into the clearing too. She wasn’t upset. Why wasn’t she upset? What had she seen? Hadn’t Sandy seen it too?
“Easing up is why your daughter is a wild animal.” Sandy snapped as Tommy and Cathy approached her. “We’re going home. There will be no more park for you two for a good long while.”
Tommy’s face went red and he opened his mouth while Cathy looked like she was about to cry.
“Remember,” Joe said.
“Remember,” Melissa repeated, relaxing as she walked toward Patty.
Tommy relaxed too and put his hand on his sister’s shoulder. “We’re fine,”
Cathy glanced at him, then her mother and though a tear escaped down her cheek, she smiled happily. “We are.”
Sandy gasped. “What has he done to you?”
Melissa had reached Patty and took her hand. “You saw.”
Patty squatted down, Sandy brushing past her. “What did I see, Melissa?”
“Yourself. Me. Tommy. And,” Melissa hesitated. “Oh, all right, and Tommy’s Mom,”
“I mean, the light,”
“So do I. It’s all of us. It’s what we are supposed to remember.” Melissa leaned closer, staring fiercely into Patty’s eyes. “You’re fine!”
It felt as if a worry had been resolved. It felt as if she’d been tucked in for the night and knew protection was right outside the door. Safe. For an instant, and the first time in her life, Patty felt truly safe. “Who was he?” Patty’s voice was thick. “Where did he go?”
“Nowhere. We none of us do.” Melissa’s brow furrowed.
Patty suddenly realized it was getting late and she had bills to pay. The thought clashed with the light she’d seen and she looked around. Perhaps it had been her imagination.
Melissa tugged at her hand. “Mommy. No. You have to help me.”
“Enough, Melissa. I’ve had a long day. It’s probably best if you don’t visit the old man anymore.”
“I can’t because he’s gone. You have to help me,”
“How?” It came out as a snap.
“Tell me I’m fine too.”
Patty almost blew it off. Almost said it by reflex. But the memory of how she had just felt came back. She bent over once more, returning the look Melissa had given her earlier. “You. Are. Fine!” The words came from deep within her and, like an echo – what she was trying to give Melissa bounced back and made her feel good all over again. “Wow.” Her irritation was gone, and so was her tiredness.
Melissa beamed at her. “Neat, huh.”
“Yes. Neat.” Patty noticed Joe hadn’t left. He was watching them. Patty’s heart wrenched. He looked so, dorky, and lost. “Do you need a ride home?”
Joe shook his head. “My mom comes to get me.”
Patty led Melissa over to Joe. “How long have you been talking to the old man?”
“Forget Tommy’s Mom,” Patty said, remembering Sandy’s words to him. “She gets overexcited.”
Joe smiled slightly. “But she’s fine too. She hides it better. There’s my Mom,” he nodded behind Patty.
The woman coming toward them was supermodel gorgeous. Flowing blonde hair, eyebrows plucked perfect, regal face and a business suit.
Patty bit back her ‘you’re kidding’.
“Joseph! Joy of my heart! Come. We must depart!”
Joe’s face broke into a delighted grin. The woman’s words radiated warm welcome as if her son’s presence was what she lived for.
“Mother! Human like no other! We’ll go after friends I show.”
The woman stopped beside Joe and gave him a hard hug. “Your day was good?”
“As always. Yours?”
“Perfection.” She turned brilliant green eyes to Melissa. “You are Melissa, who holds the tail of the world in both hands.”
The gaze shifted to Patty. “And you’re Melissa’s Mom. What an incredible honor you have.”
Patty’s mind went blank. Honor? Melissa’s Mom? Well, yes, it was really. She’d never thought of it that way before.
“Where are Tommy and Cathy?”
“They, uh, had to leave.”
“Mightily,” Joe said.
“You knew about the old man?” Patty blurted, aware her tone had a semblance to Sandy’s ‘somebody ought to call somebody’.
“Joseph told me and I met him, yes.”
Melissa whispered beside Patty. “You’re fine.”
Of course she was…Patty stopped in shock...but she’d been feeling guilty because she’d only found out about the old man today and Melissa wouldn’t tell her, didn’t trust her the way Joe trusted his mother.
“My name is Kara and Melissa is right.”
“What would you know about it?”
“I’m a mother.” Kara raised one eyebrow. “We are raised to believe it is All Our Fault. We shoulda known,’
“Shoulda fixed it,” intoned Joe.
“It’s our job,” Kara smiled. “Have you had dinner?”
“No,” the question reminded Patty how late it was getting and she still had a ton to do.
“Come eat with us. It will save on dishes and time cooking.”
Patty nodded. Anything was better than dinner and dishes and, in spite of the bizarre circumstances and dialog; she liked what she’d seen of Kara so far.
“Melissa, Joe said you remember best. Can we see?”
Melissa closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and let it out slowly. With her eyes closed, she kept breathing. Patty felt a tingle in her hand, up her arm and she would have sworn her daughter began to glow.
“Oh, excellent. Joe and I are practicing.”
“It’s like blowing up a balloon. You take a breath and expand it.” Melissa’s chin rose, her tone authority.
“I’ve got a theory. Come, let us get dinner. We can eat at Swan’s.”
Swan’s was a small burger joint across from the park.
Joe and Melissa hurried ahead of them.
“What do you do? Work-wise, I mean,” Patty asked. She felt frumpy beside this woman.
“I’m a linguist. I do translations for people, mostly.”
“That sounds exciting,”
Kara laughed. “Mostly, no. Once in a while, yes. It depends on the document or the transcript. What do you do?”
“I’m an office administrator.”
“The company key,”
Was Kara being sarcastic?
Kara tilted her head. “What boss doesn’t understand they would be dead in the water if they had to do half of what you get done and keep track of in a day? I have an administrator. She’s been with me five years and I have no illusions about who matters. My work is useless if it doesn’t arrive on time, if I am late for a meeting or if I forget the customer’s phone number.”
It was true except her boss hadn’t a clue what she did.
“This is the first you’ve known about the old man?” They paused on the sidewalk waiting for the signal to tell them they could cross the busy street.
“Yes. I guess I don’t know what I, saw,”
Kara stopped even though they were in the middle of the street. “What did you see? I only talked to him.”
Patty kept walking. Driver’s got fixated on lights too much for her to trust them to realize humans were still in the way. “It would sound very weird.”
“No. In the last few weeks, weird is normal and normal is weird.”
They entered the restaurant and choose a booth by the window after ordering.
“Normal is weird?” Patty prompted.
“Weird. After meeting the old man? Definitely. Joe told me about the guy, said he could do amazing things.” Kara paused. “Now remember, this was before. I was someone I never want to be again.”
“You’re fine,” Joe started pulling napkins from the holder and passing them around.
“When he told me about the old guy, my first thought was what a hassle. To be a good mother I pitched a fit at Joe like it was his fault. Since that qualified as attention, he was pretty happy about it.”
Patty could see the other woman’s face fall into what must have been traditional lines. She could SEE the hardness, completely opposite of what Kara had looked like a moment before.
“Then Joe did the ‘you’re fine’ thing at me. It felt like I’d been struggling to play a role I didn’t like and had someone say, it’s over. I fell apart in a way I haven’t since I was a child. My poor son had a two-year-old on his hands for a few minutes; sobbing, the whole thing. Once I recovered, he explained. Said the old man had taught them. So I was ready to meet the guy. In the meantime, I began to use the mantra your fine silently. I’ve had clerks who were short-tempered and rude stop in mid-sentence and look at me like I’d hugged them. The old man told Joe, and later me, people are telepathic however most of the time our thoughts are so, nasty, we hope we aren’t.”
“What did the old man tell you?” Their food arrived. Joe and Melissa looked at each other.
“Remember what?” Patty asked.
“Remember we’re dreaming. What did you see?” Kara took a large, very unladylike bite out of her hamburger.
“A light. In the center of the kids and the old man. It was beautiful and it had our faces in it – shifting but not scary,” the memory of it was fading fast.
“That’s what’s real,” said Melissa.
“Don’t talk with your mouth full. I don’t know what you mean,”
“Have you ever been in a good situation where the rulers are suspended? The sense of click, click, click, of course?” Kara chuckled. “Sorry for the big words.”
Patty grinned. “Synchronicity. Yes.”
“It’s labeled, slotted, and forgotten. It’s said by left-brainers in a demeaning tone; scoff, scoff. It’s so overused you can’t talk about it anymore.”
Patty looked about the table. “So?”
“The scoffing is the dream keeping itself alive,” Joe said. “The synchronicity is how things are supposed to work. The dream requires drama, bad feelings, anger, and hurt. Reality is the light you saw where we all give each other a rush, to help us remember we’re fine.” His nerdy sallow face wore a fierce scowl as he repeated a knowledge he’d heard.
“This is a dream.” Patty felt the plastic seat beneath her, smelled her daughter’s overuse of her Christmas perfume beside her. Melissa the tomboy loved perfume. Melissa was way too young to check out of reality. “I don’t think so.”
Kara nodded once. “A month and a half ago, I was given a book to translate from English to Italian. I’ve been struggling with it because it is religious, I thought. And I’m not.” She paused as if about to add something, bit a French fry in half, held in a hand with nails Patty would have paid a full paycheck for. “After Joe, and the old man, I reviewed what I’d done and began to translate furiously because it was explaining all the questions my shift in attitude was experiencing. Poo poo, just synchronicity. Believing what I am now learning makes me feel terrific. I have realized my son is gold, not a paperweight to be moved out of the way for the next job. I would not go back for anything.” Kara leaned forward and repeated it fiercely. “Not for anything. Thirty years ago, if you’d handed someone a cell phone and said they could call on it, they’d have said you were nuts. Only thirty years. And if you couldn’t get them to try it, would talking convince them?”
Patty shook her head. She was getting nervous. She hated when someone had decided they had to convince her of something.
“No, they would have to try it. Once you’re aware of the messages, the truth, you can’t avoid it. It’s in movies, books, billboards – all over the place.” Kara sat back. “It’s amazing and I’m only in kindergarten.”
“Huh,” Patty looked to see how close Melissa was to finishing her dinner. “What’s the book?” She asked because the sudden gap in the conversation was uncomfortable.
Kara half turned, opening up her purse.
Oh geesh, Patty thought. She’s got a copy with her?
Kara pulled out her wallet, not a book. “Can this be my treat? Also, we would love to have Melissa come visit. You too, if you like dumb movies and popcorn.”
“Perhaps we will sometime,” Patty wondered about a ten-year-old boy whose friend was a seven-year-old girl. She felt her face get hot. Shame on her. This woman had been one hundred percent nice.
Kara made a face. “The dream is vicious, isn’t it? I’m still processing Tommy’s Mom. I know,” she waved her hand as Joe’s mouth opened. “She’s fine. I’ll get it eventually.” Kara rose, putting a business card on the table. “If you ever want to get together. Melissa is pretty fierce about you, which makes me want to learn how you do ‘Mom’.” The woman turned and walked away, her dorky son at her elbow.
Patty felt her eyes sting. Fierce? Beside her, Melissa slurped the last of her drink. “She never told me the name of the book.”
Melissa began kicking her legs against the booth, energized, obviously. “Live it and learn it. Teach it, don’t preach it.”
“When I live it, you learn it. I’m helping you remember. When I preach it, I’m telling you and you don’t. Can we go now?”
“Yes.” She hadn’t even said ‘thank you’ to Kara.
* * *
Later, in their apartment with Melissa tucked in bed; Patty sat on the couch with the picture of Carl in her lap, staring at it. The climbing accident had been five years ago. Melissa barely remembered him. If this was a dream, she’d done a terrible job of it. Five years, she’d clung to the middle, the opposite of how Carl lived. It was how she stayed sane. Don’t think too much; focus on the next to do. Be a good mom. She’d worked especially hard at that, not wanting Melissa to grow up with baggage pre-packed.
No rules. People had gravitated to Carl because he’d lived it. He expected life to work and nine times out of ten it rolled out the red carpet for him with the click, click, click Kara had mentioned. They hadn’t lived ‘Love Story’. They’d fought, ignored each other, sat numb in front of the television together.
Patty leaned her head back. She was so tired of middle. At least Sandy had drama, real or not. The woman was ten times more alive than she was. Kara’s looks and upscale career and…
“Mommy?” Melissa came out of her bedroom rubbing her eyes. “I can’t sleep. Music.”
Patty sighed. The rotten neighbors had their stereo right under Melissa’s bedroom. “Come here, honey. This weekend we’re switching bedrooms like I’ve been promising.”
Melissa crawled in her lap and lay with her head against Patty’s chest for a moment. Then she pulled back and looked into Patty’s face. “You’re fine!”
“Thank you, honey.”
Tired though she was, Patty summoned the energy and looked into her daughter’s clear blue eyes. “You’re fine!” Her breath caught. Again the heart-expanding backlash and the sense of something else.
“Thanks. I needed that.” A chuckle escaped her.
Melissa snuggled. “Let’s make a house.”
“Make a house?”
“Yeah, with a big yard and birds and both our rooms are quiet.”
“I can’t afford a house, honey,”
“You don’t have to. We’ll make one. First, we decide what we want, then we cut out pictures and visua...visual…see it in our minds. We pretend it’s ours and then it is.”
Make sure Melissa understood reality, her inner voice whispered. Patty hugged her daughter. Pop the balloon of magic? Really? At seven? ‘I want to learn how you do Mom’
“When should we start?” Patty asked, feeling a wiggle of excitement. What a fun thing to do together.
“Right now. I said mine, now you say yours.”
“It would be outside of town with a sunny kitchen and flowers in the backyard. A huge bathtub.”
“Stairs. The bedrooms are upstairs, like in the movies. Can I get my crayons? We can draw it.”
“Tomorrow, Melissa. I need to get some sleep.”
“Oh. Kay. Promise?”
Melissa wiggled off the couch, bumping the picture of her father. “Did you see his face in the light today?”
“I did. Night.”
“Goodnight, Melissa.” Patty picked up the photo. No. She hadn’t seen him.
She rose and got ready for bed. Once she was settled, she turned on the small television with a pang of guilt. Too tired for crayons but not the idiot box? Shame. The screen filled with the figures of two men in the standard interview positions.
“…no sir, most people demand an explanation before they even try it. And when it can’t be explained, they blow it off,”
A shiver went up Patty’s back.
“I tell people, budget. Yes, spend wisely, absolutely however if they don’t envision themselves debt-free, if they don’t see themselves in the new car or house, no amount of physical activity will get them there. They have to change their thinking.”
‘It’s everywhere – books, TV’, ‘Let’s make a house, Mommy.’
Another shiver, this time of excitement.
“It’s the self-defeating – they keep themselves poor then?”
The guest of ‘Finances Today’ paused. He looked like any businessman in a suit – well-groomed, well-fed, not a ruffle in his demeanor.
“You’ll laugh,” the man shrugged. “There’s more to it. I’ve seen people, attract things to themselves. People without two dimes to rub together change their minds, decide they want a certain kind of car and it’s like events line up for them.”
The host did laugh. “Either way, we all know people keep themselves at the level they feel they deserve.
Million-dollar lottery winners who are broke in a year have proven that.”
Patty shut off the TV, staring at the screen. The light had been there. ‘You’re fine’ did work. Why was she settling for middle? She felt herself grinning. Melissa wasn’t the only one who could be fierce.
* * *
The bench lurched as Sandy sat on it. “I didn’t think I was going to make it this far. My joints are killing me today. I’m surprised you’re here though. After yesterday.”
Remembering how rude she’d been, Patty said. “Stressful moment.” She wondered what had happened to Sandy’s no more park for the kids?
“Did you call the police?”
Patty began to chant ‘you’re fine’ inside.
“I figured you would so I didn’t. Slimy old man. I paddled Tommy good, let me tell you. The brat never listens.”
Patty shot off the bench, whirled and looked into the surprised face of Sandy. “You. Are. Fine!” Behind her, she heard the children fall silent.
Patty saw the recognition in Sandy’s face for a second. Then the closing, the denial.
“That’s not what you said yesterday.”
Joe appeared beside Patty. “The dream requires guilt. Since we’re always learning we are always goofing up. Guilt can’t be.”
Sandy looked at Joe. “You are one weird boy.”
“Weird is normal,” Patty put her arm around him.
Joe looked up at her smiling. “Normal is weird.”
“Let’s go to Swans and get some ice cream, kids. Melissa and I are making a house and I want to get started.” She hesitated. “Would you like to come, Sandy?”
“No. I need to get home and lay down. Tommy! Cathy! Let’s go.”
“We just got here,”
“Can’t you see I’m hurting? Let’s go.”
Patty led Joe and Melisa away, the three of them pausing to look back at Sandy, Tommy, and Cathy.
“They won’t remember,” Melissa whispered.
“Maybe next time,” Joe said.
“But she did,” Patty said. “For an instant, she did.” Her breath caught. “Joe, when we get to Swans, why don’t you call your mom and see if she’s free for a dumb movie and popcorn?”
“And house making!” Melissa shouted.
“Yes,” Patty said. “Definitely yes.”
Rebbeca L. Monroe's stories have appeared in the MacGuffin, St. Anthony Messenger, The Tishman Review, The Broadkill Review, Bellowing Ark, Avalon Review, Art Times, and Kansas City Voices, to name a few.