#blogchallenge: Fortune Cookie #23


by Lillian Csernica on May 23, 2018

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Today’s fortune says:

A single conversation with a wise man is worth ten years of study.

 

Here are the Top Five Pieces of Advice I’ve received thus far:

“Keep the pen moving.” Andy Couturier, top notch writing teacher.

“Remember, it’s not about you.” My mental health pros explaining what motivates other people’s hurtful behaviors, especially Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Oy!

“Why is this happening NOW?” Darrell Schweitzer on the problem that starts a story.

“To combat depression, count your blessings every night by keeping a daily list in a journal, notebook, etc.” I can’t remember which of my therapists first suggested this idea. It’s advice I pass along frequently when I meet someone else struggling with depression.

“If your pain is getting in the way of your writing, maybe you need to make room in your writing for your pain.” The LCSW who was my therapist for the longest stretch, which included the worst disasters of my benighted life.

Yes, I have Major Depressive Disorder. Yes, I’ve been writing ever since I could hold a crayon. And yes, I’ve spent most of my life in cognitive behavioral therapy, starting at age 11 when my parents divorced and starting again in a big way when I was 28. I’m now 52, and frankly, there’s no end in sight.

So I follow Stephen King’s advice. “Read, read, read. Write, write, write.” Because, really, stories are what make life worth living.

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#blogchallenge: Fortune Cookie #22


by Lillian Csernica on May 22, 2018

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Today’s fortune says:

It’s all right to have butterflies in your stomach.

Just get them to fly in formation.

 

And now, a little something from the True Story Archives.

Way back when I was a freshman in high school, my English teacher liked the way I gave my presentations. He had a talk with the coach of the speech and debate team. When my sophomore year started, I joined the team. This proved to be one of the smartest and most beneficial decisions of my life.

Public speaking is the number one phobia for three out of four people. Worse than spiders, worse that going to the dentist, people live in fear of getting up in front of an audience for the purpose of giving a speech. I understand this. When I first started putting together expository speeches and practicing in front of my coach and teammates, the absolute terror of doing a bad job and being laughed at for it was crippling. Knowing that everybody else who was in training shared my fear didn’t make it any easier.

If there’s one thing I can do well, it’s talk. Thanks to my coach training me and my mother, who listened to me practice over and over and over again as I memorized the ten minute speeches I gave, I got past the anxiety in my determination to remember how to use cross-focus, the precise gestures, and the right variations in tone and pitch. Giving a speech is a performance. Maybe I wasn’t doing Shakespeare, but that’s only because I didn’t spend much time in the Dramatic Interpretation event. (I did break Varsity there, but after that I concentrated on my stronger events.)

In my first year of competing at speech tournaments, I went down in flames a number of times. The competition was better, more polished, smoother in their delivery. OK. I just had to work harder. What I also had to do was find my best event. That’s when I discovered Impromptu speaking.

At the junior varsity level, we had five minutes to prepare, then five minutes total for our speech. At varsity level, we had only two minutes to prep. Talk about a strain on the nerves! What we had to base our speeches on varied widely. Most often we were given slips of paper with three famous quotations. We chose one and built our speech around it. At some tournaments, we were given fortune cookies, paper bags that held some random object such as a calculator, or even plastic Easter eggs with the Surprise Topic inside. The event required mental agility, flexibility, a vast pool of random knowledge, and a mastery of the different presentation structures one could use.

The first time I competed in Impromptu, I think I had a full blown anxiety attack. There I was, about to receive my slip of paper with the three subjects on it. With sweaty palms and my heart pounding, I almost had an asthma attack. And then I saw the two words that told me I was home free:

Horror movies.

As I’ve mentioned more than once, my grandfather helped build the set for the laboratory in the original Frankenstein movie with Boris Karloff. I’m a big fan of classic horror movies. The judge for this round was an older gentleman. When I started mentioning names such as Elsa Lanchester from Bride of Frankenstein and Lon Chaney from The Hunchback of Notre Dame, apparently I won the judge’s respect as well as his vote. His comments on the voting card I received after the tournament reflected his approval of someone my age (fifteen at the time), knowing those names.

Once I learned to get my butterflies flying in formation and overcame my fear of public speaking, I acquired a skill that has helped me in every aspect of my life.

 

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#blogchallenge: Fortune Cookie #21


by Lillian Csernica on May 21, 2018

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Today’s fortune says:

Look closely at your surroundings.

POWERS OF OBSERVATION

It started with a scream.

David looked left. Down the street, two struggling men crashed into a woman, shoving her toward the curb. Reflex made her hands open to stop her fall. She lost her grip on the baby stroller. Its front wheels dropped off the curb. A wave of taxis flooded the street, pouring down in a fast yellow tide straight at the stroller.

Half a block. Seconds.

David seized a bright orange planter from beside the doorway of a restaurant. Stretching his legs, pushing his stride, he flung the planter in a short arc. It hit the street just ahead of the stroller. Dirt clods, broken ceramic, and chrysanthemums burst outward like pretty shrapnel. The stroller’s wheels hung up on the debris. The taxis at the front of the wave swerved away from the mess, blocking each other, spinning sideways as crash after crash piled up behind them.

David’s fingers closed around the frame of the stroller, metal bars crossing beneath the bassinet. Hoisting it up into his arms like a puppy snatched from the roadway, he leaped up onto the sidewalk and spun around, slamming his back against the granite wall of a bank. He slid down and hit the pavement, still clutching the entire stroller against his chest.

The woman yanked back the hood of the stroller, terror in her eyes and tears streaming down her cheeks.

The baby let out a wail, both little pink hands reaching up.

David smiled. He didn’t know what that planter had cost, but it was a small price to pay.

END

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#blogchallenge: Fortune Cookie #20


by Lillian Csernica on May 20, 2018

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Today’s fortune says:

A loved one is of utmost importance at this time.

SPECIAL NEEDS

I sat there on the generic brown couch, staring up at the TV screen mounted high in one corner. Hospitals. Designed to give you a crick in the neck. You were lying in bed looking up at the TV, or you were sitting in some “Family Lounge” praying the news was good or at least bearable.

It was four a.m. on a Tuesday in late April. I sat in the “Family Lounge” trying not to cry. One of the CNAs, Delia, slept on the other couch. Using her lunch break to take a nap. I didn’t want to wake her. She’d rather sleep than eat. That said a lot about how little sleep she generally got.

I knew all about sleep deprivation. Tommy was back in the hospital again. Another infection. The immune system of a premature baby isn’t very strong. Tommy had made it to age ten, but even so, none of his systems were all that strong. He held on. He kept breathing. His heart kept beating. His organs continued to develop. The doctors were amazed. If Tommy’s life had been a song, that would have been the chorus. The doctors were amazed. And so I sat there, recharging my phone, watching the minute hand of the clock move or staring at the blank black mirror of the plasma screen TV.

Tommy had to live, to go on surviving. If he didn’t, that would finish me. Losing Bobby had been hard enough. Eighteen weeks. Early rupture. He was fine. It was me, my body, that couldn’t carry him to term. I lost him. That horrible moment when I really understood the emptiness where he had been. He’d just started kicking. I was happy, really happy, for the first time in years. That lasted two days, maybe three. Then my water broke too soon, and the nightmare began.

I knew a lot about hospitals. I could write a Lonely Planet guidebook comparing the beds, the food in the cafeterias, what there was to do in the surrounding neighborhoods. I always knew where to find a bookstore, or at least a drugstore with a news stand. When Tommy had to spend a whole summer in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit, I blew through at least a dozen books. When I finished them I’d leave some for any of the RNs who wanted them.

The clock said five a.m. Delia’s phone alarm went off. She sat up, smoothed her hair, tugged at her scrubs, then gave me that smile that was part pity and part professional compassion. She went back to work. The Infectious Disease unit. What fun. I’d want to burn my clothes and throw away my shoes every single night.

Two hours until shift change. The blood draws usually started at six a.m. so the results were ready in time for Rounds. That was a three hour window of muscle-knotting tension spent constantly on the alert for the five or ten minutes of the specialist’s time. Were the test results good? Did they show progress? Were we a day closer to discharge? The doctors were like Santa Claus. They appeared, dropped off their packets of information, then hurried on. So many more houses to visit, so many more patients to see. Instead of eight tiny reindeer, they had residents and physician’s assistants and sometimes a flock of student nurses who stood out like a flock of geese in their white scrubs. I often wondered if they made the students wear white scrubs so any mistake would leave a telltale mark. There are a lot of bodily fluids splashing around in hospitals, especially in the Infectious Disease unit.

Then came the empty hours until lunchtime. Linen changes. Emptying the catheter bag. Making sure Tommy’s pain levels were still under good control. Just awake enough to be bored, too worn out to do anything about it. I spent a lot of time reading to him, trying to find something entertaining on the hospital’s available TV channels, or just sitting there watching him sleep. It’s a terrible thing when you’re happy to see your child lying there unconscious because it’s the preferable alternative.

Stephen, my husband and Tommy’s father, spent his days at work maintaining the insurance coverage, paying the endless medical bills, keeping our life moving forward until that time when Tommy could come home again. He did his part and I did mine as I sat there alone, watching the empty black mirror of the big plasma screen.

END

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#blogchallenge: Fortune Cookie #19


by Lillian Csernica on May 19, 2018

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Today’s fortune says:

Your shoes will make you happy today.

 

 

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#blogchallenge: Fortune Cookie #17


by Lillian Csernica on May 17th, 2018

 

Today’s fortune says:

You don’t get harmony when everybody sings the same note.

dis·cord
ˈdiskôrd/
noun
noun: discord
  1. 1.
    disagreement between people.
    “a prosperous family who showed no signs of discord

    • lack of agreement or harmony between things.
      “the discord between indigenous and Western cultures”
  2. 2.
    Music
    lack of harmony between notes sounding together.
    “the music faded in discord”
    synonyms: dissonance, discordance, disharmony, cacophony

    “the music faded in discord”
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Here we have a bunch of people singing the same note in terms of the political ideology they espouse.  Is this harmonious? No. It is not.

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We need all the notes, all the chords, all the melodies to come together in the great orchestral voice of life. May a joyful noise until the Lord! Sing out with all your heart! Go tell it on the mountain! Punk rock, bagpipes, ocarinas and kazoos. Let’s do it!

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#blogchallenge: Fortune Cookie #16


by Lillian Csernica on May 16, 2018

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Today’s fortune says:

Do not mistake temptation for opportunity.

VICTORY IS SWEET

Regina sat in the highest room atop the marble tower on the Isle of the Turquoise Clouds. In honor of the coming moment, she wore midnight blue velvet, her river of black hair swept up and held in place with clusters of diamonds. On the desk before her lay two pieces of parchment. On one, a list topped by the word Temptation. On the other, a similar list topped by the word Opportunity. She contemplated the words written beneath Temptation, inked in the blood of a rare night bird. Words of power. Words of warning. Dangerous words. As such, all the more attractive.

Beneath Opportunity lay words written in ink made of water from the Sacred Spring of Seven Rainbows mixed with the crushed petals of the Sunrise Lotus, which blossomed only on the morning of the first day of the New Year. Fortune favored the prepared mind. Regina had made her preparations with the greatest care. The decision that lay before her could alter destinies beyond the scope of her imagination, perhaps even beyond the reach of her dreams.

The first full moon of Spring hung round and bright. The night-blooming flowers raised their faces in its silvery light, loosing their fragrances upon the evening breeze. The constellations graced the heavens with their sparkling patterns. Regina read the lists again, then bent her head. A nod, a bow, a gesture of surrender to the ineffable powers of Chance and Fate.

The hourglass ran empty. The moment of decision had arrived.

At the base of the tower, the ship’s bell rang three times. Regina rose from the desk, taking one list with her. She walked to the ivory lattice gates that opened onto a shaft running the length of the tower. Summoning a turquoise cloud, Regina descended to the ground floor. She raised one hand and the heavy oaken door swung inward.

Before her stood a creature that came up to her shoulder. It wore a white shirt, blue lederhosen, black shoes with shiny buckles, and one of those ridiculous Robin Hood-style hats that failed to hide the creature’s pointed ears. On one small hand rested an oblong box wrapped in scarlet silk. On the other hand rested another oblong box wrapped in silk the blue of a perfect summer sky.

“The red,” Regina said.

“You are certain?” The creature’s high, reedy voice sounded like crickets. “The penalty is the loss of our deliveries for the remainder of your lifetime.”

“Do not presume to instruct me. The next decision I make could cause you considerable pain.”

The creature bowed. “As you wish.”

Regina took the scarlet box and unwrapped the silk. To choose Temptation was to risk everything she’d learned, everything she’d built. To choose Opportunity meant running the same risk, but the reward was tremendous.

The silk fell away, baring a box made of sturdy brown paper. She opened the end flaps. A tube of mirror-bright silver slid out onto her palm. Inside lay twenty-four discs of the finest baked confection known to any living being.

“Well chosen,” the creature said. “Few can penetrate the logic of the double-bluff.” It stepped back and made Regina another bow. “Until next year.”

END

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#blogchallenge: Fortune Cookie #15


byLillian Csernica on May 15, 2018

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Today’s fortune says:

Avert misunderstanding by calm, poise, and balance.

THE POWER OF THE POSE

The Almond Walk pedestrian mall took up a third of the oldest part of town. That meant most of the CCTV cameras were busy watching traffic patterns. Anna kept to the alleys between the stucco walls. It was just her rotten luck Jessica had decided to mask her latest poison green hair color by dying it all black. Without the elaborate makeup Jessica learned from YouTube tutorials, the cousins could almost pass for sisters.

Two CDs. One tacky necklace. Some pricey makeup. It didn’t matter. What Jessica wanted, Jessica took. That had always been true, from the days when they were in kindergarten and Jessica would push Anna aside during Anna’s birthday parties so Jessica could tear open the presents first. And still the aunts and uncles kept pushing the girls together, laughing off such cruelties and ignoring Anna’s disappointed wails.

Anna ran between two of the potted palms. She should have known better than to believe Jessica when she said she’d behave herself this time. Anna’s mother warned her not to go shopping with her sticky-fingered cousin. And now the only way out was through the parking garage, where Anna’s car was parked. Plenty of CCTV in there. The guards would be watching for Jessica, who had done herself up to look like Anna.

Was it just her cousin’s warped sense of humor? Or something more vicious?

A burst of Jessica’s smug laughter echoed off the walls of the parking garage, which was just up ahead. Anna had to get off the street, out of sight. She ducked into the delivery door around the back of one dress shop. This place used the old-fashioned kind of mannequins that looked like life-size Barbie dolls, the kind from the ’70s.

The clothes weren’t much better. A retro shop, full of caftans and go go boots, mini skirts and tye-dye. Still, this was not a shop Jessica would be likely to loot. Anna kicked off her sandals, pulled her sun dress off over her head, then wriggled into a body hugging minidress of psychedelic paisley. A heavy blonde wig hid her own black hair. She found some huge silver hoop earrings, a fistful of mismatched silver chains, and some bangles. The security guards would be looking for Jessica. Anna still had the car keys. She’d made very sure Jessica hadn’t found a way to get copies made.

Anna slipped out into the main sales floor of the shop. She took her place between two mannequins dressed in similar styles. One hand on her hip, the other hand in a casual gesture. Weight on her back leg, front foot turned out. That look of superior disinterest word by all mannequins.

Two security guards burst in through the front door, making the string of cheap brass bells clatter. They combed through all the aisles, pushing through racks of clothing and checking the empty dressing rooms. Anna held her breath, held her pose, and kept her face that immobile mask of indifference. This was Anna’s secret weapon. Jessica couldn’t hold still. Couldn’t be patient. Couldn’t wait to get what she wanted. She had to have it all right now now now!

One guard’s radio crackled to life. Trouble in the parking garage. A girl matching the description of the thief trying to break into a car. She kept insisting she was the owner.  Anna fumed. Could this be all about stealing Anna’s car while getting her busted for shoplifting in Jessica’s place?

Anna kept still, holding the pose despite the ache in her back and the stiffness in one knee. Reports started coming in. The other security teams had found only one girl fitting the shopkeepers’ descriptions. Jessica. She tried to claim she was Anna. Hearing that made Anna furious. So it was all a set up!

Pain in her legs. Pain up her back. Pain in her ears from the weight of the earrings. The wig made sweat run down the sides of her fave. Still she kept her pose. Payback was coming, and she wanted to be there to see it.

The guards hauled Jessica into the back of the retro dress shop. One took her purse and shook it out, dumping the CDs, makeup, and the ugly necklace.

“I’m telling you,” Jessica snapped. “My cousin grabbed my bag and switched it for hers!”

“And you expect us to believe that wasn’t all part of the plan?”

Jessica sulked, arms crossed tight over her chest. “I don’t care what you believe. I want my mother and a lawyer.”

Anna held on, listening to the questioning, delighting in the shopkeeper identifying Jessica, and treasuring the way the arrogant edge began to wear off of Jessica’s voice. Anna held her pose despite the aches and pains and knots in her muscles.

When the real police arrived, Anna was ready to scream with relief. The security guards handed Jessica over to them, and they cuffed her. Oh, the sweet music of the bracelets jingling on her cousins’ wrists.

Once the police and security cars all drove off, Anna flopped down to pull off the boots, fling aside the wig, and peel off the minidress. With a happy sense of her own bland but appropriate style, she hurried out to her card and drove home where she would sit in happy anticipation of the family uproar once word got out that Jessica finally got caught.

END

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#blogchallenge: Fortune Cookie #14


by Lillian Csernica on May 14, 2018

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First, let me apologize for the two missing fortune posts. Due to technical difficulties my laptop ate #11, and then Mother’s Day festivities saw me taking my 81 year old mother to a seaside restaurant. That’s what she wanted, and we had a lot of fun.

Here I am, back in harness again. Please do feel free to join in and write, draw, photograph, et al whatever you find fitting for the Fortune Cookie of the Day. Post your links in the comments so everybody can share!

Today’s fortune says:

You have unusual equipment for success, use it properly.

READY, WILLING, AND ABLE

Gordon sat in The Bean Machine, at his favorite table near the window. The open front door faced onto the street, letting a nice breeze scented with the jasmine that grew in the pots outside. Gordon ran one hand over the back of his neck, pleased to feel the even border of his freshly trimmed brown hair. A button down shirt and tan slacks suited the late spring day. He liked to dress up a bit when he came to the coffeehouse. This window looked up the slight hill to the main intersection in the shopping district. Jenna, his favorite barista, had been kind enough to put a handicapped access table by the window. Now he could sit there in his wheelchair, lingering over his espresso and lemon scone, watching the world go by.

He had a Kindle. He had his phone. He even had his fancy leather-covered notebook and a package of his favorite ballpoint pens. His friends teased him. Leather notebook with Celtic knotwork, cheap dollar store pens. He liked the feel of the pens, the way their ink moved across the paper. Ever since the truck accident a year ago, Gordon couldn’t feel his legs. His hands meant that much more.

So he wrote, and he played chess, and he painted ceramics at the local community center. And once a week he took the special public transit bus downtown to the coffeehouse and sat there watching all the people come and go, the people with legs that still worked, the old people who hobbled along with walkers and the little kids still learning how to steer themselves. He worked at living an independent life, and told himself every day it could be so much worse.

From up the street came a woman’s scream. People shouting.  A teenage boy, running toward Gordon, shoving through the crowd, carrying a big pink purse.

Gordon rolled back from his table, spun around, and powered forward to the front door.

“Gordon!” Jenna called. “What are you–”

“Push me!” He switched to manual. “Hurry!”

Jenna dashed out from behind the counter, grabbed the chair’s handles, and threw her weight behind the push. The two of them shot out the front door just ahead of the boy hurtling down the sidewalk. He hit the side of Gordon’s chair and fell across Gordon’s lap. Gordon caught one flailing wrist and twisted the boy’s arm up behind his back. Jenna bent to pick up the pink purse.

“You got him!” A woman in pink shorts, a bright orange tank top, and pink sunglasses caught up. “Thank you! Thank you so much!’

A man in a leather bomber jacket, jeans, and plain gray T shirt jogged over to them. He held up a badge. “I’m Steve Harris, patrol officer. I’ll call this in.”

“Way to go, Gordon!” Jenna hugged him.

An hour later, Gordon, Jenna, and Steve sat at Gordon’s favorite table. The purse snatcher was in custody and the woman in pink had gone to the police station to press charges.

“That took some precise timing,” Steve said. “You really know how to handle that chair.”

Gordon smiled down at his hands.  “Practice. Lots and lots of practice.”

END

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#blogchallenge: Fortune Cookie #11


by Lillian Csernica on May 11, 2018

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Today’s fortune says:

The prospect of a thrilling time awaits you.

THE JOKE’S ON YOU

Tom stared up at the purple roller coaster. Against the night sky, it was alive with rows of blinking white lights. The lime green cars held ten riders. As they climbed the hills and roared down into the curving twists, the cars whirled round and round. The riders exiting the latest car grabbed the rails along the walkway as they made their way out. More than one looked pale and sick.

“Nope. Not for love or money.”

“Oh come on.” Natalie slurped up more of her giant pink slushie. “I went on those boring boats.”

“It was a flume ride!”

“Boring. Twenty minutes of waiting for what? Floating along in the dark and then whoosh!” She plucked at her damp blouse. “I’m still wet, and now I’m cold!”

“That hell wagon is guaranteed to make me heave up everything I’ve eaten for the past five years.”

“Buzz kill.” Natalie scowled. She reached up to brush his thick brown curls out of his eyes. “What happened to you, Tom? You used to be the craziest guy in college. Everybody waited for you to show up on Fail Army.” She used the hood of her jacket to rub more water out of her long blonde hair. “Nobody could believe how lucky you were.”

“Luck had nothing to do with it.” Tom grinned. “I respect the Laws of Physics.”

Natalie pouted. “We’re supposed to be having fun.”

Not for the first time, Tom measured Natalie’s stunning face and figure against the fact that he’d stepped in puddles deeper than her personality.

“Most people wouldn’t consider ‘putting our lives in danger’ the usual definition of fun.”

“When did you get so boring?”

Tom wondered that himself. He’d graduated with a B.S. in IT. Hired on with a good software company. Found an apartment near work and settled into a steady routine of work, computer games, tabletop RPGs on the weekends, and the occasional camping trip. A good life, but truth be told, he did miss some of the wild times.

“Tell you what. The park closes in half an hour. You were talking about the Scare Shack. Give me a pass on Barney’s Barf-o-Matic here and I’ll go with you through the haunted house.”

Natalie gave him a brilliant smile and hugged his arm. “You’ll keep me safe, right?”

“Right. I’ll stuff the monsters back into their coffins.”

The Scare Shack looked like a cross between a Gothic cathedral with too many gargoyles and the college dorm of every serial killer in Hollywood. Inside, the walls painted black, flickering strobe lights, ultraviolet lights making monster face graffiti blaze out of the darkness. Tom put Natalie in front of him and kept his hands on her shoulders. As long as she could see them coming, the scares would stay funny and safe. He had no intention of letting anybody sneak up on her.

They followed the green-painted path through the usual set pieces. The graveyard, with its zombies and vampires. The saw mill, with the blood and gore and body parts. Tom blinked. The strobes were giving him a headache. Sudden darkness eclipsed even the day-glow paint on the walls and floor.

“Tom? Tom!”

“I’m right here, Nat.” He tightened his grip on her shoulders. “No worries, honey.”

“What’s happening?”

“Just keep moving forward. This is all part of the show.”

The floor sloped downward. Natalie lost her balance, flailed out, and fell forward, pulling out of Tom’s grip.

“Tom!” Her screamed faded as she rolled away into the smothering dark.

“Nat! Natalie!” Tom lunged forward. His foot came down on a flat surface. The floor was even again. A trapdoor? “Hey! Hey! Turn the lights on right now!”

He turned sideways, reaching out both hands, trying to find the wall. The darkness was so absolute he couldn’t even see the standard red EXIT signs. Time to get out and find somebody official. Several long, thin strands fell from the ceiling, spilling down around his neck. Wet and slimy, they stank of old metal. Copper. Tom seized handfuls and flung them away.

“That’s it! I’m calling the cops!”

He pulled his phone out of his pocket. The slime on his hands made him fumble and drop his phone. He sank down on his knees and patted the ground around him. Tiny scratchings and scrabblings swarmed around him. Furry bodies ran over his hands. Things dropped on to his back and scuttled down his arms.

Tom crawled forward, banging his knees in his haste. His hands came down on smooth, cold bodies wriggling away. Jerking back, he fell face forward. Reflex made him tuck his shoulder under so he rolled onto his back.

“Turn on the lights!” His voice turned shrill. “Get me out of here!”

Above him, two eyes opened, eyes as wide as his arms were long. The pupils blazed an ugly orange.

“Thomas Caldwell Morton.”

The voice rolled out over him like notes from and old pipe organ. The bones inside him vibrated with the sound. Tom clapped his hands over his ears, pulling his knees up to his chest, curling into a tight ball.

The lights came on, blinding him.

“Surprise!”

Tom opened his eyes. He lay on the green pathway. Voices up ahead. Laughter. Flashes of light. Tom raised his head. Natalie stood there, surrounded by a butcher, a zombie, a vampire, a girl with several fake stab wounds. Tom shook his head and got to his feet.

“Oh Tom, wait til you see what the night vision camera got! You were so funny!”

Natalie ran forward, arms out for a hug. Tom dodged her like a bullfighter escaping the horns. He spotted his phone and snatched it up. Natalie stared at him, her smile fading.

“Tom?”

He turned to see the Scare Shack workers still standing there. “Get out. Anybody I catch gets one hell of a beating!”

They all bolted out the EXIT door.

“Tom? Come on, it was just a joke!”

The whine in Natalie’s voice sliced into Tom’s last nerve. She reached for him again. He slapped her hands aside. He looked up to see the orange lights rigged into the framework above him. Planned. Someone had planned it all. He glared into Natalie’s wide eyes.

“Did you do this? Did you?”

“You needed to loosen up! You were turning into a corporate zombie!”

“You bitch.” He dialed 911. When the operator answered, he put the phone on speaker mode. “I need help. There’s a girl here who’s freaking out. We’re in the Scare Shack.”

Natalie backed up, knocking over a pile of severed heads. Tom caught her by the arm and dragged her back up the pathway to the graveyard. He kicked open the lid of the coffin, yanked out the zombie mannequin, and pushed Natalie forward. She tripped on the edge of the coffin and toppled over, falling face first into the coffin.

“Tom! Stop it! What’s wrong with you?”

Tom shut the lid of the coffin and sat on top of it. Natalie screamed, kicking her heels against the lid. A joke. Really. And she’d recorded it.

“Natalie? Where’s the camera?”

“In the office! Let me out! I’ll show you!”

“Have your little friends already put it on YouTube? Have they shown everybody?”

“I don’t know! I don’t know who’s still here!”

Tom stood up. Before Natalie could get the lid open, he yanked down two of the mourning angel grave markers. They were heavy enough to keep the lid shut. He ran to the office. Sure enough, somebody’s ghostbuster night vision camera had been wired into the security system. Tom disconnected it and stuffed the camera into one of the park’s souvenir bags. He hurried back to the graveyard and put the angels back in place.

The sirens pulled up outside. Two paramedics rushed in, carrying their bags. The older one looked around.

“Where is she?”

The lid of the coffin flew open. Natalie sat up, covered in cobwebs and fake spiders. She fought the sticky strands, screaming and crying.

“He did it!” she cried. “He shut me in this coffin! He’s crazy!”

Tom shook his head. “She’s a Walking Dead fan. Wanted to be a zombie. I don’t know what she’s on.”

The lead paramedic stepped toward the coffin, holding out his hand. “Miss, please calm down. We’re here to help you.”

Natalie scrambled out of the coffin. She snatched up a white wooden cross marking a grave and held up the pointy end. “I’m not the crazy one! Tom’s nuts! It was all just a joke!”

Half an hour later, after listening to Natalie rave on about the “joke” she played on Tom, with the help of all the missing staff, the police relieved the paramedics of custody, cuffed Natalie, and put her in the back of the squad car. Tom walked out to the parking lot, carrying the bag with the camera in it.

5150. A seventy-two hour psychiatric hold in the county behavioral health unit. No makeup, no nail polish, no fancy shampoo, and no cell phone. If Natalie wasn’t already nuts, she would be by the time they let her out.

Tom smiled.

END

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