As the door to the White Elephant opened, I looked up half making a silent bet with myself. Tourist, God, or wayward soul? I hadn’t bet on a teenage girl being escorted by a large dog.
“Um…” I hesitated for a moment, uncertain. I didn’t interact with the boss’ daughter much. Usually Mel was out on the beach with Spots or off in the city with her dad. “Hi. Is…um…?”
“Spots knows how to behave.”
Mel took my stammered question the wrong way, but I didn’t push the matter. She slipped behind the counter and the Great Dane settled onto a cushion in the corner. I watched him for a long moment, wondering if I could get her to teach me her tricks for dealing with her parents’ guard dog.
“Mother told me to tell you call your parents and say we’re taking you for dinner tonight. She wants you to meet Father.” Mel grinned wickedly. “Don’t worry, he’ll like you. Oh, and Mother said if you want Hermes’ number after all, she can give it to you. Apparently he likes you a lot.”
That was a whole lot to take in and I took a deep breath, leaning on the counter.
“I’ll go call them.”
She flicked a piece of paper in my direction and I blinked, taking it.
“His number. Seriously, Uncle Hermes likes you. Like…like-like. Date territory. Carpe diem, mortal girl.”
I crammed the paper into my pocket and just about fled out the back door to take my five and make a phone call. Or maybe two.
I’d been busking on the same street corner every summer since I left high school. I had a guitar and a dream and I wasn’t planning on letting go of either, not now and not ever. When things got a little tight, I sold things. But never my old acoustic guitar.
It was a day like any other when he appeared. At first, I thought he would just walk by like everyone else as I strummed my chords and sang my own songs in a voice loud enough to be heard, but not loud enough to bother people. He didn’t though. He didn’t look away or ignore me. He stopped and leaned against a lamp post, closed his sky blue eyes to listen. He had on a suit in a shimmery blue so dark it was almost black and long hair that fell loose to his shoulders. When I finished the song, he smiled and I had to look down. It was almost like staring into the sun. But he stepped closer and dropped something into my case.
“That was some beautiful music. From the heart. Be proud of it.”
I started to look up, to say something. What do you even say? But he just stuck his hands back in his pockets and walked off, humming the chorus I had written. I felt my legs going to jelly as I looked down to see what he’d left. I picked up the $20 bill with hands that shook. No one had ever given me that much. And there was something folded in it. It dropped from my fingers and I knelt to retrieve it. A business card for the Sunburst, a club up town. And there was a note on the back.
Call me if you want a performing gig. It really was that good. -A
Alright, I’ll admit it. I have no idea what I’m doing here. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I believe in the cause. I made my sign myself after a late night craft store run. The cashier was so funny, asking if we had a project for school.
“No, ma’am, we’re actively participating in our democracy.”
That had been my best friend’s flippant response. I’d seen this kind of thing on TV and I was scared. They kept saying it would be fine though. Somehow, I don’t think they really understood.
Now, I was trying not to cry as I heard shouting and loud bangs that sounded a lot like explosives to my ears. That was when he appeared out of the smoke. A tall man with dark hair cut military short. He was wearing wraparound shades that obscured his eyes, a bandanna over the lower half of his face, and a tight t-shirt with a Spartan logo on it. He grabbed my arm and hauled me up.
“Come on, kid. How’re you doing?”
I tried to speak and started coughing. He cursed in a language I didn’t understand and handed me a bottle and a bandanna.
“Swish and spit. Wet the bandanna and hold it over your mouth. Got me, kid?”
I nodded once, uncertain. We both heard the sound that caught his attention then. It was like a loud pop and then something hissing. I didn’t think, I just moved. Doing as he’d told me, I kept the bandanna over my mouth as I stayed low hoping this stuff worked like smoke. He grabbed my arm and pointed, making signs I’d never seen. I could follow it though. Grab the woman near us and follow him.
He led us up a side street where there were a few people working on a sort of street triage. He nodded to them, clearly knowing each and every one of them. My eyes were burning and tears streamed down my face. The woman we’d helped out was worse off though. Another woman grabbed a bottle of something and was talking quietly to her, saying she was here to help. Not to worry a bit.
When my eyes were clear, I started helping. He coached me, teaching me things I never thought I would learn. I learned more about how medicine really works than I ever had before. And not gentle, kind, sterile medicine. This was rough and we could only do our best. Sometimes, I wondered what he was doing here. He was a soldier. He had to be. But he just laughed and said he fought in these trenches now, in this new kind of war for liberty. If he was a general, I think I would follow him to the ends of the earth.
“Come on, kid. You and me, we’ve got more people to help.”
The backdoor of the Elephant didn’t have a bell. That was probably the reason I nearly jumped out of my own skin when one rang back there. I set down the stack of old comic books, brushed off the front of my shirt, and silently reminded myself to be careful with the metaphors. Especially the ones that were becoming dangerously close to possible.
“Be right there!”
There wasn’t room to run between the haphazard stacks of knick-knacks, brik-a-brak, and curios. So I walked as quickly as I could, skirting around the large dog bed where Spots lay sleeping. I preferred not to wake the guard dog if I could avoid it. My musical skills were only just starting to take shape and were certainly not enough to calm him back down.
When I finally did reach the back door, I was startled to find a young man there who looked to be about my age. He was tall and handsome, thin in the sort of way a distance runner is where he’s almost entirely made of muscle. Twined around his left arm in white ink that shone starkly against his much darker skin were two serpents that immediately caught my attention. The detail work was gorgeous. Every individual scale seemed to be there and the twin snakes seemed to writhe. He caught my eye and grinned wickedly, his eyes dancing. Then he spoke with a voice much lighter than I would have imagined.
“Like it? I’ve got the card for the place I went to get it done, if you’re interested. Or I’ve got my number if you’re interested in something else.”
My jaw dropped open and I tried to remember how to form words. He was already laughing and it sent a shiver up my spine.
“I’ve got a package,” he hesitated for just a moment, that grin dancing around his eyes again. “For your boss. It’s right here. I just need you to sign for it.”
I snatched the electronic pad out of his hands and signed it quickly, glaring at him despite the heat I could feel rising to my cheeks. He was still grinning as he took it back and slipped it into the pouch on his belt.
“I hope I see you again, pretty servant of my sister. You seem like a lot more fun than her usual.”
The startled exclamation was out of my mouth before I could stop it and he leaned forward just slightly to poke the tip of my nose.
“Didn’t realize, did you? We’re all related.”
Then he reached up to adjust the baseball cap I hadn’t noticed before. Did it have wings embroidered on the sides? Then he was gone. Just like that. Here one moment and gone the next. My knees buckled and I willed them to iron. Where was that damn package? I would figure out which one of my boss’s siblings was trying to flirt with me later. First, I had work to do.
There was nothing I loved more than cars than the purr of a good engine and the feeling of a day of meaningful work that leaves you covered in grease but satisfied. The problem wasn’t that I wasn’t driven. I had my certifications, every single one I could get my hands on. The problem was finding a shop where I could work and not have problems. Then I found this shop. How I’d never noticed it sitting in the center of town, I will never know. Not when there was a line of gorgeous muscle cars from the heyday of such things. Dodge and Cadillac and Ford and Corvette all in a neat row.
The mechanic was a broad man with a fondness of sleeveless shirts and an old Nascar hat. When I first saw him working in the open garage bay, it was like watching a painter or a sculptor at work, his large hands deft and capable. It was watching his hands that I didn’t notice at first that he wore braces on both his legs to help him stand.
I don’t know how long I stood in the door, in the open garage bay and watched him work. I was enraptured. That was when he turned to me.
“Well, girl? Are you going to just stand there or will you pick up a wrench and get started?”
I was fidgeting with the fork again, spinning it between my fingers as I watched the door. The waiter was standing near the kitchen giving me this piteous look and I felt miserable. The placemat drew my eyes again and I wondered if she was going to show up at all. I was about to reach for my phone when the little bell above the door rang and my eyes snapped up. A woman like none I’d ever seen before stood just inside the door with a little frown of concentration on her face. But my shoulders only slumped. She wasn’t Jessica. This was pretty quickly sizing up to be the worst Valentine’s ever. That was when the woman slid into the empty seat opposite me and gave me a smile.
“Sorry, I’m late.”
For a long moment, I just stared into her eyes. It was like looking at the ocean; bottomless, beautiful, and a little bit terrifying. Then I gave my head a little shake.
Her smile turned a little sad and she nodded.
“I’m here to make sure you don’t spend today alone. She’s not coming.”
I looked down again and then back up, forcing a smile.
“You don’t have to do this. I’ll be alright.”
She shook her head and her hair fell loose around her shoulders.
“Let me just make this up to you. After all, it shouldn’t have happened.” She hesitated and then smiled at the approaching waiter. “A bottle of sauvignon blanc, if you would? Thank you.”
“Right away, Miss.”
He gave me a grin and a wink and walked off to fetch the bottle in question.
“What do you mean ‘shouldn’t have happened’? Is everything alright?”
But she didn’t seem to hear me. She leaned in, smiling.
“So, handsome, what is it you do?”
That was how the evening went. She suggested a few appetizers I’d never had before, calling them crudités and teasing me into trying them. She flirted and we laughed and at last, we sat there with sundae between us. That was when she finally answered my question.
“You’ll see Jessica tomorrow, just so you know. Once I’ve had a chance to fix things. But I couldn’t let you be alone tonight. Not when it was all because of my son and his leaden arrows.” She smiled cryptically. “Eros feels rather badly about his mistake.”
I was knelt down by the filing cabinet, looking for the records related to a case I was reading through for my boss when the door opened behind me. Turning, I was surprised to find a tall man standing there. He looked a bit like a surfer; blond, tan, and buff, with an easy grin. His blue eyes seemed endless in the halogen light.
“Can I help you?”
When he spoke, I would have sworn he was a singer. That was how musical his voice was.
“Is your boss in? I just need her for a minute.”
I adjusted my skirt.
“I’ll go see if she’s free. Would you like a drink or anything?”
He waved me off and settled into one of the comfortable chairs, tapping out a beat as though he was listening to music I couldn’t hear. I shrugged a little and stepped into the doorway of her office.
“Excuse me, Ma’am? There’s a man here to see you.”
She stood, gray eyes measuring me for a moment. Then she glanced at the calendar.
“Of course. Every month like clockwork.” She smiled, standing. “Go pull papers for an anonymous donation, if you would. Make it out for my sister’s archery camp.”
I raised an eyebrow at that but went to do as I was told. All the while, I could hear them talking in the background.
“I still don’t understand why you won’t just tell her. She’s your twin. It’s not like she can get mad at you.”
He just shrugged, an affable smile on his face.
“We both know she likes it this way, thinking there’s some kind stranger out there who cares as much about the kids as she does.”