Brenda was dutiful in all she performed. Church, work, friend, she could always be counted on to show up smiling and performing. She was exhausted. She carried her groceries, bags, disappointments, alone. She knew her routine and awaited the applause. On queue, she pulled up to Starbucks, ordered her caramel macchiato, and sat at the table in the corner by the posted flyers.
“Martin Johnson,” she read the name aloud as if announcing him before an anticipatory crowd. She hadn’t seen him in over 10 years. Hmm, I guess New York was a bust. Here she sat on a regular Tuesday morning and Martin Johnson should appear, unveiled on a poster board flyer. It read, ‘Book signing March 4th, 2020.’
Part 2 – The Friends
“Brenda, Brenda, Brenda. It’s been 10 years already. Let it go. Let it go,” Carmen began to imitate Elsa from the Frozen movie.
“I don’t see anything wrong in going to the book signing. I would simply be celebrating a friend’s success.”
“Friends? Friends communicate. You guys had a bad fight, broke up, and haven’t spoken or seen each other in 10 years. Besides, what would you even say.”
“Girl, forget that. And forget him. Let’s go to Portia’s birthday dinner tomorrow. I know it’s a workday but that will get you into celebrating the now and not reminiscing about the past.”
“Wow, when did you become so deep?”
“I’ve been watching Iyanla. Plus, I need a ride.”
“I really wanted to attend.”
“And, I really need a ride. My car is in the shop. I took an Uber to work.”
“Fine,” Brenda relented.
“Okay, see ya tomorrow.”
Part 3 – Portia’s Perfectly Petty Party
Portia has a lot of teeth, Brenda thought. And she smiles as if she needs to show them all, even the molars. She looks great though, Brenda added to her silent discourse to prove to herself that she wasn’t a hater.
“Heeyy, Bren Bren. Heeyy Carmen. Glad y’all could make it.”
“Wouldn’t miss it,” Carmen added.
“Happiest of birthdays, Portia,” Brenda chimed.
“Y’all come sit next to me.”
They sat at the head of the extended table that was draped in a shiny black and gold covering. Portia introduced each person seated but Brenda never remembered names on first intro. So, she smiled and said hello to the strangers she would soon forget. She sat enduring more small talk, food, and beverages.
Her Fitbit showed 7:23 pm. She could eat and mingle and be out by 8:00 pm and maybe make the book signing by before the 8:30 end time. Shoot, she forgot she had to drop off Carmen. It was an evening event at Brew’s Coffee and Books. Sometimes the poetry slams held there lasted past 9:00 pm. Maybe she had time.
“You got somewhere to be? Somewhere more important than my birthday party.”
“No, Portia. You are truly the most important person in the world to me at this moment.”
“Ooh, the sarcasm, the shade, on such a happy occasion.”
“Don’t mind her. She’s trying to go see Martin Johnson,” Carmen drawled.
Portia laughed with her teeth.
“Ol’ Marty Mar. How is he doing? You used to love you some Martin Johnson.”
“I don’t know. Haven’t seen or spoken to him in years. He moved to New York when he got that screenwriting internship.”
“Translation, when y’all broke up,” Carmen interjected.
“There was more to our relationship than a break-up story.”
“Well, no one wants to hear it.”
“I do. And it’s my birthday.”
“I do remember it all. The highs and the lows. But, in the midst of that tumultuous relationship existed a little sphere of perfection. Sometimes, I find myself staring into that ball and imagining a future, a perfect one that exists only of the highs.”
“It’s an illusion. Get over it,” Carmen interjected.
“Maybe you should get a ride home with Portia,” Brenda snapped back.
“Fine. I will.”
“Happy Birthday,” everyone shouted as the hostess brought out the cake.
There goes those teeth again.
Part 4 – Déjà vu.
It was the summer of 2010, a drought. Forty days and no rain. Brenda was sweating bullets underneath her dress standing next to the stage at Brews, Coffee, and Books. She had finally worked up the courage to read a piece. She had chosen Midnight Moon.
“Next to the stage, we have a newbie, Brenda Jones. Let’s show her some love.”
Finger snaps filled the room. Brenda stood in front of the microphone, hands at her sides, eyes on the floor.
“This piece is called, Midnight Moon.
Juxtaposed against the inky midnight
He greeted me with a crescent smile
I awaited his fullness
I awaited his return
I waited. Because.
I wanted something beautiful
I wanted something whole
Like the full moon.
I mapped its phases
Watched it grow
Until the fullness of
All that is light
Greeted me, hello.
She looked into the crowd and saw his smile. He stood and raised his hand as a conductor raises his baton and began to snap. A chorus of snaps followed.
She sat down and exhaled. She had finally done it. A shadow fell across her table. She looked up to see him, dark light midnight.
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Carmen watched the chunks of partially digested chicken cordon bleu slather the toilet bowl rim. She had overeaten again. No, she had binged. Step five in a book she had read on managing emotions stated to be brutally honest about one’s behavior. There were the lemon ricotta cookies from Ann’s Bakery store she had eaten. She had needed something to hold her over until dinner. Then, there was the bag of Cheetos she had grabbed at the gas station. At least, she had gotten a diet soda to wash them down. As she knelt scrubbing the splatter from the white tiled floor, Carmen was thankful she lived alone. How could she explain this disgusting habit she had developed after Warren had left?
Everybody leaves, she lamented.
Six years and hundreds of toilet bowl trips later, she still felt dizzy. Warren had sworn to her that he was faithful and that she could trust his words because he had no reason to lie. This circular logic spun round and round in her head like the Coriolis effect of every after-binge flush. She could not swallow the true pain of it all, so she binged. She ate to numb the crushing feeling in her chest. She ate until her stomach hurt and vomiting brought a sense of relief, a purge. She watched the remnants disappear into that white abyss.
Carmen knelt beside her bed and prayed to God. She sat in silent meditation awaiting an answer. She only heard the buzz of her central air blowing from the vented ceiling. She curled under the sheet and plopped her head down on the pillow. She closed her eyes and drifted off to sleep.
She was awakened by the symphonic tonality of a bell. The resonance distinctly resembled the ringing that had roused all of Brook Waters Camp inhabitants every summer. She was 15. Both feet hit the floor. She aligned the sheets, smoothing out the wrinkles with her hand. Two of the corners of her blanket had been neatly tucked before she realized, she was an adult now and in her own home. There was no camp counselor’s walk-through inspection before she could have her morning coffee. It would have been apple juice back then, from concentrate.
Today’s brew, Don Pablo’s medium roast. The hot liquid went down bitter, but it did the job. Saturdays were typically a sleep-in day, but she had a townhouse in Cedar Creek to show and it would take her a good 30-minute drive to get there. Carmen was never late but she need a little help to be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. Ha, she thought. Old Mrs. Smith loved yelling that to us kids as she was serving up those watery eggs every morning. Camp life.
The rising sun glinted off the hood of her silver Lexus. She stood outside drinking the remaining Don Pablo from her thermos while waiting for her client to arrive. She had shown Shelly this same townhome five times. Shelly, her client, was ridiculously indecisive. She wanted to see the property on a weekday, a weekend, at night, and at daybreak. Hopefully, this showing would do the trick.
A man she had seen run in this neighborhood before sprinted down Oak St. He shot her the peace sign as he ran passed her. He must be a triathlete, she thought. He never slowed down to say hi, just two fingers in the air and a smile. Shelly should have been here to see him. A handsome athletic neighbor is a great selling point. She arrived only moments later, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.
After mulling over the details of each door frame, she began to inspect the windows. During her endless research, she had found that loosened jambs and casings could contribute to high energy coasts.
“It says here that the windows were replaced three years ago and are under warranty.”
“With the crazy winds we have here, one can never be to cautious about these things.”
Carmen plastered a smile on her face. She examined the neighborhood outside of the window. The smiling jogger was on his returning leg of his run. Visually she followed him until he rounded the corner.
“I think I’ve seen enough.” Shelly had soundlessly crept next to her. “I am sorry I didn’t mean to startle you. What’s out there that’s got your attention?”
“Oh, nothing. Just a great view.”
Shelly peered outside. “You’re so right, Carmen. I’ll take it.”
Carmen sat in her favorite booth at her friend Caterina’s cupcake shop swirling the foam on her expresso creating spirals of Phi. The metal clank of the golden demitasse resounded against the white ceramic cup. The noise grew louder. She stopped mid-swirl. She heard the bell again. Her head spun from side to side. No one else seemed to notice. She drank her remaining coffee and got up to pay.
“Caterina, do you hear a bell noise?”
Caterina squinted her eyes as if that would improve her hearing.
“No, I don’t. Do you?”
“No. I mean, I thought I did but it must have been my imagination.”
“Oh, okay. Sometimes, people’s phones can make pretty weird noises.”
“Right. Keep the change.”
“Thanks Carmen. Until next time.”
“Have a good one.”
She did not know why she had lied to Caterina. Indeed, she had heard the bell, twice now. The clock on the dash showed the time to be 12:03 pm. Hmm, she thought.
She sliced the tomato to go with her scrambled eggs fried in ghee butter. The meal plan left her macros at 12 percent carbs. Great. She finished her meal. While brushing her teeth, Carmen’s stomach began to turn. A familiar burning crept up her throat. She flipped the toilet seat up just in time to catch her morning breakfast.
Another townhome on Oak St., what are the odds? Leaning on her Lexus, she watched the newly-risen sun glow iridescent across her exposed arms. She sipped her purchased coffee. She heard it again. Softly at first but the ringing grew louder with each ring. She closed her eyes to focus on the sound. It seemed to be coming from the east.
Ding. Ding. Ding.
She closed her eyes. Was this ringing a precursor to some health event, a stroke? Carmen ran a mental health check; no headache, no numbness in her arms or hands, no dizziness, heartrate seemed normal. Nothing in her physical makeup could explain the ringing she was hearing. The sound was external. Yet Shelly had not heard it. After a few minutes, it stopped.
“Yes, that is me. Let’s take a look at your new home.”
Acetone soaked cotton balls were being held in place by the foil wrappers on Carmen’s finger tips to remove the gel nail polish. Her foiled wrapped nails prevented successfully clicking the massage chair remote control. Minh politely assisted her. She settled in the leather chair as her feet soaked in the bubbling water.
“Knead and lower back, right.”
Minh adjusted the massage settings. Carmen had gone through many a pedicure debacle before finding Minh at the Lotus Flower Salon. She was bright and funny, always had a story to tell about her dating fiascos, and gave the best massages. She also knew at what time to work silently while Carmen rested her eyes.
“Relax. Why are you so uptight?”
“Relax. You got man problems?” Minh laughed.
“I wish. I have just been having the strangest thing happen to me. Never mind. It’s silly.”
“Tell me. I tell you silly things all the time. Return the favor.”
“I keep hearing a bell. I hear it at different times of the day. It rings for several minutes and then the sound goes away. No one else can hear it. You think I’m crazy?”
“Oh no, Carmen. You are not crazy. You are blessed. When you hear a bell like that, God is trying to get your attention. Something you have prayed hard for awaits you. You must follow the sound of the bell.”
“What? Follow the bell? How?”
“Listen to where the sound comes from. Follow it as far as you can before it stops. You will have the answer to your prayer.”
Carmen let the seed Minh had planted in her mind germinate while the warm water massaged her achy feet.
Peanut butter toast with sliced banana, this had been Marcus’ pre-run breakfast for the past eight years. He sat at his breakfast bar drinking a glass of water. It is always good to hydrate before a run, he thought. He glanced at the empty dining room table that had become a workstation overrun with stacks of paper and his silver Macbook. Work and run. Eat and run. Sleep and run. He spent his life running. His bedroom wall was full of medals – half and full marathons from around the country. They were evidence of his success, yet he still ate alone.
He counted 5 slices of banana on his toast. Five was also the number of years he and Emily had lived together. It had been six months since he had found out she had been having an affair for at least a year. Emily had left her unlocked phone on that very same dining room table. He heard the chime of her ringtone. Annoyed by the noise, he picked it up to turn it off. He and Emily had always respected each other’s privacy, but the chiming did not stop. Someone must really need to get a hold of her, he thought. So, he swiped the screen to open the message.
He had returned the engagement ring she never knew about. That message thwarted his plan of a surprise engagement. Marcus hated thinking about her. He washed his plate and sat it in the dish washer. Outside, the cool crispness of the early morning would soon yield to the muggy heat of the sun. Marcus grabbed his ankle from behind to stretch his quadriceps. Running cleared his head. He put in his earbuds and took off toward the rising sun.
Mile 5 was a turn down Oak St. He was nearly home. He heard a bell ringing. Marcus removed one earbud to see if it was from the music he was listening to. The sound started soft and grew louder. He looked around wondering if a church was near. He had rounded this corner 5 to 6 days a week at the same time and had never heard a bell before. After a few minutes the tone stopped. Marcus returned the earbud and headed home.
“Please make a U-turn. At the next opportunity, please make a U-turn.”
“Okay GPS lady,” Carmen yelled at the robotic voice.
She thought she knew a shortcut to the Casper Springs neighborhood where she was showing a ranch-style home to retired couple. The winding roundabouts had her turned around and confused. Ignoring the prompting of her Global Positioning System had made her ten minutes late. Lucky for her, Mr. and Mrs. Wilkerson were 15 minutes late.
After the viewing, Carmen turned on her GPS to find the quickest way home. Once she got to 75, she knew the way home and turned the GPS off. The ding of the bell started again.
Okay, I am not crazy. I hear a dang bell. Minh said to follow it so here goes.
She let down her window and turned the radio off. The sound seemed to be coming from the Shadeland Park area. Carmen drove as close as she could get to the dinging sound in a car. She parked and started to walk the concrete trail. She passed the jungle gym, the water station, and the silver water fountain. Her baby-toe began to ache from navigating the concrete in 6-inch heels. She found a park bench and sat down. At that moment, the ringing ceased.
Carmen looked around. An older man shuffled down the trail. She admired his perseverance. There was a baby cooing in the grass. His father and mother had laid a blanket down and sat watching him discover the feeling of grass blades between his fingers. A rush off baby fever enveloped her like the summer sun. She closed her eyes to keep from crying. She inhaled. The air smelled of cut grass and puppies. The sounds of play and laughter filled her with a carefree happiness she had not felt since childhood.
He knelt to tie his shoe that had become undone during his run. Another day, another run down the same streets making the same turns, ending up back where he had started. Marcus heard the ding of the bell again. He searched around him. No cars on the road and no pedestrians on the street. Maybe someone was playing a joke. He cocked his head to the side to determine the direction the sound was originating. He began to run towards it. He ran up Oak St. passing the cupcake shop and nail salon. He ran until the pavement became the gravel of the Shadeland Park parking lot. Marcus ran along the trail until the ringing stopped. He saw a familiar face sitting on the bench not far from him.
A shadow crossed Carmen’s eyelids. She opened her eyes to see the jogger from Oak St.
“Hi. I am sorry to bother you, but I recognized you from my morning runs. I’m Marcus,” he extended his hand.
“Hello. I am Carmen Matthews. I’m a realtor. I show a lot of homes in your area.”
“Do you mind if I sit with you for a moment? I’ve been running a long time.”
“Not at all. I have been resting a bit myself. Walking in heels on this concrete is not a good idea.”
“What brings you here? I mean, in a suit and heels.”
“I don’t know. Just exploring a bit, I guess,” Carmen laughed.
“May I ask, what’s so funny, Carmen?”
“I must look ridiculous,” she added sliding on her pumps.
“You actually look pretty fly. Just uncomfortable.”
“How random,” Carmen interjected. “I have seen you many times running up or down Oak St. and you never introduced yourself. Now to meet you randomly at a park I never visit.
“That is pretty curious. I never visit this park either. But I heard a . . .”