Angeline Carter flipped through the stack of mail on her desk. It was almost always junk, but odd and amusing things popped up regularly enough to make it worth her time. She sorted quickly, deciding what was worth opening and what was trash almost without conscious thought, sometimes judging little more than the feel on the paper on her fingertips. She spent a bit more time on the pieces she thought were worth a second look, but most of those ended up in the trash, too. The only keepers today were an invitation to a restaurant opening at the marina, and a flyer for the City Opera, reminding her that she wouldn’t be taking advantage of her subscription this season, either.

In her haste Angeline almost missed the package that had been delivered as well, a plain box not much bigger than a coffee mug. She didn’t see it until she had sat down, and when she picked it up she was surprised that it had been delivered at all. Some determined or very bored mail clerk had inexplicably decided to not just return it to sender. Perhaps the long jumble of letters on the label had caught his eye. Maybe somebody in the mail room was Polish and upon seeing the name “Grace Szczepaniak” decided that he had a sacred duty to deliver the mail. Although it wasn’t any kind of secret, very few people her outside of HR or the Legal department knew who Grace Szczepaniak was, and almost nobody who knew Grace would ever think to find her here.

Angeline used a letter opener to cut the wrapping tape and open the box. Inside it was mostly bubble wrap, which she unspooled to reveal a small figurine of a ballerina. The figure itself was cheap ceramic, perhaps even just plaster, unglazed and mostly unpainted except for the faded pink tutu. The ballerina balanced on one foot, which connected her to the wooden base and the hidden mechanics inside. There was a slot on the side for a small key which, when turned, would make it play a tinny ten-second snippet of The Nutcracker, and slowly spin the little ballerina. The key was missing, but Angeline found that if she turned the ballerina herself the gears still moved, and the song still played, albeit at the wrong speed.

She checked the box. There was no return address but the postmark showed it was mailed from Sweetwater, and Angeline felt a tremble crawl through her hands. She put the figurine down and stood. It was an odd intrusion into her day, and although the tremble went away already she didn’t want to sit down. Her office, her home-away-from-home for nearly seven years now, felt alien and unwelcoming to her, and the need to get out was impossible to ignore.

Which was madness, after all. And infuriating. She had gone through this already, and over the past few weeks settled whatever it was that needed to be settled–which wasn’t much, she found. It was both ridiculous and unfair that this little figurine should insist otherwise.

And yet there it was. The slot for the missing key was a quiet accusation, and the muted song that wouldn’t play right tried stubbornly to remind her of Crystal and, inevitably, Grace.

Continue reading “Sweetwater”

Step into my office

img_8201But not really. I prefer to work alone.

I’ve traded out my coffee shop in Kazakhstan for this lofted workspace in Uganda. Typically I’m surrounded by snacks and beverages, but I thought I’d clean it up for the photo.

Anyway, here’s where the magic (as it were) happens. Currently the magic is me trying to figure out what to write next, and resisting the urge to go for a walk. You know how it goes.

The Antique Mirror

The Antique Mirror

The antique mirror was sitting out on the street for anyone to take, and because it was pretty and because he needed a mirror anyway Justin Marlowe carried it home. For the first few blocks he was sure that someone would come out and tell him that he’d made a mistake, that the mirror belonged to somebody who had for some reason decided to leave it out on the street for just a few minutes. It was much nicer than the usual giveaway furniture on street corners, after all. So he went slowly, checking over his shoulder, prepared to apologize and return it to its rightful owner. After six blocks it was clear that wasn’t going to happen, and so he sped up. By now his arms were tired and he was sure he would drop it, but he made it home and carried it up the stairs to his little apartment.

It didn’t fit in with his furniture at all. Most everything in his apartment was cheap and looked it, either salvaged from the street or reluctantly bought at IKEA. The mirror had an unforced elegance, in a wood frame that bore traces of ancient gilding. He put it in his living room on the far wall opposite his front door, in between the door that led to the kitchen and the door that led to his bedroom and bathroom.

Justin’s apartment was small and in a shabby neighborhood, but he was the only one among his friends who could afford to live alone and he was quite proud of it. The neighborhood was already getting better, too, with more businesses moving in. The Ukrainian cafe downstairs was quickly becoming “his,” and the mirror on the wall suggested to him a sense of permanence. This was home, he decided, and the mirror would be the first step towards settling in here for a good long while and moving firmly into adulthood.

His girlfriend Karen noted the changes every time she came. First the mirror, which she stood in front of for much of the afternoon, admiring both it and herself. Then on his table a small and pretty vase he found at a thrift store in Dover. “I get fresh flowers every other day from the Korean lady on the corner,” he explained to her. “It’s actually not expensive at all to give this place a little life.”

The band posters in the living room were exiled to the bedroom and replaced with a couple of wood prints he found online for cheap. And then one day he had drapes on his windows, which he found at a yard sale in Dillard.

“What were you doing in Dillard?” she asked.

“Going to yard sales,” he answered.

After that they began going out together on Saturday mornings: to the antique shops in Southeast, the thrift stores on the Waterfront, the funky little shops near Washington Square, and the yard sales in the suburbs. Th things they bought all inexpensive but well-chosen, and it all looked far more valuable than it actually was.

They both updated their wardrobes with stylish things they found at vintage shops. Her roommates noted with a mixture of pleasure and annoyance that she was adopting his habits and gradually transforming her part of the apartment, too, even though she was spending less and less time there.

The mirror remained the centerpiece, though. He was on a tight budget, and couldn’t afford anything in the same league as the mirror he’d found for free on the street. And so he spent a lot of his time looking at it, despite himself. He watched himself drink coffee in the morning, send out emails in the afternoon, and have dinner with Karen in his apartment–a used cookbook found in a bargain bin and a few pricey but well-chosen kitchen items had transformed his house into Karen’s favorite place to eat.

And one morning he noticed a peculiarity about the mirror. He ran his fingers through his hair and in front of him his reflection did the same, but not exactly in sync with him. The effect was a bit disorienting, and he rubbed his eyes hard before looking again. He moved again and saw the same thing. It was subtle, the tiniest fraction of a second, but he had a feeling that he was somehow trailing behind his reflection, as if it were tugging at him.

Continue reading “The Antique Mirror”