I've taken the characters they made for the game and condensed them into just three main characters for this story, mostly to make my job of author easier. I also made some various tweaks to their backgrounds to mesh them together as close friends with shared histories, but I do hope that enough of the original version of each shines through to be recognizable.
Rather than make a separate post for each section as I write it, I'm going to dump it all here. I'll continue to revise this as I go and add to it.
A casino should have layers of hazy cigarette smoke to give it atmosphere, thought Raymond Quinn as he regarded the cards in front of him. Instead this river boat casino was brightly lit and garishly decorated in a style that was probably intended to pay homage to the golden age of Las Vegas, condensed down to fit on boat, semi-permanently tied to a riverside dock in East Peoria, IL. A place where older people on fixed incomes could try to beat the house and the odds to buy a little excitement amid the mismatched sounds of slot machines without an expensive flight to the desert.
Raymond liked the place anyway. To him the sights and sounds felt like luck and he was definitely having some good luck that night. A couple of hours ago he had bought $50 worth of chips and had already grown that to $400 in a series of blackjack, craps, and roulette games while he waited for the poker tables to open. And now he was looking at a potential “four of a kind” if the dealer would just turn up the another “five” to go with the two Ray was dealt and the one already on the table.
“Son, the bet is to you,” said the older man seated next to him who looked remarkably like Wilford Brimley. He and the other players looked tense and mildly impatient. Which wasn't surprising given that there was over $2000 in the pot on this hand. That “ace” and “king” in the “flop” was encouraging his table mates.
“Umm... OK.” said Raymond as he dropped a few more chips, most of what he had left, onto the pile in the center of the table. “I'll match it. Lets see the 'river.'”
The dealer reached out with the last card and started to turn it over when Raymond's phone started to buzz. Reaching into his pocket to mute the phone before it started to ring loudly, he missed seeing the moment the card was placed on the table, but his fellow players all began talking excitedly at once.
Raymond looked back at the table and saw the last card was another “king” not the “five” he needed. The other players were turning over their private cards and working out who had won the hand. The Wilford Brimley clone had built a “three of a kind” on that last “king” beating the various pairs that the other players had and the three “fives” Raymond had. Letting out a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding, Raymond watched the winner pull the chips in from the center of the table.
A quick look at what was left revealed Raymond had $90 in chips. He was still up almost double from what he had started with, but that last hand of poker could have gone better. He grabbed his short stack of chips and stood up.
“Thanks, gentlemen. That was a great game, but I'd better leave before you get my gas money too,” he said with a smile that only felt a little bit forced and still elicited friendly goodnights. With a congratulatory pat on the winner's shoulder, Raymond turn and walked to the cashier window, checking his phone on the way.
The call was from one of his two best friends, Sarah Clarke, and the icon on the screen indicated she had left a message. He played it back while cashing out his chips and heading for the door. “Ray, it's Sarah. Call me back. Binx is here.” Then after a short pause and in a softer voice, “She told her parents. It didn't go well.”
Raymond poked the call back button to dial Sarah as he crossed the parking lot to his aging, mustard yellow jeep that Sarah had dubbed the 'short bus' when he bought it years ago. She answered on the second ring, “Ray, can you pick up a bottle of wine?”
“Sure, I can be there by eight” he said checking his watch, “but maybe something stronger to drink is in order.”
“No, Binx wants wine,” replied Sarah and in the background Raymond heard Bianca say, “Something red.” Even over the phone from across the room, Ray could hear the rawness in her voice. His other best friend, Bianca Flores, had definitely been crying.
“I'm on the way now. I'll be there in a bit.”
A few minutes and a quick stop at a liquor store later, Raymond was knocking on Sarah's apartment door carrying three bottles of red wine. At the store he had been faced with a dizzying array of variation on the red wine theme so he grabbed three different kinds at random and hoped for the best. Wine was something he'd always intended to learn more about, but had never gotten around to it.
Sarah opened the door letting soft candlelight and music spill into the hallway. “Hey,” she said in greeting. Her tone was soft as was the velvet she was wearing.
Raymond stepped into the apartment and the little kitchenette just inside the door that was open to the small living room where Bianca was sitting on the couch with her arms around her legs and her chin resting on the knees of fashionably worn jeans. Her eyes were red and blank with exhaustion.
“Give me those,” Sarah said reaching for the paper sack of wine bottles. “I'll pour some glasses.”
Ray sat down on the couch, “Hey, Binx. How are you doing?”
Bianca unwrapped her arms from around her legs, leaned against him, and mumbled, “Shitty.”
“I'm sorry. I'm here for you,” said Raymond giving her a gentle hug.
“And he came with wine,” said Sarah as she popped the cork on a bottle of Merlot. She poured three glasses and carried them over to the coffee table in front of the couch.
Bianca sat up, reached for her glass, and took a large sip that bordered on being a gulp. Sarah plopped into the stuffed chair facing the couch, crossing her knee high, booted feet on the coffee table. Behind Sarah was a wall of bookshelves packed with some of her ever growing and eclectic collection of books. Another wall in her bedroom was similarly dominated by a set of packed bookshelves.
“Binx, can you tell me what happened?” Asked Raymond.
She took another drink and said with a catch in her voice, “My parents disowned me.”
“They kicked you out?”
Bianca shrugged an answer, “Yeah and they aren't going to help me with school anymore,” she said with fresh tears. “I don't think I'll be able to go back to Chicago this Fall.”
“Oh, Binx. You worked so hard to get in there,” said Sarah.
“August is a ways off, maybe they'll ease up by then,” offered Raymond.
“I don't know. They were so angry,” said Bianca.
Mrs. Flores in particular had a very sharp tongue that Raymond had been on the receiving end of on more than one occasion when the three of them had gotten into some form or another of childhood mischief.
“It sounds like they really hit the roof. How did this come up?” asked Raymond.
“We were talking about my cousin's wedding. Momma was going on and on about all handsome boys that were going to be there and how I should find a good husband and settle down. Raise a family. Give her grandchildren like Sophia and Miguel have. I guess I sort of snapped a little.”
“Maybe not the ideal conversational opening you hoped for but you've been meaning to talk to them about this for years,” said Raymond.
“Maybe if I'd been more gentle about it...” said Bianca staring at nothing in particular. “I just sort of sprang it on them at the kitchen table.”
“You didn't do anything wrong. You just told them the truth. Would they rather you lied?” said Sarah. Her pale face flushing a little in sympathetic anger.
“They want me to not be a lesbian and have that be the truth.”
“But it isn't,” said Raymond.
“Well that was an insightful declaration of the obvious,” said Sarah with a smirk.
Bianca snorted a little as she tried to swallow a bit of wine.
“I meant that the cat is out of the bag now and either Mr. and Mrs. Flores have to accept the truth or we have to concoct a believable lie that stuffs the cat back in there for them.”
“Well, yeah. The lack of stuffed pussies does seem to have become a central problem,” deadpanned Sarah. Causing Bianca and Raymond to both to cough around failed attempts to a drink wine. Sputtering turned to laughter and in moments they were all three trying to catch their breaths.
“I love you guys,” said Bianca. “I really needed and good laugh and this wine is pretty good, Ray.”
“When I'm not laughing it up my nose, I kind of like it too.”
“What it is?” asked Bianca getting up from the couch and walking to the breakfast counter that divided the kitchenette from the living room where Sarah had left the bottles and opener.
“I don't know. Red. I just grabbed three different bottles because I couldn't remember which one you liked best.”
“These are from the bottle of Merlot,” said Sarah indicating their glasses.
Bianca refilled her glass emptying the first bottle and carried another back to the living room. She walked with an easy, dancer's grace. She had olive skin and tussled, brown hair cut long on the sides and short in the back that framed her dark eyes and face. Bianca was beautiful enough to have been approached by modeling scouts more than once, but she dreamed of being a singer and refused to get sidetracked from that goal.
Not for the first time Raymond reflected on the contrast between these two women who had been his best friends since childhood. Each had grown into lovely women in very different ways. Sarah was pale, petite, and thin featured with piercing blue eyes gazing out under the sharp, angular cut of her shoulder length, glossy, currently black hair. She favored dark clothes of a mildly goth fashion, like the short, dark blue velvet dress she wore that night.
Where Bianca had an outgoing, warm nature and loved to perform, Sarah was more reserved and introverted but with an wickedly acerbic and snarky wit. Each was thoroughly entertaining in her own element and the three of them had been largely inseparable since childhood. Their joint friendship had weathered the storms of puberty, the cliques of high school, and boyfriends or girlfriends who sometimes liked the rest of their little gang and sometimes didn't. They even visited one another regularly when Sarah and more recently Bianca left home for college.
Sarah was back in Peoria full time now, having graduated and accepted a job doing archival research for a local company. Bianca and Raymond had stayed in town after high school, going to the local community college and working. It had only been a year ago that Bianca had begun attending a prestigious music school in Chicago to finish her last two years of school there. Despite the prodding of both friends and all their parents, Raymond was still working temporary jobs and taking the odd class now and then, being unable or unwilling to pick a major, a university, or a career. It was Summer now and Bianca was home. Well, homeless apparently, but back in Peoria with Sarah and Raymond at least.
“So, not to put a damper on your partially raised spirits, Binx,” said Raymond, “what are you going to do now?”
“I don't know, Ray,” replied Bianca sitting back on the couch.
“Well for the time being, you are going to stay here,” said Sarah. “My couch is comfy and you're welcome to it for as long as you need.”
“Thanks and I'll take you up on that, but at some point soon I'm going to have to figure out my next move. Your couch is comfy, but I can't stay here all Summer,” said Bianca with a smile that disappeared as she continued, “And I don't know how I'll be able to afford to go back to school without their help.”
“Maybe it won't come to that. Give your parents a few days and maybe they'll calm down,” said Raymond.
“I hope so, but you didn't see them tonight or hear them,” said Bianca. “They both think my school is a bad influence. Momma said I was imperiling my immortal soul with my evil choices and Daddy looked me right in the eye and told me that no daughter of his would be so hateful of God. Then he told me to get out of his house.”
“Wow,” said Raymond. “They really laid into you with the God stuff, huh?”
“It's real important to them,” said Bianca and then more quietly. “I guess I'm seeing how much more their Catholicism matters to them than me.”
“You matter to them, Binx,” said Sarah. “They love you. It's just their beliefs getting in the way of remembering that.”
“I just wish they'd act like it more. I wish who I was and what I am didn't have to get in the way of that,” said Bianca pouring herself another glass of wine.
“It doesn't have to, Binx,” said Raymond. “I mean look at Sarah and I. We don't care. We don't think there's anything wrong or bad about you because you're into girls.”
“Yes you do cause I won't sleep with you,” said Bianca her tone at once sad and playful.
“So what? Neither will Sarah and she's not gay,” replied Raymond in smirking, mock outrage.
“Hey, leave me out of this,” said Sarah.
Raymond continued, “If I'm going to hold that against you, then I've got to hold that against girls in general.”
“Oh please,” said Bianca and Sarah together rolling their eyes.
“What? I'm a paragon of involuntary virtue,” said Raymond struggling to contain a smile.
“Ooo... Paragon. Good word, Ray. Was it on your word-a-day calendar?” quipped Sarah prompting another snort of wine from Bianca.
“OK, OK. Let me have it,” said Raymond motioning towards himself with both hands. “I've got broad shoulders.”
“No, Ray,” said Sarah, “you don't.”
“Hey,” complained Raymond looking to Bianca for support.
She crinkled her nose and shook her head a little, “Sorry, sweetie, not so much.”
“Yeah, well I was speaking metaphorically anyway,” said Raymond shooting Sarah a glance as he used another 'big' word. “Besides I thought the skinny, nerdy look was hot these days.”
“Are you a multi-millionaire computer company executive? Do you play a hot, nerdy scientist on TV? No? Then good luck with that,” said Sarah with a raised eyebrow.
“Wow, you two are a harsh crowd,” said Raymond and then after a pause, “Wait a sec. Are you guys saying you would sleep with me if I changed my look?” He asked making a funny face.
“No, silly, I'm still gay. If anything, gayer after that face,” said Bianca. “Maybe a makeover would do the trick for Sarah, though.”
“Uh... leave me out of this,” said Sarah taking a gulp of wine and blushing a little.
Bianca looked at Sarah for a second or two and then said to both of them, “OK. The repeat performance of our mock sexual tension game is getting in the way of my pity party and our drinking.”
“So I propose a toast,” said Bianca raising her glass over the coffee table. “Here's to the Summer. To getting the gang back together. And may the worst of the season's drama be behind us.”
“I'll drink to that.”
Raymond woke on Sarah's stuffed chair with dawn sunlight streaming into the apartment, a crick in his neck, and the start of a decent headache. He blinked his eyes, stretched his neck, and sat up pulling the crocheted blanket that had been draped over him onto the the thick, soft arm of the chair. Bianca was curled up on the couch across the coffee table from him under a plush blanket with horses or unicorns or something prancing on it. Her fingers were grasping some tissues near her face as she slept and a small pile had gathered on the floor in front of her.
Raymond and Sarah had done their best last night to keep Bianca's spirits up with funny stories and camaraderie. She needed some laughs to offset the pain she felt and that they felt empathetically with her. They also knew she needed to talk about her family and work through the jumble of emotions she was experiencing. So they alternated between listening and comforting, laughing and crying, talking and drinking until the wine was gone and Bianca fell asleep on the couch.
Raymond eased himself up from the chair and glared at the open drapes of the east facing picture window. Sarah liked mornings and had selected this apartment in part because the windows would let in plenty of light and a pretty view of the wooded ravine behind the building. Ever a study in contrasts, bookish Sarah may have fostered tastes that best seemed to fit a night person especially when she was a pudgy, teenage goth, but she had become a young woman who liked dawns, the outdoors, and morning runs.
Being as quiet as he could, Raymond pulled the drapes shut to give the typically late rising Bianca a darker room and made his way to the bathroom. His reflection in the mirror there was a little rough. His sandy brown mop of unruly hair was long overdue for a cut and he hadn't shaved in a couple of days. Slightly blood shot brown eyes stared back at him and stung from the bright bathroom lights that emphasized every wrinkle in the clothes he had been in since yesterday morning and slept in last night. His hangover although not bad was becoming more noticeable and he downed a couple of aspirin with some water from the sink once he had relieved his wine filled bladder.
He heard the front door open and close. Stepping out the bathroom he waved a silent hello to Sarah. She was wearing running shorts and shoes and a fitted tank top that clung to her damply. Her hair was pulled back into a pony tail with a few strands wetly stuck to her sweaty and flushed skin. She removed her earbuds and set her iPod on the kitchen counter whispering, “Good morning,” to Raymond.
They had stayed up half the night and finished all three bottles of wine. Bianca had drunk more than either of them, but still Sarah and Raymond had definitely helped. Yet Sarah had still rolled out of bed and gone for a morning run while the other two slept. Although clearly she had worked up a good sweat, she hardly seemed winded.
“You're amazing,” whispered Raymond.
“What?” said Sarah looking at him startled from the sink where she was pouring herself a glass of water.
“You drank as much as I did last night and you still went for how long of a run this morning?”
“Oh,” said Sarah. “Only a couple of miles. I wanted to get back before Binx woke up.”
“Well I don't know how you do it. You don't even look tired.”
“You put one foot in front of the other and repeat as needed,” replied Sarah with a crooked smile and drank her glass of water.
“Shhh. Let Binx sleep. I need to take a shower and get dressed anyway.”
“Yeah,” said Raymond imagining and then quickly banishing an image of wet hair clinging to Sarah's neck as warm, soapy bubbles slid over her pale skin down the small of her back...
He must have stared at her a little too long or had some stupid grin on his face because she poked him in the stomach whispering, “You're going to be late for work, Ray.”
“Right,” he grinned sheepishly, “Sorry. I'm outta here. I'll catch you guys later at the Book and Bean, OK?”
“Bye,” said Sarah rounding the corner to her bedroom door.
Raymond let himself out and walked down the steps to the parking lot. That was not the first time he'd had a little fantasy about Sarah or Bianca and gotten busted for it. He was a guy and they were both pretty women. Besides with Bianca it could be in harmless fun because there was no way it could go anywhere that could endanger their friendship. But with Sarah he had to admit this was riskier and scolded himself a little bit for going there and potentially making her uncomfortable.
It's just that Sarah was really looking good lately, like a fierce, little, fitness badass. So he found her image dancing in his erotic imagination a little more often than he thought was right. Especially since his last relationship had gone belly up a few months ago. Caroline had been a lot of fun and the regular sex had been a welcome change for him, but ultimately she was looking for someone with better prospects than a kid who didn't take his own future seriously enough.
Which still didn't seem fair to Raymond. It wasn't as though he didn't care about his future or work hard. It was just that there was so much out there to learn, to try on for size, that he didn't want to choose just a handful of experiences to define the next decades of his life. He wanted to work on all of his aspirations at once but always be able to strike off in new directions if another interest got added to the rest. Which was why his college transcript read like someone who was trying to take as many different classes as possible yet never actually accumulate enough credits in any one specialty to earn a degree. And probably why his longest stint at any one job had been a little over eight months.
He'd liked that job, installing hardwood floors for a local contractor, but it was hard work and became increasingly irregular when the economy took a dive. But he learned a lot and was able to leverage that experience into his current job at one of the big home improvement retailers in town. The pay wasn't as good but was more regular and came with modest health benefits. Which was where he needed to be in less than an hour if he didn't want to be late, just enough time to get home, take a shower, get dressed, and drive to work.
Home was the loft over his parent's unattached garage. He'd finished out the space himself over the last couple of years, with their permission. It was actually rather nice, much larger than Sarah's one bedroom apartment, and the rent was next to nothing. They charged him a little to make up for the additional utilities and he helped them with projects around the house. An arrangement that he suspected they agreed to because he was their only child and they weren't really ready to have him move completely out of their lives. Which was fine, since he rarely had a surplus of cash on hand and paying traditional apartment rent on his own had already proved to be unaffordable. It also didn't include conveniently free leftovers or laundry facilities.
Arriving at home he parked on the street and bounded up the steps to his loft. In just a few minutes he was was back out the door and headed down the steps that ended in the prettily landscaped garden that comprised most of the back yard.
“Late night, kiddo?” his dad called to him from the back porch in good humored reproach. Brian Quinn was a tall, bespectacled, middle aged, man with greying hair who worked as an accountant for one of the local hospitals. He and Raymond's mom, Ruth, didn't actually enforce any kind of curfew or overnight guest rules on their adult son, but did tease him all the same.
“Good morning, Dad,” Raymond replied. “Binx is back home and we all ended up staying over at Sarah's.” Raymond decided to omit Bianca's fight with her parents. He was pretty sure his parents already knew about Bianca's sexual orientation and were OK with that, but it wasn't his place to “out” her to anyone else, especially as poorly as that was going for her right now.
“Well I hope you told her 'welcome home' from your mother and I.”
“I'll be sure to. I'm going to meet up with them after work. Which I'd better get a move on to get to before I'm late.”
“Have a good day, Raymond.”
“You too, Dad,” said Raymond waving over his shoulder on his way down the artful, cobblestone path between the house and garage that lead to the street.
Raymond figured that work was going to be at least a little tiring that day. He hadn't really had enough sleep and although he didn't feel particularly hung over after a shower and a change of clothes, he still didn't relish the idea of a day spent on his feet. And he was right. Saturday was a big day at most home improvement stores and that Saturday was no exception. All day long, lots of people were in the store to get materials and help with their weekend projects. Raymond found himself busily alternating between helping people pick out flooring materials, advising them on some tips for installation, and making sure they had the tools needed to do the jobs. Busy meant tiring, but it also helped pass the hours in what seemed like less time.
His shift was done in the early afternoon. He was able to get home for both a quick snack and a nap before cleaning up, changing clothes, and exchanging a few texts with Sarah and Bianca to arrange a time to meet for coffee at their favorite place, the Book and Bean. It was a house on the main street of Peoria Heights that had been converted into a bookstore and coffee shop. The whole first floor was devoted to the business and was a mixture of mismatched cafe tables, lamps, and chairs among bookshelves with subjects ranging from Baroque poetry to gardening to science fiction. It always smelled pleasantly of old wood, books, coffee, and fresh baked bread.
Sarah positively loved the place and had since the three of them discovered it years ago. When they were teenagers, it wasn't unusual at all for Sarah to be among the very last patrons to leave, even on school nights. She'd bring her homework there and read and sip coffee until the owners had to gently put her out in order to close for the night. Given how much her parents had been fighting back then before their divorce, the Book and Bean was like a second home and refuge for Sarah. The owners, Alan and Liss, even gave Sarah her first job, bussing tables for them, to justify her spending so much time there.
Alan and Liss were really nice people, if a little odd. They were clearly a couple in that they were almost always together and never apparently dated anyone else. But they weren't married and didn't go in for any public displays of affection or other obvious outward signs that they were romantically involved. Alan sometimes looked at Liss with warm affection and she at him with something more complex like sadness or maybe regret, but she was a hard women to read and neither of them ever offered any insights. Regular patrons of the Book and Bean, like Raymond, Sarah, and Bianca, had long since given up trying to seriously figure that situation out even if they continued to indulge in private speculation.
Alan looked like nothing so much as a lumberjack. He was a mild bear of a man with a short reddish beard and hair. He wore flannel shirts with jeans and always looked prepared to embark on a journey to the north woods of Canada with an axe on his shoulder to fell a forest. He had a easy smile and a deep laugh that wrinkled this eyes and rumbled out of him unselfconsciously. Possibly in his late forties with a slight but impossible to place accent, he rarely spoke much about himself but knew his regulars by name and really had a talent for engaging them in personalized small talk.
By outward appearances Liss looked a little like a hippy approaching middle age. She favored long cotton skirts and loose, flowing blouses decorated with embroidery. Her hair was a straight dark blonde and typically worn very long in a variety of loose braids, often past her waist. That is where any valid comparison to a flower child ended, because Liss did not act like any hippy Raymond had ever met or seen on TV. She was a striking, tall woman, taller than Alan, who rarely spoke more than a few sparse words usually delivered in a terse but not necessarily unfriendly way. She moved with strength and efficiency, like an athlete or maybe a soldier, not at all like someone who might enjoy dancing around a drum circle. Her face was sharp featured and a little severe with attentive grey eyes that could be at times menacing as she seemed to size up potential trouble.
Not that there was ever really any trouble at the Book and Bean. It sat in a nice neighborhood of cute boutiques connected by sidewalks and surrounded by some of the more expensive homes in the Peoria area. Patrons there tended to be from the neighborhood and a eclectic mix of people who would drive there from other parts of town to enjoy the atmosphere of one of the last surviving local bookstores or coffee shops in town. The place was not only managing to survive in somewhat hard times, but seemed to be thriving even against the Amazons and Starbucks of the world. Perhaps that was a testament to the easy friendliness of Alan or the outstanding breads Liss baked that could be smelled from a mile away if the winds were right. Or maybe it was some ineffable combination of a thousand little things that added up to a shop that enough people liked and some really loved.
Raymond parked on the street and walked in. The tiny, old fashioned bell on the door chimed as he opened it and took in the scents of bread, books, and coffee. He let the door close behind him and glanced about for Bianca and Sarah. They waved at him from a window table along the side and he took another step into the room. Above him the light fixture on the ceiling just inside the door flickered for a moment before returning to casting a steady, even glow.
Seeing Alan rounding the counter at the other end of the room on his way to clean off a recently vacated table, Raymond said, “Alan, I'd be happy to take a look at the light fixture for you. It's flickering again.”
“Is it?” asked Alan with a good natured smile and a glance at both Raymond and the no longer flickering light. “I've checked it twice on your advice and there never seems to be anything wrong with it. I think you're pulling my leg.” He finished with a chuckle.
Liss stuck her head out of the kitchen, took in the room, nodded hello to Raymond, and returned to whatever it was she had been doing.
“I'm not,” Raymond protested. “It flickered.”
“I'll tell ya what, Raymond,” said Alan. “If you'll go over and spend time with your friends who've been waiting for you, promise to try the soup, and be honest with me about it, I'll check the light again tonight after we close.”
“Fair enough,” replied Raymond with false solemnity which elicited a hearty laugh and a clap on the shoulder from Alan.
“I'll bring you and the girls out some soup, bread, and some fresh coffee.”
“Thanks, Alan,” said Raymond. The mention of soup and the smells of Liss's bread made Raymond's stomach remind him that he hadn't eaten a real meal all day.
Raymond joined Sarah and Bianca at their table and said, “Before I forget, Binx, my mom and dad say hi.”
Bianca smiled back at Raymond and replied, “How are they? Is your mom still giving piano lessons?”
“They're good and yes. You should come over some time and sing with her. I know she'd like that,” said Raymond adding with an impish grin, “So what'd the two of you do today? Pillow fights in lingerie?”
“No, you goof,” said Sarah taking a swipe at his upper arm. “Girls don't actually do that.”
“Sarah drove me over to my parents' house to get some of my things,” sighed Bianca.
“Oh,” said Raymond his demeanor switching over to sympathy. He took Bianca's hand and asked, “Did that go... OK?”
“Sort of. No. I don't know,” said Bianca her eyes welling up with tears but her jaw set in anger.
“Mrs. Flores wasn't home and Mr. Flores pretty much ignored us,” said Sarah. “We weren't there long.”
“When I told Daddy I loved him and asked how Momma was, he just said she was at St. Thomas praying to the Madonna for me,” said Bianca angrily.
“We got her things from college. Most of it was still packed,” said Sarah then turning to Bianca and taking her other hand she continued, “You've got your essentials and like I said you can stay with me for however long.”
Bianca nodded as tears began to stream down her cheeks. Raymond let go of her left hand and got her a napkin from the table. Bianca dabbed at her eyes and looked up at each of them saying, “I don't know how I'd get through this without you guys. Thank you.”
“Your welcome,” said Raymond sincerely, then, “Now can we go back the part about pillow fights in lingerie? Cause I don't believe that isn't a thing.”
Bianca hiccuped a sudden laugh and Sarah rolled her eyes before joining the other two in laughter. They were still trying to compose themselves when Alan arrived with three bowls of soup, a basket of steaming bread, and a fresh carafe of coffee including a mug for Raymond. He smiled at each of them as he placed things on the table in front of them and then produced a small cupcake that he placed in front of Bianca saying, “Welcome home.”
“Oh, thank you, Alan,” Bianca said beaming up at him. “And thanks to Liss too.”
“You are very welcome, child,” said Alan with a warm smile adding, “I hope you'll sing for us one of these nights.”
“I sure will,” Bianca promised and Alan walked away to tend to other patrons.
They dived into their meals. Raymond burnt his fingers a little on the still hot bread and alternated between blowing on his fingers and blowing on his bread to cool it enough to eat. The soup ended up being a creamy split pea that Sarah commented might have been made with peas from Alan and Liss's garden. It was excellent and they made certain to tell Alan so on his next trip past their table. The Book and Bean was busy that night so that as much as they loved hanging out there, they made plans to leave when they finished their dinner to give other patrons waiting for a table a place to sit and eat.
“So where to from here?” asked Raymond adding his share to the money the other two had placed on the table to pay for dinner.
“Well, Binx and I had talked about all of us going out to Jubilee to look at the stars,” said Sarah, referring to a state park not far out of town.
“And sing at that pond with the great echo,” chimed in Bianca enthusiastically, almost bouncing in place.
“I'm sold on the idea. The weather is supposed to be nice. Are we going to stay out there all night and camp?” asked Raymond.
“Sure,” said Sarah. “I've already packed some stuff in my car. We can just walk from the campground to the pond Binx likes.”
“Alright. Let me run home and get a change of clothes and whatnot.”
“OK. We'll pick you up there. No sense in taking two cars,” said Sarah.
“And we'll pick up some beverages on the way,” said Bianca and then, “What?” when the other two exchanged a look.
“Just one bottle of wine tonight,” said Sarah.
“Yeah, my liver isn't really evil, just naughty, and I punished it enough last night,” quipped Raymond.
“Lightweights,” teased Bianca, but agreed to the one bottle limit.
Raymond dashed home and threw a few things into a duffle bag. And then stuck his head into his parent's back door and called out, “I'm going camping at Jubilee with Sarah and Binx.”
“OK, Ray. Have fun. Take bug spray,” called his mother, Ruth, from somewhere inside the house.
Sarah's small, black, four-door car pulled up in front of the garage and Raymond jogged over to it. He opened a back door and followed his duffle bag in. “Onward, to adventure!” he exclaimed dramatically over the music blaring out of the stereo.
Within a few minutes they were pulling into the camp ground area of the park. No one came out of the camp office to greet them, but the park was obviously open with the gates unlocked and the open signs up. Raymond got out and looked in the window of the camp office.
“OK. Where's the dude?” asked Bianca from the passenger seat.
“I dunno,” said Raymond. “Maybe he ran and errand.”
“Well, can we just leave a note in the drop box?” asked Sarah. “I'd like to get our camp set up before dark.”
“Yeah,” said Bianca.
“I don't see why not,” said Raymond. “Got a pen and paper?”
“Yep,” said Sarah handing over a small notepad and pen. “According to the sign we'll owe $30 including firewood.”
They pooled their money and Raymond jotted down a quick note telling the campground attendant where they were going to set up and what time they got there. Then he folded their money into the note and put it through the slot of the drop box. In another minute he had loaded two small bundles of firewood into the trunk and they drove off deeper into the park.
As they rounded the bend in the park's road to first parking lot, they noticed a large silver sedan backed into the space closest to the trail that led to the camp site they planned to use.
“Oh, poo,” said Sarah. “It looks like someone is already there.”
“There are plenty of campsites up there, Sarah. Let's at least take a look. Maybe they won't be near us,” offered Bianca.
“Yeah, don't be so anti-social,” teased Raymond.
“I'm not,” pouted Sarah parking next to the other car. “I just don't like other people.”
They got out and walked the short distance to the campsite they wanted in a wooded clearing along one of the trails leading to the pond that Bianca liked so much just a few hundred more yards into the woods. It was empty.
“See, they're someplace else,” said Bianca happily. “We've got the place to ourselves.”
It wasn't dark yet as they finished carrying everything from Sarah's car. With hardly a cloud in the sky it promised to be a good night to see some stars and maybe some meteors.
The sun settled into a warm glow on the western horizon. It's fading light filtered through the trees around them casting diffused shadows on their campsite and an even deeper gloom in the undergrowth among the trees. Sarah was nearly finished putting up the tent they could use to escape mosquitoes as they slept. Bianca was carefully arranging firewood in the little ring of rocks that defined the fire pit of their campsite, while Raymond shook the flashlight and banged it against his palm in a vain attempt to get a little more power out of the batteries.
“It's no good,” he finally admitted. “The batteries are dead.”
“Well then we'd better get the fire going,” said Sarah.
“I'm on it,” said Bianca, striking a match into the bed of dry grass she had arranged among the sticks and split firewood she'd placed. In moments the fire was reducing the grass to blackened straws, spreading onto the kindling, and curling the splinters of the firewood. “There we go,” she said leaning back from the flames and adding another piece of wood to the top of her growing fire.
“With no flashlight, maybe we ought to just visit the pond in the morning,” suggested Raymond sitting at the campfire.
“Yeah,” said Sarah wryly joining them. “We can all get up at dawn, go for a run, and Binxs can sing at the pond after.”
“Yes, to singing tomorrow,” said Bianca popping open the bottle of wine and then making a face at Sarah, “But no way, to getting up at dawn or running.”
The firelight flickered and jumped among the gathering shadows, casting an orange glow about them as they sipped wine. The Sun's light became just a faint haze, low in the west, cradling a tiny sliver of the setting crescent moon, barely brighter than the light pollution of Peoria to the east. The three of them sat around around the fire and gazed up at the sky, which continued to darken, passing into a deep blue dotted with at first just a handful of stars and then an increasing number as the fainter ones stood out against the fully dark sky.
“There's one,” Raymond pointed at the fading streak of a falling star.
“I saw it too,” said Bianca excitedly. “Did you catch it, Sarah?”
“Just out of the corner of my eye, I think. It was kinda that way,” Sarah gestured, “Moving from north to west, right?”
“Yeah,” said Raymond after a moment of consideration. “If that's north,” he said pointing in a vaguely northern direction.
“Yep,” confirmed Sarah.
“Well then, we all saw it,” announced Bianca. “We have to make a wish.”
“OK, what will we wish for?” asked Sarah and then added a sharp, “No!” shaking her finger once at Raymond as he opened his mouth to speak.
“What? I was just going to suggest-” he said with his tone and face expressing as much innocence as he could muster around his grin.
“Don't go there, Ray,” Sarah interrupted. The beginnings of a smile betraying the humor behind her preemptive scolding of his unspoken innuendo.
“Adventure,” said Bianca.
“Adventure?” asked Sarah. “Like what?”
“You know. Excitement. Opportunity. Like Ray said earlier, 'Onward to adventure!'”
“Did I say that?” asked Raymond.
“Yep, when you got in the car,” replied Sarah.
“Well that doesn't sound like me at all. What are we, pirates looking for buried treasure?” Raymond teased. “Let's wish for-”
“No!” laughed both of the girls.
“OK OK,” laughed Raymond along with them, throwing up his hands in defeat. “Adventure it will be.”
“Yeah. Adventure,” said Bianca and then adding with her eyes drifting off a little, “Just a little distraction from life's problems.”
Sarah reached out to Bianca and took her hand saying quietly, “We're with you no matter what. Everything will be OK.”
Raymond held Bianca's other and reached out towards Sarah around the fire, “Absolutely.”
Sarah took his outstretched and they all three stood and held hands in a circle around the fire and whispered, “Adventure.”
They stayed like that for a few heartbeats as crickets chirped in the trees and their campfire popped and hissed between them before starting to smile at how silly they were beginning to feel. Then Raymond said in a Marvin the Martian voice, “Adventure. We said adventure. Where is the Earth shattering adventure?”
They all three dropped hands and bent over in peals of laughter that left them gasping for breath. Just as they were starting to recover from Raymond's well timed joke, there was a bright flash of light from the north followed by a tremendous bang that literally shook them off their feet. Moments later, muddy water rained down on them as they struggled unsteadily to their feet, looking in the direction of the explosion.
“What the hell was that?” exclaimed Sarah.
“It came from the pond,” said Bianca pointing up the trail in the direction of the pond where she liked to sing.
“I think that was the pond,” said Raymond wiping dirty water from his eyes and pointing at a fish flopping weakly on the ground nearby.
The woods went silent around them as the last of the pond water fell. The only sound was the hissing of their damp campfire and their own breathing until the night air was pierced by a discordant, roaring shriek that reverberated in their chests and hurt their ears. It was even louder than the explosion that preceded it and sounded like all the rage and pain of the world had been given a single inhuman voice to cry into the dark. Driven to their knees with hands over their ears, Raymond, Bianca, and Sarah trembled in fear and pain as the horrible sound slowly relented its assault, trailing off like a mournful lament that brought tears unbidden to their eyes.
Bianca stood first and stepped towards the trail leading to the pond.
“Binx, where are you going?” demanded Sarah, still crouched near the sputtering fire.
“Some... thing needs help. Can't you hear it? It's in pain and it's afraid,” said Bianca urgently.
Raymond wobbled to his feet looking with uncertainty in the direction of the pond and the explosion and that terrible scream. “Maybe, but it also sounded... pissed. What on Earth makes that kind of sound anyway?”
“It was like a lion,” said Sarah standing up and then shaking her head, “Or maybe an eagle.”
“Like the T-Rex in Jurassic Park,” said Raymond his eyes wide.
“Yeah, sort of, but scarier and... at the end it was...” said Sarah.
“Anguished,” said Bianca finishing Sarah's thought. “Come on. Let's go.”
“And do what? Help a T-Rex in distress? How are we supposed to do that?” demanded Sarah.
“I don't know,” said Bianca over her shoulder starting up the trail. “But you heard it. We can't just do nothing.”
Sarah and Raymond exchanged a quick look and started after Bianca. The trail quickly got hard to follow as they left the weak light of their dying campfire behind. It was dark in the woods with the canopy of leaves overhead blocking even the feeble starlight. Clustering together, they stumbled a little way up the trail, trying to rely on their outstretched hands to guide them as much as their eyes. Until Raymond stopped suddenly.
“Hold up,” he said digging into his pocket. He pulled out his cell phone and opened its home screen.
“Who are you calling?” asked Bianca impatiently.
“No one,” said Raymond pointing his cell phone as makeshift flashlight at the trail ahead of them.
“Clever, boy,” said Sarah patting Raymond's head as she and Bianca did the same.
“I have my moments,” said Raymond with a nervous smile and started up the trail adding, “I just wish I had brought fresh batteries for the flashlight.”
“Well, the phones aren't perfect, but this is better than groping in the dark,” said Sarah as the continued forward.
“Oh, I wouldn't be so quick to dismiss a good grope in the dark,” chuckled Raymond over his shoulder.
“You walked right into that one,” said Bianca to Sarah with a wide smile.
“Yeah, well, better one of Ray's corny jokes than a tree,” said Sarah stepping around a low branch at the edge of the trail.
The three of them continued through the woods by the weak electric glow of their smart phones. In minutes they were only yards away from where the trees opened up around the pond. The ground was treacherously slippery and the leaves around them were coated in dripping mud. As they approached, they could see faint light through the trees and hear low voices too indistinct to understand.
“What's going on out there?” whispered Sarah.
“I don't know,” answered Raymond coming to a stop, his voice low too.
“I can't see from here,” Bianca said, putting her phone away and creeping forward to peer around the last of the underbrush and trees blocking their view of the pond.
“Binx!” Sarah exclaimed, her voice rising a little.
“Shhh!” hushed Bianca then turning back towards her friends she whispered, “Look at this, you guys.”
Raymond shrugged and held out his hand to Sarah who took it. Together they eased up to where Bianca was crouched and tried to make sense of the scene before them. The pond was unrecognizable. Its former banks, irregularly shaped and gently sloped, had been replaced by the vaguely circular, steep walls of a muddy crater. Almost all of the water was missing, blown away perhaps by the explosion they heard earlier. Only a relatively small pool of muck remained at the bottom, littered with what looked like a jumble of oddly shaped, radiantly burning timbers. Steam and smoke rose, under lit from below, casting dull light on the area.
Part way around the gaping hole were a group of six people. One stood a little away from the rest, holding a pearlescent glowing sphere about the size of a basketball. The rest were milling about around a shape on the ground and talking in low, weary tones. After a brief conversation, two of them bent over and came up holding a limp body, its head dangling and throat open in a deep slash. They carried it to the edge of the crater between them.
“Oh, no,” gasped Sarah covering her mouth with the fingers of her left hand. Raymond swallowed heavily, gripping her right hand.
“I think that was the campground attendant,” whispered Bianca in horror.
“Yeah,” agreed Raymond hoarsely.
Swinging it in unison between them a couple of times the two men threw the dead body into the center of the boiling, burning crater below. While the rest were distracted by that, the man holding the gently swirling ball of light was backing away from the rest. He had covered more than half the distance to the trail where Raymond and the girls crouched when a commanding male voice called out to him loudly.
“Lidmann, where do you think you are going?”
The man holding the sphere, apparently called Lidmann, replied, “Sorry, Wedolian. A dragon's soul is just too valuable to simply hand over to you,” he said patting the ball of iridescent light. “But thank you for your help, I couldn't have captured it without you and your Warlocks. You've made me a very wealthy man.”
Lidmann raised his hand and made a chopping gesture through the air. Immediately the space between him and the others erupted in a series of smokey flashes and concussive thuds that knocked most of them off their feet, sending the rest coughing and scrambling for cover as Lidmann sprinted away. Right towards Bianca, Raymond, and Sarah.
“Oh, shit,” said Bianca.
Someone on the far side stood up and pointed a thin object at the fleeing man. A crackling bolt of bright light shot from it narrowly missing Lidmann, explosively splintering the trunk of a tree as he ran past clutching the iridescent ball in both arms.
“Be careful, you fools. You'll destroy the orb,” shouted the commanding voice. “After him!”
“Oh, shit is right,” said Raymond standing up. “We better get out of here.”
“You think?” asked Sarah sarcastically as she and Bianca got to their feet too.
The running man noticed them standing across the trail at that moment and slid to a stop, blinking at them in confusion from only short distance away. Behind him the splintered trunk of the tree creaked and groaned as it gave way, beginning to fall towards the mouth of the trail.
“Who are you?” gasped Lidmann breathlessly. His drawn, narrow face flushed from exertion and fear, illuminated by the swirling, pearlescent orb cradled against his panting chest.
“Look out,” screamed Bianca, pointing at the falling tree and drawing the attention of the other people.
He glanced over his shoulder and seeing the tree rushing down at him tried to start running again. His feet slipped on the muddy ground sending him sprawling. Instinctively he put his arms out to break his fall, letting go of his prize which arced away as the heavy limbs of the falling tree came crashing down upon him. The glowing ball of writhing light was battered by smaller branches, adding to its momentum and sending it bouncing along the ground to land at the feet of Raymond, Bianca, and Sarah.
Sarah's face was paler than usual as she stared at the crushed, twisted body under the tree. “I think he's...”
“Dead,” finished Raymond.
Bianca nodded numbly.
“He dropped it and he's got help,” yelled someone from the far side of the crater.
“Kill them all! Get my orb!” shouted the commanding voice angrily.
A flash and bang went off in the branches of the fallen tree that partially shielded them from their nearest pursuers, followed immediately by a narrow beam of orange light that sizzled through the air from the far side, igniting leaves and low branches over their heads.
They screamed in alarm and ducked down, swatting burning leaves from their hair.
“There are three of them,” shouted a harsh female voice.
“We've got to get out of here!” said Sarah, staying low and backing down the trail behind them.
Bianca turned as though to follow and then hesitated.
“Binx, let's go,” said Raymond gesturing for Bianca to follow Sarah.
Bianca reached down and pulled the glimmering orb from the mud.
“Come on, hurry,” urged Sarah.
A brightly sparking bolt of light smashed into a nearby tree, showering Bianca and Raymond with splinters.
“You OK?” asked Raymond.
Bianca nodded, “I think so.”
“Then, run,” said Raymond pushing Bianca ahead of him towards Sarah.
They all ran away, down the trail towards their camp. Sarah led the way, setting a rapid pace and waving her cell phone wildly in front of her to light her path. Bianca and Raymond followed as quickly as they could, relying on the light from the orb Bianca was carrying to stay on the trail.
There were sounds of smashing wood coming from behind them and shouts of impatient anger.
They broke out of the woods and into the little clearing where they had planned to spend the night. Raymond stumbled to a stop, breathing hard. Bianca took a few more steps and collapsed, sitting on the ground, the orb still clutched in her arms.
“Keys,” panted Raymond, bent over with his hands on his knees.
“Go, go to the car,” Sarah motioned at her friends. “I'll get them.”
Raymond nodded breathlessly, pulling Bianca to her feet and towards the short trail that led to the parking lot. Together they hurried tiredly onward.
“Why did... you take... that?” asked Raymond between labored gasps, glancing at the orb.
“I don't... know,” said Bianca. “Didn't seem... right to... leave it... with them.”
There was a rapid series of bangs and shouting from behind them. Running footsteps closed in on them and in another surge of adrenaline they pushed harder, sprinting the last of the distance to the parking lot. They turned at Sarah's car, looking behind them, just as Sarah charged out of the trees, her keys held out in front of her.
The car lights flashed as the doors locks clunked open. “Get in, get in,” called Sarah running towards the driver door.
Raymond threw open the two doors on the passenger side and practically dived into the rear seat once Bianca was in the front. Sarah jumped behind the wheel and jammed her keys into the ignition. The automatic headlights shone on the trail head in front of them as the car started, where a woman appeared, running towards them. Each of her hands was curled around a blazing fireball, her mouth widening in a sadistic smile.
Bianca and Sarah screamed, then Sarah slammed her car in reverse. The car tires spun in the gravel of the parking space as they accelerated backwards. They bounced onto the asphalt road, the front end of the car swinging wildly around as Sarah twisted the wheel. Raymond was tossed around the back seat, first to one side and then the other. The car lurched to a sudden stop and Sarah flung the transmission into 'drive.' Looking out the left window he saw the woman outside pull back an arm as she ran past the silver sedan towards them.
“Go, go, go,” yelled Raymond.
The woman threw a fireball just as Sarah stomped the accelerator and the car sped forward. The flame splashed against the side of the car, spreading orange fire over the rear door and window. The flash of light and sudden radiant heat caused them all to scream. Sarah nearly lost control and the car pitched about as she fought to keep it on the road.
Raymond looked out the rear window and saw the woman stop in the road behind them, two of her allies joining her. She paused for a moment and then threw another fireball in a high arc at them. It fell erupting on the road in front of the car. Instinctively Sarah wrenched the wheel to the side to avoid the flames, putting the car halfway off the road. As they passed the fire, a narrow beam of orange light sliced at the car, severing the driver side mirror from the door in a shower of sparks.
“Shit, shit, shit,” muttered Sarah, gritting her teeth in concentration.
Ahead the road curved. Sarah jerked the wheel in tiny movements as she fought to steer the car back onto the road. The car bounced and weaved as all four tires regained traction and she aimed the car around the bend, leaving their attackers behind and out of sight.
The flames on the side of the car sputtered out as Sarah drove quickly along the park road to the highway that would take them back to Peoria.
“I don't see anyone behind us,” said Raymond looking out the rear window and then leaning forward between the front seats. He asked, “Is everybody OK?”
“I... I think so,” said Bianca.
“Yeah,” said Sarah.
“That was...” said Raymond.
“Crazy,” said Bianca her face aglow from the cracked orb in her lap.
“I was going to go with 'scary as hell' but crazy works too,” said Raymond.
“Well, we did wish for adventure...” said Sarah dryly, prompting tension relieving laughter among the three of them as they put distance between themselves and the terror behind them.
© Copyright 2011 Bill Hickey
No, you cannot copy or use any part of this prose without my expressed, written permission.