Category Archives: Dourwood

2.37.b Your Presence is Requested

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(This was as far as we got unpacking the basket when the Beagle and his Human walked by the 1st time!)

Unfortunately, due to the diet of worst-case-scenarios, my subconscious fed my waking mind all day. Wood and I arrived at Remembrance Park ninety minutes earlier than anticipated. Add to that the number of dogs who apparently called this neighborhood home, Wood and I discovered a few more people lurking in and around the pocket-sized park than expected. 

All of whom eyed our plethora of provisions warily – the humans, not the dogs – the pooches didn’t bother to give us more than a passing sniff.

Due to the aforementioned number of canines out on their nightly constitutional, Wood and I wordlessly bypassed the park’s fringe of grass and set our supplies on the single picnic table it offered to its patrons. 

By the time I’d inflated the solar camping lanterns, using my mighty lung power, Wood had finished disseminating the acrylic blankets between our persons and the table. And one nosey neighbor worked up enough nerve to lazily paraded his beagle past us.

The Beagle’s Companion (pointedly glancing at his watch): “Evening.”

Me (giving him a friendly smile): “Evening.”

Wood, ignoring everything other than the nibbles, started making quiet nummy noises over the wax wrapped sandwiches, cartons of sides, and thermoses of coffee inside the hamper. From the corner of my eye, I watched the Beagle lead his Companion around the base of the statue, past a trashcan, and behind the diminutive gazebo. (While endeavoring to keep Wood from spooning all the baked beans onto his plate.) By the time the two reemerged on the other side, we’d finished doling out our spectacular spread.

The Beagle’s Companion (craning his neck ever so slightly to take in our heaving table): “Evening.”

Wood (bobbing his head): “Evening.”

The Beagle, apparently annoyed at the lackadaisical pace, strained against his leash towards the street. No longer occupied by laying the table and unable to face my plate or wait until the dog & his human walked out of sight, I wobbled off the bench.

Me (gathering up our debris): “You start, I’m going to get this out the way.”

Wood, who’d just taken a sizable bite of a chocolate cupcake, nodded. 

Putting my feet on auto-pilot. I followed the line the Beagle took around the statue to the trashcan, using my Knack to scan for the lingering Vita leftover from the unknown Errant’s Flare. What I read left me torn between engaging in a wild bout of weeping or succumbing to a fit of giggles. 

Either way, the knots in my stomach slackened.

Disposing of my handful of detritus in the trash, I continued around to the back of the dainty gazebo, pulling up only after I lost sight of Wood and the Beagle’s overly interested Companion. Working quickly, I pulled the pen knife out of my pocket and used its keen edge to prick both my thumbs. Stepping into the shadowy interior, carefully crossing its creaky floor, I paused for a moment at the park-side entrance to give the thread of lingering Vita a quick tug.

Me (my exhaled words bellowing in the cold air): “Abraham, please meet me here tonight.”

Pressing my bloody thumbs on the posts on either side of the entrance, I set the beacon. Finished, I danced a happy half jig all the way back to the picnic table.

Wood (turning in his seat at the sound of my shoes scuffing across the pavement, shot me a grin): “If we start dancing underneath the full moon, someone will definitely call the cops on us.”

Me (sitting down at the table): “Okay, no dancing.”

(Thankfully, Wood chose not to question what I cut my thumbs on – he just passed me his travel-sized first-aid kit.)

Wood (piecing on the morsels left on his plate): “So how did you plan on passing the time until your guy arrives? I assume you brought something in those bags…”

Me (replying thickly between bites of potato salad): “Parlor games.”

Wood: (in mock disappointment): “Parlor games? You invite me out for a spot of midnight Moon Bathing, and you brought tiddlywinks? Wow, Morticia….”

Me (grinning around a bite of bacon/beef/elk meatloaf sandwich): “Never fear Dourwood Utley I’ve devised something more diverting than tiddlywinks for you.”

2.37.a Moon Bathing

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Tooting the Princess horn, I waited for Wood to meet me in his drive. Restless, I pulled my phone out of its holder on the dash and dialed Big Ben’s number. Listening to the first note of the overly familiar out-of-service message start to play, I hung up, wishing I didn’t feel a little disappointed every time he didn’t answer. 

Tossing the phone in the cupholder, I closed my eyes, leaned back, and rested my palms against the steering wheel.

Visualizing Ira’s enigmatic envelope, I counted my breaths and tried to calm the fork down. Unfortunately, my brain took this as a cue to replayed the memory of the Woman In White’s hand plunging into my chest, trying to strip my Vita. Then, and more disturbingly, my mind morphed the memory into a nightmare – by showing me the Woman In White killing Wood instead. 

My brain wasn’t being remotely helpful presently – in case you’re wondering.

Tossing aside the advice of gently noting the negative thought, then letting it go, since my little grey cells decided to play the vision of Wood dying on a loop (quickly converting my insides into a mass of quivering jelly). I dove directly into the heart of the maelstrom instead. Reminding my troubled brain that an encounter with an Errant did not automatically lead to them trying to strip one’s Vita. A Woman In White of the caliber I encountered earlier this year is extraordinarily rare. And the majority of Errants aren’t mad as hatters. 

Even more promising, the Errant in Remembrance Park warned Orin off. 

Plus, I packed fifteen pounds of the purest salt in my pack….and stashed another fifteen pounds in the Princess’s trunk….

The rationalizing helped, the sheer quantity of salt on hand helped more – but neither completely dispel my wibble wobbles or made the memory of the Woman In White retreat entirely. 

Drat my brain.

Taking one last lung-busting breath, I held it until the count of six then slowly exhaled to the count of twelve. Whilst not precisely calm, I did manage to unlock my elbows, stop pressing my back against the seat, and unclenched my death grip on the steering wheel. 

Reopening my eyes, I caught a bit of movement in my peripheral vision, cracking my neck as I turned it, I found Wood waving at me. Leaning over, I unlocked the Princess’s door and let him in.

Me: “Why didn’t you knock?”

Wood: “You looked like you were having a moment.”

Nodding, because it was true, I started backing the Princess out of Wood’s drive. Wood scenting the air like a bloodhound, pivoting in place, then stared at the provisions I’d packed in the backseat. 

Wood: “We’re going on a picnic?”

Me: “Sort of, I thought I’d take you Moon Bathing.”

Wood (flatly): “Moon Bathing.”

Me (stepping on the gas): “It’s like sunbathing but safer?”

Feeling his eyes on me, I continued to concentrate on my driving. This morning on Uncle and Aunt Pearl’s back porch, we’d managed to nail down the time and place I’d pick him up from for our nocturnal adventure. But before I told him the whys, my bleary-eyed cousins meandered into the kitchen and started bellowing for their children. The Niblings wisely evaporated into the wilderness I’d successfully hidden in the evening before. Leaving Wood and I to explain that yes, indeed, we made three kinds of pancakes, bacon, eggs, fruit, and coffee for breakfast. Bequeathing them, as is our family tradition, an unholy mess to mop up in exchange for our early morning culinary efforts. 

(They’d needed a stepladder to wipe up all the spatter.)

They were in a more forgiving state of mind after they’d sampled The Stack. Hopefully, so would Wood after he saw what I’d packed.

Wood (staring at me steadily): “Morticia, why are we Moon Bathing?”

Taking a deep breath, I gave Wood the exact level of truth I thought we’d both be comfortable with. (It’s also one of the reasons why I’d stuff the picnic basket with his most portable favorite foods).

Me (turning onto a side street): “I need to talk to a guy at Remembrance Park. The thing is I don’t know when he’ll turn up, and I didn’t want to wait alone. So I thought we could give Moon Bathing a try.”

Wood digested my explanation. He finally broke the thoughtful silence when I pulled the Princess next to the curb a half a block down from the park.

Wood (releasing his seatbelt): “This guy, does he have anything to do with our Agreement?”

Me (busying my hands): “Tangentially.”

Wood: “So, Moon Bathing is a smokescreen?”

Me (sighing): “Yes.”

Wood (bouncing out of the Princess): “Fantastic!” 

2.36.b Sunday Morning Pancakes

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Giggly voice number one: “Her eyes are open, and she’s sitting up.”

Muffled voice number two: “Is she wearing pants?”

Giggly Voice number one: “Nope.”

Catapulted from my revere, I rotated my head and discovered a dark eye below a mop of darker curls surveilling me through a crack in the door. Giggly voice number one, aka my niece Ruby, squealed in response to my regard and attempted to flee the scene – only to plow into and knock over her older brother Theo whom she’d forgotten was standing behind her.

Theo (yelling and kicking the door open wider): “GET OFF ME!”

Ruby (crawling up Theo’s prone form): “She saw me! She saw me!”

Technically the niblings aren’t supposed to open bedroom doors (even temporary ones), but they know I’m a soft touch. 

Me (grinning): “Pipe down guys, or you’ll wake the whole house. Let me find my pants, and I promise I’ll be right there.”

Ruby (streaking down the hall and into the kitchen): “She’s coming to help! She’s coming to help! Auntie Morticia will tell you huckleberries don’t go in……”

Me (getting up to check on her still flattened brother): “You okay down there?”

Theo (groaning): “No, she punched me in the stomach.”

Me (looking down at him): “You gonna be okay, or do you need some ice?”

Theo (clutching his middle theatrically): “No ice.”

Me: “You lay there for a minute while I change.”

Theo (wheezing): “Okay.”

Closing the door, but keeping an ear trained in Theo’s direction, I hastily swapped my pj’s for jeans, a t-shirt, and sneakers. I grabbed my pack off the floor and Ira’s mysterious envelope off the desk and reopened the door in four minutes flat, finding Theo sitting cross-legged in the hall.

Me (standing in the doorway): “Feeling better?”

Theo: “Yup.”

Me (helping him up): “So what’s happening in the kitchen?”

Theo (falling in step with me): “Uncle Wood thought it might be fun to try making something other than banana pancakes for breakfast.”

Me (grinning): “Ruby’s not having it?”

Theo (returning my grin): “Nope.”

The pandemonium promised by Wood’s proposed shift to the Sunday Morning menu didn’t disappoint. 

Upon entering the kitchen, Ruby attempted to enlist my aid in explaining to Wood why banana pancakes were the only proper breakfast dish. My oldest nephew Avery stood at the stove carefully cooking bacon, loudly disagreed with his cousin, and extolling the virtues of his dad’s apple cinnamon pancakes. His younger twin sisters Iris and Violet, who didn’t seem to have a stake in pancake controversy, stood at the table enthusiastically mixing bowls of dry ingredients together. Inadvertently haloing their heads in flour and thoroughly coating the tabletop, floor, and aprons with a fine white dust. Wood, who was keeping a close eye on Avery, shot me a mischievous grin and started opening a can of pumpkin puree – sending Ruby into a near apoplectic fit.

Theo drifted towards his cousin, the stove, and the plate of cooked bacon. 

After reassuring Ruby, she’d get her beloved banana pancakes sans apples, pumpkin, chocolate chips, pears, huckleberries, and lingonberries. I crossed the kitchen, set my stuff down next to the door (well out of range of our enthusiastic cooks), donned an apron, and entered the fray.

Forty-seven minutes later, after brokering a pancake peace accord for the ages the niblings, Wood and I sat down at the table to eat. 

Theo, inspired by Scooby Doo’s infamous towering sandwiches, decided to create a new Sunday morning delicacy he named The Stack. Six alternating layers of banana, apple and pumpkin pancakes with pumpkin butter (think peanut butter only made of pumpkin seeds) and bacon between each layer, topped with maple syrup and more bacon. His culinary experiment intrigued everyone, so we all tried our hand at creating this concoction. (Save Ruby, who refuses to acknowledge the existence of alternative pancake flavors.) 

It was surprisingly tasty. 

Demolishing their Stacks in a nauseating spectacle, the niblings now hyped up on bacon, syrup, and carbs took off out the back door making enough noise to wake the dead, the neighbors, and their parents – in that order.

Deciding discretion the better part of valor Wood and I abandoned the kitchen, after making sure the food stayed warm, and there was enough coffee made, to keep an eye on the kids playing in the back garden. Leaning back in the deck chairs, our tummies full of warm autumn spices, we sipped our coffee contentedly.

Wood: “Any big plans today?”

Thinking of the paper-wrapped puzzle in my pack (the real metaphorical carrot helping me bypass my dread), I recalled the deal Wood, and I struck not so long ago.

Me: “Maybe. When’s Laney coming home from the conference again?”

Wood (arching an eyebrow): “Monday. Why?”

Me (warming both my hands on my mug, staring straight ahead): “What are you doing on tonight round about midnight?”

Wood: “I’d planned on sleeping. But I gather you’ve got a counteroffer?”

2.35 Lillith vs. Morticia

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(Yeah, the Halloween mock-up looks just as silly in my mind’s eye as I thought it would!)

Wood, knowing the answer to my question, finished the rest of his beer in one long pull and left to fetch another. 

I’d texted him the news the moment Leo and I parted ways in the Rusty Hinge’s parking lot. The string of emojis he sent back mirrored my own thoughts on the matter. 

On the other hand, my cousins, close to succumbing to sugar comas, only showed a flicker of interest in my intelligence. Though in fairness, their comatose states were enhanced by twenty-five minutes of sprinting from pillar to post and beer. 

Fortunately, nothing, including Morpheus’s sweet embrace, could tamp down Dwight’s professional training and natural curiosity. 

Dwight (visibly forcing the word out): “Who?”

Lounging on the veranda’s railing, as was my custom, I was perfectly placed to watch their reactions in the dim light radiating from the open kitchen door – only Uncle was inscrutable. Sitting, as was his habit, in the comfy chair at the farthest end of the porch fully engulfed in shadows.

Me: “The Brownie Stealing Bench, Josie Reville.”

A collective groan, plus a few choice words, filled the air (the Mynah birds were out of earshot ). 

During the ensuing silence, due to everyone taking a healthy slug from their bottles, I’d have bet money that my relations were replaying a dusty old memory starring Josie and her pack of sycophants. (I wasn’t the only one she’d used to sharpen her poisonously honeyed tongue, just the first of us to ping her radar.)

A disturbingly loud crash from the kitchen treat makers and Susan’s subsequent shout of ‘everyone’s fine’ broke the spell my words had unfortunately cast over the party.

Jesse (sounding confounded): “Did Lucas open a hell-mouth under Rye to lure her back?”

Me (giggle snorting): “No, she’s not vying to reign over hell, Western Regional Bank made her their Chief Loan Officer.” 

Dwight (absently): “Don’t discount the whole Queen of Hell thing entirely.”

Tad: “She’d make a good Lilith though, using her position in the bank to corrupt the hearts of men. Oh! If it helps, we could change your nickname to Sabrina. You already have that luscious red coat, and if you adopted a black cat and named him Salem, you’d really be cooking with gas.”

Carefully backing out of the screen door, Wood reemerged from the kitchen, his hands occupied by a tray ladened with the next round of brown bottles, which we proceeded to helpfully lighten for him. Only Dwight and Uncle declined seconds.

Wood (chiming during the distribution of beer): “Never gonna happen, Morticia Addams would never allow an upstart like Lilith steal her crown.”

Me (laughing): “Plus, I look terrible as a blonde.”

Wood: “That too.”

Sealing our complete agreement, which may or may not be rooted in an unfortunate episode of summertime boredom and an old bottle of peroxide, we clinked our bottles together. 

Jesse (stretching his legs out): “Hate to rain on your parade, but isn’t Lilith literally biblical in origin? Morticia Addams is just a shade over eighty. Lilith would wipe the floor with her.”

Tad (happily diving into the debate): “Wrong part of the multiverse. The original Archie comic version, Madam Satan, is two years younger than Morticia. Lilith, from Netflix’s Chilling Adventures, is less than three years old. Making Morticia the hands-down favorite in a face-off!”

Jesse: “The story is three-ish years old I grant you, but in the Chilling Adventures, Lilith was the second person ever to walk the earth and was literally taught magic by Lucifer. No dice beans and rice.” 

Winding up for the defense of his stance, Tad took a deep and audible breath.

Knowing from prior experience, their bickering over pop culture spin on for hours without any outside help. (And I knew Robbie, who’d just joined us from the kitchen, mug of chocolate in hand, would be unable to resist throwing Dr. Who’s Missy into the mix.) I decided to track back to an earlier point in the conversation. 

Me (looking at an inattentive Dwight): “How exactly can Josie become Queen of Hell?”

It took Wood tapping him on the shoulder before he resurfaced, requiring me to repeat my question.

Dwight (raking his hands thru his hair): “While I was covering the Grindle trial for the paper, I overheard a rumor…”

Wood (grinning): “That Rye really is built on a hell-mouth?”

Dwight (missing Wood’s comment he shook his head): “No, though that might make interesting copy for Halloween, I heard Lucas might be retiring soon.”

Robbie (leaning against the rail next to me): “So? He’s about the right age, isn’t he?”

My cousins reflected a similar sentiment back to Dwight. Wood and I exchanged uneasy looks.

Dwight (clearly still having only half his mind on our conversation): “That’s what I thought too. Which is why it seemed odd that the person repeating the rumor was warned they’d lose their job if word got out they blabbed. So I did some digging in the Harvest’s archive. Do you know how Lucas Reville got his start on the city council?”

We all shook our heads in unison.

Dwight: “He took over his Uncle’s seat midterm. Apparently said Uncle caught scarlet fever as a child and developed a significant heart murmur later in life. After it was discovered and on the advice of his doctor, he retired immediately. Making use of a little known bylaw that allowed a family member to assume his post mid-term.” 

Tad (making the connection Dwight laid out): “At least if Josie was crowned the Queen of Hell, she’d be out our hair, do you really think……..”

The niblings, hopped up on cayenne and chocolate, unintentionally cut Tad’s appalled question off by exiting the kitchen en masse. Jesse and Tad’s lot set about pleading their case to sleepover at Uncle and Aunt Pearl’s house while Susan and Dylan’s two started entreating Robbie, Ian, Dwight, Wood, and I to camp out with them in the living room. 

2.34.b Olly Olly Oxen Free

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(This was the lure Aunt Pearl placed before us to get my cousins and I to comply with her ‘photo op’!)

Tad was slicing himself a second piece of cake when I stole into the kitchen, returning my puckish grin he saluted me with a wave of the cake knife. Easing open the screen door, Squiddy and I slipped onto the back porch and quietly shut it behind me. Tucking in next to Wood, who’d stationed himself in the patio chair next to the dinner bell, he handed me a beer he’d had waiting at his elbow.

Wood (softening his voice): “You’re losing your touch Morticia, twenty minutes?”

Me (twisting the cap off my beer): “The small fry were harder to fool than my cousins.” 

Speaking of those five adorable lookouts, they’d shifted from shouting out hints to peppering my cousins with questions. 

Do you see her dad? / Uncle Ian, do you want to borrow my flashlight? / Did the blueberry bushes just move? I’m pretty sure I saw it move! / Can I try looking? Please! / Have you ever caught Auntie Morticia dad? 

Uncle (sounding amused): “Once or twice.”

Dylan (over his shoulder, his eyes still scanning the yard): “More than that!”

Me (blandly): “Not since we were twelve, and I figured out no one cool wears neon.”

My reply sent a laugh rippling across the line of lookouts – because both Dylan and Ian’s frolicking kitten t-shirts sported a neon hue – pink and orange, respectively. A minute ticked by, then two, but none of the kids registered who’d made the funny, which sent a corresponding ripple of stifled chuckles thru the adults seated behind them. About the time I figured the only way they’d work out I was literally standing under the dinner bell was by ringing it, my youngest niece grew bored with her peripheral participation in the game and turned around.

Standing still as a statue, I watched Ruby’s eyes wander down the line of dim adult silhouettes until they landed on Aunt Pearl – three seats away from me.

Ruby (trying a parental end-run): “Grandma, can we make special coco now?”

Aunt Pearl (a smile in her voice): “It’s a little late, dear, you need to ask your papa if it’s okay.”

Intent on securing a cup of cayenne laced dark chocolate coco, her gaze slid right over me and on to Tad standing just inside the screen door on my left. The other kids perked their ears up but continued to keep their eyes aimed forward.

Ruby (squinting): “Papa, can I have some special hot coco?”

Tad (trying hard to contain a laugh): “After you find your Aunt Morticia.”

Ruby (expressively exhaling): “But it’s taking forever! And dad won’t let us help…”

Smothering a wide grin, I leisurely raised my hand towards the leather strap attached to the bell’s clapper, blocking her view of Tad’s face for a few seconds. When she succumbed to a fit of giggles, I knew my hint had been successful.

Ruby (pointing at me still tittering): “Now, can I have some special coco?”

Aunt Pearl (getting up): “You can be my sous chef.”

This appointment instantly redirected the other nibling’s attention off the backyard and spawned a chorus of protests. (Aunt Pearl’s helper gets to lick the pan – after it’s cooled sufficiently.)

‘Why does she get to be the sous chef?’ / ‘She hasn’t found Auntie Morticia’ / ‘That’s not fair!’

Ruby (thrilled at the chance to cover herself in glory): “Oh yes, I did! She’s right there.”

Pandemonium broke out on the back porch as the kids followed Ruby’s pointer finger and realized they’d been outfoxed. The adults split a seam, the lookouts started hollering for my cousins, and I rang the bell ending the game. 

By the time my cousins slowly rambled across the lawn, joining the rest of us on the porch, the nieces and nephews were in a full-tilt-tizzy; trying to figure out how I’d snuck past them, how long I’d been standing behind them and why Squiddy covered in fir needles….Aunt Pearl, heading off the inquisition, brought a bit of peace to the proceedings by herding the niblings inside to help her concoct the hot cocoa. 

My cousins didn’t bother to ask how I’d outflanked them – the liberal distribution of dirt and detritus on Squiddy, and I told the story. Though they did give me a series of high-fives, attagirl’s and a few friendly pats for Squiddy. (I did divest myself of my cephalopod friend, draping him over the bracket holding the bell, I needed a reprieve from his woolly magnificent.)

So after a quick detour to collect our promised slices and scoops (Wood and Uncle following us in for their second helping of dessert and Tad for his third), we regrouped back on the veranda and started talking about this and that. All of us keeping a half an ear on the din emanating from the kitchen – the clanging of pots and pans, opening and closing of cupboard doors, smacking of spoons against the rim of metal bowls, laughing and chatter – as the kids prepared their treat.

After a short strolling down memory lane, namely other epic bouts of kick the can, we fell into a comfortable silence. 

Right up until I tossed a tiger into our midst.

Me (glowering at my beer): “You’ll never guess who I ran into the other night…”

2.25.b Today Only! A Three For One Special!

IMG_5519(The corner doesn’t allow photography….)

Why am I standing on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet? 

Again.

Today was supposed to be nothing but fun, food, and home movies – not no-win scenarios. Though I guess most people who find themselves standing under this streetlamp often wonder how things went sideways so fast. (Jake Gittes, Hamlet, and Captain Kirk habitually find themselves here – in case you’re wondering).

The impossible choice facing me today? Either I place Wood at risk, or I risk damaging our friendship.  

For one hot second, I thought about putting pen to paper without harboring any intention of abiding by the agreement. However, the same little voice in my head, which caused me to confess in the first place, wondered what kind of friend perpetuated that kind of fraud on another. 

It also pointed out that that level of deceit guaranteed a visit to the Corner of Bitter and Sweet every time I spoke to, hung out with, or thought of Wood. Until I either I confessed to my sins (and hoped he didn’t unfriend me) or we stopped hanging out all together, drifted apart and stopped being friends.

Both my conscience and I agreed all those eventualities sucked. 

Walking over to where Wood was sitting by the window, I dropped bonelessly into the chair opposite his.

Me: “Can I think about it overnight?”

Wood: “Nope. Either sign it and let me into the weird frontier or don’t.”

Me (speaking slowly due to a brainwave): “Then, there are a few stipulations I’d like to include.”

Wood (leaning forward, eyes gleaming): “Let’s hear them.”

We haggled, finagled, dickered, bickered, bartered, and bargained, but eventually, we hammered out an agreement we both found acceptable. 

Wood’s original terms remained unaltered, though he did manage to wrangle an addendum out of me. Should he be out of town or sick when I needed help, either I enlist a stand-in or wait until he could participate. (Thus closing a loophole that hadn’t occurred to me.)

In return, I managed to pry two significant concessions from Wood. 

First, while accompanying me on an outing, he needs to follow my instructions, even if they sound mad, to the letter. Second, I could decline to answer any question he poses without any followups or pouting. 

Violating my terms will require the forfeiture of his vintage volume of Sherlock Holmes published in 1892. 

Fair’s, fair after all.

It wasn’t until the hopping herd of hares (Laney, Beatrice, and Sarah) started setting out the spread that Wood and I noticed ninety minutes ticked off the clock during our wheedling and dealing. However, rather than trying to talk his way out of the Office, Wood leaned back in his chair and gave me an impish grin.

Wood: “Do you think they’ve finished prepping for the party?”

Me (pausing mid pen stroke): “Wait, is that why you were early? Did you know about our party before you arrived?”

Wood’s grin turned wicked. 

Me (placing a note of warning in my voice): “Dourwood Utley, did you know?”

Wood (plucking the signed document out of my hand): “Just thought I’d allow you to clear your conscience.”

Me (aghast): “You tricked me into coming clean?”

Wood (inking his name below mine): “Morticia, I know you did your best to keep your promise. I also know you’d beat yourself up until you ended up confessing, apologizing, and forking over the book anyway. I don’t ever want to make you unhappy. So I figured out a way to fast-forward your process by a couple of months and give you a do-over.”

Taking a deep breath, I held it until the count of twelve, then steadily released it. (Trying to tamp down the heartburn and indignation his statement filled my chest with. It didn’t help he made a valid point. Drat him.) 

Wood: “Forgive me?”

Me (sighing): “Maybe…But how did you figure out I broke our original agreement?”

Wood: “I saw the Princess parked in front of The Alter.” 

Me (rolling my eyes): “Of course you did. And the party?”

Wood (now grinning): “The Smurf Spectacular part Two? I’m not telling.”

Me (wicked smile of my own spreading across my face): “Oh, our party doesn’t feature Smurfs.”

Wood (looking dubious): “But Laney said….”

Me (holding out my hand): “Gentleman’s agreement, I’ll forgive you and tell you about our theme. If you promise not to complain about today’s feature presentation and tell me how you found out.”

Wood (suspicion plain upon his face): “Deal.”

Ignoring the groans my explanation of today’s entertainment produced, as Wood’s not particularly keen on watching his Gran’s home movies, I moved on. (For him they are akin to Aunt Pearl’s appallingly stylized holiday family photos. The difference being in his Gran’s videos she coos over Wood’s performance the entire time and interjects random stories, which may or may not be relevant to what’s happening.

Me: “Your turn spill, how did you find out?”

Wood (looking at his feet ruefully): “Laney talks in her sleep.”

Me (laughing): “Well, that explains a few things.”

2.25.a Kobayashi Maru

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(Our first agreement…seems a bit tattered…)

Me (ignoring his glee): “I pulled my bookshelves apart looking for something yesterday, but if we work together, it shouldn’t take too long to locate Chamber of Secrets.”

On the upside, at least I found a sliver of a silver lining to the mystifying vanishing act pulled by my copy of Nevermore’s Conventions. It will take well over an hour to excavate the aforementioned book from the jumbled up piles currently cluttering up most of my bedroom floor (especially if I’m only helpful adjacent). 

Hip, Hip, Hooray for my hapless housekeeping!

Wood (leaning against the desk): “Do you really want to break your set?”

Me (shrugging): “Not particularly. But a deal’s a deal.”

Wood (looking frighteningly thoughtful): “Well, you did do pretty well following doctor’s orders….”

Me (tilting my head): “Except when I didn’t.”

Wood (ignoring me): “…and I don’t want an incomplete set either…”

Me (squinting): “Does one book really count as a set?”

Wood (still ignoring me): “…perhaps our first deal wasn’t entirely equitable since you were under the influence of painkillers and hurt at the time…”

Me (eyes goggling): “First deal? That implies there’s a second…..wait, are you saying you want to make another deal?”

Wood (snapping his fingers at me): “That sounds like a great idea!”

Letting me stew, Wood pulled a documents folder from beneath his Gladstone, unzipped it, and handed me a crisp sheet of paper.

Me: “Ummm…..”

Wood (giving me a tight grin): “Here it is, either we stick our original bargain, and you can grab me Dobby’s first adventure with Harry Potter while I head to the kitchen to see what smells so good. Or we sign this new deal, and I’ll stay in here until the cabal decides they’re ready for me to join the party.”

Me (mind working at warp speed): “You came prepared with a new deal? You couldn’t know I was going to confess. I didn’t know. I might have tied you to a chair.”

Wood: “Do you own any rope?”

Me (narrowing my eyes): “Not the point…Wait…You knew I broke our deal before you got here today, didn’t you.” 

Wood (giving me a smile that nearly reached his eyes): “Sure did.”

Me: “How?”

Wood (chuckling): “Later. Now read my proposal.”

Me (wrinkling my nose): “Fine, Mephistopheles.”

Wood settled into the window seat to wait with his feet up while I paced the length of the room, evaluating the particulars and subtext layered into the few short sentences.

At first glance, his deal sounds chillingly reasonable. Should I ever find myself entering a situation where I know – ahead of time – I might come to harm. I am required to bring Wood along as backup. No questions asked. If I break said deal, I forfeit my entire run of signed first print Harry Potters to him.

Putting a pin in the fact, Wood’s incapable of restraining himself from asking questions and my lack of discretionary income (blowing twenty to thirty grand rebuilding the set if I lose it isn’t in the cards).

Accepting the proposal means potentially; placing him in harm’s way if I misjudge a situation and/or causing irreparable damage to his professional reputation should we get caught performing marginally illegal, supremely weird, or inexplicable acts. (Which, if you haven’t already figured it out yet, occur more often than not when Nevermore requires my aid.)

Neither of my points adjusted his attitude a whit. He simply stated he understood the risks, has complete faith in me and then reminded me his reputation isn’t mine to manage. (To a man who went Trick-or-Treating for the hell of it last July, I wasn’t surprised he brushed aside my appeal to his professionalism.)

Then there’s the delightful chance my extracurricular activities will convince him I’m a lunatic. (Because I don’t think telling him I’m ‘rehearsing for my improv group’ is going cut it now – especially if we’re standing in the middle of Nevermore at midnight and I look like I’m talking to myself.)

On the other hand, if I decide keeping my secrets is more important -there’s a distinct possibility my refusal will plop a permanent blot on our friendship. 

His earlier waggishness belied tension I could see radiating from his frame. Coupled with the fact a salmon would find it tough to swim against the undercurrents in the room, tells me he’d take an opt-out as a sign that I don’t trust him. (I don’t think he’ll find a shred of comfort in the fact he’s the only one I’ve ever come close to telling about my Knack, Nevermore and the Residents.)

Never mind the fact if I don’t sign, he’ll walk straight into the kitchen and ruin our surprise…

Closing my eyes, I took a deep breath…and dug my nails into my palms – finally figuring out exactly where this document places me.

Crap.

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