Qualified Entry: Fiction Category
By: Caroline Jensen
It was a Friday night. We had arranged to meet at The Catcher’s Mitt at nine o’clock. I arrived at quarter after, knowing that Edith was always at least half an hour late. It was now almost ten o’clock, a covert glance at my cell phone told me, and there was no sign of my friend. I had tried to phone her but she wasn’t answering.
I sat on the bar stool clutching my vodka and orange, wondering why on earth I was still friends with Edith. She was so unreliable. But she was a whole lot of fun when she finally showed up.
A man’s trousered knee touched my stockinged one as he climbed onto the stool next to me. I felt a little shock and tugged at my mini skirt wishing I had worn jeans instead. I looked up into piercing green eyes.
“I’m sorry,” he said in a silky voice. “I didn’t mean to be familiar.” He smiled, showing perfect white teeth. He swept his black hair back from his forehead with a sweep of his hand, a gesture that would have looked ridiculous and pretentious on anyone else.
There was something oddly familiar about him, although I knew we had never met. I was praying that Edith did not choose that moment to arrive, breaking whatever spell this man had me under.
“Theo,” he said, offering his hand.
“Patti,” I returned, taking it. His hand felt big and warm and comfortable.
I downed the last of my drink and he ordered me another. I took out a cigarette, instantly regretting it.
“I’m trying to quit,” I explained weakly. I clumsily dropped my lighter. As I prepared to get off the stool to retrieve it he laid his hand on my arm. “Don’t move,” he said, not taking his eyes off of me as he retrieved the fallen item.
He lit my cigarette – just like in the movies.
I couldn’t stand the silence so I blurted out, “I haven’t seen you here before.” I felt instantly stupid.
“I’m not from here,” he replied.
My fresh drink arrived and suddenly I was very thirsty. I took a couple of large swallows knowing that I shouldn’t have.
I jumped as my cell phone jingled in my purse. I reached into the side pocket and pulled it out. It was Edith.
I flipped it open, turning slightly away from Theo. “Where the hell are you?” I asked as loudly as I dared.
“I’ve had an accident,” Edith explained.
“I’m all right. It was just a fender bender, really, but we have to wait for the police to get here. I was hit from behind and I took out a stop sign.”
I could feel Theo’s eyes on me.
“I can barely hear you above the music. I’ll go into the bathroom.” I said, sliding off my stool. I turned to Theo. “Excuse me. I’ll be back.”
“I know you will.” He said confidently.
The ladies room door closed silently behind me and muted the bar sounds.
“I don’t know if I’m going to make it. I have a headache.” Edith was saying. “Are you okay there alone?”
Any other night I wouldn’t have been.
I blurted out, much to the disgust of a young girl coming out of a stall, “Edith, I’ve just met the most amazing guy!”
“Again?” My friend said sarcastically.
“No, really, I have such a feeling about this one. It’s like…It’s like, oh, I don’t know, this is a movie and your accident was fate and….”
Edith cut me off. “How much have you had to drink?” She asked jokingly.
My phone beeped. “Oh, Edith, my phone is dying. I forgot to put it on the charger. Edith? Edith?” But she was gone.
Exiting the bathroom I could see Theo sitting in the same place, the stool – my stool – beside him empty. That was highly unusual in this place on a Friday night. When one body vacated a stool, ten were lined up to take its place. This was too good to be true. Theo must be saving it for me, I thought excitedly. Yes, yes, this could be it. He could be the one. I pushed and shoved my way through the noisy crowd, hurrying towards my stool, my Theo, my future. Before I could sit, Theo whispered something in my ear – I could not hear what it was, but in the next instant I felt light-headed, and he was leading me towards the exit. Had he slipped something into my drink? He opened the exit door and I felt the hot June air hit me like a furnace in spite of the fact it was nearly midnight.
I hoped that I was not taking a journey into Hell, but I couldn’t seem to stop myself from sliding into the car seat as he held the door open for me.
I pulled the thin sliding door open. I stepped over a sill and out onto a planked sidewalk.
Where was I?
How did I get here?
Had I been drugged?
Was I dreaming?
Was I dead?
What was going on?
I stepped off the wooden planks and onto the grass. It felt like cashmere under my bare feet. I glanced down and wondered where my shoes had gone. I was still wearing my mini-skirt and I immediately felt self-conscious.
I was propelled by some unknown force on a trajectory towards two rock towers. They were about twenty feet square at the bottom and built like a rock climbing wall. It looked formidable at first, but as I started to climb it felt perfectly natural and I ascended with ease. As I reached the top, about thirty feet above the ground, I saw that it had narrowed into a smaller square opening with low stone walls and benches. Several people were sitting on various sides looking out over the hilly terrain. I followed their gaze and my eyes fell upon a stunning view of green rolling hills and trees that seemed to reach out to an impossibly blue sky. It was so bright I had to shield my eyes and cast them downward where I spied a girl below in a yellow sundress. I was wishing that I was wearing that dress instead of my mini-skirt. I felt a tingling all over my body and terror gripped me. Something was happening to me. But as I looked downward at my torso I could scarcely believe I was wearing the very same dress. How it had happened I didn’t know. I looked over the wall again and the girl continued walking, still wearing the same dress. The girl bent to pick a daisy and I thought my eyes were deceiving me when I saw the flower grow back immediately.
Was I hallucinating?
Where was Theo?
I turned my head and he was standing two feet behind me.
“Where am I?” I asked cautiously.
“Where do you want to be, Patti?”
“I want to be…” Where did I want to be?
But he was gone again.
I descended the rocks the way I had climbed up. I was dying for a cup of coffee. When I reached the ground I turned around and a restaurant stood right before me. I slid the door open and stepped in.
A brief second of panic set in as I realized I had no money. What had happened to my purse? I didn’t see him but I heard Theo’s voice. As if reading my mind he said, “Have whatever you want. There is no currency here.”
At the table in front of me there was a cup of steaming hot coffee. I sat down and took a sip. It was the best I’d ever tasted.
I could smell roast beef and it occurred to me that I was hungry. When had I eaten last? Where had I eaten last? No sooner had I thought that I wanted a big plate of roast beef, mashed potatoes, peas and tons of gravy, it appeared in front of me. I ate the whole thing, unconcerned about calories.
Surely I must be dreaming.
When I was done the huge piece of hot apple crisp and ice-cream I went back outside. I spied an old woman rocking in a chair. She looked harmless enough. I circled around her like a buzzard, but she did not seem to notice me.
I walked up to her and asked, “Can you tell me what time it is?”
“There is no time,” she laughed, and went on rocking.
“What do you mean there is no time?” I said, panicking. Was I going to die very soon?
“No time. Just this time. The present.” The old lady’s voice was melodic. I realized she was singing. Her voice was sweet, like that of a young girl.
“What day is it?” I tried again.
“Today. Today is the day,” she sang again, her head bobbing from side to side.
She must have dementia, I decided.
I saw a road, which wound through some trees. The trees formed an archway which beckoned me. I started to walk down it and could not stop. One foot placed itself in front of the other as if I was on some kind of auto-pilot. As I proceeded down the meandering path I noticed that the scenery remained the same. I continued to walk, focusing on a single pebble. It never moved although my feet were. It was as if I was walking on a treadmill or in some kind of virtual reality gym. I reached out and touched a leaf. It was as real as anything I had ever touched.
The rocks beneath my unclad feet were smooth and round and comforting. It was as if someone was massaging my feet. Okay, so I’m dreaming and Theo is giving me a foot massage back in his big bed.
I wandered along aimlessly wishing I was out of the infinite path. And just as I thought it, I was in a clearing with people all around. They were engaged in various activities. There were people walking, sitting on stone benches or rattan chairs, or just standing around chatting. Some were in groups, some alone. There were card games and chess and checkers being played. Loners under trees were engrossed in books. There were tennis, badminton, volleyball, basketball and baseball games underway.
I watched with interest as people joined the game and dropped out at random with not so much as a ‘goodbye’, or ‘see you later’ or ‘I’m going to sit this one out’.
I played checkers with an old man. I let him win. When I got up someone took my place.
I mixed batter for cookies.
I played a game of tennis, and won, which was interesting because I had never played the game before (although I’d always wanted to).
It seemed like whatever I wished for came true in this place. It was like paradise.
I stood still in the ambient air. There was no wind, not even a slight breeze, like there was a complete absence of oxygen, yet every breath tasted delightfully of clean air.
Where ever I was, this place was almost perfect – almost. But I felt lonely. I missed my family and friends.
I tried to remember how I got here.
I wanted another cup of coffee. And cake. Chocolate.
I headed back to the eating place.
It was there that I met Christina.
I was absorbed in the most delicious caramel apple torte (I had already devoured a piece of chocolate cake) with a side of tea when she plopped herself down beside me.
“Hello,” She said. “I’m Christina.” She was about my age, tall, willowy with long flowing black hair and eyes to match.
“Patti,” I returned. She didn’t offer her hand so I didn’t offer mine.
“You may ask me four questions.”
The words ‘why four?’ almost tumbled out of me mouth but then I thought she might consider that one of the questions. I wanted to ask: Am I dead? Is this Heaven? Am I on another planet? Am I drugged? Am I in another dimension? Where the hell am I?That was seven questions.
“Where are we?” I tried.
“We are here.”
“But where is here?”
“Where ever you want to be,” she replied. Riddles again, just like the old woman. Did everybody suffer from dementia? Would I become like them?
I thought about all the coffee I had drunk. “Why are there no bathrooms and why don’t I feel the need to go?” Was that one question or two?
Christina explained with a chuckle. “There are no bodily functions here. Going to the bathroom is a primitive reaction to eating and drinking substances. We are past it.”
Past it? I didn’t understand. I had one more question left that I could ask her, unless she wasn’t counting. “What about bathing, showering, washing our hair, brushing our teeth?”
“There is no need. You will remain as you came here.”
“You mean I will never get old and die?”
“You are taking advantage of me now. I think you have had your quota of questions. But I’m in a good mood today,” Christina said. “You are right. You will never get old here. There is no birth or death, or sickness in this place. You will never get fat, no matter how much you eat. Nothing about you will change – unless, of course, you wish it.”
I was mulling over what she had told me when she disappeared without saying goodbye.
Never get old? Never get fat?
I had to find her again. I had to find Christina. Or what about Theo?
As soon as I thought about him he appeared by my side.
“How many questions do I get to ask you?”
“Ah, you’ve met Christina, then.”
“She said I could ask her only four questions.”
He threw his head back with a laugh. “Oh, isn’t Christina a hoot? She loves to play games.”
“It seems like everyone likes to play games here.”
Theo just stood there smiling.
“Why am I here? Why are you here? Who are you, Theo?” I was becoming more confused by the second.
“I am who you want me to be. You know that, Patti.”
I started to berate him when my first realization struck me. I knew who Theo was. I knew why he seemed so familiar in The Catcher’s Mitt. Theo was my perfect man. The one I had been looking for all my life. I had manifested him. Tall, dark, handsome, smart and well mannered. And this place was my perfect world. A place where I excelled in everything I did. How often had I wished that I didn’t have to go to work or do any of the mundane daily chores? That I could do what I wanted, for as long as I wanted, without repercussion? A world without responsibility.
Even though this didn’t quite make sense to me at that moment I thought that I might be starting to understand. But in the next blink of my eyes, that understanding was gone.
“Why can’t I wish my family and friends here if I can wish for everything else?”
“You can only control your own destiny. You can’t control others. But you already knew that, Patti.”
Theo and I walked along the path. “When do I get to go home?” I asked after a brief silence.
“Do you want to go home? Back to your old life?” Theo asked.
Was he trying to trick me? “I miss my friends, my family. If I can’t have them here…”
“Ah, yes. Well, you can go now if you wish.”
“Right now?” I wasn’t sure I wanted to go back at that exact moment.
We came to a clearing and I looked in the direction of his pointed finger and saw a ship docked. “There is the boat to take you back.”
“What about you, Theo, do you want to go home?”
“I passed up the chance to go home, so now I am stuck here for all eternity.”
“What do you mean you passed up the chance?”
“You only get one chance to go home,” Theo explained.
He shrugged. “That’s just the way it is. You only get to make the decision once.”
“What about your family?”
“To them I am dead.”
I was getting confused again. “But you came to The Catcher’s Mitt?”
“Your imagination brought me there.”
“Are you saying you don’t really exist?”
“Of course I do. I’m here aren’t I?”
I couldn’t take anymore riddles. I just wanted to go home, but not just yet.
“How long do I have to decide?”
“As long as the ship is docked.”
“How long is that?”
“You know there is no time here. It leaves when it leaves.”
“So, if the ship leaves I’ll never be able to go home again?” I asked.
“That is correct.”
“And if I walk back there,” I pointed over my shoulder with my thumb, “I will be here forever?”
I stood looking at the boat. I had more questions to ask, but Theo was gone.
I wanted to ask him if he regretted his decision to stay in this place. Whether he had wished he had gotten on that boat. I wanted to ask him what the ratio was of people who stayed and those people who left.
I wanted both worlds. I wanted everything. But I couldn’t have it. I had to make a choice. I could hear my mother when I was twelve years old shopping for shoes. I found two pairs that I really loved but I couldn’t have both. So I made a choice. And all summer long I wished I had picked the other pair. But if I had picked the other pair I probably would have wanted the ones I chose. This choice was going to be harder than choosing a pair of shoes.
I wanted to stay in this paradise where everything was ideal. I could have what I wanted and be who I wanted and not have to lift a finger. No calories, no diseases, no death. Maybe it would get boring here after a while. There would be no challenges.
I thought about my old life. It wasn’t so bad. I thought of Edith. I thought of my mom and my brother. Life just wouldn’t be the same without them.
I decided I wanted to go home. I walked toward the ship, hurrying my pace as I got closer, fearing it would leave without me. When I was just about at the gangplank I hesitated, taking a final look back. I could see Theo and Christina in the distance. I couldn’t tell if they were waving goodbye or beckoning me.
I stepped onto the boat.
Then I changed my mind.
I turned around to disembark.
But it was too late. The ship had left the dock.
My cell phone rang. “Hello?” I said sleepily.
“Where have you been?” It was Edith. “You were gone all weekend. I’ve been trying to get hold of you since yesterday morning. I even went to The Catcher’s Mitt last night to see if you would show up. That place was really hopping.”
“All weekend?” I asked incredulously. “What day is it?”
“It’s Sunday.” My friend answered.
“What time is it?” I asked, remembering the old woman’s response to my questions.
“It’s six o’clock,” Edith stated.
“Six o’clock? What the hell are you doing calling me at six o’clock in the morning?”
“It’s six p.m. I’ve been trying to get hold of you all day. Where have you been? I was getting worried about you. Thought maybe you’d been murdered or that guy had you tied up with duct tape over your mouth in a basement somewhere.”
“All weekend? I was gone all weekend?” I reached over to the night table for my cigarettes and took one out of the pack. I looked at it and was repulsed at the thought of drawing smoke into my lungs. I knew I would never smoke again.
“So give me details. That guy must have been really something. What did you do?”
“I quit smoking.” It was the only thing that made any sense at that moment. It was