Chapter 1: The Universe is a Very Big Place
Spring pulled back the flap and peered into the tent. A set of red tapered candles, placed purposely on a trunk in the center of the room, provided enough light to make out the objects inside. There were old books, some heavy with dust, thrown haphazardly across crates on the floor. Recipe cards calling for strange ingredients like cat whiskers and muskrat tails were pinned to the walls. Vials of every imaginable shape and color occupied makeshift shelves along the perimeter of the tent. Their shadows cast long, ghostly silhouettes, lending an eerie credence to the atmosphere.
Lanie could throw a room together in three hours flat.
“Come in Spring,” Lanie said, and Spring jumped. She had thought Lanie to be in a trance. The woman sitting opposite her mother gave Spring a scowling look. Lanie charged by the minute and thirty seconds of her time was wasted.
“Don’t worry,” Lanie told the woman, “This is my babushka and she is learning the family trade.” Lanie had on her fake mole, her Russian voice, and perfume three inches thick. Spring felt dizzy as she tiptoed by.
Spring sat down on a large throw-pillow beside her mother and gazed into the crystal ball. Lanie swore she could see the future, but all Spring ever saw was a distorted reflection of herself, taller and skinnier and even more gawky…if that were possible. “Use your third eye,” Lanie had told her, but Spring had no idea where her third eye was kept so had to make do with the two she had.
“Will I find true love again?” The woman asked, peering into the ball, hoping to catch a glimpse of what lay ahead for her.
Lanie stared into the glass and said nothing for a full minute; a whole dollar's worth of waiting. Finally, Lanie returned her gaze to the woman. “Nope."
“Nope? What do you mean, nope?” The woman shook her head and her glasses toppled from her nose, landing atop the chest and scattering Lanie’s deck of tarot cards. “I paid you good money and you are telling me nope?"
Lanie stood, shook her arms to let the invisible tension loose, and lost her accent. “Look. I don’t need a crystal ball to tell me this. You get one chance at true love in this lifetime and that’s it."
The woman groped around for her glasses, almost knocking over one of the candles. When she placed them on her stump of a nose, she looked from Lanie to Spring and then back to Lanie. “One chance? That hardly seems fair."
Spring didn’t have to look at her mother to know that Lanie was rolling her eyes. Lanie didn’t have much tolerance for nonbelievers and even less for those who somehow believed that life was fair. “I don’t make the rules, honey. You need to take that up with the Universe."
The woman buried her face in her hands and sobbed. “What am I going to do? I’m 43-years-old. I can’t live the rest of my life alone. Oh God, what am I going to do?”
Spring wanted to go to the woman and pet her, but her mother didn’t allow anyone to touch the customers. Even the sad ones.
Lanie tilted her head and a red curl bounced near her ample bottom. Spring coiled it around her finger and released it, hoping someday she would get a wig as pretty as her mother's.
“Stand,” Lanie said to the woman, motioning for her to rise. “It’s not that bad. You’re still a handsome woman, even if you are teetering on the expiration date. Meet some men at a bar, sleep with a few of them, and then settle down with a nice banker or something. You’ll meet your true love again."
“Really?” the woman looked up, her tear-stained face taking on a look of hope.
“Of course. In the next life-time. That will be thirteen bucks."
The woman fished around in her purse and pulled out three fives. She handed them to Lanie.
“Need change?” Lanie asked, stuffing the bills into the crest of her cleavage. The woman said nothing and stumbled out of the tent.
“Thank God she left when she did.” Lanie said, reaching up the back of her multi-flowered house-dress and wriggling around until Spring heard a soft snap. “I had a wedgie so tight it was starting to cut off my circulation.” Lanie hooted and took a swig from her closest vial.
“What took you so long getting over here, young lady?” Lanie asked as Spring rifled through the Tarot Deck, picking out the pretty ones. “How can you learn if you’re never on time?"
“The road from the Ferris wheel to my tent is a straight shot. How do you get lost going in a straight line?"
Spring puckered her lips. “I don’t think in straight lines, mama. I think in starbursts."
Lanie nodded. “Just like your father."
“Mama,” Spring said, staring at the Knight of Cups. “I don’t think I wanna be a fortune teller when I grow up. I don’t like giving people bad news."
Lanie scratched her hip through a small hole in the side of her dress. The dress had seen better days, but Lanie would never part with it. “What bad news are you referring to? It’s not like I tell them when they’re gonna die."
“You can do that?” Spring asked, with renewed awe for her mother. Knowing when someone was going to die was like having a super-power, almost as good as invisibility but even better than flight.
“Of course not!” Lanie huffed. “That’s why I don’t tell ‘em. Now what bad news are you sayin’ I give people?"
“Do you really only get one true love?"
Lanie squatted down, body parts creaking along the way. “Love’s overrated Spring. If you get it once, consider yourself lucky. Life isn’t a fairytale, otherwise we’d all have our Prince Charmings."
Spring pulled her pale hair down across her face, shielding herself from her mother. There were lots of boys she thought were cute. She had even let one kiss her. She hoped she hadn’t wasted her slot already, before she even turned twelve.
“Stop it. You’ve got a pretty face. Quit covering it up. It will give you warts. Now go find your daddy and Chloe and tell them it’s corn dogs for dinner."
Spring nodded and scampered out of the tent and onto the midway, ignoring the flashing lights and the whirs and whizzes of the rides, and wondering (not for the first time) if any normal families had an extra bedroom and had ever considered adopting a pre-teen girl in need of a good home.
Spring swept through the house, gathering up all evidence of her weekend alone. Sam would be returning from his business trip today and she couldn’t endure another one of his ‘good-housekeeping’ lectures. The kitchen table was littered with candy bar wrappers, pizza cartons, and coffee mugs. Good memories, she thought, smiling to herself as she pushed it all into a giant Glad bag, secured it with a twisty tie, and tossed it onto the back porch. Next she scooped up an armful of dirty socks, hair rollers, and magazines from the living room floor and tottered towards her bedroom, hurling them into her closet. She frowned at the pile that was growing, steadily becoming an entity of its own. She made a mental note to deal with the jumble after work, but as soon as she shut the closet door the mess was forgotten.
Spring did a quick once-over of the bedroom and smiled. Not bad. Sleeping on the couch for the last three nights had left this room, at least, in pretty good shape. A little dusty, perhaps, but the bed was made and there wasn’t the usual heap of laundry sitting on the floor. She kicked a few stray shoes under the bed and moved the pillows around to give the illusion she had slept there. Sam believed that only Barbarians and Hippies slept on the sofa and she didn’t want to fall into either of those categories. She brushed her hands on her bare legs, satisfied that the place would meet at least precursory expectations.
The phone in the living room rang and Spring paused to listen as the caller left a message. It was her sister Chloe again. “Spring, I know you’re there. If you don’t pick up I’m going to hunt you down at work and tell your coworkers embarrassing stories about the time we lived in the motel with no water for seven weeks. Don’t make me go there. You know I will.” Chloe hung up.
“Dios mio.” Spring said, slapping her hand to her head and reciting the phrase her homeschool teacher, Sunshine, used to say when the kids were getting out of hand. She wasn’t sure how long she could avoid talking to Chloe, but was glad that she hadn’t told her sister that she had been issued a cell phone from work. She turned to see the blinking red lights on her alarm clock and her stomach tightened. Despite getting up an hour early and showering the night before, she was going to be late again. She pulled on the floral dress she had worn the previous day, checked for stains hidden among the bouquets of flowers, and shoved her feet into the only pair of shoes that hadn’t made it under the bed.
“Hell,” she said, running down the hall and searching for her briefcase. She had been so excited about her weekend alone –– the first time in two years she had neither the twins nor Sam to worry about –– that after seeing Sam off to the airport, she had raced back home, clicked on the TV, poured herself a glass of wine, and dumped the briefcase, not thinking about it since. She could almost feel Sam’s presence hovering over her, telling her that if she just put things in the same spot every time, this kind of thing wouldn’t happen. She pushed him away and tried to retrace her steps on her own. Door. TV. Wine. Bowl of cereal. Aha! She spun around and spied the case and her wallet, huddled cozily on the breakfast counter that separated the dining room from the living area.
“Thank you, Universe," she said aloud, raising her eyes the way her mother did when she was expressing gratitude. “Now if you will provide me with enough money for lunch, I’d be forever grateful.” She rifled through her wallet, pulled out one limp dollar bill, and sighed. The Universe gives what is needed, not what is wanted, her mother would say.
But I need to eat, Spring thought, wondering if next time she should pray to the Wendy’s girl instead. Spring tugged at her dress, willing it to lengthen. Despite her protests, Sam had thrown it in the dryer and it had shrunk above her knees. Her eyes fell to the freezer where her credit card was stored in saran wrap. I could just this once, she thought. Ten dollars won’t hurt us too much, especially if it's work related.
It was a tradition for all the caseworkers at Teens in Trouble to go to a local Chinese Restaurant on Mondays to de-stress and ‘bond as a team.’ Although it wasn’t mandatory, Jane proclaimed that it was highly suggested. Spring was about to seize the card, but resisted. If she broke down first, Sam would feel free to buy all sorts of niceties they couldn’t afford. He enjoyed the finer things in life and swore he broke out in hives whenever he had to buy anything store-brand; the decision to stop using their cards altogether had almost sent him to the emergency room. She would just have to buck up, set a good example, and take a can of soup for lunch again. I’m on a diet, she had explained the last time she had taken her own lunch to the restaurant and the ladies politely nodded and smiled. She wasn’t sure if she had fooled them before and wondered if they would buy it again. She hoped so. The thought of snooty Suzette offering to pay her way was worse than missing the lunch altogether. As she went to replace the dollar in her wallet, her eyes caught sight of the corner of a picture, hidden behind a stack of business cards.
“Trevor.” She said it so softly, barely a whisper, that she couldn’t be sure the word had even come out. She had forgotten about the picture, placed there months before, when she had been cleaning out her keepsake box. She hadn’t looked at it since and wasn’t sure why it seemed to be calling to her now. She traced her finger around the corner of it, biting her lip. Once she had known his face better than her own, but the memory was fading. She tried to mentally draw up his image but it tore apart like old paper. She should just let the memory diminish completely, she thought. Let it slip into that part of the brain where she kept her other unwanted memories. But she couldn’t. It was Trevor. She tugged at the photo until it came unlodged. His green eyes smiled at her, teasing her from behind the dark curl that fell across his forehead. “Dimples,” she said, recalling how they deepened when he grinned. She swallowed, brushing her thumb across his cheek.
She could throw the picture away now, or better yet, set it on fire. Watch his face melt and rid her of the weight she had been carrying for two years. A cleansing ritual, Lanie called it. That would be best. Besides, if Sam ever discovered that she carried a photo of Trevor Donnelly in her wallet –– and not a single photo of Sam –– he might never forgive her, and she would add another failed relationship to her list. She pinched the photo between her thumb and index finger and tightened her jaw. Maybe tomorrow. She pushed the picture back inside her wallet and hid it once again behind her stack of business cards.
Spring grabbed the briefcase, a can of vegetable soup, and her purse and moved towards the door. No time to reminisce now, she thought, dashing from the house and scrambling down the porch steps into her white station wagon. It was an ugly vehicle, rusted on one side and dented on the other, but it was one of the few things Spring owned outright. Purchased with cash after a brief stint working as The Corn Dog Girl at the State Fair in Pueblo. Popping the clutch into what was left of first gear, she hit the gas and made her way towards Teens in Trouble.
Jane’s going to be pissed.
Spring steered with one hand, putting on lipstick with the other. She merged onto the freeway and checked her reflection in the rearview mirror. The result made her grimace. It looked like Bobo the Wonder Dog had helped her with her makeup.
“Really, it’s not my fault,” she explained to her reflection as she blotted her mouth with the back of her hand. “I’m basically a single parent and I have a lot to do.” Her reflection blinked back accusingly, but said nothing about Spring’s free weekend. Spring weaved in and out of the few cars on the freeway, changing lanes and narrowly missing a silver Prius. The driver honked, flipped her off, and sped away.
“Sorry!” She called out through the open window, forcing her car into fifth gear. The wagon rattled and coughed like an old man on his death bed, but obliged.
She said a quick thank you to whatever gods governed traffic that she had at least missed rush hour as she zipped past several cargo trucks. An excuse. I need a good excuse. Dawdling or easily distracted weren’t going to cut it. She sorted through her mental rolodex but came up empty. As far as Jane knew, all her grandparents were dead as well as a few imaginary siblings. She was down to short-term alien abduction or a temporary bout of anthrax poisoning. She saw her exit, veered off the freeway, and careened towards the large brown building where she worked. At the last possible moment she slammed on the brakes, thrust the wheel to the left, and skidded into two empty parking spaces surrounded by potholes. Jane had been promising to fix the lot for a while now, but Spring didn’t mind the holes. It guaranteed her a parking spot even when the rest of the lot was full. Record time I bet! Spring smiled, but she wasn’t sure. Her watch had ceased working earlier; probably a casualty from last night’s shower. Sam was not going to be happy. He had just given her a presentation on the subtle differences between waterproof and water resistant.
Maybe Jane’s on one of her spiritual retreats. Spring snatched the briefcase and her purse ––the vortex Chloe had called it –– and ran, tripping over her shoes towards the front entrance. She carefully pushed open the door to Teens in Trouble and hoped that no one would notice her sneaking in.
“Good morning,” said Debbie as Spring entered the main lobby. Spring did a quick scan of the area and noted that they were alone. Thank the Universe. Debbie was a new hire, and more concerned with planning her upcoming wedding than reporting employee time card fraud. Spring was safe.
“Morning, Debs,” Spring smiled, putting down her bags and raking her fingers through her hair. She hadn’t been able to find the brush that morning and had tried her best to work out a knot with one of Sam’s shrimp forks. It hadn’t worked. “Where is everyone? Kinda eerie."
“Eerie is fine by me. I’d take eerie over the usual jibber-jabber anytime. Especially if it means Jane has something better to do than to ask me to staple things.” Debbie was new to Teens in Trouble and did not hide her contempt for being a receptionist. "Five years in college,” Debbie openly lamented. “And twenty-thousand in student loans. Just to be Jane’s sock puppet. But I bet sock puppets get better insurance benefits."
Spring admired Debbie’s audacity but she could afford to be cheeky. She was about to marry a doctor.
“...I think my hand is turning into a claw.” Debbie continued. “Wonder if I qualify for disability?” Debbie winked and continued her task of sorting through a box of wedding invitations, holding each one up to the light to examine something Spring couldn’t see. “Oh, that reminds me. Jane wants you in the conference room ASAP."
"Oh?” This couldn’t be good. Jane rarely asked for anyone by name. Spring quickly calculated how many times she had been late to work that month and felt the blood drain from her face. “I’m never going to see you again, am I?"
Debbie laughed. “I don’t think you have to worry. Jane seemed like she was in a pretty good mood. Hasn’t asked me to fax one useless memo yet."
Spring furrowed her brow. Jane Letch was never in a good mood. Ever. She reminded Spring of the Queen from Alice in Wonderland. Off with their heads! Perhaps there was going to be a public beheading. That would account for Spring’s summoning and Jane’s good mood. Spring swallowed, gave Debbie one last look, and proceeded down the hall to meet her fate.
The conference room door was closed but Spring could make out the sounds of muffled conversations and the scrape of moving chairs across the linoleum floor. It sounded like the entire workforce of Teens in Trouble, sans Debbie, had gathered inside. Smells of coffee and bacon wafted up under the door and Spring’s stomach lurched. She had forgotten to eat that morning. Jane rarely sprang for breakfast and Spring guessed there was slim chance anything was left.
“Serves you right for being late,” she chastised herself, secretly hoping that the laws of karma would kick in and that would be the end of her punishment.
Spring cautiously pushed open the door and peeped in. Something serious was happening. The normally disorderly conference room had been cleaned up. Five folding tables, normally used for paper sorting and party planning, had been arranged in a horseshoe formation in front of a drop-down screen. Women sat around the table whom Spring recognized as her coworkers, except for an unknown attendee in a purple suit whose name-tag read MEG. Spring gulped. There had been rumors about ‘the poor economy’ and ‘downsizing’ and Spring wondered if her time had come.
“In times like these you need to make yourself indispensable,” Sam had cautioned her, but she hadn’t listened. Now she regretted tossing aside the Seven Secrets of Highly Successful People and its accompanying day planner Sam had given her on her last birthday.
Spring tiptoed in and slipped into an empty chair next to Rebecca, the woman she shared an office with. Rebecca was picking at a hole in her paper plate and Spring noticed that everyone’s plates seemed to be cleaned. She picked up a nearby spoon and puckered at her distorted reflection, hoping her lipstick issue had been resolved in the car. Rebecca elbowed her in the ribs and Spring was startled to see that everyone was now staring in their direction. Spring dropped the spoon and it bounced twice, clattering wildly before tumbling onto the floor.
"Spring, nice to see you again,” said Jane in a sardonic tone.
Spring swallowed. Apparently her tardiness had not gone unnoticed. A few chuckles from around the table rose and quickly fell, lest they attract Jane’s unwanted attention.
Spring was about to respond but Jane continued.
“A few months ago you came up with the idea of adding a mascot to our team to help improve our recognition in the community. Do you remember?” Jane was standing now, twirling a long stick Spring had never seen before. It looked like a cue stick from one of the pool halls her mother used to frequent. Spring squinted to get a better look. Sure enough, the end was tipped in blue felt. Spring wondered which was worse: getting fired or getting hit with the stick.
“Spring?” Jane asked again. “You do remember the mascot idea, right?"
Spring nodded. The idea seemed silly now, created during a weak moment when she was low on blood sugar and watching a McDonald’s commercial. “Yes, I remember."
"Well, I discussed it with the board of directors and they loved the idea! So we hired a public relations firm to develop this. What you’re about to witness is the fruition of your dreams!” Jane directed the stick towards a closet where toilet paper and ink cartridges were stored. She tapped the door three times and stepped aside.
Jane’s face reddened and she hit the door again, this time with the side of her fist. A scuttling inside caused a collective oooh around the table and everyone leaned forward in anticipation. The door opened and a pink, pencil-like creature emerged, hopping in the direction of Jane.
“Meet Casey Condom!” Jane waved and the creature bowed clumsily in return, almost toppling over itself. “It’s not actually a condom,” Jane explained. “It’s more like a penis in Saran wrap. But we’re hoping people get the idea.”
Casey had to be at least seven-feet tall and the color and texture of silly putty. With its scarlet lips and doe-like eyes it had a distinctly feminine appearance. Casey posed on two small ankles garbed in white New Balance tennis shoes.
"What do you think, Spring? This is your baby, after all."
“I think she’s finally lost her f-ing mind,” Rebecca whispered out of the corner of her mouth. Rebecca was probably right. Ever since Jane’s husband had run off with that two-dollar-Tallahassee-tart Jane had been doing all sort of strange things. She had stopped shaving her legs, insisted all women in management cut their hair, and no longer allowed employees to discuss soap operas in the break room.
Spring pulled on the ends of her hair, letting the long strands slide through her fingers. “Actually,” she said, shifting uncomfortably in her seat, “I was thinking more along the lines of Snuggle the Dryer Sheet Bear."
The lady in the purple suit scowled. With great effort she raised herself from the chair, revealing a body that was as wide as it was tall. Her top lip quivered defiantly and Spring noticed a trace of facial hair around her mouth. She tried to look away but between the giant penis, her crazy boss, and the woman’s mustache, there was no safe place to rest her eyes.
“Casey Condom has presence!” Meg said, nodding to the majestic being beside her. “I designed her myself.” She reached out to touch the creature but Casey hopped backwards, just out of reach. “This agency has been in the Dark Ages far too long. Casey will deliver your message: Cover it up or Cut It Out!” Meg beckoned for Casey to turn around. Sure enough the words were stitched across Casey’s backside.
"I thought our message was Abstinence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder?" Spring looked around the room at the wide-eyed attendees, most stifling laughs under their hands. She checked the corners of the room for cameras. Surely this had to be a prank.
Jane pointed the stick in Spring’s direction, looking down the shaft like she were taking aim with a rifle. "Look. If it were up to me every penis on the planet would be chucked into pile of wood and burned. But some women still find them appealing. We can’t stop people from expressing their sexuality, but we can keep them from getting genital warts."
“I’m all for helping girls make informed decisions,” Spring began, feeling her voice begin to shake. “I was a young parent myself. But don’t you think this is a bit extreme?” Spring’s heart was beating so loudly she thought everyone must be able to hear it. She pushed her hands between her knees, feeling every eye upon her. She wasn’t the type to make waves, let alone openly challenge one of Jane’s decisions. She would surely pay for it.
Jane lowered the stick and cracked a thin-lipped smile in return. “My dear, you haven’t heard the best part. Your dedication to Teens in Trouble has earned you a little promotion. Meg, would you like to tell Spring how she factors into this endeavor?"
"Certainly,” Meg tagged on. She leaned forward, resting her stubby hands on the table, and looked Spring directly in the eye. "We want you to act as community ambassador for Casey Condom! Take her out and help spread the word. Jane says you will be perfect."
"Me?" Spring asked as Rebecca whinnied beside her.
“Yes.” Jane continued for Meg. “I know that you work directly with the girls right now, but I see greater things for you.” Jane twirled the stick, passing it from one hand to the next effortlessly, like a majorette twirling a baton. “And the best part is, your schedule can be a little more…flexible."
"What about Sarah?" Sarah had been hired to work with Kimberly in the communications department. This seemed like the job she should have. Jane nodded at Casey, and the condom writhed and wiggled until a messy-haired girl with a large nose emerged from the costume.
"She will be there, too,” said Jane. "You girls will make one hell of a team! Don’t let me down."
Sarah shrugged her shoulders and stared at Spring in an expression frozen somewhere between horror and apathy. Jane placed the stick on the table and grabbed her stack of notebooks and pens, signaling to everyone that the meeting was over. There were a few stifled chuckles from coworkers as the herd moved out, but no one lingered behind.
Sarah shambled towards Spring, dragging the costume behind her. It looked like melted wax. Spring touched it and quickly pulled away. It felt like those sticky hands her sons won in the gum-ball machines, cold, damp and clammy.
"They want us to go to schools, news stations, and community health fairs. They want us to march in parades,” Sarah said, gazing out the window into the parking lot. She dropped the costume, and it fell to the floor with a dull thud. “They want us to shake hands with the Mayor."
“Wearing this?” Spring tugged at the ends of her long hair. “I don’t understand why Jane’s doing this."
Sarah shrugged noncommittally. “I think we’re being punished. They haven’t said so but it makes sense. Last week I was caught eating one of Jane’s yogurts out of the fridge. It was going to go bad. The expiration date said so.” She wiped her nose with the back of one of her white-gloved hands and sniffled. “It’s not like Jane ever eats anything she puts in the refrigerator anyways."
“That’s crazy.” Spring said. “Punishing us by humiliating us?"
“Mostly you, I think.” Sarah said, nodding towards the heap of material on the floor. “I can hide. You can’t."
To read more download The Universe is a Very Big Place on Amazon for just 2.99.