Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Solving the Puzzle (a serialized short story): Part 3 of 7

Author's note: I've written quite a bit lately, though I haven't shared any of it publicly. This story was written based on a single word prompt ("Solve") and it's quite different than most of the other stories I've written. I hope you enjoy it!


I had no real game plan and my meager meanderings around my neighborhood proved that handily. Most businesses kept their doors closed even during the workweek , so I drifted in and out of dimly lit entryways, hoping to find one of the local merchants available for a short heart-to-heart about my erstwhile roommate. We did all of our shopping in the immediate area, so the storeowners knew us by name, if not by the merchandise we bought from them.

After two hours of random visits to our favorite haunts, I was fast coming to the conclusion that this exercise bordered on the pointless. The more I walked, the more I resented Sherri’s wrong-headed departure, made even worse by the fact that she had apparently not arrived at her prearranged destination.

I stopped on the sidewalk in a fit of pique, determined to dismiss her from my brain much like she disappeared from my life. At that moment, I looked up and found myself standing in front of the All-Seeing Eye Bookstore, a hang-out for mystics and misfits and coincidentally, one of Sherri’s favorite spots when she was feeling a bit put out by something I did or didn’t do, depending on the circumstances. Much to my surprised, I saw the friendly “Open” sign lighted up, so I walked up the short flight of steps to the entrance.

“Hello,” the cashier said, looking up from her magazine. “Looking for anything in particular?”

“Um, no,” I told her, heading to the bookcase farthest from her. I could see her watching me out of the corner of my eye until I stepped out of her line of sight. Two women stood behind me, talking about some book they just found.

“Yes, I saw her on Oprah,” the shorter of the two said, a redhead with a bowl-shaped haircut, her skin the color of strawberry ice cream and just as pock-marked.

“How did she sound?” her friend asked her, clearly anxious to hear how her favorite author came off on national television.

I didn’t stick around to hear the details of their heroine’s tawdry promotion to Oprah’s adoring fans and instead slunk to the back of the shop and around the other side. Another youngish woman stood browsing the titles on the shelf and didn’t notice me in her vicinity until I brushed passed her.

“Oh!” she said, a bit startled. “Sorry, I thought I was alone.”

I was about to apologize when she held up her hand and stared into my eyes. I got the sense she wasn’t all there and hoped this wasn’t going to be one of those weird San Francisco encounters I try to avoid like a root canal.

“What?” I found myself asking in spite of myself.

“You’re here for a reason,” she told me, closing her eyes, her hand still aloft in front of my face.

“Yeah, to buy a book,” I said, sliding past her and heading back to the front of the store.

“Wait!” she insisted, now holding up both hands as though she was trying to will me to stay in one place. “You’re not here to buy a book.”

I laughed, uncomfortable at being caught in a lie. “Then why would I be in a bookstore on a Sunday then?”

For a moment, she didn’t reply and I smiled, secretly pleased with my having so easily stumped.

“You are looking for somebody,” she said, her eyes shut tight enough to highlight the wrinkles on her forehead and alongside her eyes. For a moment, I tried to figure out how old she really was, but then came back to the moment, annoyed that she felt like she had to be in my business.

“Who am I looking for?”

“It’s a woman, I’m sure of it.”

I shook my head. “Look, lady, I’m just here to buy a book, okay? It’s my niece’s birthday and she asked me to get her something different.”

If she knew I was lying, this time bald-faced, she didn’t indicate that. She kept her eyes closed, continuing to concentrate on what I now guessed were my thoughts. Great, another Bay Area psychic, I thought to myself, almost sneering. That was one of many things Sherri and I didn’t agree on at all. Anything remotely connected to the occult drew her in, while it repelled me just as equally.

“You’re looking for a woman,” she repeated. “She’s gone and you’re trying to find her.”

I shook my head again, enough so she could probably hear my brains rattling this time. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, so if you’ll excuse me, I’ll be leaving you now. Have a nice day, you freak.”

Before she could say another word, I stormed up the aisle, determined to get out of that store and away from the weirdos that patronize these kinds of places.

“She left you,” the woman called out to me. “Last night, in fact, right?”

I turned around and saw her gesturing toward me, her eyes now wide opened, a smirk on her face. What the hell was going on? Did she know Sherri and this was her way of screwing with me? Am I going to go back to the apartment and find Sherri back home, her luggage sitting in the foyer, waiting to be unpacked?

“What do you know about me?” I asked her, inching my way back to where the woman stood. “Why are you bothering me?”

The woman shrugged, lowering her hands. I could see from a distance she had tears in her eyes and on her cheeks. I fought the urge to run out of there, but I had to know what she knew, no matter how painful it was.

“So tell me,” I demanded, standing right in front of her.

“She suffered a lot,” the woman continued, grabbing one of my hands and holding it between her own. “She loved you, but you treated her badly. She had no recourse but to leave you.”

I looked down at her hands grasping mine, fighting back my own tears.

“You could’ve saved her.”

“Save her from what?” I said, looking at her with desperation. “Is she okay?”

The woman shrugged and dropped my hand. “She’s in a better place.”

“You mean she’s … ?”

“That’s all I know. Good luck with your life,” she said, and with a wave of her hand, she dismissed me, sharing nothing more.

I realized I could argue, cajole, attempt to bribe and generally browbeat this woman, but she wouldn’t submit to my demand to know what she meant. Whether she had psychic powers or not wasn’t clear, but that’s all I was going to learn today. I mumbled my thanks and hurried out of the shop. No one was more surprised that I was to find myself standing outside the bookstore, crying.

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