art by Tihomir Tikulin-Tico
by Jacquelyn Bartel
The door swings closed with a soft click. I rest my back against it, chest heaving, as I strain to hear any sounds from the other side. My pounding heart is deafening. My eardrums pulse with its rhythms. I tiptoe across the plush, burgundy carpet and peek out the heavy curtain. The driveway is still empty. Bobby Donne is right. I am a coward.
I sink to the floor. Shivers run wildly up and down my skin. Having adventures is so much easier when I'm lying safe in bed at night. With my Scooby-Doo pajamas and my red, plastic flashlight I can be anyone; a knight saving helpless and beautiful damsels, a suave space explorer, a crafty detective who always gets the bad guy, a daring first mate on a perilous sea voyage. But in the daytime, I'm just me: weird little Casey Adams, the "Space Case" of Roosevelt Elementary.
I use the windowsill to lever up onto my knees and take a longer look outside. I have to push my glasses up my nose. They are slick with sweat. Sure enough, Bobby's still on the corner, twirling his slingshot on a stubby finger while he waits for me. I should never have taken this stupid dare.
I yank the curtains closed and lurch to my feet. I am hard put to keep my balance. Sherlock Holmes never had trembling knees. I take a pencil from my pocket and stick it between my teeth like a pipe as I survey the room with a detective's knowing eye. A glass case on the far wall looks promising. I skirt around the ivory leather couch, careful to keep my hands in my pockets. They can take your fingerprints off almost anything.
The shelves in the case hold countless wonders, though not the proof that I'm looking for. There's a claw from a T-Rex, a magic top hat, assorted teeth from a vicious sea monster, a skin from the very snake that tempted Eve in the Garden. Everything is right where Julie Gardner said. She was in here once with her mom having tea with Miss Fontain. She told Julie that her father was an archeologist and the case was full of souvenirs he had brought her. That's a weak cover story if I ever heard one. I jump backwards when I see the shrunken head and bump into a corduroy armchair. The pencil snaps between my teeth and the tangy taste of graphite makes my mouth water. I hastily shove the pieces back in my jean pocket before moving on.
The heavy scent of perfumed roses makes me sneeze as I pass the potpourri bowl on the mantle. I can almost see the beautiful gardens around me as I stroll arm-in-arm with Guinevere through our secret place in Camelot. No. Focus, Casey. You have to focus.
A small table in the darkened corner draws my eye. I rub my sweaty palms on my t-shirt to dry them as I creep across the room. Almost there, I trip on an untied shoelace and grab the table just in time to save myself from a face plant.
The shape on the table looks right, but I hesitate, hand poised in the air, my wrist seized by some invisible demon of doubt. I squeeze my eyes shut and whisk the black silk away. When no alarm sounds, no lightning bolt strikes, I dare to open my eyes.
Even in the shadows, the crystal ball glows. All the children in Miss Fontain's fourth grade class know she is a witch. She's always twitching her fingers and muttering under her breath, casting spells. My mom says there's no such thing as magic, that it's all lies and tricks. She calls Miss Fontain a spinster, which is silly. She doesn't have a spinning wheel. She has a crystal ball, and that makes her a witch. Or at least a fortune teller. They're not as mean as witches.
Victory and greed make me bold. I reach for the ball. As my hand nears the surface, it brightens until I have to squint. My heart races. My vision blurs. I want to pull away, but my arm won't listen. I watch in horror as my fingers press against the smooth glass. It isn't hot like I expect from all that light.
It's raining. My boss let me off work late again. I should quit, but I need the money to make my car payments. I'm already behind because I forgot last month and spent it at the bookstore. I'm hoping to have some left over this time so I can take Julie out on a date. The keys fall out of my numb fingers and splash into a puddle. Oh, great.
"Hey Space Case." Cold metal touches the side of my neck.
"What do you want, Bobby?"
"Your money." I don't move. The sharp blade presses a little harder. It's like ice, so close to the hot vein in my throat. "You think I'm kidding?"
One hundred dollars in cash is all I have, my whole week's pay. I hand it over without complaint. The knife vanishes, but before I can blink, I'm face down on the asphalt. My copy of Moby Dick lies next to me, drowning in the puddle as if it were an ocean.
"See you next week, Space Case!"
I guess I won't be taking Julie out after all.
I tug at the neck of my flak jacket. It's so hot. The ground shimmers like water, but it's a lie. It's all lies.
"Sir." My arm weighs at least a thousand pounds as I raise it to my forehead in salute.
"Did you check the perimeter? I need you…" The Captain's mouth falls open midsentence and a line of blood trickles over his chin. His eyes are surprised, then sad, then glassy, like marbles. Then he falls.
Bullets erupt around me, chipping bits of dry clay under my boots and sending them flying into my eyes. Screams fill the air only to be drowned out by grenades and missiles and death.
I pause with my hand on the door to the conference room and loosen my tie. Late again. The boss will fire me this time for sure. I can see his face, stern blue eyes piercing my soul, laying my failures out for all to see. I let my arm drop to my side and walk away. Better to just quit.
Hundreds of scenes flash through my mind.
I hit a parked car and drive off.
My wife packs her bags while I watch in silence.
I listen to my mother's voice on the answering machine yet again, too ashamed to pick up the phone and talk.