Many Years Before The Hunger Games . . .

Mitchell Brant (like me) is a big fan of The Fantastic Four.  It’s his favorite comic book, and he tries his best to collect as many of the old original copies as he can.  In chapter one of The Eye-Dancers, we see him pull out a copy of Fantastic Four number 99.  I’d like to think he also owns four remarkable issues from 1969–numbers 90–93.  These four issues together form one story arc, a continuing saga that, in many ways, foreshadows Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games four decades later.

Did Suzanne Collins ever read Fantastic Four # 90–93?  Chances are very high she did not.  But the premise behind both stories is similar.  Amazingly so.

In Fantastic Four number 90 (September 1969), The Thing is captured by a Skrull slave hunter.

FF90

In the Marvel Comics universe, the Skrulls are an alien race with shape-shifting abilities  from the Andromeda galaxy.  They first appeared way back in Fantastic Four number 2 (January 1962), so by ’69, readers were very familiar with them.  In number 90, this particular Skrull fools The Thing into believing he’s Mr. Fantastic, the FF’s leader, and then renders him unconscious with a nerve ray.  He plans to make The Thing a slave and transport him to the Skrull galaxy to battle in something called The Great Games.

FF91

What are The Great Games?  They take place on the Skrull world of Kral.  There, each year, participants  are captured and brought in from worlds throughout the galaxies and forced to battle to the death in The Great Games.  Once captured by the Skrulls, they relinquish all rights and are known only as  “slaves.”

There are odds, bets, favorites and underdogs.  The Games are the biggest entertainment spectacle of the year, televised and watched by nearly everyone.  Two “slaves” are hand-picked before each contest and then forced to enter the arena, before a sellout crowd.  They must battle to the death–only the death of one ensures victory for the other.  Weapons are provided, tossed onto the arena floor, between the combatants, who then scratch and claw and fight for their use.

If a “slave” chooses not to fight, not to kill, the Skrulls have a device called the Sonic Disrupter, which they then direct at the resister’s home planet.  The Disrupter fires a ray, forcing the planet out of its orbit, destined to fall into the sun.  In this way, the combatants are forced to kill their opponent.  It’s either kill in the arena, or have their own home world destroyed.  FF92

Of course, eventually, the rest of The Fantastic Four realize what’s happened, and through the often corny magic of 1960s-era comic books, they come to The Thing’s rescue.  They even help to dismantle the Sonic Disrupter and put an end to the Great Games.

FF93

Obviously, in The Hunger Games, the tributes were children, not super-powered natives of other planets captured by a Skrull slave hunter.  But the similarities are striking.  The televised/entertainment spectacle of a society watching and relishing combatants fighting to the death, forced into the act by an oppressive, powerful government.  The preparations beforehand, building the Games up to be the event of the year.  The contest itself, with the fighters provided weapons to help them finish the job.

The differences between Fantastic Four # 90-93 and The Hunger Games are many and profound.  The Hunger Games, being a novel and featuring rich and multi-layered characters, is a far more in-depth work.  But the basic themes from these Fantastic Four issues resonate and penetrate through the veil of forty years.  The basic concept is clearly a winner, and it captivates audiences.

Comic books are often trivialized and thought of as disposable entertainment, and many of them are.  But there is a richness of ideas, concepts, fantasy, and wonder to be found in the pages of the classic FFs from the 1960s.  Before Panem and Katniss, Peeta and Rue and District 12, there was The Thing, battling in The Great Games of the Skrull world of Kral.

Just ask Mitchell Brant.  He’ll be sure to tell you all about it.

Thanks so much, as always, for reading!

–Mike

Share the Love–The Leibster Blog Award

Share the Love

 

Thanks so much to The Other Side of Ugly for nominating me for the Liebster Blog – Share the Love award.  For anyone who hasn’t visited Sheri’s site, I hope you take this opportunity to do so.  And believe me, you’ll stay awhile.  There is a plethora of wonderful, inspiring material that will keep you reading for a long time.

Okay, now that you’re back here . . .

Here are the rules for this award:

1. Add the award logo to your blog.

2. Answer the following questions:

What makes you happiest?

As a lifelong writer, it’s difficult to beat the “high” I feel when an idea strikes and I know, just know, that it’s a keeper.  In moments like that, I can’t wait to get to the keyboard.

Do you love the Ocean or the Mountains more?

I enjoy both–but if I had to pick, I would choose the ocean.  There is just something about the sea. . . .

What has been your favorite moment of 2012?

When I knew The Eye-Dancers was truly finished and ready for others to read, after more than two years of writing/editing/revising.  Also–starting this blog has been great and very enjoyable.  Lastly, from a geeky point of view, it was nice to win in my fantasy football league after a down year in 2011!

What is your favorite quote and why?

I’ve always been partial to FDR’S “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” even though I haven’t always been able to apply it in every situation!

Do you like yourself?

Sometimes, but not always.  It’s a lifetime process and a journey. . . .

Do you stay up till the Stroke of Midnight on New Years Eve?

Sometimes.  Not every year, though.

Something you wish to get done ASAP?

I am planning a sequel to The Eye-Dancers.  Right now it’s just in the planning stage with a few details desperately needing to be worked out.  I hope to work those out very soon, and begin the writing process later this winter.

What was your favorite class while still in school?

English and History.  But I also really enjoyed most Science classes, too.  Math was okay until I met up with Calculus in my senior year.  It was all downhill from there.

What musical instrument have you tried to learn to play?

Sadly, none!

Anything you wish you had learned earlier?

I wish I’d learned to play tennis at a very early age.  I started liking tennis when I was about 14, and today it’s my favorite sport.  I’m not too bad–I have a big serve, when it goes in.  Unfortunately, that isn’t often enough.  If I had learned at a younger age, I think the sport would come more naturally to me.  Also, for a while there, I had a dream of playing at Wimbledon.  I’m sure that dream never would have come true, even if I began playing when I was 3 or 4.  But who knows?  Maybe I could have had a chance at the Qualifying tournament.  In any event, I am a devoted serve-volleyer, which is now a near-lost art in tennis.  Definitely an old-school way of playing.

Do you like to do crafts or draw or even paint?

Not really.  But when I was in high school, I did do a lot of drawing/sketching.  I wasn’t bad, but I didn’t keep it up.  I’m sure I’m rusty these days.

It’s still the beginning of a new year, so I will follow in the steps of Sheri and share the “LIEBSTER – SHARE THE LOVE” award with all of the followers of The Eye-Dancers website.   I appreciate each one of you, and hope we can all have a wonderful 2013.

So . . .  all you have to do is what I have just done here.  Then choose at least 15 other bloggers that you wish to share this award with and let them know.  Don’t forget to post the award photo on your blog page.

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

How to Tell If You’re Addicted to Your Cell Phone

When Mitchell Brant, Joe Marma, Ryan Swinton, and Marc Kuslanski find themselves in the variant town of Colbyville, they quickly realize that their cell phones don’t function.  Colbyville, after all, has no cell network in place.  While there, the boys’ cell phones are useless.  This of course raises a question.  If you were stranded somewhere, perhaps some town in the middle of nowhere, or, perhaps, in some parallel world where the concept of cellular technology did not yet exist–how would you cope with the loss of your cell phone’s usefulness?  Would you be able to pocket it and not mind a bit?  Or would you struggle through a period of withdrawal?

All things considered, the boys in The Eye-Dancers handle the situation pretty well.  They miss being able to use their mobile phones, but they don’t dwell on it.  Of course, given the situation they’re in, literally life-or-death, they do have more pressing things to worry about!

But just the other day, when I took my car in to the shop to have it serviced and then took the shuttle ride back to work, I couldn’t help but notice my driver’s dependence on his cell phone.  He was a bald guy in his mid-thirties who sported a goatee and a backwards-wearing baseball cap.  He’d just moved up from Florida (he shared this with another passenger in the shuttle).  “You have it twisted in reverse,” the other passenger said.  “Most people in New England go to Florida in winter.  Not the other way around.”

“Yeah,” the driver said.  “If I had a dollar for every time someone told me that the last couple of weeks, I’d be rich.”  Moments later, he dropped the other passenger off, and then asked me where I work.  I told him, and he drove away.  It would be about a ten-minute drive to my office.

As we drove, I noticed he had his cell phone on his lap.  Every few seconds it would chirp, and he’d pick it up to read the new text.  One time, he moaned, threw his cap off, scratched his head.  Then he called someone and had a brief conversation.  A moment later, the phone chirped again.  He picked it up, while driving, read the text, keyed in a quick response.

“Where do you work again?” he asked two stop lights later.  I told him again, just as his phone chirped.  On and on it went, the entire drive.  When he dropped me off, he said he’d have the shop give me a call when my car was ready and he’d pick me up.

When he did, the same scenario played itself out.  Cell phone on his thigh, as he continually checked it.  I had to think to myself:  He wouldn’t last five minutes in Colbyville!

Easy for me to say, of course.  I use my cell phone sparingly–never having gotten in the habit of it.  Besides, it’s an archaic Tracfone, a relic.  When I show it to people, they usually laugh out loud and say, “Hey, I had one of those once.  About ten years ago!”

tf

Clearly, there isn’t much chance of me being addicted to this particular device!  It’s definitely not a smart phone.  It’s quite dumb.

So . . . how can you tell if you’re addicted to your mobile phone?  Well, if like my shuttle-driving friend, you keep it on your lap as you drive passengers to and from the auto shop, you’re probably hooked.

And you probably wouldn’t like it in Colbyville very much.

Thanks for reading!

–Mike

Short Story — “Lucy”

There’s one scene in The Eye-Dancers where Mitchell Brant and Marc Kuslanski find themselves in Chase’s Department Store in the variant town of Colbyville.  They approach a mannequin, and Mitchell remarks that mannequins have always given him the creeps.  Marc, ever the logical one, asks him why on earth that would be.  Mannequins are merely lifeless shells, after all.  How can they give anyone the creeps?  Then Marc reaches out, touches the mannequin, and abruptly pulls his hand away.

mann2

What did he feel?  What did he sense?  Was there something more?  Something beyond the fiber glass and lifeless, unblinking eyes?  I know that I, for one, share Mitchell’s view.  I know mannequins are not alive.  Of course I know that.  And yet . . .  And yet . . .

indexmannequins

With that in mind, a few years ago I wrote a short story called “Lucy,” which features as one of its main characters–you guessed it, a mannequin.

I hope you enjoy this short story . . .

“Lucy”

Copyright 2012 by Michael S. Fedison

*******************

Edward peered through the store window, wondering if he was out there.  Surely he would not come this morning.  It was raining too hard.  Besides, he wouldn’t keep coming indefinitely, would he?  He’d have to give it up at some point.

Unceasing, metronomic, the rain pelted the window glass.  Checking the sky, Edward saw that there was no sky.  Gray clouds, fat, swollen with water, hung over the street like malignant tumors.  Who knew when the sun might show itself again?

Confident that the old man wouldn’t come in this weather, Edward turned away from the window.  Is everything in order? he asked himself.  Colleen out, Jodie in, Matthew coming in late.  He scratched his chin, looking like a man contemplating the mystery of the ages.  And in a way, he was.  It was hard being a shop owner these days.  Two national chains had come to the area last year, and his customer base was slowly eroding.  He tried cutting prices, but he couldn’t compete with the big box stores.  The only things he had in his favor were the loyalty of longtime patrons and his commitment to providing top-notch and personalized customer service.  Too often, though, it felt like he was sliding down a muddy cliff, slowly, inexorably, searching for handholds that didn’t exist.

There was a knock on the shop door.  Edward looked and saw him—the old man.  He was not able to see him clearly in the gloomy October dawn, but it was him, all right.  He’d come after all.

Edward raced to the door and unlocked it.  He didn’t particularly want the old man to keep coming like this every morning, before the store opened, but he didn’t want to see him—or anyone—stand in that miserable chill and rain either.

“Hey, you don’t even have an umbrella!” Edward said when the man came inside.  “You walked all this way in the rain without an umbrella?”

The man nodded.  “Lucy’s worth it.”

Edward shut and relocked the door.  The shop would not open for another twenty-five minutes.  He noticed across the street that Mr. Henderson had arrived at his deli—“Henderson’s Old-Fashioned Deli” was written in large white letters on the window.  Mr. Henderson inserted a key in the door lock, turned it quickly, pushed open the door, then rushed inside, eager to get out of the rain.

“Hey, Mr. Mertinak, you want a cup of hot coffee?” Edward offered.  The old man was shivering.  “I just brewed a pot in my office.”

The man shook his head.  “No, thank you.  I just want to see Lucy.”

“You sure get here early, Mr. M.  If you’re not careful, you’ll beat me, and on a morning like this, that means you’ll be standing in the rain.  And it’s gettin’ cold, too, October and all.”

The old man—Mr. Mertinak—waved his hand dismissively.  “What is cold to a man like me?  I would walk to the Arctic to visit Lucy.  And the rain wouldn’t touch me if you had an awning.  When will you get one?”

Mr. Mertinak had asked that before, and Edward didn’t like it.  An awning would be nice, sure it would—the hardware store next door had one—but it cost money.  Not a fortune, but even a modest sum was beyond Edward’s means at the moment.

“Why do you look so, so despairing?” Mr. Mertinak asked.  “Lucy didn’t run away, did she?”

Edward sighed.  He had given up trying to reason with the old man weeks ago.  “No.  She’s right where you left her yesterday, and the day before that, and the day before that.  But I, well, I—”

Mr. Mertinak’s eyebrows furrowed.  Suddenly, he looked like a principal about to dress down a student.  “You what?  Is Lucy okay?”

“Sure.  I mean, I changed her outfit and her hair.  The holiday season’s coming up, and I needed something different.”

“Her hair?”  Mr. Mertinak’s eyes were wide.  “I need to see her.”

“Follow me,” Edward said, and they went past racks of coats and ties, to the back of the store.  On the way, Edward thought of that first day, that first encounter.

It had been late in the afternoon on a September Monday, and every worker in the shop wanted the business day to end.  The weather was perfect, with clear skies, lazy late-summer sunshine, and a cool breeze coming in off the lake.  Even the customers, what few there were, seemed eager to leave the store.  That’s when Edward noticed an old man standing on the sidewalk, staring through the window.  The man’s face was pressed against the glass, mashing his nose and lips.  Edward thought, fleetingly, that the man looked like a Martian from an old science fiction movie he had seen when he was a kid.

When the man didn’t leave, when he just kept his face pressed against the window, Edward figured something was wrong.  Was the guy on drugs?  Was he drunk?  He didn’t want to know, but he needed to deal with the situation before it carried on any longer.

He walked outside.  The man continued to stare through the window, oblivious to his presence.

He cleared his throat.  When the man did not respond, Edward tapped his shoulder.  The man’s head snapped back as if he’d been struck, and he glared at Edward through bloodshot eyes.  So he had been drinking.

“Sir,” Edward began, “I’m sorry.  But you really shouldn’t stare through the window that way.  Some of my staff are getting nervous.”

The old man just looked at him.  His breath smelled of whiskey.  Grizzled stubble coated his cheeks.  A band of teenagers walked past them on the sidewalk, giggling.

“So, if you don’t mind . . .” Edward pressed on, trying to word things just right.  You never could tell what an old guy like this might do.  “. . . please just be on your way.”  He was about to go back into the shop, but the man grabbed his arm.  Edward pulled it away, as if touched by a leper.

“Where’d you get her?” the man said.  The whiskey on his breath was very strong, but his words were not at all slurred.

“Sir, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”  Edward observed two of his employees looking out the window.  They were whispering to each other.  He boiled.  They should have been attending to the customers, not watching this sideshow.

“Her!” the old man said, loud enough for a passerby to look at them.  “Where’d you get her?”  He pointed to a mannequin just inside the store window.  “That’s my wife.  That’s Lucy.  Let me go in and talk to her!”

Edward was starting to feel a little nervous.  He had been in the retail business for years and had seen a lot of strange things, but he had never encountered anything like this.  “Sir, that’s just a mannequin,” he said, talking slowly, as if to a backward child.  “If it looks like your wife, it’s only a coincidence.”

“Let me talk to her!  I don’t know how you found her or how you made her young again, but I need to go in and speak with her!”

Edward tried to talk sense into the man, but after a couple of wasted minutes, he understood nothing was going to work.  It was either argue with the old nutcase the rest of the afternoon, leave him outside to stare in his shop, or let him in.  He hoped if he let him in, he’d say a few things to the mannequin and leave.

“Okay,” he said.  “You win.  Let’s go in and you can talk to the mannequin if it makes you happy.  But please try not to disturb the peace, okay, sir?”

The man didn’t respond.  He only stared at the mannequin through the window.  “Lucy,” he whispered to himself.

Once inside, the old man went straight to the mannequin and took its hand in his.  “Lucy, dear, dear Lucy, how did you get here?” he said.  The mannequin stared out the window, at the sidewalk and Henderson’s deli, and the pedestrians who walked past.

Edward went to the cash register.  Colleen, his top clerk, was there.

“Old guy’s batty,” she said.

“You’re telling me.  I tried to get him to leave, but he wouldn’t budge.  I hope he doesn’t stay long.”  He saw the old man kiss the mannequin’s hand, then whisper something in its ear.  “He thinks the mannequin’s his wife.”

Colleen rolled her eyes.  A customer came to the register.  Colleen rang up the order and bagged the merchandise.  “Sorry about that,” she said, glancing at the man.

The customer, a middle-aged woman with a long, hook-like nose, said, “You know who that is?  That’s Mark Mertinak.  He lives up my way.  Used to go to our church.”

“You know that man?” Edward said.

“Sure.  His wife just died, a couple weeks ago.  It’s been rough on ‘im.  They were inseparable.  Well, I think it’ll blow over.  He’s a decent enough old guy—just lonely.  Thanks for the sweaters.  Can’t find a deal this good at those cookie-cutters up the road, huh?”  She smiled and left.

A half hour went by, but Mr. Mertinak still had not gone.  Other customers stared at him.  A few came up to Edward and asked him to get rid of the old man.  One young lady complained that she had her little girl with her and she didn’t appreciate having her daughter witness such a spectacle.  Then she left, without buying a thing.  Edward knew he needed to get rid of the man.  Inwardly groaning, he approached him.

“Look, mister,” he said, “we’re gonna close soon, so I’m afraid you’ll need to be leaving, okay?”  They weren’t closing for an hour still, but maybe the old man hadn’t read the hours posted on the door.  He had been so wrapped up in his imaginings, that seemed likely enough.

“It’s all wrong,” Mr. Mertinak said.  “The outfit.  Lucy didn’t wear clothes like this.  She was modest, a lady.”

Edward looked at the mannequin.  It wore short red shorts and a white tank top.  He had outfitted it with those just yesterday, hoping to draw attention to the last of the summer clothes he had in his inventory.  So far, only five pairs of shorts and six tank tops had sold.  The other mannequins were already wearing their fall attire.

“Well, this is very temporary,” Edward said.  “I’ll be changing the clothes on this mannequin by next week.”  Why in the world was he justifying himself to this insane old man?

“And her eyes, they were blue, not black, like this.  But everything else is perfect.  How did you find Lucy?  How did you make her young again?”

“Look, Mr.—Mertinak, is it?  This isn’t your wife.  I’m sorry you lost her, I really am, but this is only a mannequin.  It isn’t alive.”  Edward tapped on the mannequin’s forearm.  “Hear that?  That’s not the sound real skin makes.  Now, please, sir, if you’ll leave.  We need to close.”

Thankfully, Mr. Mertinak agreed.  Edward breathed a sigh of relief.  At the door, the old man said, “I never walk downtown.  Why did I today?  Because Lucy was here.  She directed me somehow, and now, that I know she’s here, I will come back.  I will be back tomorrow.”

Before Edward could protest, Mr. Mertinak had left.

He did come the next day, and the next, and he never stopped coming.  The dwindling customer base dwindled a little more. . . .

One day, after the old man had been haunting his shop for a week, Edward went to Henderson’s for lunch.  He went to the deli counter, where a sour-faced Mr. Henderson greeted him.

“Hey, Ed.  What’ll it be, the usual?”  Edward nodded.  Pastrami on whole wheat, topped with Swiss cheese.  You couldn’t beat it.  “Hey, you better watch it, bud,” Mr. Henderson said as he fixed Edward’s sandwich.  “I’m losin’ business on account a you.  That creep keeps talkin’ to the babe in your window, and I’ll tell ya, you’re clearin’ people outta here, man.  You’ll send us all packin’.”

Edward told him he would deal with the matter and that he was exaggerating.  People weren’t being scared away.

“Yeah they are,” Mr. Henderson said as he wrapped the sandwich in white deli paper, then secured it with a rubber band.  “Oh, sure, there’s sickos who like watchin’ other sickos, but I know of at least ten people who don’t wanna pass by your store no more.  Scares the kids, they say.  Hey, it scares me, too, Ed.  Old whacko talkin’ to a mannequin like it’s really his dead wife.  It’s sick.  Get rid of him.  I’ll see to it if you don’t.”

“I’m working on it,” Edward said, wishing he had bought his lunch elsewhere.

The best he could come up with was allowing Mr. Mertinak to come early, before the store opened.  Mertinak would have some time with the mannequin, then he’d need to leave no later than ten minutes before business hours began.  He told the old man that good customers were scarce enough.  He did not need them taking their business to the chains.  Mr. Mertinak was surprisingly agreeable, and Edward hoped the early routine would grow wearisome; then the old man might stay away for good.

This dogged Edward.  He could have simply barred Mr. Mertinak from his store.  He had that right.  And if Mertinak came and mashed his face against the front window again, he could get him arrested for trespassing or loitering.  That’s what Henderson would do, for sure.  But he didn’t want to be like Mr. Henderson.

As they walked to the rear of the store, Edward thought back a week, when he had moved the mannequin out of the display window.

“Why’d you take Lucy away?” Mr. Mertinak had wanted to know.  Edward could smell last night’s liquor on his breath.

“I didn’t,” Edward responded, hating that he had to explain his business methods to the old man.  “I just moved her to another section of the store.  I do that with all the mannequins from time to time.”

“Lucy deserves to be in the window always,” Mertinak said, but then he had dropped it.

This morning, Edward hoped the old man would be less disturbed by the new wig and outfit.

They reached the mannequin, surrounded by racks of ladies’ coats and scarves.

“Oh, what have you done to Lucy?” Mertinak said.  He reached up and gently touched the wig.  “You made her hair red.  She never had red hair.  It was brown!  Impossible.  Change it back!”

“Mr. M, I change all the wigs twice a year.  I never used to, but Colleen got me to do it.  She says the variety is good, that it makes everything look new and different, even the clothes.  So I tried it.  Can’t say it’s worked so good, though.”  He shook his head and stuffed his hands in his pockets.

Mertinak stared at the wig for at least a minute.  Then he said, “Hmm, now that I think of it, Lucy sometimes did say she’d like a different hair color.  She never said red specifically, but it does kind of suit her.  She could be spontaneous when the spirit moved her.  Yes, yes.  It looks fine!  Just fine.  Lucy could make green hair look beautiful, you know.”

Edward just smiled.  He knew by now that the best approach with the old man was to let him talk.  And while he never would have admitted it to anyone, Edward sort of liked Mertinak, after a fashion.  Sure, it was eccentric talking to a mannequin, but Mertinak said he’d been married to Lucy for fifty-three years.  It was no wonder, then, that he would be crushed by her passing, or that he might be tempted to grasp at straws and bend reality to suit his needs.

“Did I tell you how beautiful Lucy was?”  Mertinak asked, gently fingering the mannequin’s lips.  Vacant, empty eyes that stared at a nearby slacks rack greeted the touch with indifference.

Edward nodded.  But he knew the old man would continue anyway.  He checked his wristwatch.  They still had a few minutes.

“She could outshine the sun,” Mertinak said, closing his eyes.  His fingers still stroked the mannequin’s lips.  “I fell in love with her instantly.  She was so much more beautiful than anything I had ever seen.  And her spirit.  Pure as the first snow that comes falling down in November.”  A single tear snaked its way down the old man’s cheek, falling to the carpeted floor.  “Lucy,” he said.  “How I love you, Lucy.”  He reopened his eyes and stared at the mannequin.  “Red hair becomes you, darling.”

Edward cleared his throat.  This was a bit much, even by Mertinak’s standards.  “I’m afraid it’s about that time, Mr. M,” he said.  Better to cut things short before they got out of hand.  “Need to get the store ready.”

Edward half expected Mertinak to protest, but the widower just nodded, then kissed the mannequin on the lips.  “I shall see you tomorrow morning, love,” he said.  “And we can reminisce.  Remember our Thanksgivings, darling?  And our Christmases?  Christmas is coming up, you know—just a couple of months away.  But don’t worry.  I’ll buy you something special.  Just like the gold necklace I bought you in 1977.  My, didn’t you scold me for being frivolous!  But it was nothing, dearest.  I would buy you an entire nation if I could.  Just be patient.  Christmas is coming.”

The old man kissed the mannequin again, then turned away.  He smiled at Edward.  “Thank you,” he said.  “Same time tomorrow morning?”

Edward nodded.  “You sure you’ll be all right, walking back home in this rain?”

The old man shrugged his shoulders.  “What’s rain to a man like me?”

They reached the front door.  Through the glass, a scowling Mr. Henderson stood in the gloom, protected from the rain by a black umbrella.

Opening the door, Edward walked outside, followed by Mertinak.

“Mr. Henderson,” Edward said.  “Odd seeing you here.”

“I need to talk to this old creep,” Henderson said.  “Since you won’t.”

Edward took a step toward Henderson.  Rain slammed into him, making it hard to be brave.  “You leave this to me, Henderson.  It’s my store.”

With surprising speed, Henderson pushed Edward, forcefully enough that he slammed into the shop’s window.  “Get out of my way!  You ain’t man enough to do it, so I will!”  Henderson’s lips twisted into the snarl of a predator.  Then he turned on the old man.  “You!”  He planted his finger in Mertinak’s chest, hard.  Mertinak stumbled backwards, but didn’t fall.  “You get this straight, you miserable old scum.  Your wife is dead, do you hear me?  Dead!”

“That’s enough,” Edward interrupted.  He had been caught off guard by Henderson’s appearance and aggressiveness, but now he was ready.  “Leave, right now, or I call the cops.”

Henderson glared at him.  There was a challenge in that glare, and Edward did not wish to meet it.  “On what charges?  This ain’t your property.  It’s a sidewalk, open to everyone, and when they come walkin’ in front of your stupid store, what do they see?  A no-good old whacko who talks to a hunk of fiber glass and thinks it’s his dead wife.  Well, this is where it stops.”  He looked at Mertinak again.  The old man was soaking wet.  “You old sicko, your wife is dead, dontcha get it?  You’ve been talkin’ to a mannequin, a freakin’ mannequin!  An’ your scarin’ business away.  That’s why Ed here don’t let you come to the store no more while customers are around.  But I’m around, see, and I don’t wanna see you no more.  She’s dead, old man, dead!  Get it through your thick, drunk skull, and don’t ever come back here!  You ain’t wanted around here.  You got it?”

“You’re way out of line,” Edward said.  “You have no right to threaten him.”

Mertinak held up a hand.  “It’s all right,” he said softly.  Edward didn’t like the look in the old man’s eyes.  It was as if someone had turned off a switch in his brain, shutting out the light.  “He’s right.  I am an old fool.”  He looked straight at Henderson.  “But I’m not as much a fool as you think, young man.  I know my Lucy is gone.  I know.  I didn’t need you to tell me.  I know it every day, first thing, when I wake up in bed alone.  I know it every night when I reach for her and she isn’t there.  But in this store, I could pretend I was with her again.  I could pretend so hard, it seemed she was really here.  And don’t you see?  That’s all there is anymore.  I’m very old.  I didn’t think an old man’s pretending would cause anyone harm.  But I see I was wrong.  I’ll be on my way.”  He took a few steps.

“Mr. M, wait!”  Edward caught up with him.  “It doesn’t have to end like this.  Henderson has no control over my store.  You can come back!”

“Don’t you try it!” Henderson snarled behind them.  Edward could hear the pitter-patter of rain hitting the deli owner’s umbrella.

“I’ll be on my way,” the old man said again, and he walked away, along the sidewalk.

Edward stared after him as he retreated, watching Mertinak’s figure slowly melt into the surrounding atmosphere, until man and rain, human and morning became indistinguishable.  It seemed that the gloom had swallowed him.

“You’ll thank me later,” Henderson said.  He was standing next to Edward now.  “Rotten old man.  Lush.  Better off without him.  He should just die and get it over with.”

Edward turned away from Henderson and, without a word, went back into the store.

The next morning, upon arriving at the store early, Edward wondered if Mr. M might turn up.  The old man seemed so defeated yesterday, but maybe a good night’s sleep had reenergized him.  He hoped so.  He didn’t want Henderson to have the final word on the matter.

But Mr. Mertinak didn’t come.

Edward still held out hope for the next morning, but Mertinak didn’t come then, either.  When a week elapsed, and Mertinak failed to show, Edward grudgingly acknowledged the truth.  Instinctively, he started to check the obituaries in the newspaper.  He didn’t have to for very long.  The first week of December, Mark Mertinak’s name appeared.  Aged eighty, it said, died of natural causes.

That whole day, Edward felt depressed, as if he had lost something important in his life.  This puzzled him.  Had the old man meant so much to him?  He didn’t think that was it, not exactly, anyway.  But something had meant a great deal to him, something that had been gradually eroding and withering for years, yet struggling to survive against the odds.  Whatever it was, it had died right along with old Mr. M.

The day after reading of Mr. Mertinak’s passing, the first heavy snow of the season fell on the holiday-bedecked downtown street.  In the predawn stillness, silence surrounding him like a soundproof glove, Edward smiled at the mannequin.

“Hey, Lucy,” he said.  “Ready for the prime spot again?”  He paused for a moment, as if expecting some response.  Then he carried it to the front display window and set it down.  It was dressed in a knee-length winter coat, a scarf, and boots.  He was about to walk away, but he took note of something.  The mannequin had a sad face.  Most of his other mannequins had perpetual smiles, or at the very least, pleasant expressions.  Come winter, spring, summer, or fall, regardless of what happened in the outside world, they would appear cheerful, ready to please.  But not this mannequin, not Lucy.  He’d looked at it countless times, but somehow the somber expression had never registered with him before.  Prior to this morning, familiarity with the mannequin must have blinded him to it.

He left the mannequin’s side, needing to attend to other matters before Colleen and Matthew came.  But he turned around, as if pulled by a magnet, and looked at the mannequin again.

Had that mannequin looked so sad before?  He shook his head.  Of course it had.  It must have.  Mannequins’ expressions don’t change.  But later that day, as he glanced at Lucy again, he wasn’t so sure.

Staring lifelessly out the window at the silent, falling snow, the mannequin almost appeared to be mourning.

***************

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Over the Rainbow . . . Into 2013

Of all the characters in The Eye-Dancers, Mitchell Brant is surely the biggest dreamer.  He imagines himself doing great things, performing prodigious feats, confronting and overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds.  Of course, when he looks in the mirror and sees himself as he really is, he often feels let down.

At one point in the novel, the narrative reads, “He looked up at the night sky again, wishing he could indeed jump through the void, catapult himself many light-years away, corral a star, and harness its energy to become the Mitchell Brant he wanted to be.”

So it often goes for the dreamers of dreams . . .

Readers of this blog have already probably figured out that I have a soft spot for vintage pop culture–old comics, old songs, old movies.  One of my favorites is The Wizard of Oz, and without question, my favorite scene is Judy Garland’s beautiful rendition of “Over the Rainbow.”   I am not alone, of course.  The song (and scene) is loved by millions, and was voted the best movie song of all time by the American Film Institute.

oz

“Over the Rainbow” captures the feelings Mitchell so often experiences.  Feelings of longing, hoping, wishing that things could be different.  Dreaming the dreams of optimism and hope, and faith.  Trying to believe there’s a better place, somewhere.  A better tomorrow.  And that all things, all goals, all dreams are possible.

“Somewhere over the rainbow, skies are blue,” Garland sings, the black-and-white Kansas farmland stretched out behind her, Toto ever at her side.  “And the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true.”  And the famous song ends:  “If happy little bluebirds fly beyond the rainbow, why, oh why can’t I?”

And so with that in mind, I hope we can all have a little Mitchell Brant in us as the old year comes to a close and the new year begins.  Because as Mitchell also realizes, a little later on in The Eye-Dancers:

“He looked up, at the infinite black canvas of the sky, at the stars, which shimmered like precious jewels. . . . Maybe our dreams lived up there, among those stars.  All we needed to do was believe, and remember.

And reach.”

So, I urge all of you to join me.  As 2013 arrives, let’s look up, high, reach as far as we can, and follow our dreams.  We can find them . . . somewhere over the rainbow.

Happy New Year to all.

–Mike

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