Wednesday, September 17, 2014

A BOX OF PROMISES, Excerpt #22

Somehow, Meg thought that getting away from junk food would be the key to losing weight this summer. She was sure she had read statistics somewhere that the reason obesity was so bad among people living on food stamps or at the poverty level was that they bought the cheapest food they could find. That was always starchy, sugary, over-processed, full of salt and fat. It was cheaper to buy a couple boxes of sugar-laden cereal or donuts than invest in fresh fruit and omelets for breakfast, for instance.
Going to this part of Mexico, just an hour over the border from Texas, was supposed to remove the junk food and limit her to fresh food. Well, the made-fresh-every-day part of the menu was right. Nobody told her that they would be eating tortillas three times a day, often fried, heavy on the beans, or fried plantain chips. A carbohydrate-lover's paradise, but murder on someone who was already afraid she was on the verge of turning diabetic. Worse: what sort of treats did the missionary teams bring down with them for the children in the orphanage? Lots of hard candy, bubble gum, gummy candy. Sugar, sugar, everywhere.
Forget the trick of filling her stomach with water whenever she got hungry, in case she just needed to re-hydrate. Nobody went anywhere without bottled water, and they all got three bottles every day, rationed more carefully than the chicken or the locally made sausages (don't ask what's in them, just eat and say "thanks").
There was always the "diet trick" of drinking the local, unfiltered, unpurified water, infested with who knew what microbes, diseases, and microscopic creatures. Good for losing lots of weight, fast -- if she didn't mind carrying something home that would prevent her donating blood ever again.
Meg made sure she walked for exercise every morning and evening, just because she spent so much time sitting down with the girls in the main house of the orphanage. All that sweating should have done her some good. So how come her jeans felt as tight as they did when she climbed on the plane in May?
"It's only mid-July," she told herself.
Unfortunately, that just made things worse.
        What had she been thinking, coming down here with just two years of high school Spanish -- and definitely Spain Spanish, rather than Mexican Spanish, because nobody understood more than half of what she tried to say -- and expecting to be able to teach anybody anything? The only saving grace was that the girls didn't talk much when they came for lessons, and they seemed to understand what she was trying to teach them through just signs and sketching little diagrams on the battered old chalkboard at the front of the long room. Meg loved the mismatched group of girls, always scrubbed rosy clean, their hair neatly and tightly braided out of their faces, so eager to learn. 

Monday, September 15, 2014

A BOX OF PROMISES, Excerpt #21

Brandy's shriek, an hour before the dance was due to start, could be heard from one end of the camp to the other. Casey and Laura and their girls were closest, because they had elected to go for a walk down to the beach to look for what the day's storm had washed up. A few of the little girls outdistanced them as they ran for the staff cabin, and Casey had an awful vision of Brandy finally erupting in a berserker rage, picking up a little girl and flinging her across the clearing without realizing it. And then later claiming the child attacked her and she was only defending herself.
The girls stopped on the steps of the staff cabin as if they had run into an invisible wall. Their faces twisted in shock and disgust, they backed down the steps and pressed their hands over their mouths and noses. Casey caught up with them in that moment, and it was like sticking her head into the isolation tent when her little brother had lung problems. They had needed to make the air around him damp and thick.
The fumes that spilled out of the door of the staff cabin, however, didn't smell anything like the isolation tent full of medicine sprays. Casey's first thought was that someone got lazy, flushed a tampon, and the ancient plumbing in the cabin had finally rebelled.
"What in the world happened?" Mrs. Gilbert demanded, bustling across the open square to join them. She stopped, swallowed hard, then pushed away her disgust with visible effort as she pulled a handkerchief from her pocket. She slapped it over her mouth and nose and climbed the steps into the cabin.
Casey followed her, though she didn't have anything to filter the stench.
        Brandy stood in the doorway of the bathroom, frozen, an almost pitiable expression of horror and nausea on her face. Casey didn't want to know what those dark smears were on her face and clothes, but it looked like seaweed festooning her hair and shoulders. Little plops of dark water continued to drip from her fingers and the ends of her hair. A dark puddle with clumps of darker matter spread out across the floor. A big red plastic trash barrel lay on its side, blocking the door of the bathroom. It was a good guess the dirty water -- and whatever it contained -- had been stored in it.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

A BOX OF PROMISES, Excerpt #20

"She doesn't want to help us. Just like all the others. Figures," the man said. The others nodded in almost perfect synchronization.
Andrea imagined he was the mouthpiece for the group. Or maybe they were all a group mind, like aliens manipulating borrowed bodies?
"It's not a matter of wanting to help." She swallowed down the urge to add that a little politeness and asking for help, instead of grabbing at people and throwing down accusations, went a long way toward getting help. "It's a matter of being able to. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm on my lunch break."
"Permanent lunch break," the first woman muttered.
"Just what do you think I can do for you? Don't expect me to write a story and publish it, just on your say-so," she added, suddenly recognizing the man who stood on the far right of the little semi-circle that seemed ready to pounce on her. "You can't make accusations and expect the paper to blindly print them, without doing research and validating facts."
"Yeah, that's what you say. It's just another excuse. If you wanted to, you could do it," the main speaker said, almost spitting. Which was incredible, Andrea decided, because there were very few sibilants in what he had just said.
"Really? And just what kind of authority do you think I have? If I had any kind of authority, to assign stories and decide what goes in the paper, would I be answering the phone?"
"You're a liar," the man on the far right growled. And followed it with a stream of invective Andrea only partially understood.
          She felt as if her feet had been nailed to the pavement. Her ears felt scorched, and for a few heartbeats there was a strange, distanced sensation, as if it all were happening far away, and yet his voice was so loud.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

A BOX OF PROMISES, Excerpt #19

"Hey, you, girl," a thin, scratchy voice snarled from behind Andrea.
She opened her mouth to retort that the old woman was misquoting the old rock-and-roll song. The words caught in her throat when that wrinkled hand latched hard onto her arm. Self-defense mode kicked in, and she barely stopped herself from twisting her arm free while swinging upward with her other hand, palm flat, to shove hard against the nose of the stranger.
"Never heard of personal space and 'look, don't touch'?" she muttered, and stepped back from the woman.
A few people walking past during the busy lunch hour on Main Street glanced at them, but nobody stopped.
"You work at the paper. I've seen you."
"Intern," Andrea was quick to retort.
"Whatever," a man with the exact same sour, pursed-mouth expression said, stepping up next to the woman. He waved his hand like he waved away pesky flies. "We've all seen you."
We? Andrea looked around and saw three other people. All stooped, with narrowed eyes and mouths pressed flat in dissatisfaction. They weren't all old, but they were all at least thirty years older than her. Who could guess their real ages, with those unhappy, sour expressions and the way they dressed, sort of old-fashioned with long sleeves and collars buttoned up. Honestly, who wore long sleeves and hems nearly to their ankles and cardigans in this weather?
         Maybe they weren't human?

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

A BOX OF PROMISES, Excerpt #18

"Come on, troublemaker," she said, patting Shemp's trunk about halfway to his face. "Let's show the kiddies you're not going to eat me, okay?"
Not that she had any hope the big goof would listen, but there was always a first. Bergen picked up her wheelbarrow, clipped the rake, shovel, broom, and pan into place, and headed for the edge of the arena to face the children.
She strained her ears for the soft thuds of those big, flat feet on the packed dirt and concrete of the arena. Maybe Shemp did follow her for a dozen steps or so. The rising shrieks from the children seemed to confirm that, but just about the time she thought she could consider a job as an elephant trainer, that sense of air pressure behind her faded. Slowing, she glanced over her shoulder. Yep, Shemp had turned aside to examine the remnants from the latest bale she had brought into the arena. Sighing, she continued to the edge of the trench. Before she could wrack her brains for something to say to the children, they deluged her with questions. Bergen had to laugh at some of them, but she fought not to. The children were so serious, no matter how silly they were.
Was she an elephant doctor?
Did she speak to elephants?
Did she get to wear sparkly tights at night and ride on the elephants' backs?
Did she have to be a doctor to work with the elephants?
Did she get to sleep in the elephant house with them?
Bergen nearly gagged at that thought. She could barely breathe when she went into the elephant house to clean up the floor. Sleep in there? Only if she wanted to suffocate and smell like elephant for the next week. She didn't dare say that, though.
What was in the wheelbarrow?
She showed them, tipping it forward so everyone could see.
         Amid the chorus of disgust and awe for the mere size of the "patties," one little boy asked if he could have some to take home for a souvenir. From the look on his face, he was suitably impressed, and probably thought her job was the coolest one in the entire zoo.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

A BOX OF PROMISES, Excerpt #17

"Look out!" a little girl shrieked, and a chorus of voices responded.
Bergen looked toward the fence on the other side of the trench around the elephant arena -- yeah, and like that would stop them if they really wanted to get out of there and go rampaging through the zoo? -- and saw a bunch of school-age children leaning against the railing, waving and shouting. At her. The air pressure built up behind her, and the distinct sweet-grainy-dusty-musky smell wrapped around her. Which one of her charges was it now, and what did he or she want?
She turned, just in time to see a big dusty gray serpentine mass sway toward her face, then upwards, grazing her hair. Please, don't let him sneeze in my face again, she prayed, and put up both hands to shove the trunk away before it wrapped around her. For some reason, one elephant found it amusing to try to drape its trunk around her shoulders, turning into a smothering, bone-crushing heavy muffler. Emphasis on muffler, as in wrapping around her face. And what one elephant did and got away with -- as if anyone could stop them, short of using tranquilizers and elephant guns? -- the other ones imitated.
The trunk curved around like a big snake and tapped her right shoulder from behind.
"Shemp!" Bergen laughed, partly in relief.
         That wasn't the elephant's name, but it seemed appropriate, since along with his tendency to tap people on their right shoulders, he liked to retrieve things she had pushed out of the way in her cleanup rounds, and bring them back to her. Like the big red rubber dodge balls she had played with in elementary school, or the hula-hoops, or the branches. She had named the big elephant for George of the Jungle's elephant pal -- usually referred to as the "big, peanut-loving bow-wow." Along with his tendency to fetch things she didn't want fetched, he had an uncanny ability to sense the presence of peanuts, even inside sealed cellophane bags, inside her backpack, as she walked past the arena on her way to her locker in the maintenance half of the elephant house.

Friday, September 5, 2014

A BOX OF PROMISES, Excerpt #16

After six weeks now assigned to the elephant "encounter" arena, Bergen had serious doubts that anyone really could "handle" the elephants. Cajole them. Bribe them. Even yell at them, and usually get no more response than a flick of their trunks -- which just had to mean something derogatory or even obscene, in elephant language -- or a twitch-flap of those floppy ears. But handle them? That implied the animals were being controlled.
Bergen seriously doubted that could be accomplished, without a cattle prod, tranquilizer gun, whips, and maybe electronic implants in their brains that turned them into big, dusty, slow radio-controlled cars.
Definitely she wasn't "handling" the elephants. More likely they were handling her. Kind of like that piece in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, where readers found out that lab mice were actually on Earth to run experiments on scientists. Whenever she thought the arena was clean, she turned around and found a couple mounds as high as her knees had been left as far apart from each other as they could be, while her back was turned. In complete silence. That was what always bothered her. Shouldn't something that big and soft and greasy-looking actually make a loud noise when it hit the ground? The stuff actually steamed, early in the morning. Not that she thought long on the grossness of it, but she couldn't seem to keep it out of her mind. Especially when she was griping.
The only thing worse than finding two or three new big piles to clean up the moment she put away her tools, was to come back from hauling several bales of the sweet hay and other twenty-four-hours-a-day "snacks" the elephants preferred, to find the piles had been turned into a carpet. She always had the feeling the grandma elephants watched her with a reproachful look in those little round eyes, as if it were her fault that the kids had made a mess while her back was turned.
           Not until the third week of her "expanded" duties, did it occur to her that she had lost her fear of the elephants.