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Strike the Set

by Blaise Marcoux

And David was working in Maryland, so the girls couldn’t even see their father on their day off. “In-Service Day” the school newsletter had called it; she’d had similar occasions in her youth, though they were “vacation days” back then. She’d used those times as “Romp Days,” putting on her favorite boots and traipsing around the family farm, saying hello to the cows, exploring the creek, her feet sinking into its muddy banks with every step. There she’d been, laughing. Little Katie laughing. When had she become Katherine?

And the girls, they didn’t live on a farm. They were cul-de-sac kids, and they didn’t go biking around; David wouldn’t let them. Predators loved five- and seven-year olds, after all. So they played in the family room with the Wii Fit, which was exercise, sure. But no exploration. The farm had been a magic realm for Katie, setting her future path, but the girls? The television screen did all the daydreaming for them.

Enough. She’d stared at her own screen for hours. She’d been feeding Gabriel scripts for weeks, and he was always late on the art, which made Dark Horse very angry, but what could she do about that? And she’d dabbled with the novel, but that project was full of dead ends. Enough. She needed inspiration. She needed a Katherine Romp Day. And the girls needed sunlight. When was the last time she’d gone downtown? When was the last time she’d gone out, period? PTA conferences and local conventions notwithstanding.

She went to the family room and saw the girls were playing Nintendogs. She remembered her real dog, Rufus, who had died of an old ticker in her teens. Seeing her childhood best friend gray and age had been part and parcel of what made him real, everlasting. Nintendogs was just a game. The girls couldn’t even pet the pups, not really. Just marvel at their cuteness.

“Who wants to go downtown?” she asked them, expecting an underwhelming response.

“Me!” they chorused, warming her heart. Maybe there was still magic left in the world. Maybe she was an old coot, pish-poshing the future by romanticizing the past. Downtown would be her proving ground, showing her whether modern change truly was a betterment of a kind.

The area had been so mystifying as a child. Stores that had opened in the thirties still carried the same wares as they had their starting day. The chains hadn’t reached Littleton yet. The pharmacy was Doc Walter’s, not CVS. The all-purpose shop was Wintergreen’s Junk and Things, not Wal-Mart.

They all piled into the minivan, the girls giggling with excitement. Katherine smiled. Good attitudes to start this adventure. They drove away from the house, through row after row of identical red-roofed two-levels. An occasional basketball hoop over the garage was the only distinguisher between them.

Books had been Katherine’s downfall. Middle school had introduced her to JRR Tolkien, Richard Adams, Judy Blume, Madeline L’Engle. She started spending more time in the hammock than in the barn. For so many years, she’d told herself she’d “grown up” then, but really, she’d started dying. Home was not enough; she’d needed fairies as well.

But look outside! The girls ooed and awed over the blue skies contrasting against the lush emerald fields they were passing by. Spring. A time of renewal. Wild lilac bushes and dandelions dotted the knolls. Pear trees exploded in ivory blossoms. The sun beamed, not blindingly, but through the occasional cumulus, searchlighting rays down to earth. Houses popped up with more regularity; they were nearing town.

Around the outskirts, they pulled up behind a wagon drawn by mahogany horses, driven by a hat-wearing black-suited man. She slowed, not bothering to pass him, just observing the horses’ gait. Clop. Clop. Clop.

One of her girls, Sarah, the seven-year old, tapped Katherine on her shoulder. “Why is the man driving a wagon, Mommy?”

“He’s Amish, dear,” she said. But she wasn’t sure he was. None of those communities existed near Littleton. Maybe it was a historical re-enactment. Maybe it was a romantic ride for young lovers like the city had in Christmastime. She couldn’t be certain; none of these ideas rang true. “They don’t use electricity or cars. It’s part of their religion.”

“Why do we use electricity, Mommy?”

“A good question.”

The wagon turned right down a different road and off the minivan’s route. Katherine couldn’t help but feel disappointed. Time wasn’t passing today but idling, allowing its moments to be enjoyed for once. The flower rows in the road dividers overflowed with blooms. Leaves whipped in the breeze as if waving at her car. Houses glowed, their paint jobs vibrant as they reflected the sun.

The minivan pulled onto Main Street and parked along the side. She helped her kids out of the car before going to the parking meter. Oh no. She wanted to be out for a while, but she didn’t have change for even thirty minutes. Oh God, she thought, don’t tell me. A twenty-minute ride only to be sent back home to Nintendogs because of an officious parking meter. Maybe they could go to a park, and she could hope the kids wouldn’t get the hunger grumps until late afternoon.

A man wearing his Sunday best on a Friday morning approached them, tipping his charcoal fedora at Katherine. “You look like you’re in trouble, ma’am. Need any help?” He had a strong jaw and strong eyes. His hair grayed with dignity around his temples. He leaned forward on his cane.

She grinned back at him. “Oh, just short on pocket change. We have things to do back at home anyway.” The girls groaned behind her.

The man chuckled, a sound filled with confidence. “Well, that notion didn’t get a winning vote.” He strolled to the meter and pulled change out of his dinner jacket. “How long are you staying out? Four hours? Five? Six?”

Katherine gaped. “I... I—”

“Let’s say six. For good measure.” He chucked a series of coins into the slot. “That should do. Today’s too good for disappointments.” He patted the satisfied meter, tipped his hat again, and walked away. Like an angel, Katherine thought, though the idea made no sense.

“Let’s window shop!” cheered Sarah. Sally hurrahed behind her. They hurried to a toy store’s window, pointing at various pony dolls and pink teddy bears.

Sally tugged on Katherine expectantly. “Can we go inside?”

“Of course.”

The girls danced through the rows, gasping at new finds, grabbing and examining packages. Katherine followed from a safe distance, allowing the girls room to twirl about. She looked at the dolls, wondering if any of their designs could inspire a character for her next story arc.

Her scanning eyes stopped and stared. A Lil’ Adrienne doll. She picked it off its shelf. How many times had this been on her childhood Christmas list? Those globe-sized eyes. Those blushing freckled cheeks. A reissue? The packaging was the same as she remembered, not newfangled or anniversary-declaring. Yet the cardboard wasn’t yellowed. The eighties art still shone under the store’s fluorescent light.

She put the toy back, goose bumps rising on her arms. Where were her children?

They were bouncing miniature basketballs around near the front of the store. She hurried to them. “Alright, kiddos. Let’s go.”

“Awww!” they both said at once.

“Well, you’re hungry, right? Let’s get something to eat!”

“Yay!” They returned the balls to their bin and followed her out the door.

Main Street was defined by brick architecture. She’d expected a wrecking ball to have remastered the street by now, but the zoning committee must have balked somewhere in their plans for a riverside megamall complete with huge parking lots. But not for long, Katherine knew. When Sally and Sarah were her age, Main Street would be a memory, a series of photographs in a history book. So many of the Ma and Pa places would have gone extinct, replaced by...

A deer on the sidewalk?

Pedestrians passed it by, but with halting, gawking steps. A girl in her twenties and a magenta skirt stroked the animal’s back for a minute before strolling away in relaxed bliss. The deer stood calm, blinking at Sally and Sarah as they tiptoed toward it.

Katherine eyed the creature nervously. A cow she understood and had even cuddled. But a deer? Deer were wild. What was it doing here? How had it wandered this far into the city without Animal Control noticing?

“Careful,” she murmured, but the girls didn’t hear. They circled the deer, petting it on both sides. She expected the animal to rear up and trample her children, but it didn’t. It licked Sally’s face; she giggled. Katherine passed the deer around the inside of the path, staring at the beast. It looked at her with its doe eyes.

The girls parted from the deer of their own accord. “Goodbye,” they said, waving. “Goodbye.”

The sun had hovered in the same spot since their arrival. It wasn’t directly overhead, thus scalding people below, but sitting comfortably at a tilt, a pleasant white orb lamping Littleton. And the breeze continued, never abating, always refreshing. Katherine closed her eyes, linked to her two children by hand, floating in the daylight. She couldn’t even think about the novel now. Couldn’t even think about the two comic books she needed plotted by Monday.

She opened her eyes and wasn’t even surprised they were in front of Mistuh Cream’s. Mistuh Cream’s had closed years ago, replaced by a Starbucks. And now it was back. There they were, the elephant stencils in the window. There they were, the peppermint swirls painted on the tables. She opened the door and let the smell of corn dogs and maraschino cherries waft over her.

A youthful waiter in a bowtie escorted them to a table. Katherine dragged her hand across her seat’s leather before sitting. There it was, the juggling monkey painted on the wall. These visuals had been what first interested her in drawing. She never mastered perspective or proportion, but all that scribbling prepared her for scripting at Dark Horse.

But Dark Horse was so far away now. Sarah sipped on her strawberry smoothie, and Sally colored her menu with pre-provided crayons. Katherine chomped down on her burger, staring at the elephants in the window. The sun gleamed through the lines, sending animal shadows down on their table.

Impossibly, it was still morning. The girls skipped past men in top hats, past docile elk and women in corset dresses. Balloons floated underneath awnings, and, in the distance, sounds of a fair could be heard. A girl in a pink bonnet walked past, eating cotton candy. Katherine’s daughters’ eyes widened. “Mommy, can we have cotton candy too?”

“No, dears,” Katherine said, still in a daze, “you’ve already had smoothies.”

The girls stomped their feet, shouting, “We want cotton candy! We want cotton candy!”

Katherine’s heart raced. No. Not a tantrum now. She wanted to acquiesce, to surrender if only to preserve this dream, her dream. To retain this happiness. But the girls would get sick. David had given them cupcakes instead of cake for birthdays because they’d get so nauseous. David would have been firm here, firm and calm, but he hadn’t just eaten at Mistuh Cream’s, hadn’t just passed a carriage riding down the street. Please, girls. Don’t wake me up.

Along came a bearded old-timer in overalls, grinning behind his red-tinted glasses. Katherine knew instinctively that his clothes were hand-sewn, though she couldn’t reason out how she knew that. The bearded man bent over the angry girls, chuckling. “What are ya doin’, cryin’ on this day? Donchya know what day this is?”

The girls’ faces stopped reddening. Sally cocked her head. “Nuh-uh.”

“Not a day to cry! New things are a-comin’.” He embraced them, laughing. Katherine could smell his licorice breath from where she was standing. “It’s the end of this ol’ hand me down world and the beginnin’ of the next!”

The sun brightened, not in a blinding way but as if transformed from a mere star to the Big Bang itself. Sarah drew back from the bearded man, looking him in the eyes. “Is this the rapture, Mister?”

The man raised his hands to the sky. “Rapture? The world’s full of rapture. I’ve been asleep for so long, and now, the world’s wakin’ up, up, up!”

And that’s when Katherine heard it. Muffled voices from the heavens, gruff and hurried. “Strike the set! Strike the set! Hurry!”

Katherine hugged her girls, crying, but not with tears. She was Kate again, and trees grew inside shops that had closed years ago, and the cart drew next to the red Pontiac Firebird, and the breeze was still blowing, still blowing. And the sky had gone gold.

“All clear?” the voices in the air rumbled. “All clear. Golden Age, Act One, Scene One.”

Katie sighed, holding her daughters, and lifted with the breeze.

“Action!” the heavens said.

It was the end of this world and the beginning of the next.

Copyright © 2012 by Blaise Marcoux

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