Tuesday, February 15, 2011
Enigma Black--Chapter 2
Yet another excerpt from my novel, Enigma Black:
The Beginning of the End of My Life
Like most seventeen year olds, I’d been completely oblivious to what was going on in the world around me and the inevitable ramifications the recent string of attacks would have on my life. All I knew back then was that I was happy in my own little world--as dull as it may have been.
On an overcast day in December nearly a decade ago, I sat in chemistry class running my fingers along the grooves of the table staring blankly at the world outside my window. The first snow was going to fall soon, or so they said. Hooray. Why my parents had chosen Maryland to live and not some tropical haven, I would never understand.
Next to me, my lab partner was feverishly taking down notes. Derek was your average run-of- the-mill science geek. Feverishly scribbled down every bit of Mr. French’s more-rambling-than-informative-lecture, he was completely ignoring the fact that his glasses were siding ever so precariously down his nose. Despite his nerd-like tendencies, he was still a pretty good looking kid with thick, dark hair and piercing eyes the color of kiwis. Especially evident to me, however, was the fact that his face turned various shades of crimson every time I even so much as glanced in his direction making it pretty obvious that he had a thing for me. From the beginning, I’d made it clear to him I wasn’t allowed to date. Okay, so that was a lie…a lie made all the more interesting by confiding to him that my father was an avid gun collector with a split personality.
Although my aversion to dating seemed to be somewhat of a relief to my parents, I suspected that they were nonetheless starting to wonder about their teenage daughter’s lack of interest in even broaching the subject with them. In fact, I was fairly certain that my mother was chomping at the bit for me to bring a date home to give her an excuse to take me shopping for prom dresses, makeup and all that other frilly, girly crap. Alas, it wasn’t meant to be for I had ulterior motives with my lab partner selection.
Derek was a science phenom; so, when it came down to choosing lab partners, let’s just say it was a no-brainer for me. It never ceased surprising me that, despite his academic intelligence, all it ever took for me to win him over was a simple bat of an eyelash and a lip-gloss infused grin. It’d been one of only a handful of times I‘d used my feminine wiles to my advantage. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t as if I were incapable of passing the class based upon my own merits. Quite the contrary, it was because I was perfectly capable that prompted me to select him. He was a genius and I was of slightly above-average intelligence which translated into me not having to do too much to ace the class. Some would call it laziness, I called it efficiency. I’d always been an honor student without even trying. I considered it nature’s way of making up for everything I wasn’t graced with: artistic skills, athleticism, and the uncanny ability to walk into a room without tripping over my own two feet. Classes were just an unnecessary formality creating a damper on my social life.
"Ms. Stevens," Mr. French called my name while leaning dangerously too far over the overhead projector near the front of the classroom. His stomach was almost as pompous as his ego. As he leaned over the projector, it brushed against the ink on the transparency smudging the glass, putting yet another stain on his two-sizes too small polyester shirt. He’d just completed his lecture and was scanning the jungle for unassuming prey to devour with humiliation. Today, I was his target. Oh crap.
"Ms. Stevens, what is reverse osmosis?"
I looked at Derek, giving him a big smile as I turned to face Mr. French, "Reverse osmosis is a method of producing pure water by forcing saline or impure water through a semi permeable membrane across which salts or impurities cannot pass."
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Derek giving me a thumbs-up from underneath our table. Mr. French wore a clear look of disappointment as I’d again robbed him of the chance to reprimand me for not having paid attention in class.
"Very good, Ms. Stevens."
"Thank you," I replied in a tone peppered with a hint of smart ass.
"I think you just stole the wind from his sails," Derek whispered to me obviously amused.
It was apparent that I was becoming somewhat of a bad influence on the future valedictorian. Giving Derek a sly smile, I resumed my descent into la-la land, staring out the window as a lone snowflake fell from the sky.
"I have this theory," my friend Lucy announced from her aptly named "co-pilot" instead of "shotgun" position in my Taurus as we were pulling out of the school parking lot.
I’d basically been Lucy’s chauffeur since obtaining my license a little over a year ago. Her parents didn’t much care for teenage drivers and weren’t about to add to the problem by allowing their daughter to join their ranks. For some reason, they had trusted me as I--in their words--"radiated maturity beyond my years". I supposed it was a compliment seeing as how whatever exactly it was they thought I radiated was apparently enough of a reassurance for them to leave their daughter’s life in my hands.
"Oh really? What pray tell is said theory?" I asked Lucy inquisitively.
"Quite simply, the world is ending."
Lucy’s proclamation nearly caused me to miss a stop sign forcing me to brake rather abruptly, clearly annoying the person in the car behind me.
"Okay," I replied. "You have my attention. I would love to know where you came up with this theory."
"Just look at all the chaos and destruction going on right now with these bombings taking place. I mean…what else could it possibly be? There must be some reason for this kind of erratic human behavior. All the attacks that have been going on and they only seem to be getting worse. Someone or something has to be sparking them."
"What? Because psychopaths don’t exist? Come on Lucy. there are a lot of evil, psychotic people in this world. The only difference between now and like fifty years ago is the fact that people now have better access to more tools of destruction. Take the internet, for example. There are websites devoted to the sort of chaos that has been going on lately. Plus, there’s way more media coverage than there used to be. We just hear more about everything that goes on now so maybe it’s just that it seems like there is really more happening than there truly is."
Lucy was my best friend even though she’d always been the overtly analytical, paranoid, conspiracy theory type of girl. These traits tended to wear thin on most everyone else who knew her, but I’d become accustomed to--if not somewhat amused by them--through the years. Whenever she’d suffered so much as a cough, she’d be on the internet researching it, developing speculations as to its origin. Instead of the usual viral causes, she’d more often than not come to the conclusion that some freak pathogen had been released into the air. Over the years I discovered that if I could reason with her by providing cold hard facts, or well spoken bullshit, she was quickly brought back down to reality.
"I suppose you’re right," she finally agreed.
"So what are you planning on doing over Christmas Break?"
A puzzled look must have overspread my face as Lucy immediately shot back, "You completely forgot that today was the last day of school before break didn’t you?"
"So, sue me for not owning a calendar. Besides, I finished all of my gift buying weeks ago. I guess I just felt like I could forget about the whole Christmas thing."
"You’re one strange creature."
"One person’s strange is another person’s unique. Now get the out of my car."
Lucy laughed, rolling her eyes at me as she opened the passenger side door of my car now in her driveway.
"I’ll give you a call this weekend."
"Thanks for the warning."
She shook her head, closed the car door and proceeded up her driveway. It was nice actually having a friend who understood me. I’d made several acquaintances and quasi-friends over the school years, but none of them seemed to appreciate my dry humor like Lucy Pierce did.
Methodically, I backed out of the Pierce’s driveway, carefully avoiding the various ceramic pots and ornamental statues planted at the end of it. A minor infraction last summer forced Lucy and I to make a mad dash into town to quickly replace a couple of potted geraniums that had somehow mysteriously ended up underneath my tires. Narrowly avoiding another disaster, I backed out into the road driving the two blocks from Lucy’s house to my parents’ split-level complete with white picket fence. My parents truly took the whole American dream thing to the extreme.
By late afternoon the wind had picked up substantially, howling in sheer protest. It all but took my breath away as I opened my car door and made my way into the house. I absolutely hated this time of year and that’s probably why I always allowed myself to forget about it so easily. The true meaning of Christmas, as far as I was concerned, had been lost years ago in the age of advertising and keeping up with the Joneses. Now, it seemed as though the holiday was becoming more of a time for parents to buy their children’s affection; after a year of neglect masked by the use of television as a babysitter and having a "headache" when asked by them to play catch in the backyard.
Much to my relief, I was the first one home. I threw my keys into the wooden bowl serving as a catch-all for all of our miscellaneous junk next to the front door. There were days when I treasured solitude, a fact of which my mother and little brother never quite seemed to grasp.
My mother, Carol, had yet to catch on to the fact that I was none too interested in the daily gossip around town. Nor did I care to partake in the standard "girl talk" with her. Small talk for me consisted of a lively discussion of a novel or a stimulating debate about some hot topic issue. When I tried to institute such talk with Carol it was like hitting a brick wall, inevitably prompting me to give in to her while patiently sitting and listening to her stories of how the dignitaries in town lived their lives. I knew everything about Mayor Anderson’s extramarital exploits and Sheila from down the block’s five hundred dollar pumps. I’d made half-hearted attempts at smiling at all of Carol’s stories as she regaled me with them and was always amazed that she still couldn’t understand why dances didn’t thrill me; why being a cheerleader never really appealed to me--I use to tell her that I wasn’t "rah rah material"; or, why I had no interest in befriending those daughters of the social elite in our town. The answer was quite simple: I would not allow Carol to live her life vicariously through me.
Don’t get me wrong, I’d been dealt a decent hand in life. Carol and George, my father, always ensured that my brother, Jake, and I had everything we needed. George was head of the pediatric unit at Hope Memorial Hospital. Carol was a journalist for the local newspaper with her main expertise--surprise, surprise--being human interest stories. Landing that job had been like receiving manna from heaven for her as there was no one more interested in how others lived their lives than she was.
George was the only thing standing between me and the loony bin. My father was a little more low-key than Carol, preferring to stay at home instead of attending social gatherings. Carol and George were complete opposites who miraculously fit together perfectly like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.
Jake and I were the quintessential brother and sister team. We pretended to despise each other often refusing to be in the same room for more than necessary. However, if one of us were in trouble, the other would walk on hot coals to kick the ass of whoever warranted it. After all, if anyone was going to do bodily harm to my brother, it would be me.
We lived the perfect, all-American, white picket fence kind of life until one late December day turned everything upside down.
After grabbing an apple from our fruit bowl, I plopped down on my bed, wrapped myself up in my down comforter and turned on the television. While flipping through the channels, a news bulletin appeared on the screen quickly grabbing my attention. This particular bulletin detailed yet another bombing. This time the bomber had struck an Atlantic City casino. That would make twice this week and four times within the last month that an attack had occurred. There was no doubt the insanity was escalating. Thankfully, this time the casualties were minimal since the casino was struck in the wee hours of the morning.
I turned the channel only to find another news organization replaying the same story. A perky, blonde anchor woman who appeared to have had numerous cosmetic procedures therefore appearing perpetually surprised recounted the attack:
"A blast killed three people and critically injured five more at the Flamingo Resort and Casino in Atlantic City shortly after 3:00 this morning. The blast took out the lobby of the casino damaging much of the gaming floor. Fortunately, due to the timing of this explosion, there were minimal people on the floor at that time. The cause of this incident remains under investigation, but many believe this explosion is linked to similar incidences in Philadelphia, Dover and Baltimore all occurring within the last month…"
I turned off the television and lay on my bed staring at the ceiling. What if Lucy was right? There had to be a reason for all of this. This couldn’t just be random, could it? Coming to the conclusion that I was becoming just as paranoid as she was, I put all thoughts of Armageddon to rest and closed my eyes.
"Celaine, dinner’s ready," Carol called.
"Huh?" I sat up groggily looking at the clock on my desk. Apparently, I’d fallen asleep. Who would’ve thought that staring at the ceiling wasn’t stimulating enough to keep a person conscious.
"I’ll be right down."
It was time for another rousing Stevens’ dinner. I stood up slowly making my way downstairs. Not surprisingly, they’d already started eating without me. When it came to food, my family meant business.
"So nice of you to join us," my father said sarcastically.
I dished up a plate of lasagna for myself. Besides grilled cheese and spaghetti, lasagna was just about the only other thing Carol knew how to make ensuring that we ate those three meals quite frequently. Suffice it to say, she was no Betty Crocker.
"I was talking to Claire today at work," she began. "Apparently, her and Bob are considering building a bomb shelter in their backyard what with all the mayhem that has been occurring lately."
"Is that a fact?" my dad replied with slight bemusement.
"Yeah, they’re really freaked out. Bob says that if there’s another bombing, he’s selling the house and moving out of the city altogether."
"Bob has always been one to overreact."
"Well these attacks…they seem to be occurring more frequently…in more heavily populated areas. I mean, what if they start bombing highways or…schools."
I stole a glance over at Jake relieved to see him building a garlic bread town in his lasagna, completely oblivious to what was being discussed.
"Carol," my dad began clearly exasperated. "More than likely these attacks are being carried out by copycats. The problem is with the media…they sensationalize this crap to the point where those psychopaths tune in to see it. They think they’ll get their names in the history books if they set out to best what has already been done. It’s their attempt to instill further panic. By building a bomb shelter or uprooting our lives we’d be doing nothing but fanning the flames they’ve created."
George hadn’t been himself lately. His unflappable demeanor had mysteriously changed recently overnight. We all noticed that he seemed slightly more anxious lately but couldn’t quite pinpoint the reason for it. Our best guess was that it was due to more stress put on him at work. He was extremely well-respected by his colleagues and peers. Some even speculated that he would be in the running for the chief of staff position when the current chief retired later next year. Whatever it was, George wasn’t talking about it and repeated inquiries from Carol were doing nothing to lighten his mood.
"Well I suppose you’re right," Carol answered clearly deflated, "But still, these incidences are a little disconcerting."
My fork scraped the bottom of the plate creating a blood curdling shriek that brought me back down to reality. Something about my parents’ discussion surrounding the attacks hadn’t set well with me.
"Thanks for dinner mom," I said as I stood up.
"You’re welcome sweetie," she replied. "Oh, Celaine."
"We’re going to the mall tomorrow to pick up some last minute gifts. Do you want to come?"
"Darn skippy." I was happy to hear the conversation returning to an iota of normalcy. My father chuckled.
"She’s one strange child," my mom muttered.
"You got that right," Jake announced.
"Jake what the heck is that?" my father asked.
"I’m building a replica of Washington DC. See, here’s the White House, the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument..."
"For Pete’s sake Jake, eat your dinner."
I could tell George wished he’d stayed at the hospital tonight instead of coming home.
"And you think I’m weird," I called out as I headed back upstairs.
"It’s not being weird, it’s channeling my creativity."
"I’ve heard that President Brooks thinks that the attacks are becoming more organized," Carol proclaimed returning to that disturbing topic. "He believes we may be dealing with a domestic terrorist organization bent on staging some sort of a coup. They’re talking about institutionalizing a nationwide curfew because of it."
I stopped dead in my tracks halfway up the stairs as I strained to listen.
"That will never happen," my dad countered. "It would be like spitting on the Constitution. The people simply wouldn’t allow it."