Monday, May 30, 2016

18 - At the Library

     “I knew you’d be here,” said Topping to Bartholomew who was tucked in behind stacks of gardening books.

     “Aren’t I always here? I assume you’re looking up jobs,” said Bartholomew happy to see his friend.

     “Actually, I’m looking at books about painting cars.”

     “So, you’re working for Uncle Cy again?” asked Bartholomew as he closed a book on garden design.

     Topping looked down, picked up a book and ran his fingers over the spine. “No, he hasn’t had me back, yet. Well, just one day a couple of weeks ago, but now it’s almost March and I don’t know when he’ll call.”

     Bartholomew smiled at Topping. “I’m sure his work will pick up soon. It’s getting warmer out and people will want to show off their cars.”

     Topping squinted at Bartholomew and shrugged, “Yeah, maybe.”

     Bartholomew wondered what he could do to help Topping. He hated seeing him so down. Then he said it without even thinking, “Do you want to paint my car?”

     Topping looked at him. He wasn’t sure if it was a joke or just a bad attempt to make him feel better. Bartholomew couldn’t believe he had said it. But then he thought to himself, “Why not?”

     “Topping, I want you to paint my car,” said Bartholomew.

     “No…no, I couldn’t. It’s expensive to do and it’s a nice car just like it is.”

     “No it’s not. My car is white with a big pink stripe down each side. That is not nice, or pretty or anything but ugly,” said Bartholomew realizing that he never really had liked the color of that car.

     “But Bartholomew, painting a car isn’t easy and the paint is expensive…and there’s no place to paint it…and, and … it’s expensive,” said Topping.

     “Geez, you make it sound like painting a car is expensive,” joked Bartholomew. “Paint it at Uncle Cy’s place after-hours and I will pay you.”

     “No, you can’t pay me, I’m your friend!” protested Topping. Other people in the library started to stare disapprovingly at the two of them.

     Firmly but more quietly, Bartholomew looked straight at Topping and said, “Design a new paint job for my car and I will pay for the paint and five hundred dollars for you. Don’t worry, Uncle Jeffrey submitted my taxes in early February and I just got my return. I can cover this.”

     Topping didn’t know what to say. He stood quietly for a while but then leaned forward and whispered to Bartholomew, “It’s going to have flames. I hope you don’t mind a 1974 Peugeot with flames.”

     Bartholomew looked up and answered, “As long as you get rid of the pink, I don’t care what you do.” Thinking for a moment, he then added, “But flames would be cool. Way cool.”

     Topping pulled up a chair and sat across the table from Bartholomew. They turned their attention to the stack of gardening books.

     “What are you going to plant?” asked Topping.

     “I’m not sure, yet. Tomatoes, peppers, and kale for sure. Some lettuce. Other than that, I don’t know. The problem is I’m not sure where I am going to plant. And I want enough room for you and Charlotte and other people to plant, too.”

     “Aren’t you planting in your yard?” asked Topping.

     “No, it’s too shady. I have a big old oak tree that was planted there by my great-great-grandfather, and it covers the entire back yard. And the front yard is small and shady, too - it’s a really big tree,” said Bartholomew holding his arms out to indicate a sense of largeness. “I was thinking of maybe planting at the end of my street. It ends at a railroad track and there is a big space. Certainly big enough for a garden.”

     “I’ll help you build it,” said Topping.

     “What?” asked Bartholomew.

     “I’ll help you build your garden. Your helping me do something I want to do, so I’ll help you do something you want to do,” said Topping.

     Bartholomew stared at him for only a moment and then said, “All right. Good. I’ll let you know when I start. But it’s going to be big.”

     “Big enough for chickens?” asked Topping with a grin.

     Bartholomew laughed. “Yeah, Claire and her chickens. That’s dubious.”

     “I can’t believe she wants you to have chickens in your garden,” said Topping shaking his head.

     “I can’t believe her and Ned are still living together. And it’s your fault,” accused Bartholomew.

     “My fault?! How the fuck you figure it’s my fault?”

     “You’re the one that had the New Years Eve party. She never went home after that, did she? Stayed at Ned’s that night and every night since.”

     Topping just shrugged his shoulders and flipped some more pages. “Not my fault they shacked up. You came to the party and you didn’t shack up with anyone. And if Ned has his doubts and lets a woman run all over him, that’s his problem – not mine.”

     “Yeah, well I guess you don’t hear about it as much as I do,” said Bartholomew. “He's not hanging out at your place to get away from Claire.” They turned their attention back to the books.

     After awhile, Bartholomew wanted to talk to Topping about something – to get his advice – but wasn’t sure how to go about it. His eyes skimmed the surface of the book pages while thinking about what to say. He decided to just start talking. “I still haven’t gone out with The Nanny.”

     “Well, I’m not surprised,” said Topping.

     Taken aback, Bartholomew demanded, “What do you mean by that?”

     “Geez, don’t get your underwear in a bunch, I just meant with Geraldine missing The Nanny is probably too busy or too freaked out to want to get together.”

     “Missing?! What do you mean Geraldine is missing?” asked Bartholomew as he pushed aside a stack of books to better see Topping. He heard a “shush” come from somewhere to his right.

     “Didn’t you read about it in the paper? Geraldine has been missing for a couple of weeks now. She just disappeared one day,” said Topping.

     “Wha…how, what happened?”

     “Like I said, she just disappeared. No sign, no trace.”

     Bartholomew sat quiet for a moment. Scenarios raced through his mind: was she abducted by one of her “lovers,” had one of her brothers killed her, had The Nanny done something to her? The last time Bartholomew had seen The Nanny she had mentioned doing something illegal.

     “Are you okay?” asked Topping.

     Bartholomew didn’t answer. He felt a ball of sadness inside him. How could Geraldine be gone? He had dated her - and now she was gone? This just doesn’t happen. This shouldn’t have happened. How? He had always thought Geraldine was kind to him – spoke well of him. She was wild, but Bartholomew always knew there was a nice person inside her.

     “I dated her,” said Bartholomew, half catatonic.

     “I thought you said you didn’t get together with The Nanny,” said Topping.

     “No, I mean Geraldine… quite awhile ago, and she was too wild for me. But I got a sense that she liked me and there is a nice side to her that most people don’t see.”

     Topping almost snickered when Bartholomew said that he had dated Geraldine. But then he saw how moved Bartholomew was by this news. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know,” said Topping. “They didn’t say she was dead or anything like that,” he added. “She might have just run away. You should ask The Nanny. Give her a call.”

     Anger appeared in Bartholomew’s voice, “She’s been telling me for the last few weeks she can’t get together because she’s too busy dog-sitting. That it was taking up more of her time than she thought it would. All this time and she never has mentioned anything about Geraldine missing.”

     “Dog-sitting?!” asked Topping.

     “Yeah, she picked up a side job sitting somebody’s dog. I think it’s a pug.”

     “And she hasn’t mentioned anything about Geraldine? That’s fucked up,” said Topping.

     Bartholomew cringed inside at the sound of Topping swearing. It didn’t seem like appropriate language given the terrible circumstance.

     “Yes, I will have to call The Nanny and ask her about this,” said Bartholomew.

     “Yeah, let me know what you find out,” said Topping. He hesitated. “Bartholomew,…”

     Bartholomew looked at Topping.

     “…well, if you need anything, you can let me know that, too.”

     In the seventy days that they’d known each other, Bartholomew and Topping had become friends. They had been running into each other at the library every other week. Bartholomew was very happy about this. He had never had a friend his age to support him when he was down. He had never had anyone who wanted to work on projects with him and help him do what he wanted to do. His friends had always been someone to play with, someone to have fun with – like children. His previous friends had no idea how to comfort him or simply sit with him when his parents had died. They never patiently listened to him when he was unsure about things, they didn’t know how to empathize and they never offered themselves up as emotional support. As he thought about it, he had never really had a friend who could help him like an adult can. Then he laughed quietly to himself, “Hmmm, am I becoming an adult?”
Written by Mark Granlund
Illustrated by Mark Granlund

Sunday, May 22, 2016

17 - The Nanny is Too Literal

      One day Bartholomew was downtown shopping at his favorite t-shirt store. Across the store, he saw The Nanny and Geraldine. He wanted to hide from Geraldine, but he wanted to talk with The Nanny. He wasn’t sure what to do, but then The Nanny waved at him and both she and Geraldine walked over to where he was standing. Geraldine lagged behind The Nanny.

     “Hey, Bartholomew,” said The Nanny happily.

     “Hey, The Nanny. Hi Geraldine,” said Bartholomew being polite.

     Geraldine said nothing.

     The Nanny was wearing a black bodice with lace sleeves and silver metallic jeans with lips to match. Her hair was pulled up in a bun and, as always, she had heavy black mascara around her eyes. Bartholomew could see the chain of her large cross necklace around her neck. Geraldine was wearing a plain, white, low-cut v-neck t-shirt that was about two sizes too small. It was obvious she was not wearing a bra.

     Geraldine noticed Bartholomew noticing her chest.

      “Hi, Bartholomew,” she said perking up. “I’ve missed you. What you been up to?”

      “Uh…not much. Just hanging out with some friends and stuff.”

      Geraldine put her arms behind her back and began swaying her chest back and forth like a hypnotist’s watch.

      “Maybe we could hang out again sometime?”

      “Yeah, uhm… maybe,” said Bartholomew forgetting that Geraldine doesn’t understand when people are just being polite. “What are you guys shopping for?” he changed the subject.

      “We’re looking for some new spring clothes; shoes, new pants and a few t-shirts,” said The Nanny.

      “Yeah, and maybe some underwear,” added Geraldine. “Want to shop with us?”

      “You know, Geraldine, perhaps Bartholomew has his own shopping to do. You don’t need to have a guy help you with everything. Remember, this is supposed to be some shopping time for me and you – girl time.”

      “That’s okay,” said Bartholomew, “I don’t really shop in the woman’s department. I think I’ll be over here shopping for my stuff.”

      “Okay, maybe we can meet up at the food court or the bathrooms later,” encouraged Geraldine. The Nanny rolled her eyes and then grabbed Geraldine by the shoulders.

      “All right, Geraldine, let’s head over to the women’s department. It was nice seeing you, Bartholomew. Good luck with your shopping.”

      “Good bye,” said Bartholomew.

      “See ya later,” said Geraldine as she flashed a toothy smile.

      Bartholomew went about his shopping. He looked at cargo pants, shorts some sandals and t-shirts - lots of t-shirts.

      He turned to look at a rack behind him and bumped into The Nanny. 


      “Huh? Sorry,” Bartholomew apologized for bumping into her.

      “I’m really sorry about Geraldine being so pushy with you.”

      “That’s okay,” said Bartholomew, “I kinda expect it from her.”

      The Nanny laughed.

      “I know that you and Geraldine dated for awhile last year. I’m sure that the story I got isn’t accurate as to what happened. But I want you to know that I’m working with Geraldine to help her see that she shouldn’t be so… needy.”

      Bartholomew laughed. “Good luck!”

      “I have tried just about everything I can think of that is legal. I just hope you don’t think too poorly of her. She really is a nice girl, its just she needs some help to stay focused. As I said, I’m sure what Geraldine told me wasn’t all true, but I can tell that she didn’t lie when she said you were the guy who has treated her the nicest. That’s not saying much, considering most of the guys she’s been with, but I can tell that you are very kind to your girlfriends.”

      Bartholomew blushed, “Geraldine’s okay in my book. We’re just two very different people and we don’t want the same thing.” He paused. “What I mean is, well, I mean maybe I do want what she wants, just not, you know, not like she wants it.”

      The Nanny cocked her head and her brow creased slightly between her eyes.

      “I mean I would want it with…someone...who is…else. I mean, it would be fine with someone else. But Geraldine isn’t the…maybe there is someone else - someone nicer, someone prettier. Not that looks are all I’m about, I just mean…” Bartholomew took a deep breath. “Where’s Geraldine?”

      “She took about twenty items into the dressing room. She’ll be in there for about forty-five minutes. Lord only knows what she does when she’s in a dressing room. She takes for-eeeeeee-ver.”

      Bartholomew looked over The Nanny’s shoulder and spied Geraldine talking to a young man who works at the store. Together, they disappeared into the changing room area.

      “She just doesn’t stop, does she?” said Bartholomew.
“She doesn’t stop what? Changing?”

      “Uh, yeah, changing. That must be why she takes so long in the dressing room,” answered Bartholomew.

      The Nanny stared blankly at him.

      “Anyway, I don’t want to talk about Geraldine anymore,” said The Nanny as she looked over her shoulder to check on her. She turned back to Bartholomew.

      “I would like to get together with you every so often. Just check-in, talk, hangout. Would that be okay with you?” asked The Nanny.

      “Uh, yeah, that would be fine by me,” answered Bartholomew excited that The Nanny was interested in him.

      “Great! Would you be free this Thursday after I’m done with work?”

      “Sure, I’m uh, sure that would be fine.”

      “Let’s meet at McGliffkey’s,” said the Nanny. “I’ll see you there at nine o’clock.”

      “Okay,” said Bartholomew.

      “And I won’t bring Geraldine,” laughed The Nanny.

      “Good,” said Bartholomew with a big smile, “cuz that would be like trying to have a conversation while a dog is humping your leg.” He immediately felt bad about comparing Geraldine to a dog and blushed because he was sure The Nanny would think he was a jerk for saying this.

      “What did you say?” asked The Nanny.

      Good. She didn’t hear.

      “Like a dog humping your leg?” she continued.

      Oh no! She did hear.

      Bartholomew buried his face in a pile of t-shirts he was holding. A dog humping your leg - what a stupid thing to say.

      “That gives me an idea,” The Nanny said to herself as she turned and walked away.

      Bartholomew uncovered his face to apologize, or at least add something on a positive note, but when he looked up, The Nanny was nowhere in sight. 
Written by Mark Granlund
Illustrations by Raighne Hogan

Friday, May 13, 2016

16 - Mental Exercises

     “Hey, see you later,” said Ned. “Happy New Year!”

     Ned drifted out of the building and into an unusually warm January morning. He thought it was odd but was glad the weather was not bone chilling, since he had to walk home. He lived in a small apartment building near the river on what was considered the edge of downtown. It wasn't a fancy apartment, but he was proud to have his own place. His job didn't pay very well, but he had managed to scrimp and save enough money to be comfortable and do the things he liked to do. Mind you, what is “comfortable” to a twenty-three year old male is not necessarily comfortable for anyone else.

      As he walked, he thought about the evening. He wondered why Claire, a young woman he had danced with earlier at the party, seemed to become angry when they talked about the environment. He thought she even called him names, or at least he thought they were names – the music was loud and he hadn't heard her very well. But she left the party in a huff and it seemed to be directed at him.

      “So what?” Ned said to himself. He hadn't had a girlfriend in the last year. He wasn't going to get bent out of shape by a girl getting weird at a party. Maybe it was best that they didn't hook up.

      It was warm enough that the few piles of snow here and there were melting and running across the sidewalk. The evening reminded him of a warm January night he had spent with his father a few years ago. He was home visiting his parents during his senior year of college. Ned was studying for a business degree and the course load was becoming very difficult as he neared the end. Statistics was never anyone's favorite subject, but for some reason, Ned enjoyed it and was very good at it. But as the course become more advanced and started to deal with stochastic calculus Ned became very challenged. In fact, he was thinking that his grade might come in too low to get a good job. What had bothered Ned the most was that he would disappoint his father. His father had been very supportive and he’d made it to every basketball and baseball game Ned played in high school. He made sure Ned could go to a college with a good reputation, paid for his tuition, and was always encouraging him to learn a practical business skill – which would increase Ned's chances at landing a decent introductory level job. He knew once Ned had achieved these goals, it was then up to Ned how far he would go. But what if he couldn't even get out of school with a decent grade? All the work his father had done to position Ned would be wasted. That night, a couple of years ago, while on a walk, Ned felt that he should share his school problems with his father...   

     “Uh, Dad,” Ned began as they walked the dog down a snowy road.

       His dad did not respond, but kept his eye on the dog.

      “Dad, I thought I should tell you that, well, things are pretty crazy at school...”

      “JINGLES!” his father yelled as the dog spent too much time sniffing around a garbage can. The dog left the smell of chicken, moldy pizza and table scraps and moved on down the road. Ned watched the spaniel for a while and then spoke again.

      “My statistics class is really stress-...”

      “STAY OUTTA THERE!” his father yelled as the dog bounded into a swampy area off the road.

     Again, Ned watched Jingles who came up to him with her tongue hanging out of her big grin. As Ned bent over to pet her, the dog took off down the road again. Ned walked on, following his father and the dog. They walked up a small rise, and as they were nearing the house, Ned felt that he had one more chance to talk to his dad before they were home, before his mom would interrupt and try to feed them.

      “Dad, I...”

      “Don't make me pick up your crap!” his father yelled at Jingles as she squatted in a neighbor’s yard. Jingles, looking sheepishly, deposited her package on the neighbor’s lawn. “For cripes sake, can't you get anything right? Stupid dog,” Ned's father muttered.

      Other than the weather, Ned wasn't sure why he was remembering that night with his father. He never did share his school problems with him, but he ended the semester with good grades and now had that introductory level job. Everything was fine as far as his father was concerned. But Ned wasn't happy with his job. He felt it was demeaning, simple and boring. Ned often dreamed about starting his own business, but was pretty sure there were enough stores and online sources that had role-playing games and World War II models. He had no idea what his niche would be, nor how to attract an audience. It never passed through Ned's mind that he had no money to start a business and the mental exercise of creating a business plan was so far just that: a mental exercise.

      His mind wandered to Claire. “Did she call me a Nazi?” Ned muttered bewildered. “It couldn't have been Nazi. Maybe Yahtzee – no that's stupid. Why would she ask me to play Yahtzee?” Ned kicked at an icicle on the sidewalk and sent it skidding off the curb and into the street. What was her problem? It seemed like the party was going so good: they danced, they talked and they even flirted. Maybe she drank too much. Ned did notice that she always had a gin and tonic in her hand. He didn't realize that Claire noticed he always had food in his hand – or in his mouth.      Ned's mind wandered back to his father. He realized, for the first time, that his father, although supportive of him, never really shared himself with Ned. Ned's father's idea of support was to provide opportunities for Ned, not to interact in a personal way. This seemed like an idea that should make Ned uncomfortable, but it didn’t. He’d grown up with that. His mind simply wandered off the subject.

     What was that comment Claire made? Something about the world warming up and how the environment is dying – maybe. Thinking back Ned wasn't sure what their conversation was before Claire left. Maybe he had said something wrong. Other than complaining about his job, he couldn't remember anything else he had said. Other than Claire talking about the world coming to an end, he wasn't sure what else she had said. Ned was starting to feel tired, and he looked up to see how much farther he had to walk. He was more than halfway home.

      Maybe he could get a better job, one that would make his father proud. He wasn't too concerned about what the business was or who he worked for, Ned just wanted a job that would impress his father and give him a chance to advance. As long as he could keep advancing his career he would have a standard to measure himself against. Is that too much to ask for? He determined to send out a couple of resumes each week until he got a job he wanted.

      Ned thought Claire was cute, but he could do better there, too. He should try to find someone who would be considered more of a “catch,” or at least someone who wouldn’t call him names. Maybe he could find someone who would think the world of him-- someone who would compliment and balance out his skills and interests. Someone who is fun. Ned felt he should start asking more women out. Being an introvert, Ned was not accustomed to approaching women, but what the heck, this is a new year – a new beginning. Ned determined to ask out two young women each week until he found one he wanted. In fact, he thought that he should ask out the very next young woman he met – as long as she wasn't wearing an engagement or wedding ring.

      He looked up to see that he was only a block from his apartment. He also noticed the night had blackened considerably and he was alone on the street - he was glad he did not have much farther to walk. He heard footsteps coming from across the dark street. A young woman appeared out of the night and came directly toward him. From what he could see through the dark night, her winter coat, scarf and hat, she looked cute. “Now this is more like it,” Ned encouraged himself. _____________________________________________________________ 

Written and Illustrated by Mark Granlund

Friday, March 11, 2016

15 - Lost

Claire left the party in a huff.

“I just can’t believe that he is so dumb!” Claire said to nobody as she strapped on her bike helmet. Claire, not having a job, couldn’t afford a car. But she also preferred to bike in order to help save the planet from carbon dioxide. Fortunately, this New Year’s Eve it was unusually warm, which Claire believed was already due to global warming. The sky was dark with clouds and the streets were dark, too. 
“I better get moving if I want to get home,” Claire continued. As she finished talking to herself, a crow on the light pole above her made laughing noises in its throat and flew off into the dark sky.

Claire needed to cross the Third Avenue Bridge and then pedal another twenty minutes to reach her parent’s house. As she began to bike through the downtown streets, the monolithic silhouettes of the tall buildings pressed in on her. Her bike seemed hard to pedal, the streets seemed long from one intersection to the next and she hit every red light possible. The night was getting even darker and she hadn’t yet reached the river.

“Ned – what kind of a name is that? I can’t imagine being so dumb,” Claire said as she huffed past a closed delicatessen. In a mimicking voice she said, “Maybe we can change our behavior before it is too late. Maybe the environment isn’t lost yet. Argh!”

Riding down Third Avenue, she passed the last tall building and came to the River. 
“Wha…?” Claire breathed as she looked up and down the River for her bridge. She did not see one. All she saw was darkness and a crow sitting on the street sign staring at her – head cocked looking out of one eye.

“Oh, shoo,” Claire said.

The crow did not shoo. Instead it spoke, “Where’s your bridge, little girl?”

“My bridge is right here. At least it should be. I’m not imagining things. I know its here.”

“Where? Kaaa,” said the crow. “Surely a whole bridge can’t move.”

“Maybe it is just around the bend of the river,” Claire theorized as she headed west down the road that ran along the River. The crow flapped its wings and vanished into the blackness.
She rode past many buildings and through several intersections. She turned the bend in the river and still did not see her bridge – or any bridge.

“This is crazy. How can people cross the River?” asked Claire.

“Maybe they can’t,” said the crow as it landed on the ground next to a box of Donkey Fries lying along the curb. “Maybe they aren’t supposed to.”

“People have to be able to get across the River,” said Claire. “There’s got to be a bridge somewhere. Where could they have gone, there used to be at least three of them?”

The crow picked up one fry in its mouth, tossed it around and then spit it out. “This doesn’t belong here, either,” said the crow.

Claire thought that she saw something back where she had been and biked east along the River. As her legs felt the ache of an incline, she thought about the first time she met Ned at Gerald’s house just a couple weeks earlier. She thought about how she liked his dreds, the manner in which he spoke and how he seemed to be nervous around her. She remembered how excited she was when they parted and he said he looked forward to seeing her at Topping’s party.

Claire passed many buildings and biked beyond her original point, yet no bridge was in sight. How could this be? She couldn’t even call her mom to come pick her up if there were no bridges. How would she get back to her parent’s house? In a little while they would start to worry about their little girl.

Asking someone for directions would be a good idea, thought Claire, but there was no one in sight.

“You could ask me, kaaa,” squawked a black shape perched on a bus bench.

“Oh, go away. What do you know, dumb bird,” said Claire to the crow.

Dumb?! Me?! I’m not lost. I haven’t lost a whole big stone bridge,” replied the crow. “I can see what’s right in front of me.”

“This makes no sense!” Claire said, and worry began to creep into her voice.

“Makes perfect sense,” said the crow. “Can’t find what you don’t need. Kaaa. Not supposed to be on that side of the River. Don’t need to go there.”

“I need to get home!” Claire said with tears starting to well up in her eyes.

The crow flew at Claire. She ducked and covered her head with her arms. The crow landed on her handlebars. The dark figure leaned forward and cawed as loud as it could.

“Your world’s coming to an end! You’re destroyin’ it! It’s over! KAAAAA! There is nothin’ you can do about it! You cannot go back! You cannot live there anymore! KAAAAA!”

Claire sprung from the bike to the ground and scrambled away from the crow. She trembled as through her enshrouding arms she watched the crow fly off into the night away from the fallen bicycle. Claire wept. She had never been attacked by an animal before. She sat there on the dirty sidewalk near the bus stop until she stopped trembling. And then she wept some more. She wanted to be in her mother’s warm loving arms, gentle hands stroking her hair and lips softly telling her, “There, there. Everything will be all right.”

But Claire wasn’t in her mother’s arms. She wasn’t even close to home – and never would be if she couldn’t find a bridge.

Through her blurry tear-filled eyes, Claire spied a moving figure across the street. She walked quickly over to this person to ask them directions to the bridge – to the way home. She wiped away her tears and was about to speak when the person said,” Hi Claire. What are you doing here?”

“Ned? Oh, hi,” Claire said surprised. “I’m…um…I’m trying to get home, but I can’t seem to find the bridge across the River.”

Ned pointed to a spot behind her. “Isn’t that the bridge right there?”

Claire turned and saw the Third Avenue Bridge. The crow was sitting on a bridge railing and seemed to wag its head at Claire. “Yeah, I guess that is,” said Claire.
Even in the dark of night, Ned could see Claire blushing.

Thinking about how much alcohol Claire had had to drink at the party, Ned asked, “Are you okay? Can you ride your bike?”

Claire stared at Ned. In the streetlight, he looked like the handsome young man who was dancing with her an hour ago, not the ugly young man who was a clueless idiot about how the world is in peril of environmental collapse. She was so glad to see a friendly face. Perhaps she shouldn’t have loudly proclaimed him to be a moron at the food table. Perhaps she shouldn’t have called him a Capitalist Nazi just before walking out the door. Perhaps he could be so kind as to help her find her home. Claire looked back at her bicycle lying on the ground and said, “No, I can’t ride it. This big bird attacked me and I think my bike got damaged.” Then she blurted out, “Can I stay at your place tonight?”

“Uh…um…,” said Ned and then cleared his throat.

“Please, I really can’t get home and…well…I’m sorry for the things I said earlier tonight. I don’t think you are a Capitalist Nazi. I just…” Claire shivered.

“Yeah, that’s okay. I didn’t take it personally. Do you want me to grab your bike?” asked Ned as he went to pick it up.

“Thanks,” said Claire.

Ned pushed Claire’s bicycle as Claire walked beside him. She leaned against him and held on to his arm. “You don’t mind, I can barely stand up I’m so tired,” said Claire.

“No, that’s okay,” said Ned.

He walked Claire to his apartment where they, where they… spent the night.
Written by Mark Granlund
Illustration by Krista Kelley Walsh

Monday, March 7, 2016

14 - Bartholomew Makes Another Decision

Topping stood in the doorway with a New Year’s hat on his head and a beer in his hand.

Bartholomew, come in!” he yelled above the din of music and conversation while handing him the beer.

Bartholomew entered the small, warm apartment that was packed wall-to-wall with people. He had not been around this many people in a long time and felt a momentary sense of dread. But then he saw Ned standing in the kitchen by a table full of food. Ned waved a Donkey Burger at him. Topping and Bartholomew made their way through the crowd.

Hey, Bartholomew. How’s it going? You have a nice Christh-muth?” asks Ned as he stuffed a pig-in-a-blanket in his mouth.
Yeah, it was okay,” Bartholomew lied. Bartholomew had not enjoyed the holidays since his parents died. Was this really the third Christmas he celebrated without them? Could their deaths be that far away already?

“What’d you do?” Ned asked as he grabbed another pig.

“I went to Aunt Josephine and Uncle Jeffrey’s house and had brunch and exchanged presents. And exchanged presents with Oliver.”

“Who’s Oliver?” asked Topping.

“Oh, he’s my cat.”

Topping snickered, “What did Oliver give you?”

Bartholomew blushed a little. “My Aunt Josephine and Uncle Jeffrey buy me a present from Oliver every year…and three presents from Santa.” Bartholomew wasn’t sure why he shared that last part.

Topping and Ned laughed.
Wanting to change the subject, Bartholomew asked, “What did you guys do?”

“I just went to my parent’s house,” said Ned after he finished laughing. “Nothing special.” He surveyed the cookie tray.

Charlotte and I went to my parent’s house and then her mom’s house,” said Topping. “My parent’s dog gave me a Christmas present,” he said looking mischievously at Bartholomew. “He took a whizz on my shoes.” They all laughed together.

Bartholomew, feeling hungry, glanced at the table. It was the usual party fare: store bought foods and a few homemade dishes that were of questionable origin but whose creators insisted they were the most delicious things they ever made. Bartholomew did not doubt these assertions, but chose to pass on the food for now. 
Come on,” said Topping. “I’ll introduce you to Charlotte.”
Topping led them through the short entrance hallway to the living room. About twenty people were situated around talking loudly over the music. Sliding doors to a crowded balcony were open to cool off the room. Claire was sitting on a blue chair next to the couch and gave a small wave and a smile to Bartholomew. He waved back. Ned waved at Claire even though they had already said hello to each other. Claire smiled.

“Charlotte! This is Bartholomew!” Topping yelled as he pushed Bartholomew through the crowd toward a pretty young woman. Bartholomew, after only knowing Topping for a couple of weeks, liked and admired him. Seeing Charlotte made him admire Topping even more.  Charlotte’s friendly smile framed by her long brown hair and green eyes greeted Bartholomew.

“Yeah - from the Christmas wrapping job, right? It’s very nice to meet you Bartholomew,” said Charlotte as she held out her hand that wasn’t holding a beer.

Bartholomew took her hand, bent low and kissed her knuckles... at least that’s what was going through Bartholomew’s mind. In truth, he shook her hand curtly and said “Hi.”

“That sounded like one screwed up family,” Charlotte said. “Who gets weapons of torture for Christmas? How bizarre!”

“Yeah, my guy had materials for making pipe-bombs,” said Bartholomew trying to impress Charlotte and the others listening to him.

“No way, dude! You didn’t tell me that!” said Topping.

“Yeah, Xavier bought pipe-bomb material, nunchucks, brass knuckles and a revolver.”

Everyone gasped and stared in disbelief at Bartholomew. Bartholomew thought that maybe he had said too much.

A couple got up from the couch and headed to the kitchen for some food. Bartholomew and Ned took their place with Ned slipping in next to Claire. The five of them talked and laughed while songs reverberated throughout the room.

“Hey!” said Charlotte all excited, “what are your resolutions or plans for the New Year? I mean, what do you REALLY want to do this year? Ned, how about you?”

For a brief moment, Ned looked like a deer in the headlights. That is if deer in headlights stuff chips and salsa into their mouths.

“Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to spring this on you. You can think about it for a minute. Topping and I want to buy a house,” Charlotte said raising her shoulders and smiling at Topping. Topping raised his eyebrows having just heard this resolution for the first time; he said nothing.

“Okay, Ned, did you have enough time?” Charlotte asked with a pleading smile.

“Uh, yeah. Well, the first thing I need to do is get a roommate. Mine left about three months ago, and I can’t afford my apartment much longer without one. So that’s first, and then I want to get a real job. My job right now sucks. I really want to get something better – nicer environment, better pay.”

Topping and Claire nodded their heads in agreement with Ned.

Topping looked at Claire, “And you?”

“I need to move out of my parent’s house and get a job. Maybe there’s a theme here.” Everyone laughed.

“Yeah,” said Topping “What, are we all in our twenties? We all want to move and get a job.” Topping let out a loud and unedited laugh.

“And friends,” Bartholomew added. After a moment of silence his face turned red.

“So, I guess we know what you want this next year,” said Topping as he laughed even louder than the last time.

Charlotte reached out her hand and put it on Bartholomew’s knee. “I think you're a real nice guy, Bartholomew. Topping and I will be your friends.”

“Me, too,” said Ned and Claire at the same time. All four of Bartholomew's new friends laughed.

Bartholomew’s face turned even deeper red at catcalls and other people mimicking “I'll be your friend, too.” Embarrassed that he represented himself as a friendless loser, he looked down at the floor. But a smile wriggled across his lips, through the embarrassment, as he felt a sense of camaraderie with these four new friends. He began a quiet laugh that almost got out of control. It was a laugh that came deep from within, from a place he hadn’t touched in quite some time.

“Now wait,” Charlotte yelled above the laughing and catcalls, “maybe Bartholomew has a few other New Year’s resolutions. Do you Bartholomew?”

With everyone's attention focused on him, Bartholomew hesitated. He wanted to tell them he had been living on his own for too long. He wanted to tell them that a giant hole had been unfairly placed in his soul and that he had felt broken, almost beyond repair. That's what he wanted for this New Year; he wanted to be repaired. He wanted a year of laughing freely. He wanted a year of sharing himself unedited with someone – anyone. He wanted friends… and now he knew he secretly wanted a lover. He wanted to tell them all this and bring all these friends home with him, forever. But how do you begin to say these things? Bartholomew sat quiet for a moment and his stomach grumbled. Then he realized what he could say out loud.

“I resolve to grow a garden... full of the food I like to eat. And I want to grow it with friends.”

Everyone was staring at him, surprised by his answer…

“And every Wednesday night during growing season, I want all of you to come over to my house. We will harvest food, cook it, eat it and have beer and music and…” Bartholomew paused. He heard a song on the stereo, a melody that he recognized but couldn’t quite place. 


“…ever since I metchya, seems I can’t forgetchya. The thought of you keeps running through the back of my mind…”

“Hey, who’s this singing?” Bartholomew asked Topping and Charlotte.

“The Dionne’s,” said Topping, “They’re a cover band of some singer named…”

Dionne Warwick,” Bartholomew and Topping said at the same time.

You know her?”

You could say so.”

Bartholomew began to quietly sing the words to the song. People stopped their conversations as the infectious beat and melody worked its magic. Charlotte grabbed Topping’s and Bartholomew’s hands and they started dancing. The rest of the room joined in. Ned was the last to get up and move his body to the beat. The apartment became a giant hopping hothouse of wall-to-wall people. They broke into chorus.

Oh, oh, oh, oh, I never knew love before and then came you! I never knew love before, then came yooooooooooooou, then came you.”

Bartholomew laughed when Topping and Charlotte pointed at each other while singing “then came you.” They turned toward him with big smiles. Ned and Claire worked their way around the song the best they could with big self-conscious grins on their faces. Everyone sang again:

Oh, oh, oh, oh, I never knew love before and then came you! I never knew love before, then came yooooooooooooou, then came you.”

Bartholomew looked around at all the young men and women in the room, bumping and jumping and singing – not a care in the world. He thought it would be great to be young, and then he thought, hey! It is great to be young, it’s great to be such a long way from death. It had been too close to Bartholomew for too long. Surrounded by the music, the sound of people and the heat of the room, his soul lifted up to the ceiling away from all of his troubles. Closing his eyes, Bartholomew began to dance freely. Soon, the song he was singing pivoted into a long laugh. Now he couldn’t stop. He laughed an emptying laugh; a laugh so deep that it emptied some of his hurt.

And then he felt it. He felt an idea - an idea so powerful it hit his heart like an atomic bomb. He, literally, would never be the same again. He thought, for a brief moment, it might be possible for his life, this tragedy, to turn into a comedy. Instead of crying in his loneliness and loss, he could cry for joy, for that was what he was about to do. When he opened his eyes, he marveled at his new friends who were laughing and dancing and singing. This was what he wanted.
Written by Mark Granlund
Illustrations by Justin Terlecki

Friday, March 4, 2016

13 - Lunch Wrap

The dining room was almost as big as Bartholomew’s house. The table was twenty feet long with six chairs down each side and two large high-backed armchairs at the ends. Sitting at the table were the three other present-wrappers with a big plate full of Donkey Burgers and fries and milkshakes.

Hi, I’m Topping,” said one boy with brown touseled hair.

Hi, I’m Bartholomew,” said Bartholomew.

Hi, I’m Ned,” said a tall boy with blonde dreads and wearing a light blue shirt with a button-down collar.

I’m Claire,” said the only girl at the table.

Bartholomew sat down, tucked a napkin in the collar of his Rampage t-shirt and picked at a Donkey Burger. He wasn’t sure if he would touch the fries or the milkshake. Perhaps he could wait until he got home to eat.

Ned, Claire, and Topping continued a conversation they had started before Bartholomew walked in.

I can’t believe it, really? She’s getting sex toys for Christmas? How bizarre,” said Topping.

Yeah, I just feel creepy wrapping her presents. They’re so…ugh. I just can’t imagine it. And to think that her dad is buying her these presents. Ish!” said Claire.

Bartholomew kept his head down, taking a big bite of the burger, afraid they might find out that he had once dated Geraldine.

Her dad might be paying for them, but I don’t think he picked them out,” said Ned as he adjusted his glasses. “My directions and lists seem to indicate that the boy whose presents I’m wrapping picked them out of catalogs and shopping supplements.”

That seems like my lists, too,” said Topping. “Besides, I can’t see anybody’s parents buying them sex-toys. That would be just weird.”

Yes, but you saw her father,” said Claire. “I mean, that was a rather odd outfit he was wearing – a fur collar on a sleeveless t-shirt and pants with zippers all the way up the sides?”

What is your room like, Bartholomew?” asked Ned.

Bartholomew finished swallowing the bite of burger and then delayed by taking time to wipe his mouth and secretly spitting the chewed burger into his napkin.

Well, nothing too strange, so far. But I was just decorating the tree. I haven’t gotten to presents, yet. What’s your room like?” asked Bartholomew.

There are a lot of music related items,” said Ned.

Oh, like instruments?” asked Claire.

Ned and Claire’s eyes locked for a moment and then, talking to the table in front of him, Ned said, “No, he has CD’s, mostly rap, hip-hop and then some videos of spoken word performances.”

Any InJustIce or R.A.V.Dog CD’s?” asked Topping.

Yes, there were two InJustIce CD’s, I believe, and a video of their concert.”

Awesome,” replied Topping.

Bartholomew wanted to ask about the bands because he had never heard of them, but he sat quietly.

I like their song ‘Dead Pony,’ but not much else,” said Ned.

Oh, c’mon!” said Topping, “You don’t like ‘Large Karma’ or ‘Rage of Summer’ or ‘Ballistic?’ You gotta like ‘Large Karma!’ That’s a great song!”

Ned didn’t answer. He just kept eating his third Donkey Burger.

Bartholomew, you must like them. You’re wearing a Rampage t-shirt. They toured together about three years ago.”

Their pretty good,” said Bartholomew, hoping that Topping would drop the subject. Bartholomew liked his Rampage t-shirt, but he bought it at a second-hand clothing store for the image and the color. He had no idea Rampage was a band.

Claire, you like ‘em?” asked Topping.

Oh, their pretty good. What are the presents in your room?” asked Claire changing the subject.

There are a lot of joke books and practical joke things,” said Topping.

Practical joke things?” Claire asked.

Yeah, you know, joy buzzers and exploding cigars and shit like that.”

Bartholomew winced inside when Topping swore.

Can you believe that they each get a tree and a room full of presents? That is like nothing I can imagine,” said Claire as she blew a strand of brown hair out of her face.

It does seem to be a bit excessive,” said Ned.

Some people just don’t know what to do with their money,” said Topping.

At least he’s willing to spend his money on us. I haven’t been able to find a job, and I’ve been looking since the beginning of summer when I graduated,” said Claire, “I don’t know if I’ll ever get a job in my field.”

What did you study?” asked Ned.

Psychology,” said Claire.

Bartholomew thought that was interesting, but he didn’t know what to add.

I graduated last year with a degree in business and all I’ve been able to get is a low-paying internship that most likely won’t lead to anything,” said Ned. “I’m getting paid better doing this. I’m calling in sick for these three days.”

Yeah, this economy sucks!” added Topping, “What do you do Bartholomew? You got a job?”

Just odd jobs here and there.”

You still living with your parent’s?” asked Claire.

Yeah. I never would have imagined I would still be living with them. I thought I would be living with some friends and making money after graduating. But, obviously, that’s not what happened. Instead, I’m living in the same room I grew up in and I’m here wrapping sex-toys for some spoiled rich kid.”

What about you, Topping?” asked Ned.

I have an apartment with my girlfriend and I’m working for my uncle. He paints cars. But things are slow right now. So I’m picking up a little money here and there.”

Things were quiet for a moment as everyone decided it was too depressing to talk about jobs and money.

Topping noticed a tattoo on Bartholomew’s arm as he handed him the plate of french fries.
Nice tat!” said Topping.

Bartholomew was a little embarrassed but held out his arm to show everyone the moon tattoo on the tender underside of his right wrist. Then he showed them the sun tattoo on his left wrist.

Cooool,” said Ned.

Wow, I like how intricate they are,” said Claire. “Did you design them yourself?”

Sort of. I worked off of some designs I liked. They were originally drawn by Aristotle. But I did change them quite a bit,” said Bartholomew

What do they mean?” asked Ned.

Day and night,” said Bartholomew.

Well, duh!” said Topping with a mouth full of fries.

Why is the moon on your right wrist? Is there some meaning to that?” asked Claire.

Well, actually, yeah.” Bartholomew wasn’t sure how much he should tell them. He hadn’t really explained the tattoos to anyone before except to Uncle Jeffrey, Aunt Josephine, and Oliver his cat. Uncle Jeffrey and Aunt Josephine did not approve of tattoos, and especially of these tattoos.

Uh, the moon is on my right wrist because I am right handed and… at the time I got them… uh…my life seemed more dark than sunny,” Bartholomew said not looking at anyone.

Why was that?” asked Claire with a sympathetic look in her brown eyes.

Well…I got them soon after I lost both my parents.”

The other three wrappers sat stunned for a moment. Everyone heard the sound of a half-chewed french frie hitting the floor as Ned opened his mouth in disbelief.

Oh, I’m sorry,” said Claire as her face blushed red for having asked earlier if Bartholomew lived with his parents.

The room got quiet again.

The Butler walked in and began to remove empty plates and glasses from the table. He disappeared through a swinging door, returned promptly, and waited to the side of the table for Bartholomew to finish his lunch.

The four wrappers talked about a few recent movies they had seen. When Bartholomew had indicated he had finished eating The Butler grabbed his plate and announced, “Lunch is over. You may continue wrapping.”

The sound of chairs scraping on the floor reverberated throughout the room and Bartholomew, Claire, Ned and Topping filed out the door.

On the second day of wrapping, Topping was the last one in for lunch. He quickly sat down and said hello to everyone. Everyone said hello back and then Ned continued their discussion about the lists of presents.

In response to your question, Claire, about Mo’s presents, I believe Mo is short for Maurice, well, his instructions are very poorly written. His handwriting is almost illegible. Fortunately there isn’t very much for me to do. So, I take my time deciphering his instructions.”

Well, the coolest thing is a really cool keyboard that you can hook up to a computer and edit songs. Then he has a lot of fake gaudy gold jewelry and some videos about money and finance. Oh, and there was something, I’m not sure what it was, but I think it might be a bong.”

Whoa!” said Topping

Anything interesting in your room?” Ned asked Topping.

Do you guys know any of these kids? This Khua has magic and performing stuff. He’s got juggling torches and knives. There are some magic books and ‘how to’ books on tying knots or something. Oh, the coolest thing is some Chinese stars and a big saw and what I think is one of those magical cabinets where you saw someone in half. Although it’s not painted very fancy like usual. Oh and a nice bull whip. You ever see that when they whip a cigarette out of someone’s mouth?”

What’s in your room?” Bartholomew asked Claire.

Before Claire could answer, a young woman walked into the room. She looked about the same age as the rest of them. Her blonde hair came to the middle of her back in a ponytail. She was wearing what resembled a Goth horse-rider’s outfit; black leather boots, light brown pants that gathered at the knee, a short black
lace skirt over the pants, a white blouse under a fitted black jacket, lace gloves and a small bowler hat. She had heavy black eye-liner
and her lips were a red so dark it was almost black. Her fingernails were painted black, and hanging around her neck was the biggest cross necklace Bartholomew had ever seen. She was pretty. Ned fidgeted in his seat.

Hi,” she said.

Everyone said “Hi” back to her.

I’m The Nanny,” said The Nanny. “I hope present wrapping has been going well.”

Everyone nodded and responded in some positive fashion.

Well, if you have any questions, feel free to ask. I did a lot of the decorating previously and can give you some pointers. As you have probably noticed, some instructions are very detailed. If you do what the instructions say, you’ll be fine. The kids whose instructions aren’t as detailed, well, they aren’t so particular.”

Excuse me,” said Topping, “how old are you?”

The Nanny looked at him a little odd.

I’m twenty four. Why?”

Well, isn’t it hard to be their nanny when you’re not much older than they are?”

Well, Mr. Nosey-boy, I’m older enough. And besides, these kids need someone looking after them and that’s me. Been doing it for six years. Gotta problem?”

Topping didn’t reply and went back to eating.

Ned raised his hand. The Nanny smiled at Ned and nodded at him.

I was wondering, when Maurice says that he…”

Who?” asked The Nanny.

Ned blushed a little, cleared his throat and then said, “Maurice. Mo. I assumed Mo was short for Maur…”

The Nanny started to laugh. “Maurice! That’s funny. I never thought of that.” She laughed a little more and then said, “No, Mo isn’t short for Maurice. Mo is short for Moe. He was named after one of the Three Stooges. But he couldn’t ever remember to write the silent ‘e’ so now he is just Mo. Well, except to his aunts, they still call him Moe. Oh, and when his dad is mad at him. Then he calls him Moe Theodore.”

Everyone looked at The Nanny. She blinked back.

Ned decided not to finish his question.

Topping cleared his throat and asked, “Do they pick out all of their own presents?”

Oh yes, they do. Gerald gives them each a credit card with a $5,000 limit. Then they go out and buy the presents they want,” she said in a matter-of-fact tone.

Then why are we wrapping the presents for them, if they already know what they are getting?” asked Claire.

The Nanny looked at her quietly without blinking waiting.

Yeah, why do we wrap their presents, then?” Ned asked after a moment of silence.

The Nanny turned to Ned. “Because that’s their family tradition. I don’t quite understand it myself, but who am I to question a family’s traditions? It seems to work for them. I’m just here to help them however I can.”

The Nanny walked over to Bartholomew and sat next to him.

Could you please pass me the burgers?” The Nanny asked Bartholomew.

He reached out and grabbed the very large plate with images of roses on it, and two burgers left as well. When The Nanny grabbed the plate from Bartholomew, their fingers touched and he felt warm inside.

Thank you,” she said.

Why does Geraldine buy so many sex-toys?” asked Claire.

The Nanny had just taken a bite of her burger and slowly and calmly chewed it while looking off into space.

Yeah, getting sex toys for Christmas seems kind of weird,” said Topping.

The Nanny nodded at Topping and lifted one finger to indicate that she was almost done chewing and was about to respond to him. Ned stared at her watching her chew.

She buys so many sex toys because she wears them out so fast,” said The Nanny.

At this, Bartholomew spit out his Donkey Veggie soup. He began to cough and took a moment to collect himself.

Are you okay?” asked Claire.

I’m fine,” said Bartholomew as he wiped off his mouth with a napkin.

What’s the matter? Does it surprise you that Geraldine is into sex?” asked The Nanny.

Bartholomew smiled a little and said, “No, not really.”

You would be surprised what these kids are into,” said The Nanny.

Everyone looked at her with puzzled looks on their faces. The Nanny began to eat soup, and whenever she leaned forward to put a spoonful of soup into her mouth, her large cross necklace would clang against the bowl. Bartholomew, seeing how big and heavy the cross was, thought the bowl might crack.

After lunch, when they were leaving the room The Nanny said, “It’s only day two. You haven’t gotten to all the presents yet. We’ll see what you think tomorrow at lunch. Have a good day.”

* * *

On the third day of wrapping presents, Claire was the last one to enter the dining room for lunch. The energy in the room was heavy like a late night fog. The others looked at her and acknowledged her, but they did not say anything. Claire sat down and began to sip some cream of kale soup. The only noise was the sound of spoons striking bowls and the four wrappers chewing and swallowing. Claire finished her soup and then, under her breath, said, “I never would have imagined.”

What was that?” asked Topping.

Oh, nothing, did I say something?”

Yeah, you said something. All I heard was the word ‘imagine,’” said Topping.

Claire seemed to be in a stupor and didn’t respond. A moment later, under her breath, she said, “I never would have imagined.”

What? You said it again. What’s the matter?” Topping asked a little annoyed.

What? Did I say something, again?” asked Claire.

YES!” said Topping obviously annoyed.

Topping breathed heavy, flexed his hands and then balled them into fists.

This guy is a fucking weirdo,” Topping said to no one in particular.

What?” asked Claire.

My guy is a fucking weirdo!” Topping repeated.

Yours, too?” asked Ned.

Is your guy a total whack, too?” asked Topping as he turned to Ned. Everyone’s fog seemed to be lifting.

Quite frankly, I am wondering if I should be calling the police,” said Ned.

Why? What’s the matter?” asked Claire.

I… I just can’t believe anyone would ever do this stuff, especially at Christmastime!” said Ned while shaking his head.

Bartholomew sat at the other end of the table away from everyone else and did not engage in the conversation. He seemed to be deeply occupied. Claire noticed that he was sweating and seemed to be worried.

The Nanny walked into the room and sat down at the table. She reached for an avocado and kale sandwich, which she requested from The Butler for Bartholomew’s sake.

Hello everyone, how are you all today?” said The Nanny who seemed very cheerful and relaxed-- as if she was on a vacation. “Oh, I see things are different today,” she said after surveying the room.

How do you let them do this stuff?” asked Topping.

The Nanny chewed on her sandwich while looking at them. “Bartholomew, could you please pass me the cookie plate?”

Bartholomew hesitated, still in his daze, and then reached for the cookies. As he passed The Nanny the cookies their fingers touched again and he felt a warm calm pervade his mind for a moment. Once their fingers separated his mind went back to his crisis in Xavier’s Christmas room. The rest of the wrappers stopped asking questions.

After a while The Nanny said to nobody in particular, “Everyone is on a journey. Everyone is doing the best they can. These are the presents they feel they need to learn about themselves, about life, or about others.”

“These presents are disgusting,” said Topping.

“Yeah, all these sex-toys are really weird,” said Claire.

“Sex-toys?! Try weapons of torture!” said Topping.

“Yeah, and drugs and weapons of…of weapons,” said Ned.

They all looked at Bartholomew. He was unaware. He was thinking deeply about what to do to avoid the crisis in his own Christmas room. They turned back to The Nanny.

She just looked at them and blinked.

“Agh!” said Topping.

“What is it you want, Topping?”

“I want to get out of here.”

“You can leave anytime you like. You will be paid for your time and I will finish the wrapping and decorating, if need be,” said The Nanny.

Topping took a bite of his sandwich and chewed angrily. “Ugh, what’s in this sandwich?”

“I believe that one is sunflower butter and beets,” said The Nanny.

Bartholomew woke up from his stupor. “I’ll eat it if you don’t want it,” he said.

You can have it,” said Topping and shoved his plate toward Bartholomew.

Bartholomew bit into the sandwich, and for the second time during lunch felt more at ease. The Nanny looked at him and smiled seeing him enjoy the sandwich. She pushed the bowl of fresh hot corn on the cob and apple and red onion marmalade to him. He looked up at her like a five-year-old presented with his first banana split. She then presented him with a bowl of caramelized onion soup. Bartholomew did not know what to think about this. He scratched his chin and then tasted a half spoonful. He looked up at The Nanny again and then began to devour his now favorite soup. Although his need to set things right in Xavier’s Christmas Room was still preoccupying his mind, he was more at ease and looked up as Topping announced,

I’m leaving then. I’m not being a part of this, this…sickness. But I wanted to give each of you an invitation. My girlfriend Charlotte and I are having a New Year’s Eve party and you all: Ned, Claire and Bartholomew, are invited.” Topping handed out the small hand-calligraphied invitations while briskly ignoring The Nanny.

I hope to see you there. Maybe we can get to know each other away from this…this…” He shook his head, turned and left the room as Claire and Ned both said thank you and indicated they would probably make it to the party.

Anybody else feel like leaving?” asked The Nanny.

Actually, I’m done,” said Ned. “There really wasn’t that much to do once I deciphered his writing. I will leave after I have a few more cookies.”

Claire cleared her throat, wiped her mouth and stated that she was done as well.

The Nanny did not respond to her but looked at Bartholomew.

And you Bart, are you going to keep wrapping presents?”

My name is Bartholomew. I have one more small item to take care of and then I will be done.”

I’m sorry…Bartholomew…I won’t make that mistake again,” said The Nanny.

The chairs scraped back on the floor. Ned shuddered, thinking about the items he had been wrapping that morning. He stared at The Nanny and quickly looked away when she looked at him.

There are people in this world,” said The Nanny, “who will hurt you. It’s not because they want to hurt you specifically. They just want to hurt someone because they have been hurt. They may be people you hardly know – people you wrap presents for – or it could be someone close to you. Please don’t go away thinking ill of these children I oversee, or of me. We are all doing the best we can. Becoming whole can be a long and difficult process.”

Claire and Ned looked at each other with a WTF expression on their faces.

Hey, Bartholomew,” said Claire, “Are we going to see you at Topping’s party?”

Bartholomew had not been invited to a party for what seemed like forever.

Yeah, I wouldn’t miss it!”

The three of them walked out the door of the dining room. Ned and Claire headed toward the front hall together while Bartholomew turned quickly to finish up his last present and then head home. He was excited to think that he made some new friends and he was going to see them again. The Nanny yelled down the hallway, “I’m going check on Geraldine’s room and then I will come help you, Bartholomew.”

Bartholomew heard her voice but not her words as he headed into Xavier’s Christmas room.

Written by Mark Granlund
Illustrations by Mark Granlund