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What You See . . .

October 30, 2022 by in category Quill and Moss by Dianna Sinovic tagged as , , , ,
Photo by Dirk Ribbler on Unsplash

After three sleepless nights, Damian had the bad luck to draw the early shift at Fitzy’s Diner. His eyes were slits as he broke egg after egg for omelets and poured round after round of batter for pancakes. 

“Hurry it up, Dame!” Fitzy shouted from the kitchen doorway. “This ain’t no five-star dive.” 

“Shove it,” Damian wanted to shout back. But he had rent and a late car payment earmarked for his next paycheck. He was six months clean, and Fitzy, with his sharp eyes and weasel nose, was looking for any excuse to send him back to the streets—or that’s the way it seemed to Damian, who could never move fast enough to please the boss.

When Fitzy slipped back through the swinging doors, Damian turned his focus to the griddle, scraping it for the next omelet. That’s when the spiders crawled out from behind the stovetop, into the pool of melted butter, and skated across the hot surface. Five of them—big, hairy, and long-legged, with eyes that stared him down. 

“Jesus,” Damian half-yelped. How is this possible, he thought. He hated spiders. Too many legs.

When he reached for the whisk, his hand brushed something moving. 

“Aaahh!” This time he yelled. More spiders covered the egg carton and spilled onto the work table.

No, no, no, his mind screamed. Could the hallucinations return even if he wasn’t using? 

“Dame?” It was Helena, on the morning wait staff. She stood in the doorway, concern etched on her face. “You okay?”

Quickly, Damian wiped the sheen of sweat from his face. “Yeah. Just burned myself,” he lied. “Stupid of me.”

She smiled and shook her head. “Be careful. We can’t lose you.” And she was gone, back out to the front counter.

With shaking hands, Damian surveyed the griddle and work tables. The spiders had multiplied, filling the entire stovetop. These couldn’t be real spiders—real arachnids couldn’t survive that heat, could they? Yet he could hear the minute scrape of their feet as they moved. 

He shut his eyes tightly, willing the hallucination to cease. I can’t lose this job.

The paranoia that had been his every waking moment—and often every moment of attempted sleep—had finally driven him to rehab. He could no longer live constantly looking over his shoulder. His counselor had assured him the effects of the inhalants he’d once craved had subsided for good—but maybe they’d been wrong.

The swinging doors squeaked, and he opened his eyes to Fitzy’s bark. “Where’s the short stack and ranchero special?” 

The spiders now covered the mixing bowl with its batter and the bacon Damian had planned to fry up next. He shuddered at the expanding multitude. 

Fitzy grabbed his shoulder, hard, and jerked. “Get moving or you’ll be moving on out of here.”

The spiders descended from the bank of overhead lights and dropped onto Fitzy’s head, swarming down his neck and onto his bare arms. Red welts from their bites began to swell.

After a moment of indecision, Damian removed his apron, hung it on its wall peg, and left the kitchen to Fitzy’s screams.

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Eye of the Beholder

September 30, 2022 by in category Quill and Moss by Dianna Sinovic tagged as , ,
Photo by Kai Oberhäuser on Unsplash

Amy dipped her pen into the container of ink and added a few lines to the portrait of the white-haired man before her. Evaluating the results, she nodded slightly. Done. With a quick spray of sealer, she unfastened the paper from the holder and offered it to the patron.

His face crinkled into a smile. “My lord, you made me look charismatic, dear.” He stuffed a twenty into her tip jar and walked away with a bounce in his step.

It was just after one p.m. at the Art in the Park summer fair, and Amy ticked off her day’s productivity: Since the event opened at ten, she had sketched at least twenty people, and the queue of those waiting stretched toward the ice cream stand a hundred feet away.

“You are amazing,” gushed Beth, the fair organizer, sweeping past Amy on her rounds. “We’ll definitely want you back next year. I can’t believe the crowd.”

If I don’t burn out first, Amy thought. She had taken the gig at a friend’s urging, expecting to be bored with no clientele. Instead, she was giddy at the response. Old or young, tall or short, happy or glum, the people had flocked to the novelty of having their likeness drawn. A selfie on their phone was one thing; Amy guessed it was her unique perspective that was the attraction. Patron after patron had remarked, “You’ve zeroed in on the essence of me.”

“Next,” Amy called. Better keep the line moving while she still had the energy. 

A slender man with a shock of chocolate hair perched on the stool and looked at her. His eyes seemed like pools as dark as the ink she used. She tried to guess his age, but he could have been thirty or sixty.

“Hold that pose.” She dipped her pen into the liquid ebony and went to work. For each person she drew, so rapidly did the portraits come together, it was as though she was channeling directly from her eyes to her hands. But something was wrong with this one. The minutes ticked past, and the line of people fidgeted. She looked from the model to the paper and back. And once more, to check. 

What she had sketched bore no resemblance to the man on the stool. 

“What is that?”

The question from behind her shoulder made her jump. It was Beth, passing through again. With a quick grab, Amy crumpled the paper and dropped it into her makeshift trash bag. “My pen is acting up,” she lied. “I’ll just start over.”

Beth tsked sympathetically. “Take a break. You’ve been going nonstop.” Without pausing, she strode toward the queue. 

“Folks, our artist needs to give her hand a rest.” Beth’s tone was friendly but authoritative. “She’ll start up again in twenty minutes.”

A few people groaned, but no one challenged her. They drifted off to buy a hot dog or visit the crafter booths. The aroma of barbecue and wood smoke drifted in from the food trucks on the park perimeter.

Taking a deep breath, Amy turned to the patron still seated on the stool. She hesitated, then plunged ahead. “You’ll be first when I come back.” She closed the ink container and cleaned her nib with shaking hands, then shut her supply box with a click. 

She walked away from her portrait stand, pitched in the shade of a massive oak tree. Maybe the odd fellow with the wild mop of hair would move on, and she would not have to sketch him a second time. 

What had she drawn? She puzzled over the image, which was already fading from her memory, yet she could recall with ease the other faces she’d captured that day.

Fifteen minutes later, her shirt damp with sweat after wandering past the flea market tables and the used book tent, she was back at her easel. She relaxed to see that the stool was unoccupied, with the slim fellow nowhere nearby.

“Hey,” Beth called to her, hurrying over. “If you’re ready to start up again, I’ll make an announcement.”

“Sure.” Amy unscrewed the ink container, wiped her hands, and checked her nibs. 

“He left you this.” Beth held out a olive green sphere the size of an orange and etched with a pattern of dark lines that seemed to dance across the surface. “I don’t know what it is, but he said to tell you thanks.”

“Why?” Amy mused. The who was implicit. She turned the ball in her hand. Its coolness made her think of metal, but the exterior with its etching seemed organic, like a seed pod. “I didn’t finish his sketch.”

Beth shrugged. “He dug it out of your scrap bag. Didn’t seem to mind that it was wrinkled. I hope that was okay.”

Amy nodded. “Of course. It was his to take.” Although she could no longer recall what the fellow looked like or what she had drawn, she knew what to do with his gift. The answer floated into her head unbidden: a terracotta pot filled with rich, dark earth, daily sunshine, and regular watering, and the pod—because that’s what it indeed was—would sprout.

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The Messenger

August 30, 2022 by in category Quill and Moss by Dianna Sinovic tagged as , ,
Photo by Zakaria Zayane on Unsplash

The folded paper extended no more than two millimeters from beneath the ornate cup and saucer, just enough that Lev noted it as he passed through the main dining room at Bellini’s. The table for two was not occupied, nor would it be for the rest of the evening. He’d made sure of that. Lev paused briefly on his way back from taking the Nelsons’ order to remove the paper, slipping it into a pants pocket.

In the supply closet, he shut the door and turned his back to it. Keeping the paper out of the shadow his head cast from the overhead light, he quickly unfolded the slip. Lev had only moments before someone barged in for fresh linens. 

The penciled note was underlined twice: 2xM=cube.

Crumpling the paper tightly in his fist, Lev put it in his mouth and swallowed it. Eluding the feds was crucial for this to work. No evidence, he’d been told. Leave nothing behind.

Back in the dining room, he delivered the plates to the Nelson party and took several more orders. At the table in the corner, the two lanky men in business suits stood to leave. When Lev swept by three minutes later to pick up the payment book, a square wooden top lay on it. Small enough to fit in the palm of his hand. He turned the top to look at each of the four sides: q 7 n 3.

 “Waiter!” Judge Samuel Nelson called out. When a Nelson summoned, you responded on the run. 

“Sir,” Lev said, standing at the judge’s elbow. 

“Another martini.” The older man raised an eyebrow at the top that Lev still held. “A teetotum,” he pronounced. 

The chatter around the table hushed. The five other Nelsons waited for the judge to continue. 

“A top for those who don’t know,” the judge said, his tone implying that very few aside from him would know. “And why are you carrying a top, Lev?”

No evidence. Lev swallowed, sweat popping out beneath his slicked-back hair. He felt like a rabbit caught in the headlights of an oncoming car. “Someone left their child’s toy behind,” he lied. He inched away from the table, eager to be gone.

The judge held out his hand. “My grandson Palmer will love it.”

Lev froze. His job was on the line if he didn’t relinquish the top to this patron. His life was on the line if he did. 

Toy gave him the answer. “I’m sorry, sir, but I’ll need to place this in our lost and found,” he said, hoping his voice carried enough authority to override the entitled old man’s intention. “You know how children are; they can be very attached to a favorite plaything. Once the parents realize they’ve left it behind—” 

The judge folded away his outstretched hand, nodding. “Astute argument, Lev. Well said.”

The other Nelsons nodded in agreement and turned back to their dinner conversations.

Lev exhaled in relief. “I’ll be back with your cocktail in just a moment.” 

At the bar, he placed the drink order. Every stool was taken, the din almost deafening. Lev remained at the bar—the judge was too important a patron to keep his drink waiting once it was ready—and carefully studied the crowd. At the far end of the polished wooden expanse sat a woman in a simple burgundy dress, hair in an elegant twist. 

He made his way purposefully through the throng, and when he was near her, bent to pick up a black silk scarf from the floor. 

“So sorry to disturb you, miss.” He stood next to her. “You must have dropped this.”

She smiled. “Thank you so much.” With both hands, she took the scarf—and the small, four-sided top now wrapped within it, and turned back to the bar.

Done. Lev’s shoulders relaxed and his brow smoothed. Despite a close call, another message delivered. He maneuvered back through the thicket of bar guests and retrieved the judge’s martini. 

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Striking Distance

July 30, 2022 by in category Quill and Moss by Dianna Sinovic tagged as , ,
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Photo by Sagar Kulkarni on Unsplash

It’s about noon, my eleventh day on the trail. My feet hurt, and the blisters have begot more blisters. So much for the overpriced, cushioned socks I thought I had to have. I’m tempted to walk barefoot, but that would last maybe a quarter mile and then I’d have to put these blasted boots on again. 

I’m tired of the crowds. I stopped counting this morning after logging twenty other hikers. The one person I wish was here can’t be—ever again. Josh would have found a way to love this. Yet his absence is the reason I’m hiking, to prove that I can make it solo from here on out.

Actually, I’m not positive it’s noon. I’m not wearing a watch and my phone is turned off—I’m doing the back-to-nature thing. But it’s July, and the sun is overhead. And I’m hungry—although I seem to be perpetually hungry on this trek. It’s an emptiness I just can’t fill.

Ahead lies a boulder field. Whoever said the AT was a walk in the woods was lying. At least in Pennsylvania, it’s loaded with rocks. Behind me, before me, I’m alone with the boulders, not a soul around for once, and I see a snake. Timber rattler; I’ve done my research. It’s coiled in a pocket of rock. I look at it, and it looks at me. I am about 1,500 feet up the mountain—glorious view if I wasn’t so frozen with fear. 

Don’t look down, the snake says. 

I’m not imagining this, as ridiculous as it seems. The snake spoke to me. Not out loud; in my head. And sarcastically.

“I’m not afraid of heights,” I shoot back. “But I am terrified of you.”

Its unblinking eyes hold me. Don’t rattle me, and I’ll leave you alone.

Who knew snakes were comedians? But, I think, you don’t know why I’m panicked. 

When I was growing up, a boy named Robert lived next door. One day, with a crazy giggle, he threw a milk snake around my neck. I was nine, and he was the bully of the block. That innocent, orange-and-white snake gave me nightmares for months afterward. 

And each old Western I watched where a character dies from snakebite increased my ophidiophobia. I am deathly afraid of any snake. And this one is a pit viper.

If I could persuade my feet to move, I would backpedal my way back down the mountain. But minutes tick past. Sweat dampens my shirt and drips from my forehead. 

If only I were Harry Potter, I think. He was most unafraid of snakes, even giant basilisks. 

What would Josh do? The snake’s tongue flickers.

“Leave Josh out of this,” I shout. My eyes smart, but I will not cry in front of a smart-ass snake. 

Still, part of me calls out to my partner. His ashes are scattered to the winds, but I want desperately to believe that I still have his ear—wherever cosmically it now is. So, I think, what would Josh have counseled?

Wait out the snake. The answer seems to rise on the breeze. He’s right: I’m not in any hurry, no deadline to meet, and the valley below is breathtaking. 

And so I sit on a chunk of granite overlooking a leafy wilderness in the Poconos. I focus on the scent of pine and the kettle of vultures spiraling in an afternoon thermal, and I feel myself relax. 

It may be five minutes or fifteen when I glance back to the rattler.

You’re tougher than you look. The snake uncoils and slips out of its rocky hollow. The trail’s all yours. It vanishes into another crevice.

Hoisting my pack, I set off once again over the rocks. But my feet hurt a bit less and there is a spring in my step.

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Puppy Love

May 30, 2022 by in category Quill and Moss by Dianna Sinovic tagged as , , ,
Photo by Jametlene Reskp on Unsplash

The slip of paper you draw from the basket has a 4 written on it, black ink on a white scrap. This is stupid, you tell yourself, but it’s not really. You want to be here, one of six lucky people who will choose which of the littermates they’ll take home with them. 

You have your eye on the puppy with the black patch over its right eye, the brown and white pattern blending over the rest of its face. You’re in love with that dog, and you are disappointed that at fourth in line, you will lose out. The Australian shepherd you picture jogging with you in the park will belong to someone else instead.

A friend tipped you to this giveaway. “They don’t want a dime, just good homes for the pups,” he told you last week. 

You’ve been wanting a dog for months, since the new apartment you found allows pets, especially dogs. Done your research, talked to any dog owner you’ve run across, and settled on the shepherd as your dream breed. And now this stroke of luck—to get one for free.

And so you stand with the five other people who hold their slips of paper. Three men, three women, and you think that’s a nice balance. The guy with #1 on his slip has a boy of about eight with him, and the boy has his favorite picked out. It’s not yours. Thank god.

“Taco,” the boy calls to one of the pups. He’s already named him. 

But you have too, not that you’ll admit it to anyone. You don’t want to jinx your chances by saying the name aloud, even in a whisper to yourself. Still, you know it’s perfect. So you stand with the others, bouncing on your toes because you are so anxious.

“We’re ready,” the owner of the litter finally calls. She’s standing in the pen where the pups are rolling and wrestling, full of the energy that only young dogs can possess. She smiles, but you can see the glisten in her eyes. This must be hard, to part with these babies.

The boy has Taco wrapped in his arms and then he and his father are gone. The older couple with matching gray in their hair step forward for #2. They reach for the black patch, but that’s a feint, passing the pup by for another. A couple who you guess are in their forties are next. They hem and haw, talking with the kennel owner, pointing at one then another of the youngsters.

Hurry up, you want to shout. At last they make their selection—yes! Not the black patch.

Now it’s your turn. You hand your slip to the kennel owner, who looks younger now that you’re standing next to her in the pen, with three puppies left. The energy of all six has dissipated, but a trio still romps around your feet.

“Why are you giving them away?” you say. You guess at the answer. 

She looks at you, at the two other people waiting outside the pen, then down at the squirm of dog flesh. “Someone stole the bitch—the mom—shortly after she gave birth. She’s not a high-priced dog, so we’re puzzled. We nursed these guys after that.” She runs a hand through her hair and sighs. “I love ‘em but need a break.” She leans over the pups. “Which one?” she asks, back to business.

You almost blurt, the black patch, but another pup catches your eye. You squat down to the pup’s level and reach for it. The brindle colors are less striking than on the one you’d chosen, but there’s something in the pup’s gaze that draws you. The dog scampers to you and licks your nose. You sit back with a laugh, and the dog is in your lap.

“She chose me,” you say. “Guess this is the one.”

And as you hug the youngster, you whisper in her ear. “Roo, let’s go home.”

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