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“For those who want the world … a warning …”
“Many people die at 25 and aren’t buried until they are 75.”
“The effing universe conspires against me.” Elliot wiped a dribble of chocolate mocha, Prairie City Coffee’s signature drink, from his lips. His upper lip and bird flipping middle finger tingled and burned. While wondering if his wife, Mary Beth, might stop by between shifts at the hospital for an espresso shot, a premonition came.
Wearing a snow white ninja costume, an evil saboteur climbed through an open window at his office building on Heights Drive. After deftly dancing down the stairs, the figure set the place ablaze using a match taken from his office. The computer screens sizzled and shattered. Backup hard drives melted in the fire. His last decade of work wasted.
The vision gave him the impression today would be one of those days. Maybe, worse. The voice of his mother blurted out inside his head, Why, Elliot, are you so negative? Before the first hand is dealt, you’ve lost.
He shifted in the 70’s art deco style chair. Its orange back had an ocean wave in the center and one of the legs bent awkward. No fluffy cushion. Hard. Made one of his legs go to sleep. Elliot wanted to meet the failure who designed the chair, built for show. The construction must be a first effort. As much as he jerked and shifted, he just couldn’t get comfortable.
He looked at the steam guy with his comb over and busy mustache behind the formica bar top. His yellow shirt read, MMMbop Kicks Major Ass. A custom job. Nobody made money selling lackluster lyrical trash at high volume. With confidence, he smiled at Elliot and pointed to his shirt as if to say the world had miscalculated. Hanson ruled the radio waves. He poured milk into a metal cup with one hand while pulling the handle on the espresso machine with the other. A mad scientist worked relentlessly.
The creator of steamy drinks ruled this universe.
As Elliot massaged his lip, trying to soothe the burn, he wanted to grab the Hanson billboard and strangle. Instead, he saluted, giving his all to put up a friendly facade. Showing off his pearly whites, Elliot tried to hide acting wasn’t a strength. He had dropped out of drama club in high school. A lifetime of wearing his heart on his sleeve plagued him throughout college and in business.
With zero success, his forced grin tried to tell the guy to stop making his drink too damn hot. Each day, Elliot asked for his double shot mocha warm, but Prairie City Coffee had a policy. Only one temperature–tongue burning hot.
Elliot blew over the top of his cup. The mocha wave rippled.
Patience, he told himself.
He had none. No time for certain virtues. But how does one prioritize? Elliot thanked his maker the mocha maker’s yellow shirt didn’t hang in his closet. If God thought Hanson made compelling symphonies, Elliot wondered if he should deal with the devil to achieve certain life goals. If he made that leap, when did the bill come due? Upon death? Would God forgive? Forget?
Pondering life’s grand dilemma, he leaned back, but the chair ebbed and flowed. Who sat in furniture like this? People more relaxed and content with life’s opportunity. He fidgeted about like a kid on his second two liter of Sprite. The world collapsing at each and every turn could do that to a guy. Premonitions of burning buildings destroying his life’s work didn’t help either.
His fledgling start-up company, Does It Play Publishing, had cracks deepening near the foundation. And he had no idea what to do. So, he did nothing.
Standing on the sidelines proved easier than taking action. Asking for a loan or adjusting his business model meant he tried, gave succeeding in business his best shot. Doing nothing, made for an easier path, a way to not accept his own failure. This was why he couldn’t get comfortable in the chair. Who knew for sure? He didn’t, far too heady to think about. He felt the phone in his pocket vibrate. Then, its tiny window lit up and speakers cackled, Na, na, nah … Na, na, nah … Na, na, nah…
Half the size of most handsets, the brick carried a high price tag. He once carried the Nokia badge of honor with pride, making calls when he didn’t need to. Once, he even caught himself dialing his mother-in-law in the middle of a grocery run. Sure, he made the call to show off to the mom buying paper towels in aisle five. A two for one sale. And he carried the Mr. Important mantra. The CEO with the sleek phone, not the 80s version the size of a beach ball. Small. Lean. The Nokia 920 said, Look at me.
The status symbol quickly lost its luster. Now, everyone who signed up for the two year cellular commitment ran across town with the black buzzing toys. And the collection created one messed up symphony inside a coffee shop. A hundred tones going off at the same time. Lemmings begging to be heard.
Why did his ring tone start so early?
The phone vibrated again. He almost answered but the espresso machine whistled and hissed. The steam guy plowed ahead on yet another mocha. Elliot wondered if valiant knights from the dark ages poured the same black crude on invaders.
He longed to relax but this proved impossible, not in his make up. His pulse raced as he imagined grabbing the steam guy by the collar, slamming his head against the bar, and pounding the black phone against his temple. A broken phone and a cooler cup next time. Two problems solved. Yet, Elliot realized the steam guy represented a symptom. He wasn’t the problem. After you let the mocha cool for about a half hour, the thick ooze teased the tongue. Through the looking glass, Elliot stared at the blinking stoplight. He watched as a red Ford Ranger with a dangling license plate blew right past. No fear. The man in plaid behind the wheel never bothered to slow. If a truck barreled through the stop sign at a 50 plus clip and nobody witnessed the crime, did it really happen?
For Elliot, the local cop with ticket in hand worked all hours. That was why he stopped.
He felt the phone wiggle. Relentless, the ringing never quit. Someone always needed his guidance. Give orders. Do this. Not that.
Elliot wasn’t ready for the drama this early. Realizing his wife was a no-show, he wrapped his trench coat around his waist tight and walked out into the Mid-Western heat and humidity. He heard the chimes from the door opening and closing and the steam guy saying he wanted to see him come back this way soon. Elliot would. He always did.
The weather made the coat unnecessary, but he appreciated the deep pockets. Between his wallet, phone, and four notebooks, he needed the space. There was one book for to-dos, another for ideas, the third for taking notes, and the last just in case he ran out of paper. Elliot ran out of paper all the time. He loved origami. A hobby his mother taught him, a soothing habit to keep his demons at bay. With a few scraps, he conjured dragons, birds, elephants, and butterflies. His favorite? A guitar. Folding paper might seem like a useless talent to some, but Elliot figured everyone needed a pointless hobby?
He also kept at least four pens in an inside pocket. And extra refill cartridges. He’d go into meetings with a dozen pens in his pocket, ask to borrow one, and then walk out with a cheap Bic.
Other times, he couldn’t find one when inspiration came.
He had no idea how that happened.
Afraid to hear out loud what he already knew, he never wanted to ask for help or advice. Mary Beth breached his defenses and provided curt feedback. Disorganized. Scatter brained. Forgetful. All three mixed together made one dysfunctional cocktail. When party goers wanted to get real messed up, the best bartenders mixed up an Elliot Ross.
Elliot found his keys and unlocked the door to the black Ford Taurus. He noticed his belt, harder to see these days over the ever expanding Gut Mountain. He wanted to quit the darned Oreos, but the processed cookies proved too hard to give up. Pushing his willpower to the outer limits, he only downed one row a day. In his glory days, he used to devour half a bag. And wanted more. He wondered which was worse, sugar or nicotine? He thought he might be thinner if he smoked.
Before starting the car, he rummaged through his front pockets for his phone. The Nokia often disappeared, going to play with his lost pens. After finally finding the gadget in his inside pocket, he flipped the ringer on and tossed it in the seat beside him. Silent for now, the techno chirping serenade took a break over the intermission between breakfast and the office.
He turned the key and pushed a cassette tape into the player. His own dream land mix-tape.
Elliot, today is your day, the radio blared. The narrator himself. Today is the day when you take charge and steer the company to profitability. Be the Duke. John Wayne fought the bad guys. Remember the Alamo. Today, Elliot. You will accomplish your dreams.
He wanted to believe. His father described John Wayne towering above all other role models, the perfection of mankind. He stood for truth and justice, fought for common folk’s rights, and, best of all, could take a hay maker punch without flinching. The actor kicked real butt in the Quiet Man and never gave up in The Searchers.
Knowing the true man, a complicated and bitter soul who wilted under the weight of the illusion, Elliot pulled the car away from the curb and drove down Main Street.
His favorite coffee shop sat smack in the middle of the projects. But the drug pushers, girls doing tricks, or petty thieves rarely wandered about in the morning hours. Now Bon Jovi blared over the speakers, guitar riffs he loved.
“I am a wanted man,” Elliot said. “I should have kept up with childhood guitar lessons. My name would be in lights.” He took one hand off the wheel, aimed his imaginary gun, and opened fire on cars that failed to signal or swerved in traffic. “Bang. Take that,” he hollered and sang along with Jon.
His phone vibrated and chirped. He ignored the call. He was fighting the Lincoln County Wars. There was hell to make and people who needed to pay. After a left on an unmarked Prairie City street, he swerved curb to curb up the hill overlooking the river. His phone rang again, but he ignored it because Axl Rose wailed while hammering the piano.
Elliot tapped his palms hard against the wheel, doing his best to stay in rhythm. The houses expanded in size as he continued his drive, columns and three car garages now lined the road. In a city, a ten minute drive changed fortunes. The difference between night and day, richer and poorer.
He finally reached the top of the city’s so-called mountain. The bluffs. Anymore, he never stopped to take in the blue skies and tree line. He weaved around the corner, this time snaking through a forest of trees on the other side of the hill.
Elliot, time to go to work. This is your day, the radio preached. Tommy Lee pounded on the drums, Dr. Feelgood rocked in the background. Elliot made the last curve, and a massive brick office building stood tall at the end of the lane. He rented five floors for twenty-two employees and a handful of contractors. Considering the long-term commitment, he had overpaid.
A dumb move.
Still, the albatross projected an image his vision and organization would last decades. A signal to the competition and Fortune 500 company downtown he was open for business.
He slowed but didn’t turn into the parking lot. Instead, he picked up his phone and noticed the six missed calls. They were all from Hannah, his office manager. At a growing company, she filled the role of Chief Financial Officer, Procurement Executive, and Chief Scheduling Officer. Tommy Lee had to wait. He hit eject on the dash, and the tape shot out onto the vinyl seat. Noticing the homemade label had started to peel, Elliot flattened the masking tape with the words Elliot’s Morning Drive against the plastic. He picked up the phone and hit redial.
“Elliot? Where have you been?” Hannah yelled. He pictured her nostrils flaring. When angry, she looked endearing. Showed she cared.
“I needed coffee,” Elliot answered. “I can’t start without the morning transfusion.” Because he wanted to project bravado, he never fessed up to his mocha addiction. True men, like John Wayne, drank their coffee straight black. “What’s up? I can be late once in a while you know.”
“Elliot,” she began, “you can’t make payroll at the end of the month. Late isn’t an option!”
The mix-tape always got him going. But this morning’s boost proved short lived. Without a cash infusion, Does It Play would have to shut its doors soon. Hannah, using her spreadsheet crystal ball, reminded him his business model and profit goals needed a wrecking ball. The bank’s soaring rates devoured modest gains. Fifty percent became the new normal. She had a way of sucking the life out of him.
“But that’s not why I called,” she said. “I need you here now!” Elliot rolled his eyes. He decided not to answer, tossed the phone aside, and put his car in reverse. If only he had made better decisions, if only he could go back in time. Running was all he had left.
As he patted his pocket, he coughed and wheezed. He needed his paper. If he could find a quiet spot to fold a castle, the world would slow down. One place came to mind. When life hit hard, the love of his life suggested the zoo. Lions, tigers and bears made the world a better place to be.
He slowed his breath best he could, turned the car, and started back down the hill.
“Elliot!” the phone yelled from the seat. Hannah. He forgot to end the call.
“I can see you, Elliot. And you’re going the wrong way.” Her third floor office overlooked the hillside. Only trees and road. Little cover.
Busted. Hanging up would be more than rude. And meant he didn’t care. Looking over his shoulder at the leather briefcase leaning against the back seat, he reached for the phone and said, “I forgot my bag at the home front.” A meager excuse, the best he could think up. “I need to make a stop for…”
“Zero time,” Hannah cut him off. “Pandering to the great love of your life can wait. Jimmy, your sales team, is out on the roof. He’s threatening to jump if you don’t hurry and talk to him.”
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J. Scott Bradley
The Dark Harp
Knights of Legend
Text copyright © 2021 by J. Scott Bradley
The Day Life Breaks, characters, names and related indicia are trademarks of © J. Scott Bradley
The Day Life Breaks Publishing Rights © Second Act Fables Cover Art, Book Design and Interior Illustrations are copyright © and trademark of Second Act Fables.
All rights reserved. Published by Second Act Fables.
No part of this publication may be reproduced, or stored, in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without written permission of the publisher.
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Library of Congress Control Number: Pending
Designed in the U.S.A. First Edition/And Constant Changes, January 2021
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