(a bizarre tale of love and circumstance)
by Ingrid Diaz
Authors Note: This story was written for the Academy of Bard’s Christmas Challenge, which explains the random Christmas songs scattered throughout the story.
This is a red pen but u probably think its black DON’T U??
I hate my boyfriend I hate my life I hate you
Do not read this line
Taylor Donaghue entertained thoughts of adding her own commentary to the literature on the stall, but decided against it. There were certain levels of immaturity she refused to stoop to. That and she didn’t have a pen.
Finishing her business, she waited for the automatic toilet to register the fact that she was done. It had flushed prematurely several times since her arrival, but now appeared to have forgotten she existed.
“C’mon,” she said, waving her hand in front of what she interpreted to be a sensor. She went through the motions of sitting down and standing up again to no avail.
Taylor was in the process of contemplating her next attempt, when a muffled cry from the stall next to hers drew her attention away. Frowning, she inched her ear closer to the solid white wall and listened. A second later, the cry came again, followed by the unmistakable sound of someone blowing her nose.
Unsure of how to approach the situation, Taylor said the first thing that popped into her mind. “Um, excuse me? Do you know how to get this thing to flush?”
A short sniffle preceded the response. “Try the button.”
There’s a button? Taylor studied her archenemy for a minute before discovering the miniscule button by the sensor. Pressing it, she was rewarded instantly by the sound of victory. “Hah! Thanks.”
Taylor was unfamiliar with the proper etiquette for bathroom conversation, but for some reason, nothing seemed inappropriate at that moment. “I hope I’m not out of line here, but are you okay?”
“Yes.” Sniffle. “It’s just … I got so overwhelmed by all the beauty. The holidays bring out the best in people, don’t you think?”
Taylor thought back to the events leading up to this moment: the stores filled with angry people arguing over the last of the items on stock; the children whining; the endless lines; the mobs of people. “Um, sure.”
“Here, feel this.” Under the stall, a slim hand offered a wad of toilet paper.
Taylor stared down at the jumble of white paper with a mixture of confusion and suspicion. “Why?”
“Just feel it.”
Against her better judgment, and perhaps because exchanging toilet paper with a stranger of questionable sanity seemed far more appealing than returning to the chaos that awaited her, she accepted the gift. “Okay?”
“Isn’t it such pretty paper?” A sigh followed the question. “It’s so pure, so unapologetic in its simplicity. Life should be more like toilet paper.”
Taylor mouthed, “Oooookay,” at the divider between them. “I kind of like life a little more water-resistant.”
A laugh met her comment. “You probably think I’m insane.”
The thought had crossed my mind, yes. “Not at all.”
The stranger blew her nose loudly, a sound that reminded Taylor of a foghorn. “Well, I should get back to work…” The sound of flushing followed the statement, as well as the stall door opening. “Oh crap, my head is on the floor. Now how did it get there?”
Taylor blinked, unsure of whether to brave the potentially psychotic woman at the other side of the door, or fake having to pee again. In the end, she decided to opt for morbid curiosity.
When she opened the door, Taylor’s jaw dropped open. Though she hadn’t spent a vast amount of energy attempting to imagine what her toilet buddy might look like, never in her wildest dreams did she expect her to look like that.
A giant, antler-studded, brown fuzz-covered head turned to look at her. “Oh, hey. I hope I didn’t scare you. I forgot I was in costume. I work at the Christmas store next door. Santa was taken, so I was stuck being Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer.”
Taylor conceded that was probably the sanest explanation she could possibly expect given the situation, so she smiled and nodded. “Ah.”
The bathroom door opened, and a woman with two children stepped inside, making the already crowded two-stall bathroom feel unbearable.
Rudolph excused herself by saying, “You should come by the store sometime. It was nice talking to you,” and walked out the door.
Taylor watched the door close, feeling a strange mixture of relief and disappointment. Shaking her head, she waved her hands under the faucet and waited for the water to run. Modern technology sometimes pissed her off.
Jaena Peters stared up at the night sky and smiled at the snowflakes floating down. Some landed on the black of her coat, soaking into the wool, the rest drifted past her, joining the piles of white already gathered on the ground.
The mall parking lot was finally emptying out, despite the fact that most of the stores had closed hours before. It had taken an hour just to get the people out of her store, and another to clean up. She felt sorry for the workers still stuck inside, who were no doubt mentally cursing through their fake smiles, and punctuating the ever-popular, “Will that be all?” with rhetorical intent.
For her part, Jaena was grateful to be free. Free from the restrictive confines of the Rudolph costume, free from the throngs of wild children, anxiously jumping on her back while shouting, “Run, Rudolph, run!” as if she were some freakish incarnation of Forrest Gump. Free from her father’s stubborn requests that she go home for the holidays. Or perhaps, just simply … free.
Smiling, she headed toward her car, a relic rescued from the garbage pile of some stranger’s yard sale. This prehistoric curiosity had survived until modern times through some unidentified mechanical blessing that Jaena attributed to the object’s uncanny understanding that it was an irreplaceable commodity.
A string of mumbled obscenities drifted through the snowflakes and registered in Jaena’s mind, causing her to turn toward row of cars at the other side. A familiar stranger pounded gloved fists against the steering wheel of a brand new BMW.
“…cking piece of …”
The car door slammed closed, and the curses became inaudible, though the motions of frustrated anger were evident through the random patches of collected snow on the windshield.
Jaena watched the unfolding action with a mixture of amusement and anticipation. A sudden shyness, uncharacteristic of her normal persona, kept her feet glued to the spot she occupied. But after a few more seconds, she began to feel like a voyeur.
She dug her hands into the pockets of her coat and made her way across the snow-covered asphalt.
A knock on the driver’s side window caught the young woman’s attention, and a moment later, she had stepped outside the vehicle. She looked down at Jaena with a look that read, “Who are you? And what do you want?” but whose voice formulated the more tactful, “Can I help you?”
Jaena smiled, an action made with painful effort now that her face was growing numb from the cold. “I was just about to ask you the same question.”
“Oh,” she answered, as if surprised that anyone else had noticed her ranting and raving. “I think I’m low on gas or something. It can’t be the battery.”
“I can give you a lift somewhere,” Jaena suggested.
“Um.” The girl looked uncomfortable, her gaze focused on the car as if the sheer power of her eyes could make it start without her touching it. “I can call my brother.”
Jaena felt a rush of disappointment, but she covered it with a friendly smile. “Okay.” It would make sense, she knew, to turn and walk away. Instead, she found herself speaking the words: “I’ll wait. In case he’s not home.” Quickly, she added, “If that’s okay?”
“Do I know you from somewhere?”
Jaena realized that their meeting earlier had been slightly one-sided, at least in the physical appearance sense. “I was Rudolph.”
“In the bathroom? We talked through the stall, then I was dressed as Rudolph.”
A look of recognition passed across light green eyes. “Right.” She smiled. “You look nicer this way.”
Jaena’s eyebrows arched in surprise at the unexpected compliment. “Thanks.” After a second, she added, “It’s really no trouble to give you a ride to a gas station or something. I’ll gladly bring you back.”
The girl took a moment to consider, then cocked her head shyly to the side and said, “Alright.”
The snow crunched beneath their shoes as they made their way to her car, a sound that always reminded Jaena of popcorn popping in the microwave. Maybe she’d make some when she got home. Popcorn and snow, what more could she want?
When they reached the car, Jaena reached into her pocket and removed a pair of silver bells. She jingled them over the hood of the car. She glanced up to see that her companion was gazing at her rather strangely. “I like to jingle bells before getting into my car. My mom used to say it was good luck.” She unlocked the doors, and got in. “My name’s Jaena, by the way,” she said once they had settled inside.
Jaena smiled and put the key into the ignition. She wasn’t surprised when the engine didn’t turn. “Sometimes it happens,” she explained. “One of the perks of driving a dinosaur.”
Ten minutes later, she leaned her head back against the seat and sighed in defeat. “I don’t understand, it was working fine this morning.”
Taylor offered an ironic smile. “What are the odds that both our cars wouldn’t start?”
“Probably better than the odds of it happening to the same two people who met in a bathroom a few hours prior.”
Jaena watched the snowflakes settle lightly against the window. “I love snow.”
Taylor offered a noncommittal grunt in reply.
“When I was younger, I’d spend hours cutting up pieces of paper. I’d toss a small pile of it into the air and let it snow down around me.” She grinned at the memory. “Bliss.”
“I grew up in Alaska,” Taylor answered. “We didn’t have much use for imaginary snow.”
Jaena smiled at the thought. “So it was like a constant white Christmas.”
Taylor shrugged. “So, aside from jingling bells being good luck, did your mom tell you anything else? I don’t think the bells have been much luck so far.”
“I guess that would depend on your definition of luck,” Jaena responded. “Sometimes, the most inconvenient of circumstances can yield positive results.”
“You must be a glass is half-full kind of person,” Taylor noted.
Jaena shrugged thoughtfully. “Whether it’s half-full or half-empty, I’m always grateful that there’s something left at all.”
After a moment of silence, Taylor announced that she was calling her brother. “I’m sure he won’t mind giving you a ride,” she added while dialing. She frowned, and looked at the phone. “You’re kidding me.”
“I forgot to charge it.” She dropped her head back against the passenger seat and groaned. “What a day.”
Jaena could think of worst things than to be stranded with a beautiful girl in the middle of a snowstorm. “She also told me that my grandma got run over by a reindeer.”
“My mom. You asked what else she’d told me. She said Santa Claus liked to punish bad people by sending their evil reindeer out to get them.”
When Taylor didn’t respond, Jaena added, “My mom never did like my grandmother. Still, I was terrified of reindeer for the better part of my life, until my father finally told me that grandma died from chasing a pigeon up on the housetop, and then trying to fly down. It sure was a blue Christmas that year without grandma’s hot chocolate. She always added just the right amount of marshmallows.”
Taylor blinked at her.
“So tell me about you.”
“I think we should try walking somewhere. Maybe we can find one of those mall security people.”
Jaena nodded. “Sure. After you.”
Taylor couldn’t believe the nightmare her day had turned into. Not only was she stranded in the parking lot of a closed mall, during a potential blizzard, but she also had a raving lunatic by her side. Why are all the cute ones insane? Just my fucking luck.
“Maybe we can get back in and use a payphone,” Taylor suggested. But they arrived to find the doors completely locked, and no one around to let them inside. “Man, this place was full of people like five minutes ago.”
Jaena looked around. “There’s some people.” She pointed at a couple heading toward their car.
“They’re not going to help us get back inside the mall,” Taylor answered. “We need mall security.”
The snow was starting to fall heavily now, making it hard to see which direction they were going. It seemed to Taylor as if a giant blanket had fallen down on them with the sole intention of suffocating them. She probably thinks it’s a frickin’ winter wonderland, she thought.
“I don’t live far from here, we can walk to my apartment. I have a phone you could use.”
“Two blocks past the light.”
The thought of going home with Jaena was far from alluring, but Taylor had no desire to freeze outside. After a moment of contemplating her choices, she answered, “Alright.”
The trek across the parking lot took a very long time. The wind and snow made progress difficult, and it was hard to figure out if they were headed the right way at all. Everything looked white, and the coldness kept stinging Taylor’s eyes, blurring her already faulty vision.
Finally, after what felt like hours of walking, they turned into a street lined with houses.
“It’s just up there,” Jaena shouted. The wind carried her voice away, and all that Taylor could make out was a simple hand gesture indicating “forward.”
Taylor was relieved when Jaena started up some steps. She removed the keys from her coat and opened the door, allowing Taylor to pass through first.
Taylor blessed the warmth that awaited her inside the apartment. They removed their coats and gloves and boots, shivering in the wet clothes they sported, but still grateful to be out of the cold.
“Want some hot chocolate?” Jaena offered. “It’s not as good as my grandmother’s, but it’s decent competition.”
Taylor shook her head. “No thanks. Phone?”
Jaena handed the black portable to Taylor. “Make yourself at home.”
Taylor dialed her brother’s number, hoping he’d be there to pick up. She let it ring, and ring, until she heard the answering machine pick up. He wasn’t home. She tried his cell phone, which she knew he never remembered to carry with him. “Crap,” she muttered when he got his voice mail.
Alone in what seemed to be a Christmas-themed living room, Taylor looked around. In the corner stood an unlit Christmas tree, complete with piles of gifts arranged neatly beneath it. A row of stockings lined the fireplace. Everything looked so warm and inviting. Not at all like the home of a crazed person. Perhaps she wasn’t so much crazy, as eccentric.
Jaena returned a few minutes later holding two mugs of steaming hot chocolate. “In case you changed your mind,” she responded, handing one of the cups to Taylor.
“Thank you,” For the first time all night, Taylor felt her voice soften. The hot chocolate, she had to admit, was heavenly.
They sat down on the couch, and turned on the news just in time to catch the weather report. The meteorologist stated, with utter conviction, that it was snowing outside, and that it would continue to do so until the following day.
“Would you like some popcorn?” Jaena placed her mug on the coffee table and stood.
“I always eat popcorn when it snows. Is that weird?”
“Not any weirder than jingling bells for good luck.” Taylor smiled. “I’d love some.”
Popcorn and hot chocolate, Taylor mused. She’d never experienced that combination. Maybe eccentricity was a matter of perspective. That afternoon, she’d been unable to make a toilet flush, she had forgotten to put gas in her father’s BMW, and had failed to charge the battery on her phone. All of these instances highlighted, quite strongly, her inability to function in the modern world.
So why, then, should she judge the quirks of a kind stranger, whom, through all of the bizarre comments and strange superstitions was still the person who’d pointed out the tiny button on the toilet that had freed her from the stall?
Taylor sipped her hot chocolate and grinned. Perhaps all the cute ones weren’t totally insane. Maybe they just offered a different side to life.
When the popcorn arrived, Taylor glanced into brown eyes, and smiled. Maybe something good could come out of unexpected circumstances.
(c)2004 Ingrid Diaz