Lady and the Bug: Chapter 1

One morning I woke up and felt something was amiss. My skin was much harder than usual, my legs were super-skinny and had grown tiny spines, my antennas were waving around like a pair of whips attached to my head. “Holy crap!” I thought to myself, “I have antennas now?!” I turned my head to look at myself in the mirror, and instantly jumped out of bed. What I saw was so frightening I hyperventilated for the next five minutes. Where my usual pasty face should be there now lie two huge eyes as black as the darkness of the eternal void, a pair of sharp mandibles that open and close sideways, and a neck covered with stiff hairs. I tried to scream, but all that came out were a bunch of buzzing and hissing noises.

I wanted to crawl back into bed and lie there forever, but then I thought to myself, “No, you have to defeat this type of Negative Thinking with Positive Thinking, the way those hundreds of self-help books always said! This isn’t the worst thing to happen to you, you aren’t dying or paralyzed, all your six legs still work and you can still get around. You can do this, you can get up and go to work.” Slowly I calmed down and crawled in front of the mirror. But looking at my own reflection still sent chills down my central nerve cord. “Confidence,” I thought to myself, “Confidence is the key. If you can show that you are Confident about yourself, other people will follow you to the ends of the earth.” I stood up straight on my two longest legs and tried to strut a striking pose, but I was still too weirded out seeing my six legs to feel any confidence.

“Harness the Power of Imagination!” I thought to myself, “Imagine you are your favorite hero at the top of his power.” I tried to imagine I was a rock star. I imagine the sound of thousands of fans packing the completely full arena, and as I arrived on stage the crowd burst into cheers. The women at the front row were completely hysterical, while the men were screaming my name. After a few minutes the crowd calmed down, and I burst open with a few rapid-fire notes on my guitar. With my extra legs I could really shred, and the crowd goes wild. As I was imagining all of this I was playing air guitar in front of the mirror. Seeing myself as a rock star but also a bug at the same time definitely boosted my self-confidence. My antennas waved back and forth in sleek motion instead of frantically, and I stopped strumming on my imaginary guitar and started to prepare myself for work.

I slicked back the few hairs on my head with hair gel, then looked in my wardrobe for something to wear. Unfortunately none of my suits fit anymore, and even if they did I didn’t have the hands to put them on. It didn’t matter since my exoskeleton already covered my nakedness, in fact I found it looked quite handsome because it was incredibly shiny and smooth. But I still grabbed a tie and threw it on.

The next problem was that I couldn’t speak normally anymore. My physiology changed and all that came out of my mouth were insect noises. But I found that with practice, I could make sounds that approximated English. I kept repeatedly enunciating certain phrases like “A, E, I, O, U” “She sells see shells by the sea shore” and “How now brown cow” over and over again until they sounded decently intelligible. But this took a long time, and before I could finish mom knocked on the door and said, “Greg? Are you up yet? You’re going to be late for work.” She opened the door, saw me sitting on the bed, screamed and ran away.

I followed her into the living room where she forced herself up against a corner of the room, her chest heaving and eyes bulging. I lifted my front right leg and waved at her, saying, “Hi mom.”

She loosened her grip on the walls, walked toward me and asked, “Greg, is that you?”

“Yes,” I hissed.

Her jaw hung open for a long time, like she couldn’t find the words to express how she felt. But she finally asked, “What happened to you?”

“I don’t know, I’m not a doctor or an entomologist.”

I went to the kitchen and mom followed me.

“What do you think you’re doing?”

“Getting breakfast.”

“That’s the least of your problems right now, you should go to the doctor.”

I sat at the kitchen table on my usual seat, grabbed a plate of pancakes and said, “Why? What is the doctor going to do? Does he have a serum that turns insects into humans?”

“No, but he might be able to…my point is, you can’t go to work like this!”

“Why not?”

“Your boss is going to freak out once she sees you’re a giant bug!”

“My boss is going to freak out more if I don’t show up to work today.”

Her eyes widened in disbelief. “Fine! If that’s the way you want to be then I’ll let you be. Can’t help you if you’re stupid enough to jump off a bridge,” she said, then angrily walked out of the room.

I started eating the pancakes but something was wrong about them. They didn’t taste very good, kind of bland and unappetizing. Then I caught a whiff of rotting apples. I crawled over to the garbage bin, lifted the lid and gorged myself on the cornucopia of rotting fruit, vegetable peels and putrid meat. I found my appetite changed, and things that were once disgusting are now delicious. As I was enjoying my meal mom walked in, saw me chewing on a half-fermented orange, screamed and ran out of the room. I wouldn’t see her for an entire week.

The commute to work was very uneventful, other people didn’t even bat an eye as I traveled along with them. That was probably because the people on the subway were paying too much attention to their phones to notice a giant bug was sitting next to them. I arrived at the headquarters of my company on-time, to my relief. “Old Joe” was standing by the door in his security guard uniform. I crawled up the stairs to greet him, but instead of nodding and smiling he grabbed an iron pipe and ran toward me.

“Stop!” I hissed, then flashed my badge, “It’s me, Greg!”

He was flabbergasted, dropped his iron pipe and said, “Is it really you, Greg?”

“Yes, remember your daughter Nina? She made me a good-luck charm.” I showed him the Eye of Horus pin on my tie.

“Oh my god, I’m so sorry. What happened to you?”

“I don’t know, I must have looked at a Gypsy fortune teller the wrong way.”

“But how are you going to work now that you’re a giant bug?”

“I will ask the company for accommodations. Right now there are certain things I can’t do, like use my cell phone. They’ll have to provide me with something that will help me do that. If tech companies can come up with ten food delivery apps, they can certainly make a cell phone that doesn’t require fingers to operate.”

“No, that’s not what I meant, I mean…won’t people be freaked out to see that you’ve turned into a giant bug?”

“Yeah, even I was a little freaked out when I turned into a giant bug, but with time they’ll get used to it.”

Joe shrugged his shoulders and said, “I don’t think that’s how things work, but if you insist…”

I had to open the door of the building with my mouth because my legs couldn’t grab onto and turn the doorknob. As I walked through the office floor people were finally paying attention to my presence, unfortunately it was not in the good way. When they saw me approaching they cleared a path in front of me, keeping a distance of about three yards between them and me. Some of them even gawked at me, until I looked them in the eye, then they recoiled in fear. The odd thing was some people started to avoid me even before they saw me. “God,” I thought to myself, “am I so repulsive that people don’t even have to see me before they feel disgusted by my appearance?” Seeing all this made me feel dispirited, but then I said to myself, “No, positive thinking, positive thinking. People might not like my new appearance, but they’ll come around eventually. Maybe I’m being too self-conscious, it’s impossible that they were walking away from me despite not having seen me. I must be so nervous that my mind is making stuff up. Yeah, that must be it.”

Alice’s Algebra Lessons

The next day I went over to Alice’s house with a calculator, some pencils and a textbook in my arms. As usual, Alice was waiting for me at the front door and greeted me with an excited smile. “I can’t believe you’re here so early; I barely had time to get dressed.”

“You’ve being saying that for as long as I’ve known you.”

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to insult you, if you happened to be taking it that way. This is something I like about you; the earlier you come, the more time we have to play together. I can’t wait for us to do more of Mozart’s sonatas.”

“Sure, we’ll play the piano, but only after you’re finished with your math homework.”

Suddenly the cheerfulness on Alice’s face disappeared, her mouth was half-open in shock, her left hand suspended in mid-air and remained frozen. “When you said you were going to tutor me in math, you were being serious?”

“Yeah, I promised to do something and then I go ahead and fulfill the promise. Is this a totally new concept to you?”

Her eyes fluttered, then said, “When you put it that way, then no.” She opened the door for me to enter. I have seen Alice happy, I have seen her sad, but never before have I seen her afraid; it was slightly disturbing.

Alice’s room was so cluttered that we had to go to the kitchen to do her homework. She laid out all her educational accoutrements on the table. Her textbook was covered with pictures of cupcakes and donuts, her pencil box was made by Skittles, and all her pens and pencils were covered with colorful designs that looked like sprinkles. I was overwhelmed by the excessively diabetic nature of her stationery, but reminded myself of my purpose and quickly turned my attention to her. “Let’s do this, you do your homework, and when you encounter a problem you can’t solve I’ll help.”

“Okay,” she said, looking down at her textbook with an extremely serious face, “This is a problem that have been giving me trouble, I’ll read it aloud, ‘You are a bartender. You need to make a drink that is 38% alcohol. However, you only have two different liquors, one 27% and the other 95% alcohol. How much of each liquor should you use to make 100mL of the drink?’”

I stroked my chin and said, “The first thing that strikes me about this problem is this: What kind of a math textbook would teach teenagers how to mix drinks?”

Alice shrugged and smiled.

“Okay, I’ll completely ignore that, let’s solve this problem. First, draw a whiskey glass which has a capacity of 100mL.”

“Can you draw a small umbrella in the glass?”

I looked at Alice with a funny look, then said, “Yes, if that’s what you want, although it wouldn’t help us solve the problem. But aren’t umbrellas usually in drinks like margaritas, which are served in martini glasses?”

“I don’t know these things; I don’t drink.”

“Me neither, but I know this because my dad drinks; he does this to cope with living with mom. Anyway…” I said, then drew a glass with the umbrella, then labeling it “100mL”. “We know the total volume of the final drink, 100mL, so we write that on the glass. We also write 38% alcohol. Now, we don’t know how much of the 95% to pour in, so we label it as ‘x’.” I drew a horizontal line breaking the glass into two unequal halves, and wrote “x mL, 95%” “We also don’t know how much of the 27% we should put in, but it should be 100mL – x mL.” I then wrote “100mL – x mL”on the upper half. “Now, this picture is a little cluttered, so let me erase the umbrella so it will look neater. Sorry umbrella, having you around is too much trouble.” After redrawing the diagram I said, I said, “Now, we can write down the equation x + 100 – x = 100, but that doesn’t solve anything because that comes out to 100 = 100. What we need is to make use of the concentration of the liquors. We take advantage of the obvious fact that the amount of alcohol from the two liquors equals the amount of alcohol in the final mixture. You do that by multiplying the volume by the concentration. For the final mixture, that’s .38 X 100…”

“Wait, why did you do that?” Alice asked.

“Do what?”

“Why did you turn 38% into .38?”

I thought for a while, then said, “when you see %, what it means is divide by 100. So 38% is 38 divided by 100. Now, there’s a trick to dividing by a hundred, and that is all you have to do is move the decimal point two places to the left.”

Alice looked surprised, she said, “Really? But why would moving the decimal point divide a number by 100?” I thought for a while, then said, “Well, because…” From this point on I went on a long tangent explaining the base-10 number system, scientific notation, powers of 10, multiplying and dividing by powers of 10, and numbers in bases other than 10. I wasn’t aware of how far off-course I was until I looked at the clock and noticed that an hour has passed.

“Sorry, we can’t continue further wasting time talking about things that will not help with the homework.”

“Aww,” Alice said in the same tone with which she speaks to her cat, “but I want to learn more about exponentiation. And in truth, we weren’t wasting time, I was still learning about math.”

“That’s true, but it wasn’t a part of this assignment.”

I set up the equation for Alice to solve and said, “Here, can you solve this?” Alice gingerly picked up her pencil, examined the equation carefully, then slowly solved the equation. It was like watching a snail crossing the patio, but she was taking a lot of time carefully punching the numbers into her calculator and writing the intermediates steps down. But she did finish in the end.

“Did I do it right?” Alice asked shyly, her eyes avoiding mine.

“Yeah, that’s correct,” I said.

Her eyebrows pinched together as she said, “How can you tell?”

“I solved that equation in my head while you were halfway through solving it on paper.”

“Wow, you must be some sort of super-genius.”

“No, you were just incredibly slow.”

Alice glowered at me with bulging eyes and shouted, “What do you mean slow?”

I twitched in fright in reaction and said, “You really weren’t that slow, I was being ridiculously fast.”

Alice calmed down and said, “No, you are right, I am slow. My last tutor said I solved equations at a pace that made sloths yawn.” She buried her dejected face in her hands.

“Oh, don’t feel too bad. I’m sure with practice you’ll do better.”

“You’re just saying that to make me feel better.”

I held her hand, looked deeply into her eyes and said, “No, I’m being serious. Remember how terrible I was at piano, but then I played with you for a year got much better?”

Alice smiled and said, “Yeah, I was a good teacher wasn’t I?”

“See? All you have to do is practice, and not feel ashamed of being bad at it.”

Alice’s face immediately brightened, and we continued on to the next set of math problems. But she continued holding my hand as though it were a security blanket. I didn’t mind it at first but after a while it felt awkward. I’ve always dreamed of Alice holding my hand, but in a more romantic setting instead of doing math. But she looked happy, so I didn’t dare disturb her.

To be truthful, I didn’t know if her math skills would improve with practice, but I couldn’t stand to see her sad and angry. Her mathphobia was quite strong, and I needed to constantly hold her hand, both literally and metaphorically. Sometimes keeping her happy was emotionally draining, but I wanted to win her affections so I put up with her neediness. There was a lot I had to teach her, unfortunately a large portion of things she wanted to know wasn’t a part of the curriculum, but I had to cover them because she was very curious; I also had to constantly keep her interest because the material the school was teaching wasn’t all that interesting. This meant I was spending hours each day with Alice, which was a very pleasant experience. Even though dealing with her emotional problems sometimes left me feeling frustrated, being together with such a beautiful creature more than made up for it.

This Writer is for Hire

I’ve been writing on this blog for a very long time now, and was a great experience seeing so many people enjoy my writing. Every time you read my post it felt I was supported by a fellow friend. It has been such a pleasure that I want writing to be much more a part of my life, therefore I decided to look for projects to do freelance work on.

Even though I write mostly novels, essays and poetry on this blog, I am also available to do non-fiction. I have degrees in computer science and biology, so am able to write about technology as easily as I write poetry.

If you want to see an example of a specific style or genre, ask me and I’ll point you to a relevant piece of work I did. Please send any questions to disposablehelen@gmail.com

The Business of Family

For the next year I often went over to Alice’s house, sometimes invited but often without any request from her. Nonetheless, I was always welcomed. When she was busy and couldn’t spend any time with me she would leave me in the kitchen and allowed me to take anything out of the refrigerator.

Alice enjoyed playing with me, sometimes we would engage in board games such as monopoly, other times we would have snacks together, but since she enjoyed music I often ended up singing and sometimes dancing for her. She enjoyed playing the violin, especially pieces written for string quartet. Of course she couldn’t play all four parts by herself, so whenever possible she handed me the accompanying parts to play on the piano. It wasn’t the perfect solution, but it was much less expensive than hiring three classically trained musicians to play with her.

Daddy was still busy running his company, he had so much to do that he did not have much time to spend with me, so it was nice to have someone like Alice to keep me company. I was sure she also appreciated having me at her house; her dad often did not return home until 9:00PM, if I weren’t around she would have been very lonely. Alice’s father was a big man, he had the height of a professional football player and the girth of a professional sumo wrestler. Despite the fact that I was constantly over at Alice’s house I only saw him a dozen times, and each occasion he wore a business suit, a tie and a well-trimmed goatee. He looked like a fat Tony Stark.

One time I was at her house playing the piano and her dad walked past me and said, “Good evening, Alice.” It wasn’t until 3 minutes later when he walked past me again that he realized I wasn’t Alice.

“You’re not Alice,” he said, scrutinizing me with his eyes.

I stopped playing and said, “I thought that was obvious.”

He examined me closer and said, “Are you a boy or a girl?”

“It wouldn’t matter to you either way.”

“Okay. How did you get in?”

“Alice let me in.”

“Oh, so she’s home,” he said, then turned his eyes to scan the living room, “but I can’t find her anywhere around the house.”

“She’s in her room, probably.”

“I looked, she’s not there.”

“Then she’s probably by the side of the pool.”

“Okay, thanks,” he said, then headed out the back door.

I followed him to see if my hunch was right, and it was. Alice was standing by the poolside playing the violin while her cat looked up at her in amusement. When she heard our footsteps she turned around, put down her violin and ran toward her father. “Daddy!” she squealed with excitement as she wrapped her arms around his thick ox-neck. He was happy to see her as well, picking her up by her waist he spun her around like he was an amusement park ride. After their initial excitement, he looked down at Alice and said, “You’re practicing your violin already? Have you finished your algebra homework?”

Alice unwrapped her arms from around her father’s neck, turned around and coyly walked a few steps away from him. “I tried, I spent an hour everyday just as you told me to, but I wasn’t able to finish it.”

“Why don’t you try more than an hour?”

Alice turned around, looked up at him with an “innocent” face and said, “Oh daddy, what does it matter that I can’t calculate the arrival time of a train from St. Louis or compound interest? None of that will matter because I’ll be a violin player. You heard what my violin instructor has said about me, I think I can be really successful doing this, at the same time I enjoy it. Why should I spend all my time doing something I don’t like just so that some piece of paper will have a letter you like?”

“Because it wouldn’t matter how great a musician you were if you can’t calculate your earnings or taxes. I even hired a tutor to help you, but even that doesn’t seem to help.”

“I think the tutor is the problem, he never helped me at all.”

He sighed and said, “Very well, I’ll look for a new tutor and see if that does anything.” He was about to go back into the house, but before he did he looked at me and said, “I hope your father doesn’t have to deal with things like this.”

“No,” I said, “both my sister and me are really good at math.”

He smiled and said, “Oh, is that so? Are you studying algebra, trig, calculus?”

“I’m learning calculus, but not good enough to do anything useful with it, yet. I am also learning computer programming, because my dad says it’s probably going to be more useful than calculus.”

He reached out and rubbed my head. “You’re going to be the next Bill Gates, aren’t you?”

“My dad doesn’t like Bill Gates; he wants me to be the next Steve Jobs.”

He laughed and said, “You seem good enough at math to help Alice, why don’t you be her tutor?”

“I wouldn’t mind,” Alice said, shrugging her shoulders.

“Excuse me, I am talking to your friend,” her dad said.

“How much do I get paid?” I asked.

He smiled again and said, “I like your style, how about $1 an hour?”

“That’s fine,” I said. I knew it was an incredibly low offer, but Alice’s father was a person who oozed power, both mental and physical. He was powerful enough to throw me across the room, and it’s best not to argue too much with a man like that.

Being in a happy mood, he looked at his own reflection in the sliding glass door and fixed his collar and tie, then said, “Thanks for taking care of that for me, um…sorry, I don’t know your name, you little boy, or girl, or person of indeterminate gender.”

“Robbie.”

“Right, Robbie. I would like to hang around but I have a conference call. It’s quitting time for people in the United States, but people are just getting to work in Hong Kong. Alice, I’m not sure we could have dinner together, unless you want to have dinner at 9:00PM.”

“That’s okay, I’ll ask the housekeeper to have dinner with me, again.”

Moonlight Sonata

She grabbed my hand and lead me to the piano. She opened the curtains to allow moonlight into the room so I can see the keys, but even that didn’t provide enough illumination so she placed half a dozen candles around the room and put all her glow sticks on the music stand. I started to play the mournful tune I had been practicing for the last few weeks. Hearing the piece of music on a grand piano instead of my flimsy toy keyboard was an amazing experience, it was the difference between the roar of a lion and the meow of a cat. A few bars into the song, I became entranced by the rippling melody and forceful bass notes of the song. Banging out the first notes of the song sent shivers down my spine; I had never heard a bass line that reverberated so powerfully; it sounds like a suicidal psychiatric patient slowly pounding on his steel door as a cry of help. Playing underneath the ghostly tint of moonlight and a phantom breeze flickering candles definitely adds to the mood of the piece. It felt like I was inside Beethoven’s head listening to his troubled thoughts.

Just as I was becoming entranced by the rippling riffs Alice’s hand suddenly appeared and started to play the notes I had trouble with. At first I was startled, but did my best to ignore her distracting finger movements. Even though Alice was playing the right notes and did a great job following my tempo, it didn’t feel like she was playing the same song. It felt more like the both of us were playing two different melodies, like two sad people calling out to a barren wilderness, their two voices intermingling but still unable to find each other in the vast desolate wilderness. I wondered if this was what Beethoven had in mind when he wrote this.

When I finished the song I looked up at Alice’s face. She was bereft of all happiness, and a single tear rolled down her cheek.

“Why do you look sad?” I asked.

Alice lowered her eyelids and took her hand off the keyboard and said, “I’m sorry, but that song always makes me sad.”

“Oh, should I play a happy song to cheer you up?”

Alice glanced at me with a bittersweet smile, then said, “That’s alright, I like sad music”

“Really, you don’t look like the type of person who enjoys sad music.”

“Why would you think that?”

“Because you are always cheerful and smiling and enthusiastic all the time.”

Her smile deepened, then said, “That’s what I let the world see, but there’s another part of me that is sad all the time.”

I looked into her face but all I can see is a coy smile. Was she really sad, or was it all an act? How can she keep smiling if she is indeed sad? Is this a trick she is playing on me, and for what reason? I didn’t want to think about this too much, and instead looked up at the moon. The the earth’s shadow had taken a tiny bite out of the moon.

Alice walked closer to the window and stared with a poignant gaze. I walked up beside her and held her right hand. She looked down and asked, “What’s wrong? Do you feel cold?”

“No, I just wanted to feel your hand.”

“Oh,” she said, with a look of bewilderment suddenly appearing in her eyes. I immediately took my hand off her and returned to the piano where I played Prelude in C Major from “Well-Tempered Clavier” to entertain Alice as she waited for the eclipse to progress.

She appeared entranced as a soft haze passed in front of the moon, which gradually was becoming smaller and smaller as the shadow of the earth clipped the moon into a smaller and smaller crescent. Her dreamy face grew dimmer and dimmer as the moonlight began to die out and she was only illuminated by candles and fading glow sticks. When the moon had nearly disappeared but for a slim sliver, I stopped playing and sat next to Alice, who looked like she was about to drift off to sleep. She snapped back to consciousness when I jumped on the sofa and sat next to her; she opened her eyes and sat upright, and asked, “Why did you stop playing?”

“The eclipse is about to become total.”

“Oh, sorry that I was so selfish and didn’t realize that you might want to enjoy the eclipse as well.”

We both thought the moon will disappear when the eclipse became total, but instead it turned dark red, the shade of a burgundy rose. Alice looked toward me and asked, “Is the moon supposed to look like that during an eclipse?”

I shrugged my shoulders, and with my head still pointed upwards, said, “I don’t know.”

“Can’t you ask your Panda?”

“I’d love to, but I don’t want to miss the eclipse.”

The two of us continued to stare at the red moon, straining our necks to point our tired eyes to look at that odd object adorning the sky, a giant penny marred with patches of gray.

As the moon passed out of the shadow of earth the sky began to brighten again. I stood up from the sofa and was about to walk out the room when Alice asked, “Don’t you want to see the rest of the eclipse?”

“No, I’ve seen all the good parts already.”

“Oh. Would you like me to walk you back? It’s very dark outside.”

“Okay.”

Alice put the glow sticks back on her arms, grabbed a candle, and carefully made her way out of her house. I followed closely behind, trying not to be scared of the eerily dark streets. Dad was still sitting at his chair on front of the garage, when he saw us he greeted us. “Hey, did the two of you enjoy the eclipse?” he asked.

“Yes we did!” Alice said.

“I like the way you used the glow sticks, you have a great sense of color.”

“Thanks!” Alice said before disappearing into the house. For the rest of our journey I guided her through the house to my room. Before leaving she put the candle by my bedside and said, “I’ll leave you this as a gift.”

“Thanks,” I said.

“After all, I should give you something in return for the glow sticks you gave me. But don’t forget to blow it out before you go to sleep.” She smiled and waved goodbye before closing the door to leave me alone.

Power Outage

She took me to the kitchen and the wonderful smell of spices immediately hit my nostrils, looking off to a corner of the room the housekeeper was picking up her purse.

“Goodbye Alice, you’ll find dinner on the stove,” she said, then walked out the door.

Alice opened the lid of the pot with a giddy laugh and said, “Wonderful, Cornelia made her famous fried chicken. Would you like to have some?”

“No, I had dinner already, I’ll just watch you eat.”

She took out two dishes, put five pieces of chicken on her plate and a single one on mine and said, “I’ll give you a piece anyway; you must have a taste, you’ll think you’ve gone to heaven, or at least a parallel dimension where KFC is a good restaurant.”

I tried my best to resist Alice’s offer, but the piece of chicken had the most perfect golden-brown battered crust, and an exquisite aroma that smelled like there really were eleven herbs and spices. My primal urges overcame my ability to resist and I picked the piece off the plate and ate it; it was the best chicken I’ve ever had, succulent to the point of perfection with a big meaty flavor that normal chickens usually don’t have.

“It must be great to have a housekeeper who can cook,” I said.

“It’s awesome!” Alice said, “Cornelia can cook all sorts of different cuisines. She can do Mexican, Italian, and even a bit of Jamaican.”

“You must be very happy, having a dad who can pay for basically anything.”

Alice rolled her eyes, then said, “That’s not true, my dad once hired a nanny to take care of me. However, she was incredibly strict and punished me for the slightest thing. I still have nightmares about her.”

“Didn’t you tell your dad what was happening to you?”

“No, he thought it was good for me to be terrified by the nanny. Mom didn’t agree with him, but she was too timid to stand up to him.”

“Aw, I’m sorry to hear that.”

Alice nodded and said, “Thanks, I didn’t think…” but then suddenly the lights went out. “What’s going on?”

“I think it’s a blackout,” I said.

“Well, duh, what I meant was what kind of a blackout is this? Is it only our house, just the neighborhood, or the entire city?”

“I don’t know, I’m not Channel 4 news.”

“Well, could you go to your house and ask your dad for help?”

“Why me? Why not you?”

“I don’t have great night vision, and it’s too dark to see anything .”

I sighed, it was too dark for me to see anything either but I went anyway. Walking out of Alice’s house in the dark was like going through a maze, there were all sorts of obstacles I couldn’t see clearly and stumbled over, but once I walked outside it was much easier because everything was faintly glowing under the moonlight. Fortunately it was a full moon, and when I got outside everything was faintly glowing. But when I looked around I couldn’t see a single streetlight glowing, and all the houses were dark. It felt scary to be walking around such eerie streets, on the other hand you can see the moon perfectly without the distracting city lights. I walked a short distance to my house, dad was sitting in driveway in a folding chair looking at the moon.

“Hey! Robin, what’s going on?” he asked, cheerfully as though nothing was amiss.

“Hi dad, the power has gone out in Alice’s house, can you help?”

He laid back languidly and said, “Why would you need power? The full moon is out tonight, why don’t you sit back and enjoy the eclipse?”

“Yes, but it’s difficult to walk around in a completely dark house. Don’t you have one of those machines that make electricity when the power is out?”

“You mean a generator? No, I never bought one of those. But I can give you some flashlights if that’ll help you.” I nodded, dad got up from his chair and opened the garage door manually, then shined his penlight on the space underneath his desk.

“Here we go,” he, said, bending over, “this is my extra flashlight, and…huh…”

“What is it, dad?”

He reached down and pulled a box out, “I forgot I even have these. I bought them while in college but never found the chance to use them, but here’s a box of glow sticks.” I accepted the flashlight and glow sticks and walked back across the street.

When I returned to Alice’s house I found the front door was unlocked; I pushed open and entered. I was amazed to see the living room lit with candles. Alice was at the back of the room lighting the remaining candles, when she heard me walking in she looked up and smiled.

“Hi Robbie, do you like what I did with the candles?”

I couldn’t help but stare into the flames dancing hypnotically on their wicks and shadows flickering like ghosts on the wall. “It’s beautiful,” I finally said after half a minute of speechlessness.

Alice walked toward me, looked down at the box in my hands, and her face filled with delight. “Is that a box of glow sticks?’ she asked.

“Yeah, dad gave them to me and told me to do whatever I want with them.”

Alice squealed, immediately ripped open the box and said, “I’ve always wanted to play with glow sticks, but didn’t have time to find a store which carries them – but now I have my chance.” She took out each glow stick and gleefully snapped each one, releasing their uncanny neon light. Seeing glow sticks being used always makes me sad, because they look beautiful but only for a few hours. I like to think of them as creatures whose only job is to live for a few hours giving off an eerie light, then die.

She wore the glow sticks like they were bracelets, putting twelve on each arm. She looked little ridiculous, but was enjoying herself so I didn’t tell her. Instead I said, “You look pretty with those glow sticks.”

“Thank you,” she said as she while arranging the color of the glow sticks on her arm.

I noticed she was arranging the colors into triplets, such as blue, yellow, purple, red, yellow, purple and so on. I was curious and asked, “Why are you putting the glow sticks in that order? Are you obsessive-compulsive?”

Alice looked embarrassed, and said, “I don’t want to tell you because you might think I’m crazy.”

“No, I wouldn’t say you’re crazy.”

Alice smiled in relief and said, “Well, I see musical notes as colors. Whenever I see a pattern of colors I read it as a tune.”

“Oh yes, I think I read about something like this before.”

“Really?”

“I wish I had this ability, my piano practice would be so much more interesting. I’ve been trying to learn ‘Moonlight Sonata’, but I have trouble with parts of it.”

“Which parts are you having trouble with?”

“The part where you have to use your right pinky finger to play a melody at the same time playing that three-note riff-thingy with the same hand.”

“If I help you with the pinky part, do you think you will be able to do it? “

“Sure, I’ll give that a try.”

She Lives with Angels

She grabbed my hand and forcefully pulled me into the living room. I had never before seen her like this, she seemed possessed by a supernatural spirit by the way she pulled me over to the couch and pushed me down onto the cushions.

“There’s something I’m busy with at the moment, but I’ll be done in a few minutes, so you just stay down here and enjoy yourself while I go and finish up…whatever it is I’m doing,” Alice said, then smiled down at me before she disappeared like an upward-shooting bolt of lightning to the second floor of the house.

I was sitting on the couch in a daze, Alice has never treated me like this before. Usually she was so polite and gentle, but now she seemed like an impatient boss who didn’t have the attention span to deal with me. But I didn’t make a big fuss about it, I simply waited in the living room for her to come down. I stared at the pendulum clock hanging on the wall, becoming hypnotized by the tick-tock of the escapement. Five minutes passed and she didn’t come down, I became worried. Shouldn’t she be down here by now? But maybe she was using the term ‘few’ very loosely, so I decided wait for another five minutes.

I walked over to the piano and ran my fingers over the keyboard. Her piano sounded so wonderful that I wanted to press the keys; not to play a tune, but just any random key so I could enjoy the sound of a note coming into being and slowly decaying away. I closed my eyes and pressed a single finger down, a sonorous ringing reverberated throughout the room. Opening my eyes and looking down and saw my finger on G3, my second favorite note. It was low enough that it didn’t sound tense, but high enough it still sounded bright. My favorite note was E♭4, because it was the tone Alice spoke in.

“Are you practicing the piano?” Alice said, her voice muffled by the labyrinthine passages of the house, “Just wait a minute, I’ll be down there to help you in a minute!”

I didn’t want to practice the piano, so I said, “No, I just wanted to listen to how the piano sounds like.”

Alice laughed and said, “You’re weird.”

I immediately walked away from the piano, I didn’t want Alice to think of me as weird.

I waited for five more minutes, exactly five. I passed the time by reading the Wall Street Journal (not that I have any interest in business or economics, but it was the only reading material in the living room beside a stack of X-men comics). After five minutes I was frustrated with the way she was treating me,

so I carefully tip-toed upstairs to see to see what she was up to.

Despite how large her house was it was easy to find her room; it was the one with pictures of her cat attached to the door. I could hear her speaking, so I put my ear against the door to get a clearer sound of her voice.

“…of course I didn’t drink, mom,” Alice said, “I know enough that that stuff is toxic. Hehe…you did teach me well.”

It sounded like she was speaking with her mother, but I didn’t hear her mother’s voice. Perhaps she was speaking to her over the phone.

“No MOM, that dress wasn’t slutty, it’s normal for a party. Did you expect me to dress like a Puritan, with a buckle on my hat and a big red letter ‘A’ on the front? I know what you think, but let me have my life! It’s perfectly normal for me to like boys and want them to want me… No, I don’t allow him to touch my tits…yes, I did allow him to use tongue… No, that’s not disgusting!” At that moment I heard a cat meowing in the background. “Oh, Midnight wants me to feed her…yeah, we’ll have to talk later… Okay, I’ll give you a kiss, mwah, mwah!”

I planned to walk away right after she finished talking, but she opened the door too quickly for me to escape. The door swung open and I fell face-first onto the floor. After I got over the pain of planting my face on the carpet, I looked up at Alice and she was mortified.

“How long have you been listening to me?” she asked as she walked over to me.

“Not very long, I just got here,” I said.

She grabbed my hand and helped me get off the floor, then said, “It’s very rude to eavesdrop on other people, didn’t anyone tell you that?”

I didn’t want to look into Alice’s eyes out of shame, so I turned my head to look at her bed.

“Don’t look at that!” Alice shouted.

But it was too late, I already saw everything lying on her bed, especially a vase with a picture of a young woman’s face on it. And specifically because she told me not to look at it my mind unconsciously focused on that vase and the picture of a young woman was burned into my brain.

Alice covered my eyes with her hands and screamed, “Turn around, turn around! Don’t look back until I say so!” I was scared, never before had she been so aggressive, so I obeyed her. Behind my back she hid away that vase, I could even see which drawer she put it away because unknown to her, I could see her reflection in the glass cabinet facing her bed.

After stowing away the piece of pottery I wasn’t supposed to see, Alice sighed, walked up to me. I didn’t even turn around to look at her because I wasn’t sure she’d allow me. But I could see her face reflected in the glass, and it was she was smiling. Her sudden switch of mood was unsettling, I wanted to ask her what the hell she was doing, but was afraid she would yell at me again so I didn’t.

“I see you are looking at my memento cabinet. Pretty neat, huh?”

“Memento cabinet?” I asked.

“Yeah, whenever I had a fantastic day, I would keep an item from that day so I could relive it whenever I wanted.” She pointed to a sand dollar on the bottom left corner of the cabinet and said, “That was from the first time mom took me to the beach. I could still remember the beautiful sun, the hot sand, and mom talking to some really charming guys while in her bathing suit. At the end of the day we found a sand dollar, Mom told me to keep it as a reminder of the wonderful day, and I did; that’s how this cabinet started.” She then pointed to some lacy fabric and said, “That was from the time mom took me to Disneyland for the first time. We met Belle and a small bit of her costume came off. We wanted to give it back but she was too busy greeting the other visitors, so we kept it.”

I looked up and saw a picture of Alice smiling while holding a violin, but what really caught my attention was the woman standing beside her; she looked like the picture of the woman on the vase.

“What’s that?” I asked, pointing to that photo.

“Oh, that was when I won the talent competition at my elementary school. I played a Mendelssohn piece, I gave an astonishing performance. I still remember the stunned faces on the audience when I finished, especially my mother who was sitting in the front row. She couldn’t have been prouder of me. I still know the piece by heart; do you want me to play it?”

I nodded, she took her violin out of its case, rubbed some rosin on the bow, checked the tuning of the instrument, then played the piece. As soon as the bow touched the strings Alice went to a land of pure bliss. She looked absolutely entranced by the music she was playing, her face and body melding with the sublime vibrations emanating from her violin, her arms and fingers moving sensuously along with the contours of the music. The music sounded as beautiful as the way she moved, and I couldn’t help but be seduced by the angelic singing of her violin.

After she finished she came down from her musical nirvana she smiled at me and asked, “What did you think? Did you like it?”

“Now I feel bad because no matter how much I practice I won’t be as good as you.”

She laughed and said, “Don’t think that way, with practice you’ll become good as well.”

“I doubt it, you’re just more talented than me.”

“Mom said you don’t need talent to be good at music, all you need is a love of music and lots of practice.”

“Maybe your mom should teach me.”

“I wish she could, unfortunately she’s not around anymore.”

“That’s not a problem, she could just Skype in.”

Alice suddenly looked sad and said, “No, you don’t understand, she’s not on Earth anymore.”

“You mean she’s an astronaut?”

Alice laughed and said, “What I’m trying to say is…she’s living with the angels.”

“Oh,” I said in a flat voice, unsure of how to respond to her situation.

“At least that’s where I assumed she went; I can’t imagine she went to any other place.”

“If she did go to a different place you would still be technically correct since Satan is an angel.”

Alice was outraged, she shouted, “How dare you suggest that my mom’s in hell!”

I was thrown off by her anger, but I kept calm and said, “Sorry, as someone who doesn’t believe in heaven and hell, I didn’t know someone who does would be so upset if I make a joke about it.”

“That’s okay, I don’t believe in that mumble jumble either, I just pretend because it makes me feel better.”

There was a knock at the door and a woman saying, “Dinner’s ready!”

Alice was suddenly happy again, and said, “Would you like to have dinner with me?” I nodded and followed her downstairs.

Eclipse (part 1)

I was in the living room practicing on my toy keyboard when sister walked in. I didn’t have time greet her as my attention was solely concentrated on refining my fingering technique. After hearing a few bars the piece I was playing sister said, “Thank god I saw you, for a minute I thought a cat was walking on the piano.”

I immediately stopped and said, “Why do you have to humiliate me every chance you get?”

“I’m sorry,” she said mockingly, “I didn’t mean to hurt your precious little feelings. Was that ‘Moonlight Sonata’ you were trying to play?”

“Yes. As you know, there is a lunar eclipse this Thursday and I’m watching it with Alice. I want to entertain her by playing the piano.”

“Aww, that’s sweet. But that’s not really something for a beginner, why don’t you learn something easier to play?”

“Because there are no other moon-themed pieces of classical music that is easier to play.”

“Okay, I wouldn’t ask any further questions, I don’t want to embarrass you any further.”

I continued practicing for half an hour, but I couldn’t master the finger acrobatics it takes to play the piece and I gave up.

That afternoon I tried on clothes I would wear while watching the eclipse. I desperately wanted to try a new dress Alice gave me; it was a simple knee-length black dress, but trimmed at the hem and collar with silver and gold thread embroidery. She said I can have it since she has outgrown it, and I was quite delighted. After putting it on I spent the next half-hour looking at myself in the mirror, and admiring all the intricate details the designers have put into the dress, from the silver floral designs on the buttons to the fine metallic thread embedded into the lace that highlights the intricate patterns woven in it.

Dad walked past my room and saw me posing in front of the mirror. “Wow, I never knew you had a dress like that, you look wonderful in it.”

I blushed and said, “Thank you, I do look great in black, don’t I?”

“You’re not planning to wear that while watching the eclipse, aren’t you?”

“Why not?”

He chuckled and said, “For one thing, if you dress all in black, it would be difficult to see you in the middle of the night.”

“No, there will be plenty of light over at Alice’s house.”

Dad looked distraught and said, “I thought we agreed to watch the eclipse together.”

“Oh, sorry, I must have forgotten about that; I already promised Alice I’d be with her.”

“Can I come over so all three of us can see the eclipse together? “

As much as I enjoyed being with dad, that night I planned on seducing Alice and perhaps even give her a first kiss, and I couldn’t do that with dad watching me. So I said, “No, I’d rather spend it alone with Alice.”

There was nothing but a blank look on dad’s face. “Really? You’d rather be with Alice than your old dad?”

I nodded.

“Huh,” he said, then walked away. Looking back on it, I realized that he was shocked that I did not want to spend time with him.

In the early evening I went over to Alice’s house. She was surprised when she saw me on her doorsteps.

“What are you doing here so early?”

“To watch the eclipse with you.”

“But it’s not even dark yet, and I haven’t eaten dinner.”

“Okay, I’ll see you later tonight.”

I was about to walk away when Alice smiled and said, “Sorry, you can come inside my house if you want, I was just surprised you came so early.”

Piano Lessons

I was sitting down at the desk on a Saturday doing homework when someone tapped on my window. At first I was frightened, but then I looked up and saw the face of Alice looking down on me. I opened the window.

“Can you come over and play? ” she asked.

“Oh, um, I’m doing homework.”

“You’re doing homework on a Saturday? Are you a robot?”

I dropped my pencil and said, “No, I wasn’t doing homework, just making marks on a piece of paper that looks like solutions to algebraic equations. Just give me some time to come to your house.” I speedily walked to the front door where Alice was waiting for me.

“I love the way you look in that dress,” she said with an adoring smile. Suddenly I looked down and realized I was in a dress; I was playing in my sister’s room earlier that day and forgot to change. Immediately I started to head back to my room when I heard Alice say, “Where are you going?”

“Back to my room to change my clothes.”

“Why? I like the way you look.”

“Oh, don’t you think I look silly wearing them?”

“No, I find boys who are a little girly cute.”

Since Alice was so accepting of my idiosyncrasies, I felt completely safe going into her house dressed the way I was.

We entered Alice’s house through the living room, and the first thing that struck me was how big the place was. It felt more like a cathedral than a house, even my footsteps sounded like thunderclaps because of the reverberation. The walls were covered with beautiful wooden panels, this combined with the soft sunlight filtering through the curtains filled the room with a golden glow. Around the room were a few simple flower arrangements, which were so beautiful I couldn’t stand but to walk up and smell them. Alice laughed and said, “They smell less pretty than they look, I’m afraid. Every three days or so a florist comes to redo the flower arrangements. My dad likes to keep the house pretty.”

Everything in the house was eye-candy, even the spiral staircase leading to the upper floor. It was made of iron, but designed to look like the intricate lace worn by elegant ladies of the 17th or 18th century. At the bottom the staircase was a piano, it was so beautiful that when I first saw it I couldn’t help myself from walking over to touch it. It had curves like antique furniture and an austere jet-black surface that is only broken by the gilded letters on its front. Even the inside of the machine was beautiful, with strings laying in straight and diagonal orientations on an intricate metal frame that was more beautiful than it needed to be.

Alice was delighted that I was interested in her piano and asked, “Can you play?”

“A little bit,” I said, then walked over to play the melody of “Let It Be” by the Beatles. As I played Alice was on the brink of giggling.

“Why are you using only your right hand?”

I stopped playing and said, “Because I learned how to play piano on the Casio Rapman.”

“What’s that? A little doll that raps?”

“Not really, it’s a toy that generates beats you can rap over, and a scratch disk for making, you know, that record scratch sound. It also has a keyboard for adding music to your rap. My parents got it for $20 at Goodwill when I was 7. Back then they did not have enough money to buy a piano or piano lessons, so they got me that instead. I never learned how to read sheet music, and learned tunes simply by hitting the keys until they sounded like the melody I was trying to make. I never learned how to play with my left hand because the Rapman had too few keys to play with both hands. I also never played the black keys because I never figured out how they work.”

“That’s too bad. Would you like me to teach you how to play the piano properly?”

I looked into her face and was lost in the beauty of her brilliant smile.

“Of course, I’d love to spend time with you.”

After the two of us sat down at the piano, Alice said, “The first thing you must know are the names of the notes. Let’s start with ‘C’…” she plays the C on the keyboard, then continued, “…the one above that is ‘D’, and the one above that is…can you guess?”

“‘E’?”

“That’s right! God, you’re great at this. ‘E’, then ‘F’, then ‘G’, and you’ll never guess what the next one is.”

“‘H’?”

She smiled and said, “No, it’s an ‘A’. The next one is a ‘B’, then ‘C’ and ‘D’, ‘E’, ‘F’, ‘G’, ‘A’ and ‘B’ all over again.” She played all the notes in order, all the way saying the names of the notes, “C-D-E-F-G-A-B! Do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti-do! And that’s how you play a scale.”

“Why did you begin with C? Doesn’t it make more sense to begin with A?”

“You actually can begin the scale on any note, but you’ll have to learn how to use the black keys. The black keys…makes piano a lot harder, so we’ll use the white keys first.”

She took out a book and taught me how to read notes on the staff, then began making me do exercises. It was the most boring thing I’ve ever done, playing combinations of whole-notes and half-notes. I wanted to play tunes but instead all I was doing was looking at the sheet music, decoding what note it was, looking at the keyboard and remembering which key to press. It was a completely intellectual exercise devoid of music. But Alice was completely enthralled watching me play, and the smile on her face was so wonderful it didn’t matter I was bored out of my mind.

20 minutes later Alice said, “It’s time to take a rest. Also, I realize I need to feed the cat, I’ll be back in a minute.”

Alice left me alone, and I decided to look a few pages ahead in the book. I saw tunes such as “Pop Goes the Weasel” and “Frere Jacques”, not exactly good music but it was at least more interesting than what I had been forced to practice. I tried to play them, but each time I saw a note I had to figure out which note it was by counting from the bottom line, then figure out how to play it on the piano by counting from middle C. It took ten seconds to figure out each note, unless the notes were next to each other. It was getting too tedious, so I stood up from the bench to see if there were anything I could do to make this easier. I saw a pencil and some Post-It notes lying on a table and used that to write the name of each note above its key. (I only did it for two octave because it would have been a nightmare to do all the notes.)

I was trying to play “Camptown Races” when Alice came back. She was holding a cat in her hands when she walked in, and on seeing me she dropped the cat on the floor. “What are you doing?” she asked.

“Playing an actual song.”

She started to rip the Post-It notes from the piano and said, “You can’t do that.”

“Why not?”

“Because if you do that, you’ll never learn how to read music,” she said, then erased the letters I wrote in the book, “It might be easier to do it this way now, but in the future it’ll be easier for you to read the notes than the letters.”

I continued practicing with Alice for the next half-hour, without all the visual aids I put in.

For the next few months I often went to her house to practice piano. My skills developed incredibly quickly, which was not surprising since I already knew how to play, I just had to learn how to read music (and play with two hands). Alice was amazed by my progress, and each time I could competently play a new piece her face lit up. She must have been incredibly proud of herself for being such a great teacher. Of course, I wanted to impress Alice so I worked very hard to learn the piano. I even bought a cheap toy keyboard slightly less embarrassing than the Casio Rapman so I could practice at home. (I wrote the name of each note on each key to make playing on it easier, despite the fact that Alice discouraged me from doing that.)