“S”

Whenever she looked out her window, she saw a big “S” on the red brick building across from her. Just one letter, a simple one, with a serif on either end. It wasn’t the most innocent or joyful of letters; “snakes” and “sadness” and “sordid” all began with it, and she couldn’t help thinking of those and other harsh words whenever she looked at her “S.”

But not everyone had a big, two-story-tall letter painted on the building across the street. She could tell it was that large because she could see the windows next to it. Okay, so maybe it was only one-and-a-half stories tall, but it was up around the tenth or eleventh floor, and everything looks bigger higher up. Or so she thought at least.

It was kind of like Stephen (another “S”, she always reminded herself) who was so beautiful and seemed so majestic. He was tall, and his head was disproportionately large for his body. But she couldn’t help being attracted to him, daydreaming about him, adding the letters to his name to her view of “S.” Stephen, for his part, didn’t know she existed because they’d never been introduced. In fact, his name wasn’t actually Stephen, it was Pedro, but she’d given him a name of her own after she’d seen him at the bagel shop on the corner for the fourth morning in a row.

She wasn’t an obsessive person, no, you couldn’t say that exactly, she thought, but she was definitely aware, and self-aware as well, and she knew there was a certain obsessive quality to her fascination with her “S.” Especially when she knew there must be more letters painted up there, hidden from her by the jut of another building that was angled just right to show her the one “S” and nothing else. She wondered whether she’d ever see the thing, the letter or the entire word, from street level and see what it was referring to. The thought was terrifying.

Blackout

“Ouch!”

“Oh!”

“Who’s that?”

“Taylor? It’s me, it’s Petunia!”

“Pet – d’you know what’s going on?”

“No, listen, I think there’s been a power-outage.”

“…Duh.”

“I mean – I think it’s not just the building! I looked outside and everything’s black, it’s creepy.”

“Well, want to come back to my place? I can find some candles or something.”

“Taylor, come on, is now really the time to hit on me?”

“What better time? It’s dark, there’s a sense of danger in the air, you’re all helpless…”

“Shut up!”

“It’s too easy to get you mad. And that hurt, by the way. How did you even manage to find my shins?”

“I’m gifted.”

“Okay, I can hear you rolling your eyes. Geez. Anyway, seriously, come to my place – I won’t hit on you! – and we’ll try to figure out what’s going on.”

“Fine, fine.”

“Alrighty, here we go. Just try to sit there – yeah, that’s the couch, right there – and I’ll be back in a second.”

“Don’t you have a flashlight?”

“Huh? I can’t hear you, just a second, I’m in the closet!”

“I said, don’t you have a flashlight?”

“Yeah, but no batteries, ’cause I’m an idiot. Here we go. Good thing I smoke, right? I’ve got about a thousand lighters floating around here.”

“You should tell your doctor that next time he tries to give you another nicotine patch: ‘No, no, it’s good I smoke, really, because if I didn’t, I’d never have lighters around!'”

“Seriously, you’re the most sarcastic woman I’ve ever met.”

“Thank you – I’ll take that as a compliment.”

“So why were you in the hall without a flashlight yourself? Or a phone, for that matter. I just went out to the fusebox – I thought it was just my place that lost power.”

“Oh, um… well, to tell the truth, I kind of locked myself out of my place.”

“You what?

“Yeah, yeah, you can stop laughing now, it’s not that funny! You know how I got that new door-handle last week that makes it so you can’t open it from the outside without a key? Kind of worked against me tonight. I thought it was just my place that was out of power, too, and I went outside and I forgot to take my keys with me… Oh, shut up, will you?”

“Sorry, sorry, it’s just- that’s hilarious. Miss Excuse-Me-But-I-Think-A-Hundred-Bucks-Are-Worth-Extra-Safety uses her new safety against herself.”

“Shut up, Taylor. Geez. Seriously, can you just try to figure out what’s going on?”

“Sure, sure, I’ll see if my phone is still online…”

“Good, you do that. Okay, I’ve seen your apartment before, so I know that that’s new.”

“Um, Pet?”

“I mean, what deranged girlfriend gave you that thing? It’s hideous! I mean, come on, a fake antelope head? How tacky can you get, boy?”

“Petunia?”

“Huh? What? What’s wrong?”

“I’m not… quite sure. The network on my phone’s working, but the news is saying some really strange things…”

“Okay, now you’re freaking me out.”

“Um – there’s some sort of death-threat on Google News. It says ‘The Magliorandi are a peaceful race, but have expressed in no uncertain terms that they will destroy our planet if the human race will put up a fight.'”

What?! Let me see that!”

“…”

You idiot!!!!

“I can’t believe I had you going again! You’re just so easy, I can’t believe it! Ow! Ow, okay, no need to punch me so hard! I was just kidding!”

“You had me trying to decide between chocolate and pasta for my last meal, you jerk!”

“Pasta? I mean, seriously, pasta? That’s a lame last meal.”

“You know who’s lame? You are.”

“Nice, nice, I see you turn into a six-year old when you’re scared.”

“As opposed to you, who’s a six-year old all the time. Jerk.”

“Fine, but you’ve got to admit that aliens landing on earth is way more interesting than ‘Power should be restored in several hours, and all residents are asked to stay inside while work-crews will be on the streets, rectifying the mass power-line failure.'”

“You’re still a jerk.”

“Fine, fine, fine. But seriously, pasta? As a last meal? Pasta?!”

“Why, what would you have then? Jerk?”

“I don’t know – maybe a really expensive steak with fancy sauce stuff. Or some tiny gourmet French dish or something like that.”

“See, I would totally want to go with someone I just know I love. Like chocolate. Or pasta.”

“Yeah, but if it’s your last meal, shouldn’t you milk it for all it’s worth?”

“You’re such a- a- I don’t even know what. If it was my last meal on earth I wouldn’t care about trying to use anybody, I’d just want to eat something I like.”

“Oh, well, okay then, Miss Holier-Than-Thou.”

“Geez, Taylor, seriously, will you shut up?”

“I’m offering you hospitality and all you’re doing is abusing me! Is that any way to treat a man?”

“Yes.”

“Fair enough. Want a game of Scrabble?”

“Sure, might as well do something useful while I wait – like kicking your butt.”

“Uh-huh. We’ll see about that.”

“Fifty bucks say I beat you?”

“You’re on.”

2. Amanda [4]

She led her little pack into Oakwood’s front hall, and up the stairs to the fourth floor, where the new students were roomed. She asked whose new roommates had slept in, and then made everyone start pounding on doors up and down the hall. A few tousled heads poked out of doors, only to be dragged laughing or scowling into the hall in their pajamas.

“Hey, this is your orientation-leader talking – and no, I don’t mean I’m going to help you figure out if you’re gay or straight, you’re on your own there – and I’m telling you all to put some clothes on so we can get going! Believe me, there are some awesome secret places on this campus, and if you choose to go back to sleep now, you might never be able to tell your future kids how you crawled through Acorn’s airway ducts to try to get to the Dean’s office.”

A silence followed this little speech, and then some titters. But as Amanda left Oakwood, her pack had almost doubled, although most of them were still half-asleep. That’s okay, though, Amanda mused, I can’t wait until I show them the secret passageway in Treemont Dorms. They’re going to love those.

It was a true and rather odd fact that Valley U’s buildings had been designed by a slightly eccentric architect with an endless fascination for old palaces. Although most of the buildings looked merely classic and collegiate, some even with ivy clinging to them, they were all filled with some secret passageway or hidden nook or secret cellar room. Amanda knew that the professors knew about them all, as well as the staff – well, she assumed they all did anyway – and merely chose to turn a blind eye because of the fun and unique character it gave the university.

1. Mr. and Mrs. Adams [5]

Mr. Adams walked briskly up to Acorn, walking around the building so he could enter from the front instead of walk through the dank halls that led upstairs from the parking lot. When the semester was underway, he didn’t mind going through the back door; there were often students standing around it and smoking and usually he’d know a couple and would exchange pleasantries as well as a covert and rare cigarette with them.

Even so, it was always nice to enter from the main entrance to Acorn – the impressive double doors were thrown open, and all the carvings and metalwork on them was visible to those who passed. The doors had been donated to the university when a rich family who lived on the outskirts of Hartscreek had decided to tear down the private chapel they had on their property and build a large pool to replace it. Mr. Adams was always curious as to who put the idea in those people’s heads to give the university the doors instead of trashing them. Whoever it was, Mr. Adams was thankful. The doors seemed to him to be just right for the kind of building that Acorn was; imposing, ivy climbing up the walls and a couple of gargoyles leering from the eaves.

His office was on the top floor. He joked with his wife that he didn’t join her morning walks because he had enough exercise just climbing the stairs up and down from his office all day long. The building had an elevator, but it was only used by the cleaning staff and any students or faculty with disabilities. Everyone else was expected to walk. Mr. Adams supposed that one day his knees would pain him enough that he wouldn’t feel guilty applying to get a key for it, but meanwhile he took the stairs two at a time up to his office, hardly puffing at all.

When he got up to the third floor, he walked down the hallway and entered the last door on the left. His name was there on a little plaque, and as he unlocked the door for the first time since summer term ended, he breathed in the slightly musty air and felt right at home. He’d had this room ever since he’d been given tenure, and over the years it had become a sort of embodiment of his tastes. Two walls were lined with bookshelves, crammed with what he called the tools of his trade – everything from books by his favorite authors to literary magazines to anthologies. His desk held the old computer (which he never used) that the university provided him with as well as two cupfuls of pens and a stack of notepads and notebooks almost toppling over. There were also framed pictures of Mrs. Adams, Susan, and a family photo of Susan, Marty and Claire.

Mr. Adams sat down at the desk, laying his briefcase, which held his laptop, daily planner and another bulk of notebooks and pens. He sighed and took the picture of his daughter and her family and gazed at it.

“Marty,” he murmured to himself. “When are we going to hear from you again, my boy? And when can I see my little Claire again?”

Shaking himself, he put the photo back down and pulled out his laptop, ready to get to work on the various syllabi he had yet to complete.

Victoria’s Secret [Part I]

Victoria stood at the window of her big corner office and gazed out at the view. It was days like these that made working in an office like this worth it – the sky was full of white, fluffy clouds that changed shape constantly, and the city gleamed in the rays of sunlight coming through the gaps between the clouds. A crow flew perilously close to the window and Victoria marveled at the way the bird stretched its wings and glided on the wind, seemingly without effort. She closed her eyes and imagined what it would be like to be that crow, free to fly on the currents and soar through the sky. The crow gave a loud caw and jerked Victoria out of her daydream.

She sighed, turned her back on the window, and picked up the cup of tea on her desk. Gulping some, she choked and spit it back out into the cup – it was stone cold. She sat down heavily in the big leather office chair that came with the big corner office and glanced at the open notebook on the desk. It was her daily planner, full of ink blots and cross-outs and arrows pointing to other dates and times. Being head of department was no easy job, Victoria had found out, and the useless secretary she had been given was more interested in fighting with his girlfriend on the phone than in doing his job, so Victoria found herself needing to check and double check all her appointments. Not to mention, of course, the constant changes caused to her schedule just because of last minute things that tended to crop up in the department.

Shaking her head to clear the haze that was settling over her, Victoria got up and pushed open the door to her office.

“Patrick!” she snapped. “I’m going out to lunch. Please make sure to answer the calls I get in the meantime, all right? And I beg of you,” she added as an afterthought, “to write them down and not try to remember them. That’s how I missed Michelle’s message yesterday.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” grinned the twenty-something year old. He looked like he could have been an underwear model, with his blond hair, blue eyes and the muscles bulging under his slightly too sheer white button-down shirt. Victoria had almost laughed outright when she’d first seen him, a few weeks ago when she’d started her new and improved position. Talk about a blast from the past, she’d thought then, as she tried to keep a straight face. Ever since, she’d felt a strange mixture of humor and exasperation towards him. The one person who didn’t seem to think of her as The Big Scary Boss was also the same person she needed most to help her out on a day to day basis, and his lack of fear or respect towards her or the office as a whole wasn’t helping his job performance.

“I mean it, Patrick,” Victoria yelled back over her shoulder as she walked down the corridor towards the elevators. “No forgotten messages, okay?”

“Totally, Ma’am!” he answered in his surfer-dude voice.

Better make it a quick lunch, then, thought Victoria as she heard the unmistakable sound of Patrick’s cellphone go off and the subsequent beginning of an argument with his girlfriend. She pressed the elevator’s DOWN button a few times impatiently, knowing it wouldn’t make it come any faster. There’s another annoying thing about working up in one of these big, cold offices – the damn elevators never seem to come all the way up here.

The elevator finally arrived with a loud “ding-ding” and Victoria entered, nodding politely to the man and woman already in there. The doors shuddered to a close after her and the elevator began to descend. All of a sudden, with an ominous thump and a disturbing creak, the elevator stopped jarringly and the lights abruptly went off.

The three in the elevator simultaneously cursed.

A Love Letter to Chicago

Dearest Chicago,

In the short time I’ve spent with you, you’ve managed to charm me. Quite apart from you keeping my brother safe and sound for four years, you have alluring qualities that are all your own. I really felt comfortable within your limits and amongst your streets, and even though you’re one of the most crime-ridden cities in the United States, your beauty and loveliness still shine on as always.

You started out as a small town and you were officially made a city when you had three thousand residents. A city with a population of three-thousand when you began! Such a number is hardly considered worthy of a town in our day and age. Still, you knew somehow that you would be grand someday, and the same went for the people who lived in your embrace. Each building was built for beauty, practicality and grandeur – all three qualities together, without ever neglecting a one. Your streets were built in such a way that you would be easy to understand and navigate so that everyone would feel welcome to rest their boots upon your sidewalks and streets.

Over the years, you grew outward and became larger and larger, but you never gave up your simple beauties – your lake-front is as bare as it ever was and your river had pathways all along its sides. Buildings were built taller and taller, and yet you still feel spacious and airy, not intimidating or claustrophobic.

Chicago, you are a city of modern beauty.