Life’s Beacon

Dead of Winter ~ First Place
Lark Lucente


Sophie ate the fortune cookie, fortune and all. What worried her was not that she’d forgotten to crack the cookie before eating it, but rather that she would never know the fortune. She didn’t receive duplicates. Her collection stuffed away in the coupon drawer proved that. So after lunch as she walked across the street to Job Temps for the interview, she knew that she would seem distracted, not knowing.

“You missed your appointment by thirty-five minutes.” With a quick glance, the receptionist ordered, “Come back day after tomorrow, at 11:00.”

“Will it be the same position?”

She didn’t look up. “No.”

“I’m not usually late.”

“You missed last week’s appointment. You should have called. Come back Friday. Last chance.”

She couldn’t go home, not just yet. It was only 2:30. There would be too many vacant seats on the bus and no standing passengers to block the ad posters. She didn’t want to see the blinding white gleam of a ship, even if she felt the winter chill grow stronger every day, for she would never take a cruise. It wasn’t the voyage that was troublesome. She dreamed of such adventures, but to get to a ship, she would have to take a plane, board a train, or drive.

When she found herself at the curb, head down bracing against the wind, the only solution seemed to be to go back to the warmth of the Golden Sail to her booth, third one on the left. Seated there she’d see the illuminated painting with the moving waterfall. The bluish green hues and cascading sounds comforted her. It gave her a focus. She thought of getting lost behind the waterfall.

Inside only a few lunch buffet customers remained picking at the last of the crab legs and dishes of pastries, fruits, and almond cookies. She’d just have tea. Tea and a fortune cookie. They’d give her a fortune cookie. She needed to find out whether to return the day after tomorrow.

She couldn’t see the entire waterfall; he sat in her booth. Lodged up against the wall, his body ruined everything, threw everything out of balance. Her seat. Her painting. Her place. She closed her eyes and saw swirling patterns of black-amber dots. Her fingers gripped the wooden handles of her bag. Feeling the circled smoothness, she forced measured breaths and anchored her feet to the doorway’s clinging welcome mat.

She felt a light touch on her shoulder. “The blue glasses case, it’s yours?” The hostess went behind the register counter to retrieve it.

She didn’t even know that she had left it. Just then the man in her booth stood up, tossed a few dollars onto the table, and walked out the side door. A gust caught the door’s wind chimes that tingled into the nasal music. She moved quickly to claim her space and familiarity.

As she slid into the booth she noticed the edge of a fortune cookie sticking out from under the plate, along with a tattered book of matches. Impulsively she grabbed the cookie as if it were a lost wallet. She then picked up the red matchbook, drawn to the cover’s shadowy image of a lighthouse. “Life’s Beacon, 23 Charlotte Street” announced itself in black letters.

“The buffet’s almost over. Do you want it?”

“Just tea and a fortune cookie.” She clutched his cookie in her left hand, afraid that it would keep her from getting one. Her fortune, not his.

“They don’t come with just tea. Do you want tea? The waitress, sensing her hesitation, pulled a cookie from her pocket and placed it on the table. “Look honey, just take the cookie. And the tea’s on me. You come in here enough and the temperatures dropping. Enjoy.”

Usually random kindness evaded Sophie. Self consciously she grasped the teacup, then let the steam wash over her face. After she put “his fortune cookie” in her coat pocket, she cracked her cookie, and peeled open the message: “Drink deeply and believe.”

Believe in what? She fingered the matchbook and stared at the dark lighthouse. Its black beam intrigued her, so much so that she hardly noticed her waterfall. Suddenly she gulped down the tea and set out to find Charlotte Street.

Not yet three o’clock, the overcast day seemed later. The wind continued to whip about her as she found her bearings. She knew that it was off a side street down a few blocks from the restaurant, as she’d noticed it on a map when weeks earlier she had searched for the quickest bus route to the employment agency.

Barely feeling the cold, she propelled herself down the sidewalk, ignoring the smartly dressed business crowd and store windows dressed with merchandise she could not afford. After five blocks, she stopped instinctively at the corner and turned left.

Upscale businesses gave way to a street narrowed by worn storefronts. She passed a thrift shop, a shoe repair store, and a tattoo parlor, before she saw it. At the end of the street the red-and-black lighthouse sign swayed back and forth. Its hypnotic movement stopped her, beckoned her.

On either side of the doorway, bay windows crammed with Tiffany-type lamps, flowered china plates, and figurines seemed out of place with the shop’s logo. Yet underneath the door’s window a lighthouse bell announced her entrance.

Here, winter gloom vanished. Though narrow, the shop was deep. Tables upon tables and shelves of colored glassware cast a warm glow reflected from hanging light fixtures. Ornaments, bowls, translucent dishes, and numerous ticking clocks mystified the quiet place.

On the side walls, pink shadowboxes trimmed in gold paint harbored lighthouses made of black glass.

She tiptoed through the aisles toward a lucent plate displayed upright in the middle of a back table. A shimmering blue wave leaped out at her. It rose upward from the left and peaked at the plate’s mesmerizing center. Leaning closer she watched the wave “transform” itself into a dolphin.

“You came. I thought you might. Only a few do.”

Sophie startled upright hitting the table. Her hands trembled against the clinking treasures. She turned awkwardly and found herself staring into the pensive face of the man from the restaurant.

“That plate’s a curious piece.”

His voice, barely above a whisper, seemed almost as hypnotic as the shop’s sign.

“You. You’re… you were…”

“In your booth? I prefer to think that we share it. It can be a bit of a curse. That waterfall is rather distracting, don’t you think?”

The unfolding events baffled her, silenced her.

“You ate the fortune and missed your appointment. You lose time, Sophie”

His use of her name and knowledge of her actions shook her. She backed away from him.

“I mean no harm.”

She watched him exit through a curtain at the back of the shop, then thought about leaving. The matchbook, the black lighthouse. Spotting him earlier. His presence here. He knows my name. How does he know? Do I lose time? She found herself asking out loud, “Who is he?”

The clocks ticked on, some more urgently than others. She knew she should leave; she felt compelled to stay. On one of the tables, she noticed a group of long-necked bottles. A stinging memory chilled her.

Her mother had collected “poet’s bottles” such as these with messages etched into the glass. She’d never seen them anywhere else. Each contained a single top word combined with phrases at the base of the blue and green bottles. On her fifth birthday her mother gave her a bottle. Unlike the others, hers was frosty white. Three days later Sophie broke it accidentally. That night her mother died in her sleep. She thought her carelessness had caused her death.

The man emerged from the curtain and came over to Sophie. He put one of the lighthouses into her hand. “You should have this.”

The glassy smoothness warmed her palm. Immediately the memory seemed less threatening. “The black is just so odd, unexpected.”

“Yet it drew you to it.”

“Perhaps. Yes, I guess it did. Look, I don’t really know why I came, or who you are, or…”

He reached under the table and brought out an oblong white box with a red ribbon. “Just take this, Sophie.” He smiled, then once again departed through the curtain.

How bizarre, but accepting the gift seemed so natural, so right. After giving the shop one last look around, she walked out and closed the door quietly behind her. No bell jangle. Suddenly she remembered his fortune cookie.

She turned back to a vacant shop. No merchandise in the window, no sign, just an empty store. Yet there she stood clutching the lighthouse and package, proof of its existence. She should have felt disbelief, confusion. Instead she felt a sense of peace.

For what it was worth, she placed the cookie in the hanging mailbox and put the lighthouse in her pocket. She opened the box and carefully pulled back the tissue paper.

Impossible. There lay her bottle. Gingerly she removed it from the box. “Comfort, warmth, solace and soothing dreams” wound itself around the glass. She turned it upside down to see her purple initials she’d painted there so long ago.

“Drink deeply and believe,” flashed at her.

She made her way back to the bus stop. The gray day waned and street lamps glowed prematurely. She boarded the bus and sat in the seat at the back exit door and cradled the package to her chest.

An elderly woman sitting next to her asked, “Sweetie, you’re so young to be by yourself. Do you know where to get off?”

“My name’s Sophie. Today’s my birthday. I’m going to meet my mommy. She’s at work. 23 Charlotte Street.”

pencil

“I am a secondary school English, drama, and creative writing teacher. I have also taught freshman English courses for Rappahannock Community College in Saluda, Virginia. Currently I am taking a break from teaching. I now have more time to write and read for pleasure.” E-mail: larknjim[at]verizon.net

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