Book One

The Box

The Box

It’s not that Pan Blair, stay-at-home mother of three, has anything against humanity per se. It’s just that she finds interacting with its members to be draining to the point of exhaustion. Her husband, however, can neither understand nor live with her introversion. When a scheme of his creation lands them on the brink of homelessness, Pan decides it’s time to get the hell out of the passenger seat. It’s time to take an active role in her own life.

Even though she knows she’s not remotely qualified for it, she accepts a management position at a bookstore. There’s something eerily familiar about her new boss, the enigmatic Ignatius Pyre, but Pan has more than a few new revelations coming. As soon as she accepts the job, she faces a Herculean gamut of physical, emotional, and ethical trials. Every day, she learns a little bit more about herself, but nothing could possibly prepare her for the biggest shock of her life.

Pan, it turns out, is short for Pandora, of Greek legend; what’s more, Ignatius has been her soul mate throughout time. Together, they are about to turn the world upside down. But rather than unleashing the plague, pestilence, and misery of the legendary Pandora’s Box on humanity, they instead liberated the gifts of the gods—and Zeus is not exactly pleased.

Now, Zeus’ relentless pursuit through history has come to a head, and he has just the leverage he needs to force Pan into an impossible choice.

CHAPTER ONE

Shanghaied

CRUD MUFFIN

Crud muffin, poop, scat

And definitely Crap

How in the heck had this happened? I asked myself, with equal parts skepticism and desperation, as I skidded to a halt at the bottom of the staircase. I checked for pursuit before vaulting up them two at a time. At the top, I took a moment to catch my breath and fling another quick look over my shoulder. So far, so good; the immediate area was still all clear, but if I listened closely, I could just make out the sound of voices over my own heavy breathing.

Sprinting through an open door on my left, I closed and locked it in the same motion, and began to tiptoe over to the window across the room. As I went, I listened for the sound of hurrying feet or raised voices, anything that might indicate that someone had raised the alarm.

Approaching the casement at an angle so as to see without being seen, I scanned the grounds below. From what I could tell, so far no one had noticed that I was missing.

“Small favors,” I muttered, pressing my back against the wall and letting myself slide to the floor. Bracing elbows on knees, I rested my head in my hands. But my absence wasn’t going to go unnoticed indefinitely. If I was going to get out of this I’d have to move fast and be smart, two things I usually did not do well at the same time. I needed a moment to think, to strategize, to come up with a plan.

The day had been going more smoothly than freshly-shaved legs into new pantyhose, when suddenly, outta nowhere…BOOM! The whole shebang had gone south. With a quickness. If I had any chance of pulling this off at all, I would have to find a way to keep it together. “Roll with the punches, girl,” I muttered.

Theoretically, one way or another, no matter what happened from here on out, at the other end of this day was freedom.

“Keep headed toward that light at the end of your tunnel,” I encouraged myself, pushing against the wall to peep cautiously out of the corner of the window again. “And have faith it’s not attached to a freight train,” my more jaded side retorted cynically.

BOOGERS!

The search was on. It looked like my time to come up with a plan had expired; I was going to have to do this on the fly.

“Oh well,” I sighed, the first chords of the Mission Impossible theme playing in the background of my head. “Might as well go down in a blaze of glory.”

Back on the other side of the door, the hallway and staircase were still clear. There was only one way to find out if the rooms at the bottom were as empty. I supposed the chances were about even; in any case, I was out of options. Lightly galloping down the steps, I planned one move ahead at a time. Both areas were empty when I reached the bottom. Taking a right, I headed around the back. If I could get through that room undetected, I stood a decent chance of making it outside. Rushing through that one and into the next, the exit came into sight, and nothing else. Foolishly, I let my guard down.

A wide, beefy hand landing on my shoulder from behind announced the severity of my error. “Hey! Where do you think you’re going?” demanded the wide, beefy voice that went with it.

The adventure movie score filling my head slammed to a halt, replaced with a fatalistic dum, dum, daaaam, as I was spun roughly around to face my captor. (A squirrel; in my next life I’ll be a squirrel. A squirrel would never have been caught by this buffoon.) He was at least a foot taller than me and outweighed me by a hundred and fifty pounds, easy. Crud muffin. Escape no longer being an option, I braced for what was sure to happen next. One way or another, I reminded myself, freedom is on the other side of this day.

His other hand reached out to encase my free shoulder. Giving me a smallish shake, he brought his face down to my level and pushed it forward. “This way, you.” he menaced, steering me out the very door I’d been trying to get through, and out into the yard, prefilled with spectators to what was no doubt, my imminent humiliation.

A red squirrel. A little red squirrel with a fine, bushy tail, and a thick red coat. I tried to picture it as I was being marched across the yard. An example waiting to be set.

Everyone had turned out to witness the spectacle. Halting in the relative center of the crowd, he slung one flabby arm across my shoulders in a parody of a cordial gesture. Having positioned us for maximum visibility, he whispered from the corner of his mouth, “If you’re a good girl and play along, this will be quick and relatively painless.”

There was nothing I could do but grind my teeth in impotent rage, as switching to a booming half-shout that was meant to carry to all corners he called, “I didn’t get a chance to wish you a Happy Birthday yet. What happened? The doctor said it’s a beautiful baby girl. APRIL FOOLS! HAHAHA!” He laughed at his own joke.

I, on the other hand, managed to keep from rolling my eyes. Barely. “Ohhho, boy that’s, yeah, that’s, umm…” I simply couldn’t find a way to put a positive spin on that lame comment.

As it turned out, Bill didn’t need encouragement. So pleased was he with the delivery of his first line, he moved right on to the second. Glancing around, making sure he had an audience (and he did), and putting some extra volume into his voice, he asked the yard at large, “I mean, born on April Fool’s Day and named after a kitchen utensil.. Didn’t your mother like you at all?” A predictable guffawing ensued, helping Bill to really get into his stride. Squeezing me with the arm that was still hung like an overused dish towel across my shoulders, he kicked his voice up another notch to be sure he could be heard over the laughter at my expense. “Come on, tell us. What’s your REAL name?”

This wasn’t the first, or even the hundredth time I’d been asked that question, so I didn’t miss a beat when I answered, “Rumpelstiltskin.” Another predictable round of laughter followed, petering out like a martyr’s death.

As people began to return to their regularly-scheduled conversations, I made a point of catching my husband’s eye. His toothy smile turned into a slightly guilty grin. Winking at me, he shrugged one shoulder, smirking in a way that clearly expressed Come on; it was funny. I responded by increasing the intensity of what my grandmother had called ‘The Hairy Eyeball.’ But in all honesty, I most likely would have forgiven him everything right then and there (how long can you stay mad at someone for throwing you a surprise party?), if having played my part, I had been let off the hook. Instead, Bill’s heavy, sweaty arm, still slung across my back, was hauling me over to a clutch of hens who all knew their indelible place in the pecking order, and were salivating at the chance to show me mine. Reaching the group, I was literally thrust into the middle of it, before the forms and finery of the women surrounded me. I caught a glimpse of Sedryck turning uncomfortably away. That’s right, I thought, you are in trouble.

Standing in their midst in a frumpy sweatshirt, holey jeans and the white canvas tennis shoes (embellished by my girls to resemble miniature Holsteins, complete with eyes, noses, and tails) that were my standard ‘take the dog to the groomer’ outfit, the contrast was comical. No wonder Sed had chosen THIS morning to take issue with my get up. Coming into the kitchen as I was on my way out of it, he’d spluttered, wide-eyed, choking on his coffee. “What do ya call that?” he grimaced, wiping his chin with the back of one hand. He waved the one still holding the coffee cup up and down to indicate the entire ensemble, slopping the contents of the mug over his hand and onto the floor in the process.

“What, this?” I repeated his gesture minus the gravitationally-affected hot beverage, smiling archly. “This is all the rage in Paris; it’s called faux sexy,” I teased, striking a pose.

“I’ll say; heavy on the faux.” Laughing at his assessment I’d turned to go, but I suppose with the coming festivities in mind he had attempted a misguided appeal to my pride. “Come on, you don’t really want people to see you like that, do you?”

Unfortunately for Sed, his affronted decorum affected me like a dare. Chuckling coyly, I went on my way without answering; in hindsight, I should have recognized the signs of a social event on the horizon.

Poor Sedryck; he must be somewhat mortified right now. Well, I reasoned internally, I wouldn’t have chosen to embarrass him if I’d known. But then again, neither would I have chosen to be here; so I guess the moral is, if you’re going to risk throwing ME a surprise party, then you get what you get. Poor Sedryck.

While Bill did the required number of minuets, schmoozing each of the females individually according to which rung on the social ladder she occupied, I took stock of the situation. It had occurred to me that there was more going on here than celebrating the anniversary of my birth. Sed had always been fine in the past with passing over mine as long as his got extra-special attention. Surreptitiously shifting my weight from foot to foot in order to get a good look around without craning my head, I searched for indicators as to what the real agenda might be.

I registered about half a dozen of Sedryck’s client/friends and their families; not people I would have invited, but figured Sed had asked them to fill up the otherwise dismally empty guest list. My friend May and her daughter would have been the only ones here, had any one asked for my input. I could practically hear what my extrovert husband would have replied to such a suggestion, his natural brogue becoming more pronounced in his irritation. “That’s not a paartie,” he would have said. “That’s an old maid’s waake.” A grudging grin erupted over one half of my mouth. Still, I would have thought he knew better than this.

Someone speaking my name pulled my attention back from internal to external. I pasted an inane grin in place, and prepared to fix it there for the duration of the ordeal, I mean party. It was quiet, something that failed to strike me as odd as quickly as it should have. Belatedly, I realized that they were waiting for me to say something. Buggers. What was the appropriate way to handle this? I wasn’t sure, so I went with honesty. “I’m sorry, I phased out for a sec there. What?”

Heh Heh. A chuckle that imparted a judgment about my intelligence traveled the little ring of woman.

Bill smoothly spoke around it, negating its effect slightly by refusing it solo air time. “I was just introducing you around to these lovely ladies,” he interrupted himself to kiss the hand of the top-rung hen. “Sed was saying the other day that you still don’t know too many people in the neighborhood. So I thought I would introduce you to a few of the local mothers. They all have children about the same age as yours. Part of my present to you. Ehh, what do you think? What could be better than the gift of new friends?”

Cash, I thought abrasively.

Giving him an, is that really how you want to sell this look, I replied with a simple, “I see.” Then, turning back to the sphere of women, I added, “Sounds good in theory; but I should warn you that generally speaking, I don’t like people.” As usual, all those concerned mistook my blatant honesty for wry humor.

When the polite laughter faded, Bill rumpled my hair with one clammy palm, using the other to lift the ring leader’s hand in a half-salute, saying, “I’ll leave you to it then.” And walked away.

Great.

The matron whose hand Bill had just released looked me over critically for a long, silent, uncomfortable moment, deciding how best to proceed with a specimen like me. The words to her first question practically floated across her forehead as it formed in her mind.

“So, Pan that’s ahhhh,”

An interesting name.

“An interesting name.”

Is it a family name?

“Is it a family name?”

“Yes, my parents were tinkers.”

There was a moment of strained silence while the women around me blinked and stared. I took pity on them. “Just kidding.” a collective sigh of relief dominoed around me. I gave in to temptation, “They were spies; Pan was my father’s code name, Tinkerbelle was my mother’s.” More awkward gawking. I repented. “Kidding again. It was a joke; you know, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.”

Blank confusion was the dominant emotion on every face for I swear a good thirty seconds. Then mother hen let loose a gunshot of laughter, triggering similar espousals from her brood. “You are a pistol!” she declared, poking me in the shoulder with a perfectly square dark-red nail, flawlessly matched by the color of her earrings, necklace and shoes. “Aren’t you?!”

I winced from the uninvited contact as much as from the sharpness of both the nail and the underlying designation her comment had labeled me with. From now on, wherever I ran into one of these women, I would forever more be known as ‘the pistol’. Having sufficiently labeled me, momma hen delegated me to lowest ranks of her order and thinking no more of me, returned to the conversation Bill and I had interrupted.

This allowed me the space to observe and familiarize myself with the dynamics of the group. Any first-year anthropology student could have identified Mrs. Joan Worth as the leader of this troop by the way all the subordinate members gauged the appropriate reactions to her non-verbal cues.

The bulk of this little community were third and fourth tier members and knew it, with one rising above the others to second-in-command to Joan. Her name was Jennifer; the others called her Jen. Only Joan called her by her full name, probably to ensure that people differentiated between them.

Jen was younger than Joan, not quite as pretty or self-possessed; but she made up for it by being bossy, nosy and loud. When Jen spoke, she could be heard forty yards away. Unfortunately, she enunciated as though nobody had ever explained to her the function of consonants; so although she was always heard, she was rarely understood.

Once implied permission had been given, the cackling began immediately. Twelve separate threads of conversation took off in different directions. All of them dependent and independent of the others, all of them expecting me to be engrossed in what they had to say, and only what they had to say. The deluge of unrelated information was overwhelming. Not to mention the touching; what was with all the touching? Did every ludicrous statement need to be accentuated with some form of contact?

If I didn’t shut down and fast I’d blow up. Giving up on feigning polite interest, instead I toyed with the sentence fragment that had run away from their conversation and was now hiding in my head. It poked around my subconscious, trying to tease a reaction out of me. Ugly as sin. Ugly as sin; the phrase stuck out its tongue at me, refusing to stand still and be examined, but also declining to quietly fade into the background. Ugly as sin. How ugly is sin, I wondered? Is it even ugly? I didn’t think so; not in the not-physically-beautiful way that they meant. Given the nature of sin, isn’t it far more likely to be lovely, alluring, tempting? Yes; I decided that sin would be very pretty indeed. It’s virtue that’s plain.

I sighed heavily, wishing I could be just about anywhere else. I hated this, all of it; the pretenses, the networking, the games, this claustrophobic feeling of being….trapped – boxed in by social protocol.

Unexpectedly, a pair of slight arms wrapped around my waist, and a sweet contralto voice whispered, “You look sad Mom. Did Bill hurt your feelings?” Out of the corner of my eye, I watched as Cora rested her chin on my shoulder, then tilted her head to nestle it on my neck. Grateful for the excuse to slip away I mumbled, “Pardon, please,” which nobody heard, as we eased our way out of the circle. I kissed the top of her head before answering, “No sweetheart, I’m fine. Sun must have been in my eyes. Are you having a good time?”

“Yeah Mom. I’m having about as much fun as you are.” We both giggled a little maliciously.

“Sorry to hear that.”

“S’ok I guess,” she offered tolerantly. “Anyway, can’t last forever. Oh, I forgot to tell you…” she let go of me, backing up a step. “You’re it.” And off she ran, past her waiting sisters, who screeched merrily and shot off in separate directions.

We played for close to an hour, the game getting more and more rowdy as the other kids at the party joined us. I finally called an indefinite time-out when Sed, catching the food table for the twentieth time, righted it, stretched his eyeballs at me, and bared his teeth.

Okay, I could take a hint. Eventually. Time to act like an adult. Feeling sure that I had made my point, I dispersed my playmates, snagged a coffee to settle my nerves, and moved into a corner of the yard, content to watch the rest of my party unfold from the sidelines. Without my disruptive influence, the event quickly reshuffled itself into a sedate and orderly gathering.

Grownups were loosely assembled in the center, socializing amongst themselves. Children were scattered aimlessly about, left to their own devices and searching for something to do. Automatically, I noted the locations and occupations of my own children.

Daphne and Melina were in the sand box, Daphne gleefully digging holes and filling buckets with moist sand for Melina, who soberly dumped, arranged and sculpted the contents.

Cora was playing an impromptu game of volleyball at the back of the yard with a group of boys about her own age. I breathed deeply and sipped my coffee. Outwardly watching my children, I let my mind drift, filling it with images of what I would be doing later when I was free to celebrate my birthday my way.

Hhhuuummmmm, happiness is.

“Penny for your thoughts,” someone prompted, playfully touching my elbow.

“Oh, it would cost you more than that,” I parried, using the time it took my companion to absorb the comment to rally what little store of patience I had amassed in my few moments of solitude. A short, older man with a basset hound face, cigarette breath and bad teeth was standing in front of me, rubbing my arm familiarly, leaning in for an even more familiar kiss on the cheek.

“Ha, haaa, haaa, haaaaa, cute,” he laughed, winking. “Happy birthday Pan! It’s nice to see you again. How old are you now, anyway?” he asked genially, as though he was an uncle I hadn’t seen in years.

“Thirty-six,” I answered, matching his tone, madly trying to recall where he knew me from. Often people I had met no more than once remembered our encounter as being an important event in their lives. I put this down to the uniqueness of my name; it stuck out in their minds, lending more weight to our association than normally.

“Wow you haven’t aged a day since we met. What’s your secret?”

“I’m a witch,” I answered matter-of-factly.

He froze for a split second. “Ohh, you, you always were a card,” he enthused, tweaking my nose. Again with the touching. “Really though, how long has it been?” I shook my head apologetically. “It was at the umm,” he snapped his fingers by his ear, as if calling forth the information, “the ummm, the July Fourth company picnic, back when Sed first started with the company.” I nodded noncommittally. “Well, let’s just say it’s been a long time,” he suggested, waving the matter aside.

We nodded at each other for a moment, agreeing wordlessly that it had indeed been a long time. Becoming uncomfortable with the silence, he elaborated, “I mean, you were pregnant with the first one then, and now you have, what, three?”

Clapping my hands together I concurred. “Yep uhn huu, three, three little girls, yup.”

“And look how beautiful they are. Boy, are you in trouble in a few years. Might want to go ahead and put the bars on their windows now, before the hormones kick in.”

“My girls know their own worth,” I replied frostily, reacting prior to thinking.

Larry was back-peddling before I’d finished the sentence.   “Ohhh, no, no, no didn’t mean it like that; I only meant, they’re bound to attract a lot of attention whether they want it or not.”

“Yeah, you’re right. I’m sorry. I overreacted. It’s not like you’re the first person to say that,” I chuckled once, hard. “Doesn’t mean I have to like it though.”

“I hear that,” he agreed, tipping his beer bottle in my direction as a sign of camaraderie. I nodded back at him and we both lapsed into silence, surveying the scene before us.

After a few moments he commented absently, “They don’t look anything like you.” Catching my half-smirk he turned red and blurted, “No offense.”

“None taken,” I reassured him with a genuine smile; it was no more than truth. Even at eight and ten, Melina and Cora were already striking. Both would definitely get taller than me, not a hard task, with lean frames and long, strong limbs. Their perfectly oval ivory-skinned faces were tinged with rose petals along their high cheek bones. Narrow noses over bow lips; Melina’s fuller, poutier than Cora’s, with the suspicion of a studious furrow forming on her brow. Both girls had their father’s hair color, medium-brown streaked with gold and bronze that glints in the sun. Cora’s so thick that a more accurate description would be dense, the bronze strands corkscrewing like copper wire. Melina’s   less compact, and feathered around her serious face.

All that being said, I worried much more about Daphne; not so much for her, but rather for those unenlightened enough to try to judge that book by its cover. Cora and Melina without a doubt attracted a lot of unwanted attention because of their beauty; but Daphne and I were something far less desirable. We are what the world refers to as cute, cunning, adorable, sweet – whichever adjective they chose to use, it all comes down to the same thing. Petite and compact, being neither stout nor slender, Daphne will be sure to inherit my curves when her body matures. Add to that a heart-shaped face, button nose, and plump pomegranate-colored lips, so bowed that they made a sharp angle on the downward curve. Not to mention the apple cheeks; that old women and presumptuous strangers could not help but pinch. The one divergence in our features was our hair. Whereas my unruly shoulder-length mop is a soft charcoal black, Daphne’s straight waist-length tresses range from of hues of palest yellow to the deep golden brown of honey in the sunlight.

Where Melina and Cora’s beauty kindles an awed ‘look but don’t touch’ sort of attention, like that inspired by master works of art, there is some magic about me and Daphne’s appearance. Our looks negate our right to personal space, and grants implied license to treat us condescendingly. Like puppies in the park, people assume we want to be petted no matter what we were doing when they showed up. No one ever stops to think that the attention might be unwelcome. And Daphne being the most independent, imaginative and scariest six-year-old the world has ever seen, has never missed an opportunity to make them regret it.

There is one feature however that we all have in common, carbon copied from my face to each of my daughters so flawlessly that Sedryck complains it gives him the willies when we all look at him at the same time. Our eyes, almond shaped, fringed in luxuriant dark lashes framing irises without a fixed color, are identical. A casual acquaintance would describe us as having gray eyes or blue or green. Only a handful of people are aware that the color is dependent on our mood, and of that handful, only the girls and I could read them accurately. It’s not as simple as gray means sad or green equals angry, a mood ring stuck in our heads. The subtle differences in shading and composition could tell a story if you knew how to read them. For instance battleship gray dispersed with green spikes indicates sadness due to disappointment; aquamarine dappled with gray speaks of loss of a precious article, and robin’s egg blue with radiating spokes of green and gray expresses excitement related to an activity.

Right now, for instance, I could tell by the streaks of brown in Daphne’s pea-soup-green irises that whoever that girl trying to face her down was, she was in for a dose of well-deserved indignation.

Crestfallen Melina was surveying the ruined half of her elaborate castle. “I worked hard on that!” she complained morosely.

“And?” the girl sneered, lifting her foot for another stomp.

Daphne glared up at the girl; the rest of her face a mask of passive indifference and calmly stated, “Wleave my sisterw awlone.”

“Make me.”

“Okay,” Daphne shrugged, standing up. Another mother might have had some qualms about their youngest daughter facing off against a proven bully twice her size. Other mothers weren’t Daphne’s mother.

“Stupid moron. You better. Get your ugly face. Away from me. Before, I mess it up.”

“Trwy it,” Daphne challenged, unconcerned. The other girl pulled back a fist as far as possible, giving Daphne ample time to sweep her feet out from under her. When she hit the sand, Daphne gave her a strong palm heel to the face. “Who’s a stupid morwon now?” Then went back to her hole, supremely unperturbed.

Wailing loudly, the castle stomper jumped up and ran to her mother. Waving Daphne over to me, I held up one hand to the mother of the bully. “I’ll handle it,” I called, in an effort to reassure. Running an assessing hand over her daughter’s body, she gave me a sour, look but otherwise let it go.

“You look more like your mother up close,” Larry observed, ruffling Daphne’s hair. Pinching the bridge of my nose, I shifted my weight to pull her out of his reach. Catching on readily, Daphne burrowed her face in my neck.

Larry, not being so quick on the uptake, pivoted with us, angling his face to catch Daphne’s eye, moving close enough in the process for me to count the pores on his shiny forehead. “So, who do your sisters take after then?” he asked. “Because it’s certainly not your daddy.”

“They’re the spitting image of Pan’s mum they are,” Sed attested, coming around from behind me to clasp hands with his colleague. “What was that all about?” he asked with false bravado, throwing a significant glance my way. But the mention of my mother had hit me like a physical blow, setting the chorus of “Fighter” blaring in my inner ears. I stared blankly back at him, confused; usually he knew better.

Misreading my tension, Larry took it upon himself to answer. “Oh nothing. Little Daphne here,” his voice went up three octaves and he reached to ruffle her hair again, “was standing up for her sister, that’s all.”

“Ahhh” Sed sighed, the inflection of the single syllable conveying at once his understanding and disapprobation. “Miss Daphne,” he began sternly, but Larry interrupted, still in that sing-song voice, now rubbing Daphne’s back in a paternal way.

“Don’t be mad at her Sed. She’s going to be a force to be reckoned with one day. I’d love to give this one a job when the time comes. Ehh, what do yeah think honey? Would you like to work for your old uncle Larry someday? Hummm? What do you want to be when you’re all grown up, anyway?”

Deliberately Daphne removed her thumb with a pop, rolling her head so as to peer up at him from under half-lowered lashes still nestled against my neck; both men watched enthralled by the charming picture we presented. Only I noticed the mischievous violet tinge to those innocently-held eyes.

“An arwcheologist Necrwomancerw,” she informed him with childlike gravity. While her audience digested this information, she explained in the same tone, “So dat aftwer I dig ‘em up I tan bring ‘em back to life, to do my evil bidding.”

Gulping hard, Sedryck turned green. I wiped a hand over my mouth to hide the smile being born there, and Larry froze utterly in place. After a protracted silence, he recovered himself enough to make a stab at polite conversation, the small tremor in his question barely discernible. “So, is your mother here today?” he tried, surveying the crowd.

“No,” I told him, cutting across Sed’s stammering reply. “Would you excuse me please?” I added, without offering an explanation, striding away as I spoke, hardly registering Sed’s attempt to salvage the moment.

Intentionally arranging my features to express censure I said severely, “Daph-o-dill, THAT was not nice.”

“Momma,” she stated, her expression dead pan, ‘It may not have been nice, but it was fun.”

We giggled together as quietly as we could manage, but it didn’t take long for us to get caught. “There you are!” exclaimed a familiar voice. Looking up, I saw May marching toward us, clearly fed up. “Enjoying your party from afar, I see.” I started to defend myself, but she waved my words away. “Let’s not get into it now. Bill says it’s time for cake and presents,” she ordered, yanking on my free hand.

“Oh well, if Bill said, who am I to argue?” I muttered acerbically, purposely dragging my feet. Ignoring me, she gave a two-handed tug, putting her weight into it. Being a good six inches taller than me, no doubt she had reason to believe that that would do the trick; instead, I flexed and pulled, slowly and steadily drawing her back to me.

“Ugh!” she complained, giving up. “That’s, not, fair. Uuurfff. Why are you so strong?

“Spinach,” I quipped.

Unamused, May fisted her hips, tilted her head intolerantly, and tapped a foot. “What is your problem?”

“My problem is, I want to know what’s going on here, that’s what my problem is. And I’m counting on YOU as my best friend to tell me.”

She blew an exasperated breath through her nose. “What’s going on here,” she said with a distinct attitude, “is your birthday party.” I scowled at her and she scowled back. “I had thought that even a hermit like you would be able to recognize the signs.”

“Come on,” I pushed, knowing that when May got that snotty it meant that she was feeling guilty about something. “There is no way this is about me. It’s bordering on ludicrous to even label this thing as my party, given that a party is the antonym of what I would want for my birthday. Especially given the fact that you’re the only person at it that I like. Now we both know that Sed, Goddess love him, is basically lazy, and strongly motivated by high profit-to-effort ratios, and this,” I waved grandly, “is getting him nowhere with me. So I reiterate; what is going on here AND how long have you known about it?”

Chewing her bottom lip, May considered her options. Catching the ‘don’t bother lying’ expression I was wearing, she elected to drop the pretenses. “Okay, fine,” she huffed, “you caught me. I have known about the party for a couple of days. But that’s it. I swear, I only got the call Thursday night; and in my defense, I did try to talk them out of it.”

“Who’s them?” I pressed.

“Sed…and Bill,” May confessed reluctantly.

Hummmm. I thought about that for a second, but it hadn’t shed any light on anything, only brought new questions. “Why is Bill involved in this at all? What’s he got to gain here?”

“I don’t know?” she answered, too innocently

“Come on May; they had to have told you something pretty good to get you to agree to this.”

Turning scarlet, May pressed her lips and rocked her head, looking anywhere but at me. “Nope, not a thing.”

A small but sharp and persistent pain had developed behind my right eye, putting me in the mood to be petulant. “I refuse to move,” I told her, “until you tell me.”

She tried one more tremendous tug before letting my hand go, her shoulders sagging in defeat. “Pan, Pan,” she wheedled. “Are you really going to be that difficult about this?”

“Depends,” I hedged.

“On?”

“The answer to my question,” I told her, folding my arms under Daphne’s bum.

May eyed me shrewdly for a moment. “Fine,” she declared, face blazing. “If you MUST know, Bill said he would consider it a personal favor if I helped pull this off, and I THOUGHT that since you are my best friend you’d, you’d, you’d…” she floundered. Her unspoken plea to not mess this up for her was deafening.

“Oohhhhh for CRYING out loud May!” I exclaimed dramatically. “Why HIM of all people?”

“Paaan,” she hissed through clenched teeth, reminding me that we were in the middle of a party. “Please,” she begged, holding out her hand.

“May, I want to go on record as saying I don’t like it.”

“Never needed you to,” she taunted, winking at me, and raising her proffered hand.

Indulging in a long-suffering sigh, I placed my hand in hers, making a show of allowing her to drag me along to the house, letting the performance drop when we made the deck. Look on the bright side, I thought, as I allowed May to guide me into the dining room, where a full sheet cake waited. If we were up to cake and presents, the ordeal must be almost over. Exuberantly I blew out all thirty six candles, wishing mightily that this would be the last birthday party I would ever have.

The “presents” were the usual assortment of childish prank things people believed someone born on April 1st would love to get. Dribble glasses, whoopee cushions, binoculars that leave a black ring around the eyes, gum that tastes like dirt or snaps a person’s finger, a t-shirt that reacts to body heat to reveal an indelicate message (from Bill of course), and the piece de resistance, a twenty dollar bill on a fishing line. With a frozen smile I thanked each gift-giver for the thought; no one caught on to the fact that the only groups that got gratitude for the physical presents were May and my girls, whom May had taken shopping. From them I received two marvelous books; a history of the exploration of the United States from May, and from the girls, Light Houses of North America. I loved them both and I told them so. “A pretty lady at the store said you would,” Melina confessed solemnly.

“Well thank you for listening to her. It’s always smart to listen to the advice of an expert.” A delighted smile lit up her face. Melina loved being told she’s smart the way a cheerleader loves being told they’re peppy.