Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Fiction: Curst

[I'm sick with what appears to be viral bronchitis. There's not much to do but cough uncontrollably, pad around the house, attempt to sleep -- and write. Well, it's that or lie on the sofa and hook up a chicken soup IV drip, and those noodles are murder on my veins.]

Rachel's trip to England didn't quite go as planned. All past experiences aside, I'd hoped that somehow, this time, things would turn out for her. But when she called me from Shuangliu Airport at 3 a.m., sobbing and babbling incoherently because she'd lost her passport, I'll admit my first thought was, "Well, Rach, what did you expect?" I didn't bother asking how she'd managed to end up in China -- when you've known Rachel a few years, you stop asking how these things happen. Instead I calmed her down and got her the number for the nearest consulate in Chengdu.

"I'll call Overseas Citizen Service from here," I said. "Between the two of us we ought to have you home in no time."

"Thanks, Sean," she said, sniffling. "I don't know what I'd do witho--" and the line abruptly went dead. It took me a moment to realize that her phone had probably run out of juice. And she probably hadn't thought to pack an adapter to recharge it. Or a charger, for that matter.

We decided that Rachel was cursed one Friday night a few years ago, over the course of several beers. She wasn't always like this; her childhood wasn't particularly accident-prone. But somewhere around her sophomore year of college, minor things started to happen: she'd trip and fall in the middle of the quad, show up in the wrong classroom, walk around all day with the back of her skirt tucked into her underpants. Over time it just got progressively worse.

On the day she absently walked through freshly-poured cement, she made her first appointment to see a doctor. Then she had to make another one because she'd forgotten to keep the first appointment. But after a thorough battery of physical and psychological tests, the doctors gave her a clean bill of health: no signs of early dementia, Alzheimer's or Parkinson's; no ADD; no brain cancer -- nothing medical, in short, to explain the host of small miseries that seemed to follow her like a cloud of mosquitoes.

After graduation Rachel and I ended up working together on The World's Worst Sitcom. I'd already been scriptwriting for them a couple of years when Rachel showed up looking for work. She joined the camera crew -- not what she'd hoped for when she got her film degree, but then writing for TV hadn't been my biggest aspiration. Still, I was glad to see my old partner in crime again. Back in college we'd planned on making movies together; I was going to write the screenplays and Rachel was going to direct them. But I soon discovered that just wanting to write isn't enough. You have to have something worth writing about. And when it came to worthwhile ideas, I was having almost as much good fortune as Rachel. Twenty scripts circulating and not so much as a nibble on any of them. At least I had enough credit to help Rachel get a ticket home.

The most charming -- and heartwrenching -- thing about Rachel is her eternal optimism. I know she's wanted to visit England since she was a little girl. She saved for months, recovered from identity theft, filled out a passport application but somehow lost the photos, filled out and sent in another application, lost the completed passport, and expedited yet another application so that the passport arrived in the mail the day before she was scheduled to fly into Heathrow. But she took it all in stride, because she was finally going to live her dream.

And instead she somehow ended up in mainland China. I sighed and started dialing.

* * *

"Honestly, I don't know how it happened," said Rachel. It was about a week later and we'd met for beers after work at Backlot Bar & Grill. "I know I was supposed to make a transfer at Schiphol Airport. Everything seemed to check out fine at the gate, I was tired, I fell asleep before we even started taxiing... and then the flight seemed to be taking a really long time, and..." She sighed. "I don't know."

"Well, at least you made it home in one piece," I said. "It could always be wor--"

"Sean! Shut! Up!" Rachel blurted out. "If it can be worse, I'm sure it will be eventually." She slumped her head on her folded arms in defeat, her short dark hair sticking up everywhere. (Rachel had long hair in college. At least she did before the Taffy-Pulling Machine Incident. Since then she's kept it boyishly short.)

I shut up and drank my beer. When Rachel gets morose -- which, fortunately, isn't often -- she doesn't want anyone to show her the bright side of things. You just have to let her brood for a while. Eventually that natural optimism of hers comes through.

"I want some soooup," she muttered childishly into the tabletop.

Most of the pub grub on Backlot's menu is utterly forgettable -- people come there to drink and talk, not to eat -- but they make this soup that's so addictive I swear they could sell it by the gram. I ordered two bowls from the kitchen, and soon we were indulging in the flavor Rachel craved. The world slowly grew a little brighter.

"Mmm. Soup makes everything better," said Rachel, in between spoonfuls.

"This soup does. What do you think they spice it with? Opium?"

She smiled a little. "You know, there was this noodle soup I got from a street vendor in Chengdu... see, I stayed in the airport all night trying to sleep, but it was really cold and security kept waking me up, and I couldn't read any of the signs or understand what anyone was saying. By the time I got to the consulate the next morning I was so tired and nervous and hungry I felt like dying. And of course the consulate didn't open for another fifteen minutes. I just sat down on a bench and started to cry."

"Aw, Rach."

"No, no, this is the good part. Somebody started poking at me, and I looked up and this cute little old man with a cart was offering me a bowl of soup. I tried to tell him I didn't have any money, but he just smiled and poked the bowl at me again, so I took it from him and started eating, and he sat down next to me on the bench and tried to talk to me in super broken English. But I hardly noticed what he was saying 'cause I was having a religious experience, Sean. That was the best noodle soup I've ever had in my life. Piping hot and spicy and silky, and the broth..." She closed her eyes and sighed happily. "It was almost worth it to get lost in China for those noodles. Almost."

"What, better than Backlot's liquid crack? Blasphemy."

"Seriously. Some day I'm gonna drag you to Chengdu and make you try them."

"First I'd need to get a passport." I grinned. "It's a good idea, anyway. You never know when you might need to flee to Rio."

She rolled her eyes at me and smiled. Optimism was winning out again.

"Thanks for coming by," said our surly waitress in a tone that meant 'get out.' "Here's your check... hang on... I forgot to total it up." She started patting her pockets. "Wish I had a pen."

"Wait, here you go." Rachel produced a pen from her pocket and handed it over. "Hey, before I forget to ask, there's gonna be a street fair on my block this weekend," she told me. "You wanna come?"

"Hmm. Let me check my brimming social calendar."

Rachel snorted. I guess I've gained a reputation as a workaholic. "Just come. It'll be fun. Besides, I owe you big time after that emergency ticket and everything." She leaned her head on my shoulder. "Seanie, my hero."

"Is that my cue to look manly?"

"Shut up."

* * *

"Oh, Seanie, look! Palm readings!"

The street fair had that smell nearly all southern California street fairs have -- that peculiar incense of fried dough, grilled meat, and weed smoke -- that advertises its existence long before you find it. Rachel had succumbed to temptation and bought a gyro, which rewarded her for her purchase by peeing grease all over her shirt. She promptly bought a new shirt with "I'm the one Mom warned me about" printed across the front; it was a little small, but she wasn't letting that dissuade her. She was pointing to a little fabric pavilion.

"So?"

"So let's go get our fortunes told." She tugged at my sleeve like a little kid.

"Oh, no, Rach... you don't believe in that crap?"

"No, but it'll be fun." She grabbed my hand and dragged me along. I just sighed and let myself be led on. You can't talk Rachel out of these things.

The palm reader sat behind a table draped in purple and gold, expertly crocheting a piece of lace with white thread and a tiny hook. Rachel slid onto the seat reserved for customers, and very nearly fell off, grabbing hold of the table at the last minute to right herself. The palm reader dropped her crochet and slapped her hands down on the table to steady it.

"Hi, I'm Rachel, I'm 24 and I want to know my fate," Rachel said, still a little breathless.

"Do you have a specific question in mind?" the palm reader asked.

"Um... yes," Rachel said uneasily. She glanced at me, the skeptic, and then leaned in to whisper her question. I looked away, ostensibly to give her some privacy, but I already knew what she wanted to ask. I only wondered what this charlatan would tell her.

The palm reader seemed surprised. "All right," she said, "let's take a look. Your dominant hand, please?"

Rachel put her right hand on the table and the palm reader immediately went into her mumbo-jumbo. "Ah, a fire hand," she murmured. "Active, extroverted, enthusiastic, emotional, and... somewhat accident-prone."

I tried not to snicker, but the palm reader gave me a crusty glance before turning back to Rachel. "You're in entertainment... let's see... the job's stable for now, but you're looking for something more suited to your sizable creative talents. Your fame line suggests you'll be successful in your quest. Ooh, and you have a trident mark here..." She fell silent for a moment, tracing Rachel's hand, and then looked up into her eyes. "Mind if I look at your other hand as well?" she asked. "No extra charge."

Rachel shrugged and put her left hand on the table, and the palm reader scrutinized it in silence. She matched the two hands together and compared lines. "Interesting," she said softly. "Your hands are... unusual. Not in a bad way, just unusual." Then she rubbed at her forehead. "Ugh. It's hotter than I expected today. Kinda wish I'd planned ahead and brought a drink."

"You want a Coke?" Rachel asked. "I pulled one out of the fridge just before I left." She produced a can of cola from her bag and handed it to the palm reader.

"Well, thank you," the palm reader smiled. She popped the top and took a quick sip. "Ah, much better. Anyway, as to your question. Your palms indicate that no one has attempted to tamper with your fate. In fact, I'd say you're extremely fortunate." She seemed on the verge of adding something else, but stopped short.

"Uh, thanks," said Rachel, a little bemused. "$20, is that right?"

The palm reader nodded absently and accepted Rachel's money. Then she turned to me. "I assume you're next?" she asked.

"Oh, no, really, I don't --"

"Come on, Sean," Rachel coaxed. "I'll pay. Maybe you'll find out your destiny."

She put down another $20 and dragged me onto the seat. Well, what the hell. "All right, I'm Sean. I'm 26. Don't know what to ask, so how 'bout some general information about my life?"

"Fine," said the palm reader. "Your dominant hand, please?"

Just to screw with her, I gave her my left hand. She flipped it over, examined the fingers, then gave me a look I'd last seen from Sister Agatha in fourth grade. "Your dominant hand," she said.

Ah. No calluses -- probably a dead giveaway. I sheepishly gave her my right hand and she started in. "Hmm, a forked head line. You're a writer. Let's see. Intelligent, sarcastic, skeptical, sometimes depressed. You suffer from unhappiness in your work. Have you thought about a change of venue?"

I gave her my best poker face. I've researched cold reading tactics a little bit. Any information I volunteered, either vocally or visually, she could use as the focus for more "psychic" crap. The palm reader paused, ostensibly tracing the lines of my hand, but I caught her stealing a glance at Rachel's face.

"Creativity is a limited part of your work right now," she went on. "But you need to unleash that creativity. Perhaps in concert with a friend."

"Oh, she's good," said Rachel appreciatively.

I gave her the look of death. "Buzz off, kid; let the grownups talk for a while."

Rachel stuck out her tongue at me and went away in an exaggerated huff.

"She a close friend of yours?" The palm reader nodded at the departing Rachel.

"Gee, I don't know, what does my palm say?" I asked sardonically.

She let go of my hand and folded her arms across the table, looking straight across at me. "OK, smart-ass, let me level with you," she said. "It sucks being a Cassandra. I see things I don't want to see, in the hands of people who don't believe what I tell them. I know you think this is just a game or some kind of parlor trick. But I see the truth. And I've just seen some crucial things -- in your palm, yes, but more importantly in hers."

"I'm not paying extra for this," I said.

"I'll refund the $20 if it makes you feel better," she retorted. "But first I want you to listen." She picked up my hand again and pointed to three lines in quick succession. "These marks here, and the shape of several other lines, indicate that you already have what you need. All you have to do is act."

"What I need?"

"You figure it out." She pressed on. "About your friend? She has a very powerful talent. She doesn't know she has it, and it's probably best if she never discovers it."

I snorted. "Oh, she's discovered it, all right. She's a walking bad luck magnet. If we sit here and listen for a minute we'll hear her break something."

The palm reader took a deep breath. "It's like I told her," she said slowly and deliberately. "She isn't actually cursed. But..." She paused, as though trying to choose the right words, then gave me a piercing look. "She does have a problem she can't solve on her own. You, on the other hand -- you have the power to solve both your problem and hers." She took the $20 and folded it gently into my still-open palm. "It's all in your hands now."

I pulled away from her, stood up. "Well, thanks for the cosmic fortune cookie. I hope you make some good money today."

"Just think about what I told you." She waved me away. "Go buy your friend a treat or something."

Shrugging, I pocketed the bill and went off in search of Rachel. I found her five minutes later; she was sopping wet and her left hand was dyed a rich purple.

"You don't even want to know," she sighed.

"You're right, I don't. Wanna go get some frozen lemonade?"

* * *

On Thursday, Mendel called the writers together for a talk. We were barely holding on in the ratings, but that wasn't our biggest problem. Harley Cowan, our lead actor and resident prima donna, had decided he wasn't getting paid enough per episode and was threatening to walk off if he didn't get a raise. Mendel already had us cutting corners everywhere to fit our tiny budget. He knew he couldn't ask the network for more money with our current ratings, and he couldn't think of any more corners to cut unless he let somebody go.

I told Rachel about it later, at Backlot. "I'm sweating bullets right now. I'm the youngest writer with the least seniority. If they're going to cut anyone, you know it's gonna be me."

"Oh, Seanie. They're not going to cut you."

"I'd love to have your optimism right now. I just wish I knew what to do," I murmured.

"You should quit," said Rachel.

"What?"

"Do it tomorrow. Then you'll have the time you need to write a really good screenplay."

"Yeah, and be sleeping in a dumpster next month! I'm not some trust fund kid, Rach. I have to make money if I want to live."

"I know. I'll help you out 'til the first one sells."

As long as I've known Rachel, there are still times when I wonder what planet she's from. "Are you honestly suggesting I walk away from my job?"

"Yup," said Rachel. "It's bad for you. Makes you grouchy. That's not the Seanie I know. You need to get your passion back. So tell Mendel you're going to pursue other interests, and write something amazing."

I sighed. "That's the other problem. I don't even know if there's a story in me worth writing."

"Don't be dumb, Sean. There's all kinds of things to write about."

"Such as?"

"I dunno. They always say to write what you know. Maybe life on The World's Worst Sitcom. Or write about your adventures with your fabulous friend Rachel!" she grinned.

"I might as well write about pocket lint for all the good it'll do me."

Rachel punched my shoulder. "Stop it. You are my brilliant friend Sean, and you're going to write amazing screenplays so I can direct them, remember?" She would have continued, but at that point the bartender slid her a cold beer, and it toppled off the bar and into her lap.

* * *

That night I was walking along the beach and found an empty soda can half-buried in the sand. I picked it up and brushed the loose sand off, and Rachel appeared in front of me.

"Please," she said, "I'm doing my best. You're exhausting me."

"Rach," I said, "I don't remember asking you for anything."

"But it's in your hands," she said. "Look."

I looked down to see a steaming bowl of noodles and broth in my hands.

"It is a gift," said another voice. I looked up to see a little old Chinese man pushing a noodle cart. He smiled. "You try it, feel better."

"But what if it's no good?" I asked. I turned away from him and saw the palm reader, sitting cross-legged on the beach, still crocheting away.

"Quit stalling, smart-ass," she said. "All you have to do is act." She gestured at my hands with that tiny steel hook of hers. And I was holding a new manuscript. I could feel the power of this one vibrating right through the paper into my hands. I knew it would sell. But what had I written about?  I tried to read the title, but everything started shaking and buzzing...

...and my buzzing alarm clock woke me up. Frustrated, I punched the snooze button. But ideas from the dream were still swirling in my head... all you have to do is act... I'm doing my best... it is a gift... quit stalling... it's in your hands... and suddenly it all coalesced in my head, and I sat straight up in bed. For the first time in a long while, I knew exactly what to do.

First, I called in sick. Then I fired up the laptop and started typing.

* * *

"Where have you been all week?" asked Rachel indignantly. "I was starting to think you died in your apartment."

"Got something for ya," I said, and I thunked down the screenplay on the bar in front of her. "It's still a draft, but I think this one's going to sell. Will you read it first?"

"This is what you've been doing?"

"Yep."

Rachel looked at me, and must have seen something she liked, because she smiled. "Aw, Seanie, you know I'll read anything you write. Mind if I look at it right now?"

"Please do."

Eagerly she turned over the cover sheet and began to read. And as she read I watched her -- Rachel, my partner in crime, who would do anything to help me succeed. Rachel, who must have been listening to me back in college when I wished I could come up with something worth writing about. Rachel, who had been plagued by the most horrible, wonderful, story-filled bad luck ever since.

Rachel, who didn't know she had a talent for granting certain wishes.

The palm reader was right -- it wasn't something she needed to find out, and in future I'd have to be careful saying "I wish" around her. But if my hunch was correct, both her bad luck and mine were about to change. And maybe, if I was really lucky, she'd agree to direct it.

FADE IN

SHUANGLIU AIRPORT, CHENGDU, CHINA - EVENING

A young American woman in her twenties is sitting on a bench, systematically going through her purse. She grows increasingly more agitated as it becomes obvious whatever she's looking for is missing.

RACHEL

No. No, no no. Not again.

Frustrated and afraid, she begins to cry. Fumbling through the purse again, she pulls out her cell phone to call her best friend for help.

SEAN (V.O.)

Rachel's trip to England didn't
quite go as planned.

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