Chapter One (Continued)

Megan walked across the street, down the block and into the alley before approaching the wooden stairway to her apartment on the back of an old house.  Just as she got one boot on the first snow-covered step, she heard a passing car stop and honk.

“Megan, you forgot your box.  It is your box, ain’t it?”  She looked up to see Ed holding Ian’s present.

“Damn,” she muttered under her breath.  “There are no secrets in this town.”  A little louder she responded, “Thanks, Ed,”  snatched the box and ran upstairs before he could ask any more questions that she didn’t want to answer.

Megan grabbed her mail, unlocked the door and almost tripped over her cat.  She netted a phone bill, a credit card solicitation and a birthday card from her mom with a large check inside.  “Let’s meet in Vegas,” was scribbled by her mom’s name.

“Oh boy,” Megan deadpanned to the cat.  “We can go to Vegas.  I hate Vegas.”

After feeding Kitty, Megan turned her attention to Ian’s gift.  “I am not expecting anything, really, from a garage sale.”  Megan thought to herself, “Then why do I feel like a little kid, all excited, opening this gift?”  Megan’s emotions seized the moment, wanting to believe something wonderful was in the box, but somewhere an unspoken premonition, like an uninvited party guest from her childhood,  held her back.

After the lid was off, Megan pulled back the tissue paper to see a mounted fish, a striped bass.  Underneath the fish was a small engraved brass plaque:

THE GREAT FISH

February 23, 1980

On the back was scribbled a man’s name and Chicago, Illinois.

“My birth date, ” she mumbled.  “How odd.  That must be why Ian though it was so important for me to have it.”

Megan was used to strange and useless gifts from extended family members.  It seemed that making unidentifiable home crafts was part of her collective gene pool.  Usually, she wrote the expected thank you note, left ‘the gift’ out for a week to ease her conscience for lying, and then she stuffed it in the window seat until she could drop it off at the Thrift Store, but Ian would expect to see this.  He lived nearby.  “Crap,” she said to no one in particular.  Even the cat was asleep.

She found her hammer and nails and hung the plaque over the coffee bar.  “It could be worse,” she thought, but then nothing worse really came to mind.  “Well, then again, maybe not.”  She hated the feeling of being constrained and forced into any kind of mold.  This refusal to be constrained sometimes caused her to buck the system at just the wrong time.

“You would cut off your nose to spite your face,” her father always told her when she was a child.  He would dutifully send her to her room to think about this profundity, but she had no idea what it meant.  She was in her twenties before she understood it, and by then it was too late to change.  She hated being confined, restrained and defined.  Long ago she had decided that her apartment was her turf:  a place where she wrote the definition of her own life.  The craft work of her wacky relatives would never grace the walls.  Not that Ian was a wacky relative.  Her brother and his family were the only normal people in the family.

However, something about having the fish on the wall violated a principle with her.  She could not define it, but she could feel it.  The thought of it caused her to feel rage with an intensity that startled and energized her.  She decided to work it off by shoveling off the stairs.  It would have to be done again in the morning, but she needed to get out of the room right now.

After bundling up, she slipped her keys in her pocket; this would not be a good night to lock herself out of the house.  The biting cold wind met her at the door, and snow splashed her face, making her eyes close involuntarily.  She reached for the shovel, working with a vengeance.  While she worked on the last few risers, she took a breather and looked in the window below to see Jenn had fallen asleep with her book again.  As Megan tapped on the window, Jenn’s head jerked up.  She reached her hand back to massage her neck, then she grinned at Megan and held up her book.

Megan ran around to the front door, “Come and see my new fish, my birthday fish.”

“What kind of fish is it?”

“A striped bass.”

“Where is it?  In the tub?”

“No.  On the wall.  I hung it on the wall.”

“This has to be a gift from your relatives.  I cannot believe that you, Megan Peters, hung a fish from your relatives on the wall.”

“Not just any relative.  My nephew, Ian, gave it to me.”

“I see.  That means it came from a garage sale, and you’re kind of stuck with it.  That sucks.”  Jenn offered a sympathetic look.

“My mom wants me to meet her in Vegas.”

“I can see you’re excited about that as well.”

“So far it has been a great typical birthday,” Megan said pathetically.

“You’ll love my gift, absolutely love it.”

“Let me guess.  It’s…It’s a Penguin Classic.”

“”How did you know that?” Jenn inquired, surprised.

“I am a prophetic soul, a voice crying in the North Dakota wilderness.”

“And I am out of locusts at the moment.  Would you like some honey and tea?”

“That would be great,” Megan answered.  “Just great.”

“Let’s play Scrabble,” Jenn proposed as she got out the well-worn box.  “I sense victory in the wind.”

“False prophets get stoned, and send straight to Hell forever.”

“Forever is a seven letter word, Megan, and at this moment it is worth 13 points, double word score, plus 50 for using all seven.  76 points.”

“Hell,” replied Megan.

“There is certainly room for it , but I wouldn’t advise it for you, Megan.  ‘Repent’ uses all seven letters, will yield you 50 extra points, and put you in a better place…on the board.”

“I don’t have the right letters, Jenn.  All I can come up with is ‘fish,’ for some reason, or ‘odd fish.’  I’m going to go with ‘fish’ for 10, 20 with double word score.  That is an amazing coincidence.  Is this the Twilight Zone Edition of Scrabble?”

“Nope.  Same old box.  You are falling behind, as usual, tonight.  Let’s finish another time.”

“See ya.”  Megan put on her coat and walked up the steps that were already re-dusted with an inch of snow.  After unlocking her door, she flipped on the lights.

It seemed like she saw a small movement just as she looked up, but she couldn’t identify anything.  “Just that stupid fish hanging on the wall.  That’s all.”  She felt angry all over again.

“I have to leave it up, but I don’t have to look at it,” Megan commented to herself as she picked up her favorite blue and white striped dish towel and tucked it behind the plaque, concealing it from view before she went to bed.

The end of Chapter One.

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