Friday, November 30, 2018

December 2018 - Featured Story of the Month




The Shaken World


I was just starting to place my order with the barista when the most recent quake struck. I paused mid-sentence and steadied myself by putting both hands on the counter. The young cashier, a teen with her red hair cut short and a tiny stud in her nose, reached out and braced herself on the back of the display cases to either side. Between us, the computers and credit card terminals vibrated, and the tip jar rattled and shook.

When it was over—nothing serious, no damage—the barista and I made eye contact. The look in her eyes was the same as how I felt—not afraid, just flustered. Literally, shook up. This was at least the tenth mild tremor just today. These little tremblors had been ongoing for the past couple of weeks now, ever since the calendar changed to December. With each passing day, Christmas was a little closer and the quakes became more numerous, lasted longer. Coincidence?

I finished ordering my mocha and paid the girl, and then slid down the counter to await my drink. As I did, I couldn't help contemplate this spate of small quakes. I overheard snippets of conversations ongoing around me, and I could tell that others were similarly hung up on the topic. It was unprecedented. I mean, it wasn't like we lived in California or somewhere that traditionally experienced a load of quakes. This was Northeast Ohio. Lakeshore, just twenty minutes outside of downtown Cleveland. Not exactly Earthquake Central.

One of the other baristas called out my name—"Adam!"—and then handed over my mocha when I stepped forward. I took the cup and walked out into the main corridor of Lakeshore Mall. Sipping my steaming drink, I strolled through the wide corridor, packed full with holiday shoppers. I passed the long line of kids and parents queued up to spend a moment with a man dressed as Santa Claus so that the children might have their picture taken with the bearded man, and shook my head. The things that people would put up with once they had children.

I was just rounding the far end of the North Pole setup when I spotted a small kiosk tucked almost out of sight behind the cottage that was supposed to be Santa's, nestled in between two hills of white powdery faux-snow. Walking closer, I saw that it was a kiosk that specialized in Christmas decorations and trinkets. A few standing spinners were filled with tree ornaments, candy-cane shaped pens and pencils, small, medium, and large wreaths, mistletoe, and Christmas cards. Elsewhere, I saw teddy bears dressed like Santa Claus, snow globes, and miniature trees wrapped in multi-colored lights.

I stopped. Shrugged. Nothing too interesting. Just a little holiday kiosk, although—I glanced over my shoulder—kind of a bad location. Despite its placement right beside the North Pole setup, it was hidden from the view of anyone standing in line over there. Even people walking by could easily miss it. I'd nearly done so. And apparently I wasn't the only one. The mall was packed full with holiday shoppers—less than ten days until the holiday—and yet, only myself and one other man were standing here browsing at the strange kiosk.

I looked for and found the sign: Mandrake's Christmas Curios.

Stepping forward, I peered at the displayed wares. I didn't see anything unusual. It was all just standard Christmas fare.

My eyes went to the man within the kiosk. He wore a Santa hat, which flopped down to the right. His eyebrows were dark, well-defined, and met in the center of his brow, above his hawkish nose. He wore his facial hair in the style of a sinister-seeming goatee groomed to a point beneath his chin, with a greased, thin mustache extending several inches beyond his lips. He saw me and one side of those lips curled up into a smile that was almost a sneer. With the wave of a hand, he beckoned me forward.

I felt my feet carry me closer to the man and his kiosk.

"Are you Mandrake?" I asked. The man's grin now spread more evenly across his face.

"Indeed, I am," he said, giving the slight mocking hint of a bow. He was dressed in long flowing robes, which I wish I could say were Christmas-y. They were red, but a darker red—closer to the color of blood—than that shade which was commonly seen at Christmas time. A closer look revealed that his Santa hat was also this same, macabre red.

"Christmas Curios?" I asked.

"Indeed," said Mandrake, grin stretching wide for long seconds. "Is Christmas not a time of wonders and miracles?"

"Of course," I said, playing along. "But everything looks pretty standard. What have you—"

I was interrupted by the shaking of the ground underneath my feet—a fresh quake.


* * *

I reached out and steadied myself with the edge of the kiosk counter. The vibration of the tremor traveled through the surface to my fingers, and rattled up my legs, from my feet to my spine.

Within the kiosk, Mandrake appeared unconcerned. More than that, he appeared unaffected. Grinning at me, he casually stroked the length of beard hanging below his chin and arched an eyebrow, gathering my attention. When he was satisfied that he held it, his eyes swung over to the man beside me; entranced, my gaze followed Mandrake's.

The man beside me was a regular fellow. He wore a winter cap on his head—red and white, in the colors of the Ohio State Buckeyes—and topped with a red fluffball. His jacket was a heavy winter coat—the type everyone around the area wore this time of year. He looked about middle-aged, mid-forties, most likely. Just an average guy.

The earth continued to rumble.

And then I noticed: the man, like Mandrake, also appeared oblivious to the current tremor. Although the quakes had become an everyday—many times per day—occurrence, they were still unusual enough, the phenomenon recent enough, that everyone still paid them full attention. Mandrake, the strange man within the kiosk, notwithstanding. And now this man, a seemingly ordinary fellow. I looked closer.

The man in the Buckeyes hat ignored the shaking earth. And the reason, I realized, was that he was wholly preoccupied with something he held in his hand. I peered closer, noting from the corner of my eye that Mandrake's grin widened.

The man was fully absorbed in studying a snow globe. Must be a pretty amazing snow globe, I thought, to steal this guy's attention away from the quaking of the ground. Although, even as I was thinking it, I noticed that the earth had stilled.

The silence followed. A familiar silence that everyone was growing accustomed to rather quickly. The small tremblors disrupted conversations. When the shaking was over, a brief moment followed when conversation remained paused. Before things returned to normal. Life resumed.

The man watched the snow within the globe settle.

"Pretty neat," he murmured. He glanced over, saw me looking. "Take a gander at this, pal."

"What is it?" I asked.

"It's Lakeshore. Here, look." He held the globe up for me to see, rather than to take. I leaned forward, squinted. It was indeed a faithful re-creation of our small suburb. I could see the Lakeshore Beach Park and Yacht Club at one end. There was the high school, just as it appeared in real life, with baseball diamonds and a football stadium behind it. There, the sprawling commercial center which was Lakeshore Mall, where we were right at that very moment.

It was incredibly intricate, impressive in its attention to detail. I admit, I was surprised to see our small community captured in a snow globe with such exquisite artistry. The much larger, more obvious, nearby city of Cleveland I could understand, but for someone to make such a fine snow globe of our city . . . I was somewhat speechless.

"Pretty neat," said the man in the Buckeyes hat, as he held the globe up in front of me. "Right? Here, watch."

He began to shake the globe, stirring up the fine bits of white powder within, which simulated snow and gave the object its name.

The ground shifted and shook under our feet.


* * *

I stumbled and put my arms out to gather my balance. The man, as before, seemed unaffected by the shaking of the earth. Likewise, Mandrake chuckled as I gasped and strove to remain upright.

Then, as I watched, the man in the Buckeyes hat stopped shaking the globe. The ground beneath me ceased as well. The snow within the globe swirled and slowly sank down to cover once again the familiar contours of our suburb.

"Look at that," he said, sounding awed. He held up the globe, watched the snow fall as if seeing it for the first time.

I paid the man himself no attention. My eyes focused on the object in his hands. The miniature landscape of our city contained within the glass snow globe. My mind was reeling. The globe was causing the tremors. I'd just seen an obvious exhibition of its powers. But how could that be?

I reached out for the snow globe.

"Whoa, buddy," said the man. He jerked away from me, but my fingers closed around the object. "This one's mine. Get your own." He twisted and yanked the globe away.

Not thinking of what I was doing, intent only upon taking possession of the wondrous globe, I continued to struggle. My fingers closed around it again, and I pulled forcefully. The man stumbled back towards me, and then both of us had a solid grip on the globe. Back and forth we went, the glass object pulled this way and that.

Around us, I began to hear panicked shouts. I saw one of the fake pine trees, part of the North Pole setting for Santa Claus, topple over. A cloud of faux-snow dust rose up in its wake. The candy-cane shaped pole, at least a dozen feet tall, which was meant to be the actual North Pole, stood nearby, swaying.

Another quake was shaking the mall.

While I struggled to take control of the globe, I managed to glance around in awe at the obvious signs of the earth trembling. Despite what, by all appearances, seemed to be the strongest quake yet, I realized that I couldn't feel it in the slightest. My own two feet were firmly on solid ground. Such was the dissonance of witnessing the quake but not feeling it, I nearly lost my grip on the snow globe. The man in the Buckeyes hat grunted and strained, trying to wrench it fully from my grasp. I renewed my own efforts to take the globe for myself.

"Gentlemen," said Mandrake. Suddenly, the red-robed man was outside the kiosk, standing right beside us. His grin was gone, replaced by a look of genuine worry. His eyes followed the glass globe gripped aggressively by the two of us; both the man in the Buckeyes hat and I refused to let go of the object.

Mandrake cleared his throat loudly. "Gentlemen, please. Cease this behavior at once."

"Let go of my globe," snarled the man in the Buckeyes hat. He turned his head towards Mandrake, appealing to the robed man. "I had it first. It belongs to me."

"You haven't bought it," I countered. "It doesn't belong to you!"

"Mr. Mandrake," pleaded the man. "Please!"

"Whatever he's paying," I said, "I'll pay you more."

"Gentlemen," said Mandrake. He put his hands over ours, and presently the three of us were wrestling for the singular snow globe. "I'm afraid I must insist that both of you unhand the globe."

"That's not fair," cried the man in the Buckeyes hat. "I had it first."

"It's very delicate," insisted Mandrake.

Over the shoulder of the robed man, beyond his kiosk, I watched with wide eyes as the North Pole swayed one last time, and then fell with a tremendous crash across Santa's cottage. Several screams rose above the sound of snapping timber and shattering glass.

People were running; I could hear their aggravated, echoing footsteps fleeing the scene of destruction around Santa's cottage. I caught the man's eyes focused over my shoulder at something crashing to the ground behind me. Sensing that his attention was momentarily waning, I took the opportunity to strike out with my foot. The man grunted in pain and fell backwards, losing his grip on the globe.

The sudden shift in the force being exerted upon the globe caused both Mandrake and I to stumble. The earth pitched around us.

"Very good," the robed man panted. "Now you. Release the globe."

"I won't let go," I said through clenched teeth. "I want to buy it."

"It's not for sale," Mandrake hissed. "Now give it here. Before you drop it on the ground and—"

"I won't!" And as I spoke I kicked out at the robed man.

Whatever Mandrake had been saying morphed into a forced, audible expulsion of air—oof—and a pained grunt, as my foot made solid contact with his belly.

His fingers slipped off the glass globe and he stumbled backwards, settling heavily onto his tailbone on the tiled floor.

Off balance from the kick and further undone by Mandrake's sudden release of the globe, I staggered back. My arms naturally wind-milled as I sought to catch myself before I fell over backwards. As they did so, I lost my grip on the glass snow globe. It sailed several feet up over my head.

I watched it rising into the air. Time seemed to slow.

The globe made a cool arc, reached its apex, and then began a downward trajectory.

"By the Gods," cried Mandrake, somewhere on the floor to my left. "Catch it!"

I fully intended to. I wanted that wondrous object all for myself. I watched the glass globe fall, and maneuvered myself into position underneath it. The world seemed suddenly to settle into calm as the globe—no longer being shaken—floated down through the air towards my waiting, open hands.

It was mine!

Or it would have been. Except that the man in the Buckeyes hat, still intent on preventing me from getting the globe, struck with an outstretched leg. His foot caught the side of my left knee and my leg buckled. I collapsed to the ground, landing right beside him. He was struggling to his feet. I reached out with my hand, pulled him back to the floor.

All the while, my eyes never left the falling globe. Now falling well beyond my reach, destined for the hard, tiled floor.

At least the man in the Buckeyes hat wouldn't get it either.

Behind me, Mandrake muttered curses or who knows what in some strange language. It was beyond his reach as well.

Down it fell, the beautiful glass snow globe. Flakes of white swirled around the streets and buildings of my hometown, captured with impossible accuracy and detail therein.

That strange and magical globe, which could shake the very earth beneath our feet.

Down it fell.

To the hard, cold, unforgiving floor.


THE END
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