Mahogany bookcases lined the library and burgundy rugs carpeted the oak floor. A child princess, dressed in purple velvet and white lace ruffles, removed her shoes to climb the ladder that reached the top shelf. The removal of shoes outside of the bedroom meant disapproval, but Lewin the butler attended to arriving guests, so it went unnoticed.
Princess Chrysanthemum ascended, grabbing the most colorful book from the top shelf, then returned to her bedroom. She pulled the heavy curtains shut, lit the candles beside her bed and positioned herself under layers of silk and puffy down. The book opened to reveal a life of elsewhere.
The commoner knew no other life, but one of his own making. The man awoke after two attempts at the snooze button. His wife, who had made sandwiches for the children, sent one to school, nursed the baby, and prepared the third for daycare, felt it necessary to detail this chain of events to him. Her noise pressed against him as he methodically reached for the pot of coffee. Caffeine fueled him until work. Emails broke the boredom until home. The TV filled time until bed. Bed did so until work.
The princess leaned back against her pillows, placed the bookmark between the pages, and reached for the tray on her nightstand. Upon it, in individual sterling bowls, were separate food items. A chicken leg with crispy skin shining of oil and flecks of salt. Broccoli under a slice of butter. Chrysanthemum pressed the back end of the fork against it, shoving it off the plate. Cinnamon pears under brandy syrup. First, the toasted edges of the pears were eaten in small bites. Then, the pears were bit into the middle to make a white smile. Finally, she opened the hot roll, spreading butter and pear syrup onto it. She continued the story about the man and his day that didn’t contain curtsies and governesses. It had been the most exciting moment all week.
* * * * * * * * * * *
Robert Ellis Mills’ mind wandered after hitting the snooze button. He’d soon face another monotonous day. It would begin with coffee, then off to suffer the consequences of some unknown failure at work, continue in spasms of boredom, followed by the wrath of wrongdoings at home, and finally into the most blissful moment of the day, the time when he’d sleep until it started again.
He slogged to the kitchen and reached drowsily for the pot of coffee. The fragrance lifted his eyelids and undid his cynicism. He smiled at his University mug, a relic from the days of brown-suited professors, late night study sessions, and later night sessions with the curly-haired undergrad. The mug’s colors were faded, but the coffee felt alive until at least 9:45am.
Finishing the coffee, Mr. Mills expertly aimed the umbrella perpendicular to the rain and walked quickly, kicking waves onto the sidewalk.
While passing an alley, he saw something. He might not have noticed, since he passed several identical alleys every day, but the movement of cardboard over a small figure caught his eye. A thin girl, about eight years old, sat alone under leaky refrigerator boxes. The girl, in layers of wet clothes, held a delicate hand into the air, then brought it daintily to her face. The entire scene seemed so strange, he watched longer.
She said, “Excellent tea, Lewin, but p’rhaps a bit ‘o more ice cream, right?” She shoved her chin upward, shooed Lewin away, then adjusted the cardboard overhang to cover her bare ankles.
Mr. Mills shook his head, placed his hand over his wallet, directed his thoughts toward something pleasant, and continued on to work at the tallest building two blocks further.
Shirley, a heavy secretary with bleached highlights, heavily tanned skin and long red fingernails, looked up at Mr. Mills then quickly away at her computer. Peculiar. Then Daven, the sales rep. who plays a cellphone golf app with him every second hour, deliberately kept his face directed toward the desk.
Senior Manager Allexis Mearl emerged from a center hallway, black buttoned dress lifted by her hip curves as she walked toward him. “Mr. Hill, I need you in my office.”
He felt the familiar dread of yet another demeaning discussion by the boss who can’t even get his name right, and the short walk across the room seemed miles long. Robert contemplated what he might have done wrong this time then allowed his mind to take him somewhere else. He imagined himself on the beach from a photo he once saw in a magazine. A palm tree swayed in the gentle breeze. He sipped at a straw placed in a pineapple shell filled with fruity booze. His head swam and the alcohol coursed lazily through his veins. Nobody else on the beach, except the bartender, a kind brunette. “You’ll like this, Robbie,” she said as she handed him the drink. They would not have sex. That would ruin the dream. No, she would simply serve him booze and be pleasant.
Manager Mearl held the door open for him then shut it, offered him a small chair and took a much larger one behind her desk.
“Mr. Hills.” She sighed, then tapped lazily at her keyboard. “Mr. Hills.” Sigh. “You don’t even know why you’re here, do you?”
The sound of the waves made a gentle backdrop. Blue and green against the white sand. Later, he’d go out on a boat to fish. He could smell the fish in the sea and the fish cooking on the grill. He’d been here many times. Elsewhere.
* * * * * * * * * *
“Mr. Hillllllllls. Your presentation is abysmal.” Alexis Mearl looked out her window and over the city 29 stories below. Why does he do this to me? I’ve put in 98 hours this week.
She watched him and noticed a faraway look on his face. His tie sat slightly crooked and a small faded stain glared from his white shirt. Damp stains in his armpits, though he smelled like aftershave and coffee.
Does he think I’m a bitch? Well, what do I have to do to get people to work?
“You see, Mr. Hills,” as she pulled out a black portfolio and flipped to a red sticky note. “This is incomplete. You started one thought, but never finished it.” She flipped to an orange sticky note. “Here, I don’t even know what you are talking about. Are you even talking about our company?” Yellow sticky note, “This doesn’t have direction.”
He leaned forward. “Well,” he said quietly, “I was going for something new. Didn’t you want new? I thought I’d think outside of the box.” He looked away, hands under his rear like a schoolchild.
The migraine threatened to return, starting with a flu-like ache in the back of her head. She leaned back again, seeing how wrong this presentation was from what was required. He couldn’t be trusted to work on this, not enough time. She’d have to do it herself, which meant canceling her dinner date. She wanted to grab Mr. Hills by his stained-shirted collar and yell in his face with those far-away eyes and the gagging smell of aftershave Don’t you give a damn? No, you don’t. She exhaled audibly and rubbed her eyes.
“Alright, Mr. Hills. This needs work, and I’ll be making adjustments. Why don’t you work on next week’s publication some more. No thinking outside the box, just keep to the guidelines.”
Alexis needed a walk and some fresh air to inspire creativity. Thinking outside the box did need to happen and much more quickly now. Already, a feeling of guilt clouded her thoughts. Perhaps, I was a bit rough on the Hills fellow. But damn him.
Outside, the damp air massaged the ache in her head. She turned a different direction than normal, counterclockwise, to inspire imagination, but found her mind drifting addictively to someplace else.
Alexis was eight again, playing outside. Bright sun warmed her skin, and the soft grass against her bare feet felt dry. She picked dandelions and braided them into a crown for her head. Climbing a tree to an upper branch, she called below, “Oh children of the tree nymphs, go out and bring a supper of mutton and capon.” She didn’t know what mutton or capon were, but they sounded tasty from the book she read. And so the tree nymphs returned with a platter of mashed potatoes sculpted into a swan and a tray of mini-cheeseburgers. “Ah, mutton and capon. Be away with you now.” She waved the back of her hand at them, and they dutifully obeyed.
Walking through a side street, Alexis imagined the wild winged creatures, then giggled at the dream. Surely, this fantasy could last a few minutes longer.
Before returning to the fantasy, though, she heard a skittering in a nearby alley. Fearing a rat, she shuffled away from the sound. Instead, only a girl moved, a thin girl lying under a damp cardboard box, watching Alexis soundlessly. The child’s eyes were overly large and dark in her small face.
The dream of elsewhere faded, and Alexis solemnly returned to the present.