The Wishing Glass: Chapter 3 – Mardi Gras

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I couldn’t remember the last time I’d felt this much pain. . . every second that passed was an eternity of torment.  How long could this possibly last?

My hand trembled when I pressed it against the cold wall in front of me, bracing myself as I knelt to the ground, my knees giving out.  My free hand pressed against the area below my ribs where the pain was most intense, only to find little relief.  I pressed anyhow because I didn’t know what else to do.

In my mind, I cursed the day that Billy Thornton opened that stupid fried chicken diner down the street in flashing neon sign glory: “Bill’s Hot Fried Chicken!!” – with TWO exclamation marks.

“It’s AMAZING!” Misaki would say.

“Oh dad, this is the BEST chicken in the world!” Ayune would add.

I would get a stomach ache.  Every.  Single.  Time.

Today was different.  The pain had never been this intense, or lasted this long.  Old Billy sure outdid himself this time.  I felt like I was going to die.

It was dark outside, but I didn’t have the mind to turn on the light as I knelt there on the kitchen floor, my body completely exhausted and shivering uncontrollably.  Cold sweat dotted my brow.

The digital clock on the stove read: 5:45 AM.  Almost a full twelve hours since dinner.  I glanced at the kitchen counter where the opened bottle of pink antacid sat empty. . . next to a cup of seltzer water. . . next to a mug of what was, a few hours ago, ginger tea with lemon.  I hadn’t slept a wink.

With what strength I had left, I crawled on my hands and knees towards my bedroom, finally reaching the edge of my mattress in, what felt like, a few months later.

“Misaki,” I said, barely noticing the pleasant smell of flowers and citrus that told me she was nearby. “I need to go to the hospital.  My stomach’s killing me.”

“. . . hmm. . . can it wait?  Snow’s about to go to school, why don’t you sleep it off?” said Misaki, her eyes still closed.  She looked so peaceful.

“I don’t think so hon.  It’s been hurting all night, I can’t take it anymore.”

The room began to blur.

“Kai! . . . Kai!” Misaki’s voice.  Echoes.

I hear a car door shut.  Jangling keys.  The vibration of an engine turning on.

“. . . Please, I think my husband has food poisoning. . .”  She sounded frightened.

The world became a series of blurs, lights, voices, and shadows.  I could feel the prick of the IV needle going in my arm.  I could hear the wheels of the hospital bed clattering down the hall, every bump an excruciating hammer of pain. . . a hum and rhythmic thumping of a CAT Scan machine. . . darkness. . . a man’s voice calling my name, “Mr. Takeda. . . Mr. Takeda. . .”

The world came back to focus.

I could see my bare toes peeking out from under the thin sheet draped over my legs.  The mattress was flat and not so comfortable, but that may have been because of the pain, which was still a throbbing ache in my side.  In a chair a few feet away from the foot of my bed was Ayune, curled up asleep with a stuffed bear.  In the chair next to her, sat Misaki – her eyes looked moist against a canvas of worry that was her face.  A man wearing a white doctor’s coat sat to my right, stethoscope dangling over his shoulders.

“Hi Mr. Takeda.  My name is Dr. Sullivan.  I’m the E.R. doctor here tonight and I’m helping take care of you.”

He paused, started to speak, then paused again.

“I’m sorry Mr. Takeda, there’s really no easy way to say this.  We found a large mass on your liver and your alpha-fetoprotein tumor marker level is over one hundred thousand.  To put it in perspective, a healthy person’s AFP level should be somewhere between zero and ten.”

He looked at me.  I looked at him.  There was a look of concern on his face.  We exchanged a moment of awkward silence.

“Mr. Takeda, you have liver cancer, and it looks to be in the final stages.”  He didn’t make eye contact with me.  I didn’t take my eyes off him.

So.  What do you say to a person when they give you this sort of news?  I’d never thought about it before.

“Well,” I mustered a half-hearted smiled, “At least it’s not food poisoning.”

People say strange things when they’re in shock.  I suppose I’m no different.

In my mind, I took back every bad thing I’d ever said or thought about Bill’s Hot Fried Chicken with two exclamation marks.  I hadn’t had time to feel anything, really, except for a comforting sense of relief that the one receiving the diagnosis was me and not Misaki or Ayune.  I don’t think I could have kept myself together if it had been one of them on that hospital bed instead of me.

A nurse stepped in between me and the doctor, gave me a warm smile, and said, “You’ll be right as rain in no time, Mr. Takeda.  I’m going to give you something to help you sleep.  It’s five times more potent than morphine.”

Within seconds, my pain was but a distant memory, and a feeling of bliss came over me as my eyelids closed for the last time that day.

 

I dream of that fateful morning often. . . more frequently, it seems, as of late.  I opened my eyes and felt glad that it was over, the tension in my muscles slowly easing.

I could feel the coolness of a light breeze on my cheeks as soft blades of grass tickled the back of my ears.  I was laying on my back atop a small hill in an expansive field of dew strewn grass.  The sky was a twinkling canopy of colorful stars as clear as crystal, stretching into the infinity of space.

I found myself smiling as I laid there, still in awe of the familiar sight before me.  A few wisps of clouds drifted lazily here and there, and hovering even higher than the clouds themselves were colossal gnarled branches with giant heart shaped leaves that radiated a soft blue-white glow.  The branches themselves weaved and bloomed high in the atmosphere, kissing the edges of space, and stretched as far as the eye could see, encapsulating the entirety of the world like a dome.  Veins of metallic silver etched the surface of the great tree’s pitch-dark wood like a labyrinth of lightning that pulsed gently with light, making the sky feel as if it were alive and breathing.  Far on the horizon, a massive trunk as wide as mountains sprouted from the earth, twisting into the heavens like a coiled serpent.  Y’Drassil: The Great Tree of Life.

Ah.  Now this was a dream I could settle into for a while.  How long has it been since I’d dreamt of the Land of Eternal Twilight?  An entire lifetime of memories flooded my thoughts as a sudden pang of sadness struck my heart.  When our Spirit Box was destroyed, the gateway to A’Shara became closed to us forever.  We tried for years to find another Box, but luck was not on our side.  At least I can still admire the beauty of this magical land, every now and again, when the fleeting dreams visit me in my sleep.

I suppose it was Fate that we ended up with the Spirit Box in the first place.  I remember that day fondly.

Sort of.

It was the French holiday of Mardi Gras during our junior year of college.  My roommate, Richard, and I had driven from our economy sized “bachelor-pad” apartment in Dallas, Texas to the promised glory of New Orleans, Louisiana with visions of great food, better music, and pretty girls to help make the long road trip feel shorter.  We were barely of legal drinking age and this would be our first adventure into the world as real men. . . big boys.

Hah! “Big Boys” . . . That might work for Richard, but I’m so short that people would sometimes mistake me for a child when approaching from behind.

In fact, one year, on Bring Your Daughter to Work Day (my favorite holiday – that was sarcasm if you couldn’t see my face), I was sitting at my cubicle minding my own business when, from behind me, I heard a voice exclaim with excitement, “MOM! Oh my gosh! They let KIDS work here?!”

I spun around in my standard-issue pneumatic swivel seat to the sight of a red-freckled Amazon child — easily a head taller than me — clinging to her mom’s purse and pointing an accusatory finger directly at my chest.  The look of horror on that poor girl’s face when she saw my middle-aged man’s complexion and wrinkly eyes made the entire ordeal worth every embarrassing second, though I never heard the end of it from my female co-workers who started to giggle and pinch my cheek when they saw me at the communal water cooler.

Now, there’s no need to feel bad for me.  In all honesty, my smaller stature has never been a cause for lowered self-esteem in my own mind.  In fact, in most of Asia, I am of a perfectly acceptable height for a grown man, standing at a towering five feet, four and a quarter inches tall.

It’s only a minor detail that I live in America. . . where most people are distinctly not Asian.  Five feet, four and a quarter inches somehow feels a lot shorter here. . . and along with it, I will concede, came certain inconveniences.

For example, going to the grocery store — where all the good stuff is on the top shelf.  Bright colored labels vibrantly mocking me about just how “Top Shelf” the products are.  Don’t these marketing people understand that half of their target audience can’t reach the top shelf?  I have long resigned to a meager existence of living on the mediocrity of mid-to-bottom-shelf grocery goods.

Even worse is when I go anywhere that involves a large crowd. . . such as concerts.  My friends would return from these events with a life-altering sense of “awe and wonder” from the experience.  I, on the other hand, would only return with the fond memories of muffled darkness while being smothered in an inescapable sea of sweaty backs and smelly armpits.

So.  What does any of this have anything to do with anything?

Mardi Gras.

In my enthusiasm to experience life to its fullest and join the ranks of the cool collegiate kids whose tales of epic road trips past still echoed through the halls of the dormitories, I’d overlooked one crucial detail:  Mardi Gras was the banner event for very large crowds. . . of tall people.

It was the worst road trip EVER.

Richard seemed to have the time of his life.  Everywhere we went, pretty women in lavish feathered costumes would laugh and throw colorful plastic beaded necklaces in his direction.  He strolled down the street at his leisure, his head and shoulders like a beacon above the crowd.  The seething river of party goers parted around his large frame like water around a stone.  I was green with envy.

It was all I could do to stay in the small pocket of safety directly behind Richard as he walked.  Step a little too far in any direction and I would be swept away by the heavily inebriated mob.  I had to be careful, too, when people pressed into me while twirling and dancing.  A decorative feather or needle on a costume could easily turn into a harpoon in my eye.  Drops of cold sticky liquid constantly drizzled on my head as people raised their drinks to avoid spilling them while walking through the dense crowd — raised them just high enough. . . to spill on me.  It was misery.

At one point, I did step too far in one direction and, sure enough, was swept away by the crowd.  An eternity of sweaty backs and smelly armpits later, I managed to squeeze into the nearest shop I could reach to catch my breath.  The sounds of laughter and street music muffled to a dull hum as the shop door clicked shut behind me.  The ringing in my ears gradually subsided as my heartbeat regulated in my chest.

The shop was small and dimly lit with only a few candles of varying height casting flickering yellow light throughout the space.  Aside from the old wooden entry door, the storefront only had one large window looking onto the street.  On the inside of the window hung a tattered wooden sign that read “Madame Laveau’s House of Antiquities.”  The words looked neatly painted on by hand with a flat black paint.  Underneath the title, in smaller text, was the tagline “. . . and other curiosities. . .”

At the other end of the storefront window flashed a purple neon sign that read “HOROSCOPES.”  Every few seconds, a small electric buzz would sound, followed by the purple glow of the neon bulb.  The light made my reflection seem haunting every time it flickered on.

Hanging from the ceiling every few feet apart were various arrangements of animal skulls, bones, and feathers bound together on long fibers of twine – a few dangling as low as my waist.  Below them, on dusty wooden display tables, were an assortment of even stranger things.  Small animals and animal parts pristinely preserved in liquid filled bottles of varying shapes, colors, and sizes.  There was a fish with three eyes. . . a snake with two heads. . . an enormous scale covered toe with a deadly looking black curved claw.  I could have imagined it to be part of a dinosaur if I hadn’t known better.  What else could possibly possess such a big claw?

“I see you’ve found my Dragon’s Toe. . .” a woman’s raspy voice came from the back of the shop.  She sounded as if she had smoked heavily for ten too many years of her life.  “A fine specimen indeed. . . and quite an ordeal, that one.  It took nine of us to finally slay him, and he was only a hatchling.”

I turned towards the sound of the voice to find a withered old woman standing behind a small wooden counter in the back of the musty room.  Her dark skin was wrinkled and worn like old leather.  A colorful shawl draped her frail shoulders as she held herself up with a gnarled walking stick that reminded me more of a weapon than a tool used to prop up little old ladies.  Her long white hair was tied back in thick dreadlocks and adorned with twine and small pieces of bone, creating a stark contrast to her ebony skin.  Most peculiar, though, were her eyes that gleamed orange and yellow — vibrant like flickering flames.  Those eyes looked much younger than what the rest of her ancient physique would indicate.  Amazing what contact lenses can do to a person’s appearance, I thought to myself.

Dragon’s toe, eh?  People will tell you anything these days to get you to buy a souvenir.

“Welcome, child,” she said. “I’ve been expecting you.”

The light of the purple neon sign buzzed on as if on cue.

“I’m sure you have,” I said, giving her a wry smile.

“Ah. . . I sense doubt in your voice, young one,” she didn’t move a muscle except for a slight curve of a smile.  She seemed amused. “Forgive me, where are my manners?  My name is Marie Laveau.  You may call me Madame Laveau, and I have indeed been expecting you this evening, Kai Takeda. . . Now, child, do you believe in a little thing called Fate?”

My hands unconsciously patted my chest to see if I had forgotten to take off a nametag from my shirt somewhere along the way.  A queasy feeling came to my stomach when there was no nametag to be found.

“How. . . do you know my name?”  I asked.

“I know many things, child.  Now come closer, so I can take a better look at you.”

Reluctantly, I approached the counter.  Madame Laveau tilted her head slightly and squinted her bright yellow eyes as she studied me.  I swallowed.  She chuckled.

“Don’t look so frightened, child.  I’m not going to eat you.”

I only half believed her as her gaze made the hair on my arms bristle.

The thought of returning to the sea of sweaty backs and smelly armpits outside suddenly didn’t seem so terrible.

“Ahhh. . . yes. . . yes. . .” Madame Laveau nodded in approval to herself.  “I see it, yes.  I see it clearly. . . and I also see. . . a friend,” she paused, “Richard?”

I should have stayed home.

“Who are you?” I asked.  I could feel my heart beating in my chest. “Is this some sort of YouTube prank?”  I glanced around the room searching for signs of hidden cameras that weren’t there.

“What’s a yoot-ube?” she tilted her head the other direction, one white eyebrow raised.

“Nothing, it’s nothing,” I said, shaking my head.  This lady gave me the creeps. “So, you said you were expecting me, right?  Well, ‘Tada!’  Now what?  Let me guess, you’re going to tell me how I’m going to find ‘love and happiness’ and then I pay you twenty dollars, right?  Or were you really hoping I’d buy that Dragon’s Toe?”

“Hah!” Madame Laveau straightened back up, “What happens next depends entirely on you, dear boy.  You haven’t answered my question.”

“What question?” I said.

“Do you, Kai Takeda, believe in Fate?” she spoke slowly, “In other words, do you believe that it is your own actions and decisions that determine what happens to you in your life?  Or, do you believe that everything is predetermined, preordained, and we are nothing more than passengers on a moving train?”

Her unblinking yellow eyes met mine, waiting for a reply.  Though nothing changed in her appearance, the little old lady in front of me somehow seemed. . . dangerous. . . like a panther waiting to pounce.  The hairs on my arms felt prickly all over again.  All I wanted to do was turn around and march straight out the front door.  In fact, I tried to do just that.

But couldn’t.

I couldn’t move a muscle no matter how hard I tried.  I couldn’t even look away from the golden flames that were her eyes.  Sweat started to form on my forehead.  How was she doing this?

Of course, I thought grimly, this would be the perfect ending to the perfect road trip: murdered by Madame Homicidal Voodoo Grandma.  Why me?

“Fate, huh?” I said.  My throat felt dry. “I can’t say that I believe in Fate, lady.  If I decided to spend my days playing video games instead of going to work, then it wouldn’t be ‘Fate’ when they come evict me for not paying rent would it?  I believe that if you want anything in this life, then you have to work for it, just like everybody else.”

“Then how did I know you’d be visiting me this evening?” The calmness in her voice was unnerving.

“Because you’re insane, lady.  What do you want me to say?” What did she want me to say?  I could never understand women.

“Hah!” she snorted, “Listen, and listen well, child, for what happens today will forever change your life.  Fate is as real as the water we drink or the air that we breathe.  The part that people misunderstand is how Fate works.

“Try to think of your life as a small canoe floating on the waters of a winding river.  It starts to lightly rain, and these raindrops represent your day to day actions.  Each drop of rain creates a ripple as it hits the water.  Each ripple interacts with the next to create an ever-changing pattern on the water’s surface.  A million drops. . . a million actions. . . an infinite web of possibilities as the ripples blend together.  Most of the things we do in life are like these raindrops — small, and of little significance to the grand scheme of the world.

“Now, imagine pushing a paddle through the water to move your boat.  The paddle creates much bigger ripples. . . ripples strong enough to push your canoe in the direction that you want to go.  If you want to change directions, you only need to paddle a different way.  These pushes of the paddle represent the more deliberate actions we take in life — the ones that shape who we are and where we end up.  We tend to be more careful with these actions, as one wrong move could leave us somewhere we’d rather not be.

“Sometimes, however, an action will trigger an unstoppable chain of events to occur.  We call this a Fate Chain.  Imagine that while paddling your canoe, you inadvertently splash water onto a frog sitting on a nearby lily pad.  The frog hops out of the way and lands near a squirrel drinking water by the riverbank.  The startled squirrel scurries up a tree and knocks into a beehive, sending a swarm of angry bees into the open water to ruin your day.

“This, child, is what we call Fate.  The moment you splashed the frog, it became Destiny for the bees to swarm the open waters.  Once an event of Fate has been triggered, nothing can stop it from happening.  This event becomes locked into the very fabric of Time.

“Most actions will only trigger a Fated event moments into the future.  If I drop my teacup, it is Destiny that it will shatter on the floor two seconds later.  Nothing more.

“Some actions, however, will trigger such a long Fate Chain that the Fated moment won’t occur until somewhere in the distant future.  This is what most people think of when they say the word Destiny. . . and when a Fate Chain is so long that the Fated moment won’t occur for Ages, we call it Prophesy.

“There are those of us with the Gift of Foresight who can sometimes see these events of Fate.  The longer the Fate Chain, the clearer the visions come.  We have been called many things over the Ages. . . oracles. . . seers. . . witches. . . and though we are powerless to stop the events of Fate from occurring, there is much that we can do to affect the outcome of history.

“I have seen you in my visions, Kai Takeda.  You are Destined for many things greater than you or me. . .

“Our King is already Fated to die at the hands of the Fallen Prince, but there is yet hope to save the royal bloodline.  We must hurry.”

Without looking away, Madame Laveau’s hands reached under the counter and brought out a jewelry box of silver and dark polished wood.  A swirl of silver vines and roses surrounded a red square signet of some sort on the lid.  She placed the box on the countertop between us.

“Take this Spirit Box with you, child,” she still hadn’t blinked.  “Inside you will find instructions on how to use it.  Find me when you reach A’Shara.  Just follow the road –”

“Kai! There you are!”

I felt a rush of relief at the sound of Richard’s voice and was surprised when I could turn my head to see his looming silhouette in the small entryway.

“Geez man, I’ve been looking all over the street for you!  You could’ve just told me you wanted to shop for souvenirs.”  He paused to look past me at the countertop, “Whatcha got there?  Man, this place gives me the heebie-jeebies.”

“I was. . .” I started to attempt an explanation of the last twenty minutes of my life when I turned to look at Madame Laveau to find. . . nothing there.  My words died in my throat.

“I. . . there was a. . . did you? . . . did you see a little old lady here when you came in?!”  No more tequila for me.

“Uh. . . nope.  I did see you staring at a wall and talking to yourself, like usual, though.  Does that count?”

I was not in the mood.

“Oh, come on man, cheer up.  It’s Mardi Gras!  Let’s go before we miss the parade!” and he darted back outside.

For reasons I still can’t explain today, I grabbed that jewelry box and followed Richard out the door.

Our first journey to A’Shara was amazing.  Well, except for the second day when we were almost eaten alive by a three-headed –

 

“Kai!  There you are!”

Why does Richard always interrupt my dreams when I think of him?

“Not now, Richard.  Go away!”  I flicked my hand in the air a few times in the general direction of his voice.

“Geez man, I’ve been looking all over the field or you!  We don’t have time to be laying around, old man.  Come on.  Get up!”

Looks like I would have to handle this the hard way.  I took in one last look at the majestic canopy of Y’Drassil, then got on my feet and stared Richard square in the belly button.  I wound up my fist and released my best Bruce Lee scream as I hurled my arm forward as hard as I could.

“WoooaaaAAHhhhhh!!” I yelled.  I impressed myself sometimes.

Thunk!

Right on target.  Richard’s body folded forward as his eyes bulged from the surprise, hacking sounds came from his lungs.  I felt the sting of the impact in my knuckles.

Wait.  My gaze moved from my hand to Richard, then back to my hand in wonder.

Why do I feel a sting in my knuckles?

I’d never felt anything the other times I’d gotten rid of Richard this way while I was dreaming.  Unless. . . no. . . that’s impossible.

I realized I’d been standing there with my mouth open, staring at my hand.  I looked up to find Richard’s face had turned as red as a ripe tomato.  Some of the red even went into his eyes.  His teeth were clenched.

I suddenly had a sinking feeling. . . that this was not a dream.

 

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