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Chapter Five


Gnothi and I sat in silence.

The sound of graceful footsteps gently clapped away the quiet a few moments later. The woman who had been in the front of the shop earlier was carrying two large trays of colorful assorted candies. She set the trays down on a cart, and rolled the candy towards me. The wheels of the tray creaked and whistled as it moved along the floor.

"Hi, Red said you wanted a lot of candy. Well, here's a lot," the woman said. "Try the red-striped ones, they're my favorite," she smiled.

Following her recommedation, I grabbed a few red-striped pieces from the mountain of confection. I popped one in my mouth. It was good. Chewy and tart. It tasted like strawberry-rhubarb. My salivary glands kicked in and washed away the cottonmouth.

The woman looked at me pensively, as if awaiting a verdict.

"These are very, very good," I said, as I smacked and chewed.

A smile of knowing agreement broadened over her face. I hadn't noticed earlier as we had entered the shop, but she was pretty. She looked impish — like a mischievous child with short, blond hair that she brushed forward. All her features were small, and seemingly delicate, except for her eyes. She had large, radiant blue eyes that blazed above her high-set cheekbones. She looked like a cross between a fairy and a princess.

"So, you're Barnum," she said. "I've heard quite a bit about you. If you're hungry for some real food, there's a little restaurant just down the street that makes the best tapas. I'm heading over there in just a minute."

Through the glass-domed ceiling overhead I saw the sky was dark. I couldn't think of a better idea than dinner.

Gnothi rose from his chair. "Well, as good as some dinner sounds, I have an appointment I must attend to, so I'll just grab a bite on the way. "Barnum," he said as he extended his hand to me, "It's been a real pleasure. We'll meet up again soon. If you need me for anything, Red or Stella here know where to find me."

Finding that I was coming around, I stood to shake his hand. "Yes, Gnothi," I said. "It was good to meet you. There's still more I'd like to ask you, but I guess that can wait for another day."

Gnothi smiled as he turned to exit the room. "Yes, another day very soon."

"Toodle-loo," he chimed, as he vanished down the hallway.

I was standing a few feet from Stella. She was taller than I had expected. I stood just at six-foot tall, and she couldn't have been more than three or four inches shorter.

Stella looked caringly at me. "You look pretty spiflicated," she said. "Let's get some real food in you. I'm going to change out of this work uniform, and I'll meet you in the front of the shop in a jiffy."

"You mean you don't want to walk down the street in a bright pink shirt, blinding white pants and nurses clogs," I retorted.

"Hey, you're not one to talk," she laughed. You look like shit. There's another changing room right outside the door where you can freshen up. Look on the top right shelf in there — use anything you need."

She quietly clogged her way down the hallway, leaving me alone. I looked at the pile of candy which had suddenly lost its appeal. I made my out of the room and found the door I was looking for, with a sign that read, "Another Changing Room." I turned the doorknob and entered. It wasn't a large room, and was mostly filled with stacked-cardboard boxes. In the far corner was a small shower stall and a sink. I quickly disrobed and threw my clothes in a pile on the floor. The shower brought me back to life as the hot water beaded against the back of my neck. I quickly soaped up, rinsed off and turned off the shower. I grabbed a towel hanging on a rack, dried off and wrapped it around my waist. I stood in front of the sink and looked into the mirror hanging overhead. I didn't look so bad considering, but I needed a shave. I looked up to the right and saw a shelf containing a number of trial-size personal hygiene products wrapped in plastic. I grabbed a disposable razor and a tiny can of shaving cream. I had only been in the room for a few minutes, but I knew I needed to step on it.

Two minutes later I was clean-shaven. I quickly dressed. As I was hunting down a comb and a toothbrush, I spied a bottle of eye drops. A minute later, I walked out into the hall feeling like new man — with eyes that were back to brown.

I went out to the front of the shop to see Stella standing there in wine-colored velvety pants that flaired over black boots. She had on a white t-shirt covered by a worn, leather bomber jacket. She looked hip, like a designer or an artist.

"You clean up good," she said. "Red had to run out, so I have to lock up. Wait outside and give me two minutes."

I stood outside as I watched the candy-store flick off for the day. The window displays and the counters went from a neon rainbow to darkness. Stella appeared through the front door, closing it and locking it behind her.

"Shows over," she said. "Let's get some comida. It's this way."

The streets in Toland were quaint in the late-summer evening. The district had an old, urban industrial-bohemian feel. We walked past windows of small, owner-operated arts and crafts boutiques and a few galleries. The area had a quite buzz about it, like something was happening — like it was the place to be. "Here we go," she said.

I looked up to see a dimly-lit sign that read, "Curious Bull Tapas Lounge & Bar." We entered through the door and walked up half a flight of stairs into the restaurant. A waiter holding up two fingers nodded in our direction. We both nodded back in reply. We were seated at a small candle-lit table near the front window, overlooking the street. The atmosphere was festive but relaxed. Spanish music with choruses of trumpets played ambiently over the stereo system in the background. Dried flower arrangements hung from the walls surrounded by little glowing red and white lights. The feel was elegant-kitch.

"What are you hungry for?" Stella asked, as she flipped through the menu. "The empanadas here are the best around."

I laughed — not exactly being a tapas connoisseur. "Why don't you pick out something good for us," I added. "I'll eat whatever." Minutes later, we were drinking cerveza and munching on portobella bruschetta and assorted empanadas. The food and beer settled me down. I'd had quite a day after spending the night sleeping on a park bench. The high from the ganja was gone, and it was always nice to be sitting at a table across from an attractive woman.

"So, I see you finally met Gnothi," see said as she tipped back a cerveza. "He sure is a live one."

"Yes, he's quite a character," I replied. "And he seems to be a man full of knowledge and endless surprises."

She laughed. "You haven't seen anything yet," she said. "He and Red have been testing a new crop of boosters along with the movers you were in today. I've seen some things in the last few weeks that would make your head spin. Gnothi has a very peculiar sense of humor sometimes."

"New boosters," I said, puzzled.

"Boy, you really have been out of the loop for a while," she chuckled. "What's the last booster you used to move?" she asked.

"T27," I said.

Stella almost spilled her beer.

"T27!" she exclaimed. "Where have you been? The last time I heard anything about T27, it was being used in the suspended-animation sectors."

"That's where I've been," I replied. "I was in Sector Gamma."

"Wow!" she exclamined. "Red had said you'd been away, but I didn't realize it was in a non-physical sector. Did you die? Is that why you were there?"

"I didn't quite die," I answered. "But I did come close enough that it was decided that I should be suspended. I had a rare type of blood disease. One that many felt a cure would be found for in a matter of years. I was suspended and then I was removed from Sector almost 50 time years later.

"Did you remember anything about it," she asked, intriqued.

"Not really," I said. "From my point of view, I went to sleep one day and woke up years later."

"I've never actually met anyone who's been in a non-physical sector," she said. "So, you're like an iceman. Gamma was one of the first sectors.

"Yes, because of my grandfather, I guess I had a certain pull, " I replied. "I was the first patient moved to Sector Gamma. That wasn't too long after everything went ape-shit."

"Wow," she said. "You were really around for all that. And you knew Chipper and some of the first Wanderers. "

"Well," I laughed. "I guess you could say I was at ground zero for much of it."

Stella was quiet for a minute. Then she asked, "Barnum, do you believe in God?"

At that point, I honestly didn't have an answer. I believed in something — just what I couldn't quite say.



<< chapter four



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