Carlo’s Castle

He had a regular heart, not broken. Whole. Left untouched since birth, Carlo’s heart pumped more than blood through his veins. Whenever he left the house – those rare occasions when survival meant sacrifice, as it often does – Carlo’s skin pulsed a sickly red, the dawn of a new day reflected off his body as if he were the sun, and the world around him the entire galaxy.

Carlo’s brief encounters with life outside meant that he had to train himself to breathe. One, two, three, inhale. One, two, three, exhale. A simple process, but for Carlo, breathing was the most difficult task. His lungs were pure, like his heart, and his throat untainted by pollution, untarnished by anything except the oxygen recycled and pumped through his fortress.

It was a great fortress, and mighty, a home which withstood tornados and thunderstorms, and once even a hurricane which ravaged the rest of the Eastern Seaboard. Carlo’s Castle, as it had become known to any who were left living (Carlo), was home to three creatures, one of whom was our great hero. Beside him at night slept a ferocious skunk – whose smell did not effect its owner’s senses – and down the hall slept a girl, no older than seven, who fell asleep long ago, and sleeps through this day. But for the warm exhalation of breath every few moments, one would assume that she had passed on from this life into the next.

But Carlo was not so pessimistic, and it was indeed this very girl who drove Carlo out into the world once a month. He cherished his monthly missions to retrieve water, and oxygen, and the medical supplies necessary to pump through his daughter’s veins, so that she could live and thrive even if she would never be aware that Carlo was a hero to her life. She would hopefully awaken one day, fresh, anew, and full of zest for a life she would never know fully, or understand completely.

For now, Carlo held his breath. He knew he had limited time before the haze which surrounded his fortress, his castle, would invade his system and take over forever, not allowing his blood to pump through his veins a moment longer. He often wondered just how many others were out there, breathing, bleeding themselves, but knew deep down that he was alone.

Carlo stumbled into the local clinic, plucking out the necessary supplies from the cabinet. He would soon have to move on to the next town, as this location was beginning to look sparse. The emptiness of the halls, the beds, and the little closets like this one left a cold rock of senselessness within him, something he did not enjoy feeling.

But for now, his daughter would sleep peacefully for one more month.

Two Halves, the Lady and the Gentleman

Mike paced, because pacing kept his mind from wandering. Right now, he needed to focus. He needed to concentrate. Tori would be here any minute, and then everything would be out of his hands, flowing in one forward movement with only a brick wall at the end of it all. They would either blast through that wall together, or he would smack his head against it and collapse to the ground, alone.

He looked at his watch: five minutes till six. Six is when she said she would meet him, and if there’s one thing Tori was, it was punctual. In fact, she often laid out this motto for Mike: “If you’re not early, you’re late.”

So where was she now?

Mike stopped to look out the window: Parking lot below, wafer thin layer of snow on the ground and across his Dodge Shadow’s windshield. He could just make out his footsteps from a half-hour ago, leading up the steps to the Upstairs Pub entrance. He stood in what he liked to call the “airlock”, the vestibule where people could shake out their umbrellas, where they would congregate while they wrapped their scarves around their necks before stepping out into the cold world beyond the door.

Inside the pub, Mike heard Charlene calling for him. He ignored her, faced the parking lot once more, hoping that he would look down and watch Tori pull into the spot next to him, get out of her car, look up and blow him a kiss. A  movie moment if there ever was one. But no car arrived.

“Mike? Anything yet?” Charlene. She’d opened the door from the bar, a look of concern on her face. Hip Dave pretended not to give a crap about Mike’s night, but Charlene understood and offered every ounce of support. She’d been through it three times before on her own, though surely her deadbeat husbands had never been this nervous.

“Nothing. She’ll be here, though. Loves the wings, you know.” Mike smiled at Charlene, followed her inside. He was starting to get restless since he stopped pacing to look out the window, and now felt that even pacing wouldn’t help the nagging feeling that something was missing.

He scanned the inside of the pub, noting that the amount of liquor hitting his nostrils was particularly pungent tonight. Old timers sat on their barstools, two empties in between each of them, as if they created the pattern and were determined to keep the space between equal, like that would make a difference in their depression; a couple of college kids at the dart board, finishing up another game of cricket as if their lives depended on the power behind each toss; and of course Hip Dave, limping back and forth behind the bar, currently cutting a lime and eyes finding the television every few seconds, no doubt keeping watch on the latest Lotto numbers announcement which wouldn’t even occur until seven thirty.

This was their place, alright, Mike and Tori’s. As he wandered to the jukebox one more time, he recalled how they met, two years ago, on a night much like this. He’d just conquered his father in a game of darts, one of the last enjoyable moments he and his father had ever shared. When his dad died two weeks later, it came as a sudden shock to everyone except Mike, who’d watched his father wither away since having his kidney removed.

This particular night, Mike let his father descend the stairs on his own. Each painful step made Mike want to run inside and strangle Hip Dave for not opening a bar on the ground floor, but he knew it would be of no use. Hip Dave’s Upstairs Pub had been around for decades — Hip Dave even claimed that his father, Strong Ron, had built it as a dedicated speakeasy above the still operating laundromat — and Mike wasn’t about to strangle the town’s staple just because his father had to take his time.

Tori was adorable at the bottom of the stairs that night, arriving with a group of girlfriends who each dashed up the steps past Mike’s Dad as if he were just a statue. But Tori had waited. She threw out her hand, bowing as she helped his Dad off the bottom step. “My liege,” she’d said, smiling the one-sided smile that Mike instantly fell in love with.

His Dad had chuckled. “Pleasure is mine.” As his Dad watched Tori jog up the stairs, he winked at Mike, and continued on to the car. Mike made “the move,” as Tori would later call it: He held out his hand to Tori as she neared the top step. “My lady,” he’d said. He’d smiled a half-smile as well, ignoring the chuckles of Tori’s friends.

“Why thank you, gentleman of the night. And what is your name?”

Mike told her, and they held hands throughout the following conversation. It was ten minutes later when his Dad appeared at the bottom of the stairs, smiling but clearly in pain, not enjoying the cold. Mike and Tori exchanged numbers, but hardly needed to. They both returned to the Upstairs Pub the next night, and once a week thereafter, always together, always in love.

Mike finally reached the jukebox, flipped through the song selection until he reached the page, the one page that mattered tonight. He flipped back a few pages, rubbed his hands together.

“Still there?” Charlene winked at him, handed him a drink with a lime in it. She’d promised him earlier that she would keep him calm, help him with whatever he needed.

Mike just nodded, sipped half his drink in a gulp. He looked up, saw Tori in the doorway. She was bundled up in her puffy jacket, pulling her hood down — the furry hood, bulky, such that when she wore it he called her the Adorable Snowman. She took pleasure in correcting him — “snow WO-man!”. She tugged off her purple striped gloves and smiled her half-smile, knowing it drove Mike crazy when he saw it.

He met her halfway, and Charlene plunked down two drinks on the table beside them. Mike kissed Tori, and she kissed him back before pulling away to apply Chapstick. “Hey,” she said.

“Hey you. How was work?”

“Let’s just say I’m glad to have the next three days off.”

“Oh yeah? That’s a nice surprise.”

“I deserve it. I’m good at what I do.”

“That you are.” Charlene arrived with their plate of wings — two-fer Tuesday — and smiled at them both. Behind her, Hip Dave stared, wiping the same glass he’d been holding since Tori walked in. The old timers at the bar each glanced around in turn, first one, then the other, then the third. Like soldiers taking shifts, one would look away, one would look down at his drink, and the third would glance back at them, over and over again. Mike almost waved them off, but decided against it. He didn’t want to give Tori any hints.

“Hey, Charlene,” Tori said, wiping the sauce from her wings on the first napkin of what was usually many, “somethin’ wrong with the board?”

Mike looked around, munching his own wing. Indeed, the kids at the dart board had stopped playing and now sat quietly, eying the jukebox over and over. Mike suddenly wanted to stand on the table and shout at everyone, “STOP LOOKING! ACT NORMAL!” But of course, that would ruin everything.

“Nah, honey, I think they’re just takin’ a rest. Right, guys?” Charlene gave the kids a look; icy, direct. At once, two of the kids stood up, going for the same handful of darts and almost knocking each other over. Charlene also wandered behind the bar and took the glass out of Hip Dave’s hands.

Hip Dave spoke up, then, and perhaps kicked Mike’s ass to get things moving out of impatience, or maybe he was just a bit more sentimental than everyone gave him credit for. “Hey, it’s too damn quiet in here! Don’t you two want some music with your dinner?”

Tori shrugged without looking up. Mike looked dismayed, but pressed her. “Come on, Tor, let’s pick out a song. It’s, you know, kind of a big night.”

She stopped, half a bite of chicken hanging out of her teeth. “Oh, right! Shit, it’s two years for us, right?” Mike felt his cheeks flush. His eyes must’ve been blaring out a siren of warning, because Tori snapped into serious-mode almost immediately. “Mike, I’m messing with you. Here. Anniversary Happy! You love do I!”

She rummaged through her purse and pulled out a small box, wrapped in gold wrapping paper. He knew what it was before taking it: The Watch. A replica, no doubt, of his father’s watch, which he’d inherited when his father died and subsequently lost during a trip to Virginia. He took the box and set it next to their plate of chicken. “First,” he said, placing his napkin on the table, “let’s pick a song.”

He stood, held out his hand. She looked at him doubtfully. “Serious?”

“My lady.” He bowed a bit, making her smile. A full smile.

She grabbed his hand and followed him to the jukebox. He guided her hand to the page-turner. He didn’t look around, but could already feel the old timers’ eyes on them, the kids at the dart board, mid-toss no doubt, watching their every move. Hip Dave and Charlene stood side-by-side, her hand on his arm, anticipating.

Tori flipped the page. Then another. She bit a piece of celery, humming, about to choose a song…then flipped again. Mike bit back a smile. Tori froze, mid-chew, a string of celery still pouring from her mouth. Her eyes widened. She turned her head slowly to look up at Mike. He continued to bite back his smile.

Tori looked back down into the jukebox at the current song selection. Buried between Buddy Holly, Pearl Jam, Weezer and Neil Young was a small box, a diamond ring poking out from the center of it. Above the ring, taped to both pages, read, “My lady, will you marry me?”

Mike blurted, “So? Will you — ” She kissed him. Celery strings mixed with hot sauce mixed with her raspberry chapstick…and then he felt her lips, and tasted nothing else. She pulled away for a brief moment to wipe her tears — “tears of joy?” he asked. She nodded. “Yes and yes and yes” — and then leaned in to kiss him again.

They laughed, relief striking everyone in the bar. The kids raised their beers and chugged, the old timers held up their glasses of scotch, and Hip Dave poured a round of shots while Charlene popped open a bottle of champagne.

“How’d you get it in there?” Tori asked, not knowing what else to say.

Mike just smiled his half-smile. He unsnapped the side of the jukebox, and the glass covering flew open. He reached in, and as soon as he grasped the ring, Tori took him by the wrist and dragged him back to their table. “Unreal,” she said, almost to herself, wiping away more tears of joy. She pointed at the box on the table. “Open.”

“I already know — “

“Trust me, you’ll want to open this. And you’ll want to laugh because…open it!”

They still laugh about it now, the two of them. Once in a while, Mike will think about how he’d rather have gotten a new watch. But then he’ll look down at his hand and see the ring on his finger, and he’ll smile — a full smile — at the memory of that day, of the double-proposal in the Upstair’s Pub between a Lady and a Gentleman, and all the years of Love shared between them.