Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Return of Cassandra Todd by Darrel Nelson

The Return of Cassandra Todd
Realms (February 5, 2013)
Darrel Nelson

Chapter 1


As the digital clock sounded its invasive alarm, Turner Caldwell hit the snooze button with a well-practiced thrust of his arm. Five more minutes to sink back into his pillow, he decided. There would be time to shower and grab some breakfast before beginning his day. The jobs on his to-do list would still be there. Like they were every morning.

The alarm sounded again five minutes later, and Turner staggered out of bed, running a hand through his short, brown hair. He stretched the kinks out of his six-one frame and then dropped to the floor and did fifty push-ups. He followed this with a hundred sit-ups. He was glistening with perspiration by the time he made his way into the bathroom and turned on the shower.

He adjusted the temperature to as cool as he could stand and let the water soothe his burning muscles. The last few days had been fairly busy, and he needed to get back to the gym.

After drying off on a musty-smelling towel—he made a mental note to do the laundry soon—he put on his work clothes. As he reached for a pair of socks in his dresser drawer, his hand brushed against a book he had stashed there. Gideon’s Bible. Picking it up, he looked sullenly at it for a moment and then tossed it back into the drawer.

A photograph fell out of the Bible and fluttered to the floor. As he retrieved the photograph, his scowl deepened. It showed him standing with a group of other guidance counselors in front of a large wooden sign that read Camp Kopawanee.

He flipped the photograph over and noted the dates written on the back, denoting the four years he had worked there following graduation from high school. Camp Kopawanee was a Christian youth camp for troubled teens. Canoeing, hiking, and camping activities in the summer had given Turner a chance to develop outdoor skills, while helping the participants straighten out their lives. And in the winter he had done maintenance work, which had given him a chance to develop handyman skills. It was a great situation . . . until church budget cutbacks occurred and he lost his job.

“Laid off by God!” he muttered, flicking the photograph into the drawer and kneeing it shut.

He went into the kitchen and grabbed a container of blue raspberry protein powder. After putting a scoop in the blender, he added one cup of cold milk and made a protein shake. He studied the protein powder container as he drank the foamy mixture, wondering if he could believe what the label stated. He should have energy to spare and a smile to go with it according to the advertising.

Problem was he didn’t feel like smiling. Seeing the Camp Kopawanee photograph was a downer, and he wondered why he’d bothered to keep it. Having it around was like rubbing salt into an open wound. Still, it was all that remained of the best four years of his life.

He finished the protein shake and then gave the blender jar and his glass a token rinse, placing them in the drainer to dry. After wiping his hands on a dishtowel that hung from the handle of the oven, he headed for the door.

As he stepped outside, he paused to survey his surroundings. Morning had brought a fresh wash of color to the Mountain View Motel, a two-story structure located just off Highway 6 in Lakewood, Colorado, a western suburb of Denver. During the past two years he’d worked as the motel’s resident handyman and had begun attending college. The motel was owned and operated by Harvey and Loretta Jones, and showed signs of recent refurbishment. The exterior walls had been freshly painted, and trim had been added around the doors and windows. Sunlight glinted off the new asphalt shingles and backlit the well-maintained lawn and flowerbeds.

Turner headed for the maintenance room.

Harvey was already there, waiting with list in hand. His customary windblown appearance, magnified by his large forehead and a fringe of hair that stuck out at odd angles, made him resemble the stereotypical image of a mad scientist. “There you are,” he said, rubbing his shoulder and wincing dramatically. “I thought I was going to have to send out a search party.”

“Sorry, sir. But I got in late from last night’s mission.”

Harvey stopped rubbing his shoulder. “Not that old joke again.”

“Yep, protecting the good citizens of Lakewood from crime and danger.”

Rolling his eyes, Harvey muttered, “We should be so lucky.”

Turner traced an H on his own chest with a finger. “Handyman at your service, sir. Just promise not to reveal my secret identity.”

Harvey clicked his teeth and handed Turner a piece of paper. “Here’s today’s job list. I’d help you out but my shoulder is giving me fits. My arthritis is acting up again.”

Studying the list, Turner said, “Not to worry, sir. I’ll just grab some duct tape and chewing gum and get right to work.”

“Duct tape and chewing gum,” Harvey grumbled. “And to think I pay you good money.”

“Not to mention the free rent.”

Harvey shook his head and walked away, mumbling to himself and rubbing his shoulder.

Turner watched him go and smiled affectionately. He loved the guy. No matter how bad things were for other people, Harvey had it worse. If Turner complained of a headache, Harvey had a migraine. If Loretta had a sore back, Harvey had severe muscle spasms. In the game of one-upmanship, Harvey was a true champion.

Turner grabbed his toolbox and headed for the first job on the list. He knocked on the door and called out, “Maintenance.”

A middle-aged woman answered the door, scrutinizing Turner from head to toe.

“I’m here to fix the sink,” he said, holding out the toolbox as evidence.

“The faucet is constantly dripping,” she said. “It kept me up half the night. I have a good mind to check into a different motel.”

“No need to do that, ma’am.” He switched on his smile. “I’ll have it fixed in a jiffy.”

She opened the door hesitantly, and Turner marched into the bathroom. He noticed her husband in bed, still sleeping.

The woman followed and stood in the doorway, watching him work. Turner didn’t mind. He was used to motel guests making sure their specific concerns were addressed. Fixing the problem to their satisfaction was the key.

As he reached under the sink to shut off the water supply, he said, “The problem is, they don’t build things to last anymore, do they?”

“Isn’t that the truth,” the woman replied, glancing at the sleeping figure of her husband.

“Planned obsolescence is what it’s all about. You buy something, and it only lasts for a while before it wears out and you have to replace it. Not like in the good old days. Back then things were built to last.”
“I still use the same toaster I did ten years ago.”

“Mine didn’t last a year.” He grabbed a wrench from his toolbox. “But don’t worry about the tap. It’s an easy fix.” He glanced at her from the corner of his eye and saw her expression soften. That was important. Repeat business was good for . . . business.

By now the woman was standing over him, watching as he removed the tap, replaced the worn rubber washer with a new one, and put the tap back together. Turner reopened the water supply and motioned toward the sink. “Try it now, ma’am.”

The woman turned the tap on and off several times and nodded in satisfaction. “It doesn’t drip anymore.”

“You’ll sleep much better tonight.”

“Thank goodness.”

“Anything else I can do while I’m here?”

“No, that’s everything. Thank you, young man. You’re very good at what you do.”

“Just don’t tell my boss. He might insist on giving me a raise.”

The woman chuckled. “I’ll be sure and mention you when we check out.”

Turner picked up his toolbox. “Thank you, ma’am. You have yourself a nice day now.” He headed for the door. His job here was done.

As he stepped outside, his smile faded. Doing even simple tasks around the motel required him to be “on” whenever a guest was nearby. And that took a great deal of energy. But that’s not why he felt out of sorts this morning. No, it was the photograph. It stood as a painful reminder of where he had been and what he had lost. Now his life consisted of fixing taps, unclogging toilets, and repairing broken air conditioner units. He was cooped up in a small motel suite and attended crowded classrooms at college. But there was a time he had been surrounded by nature’s grand architecture, when a simple glance in any direction inspired awe. A time when he lived with purpose. And made a real difference. Unlike now.

By two thirty Turner had the chores on Harvey’s list completed. This included securing the handrail in the bathroom of Room 23, replacing several tiles on the backsplash in the kitchenette of Room 4, and fixing the coin-operated washing machine that had an appetite for quarters.

When he returned to his room, Turner washed up and changed into a clean pair of blue jeans and a T-shirt. He gulped down a sandwich and guzzled a glass of milk, and then headed for his late afternoon classes.

The September sky was clear and bright as the sun tilted westward. Because Lakewood has an elevation of 5,500 feet, the air was thin and shimmered like wrinkled curtains over the sunbaked pavement. The storefront windows became retina-searing mirrors.

He kept to the shady part of the sidewalk and made his way passed the Wells Fargo Bank while listening to music on his iPod nano, his backpack slung over one arm. A slender band of shade lined the south side of the street, and the foot traffic negotiated the sidewalk as if it was a narrow ledge.

A taxi pulled up in front of the bank, and a woman climbed out, followed by a little boy. The woman wore sunglasses, but Turner recognized her instantly, although seven years had elapsed. It was Cassandra Todd. He had gone through high school with her and always thought she was the cutest cheerleader on the squad.

Turner ducked around the corner of the bank. Like a detective in a dime novel, he peered around the edge of the building and watched as she waited while the taxi driver retrieved her luggage from the trunk, which turned out to be a single suitcase. In appearance she hadn’t changed a great deal and had lost none of her beauty. Straight, blonde hair touched her shoulders, and she still had her petite cheerleader figure.

She paid the fare and fired glances in all directions. Then, taking the boy by the hand, she quickly led him toward the front door of the bank and disappeared inside.

Turner let out his pent-up breath slowly. Memories resurfaced, sharklike, and razor-sharp teeth tore at the old wounds.

He was suddenly back in the high school cafeteria. The student council was sponsoring an early morning pancake breakfast, and Turner had just loaded his plate with a stack of pancakes dripping in syrup. Brad Duncan, All-American and captain of the football team, was sitting at a table as Turner walked by. Brad stuck out his foot, and Turner stumbled forward, doing a face-plant into his food.

As he frantically wiped the pancakes and syrup from his eyes, Turner saw faces contorted in riotous amusement. Brad was laughing his head off, along with the rest of the football team. People like them were on this earth to preserve the natural pecking order of things. They were at the top, Turner at the bottom. If this were a food chain, he was in serious trouble.

“Smooth move, Pancake,” Brad said, apparently determined to twist the knife after plunging it into Turner’s self-esteem.

“Pancake?” repeated one of the other football players. “As in pancake turner?”

That got another rousing round of laughter. How clever of him to make a play on words with Turner’s name.

Pancake Turner was not how he wanted to be known, so Turner quickly shrugged off the incident as if to say, “Clumsy me,” and left to clean himself up. However, Brad was not about to let it go, and so the nickname stuck . . . like syrup.

But worse than the embarrassing face-plant, worse than the nickname, was Cassandra Todd, blonde cheerleader and object of a long-time secret crush, observing the whole thing—her face the picture of pity. And every time he saw her after that, whenever she looked at him, her expression said just one thing: pity for Pancake Turner, loser of Lakewood High.

Turner was angry about the whole thing, but what could he have done? Brad was used to making mincemeat out of others, particularly on the gridiron, and being cheered for doing it. Turner couldn’t stand up to him, or he’d just be giving the spectators in the cafeteria more to cheer about at his expense.

As for Cassandra, how could Turner deflect pity? He couldn’t simply ask her to stop pitying him. Respect had to be earned. And in high school that was the most difficult achievement of all.

Turner pulled himself back to the present and shifted his backpack, fighting to suppress the onslaught of resurrected memories. He thought he had gotten over that incident, but seeing Cassandra Todd again proved him wrong.

He glanced once more at the bank and then continued on his way to classes, no longer aware of the music on his iPod nano. Time was supposed to heal all wounds. But how could it when memories kept picking the scabs?

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