Eight Precious Spiced Jewels

For this year’s Giftmas blog tour has an advent theme each participant has donated a story — one each day between now and Christmas Eve, with a special surprise on Christmas Day. Not every participant has an active blog, however, and so for those couple who do not it is my pleasure to host them here. Kevin Cockle is one of those people. I first met Kevin when I accepted his story, “Strange Attractor” for Fire: Demons, Dragons and Djinns. I later got the opportunity to meet him in person to launch that book… and totally forgot to ask him to sign my copy. Because of course I did LOL

Before we get to the story, however, a quick word about the tour, if I may. The purpose of the blog tour is to fundraise for the Edmonton Food Bank. We do that by collecting donations through our Canada Helps page which you can find right here. We use Canada Helps because it’s easy, and also because then you can give with confidence knowing that the money is going exactly where it’s intended — to help struggling people. Also, by using Canada Helps it means Canadian contributors will be able to get a tax receipt. Oh, and American donors? You get some awesome value for your money because donations are all in Canadian dollars so the exchange rate will definitely work in our favour here 😉

Finally, in addition to offering a story a day to everyone who’d like to read them, we like to reward those people who do what they can to help out. However they help out. Whether that be by making an actual donation, helping to boost our signal or just leaving encouraging comments on the stories themselves. They all help. So we’ve got a rafflecopter with tonnes of prizes. You can read the full list here but they include loads of books, critiques, a magazine subscription, dice and more.

Enter to win here:

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(If the widget doesn’t load for you click here, it will take you to the page so you can enter directly)

And now, without further adieu…


Eight Precious Spiced Jewels

Kevin Cockle

It’s a typical Szechuan restaurant, the Dragon Palace: low overhead in terms of décor; clean, but crippling, teal-coloured booths; tables topped with brown I-Can’t-Believe-It’s-Not-Wood surfaces; sizzling hot-plate noises erupting whenever the kitchen doors open; spicy aromas triggering glandular reactions in your mouth.  I love the joint – the neighbourhood’s lucky to have it.  I’ve had one of everything on the menu in the ten years I’ve lived just a few blocks away.  Through a process of Darwinian selection, I’ve whittled the list of edibles down to a few chosen favourites.

That’s my style: experiment at the start, then settle in for the long haul.

“That guy is SO not into her,” Anne says, cutting her eyes to a couple directly across the room from us.  I glance: learn nothing.  They seem perfectly happy: he a balding, fortyish, be-sweatered university prof type; she a grey haired, be-braided force of nature type, doing most of the talking.  They’re in a window-booth: large, soft flakes of snow drift down in backdrop to the scene.  “He’s thinking of some hottie in his Middle English survey course,” Anne continues, mock scandalized.  “Ooh, Tom, you’d love her – this hottie – second row, three chairs in.  She’s totally your type.”

“He’s at the university?” I smile.  See, you don’t have to be psychic to read people.  I got that one all on my own.

“Yep.”  Her green eyes flicker from table to table like hummingbirds: sampling, eavesdropping.  I’m used to it: you can’t expect to hold Annie’s attention – not with everything she’s got coming in.  She leans forward over her dumplings, clicking her chopsticks together as she watches.

It’s easy to block her – been doing it for years – ever since we met at university.  Once I knew what she was doing, there’s a Heisenberg principle involved: the thing under observation changes and becomes opaque to her.  You just need to narrate to yourself – be aware of your own thoughts and state them to yourself as though you were addressing someone else.  She can only think-in on you if you free-wheel up there, let yourself ramble because you think nobody can hear; because you believe yourself to be omniscient within your own confines.  Omniscience is like a neon ‘welcome’ mat to Annie – practically an invitation to come on in and rummage around.

Suun brings the dishes: Homestyle Fish; Eight Precious Spiced Jewels; Hot and Spicy Soup; rice bucket for two.  Anne smiles up at Suun and thanks her: only I know that Annie’s nabbing some secret or other, just because she can.  It’s like having an opposable thumb to her: go ahead and turn that doorknob, or manipulate that tool – that’s what thumbs are for.

I remember how we met – thinking at the time that this was easily the most forward chick I’d ever seen.  I was sitting in the university smoking lounge – a kind of time-capsule holdover from the seventies, complete with black vinyl mod chairs and a sunken fire pit/chimney deal.  I’m reading my Organic Chemistry text and suddenly, this body flops down into the chair beside me – the person practically leaning over into my ear.  I look up and there she is – still glowing from a swim and a steam, dressed in green sweatshirt and black dance pants, smelling faintly of strawberries.  And grinning like she’s getting ready to unleash her favourite joke on me.

I’ve seen her around, I do recognize her face.  If you’re a young hetero lad at university, and you see a girl like Annie bounce past, you make a point of remembering her.  She’s way out of my league, although university had seen some appreciation of my value over the nervy drought years of high school.  “You wanna know a secret?”  She says – I mean – she opens with The Secret.  She hits me with a ten on the Richter scale – right then and there, before I even know her name.

“You’ve been watching me,” she says, smirking with certainty.  I could have sworn I hadn’t been caught.  “Relax.  I take it as a compliment.  From you, anyway.  It matters, you know – who’s doing the looking.  I don’t appreciate stares from everyone.”

“Thanks,” I manage.  Heart.  Pounding.  This sort of thing really doesn’t happen to me, but I’m determined to play it as James-freaking-Bond as I possibly can.  “I’m flattered.”

“I know.”

“Oh, you do?  You really should work on this low self-esteem thing of yours.”

“So.  Do you?”

“Do I what?”

“Wanna know a secret?”

“Who doesn’t?”

“I can read minds.”

“You can read minds.  I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to prove that one.”

“Oh Tom,” she says, as though she’s known me forever, “it’ll be my pleasure.”  That smile of hers: I feel an honest-to-God tremor run up and down my spine at the sight of it.  Oddly enough, it’s the same quiver I get every time I hear La Marsellaise sung in Casablanca.

She goes ahead and proves up her claim with a few embarrassing revelations I’d prefer to forget.

The world tilts.  Everything that’s not bolted down tumbles figuratively onto one wall of the room.

And that was it – I mean, there was more talking and introducing, so on and so forth – but basically, after The Secret, I was reeling and not processing many of the subsequent details.  It probably took me a month to fall in love with her, and I was proud of myself for holding out that long.  But scared of her?  I was scared seconds in, and haven’t really ever shaken the chill.  That’s one of Annie’s favourite paradoxes: it’s the fear she counts on, she says, because that lets her know the love is genuine.

I’ve come to understand that she told me her secret because she’d read me and knew that I wouldn’t tell anyone else if I promised not to.  And she knew I’d promise.  And she also knew that once I knew, she wouldn’t be able to drop in on me anytime she wanted, and she knew she’d be able to trust me anyway.

I take a moment to look at her working her curious left-handed grip on the chopsticks – fumbling with a piece of baby-corn.  Long bottle-blonde hair with dark roots: makes me think of casinos, late nights, bright lights.  “Obsession” perfume: on her, it smells like chocolate.  Large, expressive eyes and delicate, arching brows.  High, prominent cheekbones and a too-cute nose: I used to tease her about technically being “cute” rather than “beautiful” – at 5’3” she’s always railing about her lack of length.  True, she lacks elegance, but her curves could warp time.  I never, ever get used to the way she looks for some reason – can never completely get past the wonder of her.

She looks up, catches me staring.  She smiles.  “Happy anniversary,” she says.

We’re not married, although we do co-habitate, and we’re not into formalitites: the anniversary dinner at our favourite joint was my idea, but there won’t be a big deal made otherwise.  I buy her something the month-of her birthday, not the day-of.  Christmas is right around the corner: we may pool funds and go somewhere.  Probably won’t shop for each other, unless whimsy strikes.

Because, the truth is, she’s not around much.  Her job – which has no title other than “consultant” – takes her around the country.  She’s like a professional networker –  again, this is essentially an opposable-thumb effect.  What else would she do?  She’s a brilliant communicator and fixer, putting people together and achieving unheard of synergies.  She works only as hard as she wants to – which winds up being somewhere in the low six figures – and the rest of the time she plays.  But don’t kid yourself: she’s not playing with me during her downtime.  She’s still got that Caribbean tan from her last adventure – a trip with someone she can think-in on, and do things to she’s chosen not do to with me.

I should be grateful I guess: Annie plays hard and she plays for keeps.  There’s that side of her that she closed off to me in the moment of honesty that defined us at the start, but it’s still a big part of her – a part I can’t access.  It’s who she is in the most fundamental sense of the concept.  And yet, I know who she is, and as far as I know, I’m the only one she’s ever told.  “We need to shut each other out,” she’ll often tease, “if we’re ever gonna have a chance to really connect.”

She loves her paradoxes, Annie does.  All part of her charm.

“Hey,” I say, suddenly tuning into a thought I’ve never had before concerning her.  Which is weird, because I thought I’d gone over and over all of them.  “Not reading me: does that mean you fear me?  I mean, not because of what I might do, but just because you can’t read me.  You’ve chosen not to.  Is that part of it?”

She smiles: thin lips; cute.  But she doesn’t answer.

Something’s off with the Eight Precious Spiced Jewels.  Not bad per-se, but different.  Like they hit it with the wrong shaker in the back.  It’s fine – really it is – but when you’ve been having the same thing for a decade, you know right away when something’s awry, and this place doesn’t miss often.

“Something’s off with this,” Anne says, frowning slightly, smacking her lips as though multiple smacks just might identify the problem.

“You read my mind,” I quip.

In university, even though she couldn’t think-in on me, Anne would do things to unnerve me.  Like the way she’d write essays.  The first time I saw this, we were in the library, sharing a table for six between the two of us.  I was hung over and didn’t need to be suffering the harsh fluorescent glare of the overhead lights, but Annie wanted company, so that was that.  She counted out ten pages of ruled 8X11 paper, all blank, onto the table.  And then – little brow furrowed, tongue pink between her lips – she flipped three pages in and wrote a word somewhere in the middle of the page.  Then she flipped back to the front and jotted down a punctuation mark, then skipped to the back to plug in a word.  On and on like that – left hand clutching weirdly and too tightly at her pen, eyes never looking up from the paper – she composed this perfectly cogent ten page argument like she was taking dictation.  No re-writes.  And when she was done, she glanced up at me with this look, knowing she’d just shared another secret with me; gauging  my reaction with relish.

I don’t know what the hell to call this ability of hers – it’s not mind reading – it’s like a tracing of how her mind is wired, and it’s not wired like yours and mine.  It’s way beyond thumbs.  It’s like a whole extra hand, growing out of her neck.

It’s hard sometimes, because my friends do not, repeat do NOT like Anne, and the more vocal among them haven’t been shy about expressing that fact.  “Jesus, Tom,” Mary O’Connor almost always gets around to saying to me, at some point in our monthly coffee get-togethers, “what are you still doing with her?”

I usually shrug or something – give a sheepish smile.  There’s nothing I can say.  To them, it looks like I’m wrapped around Annie’s little finger, quietly cuckolded, and too afraid to leave. Partially true, let’s be honest.  But we also have something unique that I can’t let go of, which my friends would understand, IF I could tell them.  And in her own way, Anne needs me – my lack of threat; my unvarying routines; my unreasoning faithfulness.  She’s the most dangerous woman in the world, hooked up with – as she’ll sometimes label me – Mr. Slippers.  Yes, I do get cold feet for some reason, and no, it’s not psychological.

Then there’s the matter of protecting my friends, which always makes me nervous.  I cringe every time one of my friends is “nice” to Anne, thinking that they’re putting one over on her.  Especially Mary, I mean – Christ – you don’t have to be a mind reader to know what she thinks of Anne.  Naturally, I try to do my visiting when Annie’s out of town, because really – who knows what the hell she’d do, if she got in the mood to do something?  If she ever had it in for you – you’d hurt.  You’d hurt in ways you never dreamed possible, from wounds that would never heal.

Suun comes to collect the dishes, asking how everything was.

“Hen Hao,” I say putting 50% of my Mandarin vocabulary out there like I’m laying a full house down on a table in Vegas.  I get a little thrill from speaking Chinese – it’s hard to explain.  “But you know,” I continue, “there was something a little different about the Spiced Jewels.”

“Whaaat?  No good?”

“No no – perfectly good,” I nod at Anne to get her agreement: she nods back.  “But it was really different – have you changed the dish at all, or…?”

“New cook,” Suun says, lips pursing like it’s just become “former cook” and I immediately regret bringing it up at all.  “I speak to him.”

“Well, but – it was good Suun…”  Too late, she’s off to the kitchen.  Seconds later we hear a burst of Cantonese like machine gun fire, and I wince.  We’re regulars – we’ve got a lot of power here.  I should’ve been more careful, but right away, I come up with a plan to fix things.

Suun comes back, finishes cleaning up: “Anything else for you folks?”

“You know,” I say, “how about two Baileys?  Annie?”

Anne looks confused.  Ten years I’ve been coming here and never ordered anything other than green tea.  “It’s Christmas,” I shrug, “or near enough, anyway.”

That’s good enough for Annie.  “Yes, Suun, that would be great.”

Suun nods, leaves.  Anne wriggles her nose: “Look at you, all unpredictable.”

“There’s a method to my madness,” I say, putting my mysterious face on.  Anne smiles because she doesn’t know what I’m thinking and she’s intrigued.

“What do you mean?” She asks, narrowing her eyes.

“You’ll see.”

Anne glances across to a foursome, smirks: I see that tell-tale light in her eyes as she picks up on somebody’s porn proclivity, or criminal alter-ego, or wife-beating temper.  Opposable thumb effect: Anne never judges anything she reads – nothing bothers her.  I’ve come to believe that’s part and parcel with the ability: if you did care, you wouldn’t – you couldn’t – have the power.  It’s either/or.  It’s another indication of how she’s wired, that lack of empathy.  She’s not psychotic, I mean, you wouldn’t call a leopard psychotic exactly, but it’s certainly right up there with that essay-writing trick of hers for eeriness.  Does it keep me up nights, when she’s asleep beside me, and I think about that aspect of her?  Of course it does.  Every once in a while.

I should leave her – even Annie knows that – though it’s one of the few things she refuses to discuss.  I know my friends are right – not for the reasons they think, but for reasons just as valid.  Another ten years and it’ll be too late for another grand romance.  The kind of romance where you’re still able to say things you’ve never said before, maybe still able to feel things you’ve never felt.  The kind of romance where you’re not only surprising the other person, but you’re surprising yourself as well.  Another ten years, and she’ll have gotten it all – all I have to give.

If I leave right now, it’s still not too late.

Did she tell me her secret, because she knows I won’t leave?

Or did she tell me her secret, because she knows I might?

Suun brings the drinks, inclining her head, smiling.  I lift my glass and gently tink it against Anne’s.  I can never get used to the sight of her.  Her green eyes hold my blue-eyed gaze and we sit in comfortable silence for a moment.

“The drinks,” I saw with a prestidigitator’s flare, “will be on the house.”

“How do you know?” Anne says, grin revealing those small, perfect, chemically-whitened teeth.

“I can predict the future,” I say.  “I’m like a human fortune cookie.”

When Suun brings the bill, Annie reaches for it and scans the list.  Sure enough the drinks have been comped.  I didn’t order the drinks for us: I ordered them for Suun, knowing she needed the opportunity to make up for the misfire on the Spiced Jewels.

Anne is absolutely delighted.  I’ve done what she could have done, only I did it blindfolded, drawing on ten years of experience and familiarity with this place.  Drawing on the empathy she lacks, and maybe needs in some curious way.  And I did it for her, as well as for Suun, and that matters to Anne.

“You’re spooky, boy,” Annie chuckles – almost a purr.

“You have no idea,” I bluff, knowing I’ve got nothing else up my sleeve tonight.


Originally published: On Spec Magazine, Winter 2006, #67, vol 18, no. 4.

 

Kevin Cockle is a Calgary based, Aurora-nominated, speculative-fiction author of over thirty short stories, whose work has appeared in a variety of genre-related magazines and anthologies. In addition to screenplays, boxing-related articles and various technical writing credits, Kevin’s debut novel “Spawning Ground” was published by Tyche Books in 2016. “Knuckleball”, a feature-film for which Kevin shares the writing credit, is in theatres now and on-demand.

 

The blog tour continues tomorrow at Cat Rambo’s website with her story, “Dark Shadows on the Earth”, and in case you missed it, yesterday’s story was “Never Too Late” by Cassandra Weir.

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