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Penniless Hearts

Penniless Hearts


Book excerpt

Prologue

Rocks and boulders that stand atop mountains for eons eventually loosen their solid grip, tumbling down into awaiting valleys. The woman she works with would say it’s because of the stars. Things moved, and they change perspective if only for a life altering instant. Between restlessness and adventure there is a truth that calls those who listen, while fear and fatigue hold most everyone firmly in place.

Penny leaned against the kitchen counter. She felt exhaustion grip her shoulders before shooting down her spine. Simply writing the word spaghetti on a sticky note made her feel unbalanced. Beyond tired, an internal motivation kept her working, labeling the meals for her dad in a cocoon-like trance that braced and enveloped her, so she wouldn’t fall over. After the last plastic container went into the freezer, she turned off the lights and headed for bed. Unless the world turned upside down and everything changed, no one would miss her or even notice she was gone. Well, maybe Dad would miss her, she thought, as her head touched the pillow and she entered her dreams.

 

********

 

“The Princess will see you now, your Highness.” The messenger turned to lead the Prince into a massive bedroom where soft breezes lifted curtains, revealing dancing stars and a giant moon slouched low in the summer sky. Warily, the Prince entered, listening for her lyrical voice, watching for her fair skin, and inhaling the scent of her delicious, mesmerizing fragrance. The sound of his shoes echoed on the mosaic tiles and the unmistakable aroma of violets and patchouli tickled his nose. The scent drew him deeper into her luxurious boudoir, where a lone canary sang in a tiny, filigreed cage, reminding him of the longing in his heart.

“Penelope, I have come for you,” he cried out over the bird’s enchanting song. “Are you here?” His eyes glanced around the room towards the canopied bed. “Don’t worry, your father the King, knows our plans. He will escort us out of Pannonia with any belongings you wish to bring. The royal mapmaker is charting our course and planning enforcements. God has protected me in battle and I have come to claim my love. Please, my darling, do not be afraid.”

Approaching the giant, four-poster bed, he found her sobbing, huge pearl-like orbs that gently rolled down her tender rose-kissed cheeks. The sight of her pain almost stopped his heart faster than the time his stallion nearly tossed him over a ledge. No gold or silver could match the value of his beloved’s tears, he thought, looking quietly at the copper haired maiden, who would soon be his Queen.

Moist green pools looked longingly up into his warm amber eyes. “Come here,” she whispered, patting the silk covers and then clasping her hands together as if in prayer.

“Why do you cry, my dear?” He asked, kneeling down near the bed and placing one of her hands into his palm.

“I don’t want to leave father.” A tear dropped from her face to her bosom--and the Prince shuddered when it made him think of a dagger entering his chest.

“Oh, my dearest,” he said, standing up and pulling her up into his arms. “We can bring him to our kingdom.” She buried her head under his chin while he smoothed the back of her shiny hair, attempting to calm his beloved. Her sobs blended with the sound of the canary, and the loud drumming under his ribcage. “There, there,” he said, rocking her back and forth and caressing her cinnamon-hued tresses. “You’re breaking my heart, please don’t cry.”

Reaching for a lace handkerchief, she stuttered, “If…if he leaves, then this great country will suffer without him.”

The prince wiped the tears from her face and took her head between both his hands and kissed her. Full of passion, this kiss sealed them into timeless eternity, miraculously entwining their two souls forever. Minutes passed, but time stood still, until she looked up and quietly said, “The world will change because of our love.”

 

******

 

Awake, but not ready to coax herself back into reality, Penny strained her ears listening for the song of the canary. She looked towards her curtains hoping to see a breeze, but they were motionless, and the only sound she heard was the street sweeper, loudly brushing giant wheels outside.

Dad must have turned the thermostat up, she figured, pushing aside a shock of red tendrils plastered onto her forehead. Getting a jolt into the twenty-first century was difficult at six in the morning, especially after one of her dreamy, vivid fantasies. One more day, she thought, pulling back the sheets and slowly pushing her feet towards the shower. One more day….

Chapter One 

Confidence radiated from Penny Himmel, as she sailed through the front door, holding two Subway sandwiches, two sodas and chips in one hand and her purse with the airline ticket in the other. A quick glance at her Tinkerbell watch made her walk faster, into her office at The Daily Globe. After catching her breath, she noticed it was relatively quiet when she entered the cubicle area where the sales and graphic art departments merged. The sales people were out making their calls, but the top producer, Tina, had bundles of loose ends to get through before she could get out on the road to visit her customers. Seconds after setting Tina’s lunch down, she heard her cackling voice snap across the room, like an F-16 breaking the sound barrier.

“What took you so long?” she hollered, but Penny didn’t wince. Tina took two, long, elegant strides with her towering, lean legs, into Penny’s personal space. Rustling the straw out of the wrapper, she quickly shoved it through the plastic lid to suck down her compulsory daily dose of caffeine. Most of the time, Penny tuned it out, by developing a growing immunity to Tina’s demoralizing outbursts. Besides the high-volume yelling, there was the demeaning way the Amazon laughed at her hard work and told her to redo everything from scratch. Caffeine and sugar only amplified Tina’s cynical put downs but Penny had a supreme talent in pre-empting her cat-like vanity, an ability that helped her survive as Tina’s personal graphic artist and overworked assistant.

“Oh God, I needed that.” Tina exhaled, after sucking down almost half the drink and pulling the lipstick covered straw from her mouth. “Next time, get the extra-large drink,” she gasped.

Whatever. Nothing Tina could do or say would get in the way of her excitement. Tomorrow she’d be on vacation and Tina would need to learn to work with another slave for a while. Of course, it all depended on the stars.

Tina’s emotions swayed with the daily horoscope. Each morning Tina would grab The Times, The Herald and The Globe and after careful scrutiny, she’d pick the happiest, most positive horoscope as her guide for the day. If all three were less than favorable, she’d throw the papers on the floor or rant about raging sunspots awaking the Roman moon goddess, Luna. During these flagrant demonstrations, Penny felt like a turtle pulling her head into its shell, letting Tina’s ridiculous behavior flow like saltwater off her back.

Right now, they had deadlines to meet, and Penny didn’t like the pinched look on Tina’s normally sedate face. Sedate as in frozen and superior, like some strange condescending monarch ruling her own miserable universe. At least Marie Antoinette suggested cake, but knowing Tina, Penny figured she’d offer the poor masses dry bread, until lopping off their heads, while charging the onlookers admission. She was whacked.

Kicking off her pumps, Tina curled one long leg under her body in her ergonomically designed, special-order office chair. Typically tense around deadline, she said, “We have to start building that Ford ad for this weekend’s Lifestyle section, you know.” For someone who acted so superior, she sure recited the same predictable lines and she sure seemed haunted by that huge clock on the wall that frequently made her frown. Time, Penny figured, must be Tina’s main nemesis. The deranged illusive enemy that even Tina didn’t know how to manipulate.

“I do know,” Penny said cheerfully, powering up her Mac and putting down her sandwich. “Look, I already started working on it. What do you think?” Penny stared at the screen, afraid of turning towards Tina while her creation slowly emerged on the monitor. The ad portrayed a giant Ford logo at the top with a nice photographic lineup of the latest models in the middle. The only other place Penny could stare was the wall with the clock, but in its place, Penny saw a ticking bomb with red dynamite.

Pulling the straw out of her mouth, Tina loudly exclaimed, “No, Penny, that is so bo-o-ring.” Smiling inwardly, Penny thought about her life and how Tina would fall down dead if she knew the monotony and responsibility in her routine, lackluster life. “You know he wanted something exciting that jumped off the page--and what’s with the small type?”

Looking around, Penny felt self-conscious at Tina’s loud assessment of the ad. The smell of tuna filled her cubicle and assaulted her nose. It used to be entertaining, Penny thought, watching the drama unfold on Tina’s sculpted, marble-like face. Her animated expressions reminded Penny of a bad scene in a poorly acted foreign soap opera. Describing her day when she got home usually made her dad burst into fits of uncontrollable laughter. Lately however, Penny simply found her increasingly aggravating. Besides, every single ad she designed was supposed to ‘jump off the page.’

“What is this?” Tina asked, pulling a cucumber slice out of her sandwich and tossing it into the trash. “You know I like pickles in my tuna sandwich.”

“They ran out. Sorry. Anyway, pickles are cucumbers and those are good for you—less sodium,” Penny replied, feeling her shoulder muscles tightening, in anticipation of Tina’s upcoming reaction to her bold statement.

“Gross,” Tina sighed, tossing another piece of cucumber into the trashcan and staring back up at the monitor. “That ten-point type makes it hard to read,” blabbed Tina. “Delete it. Change the font or something.”

Crap, she’d never get out of here. “You don’t like the drop shadow type?” Penny asked, reaching for her soda. Deadline or no deadline, she took a quick sip.

“No, I don’t, and I don’t think the dealer will either. Geez, Penny, the customer has to be able to read the prices clearly or they won’t go buy cars.” Tina proclaimed, in her special condescending voice, making Penny feel like a child.

“Okay, okay it’s cool,” Penny said, pushing a few keys on her computer, easily changing the type. “Is that better?” She asked, holding her breath and looking up at the stupid clock that still looked like a bomb. Stopping by the travel agency seemed like a good idea at the time, but now guilt beamed down like those lights they shine into a convict’s face. Exhaling, she moved her shaking fingers across the keyboard, immediately improving the spacing. A few more hours and this will all be over, she thought, and now that she had the actual ticket, she could not chicken out.

The phone on Tina’s desk started ringing. “Tina,” Penny said, “I think that’s your line.”

“Thanks Hon,” Tina answered. She got up and stretched an elongated arm into the adjoining cubicle. She picked up the phone and wrapped her index finger in spirals around thick, dirty blonde curls with her other hand. “Advertising,” she sang in the sweetest singsong voice. “Tina Blake, how may I help you?” Ron Parrish the department manager probably wanted everyone together for a team meeting at four o’clock. Tina sighed, “Ron, you like seeing me sweat, don’t you?” Her highlighted hair kept spinning around her finger, reflecting like gold under the florescent lights. Penny knew Tina’s comment referred to the manager’s request of getting Tina back from her territory in afternoon traffic. Something Tina always thought was unreasonable. Meanwhile, Penny tapped on her keyboard straightening out the visuals and sizing the art. She knew that her chances of sneaking out early were vaporizing with every tick of the clock. “Of course, I’ll be here,” Tina answered, before hanging up and returning to her full time job of terrorizing Penny.

Chapter Two

A television commercial blared music into the quiet, unlit living room, where a new medication they were advertising apparently made a screen full of smiling sixty year olds dance like they never danced before. Carl Himmel sat alone with the shades drawn. He wondered if those pills could help him score, with a cool well-preserved ‘hottie’. Dancing had been one of his favorite things in the old days when his parents insisted it would help him meet members of the opposite sex. Which of course it did. They had sent him to dancing school so he could learn how to waltz, rumba or fox trot during a time when the twist, the mashed potato and the swim were all the rage. His legs sure knew how to hustle back in the day. All that dancing expertise going to waste, he thought, when the phone rang. Jerked out of his daydreams, he muted the television and slowly wandered into the kitchen to answer the phone. His knees creaked, his back ached but overall he felt good for his age. Flicking on the light, he reached for the receiver and said, “Hello?”

It was Penny’s boyfriend wondering if he knew where she had gone after work.

“Nope, no idea John. I thought she was with you.” Scratching his solid white head of hair, he tried remembering what she had told him last night. “Yeah son, I’ll tell her. Bye.” Slowly, he set the phone back into the dusty cradle, and observed the neglected house. Penny’s science fiction and romance novels were stacked on the kitchen counter next to a bowl of empty peanut shells. Always lost in her dreams, Carl thought, shuffling back to the couch. Reaching for the remote, he saw a floral printed shirt on one of the undercover officers dashing around on the television screen. He’d been watching a cop show. Something about the shirt almost triggered his memory and John’s pleading on the phone made him mutter aloud about ‘cursed aging’. Forgetting things and losing control were two things he didn’t like to think about and here they were facing him like Marley’s ghost.

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