“Why did we choose that café again?” The rich coffee aroma whiffed into my nostril. “Not bad, but not Starbucks. Missing something.”
I had to use the dwindling data plan to cope with a fast-building inbox, confirming the rumors of reorganization.
Five high-ranking people accepted the package. Four big names, known as the Fantastic Four from Sparker Biotech took over the vacant positions, which left one spot dangling in the air, like a bone amidst salivating dogs.
Something big was brewing at the company and being absent brought me to a precarious position.
Some people claimed the big dogs had made their choice.
They would break the news at the Town Hall meeting tomorrow.
In a crucial time when I needed to be on top of things, to be in the loop, I was here.
But my presence there wouldn’t have made any difference.
We had no clout.
“Sorry. Had to cross off Tlaquepaque village from the list and taste the local brew.” Kate took out a pen and checked her list.
“Do we always have to go by that itinerary? Whatever happened to ‘go with the flow’?”
“Just hitting five birds with one stone, Jeff.”
And I hated that. I knew she was good at multi-tasking. Not just, good, but great, actually. She could accomplish five things in an hour, like the multi-purpose cooker she loved in her kitchen, while I was stuck with one project.
A master-of-none, I wasn’t a jack-of-all-trades either. So when I discovered this new prototype, it was a stroke of luck. For once, I had an idea I pitched to my team-mates, and everyone jumped in, even Amanda the Great, who was very hard to please. She, who reinvented the meaning of pickiness, by nitpicking on other people's work and picking on people who would not listen to her point of view, took my concept and built upon it.
I slid onto the driver’s seat and started the engine. “Can we head straight to Grand Canyon now?” I could not hide the irritation from my voice.
More and more this vacation was starting to be a bad idea. It was Kate’s fault. As always.
“You asked me to plan, and now you complain,” Kate said. “Alright. No more stop-overs.” She flipped through her printed itinerary. Her watch buzzed for the nth time, almost as often as mine did.
Odd. Who would be contacting her this much, as though she had a full-time job?
“Okay, that was Sam.”
“Huh?” Were my thoughts loud enough for her to hear?
She had once said, ‘if action speaks louder than words, thoughts speak loudest in this supernatural realm called Liminal Space’.
That space was supposedly the bridge between heaven and earth, like Jacob’s ladder, a threshold between the natural and the supernatural.
That Sam buddy of hers had watched too many Twilight Zone episodes to come up with out-of-this-world concepts.
“I asked for other good dining places,” Kate said.
“Sam gave me Plan B just in case something comes up. Bright Angel restaurant.”
She glanced at her watch. “Sunset is at 6:32 pm. Cutting it close. Our reservation at El Tovar is at 7 pm.”
“Hope you made an appointment with the sun. Might set early or late.”
“I would if I could. Funny. Har-har.” Her face did not look amused at all.
“Your itinerary is giving me the ulcers,” I said.
“Just go with the flow.”
There it was, the rule that only catered to her needs. I sighed and steered the car back on the road. “So what route did you take?” she said. “I gave you three.”
“You said two lead to the west entrance, the common path where more people go. The eastern side is less crowded?”
“Yes. The shuttle bus doesn’t go there. We can view the sunset at Lipan Point although the west—“
“Let’s take the road less traveled,” I said. The less crowded the area, the faster the turn-over for photo shoots. The sun cannot wait for Kate to make the perfect set-up. It’ll disappear in the horizon, whether she was ready or not. At 6:32 pm.
“Why, Jeff, just when I thought you had become predictable, you throw me your wild side. Must be that power nap in the chapel. Sure did boost your spirit.”
“Or maybe that coffee had more caffeine in it. Whatever.”
Always attributing everything to divine intervention, that was Kate. Me? When things fall into place, it was pure coincidence, if not a product of careful planning.
Or the conspiracy of the universe. That would be the closest supernatural intervention I could accept at the moment.
My mind cleared as the scenery changed from bustling activity to stark aridity. The highway stretched to infinity and intersected beyond the horizon.
Miles and miles of straight line in the midst of a vast circle. My eyes grew heavy staring at the tapering road leading to a distant point like a pencil and its pointed lead. The image hypnotized me. Where was the pencil pointing? A tunnel? Like the hole of a sharpener. Pencil moving into the sharpener. Then blackness. Trapped.
My head bobbed almost hitting the steering wheel. My heart rate jumped a tad and settled back at the sight of the long road ahead.
Did I dream while driving? I shook my head and exhaled forcibly, hoping to blow off the cobweb of sleepiness encircling my brain.
The pencil stuck inside the sharpener haunted me like an ominous sign. Two dreams. What did it mean? I had never been superstitious, yet even the most scientific mind can discern a beginning pattern and be suspicious.
Kate must have triggered it when she mentioned sharpening my writing pencil. Power of suggestion. That much was obvious.
Above the horizon, nimbus clouds loomed and made the surroundings bleak. No rain, please, I mumbled.
The sky thundered in reply.
I prayed for a small miracle, and I get an instant no for an answer. Wasn’t that clear enough? Even Mother Earth was conspiring against my favor.
The lightning struck against the dark canvass. What little wings of enthusiasm I had for this trip flew out of the window.
The mountains loomed beyond, surrounding me in a tight embrace. So tight, I could not breathe. Something was waiting beyond the mountains, I could tell.
Something threatening. Ominous. My gut instinct had never failed.
I turned up the air-conditioner to a blasting intensity of five. The sound blended with my muddled thoughts, like a small whirlwind gathering momentum.
The more I drove into the dark tunnel of gray sky surrounded by even grayer mountains, the harder I stepped on the accelerator. I felt like the pencil heading into the sharpener’s hole. I had to escape this growing sense of claustrophobia. A choking cocoon.
“Huh!” Kate gasped.
“What?” I decelerated.
She turned right and left. “Sorry, I fell asleep. I thought I was in a raging storm.”
“How far still?”
“Another hour. I hope it doesn’t rain.”
And raindrops fell like pebbles on the windshield. “Great,” I muttered, turning on the wiper. It squeaked in protest from being roused out of its inactivity.
“You didn’t pray early enough.”
“Yes, I did. And the prayer landed on deaf ears or blown by the desert wind.”
She put her palms together and leaned towards the windshield, her eyes turned upwards. “Lord, please make the rain stop. In Jesus’ name…”
She looked like a child begging for lollipop then she tapped my shoulder. “Say, amen.”
“Where two or three are gathered in Jesus’ name, miracles happen.” She smiled and settled back on her seat, and then perked up, pointing towards the road. “Look! Answered prayer. Thank you, Lord.”
The dark clouds ahead had parted to reveal bright blue sky.
For all my skepticism, I had to admit the scene looked miraculous.
“See. The product of one heart and mind.”
One heart and mind. I smirked. True, I desired for the rain to stop. But patches of weather inconsistencies often happened in the desert. Nothing supernatural there, but let Kate bask in her miracle. I was in no mood to douse her faith with a pail of mud water. My thoughts were murky enough.
An hour more and we approached the edge of the desert then entered the plusher mountainous regions.
The sun had started its fast descent, and long mountain shadows fell on the desert as we drove past.
“Almost there. What’s the ETA from the GPS?” Kate said.
“Expected time of arrival is 6:30 pm.”
“Girls!” She clapped. “Gather your belongings now. As soon as we park, hop off the car—”
Moans and groans erupted from behind me.
“It’s alright, Kate. We got 30 more minutes to go.”
“Oh, you don’t know these girls. We’d be out, and they’d still be scampering for their shoes.”
And thirty minutes later, her prediction came true. After throwing me a told-you-so glare, she headed to the rim where some ten tourists stood, leaving me and the girls in the parking lot.
I walked to where she had planted her tripod.
Capturing the burst of red and yellow flames, she was unmindful of me.
And she had been for the past month...unmindful of my misery...while she rediscovered and pursued her passion for photography.
For all her promotional talk about the sunset, it did not live up to my expectations. I had better sunsets at Manila Bay and Hawaii.
“Dad, please lock the car.” Sarah joined me and watched the last few tails of color on the horizon.
“Oh well, you missed the height of her standing ovation.” Kate gestured at the dark mountains.
“Smile and light up the night.” She snapped three photos of the girls and me, peered at the camera and grimaced. “Bad lighting. C’mon, before it gets dark.”
But it was pitched dark by the time we got to the junction where orange cones and construction banners decorated the streets.
“What’s going on here?” I said.
“Oh, I read that they were doing some work on this side.”
I turned to follow the detour signs.
“Recalculating,” the GPS sounded. Another turn and the GPS alerted again.
“Turn off the GPS. Just follow the signs,” Kate said.
“Well, we don’t know if the signs will lead to El Tovar.”
After much argument, and turning, and recalculating, we finally arrived close to 8 pm.
We entered the El Tovar hotel that looked like a log cabin. Wooden benches with back and armrests lay scattered at the lobby.
Kate hurried to the reception area of the restaurant while I trailed behind. I stopped at a distance when I saw her return, frowning
She held out the black square pager. “They said 30 minutes.”
“Mom, I’m hungry!” Annie said.
“What parasite do you harbor in your tummy?” She took out a bag of trail mix. “That should keep your lion from growling. Learn to tame it, or it will tame you.”
“Let’s go to the gift shop. You and the girls can each grab one souvenir item,” I said. From experience, this was the most effective way to control a brewing feminine hysteria that could lead to a full-blown soap opera.
Annie beamed and kissed me. Sarah was gone before I even finished.
Kate gave me a pointed look. “You spoil them.”
I shrugged. The tactic worked. I had thrown a bushel of water to a burning bush.
We headed into the gift shop and browsed around.
Later, I joined Kate who was reading a book, Over the Edge: Death in Grand Canyon.
“Look at this,” she said. “It’s horrible. So many fatalities, often caused by something stupid as taking a selfie and losing their footing, or sitting on the edge watching the sunset and getting dizzy when they stand up.”
I took the book and read the part where a father played a prank with her daughter by pretending to fall back to an unseen lower ledge, only to lose his balance and catapult beyond the edge into the depths of the canyon. Dead.
Nerve critters crawled down my back. Shivering, I shoved the book on the shelf. “Creepy,” I said.
Annie appeared beside Kate. “I thought you made reservations, Mom. Why did they make us wait?” Annie’s face was so long, it looked like her stretched toy slimes.
“Mother Goose and her golden eggs!” Kate gave her a dagger look. “Thirty minutes and you make it sound like forever. This Google generation.” She waved her hand up in the air. “Wants everything to happen at a click of a mouse. Be patient. Good things happen to those who wait.”
My phone rang.
“Who’s that?” Kate peered on my phone screen.
Amanda. I raised my index finger at Kate and walked towards the lobby. “What’s up?”
“We need to get that prototype design completed and written by Monday before this reorg hits.” Her smoker’s voice grated in my ears. I held the phone two inches away.
“I don’t have my laptop with me.” I stared at my fuzzy reflection on the store window. Yet all I could imagine was Amanda’s cold and venomous eyes on the other side of the line. Her face would be stone-hard and cradled by a nest of hair, which I heard would take her an hour a day to style. A total waste of time because the resultant bad-hair-day look was not worth all the fuss.
When she hissed, “Son of a sicko. Can’t you do it on your smartphone? Just one more page. Then hit submit," her Medusa transformation culminated.
I gripped the phone the way a butcher would hold a knife before hitting the chopping board. I wondered if Kate could exorcise the demon from this woman. “I can’t—“
“You better find a way or I will.”
The ultimatum made my ears heat up. “It can wait! I’m on PTO.” There. Snake decapitated. She was not my boss. Why should I take orders from this woman?
“This is urgent.” The voice was anything but feminine. Amanda the Great had grown two heads. I could hear tiny devils clapping in her favor. Hooray to the hydra!
“Alright.” I hung up. More acid oozed in my hungry stomach. I could probably submit the protocol, but there was still a missing piece, a huge loophole in the design. I went back to Kate, in time to see the restaurant pager on her hand lit up.
“So what did Conan say? It was her, right?”
Amanda’s code name, one used by my teammates in reference to a TV-movie character, and which Amanda took for a compliment, did not sound funny this time. I rubbed my highly-strung neck. “Yeah, the ever omniscient Amanda the Almighty, is stalking me.”
“Sorry. Problem at work?”
“There’s always a problem. Never disappears. C’mon, my lion’s growling too.”
We headed to the restaurant.
“Tomorrow, we wake up early for the sunrise at 6:43 am.” Kate tugged at me as the waiter directed us to our table.
I nodded although my mind was on food, and not the sunrise tomorrow. Food to feed my uninspired brain and my nearly-expiring body.
“Mom! I thought this would be a vacation,” Sarah said.
“Well, we didn’t come all the way here to sleep. Home would be cheaper.”
Annie pouted, and Sarah pretended to look at the wooden beams.
I was too tired to argue. Eat. Sleep. Be done with the vacation. That was my itinerary.
Until the waiter asked whether I wanted coffee.
My sixth cup. Why not?
Whoever said, `Your day starts the night before,’ should have appeared and said, “Bad decision. You’ll regret this in the morning,” because as soon as I finished the cup, my heart escalated and the cogwheels in my brain started turning.
Finish the prototype, a tiny voice whispered. Submit tomorrow.
Tomorrow is not tonight, another voice debated. Enjoy the present moment. Live the present moment. Love in the present moment. Those were Kate’s mantra that I could not relate to... at this moment.
“How did you like the food?” Kate, later on, asked while we drove back to the hotel.
“It was okay,” I said. It could have been sawdust. I did not remember what I ordered.
When we got to the elevator, I allowed them to enter and said, “Listen, I’ll be at the business center and finish one page then I’m heading up.”
“Jeff—“ the elevator door swallowed whatever words Kate said.
But inspiration did not come in a minute, nor an hour. Three hours later, I was still staring at an incomplete page with heavy lids but a buzzing brain.
Definitely strong mountain coffee, but nothing that melatonin could not counteract.
I finally admitted defeat after another hour of staring at a blinking cursor.
It seemed to mock me with Kate’s Charismatic song, “I am the eye I go blink, blink.”
The last time the blinking cursor spoke to me with a blank page, I surrendered to writer’s block and packed away the manuscript for good.
I went back to the hotel room. Everyone was in bed and did not stir when I brushed my teeth.
Sleeping in a hotel was like sleeping at home and vice versa. Late nights and frequent travels did that. And melatonin always came to my rescue. I popped one in, switched my iPhone to airplane mode.
"Fasten your seat belt and get ready for take off,” I mumbled and slumped on the bed. "Over and out."
I floated over the abyss of jagged mountains, my innards recoiling at the realization that I was flying. Not in an airplane. But like Iron Man.
But unlike Iron Man, I hated flying.
I struggled to return to the edge of the plateau, away from the depths of the valleys, away from the heights of the mountains, but my body would not budge.
I plunged faster and faster into the ground, with my innards coiling inside my stomach.
No… I held my breath, my gut cramping from stiffness. The ground drew nearer even as my hands pushed against the air trying to stop my descent.
A dark hole appeared below and my head careened deep into the hole.
Stuck. Gasping, I pushed to take out my head.
Stuck. Arggh. I writhed and wiggled but my head was caught deep.
Stuck. Like the pencil in the sharpener.
“What?” Where was I?
“You were dreaming.” Kate sat up, her hair in disarray.
The image of the pencil stuck in the sharpener flashed.
Three dreams. Definitely a pattern. A warning? In Kate’s vocabulary, an omen.
“We missed the sunrise!” Kate jumped off the bed and drew the heavy curtains. Daylight flooded the hotel room.
The girls groaned and pulled the blanket over their heads.
“Get up. Move it.” Kate barked orders, reminding me of my citizen’s army training boot camp back in high school.
The morning was a whirlwind of tugging, whining, rushing into the SUV, and a quick stop at the Starbucks.
By the time, we got to the entrance of the Grand Canyon Park, the queue of cars looked like a track-less train.
“There.” Kate pointed at the leftmost lane. “Skip the line. We have a pass. Thank heavens!” She checked her watch. “Barely 9 am. Hopefully, parking won’t be a problem.”
“Maybe you should start praying now.” I took a sip of coffee from my cup while my left hand maneuvered the car through the entrance.
It took three turns around the parking lot before we spotted an empty space and jumped off the car.
Kate rushed towards the Visitor Center with the girls trailing behind her, cackling and mimicking her race walking gait.
I dropped the empty cup in a trash can. When I turned, they were gone.
I walked through a maze of queuing crowd towards the Visitor Center. Still no sign of the girls. I dialed Kate’s phone. Darn, no signal.
From behind, a bustle of activity erupted and surrounded me—a bus-load of tourists had alighted, pulled their selfie sticks and gathered in a swarm, pushing and steering me towards a path that led to a sign— Mather’s Point.
When the group descended down the steps, the vista of the Grand Canyon opened up and welcomed me like arms displaying its decorated chest of mountain lines and ridges.
I gasped, fumbled for my cellphone, and turned on the panorama setting. As I hovered the phone from left to right, Kate and the girls appeared on my camera screen.
I hurried down the stairs and met Kate’s glare.
“Where were you?”
“Lost but now am found.” I grinned.
She rolled her eyes. “C’mon.”
“Oh, look at this Jeff.” She held the railing, her hair blown by the wind.
In that instant, the lines on her face cleared, and she looked like the young bride I married twenty years ago. “Isn’t this amazing?” She smiled.
“Smile.” I clicked on my iphone. Beautiful.
“Girls, take a photo of me and Daddy.”
But Annie shoved her backpack at me, “Dad, can you please hold?” and ran to her sister for selfies.
“Let me do it,” I said.
“You know how to take a selfie?”
“I know how to fly a drone.” I extended my arms. “Smile.”
“Whatever happened to the drone you've been testing in the garage?”
“Scrapped. Unoriginal.” I looked away, tasting the bitter memory of a failed protocol. What I thought was a promising drone that would catapult me to success was now reduced to a weekend hobby, which I could not sustain with my limited time and resources.
“Sorry. You never told me that.”
“I’ve switched from no news is good news to no news is bad.”
She rubbed my back. “You’ll get your idea. Who knows, it might be hidden in those crevices. Look at those.” She zoomed to the big crack in the long flat line of the canyon. “This is… I’m lost for words.”
She stood there like time did not matter, but the word idea triggered something in me. That instant, time became my enemy. I needed to fill the gap in the prototype design, but the gap was as wide as the crevices of the canyon.
A ringtone sounded. I took out my phone. Not mine.
Kate took hers out, frowned, tapped it to silence and put it back in the bag.
“What was that?”
“My alarm for the itinerary.”
“Are you kidding me? Do you have an alarm set for everything?”
“How do you think I keep up with everyone’s schedule? Leave for school, pick up kids, cook dinner, errands, pay bills…”
“But alarm while on vacation? Is there one for toilet breaks?”
“I’ll pretend I didn’t hear that,” Kate said. “Had to make changes. Let’s take the blue shuttle bus, hop off and on to the junction where the red shuttle bus can drive us all the way to the Hermit’s rest, and then hike on the Rim Trail all the way back here. We get the best of both bus scenic tour and hiking trail. That’s what my angel of inspiration said.”
I groaned. “Your angel said that?”
“Sam taught me how to listen to the voice of my angel.”
“What? Like turning on the radio?”
“Exactly, we can tune into their radio-frequency. But we need to silence our minds.”
“What? You don’t believe in angels now?” Her eyes of condemnation peered down at me.
“I do, but not that way.”
“You offered your angel a retirement package early.”
Retirement package. My stomach churned. Kate could pack a wallop with her word choice. I swore she had a double-edged sword for a tongue.
I looked at my iPhone. Still no signal.
The Town Hall Meeting would have started by now. I could be heading for an early retirement if I didn’t find Wifi connectivity soon. I made a mental note: find a better provider and a better data plan.
“—nine stops and four on the way back.”
“What? Sorry, I missed that.”
She expelled a breath. “The red shuttle bus. I suggest we hop off to the nine stops on the way to the Hermit’s rest instead of on the way back where it can only bring us to four of these scenic points.”
“Whatever you say. I’ll follow.” As if I had other options.
“Where are the girls?”
“Maybe in the Visitor Center? I can look for them there,” I said. And get Wifi signal...
“Jeff, let’s stay together. Don’t want to lose you.”
For a moment, I thought her words held a double meaning.
Her hands shielded her eyes while she scanned the area. “There they are.” She pulled me and soon we were on the long line for the shuttle bus.
I wondered if I could sneak to the Visitor Center, check my email, then run back. The queue was going slow. I should make it on time. If I can work my way through the crowd in a sec--
“So what are you working at?”
“Huh?” Had Kate turned psychic?
“At work, you said you have a new project you’re trying to push to this new giant techie Sparker company.”
Whew. Her weird spiritual encounters with this Sam guy was giving me the creeps.
“We’re down to the last pages of the protocol.”
“Did you finish it last night? What’s it all about?”
“Just some… it’s too complicated to explain. I started it and Amanda built on what I had. Can’t tell you much.”
She pouted. “You’re drifting away fast, Jeff with all your secrets with this prototype woman. I hope she’s not your type.”
“Kate, please don’t turn on the green-eyed monster button on me. That’s the last thing I want to deal with right now.” Her jealousy fits could drive any sane man to the asylum. If I donned the office chair with a skirt, she’d probably beat the wooden thing to pieces and turn it into firewood.
“Like I told you, jealousy button is off as long as my emotional bank account is on the positive,” she said. “Right now, it’s racking a high-interest rate on the credit line. I’m drawing bouncing checks from your bank, Jeff.”
“Huh? Didn’t my paycheck get through?”
“I’m not talking about the money, Honey. Romance, hugs, kisses, conversations. My emotion is shrinking like a prune. I’m dry to the bones and when that happens, you wake the green-eyed monster.”
I pulled her close and kissed her forehead. “Sorry. It’s just—”
“The merger.” She sighed.
“Ew, they’re merging again.” Annie appeared beside me and playfully pushed her sister. That earned her a slap on her hand.
“Girls, stop that. Don’t want anyone falling on the edge,” I said.
“Look at those people over there.” Kate pointed at a group of young men perched on a boulder while taking a photo.
I squirmed, hoping not to witness a freak accident today, still remembering the book Kate showed me last night.
“Living on the ledge. Why do they have to do that for a stupid photo,” Kate said.
“Mom, it’s living on the edge, not ledge.”
“Whatever. It’s the same. There’s the risk of falling. Just a matter of perspective.”
“No,” Sarah said. “Ledge is different from edge.”
“One letter. We have to fight over one letter. Geez. The devil is in the details.”
I pulled Kate and shooed the girls away. Another peck on her lips then I let go. “First, let me head to the rest room.”
“Now? But the bus could be here soon!”
“I really need to go.” And it was true. Somewhat.
“If you want to go ahead, then go. I’ll meet you somewhere,” I said.
“Okay, we’ll wait for you at the junction, where the red and blue shuttles meet. I’ll get a head start with the photos.”
The rest room stop was fast. And so was the 4G connection.
The Fantastic Four had taken over the company. My team was assigned under a new head.
I almost dropped my phone when it rang.
“Where are you, Mr. Jeff Bazoon?”
My full name in staccato equals mad Kate. “I—you have signal?”
“No, this is my hot line in heaven!” A grunt and she said, “We’re at Bright Angel Lodge. What on earth are you still doing at the Visitor Center?”
How did she know? “Your angel told you?” I said with shaky voice, still numb with shock at the news about the new head of my team.
“Yes!” Another grunt. “And the Find My Friends app. Geez!”
I could hear Annie whining in the background. “Can we eat? I’m hungry. We didn’t have proper breakfast, mom.”
“Go get some food, Kate. Feed Annie’s lion. I’ll be down there in a minute."
“With that snaking line, I doubt it.” The blade in her voice snapped something in my head.
“Fine! You go your way and I go mine. Let’s compare notes at the end of the day.” I hung up, seething and gritting my teeth. What did she think I was doing, lounging under the sun? I worked my butt off so they could afford these kinds of vacation and I got nothing but complaints. I sweat and they wanted to suck my blood as well. What was a minute to answer emails?
I looked at my watch. No, not a minute.
An hour. Had it been that long?
I sizzled down a bit, headed to the shuttle line, and groaned.
Where did all these people come from?
It would be another thirty minutes to get to the girls and Kate.
My energy drained like my phone battery. All I wanted to do was crawl under the hotel sheets and escape the certainty of amazonian wrath.
Escape the future that held no hope.
Amanda the Barbarian was now my boss.
Meanwhile, the Cloud continued to brew an entrapment...