Necessary Distractions

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Ass

Another day, another story pops into my head at the most inopportune moment possible. I swear my muse is conspiring against me. The last time I need a story idea is when I am in a meeting debating which feature to prioritise for our next sprint.

Nevertheless, here it is. I hope you like it. Please do consider dropping a vote and a comment on your way out. Tell me what you liked, and perhaps more importantly, what you didn’t.

A vote of thanks to my editor, Bramblethorn, and my beta readers, KatieTay and Vix_Giovanni. The end product has been greatly improved by their input.

“To live in hearts we leave behind
Is not to die.”

– Thomas Campbell

* *

PROLOGUE

The first thing Kylie saw when she opened her eyes was the dazzling curtain of neon light streaming in through her large windows onto the ceiling. It took a few seconds for her to adjust to her state of semi-wakefulness before she realised what had disturbed her sleep.

Her left hand groped clumsily in the darkness at her bedside table. She knocked over a few things before eventually getting to her phone which would not stop ringing.

“Who the fuck thinks this is a good time to call me?” she thought.

Sakura? Unlikely. She had made it clear they were no longer an item. Still, calling up at ungodly hours would be like her.

Mr Fukuhara? No. She wasn’t late on any deadline that she was aware of.

Kylie put on her glasses and looked at the caller ID on her screen. It was not her needy on-again off-again girlfriend or her overly demanding creative director. It was an entirely unexpected name calling her from fourteen time zones away.

“Dad?”

“Kylie,” her father’s voice was terse. “It’s about grandpa…”

* *

“I wouldn’t order that.”

Kylie was almost doubled over, vacillating between a croissant and a brownie, when she heard the voice behind her. A woman wearing a headscarf looked at the display case she had been studying intently.

“Trust me, the food here is barely a step above what they give the patients.”

The lady behind the counter fixed her with a glare, clearly not amused.

“Are you really hungry?” the stranger asked. “I could help with that. Whatever you do, stay away from anything you’re currently thinking of eating.”

The cafeteria lady coughed loudly and then fixed her sights once more.

Kylie stood up and eyed the source of this information. She wore a bright pink headscarf over her more sombre black dress. Her skin had a heavy Middle Eastern tinge along with her pointed nose and dark lips. Two emerald eyes, framed by shaped eyebrows and veiled by bushy lashes, completed the picture.

“Come with me if you want to live,” she said in a passable Schwarzenegger accent. “Something edible awaits.”

Kylie followed her. They went through the side entrance.

“I’m practically saving your life. That food is likelier to kill you than whatever you come in with.”

“Does my saviour have a name?”

“Fatima,” she said, not stopping as she walked to the intersection of West 57th and 10th. “Does the damsel formerly in distress also have a name?”

“Kylie. Kylie Strand.”

They stopped outside a small building with Caffé Nero helpfully displayed above the entrance.

“When I was in London, this got me through the days and nights. No joke. Whenever I had an all-nighter, I would need to pop down for one of these. Or maybe twenty. When I found out they had finally opened one right here in Manhattan, I had to come.”

London. That explained the hint of her British accent.

Fatima ordered and paid for a macchiato and a tea, despite her companion’s mild protests.

“You can pay me back by telling me why you look like you’re about to drop dead.”

“Oh so you noticed,” came the sarcastic reply. “I literally got off a Narita to JFK red-eye less than two hours ago.”

The coffee was invigorating to Kylie’s tired body. She took another sip and surveyed the woman across the table.

“My eyes are up here.”

“Sorry, I didn’t get any sleep on the flight.”

“You didn’t get any sleep while being locked in a tin can for thirteen hours where you don’t have any room to stretch your legs. Shocker.”

“You seem perky enough for the two of us. What is your secret?”

“You’re drinking it, hun.”

“It is rather good,” she declared. “Do you usually trawl hospital cafeterias for coffee dates? Or are you a sales rep for Nero?”

Fatima laughed and took a generous sip of her own matcha infused goodness. There was something disarmingly carefree about her new friend.

“Sadly, I can hazard a guess as to what made you take a sudden flight all the way from Tokyo to New York.”

“My grandfather,” said Kylie. “He slipped and fell in the bathroom this morning. Hit his head hard against the granite tub.”

“I’m so sorry to hear that.”

“My parents got him to the hospital immediately, but the doctors are not hopeful. My father called me up to let me know I should casino siteleri take the first flight over if I wanted to say goodbye.”

Fatima held her hand and squeezed her palm. Kylie took another sip of the liquid ambrosia in her hand and smiled back. Her phone began to ring.

“Shoot! I should get back to my folks.”

She came close to spilling the coffee when she got up and wedged the phone between her ear and shoulder.

“I’m paying next time. No arguments.”

And she was gone.

* *

“Any news on your grandfather?”

“He’s still hanging in there, the tough old bird.”

Kylie and Fatima were enjoying another cup of coffee each the next day. This time, there were also a couple of cheesecake and tarts on the table.

“You must have been close to him to fly out here on such short notice.”

“I was,” Kylie affirmed. “He had the most entertaining stories. Growing up, my best memories were on his lap while he told me some amazing story. To me, he was a combination of James Bond and Indiana Jones.”

“Oh really?”

“For sure. I mean, I’m sure there was a good amount of embellishment for my benefit. But still, he had an amazing life. He fought in Normandy. He fought in the early part of Vietnam. He became a reporter and travelled the world. He snuck under the Berlin Wall multiple times. Just to name a few of his stories.”

“Sounds like an eventful life.”

“Damn straight. He survived two wars, four coups, four dictatorships and God knows how many near misses in active war zones only to finally meet his end from a fall in the bathroom. He’d laugh till he died if he could right now.”

Kylie paused to stem the flood of memories. By the fireplace at his cabin in the Adirondacks. On the deck of his boathouse in Sheepshead Bay, looking out at the sea. J Henry Strand, or Grandpa as she had known him, had always been such a larger than life figure to her. To see him reduced to a small old man with tubes running in and out of his body and attached to a beeping machine was a shocking incongruence her brain had not quite adjusted to.

* *

“Still hanging in there. Grandpa defies the doctors for the third day.”

“Are you sure there isn’t any hope?” asked Fatima, trying the breadsticks for a change.

“The nice doctors in white coats don’t think so. I think Grandpa just wants to organise one more family reunion before he goes. My aunts and their families have flown in from Florida, Minnesota, even as far as Canada. I met my cousin in person for the first time since his wedding five years ago.”

“There’s always a silver lining. Our imam says that sunlight wouldn’t be as pretty if there wasn’t night when we miss it.”

Kylie wore a Black Sabbath tee. Her long black hair came down past her shoulders in unruly curls and melded into the fabric. She adjusted the plastic-rimmed glasses up the bridge of her nose.

“You could see a lot more of your family if you stayed on this side of the Pacific.”

“I wish I could,” Kylie sighed. “Maybe I will some day. But not now. Not when I am just starting to make a name for myself.”

“What do you do in Japan?”

“Let me show you,” she said and took out a writing pad and a pencil from her backpack. She put them down and carefully scanned their fellow patrons. “Pick someone. Any one.”

Fatima looked around before settling on a woman with a jaunty beret angling across the top of her head and covering her left ear. The excessive amount of makeup went with the dazzling sequins along her neckline.

“Her,” she whispered at her friend, who was already scribbling away. She tried to peer over the top of Kylie’s pad, only to be admonished.

“No peeking.”

A few minutes of furious pencil on paper later, Kylie seemed satisfied. She pushed the pad across the table with a contended smirk.

“The likeness is uncanny.” This was clearly not taking into account the large eyes, the stylized face. Not to mention what appeared to be a military uniform and a massive gun slung across her back.

“First Lieutenant Rhea Stavros of the Seventeenth Royal Galactic Regiment sent to fight against the invading Brasken army on the far side of Arcturus. She swears like a sailor and takes zero prisoners.”

“That was going to be my first guess.”

“Look at the face, though. The core of it is her,” she said, pointing to the unwitting subject of her art. “Then I added a few extra touches.”

Much the same way Michelangelo added a few extra touches to a block of marble.

“I’m impressed,” said Fatima, taking a long sip of her brew of choice.

“I started off making the artwork for graphic novel adaptations of comics and fantasy series. It was fun for a while, but I could hardly do anything original. I spent most of my time here bringing other’s works to life. Then one day, I got a call from one of the biggest anime studios in Tokyo. Apparently, someone had seen my stuff and wondered if I could make some original manga for them. I was in Tokyo within the month and have been there canlı casino ever since.”

“So you’re a full time manga artist?”

“I usually prefer mangaka, but yes. I have so much more freedom to put whatever storyline I want onto the page. Half of what I put out would be censored in America, or at least given an absurd adult rating.”

“I promise not to nark you out… and I’m totally keeping that,” said Fatima in a conspiratorial tone, quickly putting the drawing into her purse. “We must save Lieutenant Stavros from her greatest adversary — prudes.”

“All this while, you’ve let me talk about myself. What about you? What do you do?”

“Nothing nearly as interesting as a mangaka in Tokyo, let me assure you.”

“Well, it must be something interesting if it keeps you in such high spirits every day.”

Fatima paused to finish the last of her coffee. It was merely a lull before another one was ordered.

“I used to work for a mid sized investments management firm in London, Hastings and Sellers. They got acquired by BlackRock, and they transferred me back here, to the mother ship. I’m an Investment Portfolio Manager in their big, ugly skyscraper in Midtown.”

“Whoa! Whoa! Back up. Do you realise I have no idea what any of those words mean. What is an Investment Portfolio Manager?”

“Something long and deathly boring.”

“Come on,” Kylie said, holding her palm and strumming her fingers against her friend’s hand. “I want to know.”

“Let me put this in a way you will understand,” Fatima said, a new cup of espresso appearing before her. “If our conversation was in a story, and the reader somehow got interested in my character, they’d be bored to sleep by the time I finished my job description.”

“That would be a shame, since you are such a delight.”

* *

“This is Grandpa in Lyon. The American troops had just liberated it from the Germans.”

Fatima stared at the grainy black and white Polaroid on Kylie’s tablet.

“This is him at the live broadcast when the whole country learned that mankind had taken a giant leap on the moon.”

J Henry Strand was certainly a looker in his day. Barely in the frame, but he clearly outshone the rest of the assembled dignitaries.

Kylie swiped through multiple pictures on her phone. There were pictures from all over the world with the same man.

“There’s a story behind each picture. Something Grandpa told me. One day, I’ll make all of them into an illustrated book of short stories.”

“I’ll buy a first edition. He sounds like a fascinating man.”

“He was… I mean still is, for the time being,” Kylie said while cutting a small slice from her cheesecake. “I spent a fortune digitising these prints so that people would not forget him.”

Fatima held her hand and smiled.

“He’s the one who encouraged me to follow my dreams, no matter how many eyebrows I raised. I mean, ultraviolent and hypersexual manga? It’s not what most good parents would want to see their daughters get into. Not Grandpa though, who got me in touch with some of his publishing contacts. When I told him I was going to Japan, he was heartbroken, but wished me all the best anyway.”

Fatima was still admiring the pictures when Kylie spoke up again.

“This coffee is really addictive. Now I almost can’t function without it.”

“My work is done,” said Fatima, with an exaggerated flourish.

True to her word, Kylie downed prodigious amounts of coffee in each gulp.

“Grandma’s been by his side all this time. She’s eighty-nine herself and recently had a knee replacement. Try telling her to go home and rest.”

“Are you serious?”

“People talk about growing old together,” said Kylie wistfully. “My grandparents did it.”

“My parents too. All this time, they haven’t left each other’s side.”

“Where are they?”

“At the mosque. They spend more time praying there than they spend at home.”

“All this time, I’ve just been talking about myself and why I’m here. I never asked you why you’re here.”

“I need to go,” Fatima said suddenly, letting go of her hand. “I remembered I need to be somewhere.”

In a moment she was gone, her coffee still hot and giving off steam. Disguising her obvious avoidance was not her strong suit.

* *

Fatima was nowhere to be seen the next day. Kylie checked out the cafe multiple times before staking out the waiting room. In the meantime, even more of her extended family made an appearance. Apparently, J Henry would not be denied one final family reunion.

“I haven’t seen you in forever.”

Her eternally cheerful cousin was on hand. Stuart, his wife and their three children who were currently running riot all over the waiting room.

“They remind me of us around their age,” he said. “Oh to have the energy to run around carefree for all the time in the world.”

“I miss it too,” Kylie admitted. “You sucked at it though. Literally the worst at hide and seek ever.”

“That’s only because I thought we were a team and kaçak casino shared all my super secret hiding places with you. To my utter dismay, the very next year, I find you have betrayed me and all my secrets to Uncle Blake’s kid… what’s her name?”

“Caroline,” she said. “She’s a doctor now in San Francisco. Paediatrician, I think.”

“Yes, Caroline and her sloppy pigtails which would fall to pieces at the slightest touch.”

“Not the slightest touch, Stu,” Kylie reminded. “You used to pull them until they came undone and she would get mad and chase you all around the estate with a spatula in hand.”

“Yeah, they were fun times. What happened to the estate? Does anyone still live there?”

“We had our last annual family reunion there fifteen years ago and hardly anyone showed up. I think that was a sign that the big place was too expensive to maintain. Dad and Uncle Howard sold it to some property developer and split the proceeds with all of their siblings.”

“That’s just the house. What about the gardens?”

“A golf course now. Quite a high end one if you believe the internet.”

“No fair,” Stuart said. “We ran around raising hell in that house for two weeks every year and then chased each other through those hedges until we couldn’t walk any more. Now some rich stranger gets to play golf there?”

“Well,” said Kylie. “That’s what happens when we can’t take care of the place any longer.”

“But, that place was our childhood, Kylie.”

“I know,” she said and put an arm around his shoulder. They were rudely interrupted by a trio of kids arriving and nearly colliding with her.

“Aunt Kylie, Aunt Kylie, can you give us one of your comics? We loved the last one you shared.”

“Of course, sweetheart,” she said and tried her best to grasp all three of them in the same hug.

Satisfied they had succeeded, the three sped off, almost knocking a janitor’s cart over on the way. Kylie watched them as they turned the corner out of sight.

“Grandpa kept our annual reunion together. I still remember him carving five Thanksgiving turkeys the year of the storm. Hurricane Gloria was no match for our family’s will. All of us, without exception, showed up. Because we are fucking Strands… or we were at least. We were Strands and Strands show up for each other.”

“Everybody’s so busy in their own work nowadays,” Stuart said. “I had just got out of a meeting with my business partners in Boston when I got the news about Grandpa and it took me four days just to make sure the others could cover my absence before I came.”

“How is your business doing?”

“Very well, thank you. Despite the recession, we manufactured and delivered the most auto parts in the whole of New England last year. If only…”

Stuart stopped to sigh.

“I’ve always prided myself on staying ahead of the curve. I’m looking for a loan to help me diversify into EV parts and parts for self-driving vehicles. Not to mention expanding into the Midwest. It will require a lot of capital, but it’s the next step we need to take. What I have right now puts food on the table, but might not in ten years.”

“No banks helping out?”

“Not in this economy anyway.”

“Didn’t Grandpa give you the first loan to get started?”

“I tried returning the money with interest multiple times, but he was mortally offended by the mere suggestion of it.”

“That’s him in a nutshell for you,” said Kylie. “J Fucking Henry. Under his watch, we always kept up to date on one another and always saw each other on Thanksgiving. Now, it takes this for us to be in the same building once again. I’d say he planned it if I didn’t know better.”

Her cousin rested his head on her shoulder.

“I miss him, Kylie,” he whispered.

“Me too.”

A few minutes of silence passed between them when all the chaos of the hospital waiting room receded.

“I’d better see what the hellspawn are up to,” Stuart said, getting up. “I love them, but they can be a handful.”

“Just wait until they are teenagers. Then they’ll really drive you crazy.”

“Please pick a wholesome family comic for them this time. If Claudia sees so much as a speck of blood or sex in it, she’ll make sure I sleep in the garage.”

“I’ll try my best,” said Kylie. She sighed and looked around. There were more familiar faces in the room than she had seen assembled at one place in years.

But there wasn’t the one face she longed to see. The one face lovingly framed by a headscarf in the colour of the day.

* *

The day rolled to the next and Fatima was still nowhere to be seen. It was at this time that Kylie wondered if she should have exchanged numbers. She replayed their last conversation and how her last question had clearly spooked her.

Even more family had shown up in the interim. Each of them came with a barrage of memories.

Uncle Calvin, who had made enough quarters and nickels disappear behind her ear to rival the money vanishing feats of Bernie Madoff.

Aunt Bernadette, who brought no less than four husbands and potential husbands over the years to the annual gathering. Scandalous gossip followed her wherever she went. Not to mention she went through bottles of vodka like a hot knife through butter.

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