Ben handed us bottles of beer so cold they held slush. We clanked them together, drank them together, and left our empties wobbling on the table. We grinned at each other like idiots.
It was Friday.
Peggy pointed at the door and we chuckled as Ross came in from outside and stood awkwardly in the doorway scouring the room for us. Ross was technically our boss.
Ben yelled: “Norm!” and waggled his empty bottle in the air. Ross nodded. He stopped at the bar and came over to our table with more bottles of slush. We inhaled those too.
Jeannie swang by with some gals from the front office. They stood at the bar and drank wine until their cheeks were pink and their eyes shiny. They giggled, fanning themselves with their hands.
Maureen and Val took the table next to ours. They sipped frozen orange juice drinks through little red straws and gossiped in hushed tones.
Jeff and Tim and Randy claimed the table on our other side. They split pizzas and pitchers and played grunge on the jukebox, yelling about sports.
More people from work trickled in and it was a good party, upbeat and happy, but as is often the case on Fridays, the party didn’t last. Our crowd thinned as people left for back yards or cabins or casinos. By the time sun was down, the five of us were the only survivors from the Gazette. We were roaring.
“Attention, please!” I said, rapping the neck of my bottle with a butter knife. “Everyone shut up now unless you’re me!”
“Hold that thought,” Mandy said and she vanished into the crowd.
“Are you and Ross going to kiss?” Peggy asked. She and Ben clinked bottles.
“No. Shut up and hear this: The temp lady told me she can control the weather with her mind.”
Ben smiled. “Is that right?”
Ross sighed and palmed his face.
“Who?” Peggy asked.
“Don’t encourage him,” Ross said, his voice muffled.
“The temp lady. The one from the press room who stands outside and smokes all the time.”
Peggy’s eyes glossed.
“The gal Ross got after for playing blackjack at the break table? You know – the parlay card lady.”
“Oh!” she said, the lights coming on. She pondered this a few moments and asked: “What about her?”
Ross held up his bottle. “My ad director, gentlemen! Here’s to carefree living and a prosperous tomorrow!”
Ben and I laughed at Peggy and clinked bottles with Ross. Peggy laughed and punched Ross on the shoulder, spilling his beer onto his khakis. He frowned and set his bottle down, dabbing at his crotch with a cocktail napkin.
I told Peggy: “She says she can control the weather.”
Peggy’s eyes went far away. “I worked temp for a while in Walker,” she said, nodding. She picked at the wet label on her bottle with long fingernails. “It actually wasn’t too bad. You can choose your own hours and, if you don’t like a place, you just tell them and they find you something else, no questions asked.” She nodded absently. “Of course, the pay isn’t – ” She looked up, caught Ross’s expression, and stopped. “What?”
“Are you done?” he asked.
She shrugged. “It’s more interesting than the boring shit you talk about.”
Ben said: “Hello!”
“Let’s go ahead and circle back here,” I said. “The temp lady told me she can control the weather. She can decide how much rain we’ll get and everything.” I asked Ross: “Did these skills come up in her interview?”
Mandy materialized with fresh bottles. She set them on the table, one at a time, and asked: “What interview?”
Ross massaged the bridge of his nose.
Peggy said: “The temp lady’s from the press room.”
“Oh,” Mandy said. She thought for a moment and asked: “What about it?”
“She says she can make it rain.”
“Can somebody knock me unconscious?” Ross asked. “Just a nice heavy blow to the base of the skull would be great.”
Ben said: “You’d think with those skills, she would have a better gig than working temp at the paper.”
“Hey!” Ross snapped.
“What about winter?” Mandy asked. “Can she control snow or just the rain?” She smiled and nodded at Peggy. “It would be nice if she could get us a couple snow days.”
“You are correct,” Peggy said and they clinked bottles.
“There will be no snow days,” Ross said wearily.
Peggy’s eyes narrowed. She leaned in and lowered her voice. “Jeannie says that gal comes out of the bathroom stall and heads straight for the door.” She raised her eyebrows. “Doesn’t even stop to wash her hands!”
“Eww!” Mandy groaned.
Peggy grinned, nodding enthusiastically.
“Jeannie,” Ross spat. “There’s a reliable source.” He turned to Ben. “You getting this hot scoop? Temp at Gazette Does Not Wash Poop Hands. That’s your headline; have Jeannie get the photo.”
Peggy laughed and punched him.
A young, blonde guy appeared and asked if we were using our empty chairs.
Ben shrugged. “All yours.”
He thanked us and dragged them off.
I said: “Listen. Last July, that fire at the state park by Hudson, remember how out of control it was? The fire chief was always on the radio warning people to evacuate.”
Ben smiled at Ross. “You know where he’s taking this, don’t you?”
Peggy and Mandy clinked bottles.
Ross sighed and sagged in his chair. “Death, where is thy sting?”
“Listen though!” I said. “Remember, how dry and dusty it was? And super windy. You guys remember this, right?”
Mandy said: “I do. I left my windows down one of those mornings and I could write my name in the grime on my dash.”
“It was probably like that two days after you bought it.” Ben said.
She smiled. “It’s possible.”
I said: “There was that farmer who wouldn’t leave, remember? It was a big standoff. The news was saying the fire would reach his farm by seven pm but he wanted to stay so he locked himself in the house. There was debate about whether the cops should remove him by force. Anyway, the radio in the break room was talking about it and Joanie said something like, ‘Oh, that poor guy!’ and the temp lady said – ”
“Donna,” Ross said.
“Donna,” he repeated in an exhausted voice. “The temp lady, her name is Donna Hastings.”
“Right…okay. Well, so Donna Hastings told Joanie not to worry because she was going to save the farm with her superpowers. She said she would pray that night or do a dance or whatever and the fire would stop before it reached the guy’s property.”
“A line dance?” Mandy asked.
“The Macarana“, Ross said.
“Sure enough, that night the fire stopped right before the farmer’s fence. How crazy is that? One minute it was raging uncontrollably, threatening the whole town, and the next it burned itself out.” I snapped my fingers. “Like that.”
“A force field then?” Ben asked.
“No, not a force field, smart guy,” I said. Then, in voice I hoped sounded ominous I added: “The weather.”
“Donna Hastings controlled the wind?” Ben asked.
“Donna Hastings controlled the wind,” I confirmed.
Ben mulled this over. “Why didn’t she use her rain powers?”
I shrugged. “Yeah, I don’t know. Maybe it would require too much water to douse the flames in time and there would be flash floods or something.”
Peggy said: “She should have made it rain before everything got dry and there wouldn’t have been a fire to begin with.”
“Think of all the animals she could have saved!” Mandy cried.
Ben nodded soberly. “Trees too.”
“That’s it,” Ross said. He upended his bottle and chugged it dry, leaving the empty to rattle on the table. He slid his chair back, stood, dug around in his pockets, and produced a wad of damp looking bills. He peeled off a few. They fluttered to the table like soggy leaves. “I’m done with you knobs.”
“You’re going?” Peggy demanded.
“Yeah…” he replied, miserable. “I gotta take my nephew fishing in the morning.”
“We don’t have a waitress,” I reminded him. “Is that cash for us because we’re such compelling company?”
Ross’s eyes went from mine to the table and back again. He exhaled. He picked up the damp bills and stuffed them back in his pocket while we laughed at him.
Ben yawned. “All right. I’ve got things tomorrow too.” He looked at his phone. “Getting to be that time.”
Peggy looked at hers. “Yikes!”
We stood and drained our bottles.
“Does Donna work Monday?” I asked Ross. “Remember to ask her about her skills.”
“Yeah, I’m never doing that, Ross said.
It was here that Ross’s eyes and mouth got suddenly round. He said: “Donna!” and there beside him stood Donna Hastings.
She made no reply, her face was taut and serious. I decided she had probably overheard us making fun of her and I felt shame. She took Ross by the shoulders and spun him to face her. She barked up into his bewildered face: “You’re gonna have to talk to ‘em!” Maintaining her grip on Ross, she turned to the rest of us. “Sorry but it can’t be helped.”
“To whom?” Ben asked.
Donna hesitated, released Ross, and turned her attention to Ben. She appraised him frankly over her glasses, her eyes probing his for a long moment. She shook her head. “Don’t believe in much, do you, kid.”
It wasn’t a question.
“Faith, man!” Donna said. “You’ve got no faith.”
His eyes narrowed. He shook his head. “No, I’m more a science guy, I guess.”
“Yeah,” she mused, staring. “I guess you are.”
She turned to Mandy. “Faith here though! Lots of it.” She nodded and touched the tip of Mandy’s nose: “You’re not growing old yet,” she whispered.
She turned to Peggy. “And you! Your spirit’s free as a bird though you’re the oldest one of the bunch – present company excluded of course.” With this last, she gave Peggy’s arm a grandmotherly pat. She took her hand. “A smart girl, I think.” She nodded. “Good sense. A strong heart.”
She released Peggy and glared, first at Ross, then at me. Her eyes darkened. The corners of her mouth turned down. “As for you two…” she began but she shook her head. “But there’s no time for this! No time! Sit! Sit!” She corralled us back to the table and we sat. Donna sat too. My eyes darted to Ben’s. His expression held the question too. Where did she get the chair?
“Donna,” Ross said meekly. “I’m sorry but I really have to get going. I have to get up early.”
“Yes you do.” She winked. “Four-twenty-five, to be exact. That way you can hit the snooze twice and still be up by four-forty-five which is when you have to get moving. You set your alarm yesterday morning so you wouldn’t forget.”
Ross’s eyes grew round.
“Take heed,” Donna said, looking from one of us to the next. “By the time your drinks are gone, they’ll be here.”
“Who?” Peggy asked.
“Our drinks are already gone,” Ben said.
Donna’s eyes twinkled. “Are they?
Ben squinted and tilted his head. Slowly, with careful fingers he reached for his bottle, his gaze locked on Donna. When his fingertips found it, they stopped. He gasped and his eyes fell. His mouth fell open. He twisted the bottle in his palm and stared.
I looked to my own bottle. It was cold and filled with slush.
Mandy asked: “How did – ”
“A trick,” I said. “Like the chair she’s sitting in is a trick. She’s a magician.”
“Illusionist,” Ross said. “They prefer illusionist.”
Donna ignored us. She took Mandy’s right hand in both of hers and pulled her in, eyes burning. “They’re coming, child,” she hissed. “They’re almost here! They will know if you lie or hold back so answer them true. It won’t last long. They’ll want to keep me in sight while they still think they can and they can’t do that talking to you. Give them the words I give you.”
“Who?” asked Peggy. “Who is coming?”
Donna turned to Peggy and said: “The Lost.” She turned back to Mandy. “Tell them what you know, child. Tell them I’m a temp from work named Donna Hastings.
She turned to me: Tell them about the wildfire.”
To Ben. “Tell them about these bottles and the chair and the alarm.”
To Ross: “Give them this message: The lost key is found. Witch Azrael has gone to The Shadows to rescue the princess and the princess will claim her rightful place on the throne. Tell them their wicked days are numbered.”
To Peggy she said: “Your heart is strongest. Shepherd these lambs when The Lost try to seduce them. They weave enchantments with their words. Join hands!”
We did as we were told and sat around the table in a crowded bar holding hands. Finally, Ross looked up to ask: “What’s supposed to – ?”
And Donna Hastings was gone.