Enjoy this free preview of the beginning of Balancers, my light urban fantasy fiction novel, available now. For the next few weeks I will add a chapter, up until Chapter Ten.
It was yet another Monday. Mr. Moss started his week the way he started every other week. His job was nothing more than that: a job. His job gave him no satisfaction or validation. It left him wanting for enough money to meet his ever-increasing debt. Every single Monday he felt like he was frantically rowing a boat away from an enormous waterfall, and his arms were growing weary of it. He was sick and tired of everything and everyone around him. He couldn’t remember the last time he felt truly happy. He didn’t even remember what that felt like.
The only pleasure he ever derived from his weekly incarceration in that bleak, corporate Gulag was to take out his frustrations on the poor saps who worked underneath him. If I have to suffer, why shouldn’t they? he thought. The little abuses Mr. Moss would dispense were a small price for these young upstarts to pay. They were the same dues Mr. Moss had to pay when his own supervisor crapped on him in those first years with the company. He was only dishing it out the same way he had taken it.
The newest employee bothered him the most. That smug little Indian girl temp with the bizarre name. What was it again? he sneered in his head. Oh yes, Nandini. What the hell kind of name is that?
Nandini Anand had only been temping at the office for a couple of days, but ever since her arrival, Mr. Moss had been having a hellish time. He figured she must bring bad luck everywhere she goes. He was frustrated with her accent, and he had absolutely no patience with her inability to understand plain English. Why would the company let someone so stupid work for him?
The same day she started her training there, some jerk co-worker kept removing the staples from his stapler, and changed the audio notification for his incoming emails to a ringing desk bell sound that didn’t play for a full eight minutes after the notification first popped up on his screen. It took him all day to figure out why his computer was making that annoying sound. He remembered the day clearly, because that was the day he had screamed at Hammond during the weekly morning marketing meeting. Hammond had made a simple mistake, but Moss had been inconvenienced by it. He accused Hammond of being an incompetent screw-up.
A couple of days later, he fired a useless college intern who didn’t know how to use a simple spreadsheet program. She had left the office in tears. He probably could have taught her how to use it, but it was easier to get rid of her. When he arrived home, his garage door opener didn’t work. It was only six months old. He had to climb in through the garage window and press the manual lift button. The garage door went up perfectly. He tried the button on his remote opener again, and nothing. Stupid garage door company must have put an old battery in the remote.
Initially, Mr. Moss didn’t associate these misfortunes with Nandini. Why would he? They had nothing to do with her. Stuff just happens. But stuff kept happening, and it seemed to have a knack for happening immediately after he had to deal with some idiot at work. Sure, the way he dealt with those idiots might have been in ways which Ms. Manners would not have approved, but idiots shouldn’t be tolerated. They should be dealt with harshly.
Nandini accidentally spilled coffee on his laptop the same day he had pushed the elevator ‘close’ button when someone called for him to hold the door. Then, during that rainstorm when he drove by a puddle and splashed the people waiting for the bus, his umbrella was stolen from the holder next to the front lobby door. The last straw was when Nandini, who for some unknown reason was helping out in the Personnel Department that day, stumbled across Mr. Moss’s file and then ‘accidentally’ revealed in an email to the entire office that his legal first name was actually Peter, not John. He went by his middle name of John in order to avoid the obvious snickering about his name. He hated that his parents named him Peter and that the kids in school picked right up on it and started calling him Pete Moss. Now, everyone at the office was doing it. He really started to dislike Nandini intensely. While his recent miseries couldn’t actually be blamed on her, he was sure the universe had somehow sent her into his life to make him even more miserable.
In the quiet stillness of her darkened apartment in Hell’s Kitchen, Alessandra Genovese lay motionless. The windows were opened a crack, just enough to let a cross breeze of cool air float over the bed. The ambient noise of the city didn’t bother her. Sometimes she even enjoyed it. Normally sleep would not evade her like this, but her imagination was running wild. It had not been a wonderful day. At the grocery store, she got to the register and realized she had forgotten the pasta sauce. The bottle was visible on the shelf just beyond two women waiting impatiently with their carts full of groceries. Alessandra walked as quickly as she could past the two waiting women, grabbed the jar, and headed back toward the register.
The woman behind Alessandra lowered the cell phone she was on, and scrunched her face up into a hateful sneer. Her obnoxious fire-engine red lips parted to reveal tar-stained teeth, and in a raspy voice she growled, “Are you absolutely sure you have everything now? Some of us want to actually get out of this store before we die, you idiot.”
Alessandra stood in a stupefied daze, staring incredulously at the woman. She searched her brain for a reply, but nothing came. She had only held up the line for about fifteen seconds, so what was this woman’s problem? The ugly woman with the yellow teeth sensed an advantage, and seized it.
“Are you gonna do something, or just stand there looking like a stupid moron?”
Alessandra exhaled slowly and closed her eyes, trying to will the woman out of existence. She shook her head and turned back to the register. She handed the pasta sauce jar to the cashier. The awkward tension hovering in the air had made everyone uncomfortable except for the ugly woman. The red curtains of her lips opened to reveal a satisfied grin.
Alessandra put the bagged groceries into her cart and walked out of the store, refusing to even look in the offensive woman’s direction. The incident had stayed with her throughout the day, filling her with both anger and regret. There was anger over the mistreatment she received, and there was regret that she had not said something in her own defense.
As she lay restlessly in bed, Alessandra replayed the event in her mind. Over and over she heard the woman’s harsh, raspy voice in her mind. She found herself saying all sorts of witty things like, “Gee, I’m so sorry I took a whole fifteen extra seconds away from your oh-so charming and fulfilling life. You must be in a rush to get outside and light up yet another cigarette so you can sound even more like Harvey Fierstein with a heavy cold.”
In Alessandra’s imagined scene, the woman looks shocked and appalled, and everyone in the store points and laughs at the ugly woman. In another fantasy, Alessandra doesn’t bother to say anything, but the woman gets to her car only to find the battery is dead. In another, after dishing out a droll comeback, Alessandra watches as the woman runs out of the store crying.
Alessandra awoke the next morning feeling like she hadn’t rested at all. Her angst over the awful woman had spoiled what little sleep she managed to get. She poured herself some black coffee and sat in her favorite chair. She sipped and sighed, hoping the poison of her encounter would not linger in her mind all day. After all, Brady was coming over and she was going to cook him a nice homemade Italian dinner. Brady Wexford was no more Italian than he was a Maasai tribesman, but he seemed to enjoy Alessandra’s pasta dinners. Well, at least he enjoyed her attempts at it.
Brady’s father was the wealthy CEO of a large corporation in Manhattan, and Alessandra constantly felt pressure to give Brady the best quality in everything. She frequently spent more than she was able to afford, on the most seemingly simple of things. Brady’s father had not been so overt as to call her a gold digger to her face, but she certainly felt it whenever she was around him. Her highly attuned intuition told her that Brady’s family would never think she was good enough.
Why should they? Alessandra’s upbringing wasn’t nearly as easy as Brady’s seemed to have been. Her family always struggled with financial problems. She had never even seen the kind of wealth Brady’s family had accumulated. She couldn’t fathom how a person could actually have more money than they knew how to spend. Thankfully, Brady never mentioned their financial differences or made Alessandra feel like it was a problem for him. She really liked being around Brady. When they met late one night at the Olympic Diner, she had no idea his family was wealthy. He looked like your average Joe college student at one of New York’s many universities.
Alessandra had earned a scholarship to attend the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, located on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. She had gotten through her first semester with flying colors, and was now getting close to finishing her second semester. Brady had been told by his father that he would be attending law school at Fordham University, which happened to be a few blocks from Alessandra’s school. While he was in school, Brady got to live in a swanky three-bedroom Upper West Side apartment near Lincoln Center, but he never made Alessandra feel badly about her tiny little Hell’s Kitchen apartment.
Brady was always politely firm in his interactions with others, getting his way most of the time in any discussion or debate. His personality was an excellent fit for law, and Alessandra had bonded with him over various concepts of criminal justice. They had also bonded over the diner’s famous Reuben sandwiches.
It had taken Alessandra a few months to get used to the noise, the daily struggles, and the environment of life in New York City. Meeting Brady had helped her get settled more comfortably into Big Apple life.
It didn’t take long for Alessandra to actually start enjoying the noise and everything else that accompanies life in the city. Occasionally she would miss home and call her family. She would always try to call when she knew her little sister would be home. As long as Alessandra could remember, she had always looked after her little sister Daphne.
In her early youth, Alessandra’s parents divorced because of her mother’s drug addiction problems. Her father fought for, and eventually received, custody of both girls and their older brother Tony. Her father did the best he could on a meager income, making sure his children at least had their basic needs covered. Beyond that, there was not much left to go around. The family sacrificed and struggled, but they weren’t unhappy.
They lived in Wayne, New Jersey, close to the meat processing plant where her father worked. She hadn’t ever known what it was like to have money because, in her world, they never had any. The area in which they lived had problems with drugs and gangs. Bad things happened to good people with enough frequency that soon it wasn’t much of a shock to Alessandra. It was just part of life.
When they were in grade school, Alessandra would always walk Daphne home. Sometimes Daphne wanted to feel like a big girl and walk alone. Alessandra would occasionally let Daphne walk several steps ahead, but she always kept her little sister in sight.
“I can still see you, Lessie.” Daphne would say. “Why can’t you just let me walk home by myself? Why do you always have to watch over me like a hawk?”
Despite the bad, there was one constant good: the police. The police officers in her town were kind, supportive of their fellow community members, and generally looked out for people. They were part of the community family. She looked up to the police and thought of them as an effective force for good. After high school, she set her heart on joining the police and helping to make her community a better, safer place to live.
When Alessandra graduated high school, you wouldn’t have found anyone more proud than her sister Daphne. When Alessandra rejoined her family outside of the stadium where the graduation ceremony was held, Daphne had run to Alessandra. She had thrown her arms around her big sister’s neck and exclaimed, “I’m so proud of you, Lessie! I love you!”
A couple of months before Alessandra left for college, Daphne started to complain about severe joint pain and headaches. It was difficult for Alessandra, because she couldn’t do anything to ease her sister’s pain.
“Don’t be sad, Lessie,” Daphne would say when Alessandra accidentally let her poker face down. “If you didn’t watch over me like a hawk so much, you wouldn’t have to see me like this.”
The day Alessandra left for college in New York, she could see the sorrow and pain in Daphne’s eyes. Daphne had tried to hide it, but in vain. Alessandra knew her little sister was hurting, but for whatever her reasons for doing so, Daphne never wished to share that pain with others. Whenever Alessandra would call, Daphne would sound cheerful on the phone. Then, when Alessandra would talk to her Papa, he would tell her privately that Daphne’s pain and depression were both getting steadily worse.
When Alessandra came home for Thanksgiving, she noticed a strange rash on Daphne’s face. Daphne had deflected, dismissing it as typical teenage acne, but Alessandra wasn’t buying it. The rash looked like a butterfly stretched across Daphne’s nose and cheeks, and wasn’t present anywhere else on her face or body. Alessandra also felt how hot Daphne’s body was when she hugged her goodbye the next day.
Daphne insisted that she was fine, but Alessandra couldn’t stop thinking about the change in Daphne’s physical state. Her baby sister moved much more gingerly than she had in the past. She had been walking around like a frail old woman, not like the vibrant teenager she should have been.
Now at college, Alessandra buried herself in her Criminal Justice studies. She was doing well at school, making new friends, and learning so many interesting things about the law. She was getting to know the ins and outs of her new neighborhood, including the best places to get cheap pizza slices and which little shops had the largest bagels for the lowest price.
She was dating Brady, and they were happily exploring this new and exciting city together. She was even beginning to feel like New York was her home. She had enjoyed a beautiful Christmas holiday season, complete with visits to Rockefeller Center and a romantic carriage ride through Central Park.
The family had gotten together for an unforgettable New Year’s Eve party at the home in Wayne. Daphne even seemed like she was in high spirits. Everything seemed wonderful, and shortly afterward, Alessandra headed back to her apartment and started back at school. She was only two weeks into her second semester classes when she got the call.
It seemed that Daphne had put up a brave front, but the pain finally overwhelmed her. She was slipping ever deeper into the abyss of depression, and she had hidden it well from her friends and family. One day Daphne went by herself to the doctor’s office, but she didn’t come home. Her Papa searched for Daphne all over the city, for two frantic and seemingly interminable days. The police joined in the search, but Daphne had simply disappeared. Papa didn’t know if she had chosen to run away, or God forbid, had chosen something darker.
Daphne’s body was found in Packanack Lake. Some kids walking near the water noticed it on the shore line. She had overdosed on pain medication and drowned. It was January. No one would have gone swimming that time of year. Plus, Daphne was fully dressed. There was no note, no indication that Daphne had taken her own life. The family suspected that the pain and darkness had finally become too difficult for Daphne to bear.
At the funeral home following the memorial service, Alessandra and her father held each other for what seemed like an hour. She squeezed her eyes closed as he held her head gently in his rough, labor-hardened hand.
“I’m so sorry I wasn’t here, Papa. Maybe I could have been there for her at the moment she needed me most. I wasn’t there to watch her, to help her. I’m so, so sorry.”
She knew Daphne wouldn’t want her to weep, but Alessandra couldn’t stop the warm, steady sting of tears streaming down her cheeks.
Papa whispered, “Daphne was in so much pain. You couldn’t have done anything to help her. Remember what Father Davis said, ‘…and there shall be no more pain, neither sorrow, nor crying.’ She is in God’s loving hands now.”
Alessandra felt her body stiffen in his embrace, “God’s hands? How could God let this happen?” Her voice trembled with sorrow and anger, “It’s not fair. It’s not right! Daphne was the kindest, most gentle soul in the world. She treated everyone with love and mercy and respect. What kind of a loving God would take her away from me like this? What kind of God wouldn’t even let me say goodbye to my baby sister?”
“The very same God that saw her suffering,” Papa said patiently, “and mercifully wanted for that suffering to end. She didn’t want me to tell you. She made me promise. After Thanksgiving I took her to see a specialist.”
He paused, not sure whether to tell Alessandra what he knew. He decided not to keep it a secret any longer, “Daphne had lupus.”
He felt Alessandra’s body tighten again. He took Alessandra’s head out of his hand and held her at arm’s length in front of him.
“Hey. Look at me, cucciola.”
Alessandra didn’t want her father to see her crying. She didn’t want anyone to see it. Her family was known for their strength, and she didn’t want to show weakness even at this terrible moment. With her head still leaning down, she glanced around at the other family members attending the memorial. Her brother Tony was sitting in a corner, wearing his dark blue U.S. Marine Corps Blue Dress ‘A’ uniform, and being consoled by two of their cousins. Once Alessandra knew no one was watching her, she wiped the tears from her cheeks and looked up to meet her father’s patiently waiting gaze.
He gave her the warmest smile he could muster. “We cannot always know the path God will lead us down. I know in my heart that God had a reason to take my little girl from me.”
His throat closed on him. He bowed his head, speaking to himself as much as he was speaking to Alessandra, “I have faith in God’s plan for all of us.”
Alessandra sighed and shook her head, though she shared the same faith.
“Hey,” Papa said, regaining her gaze. “I love you,” he said, and lowered his own head to hide his own tears welling up.
Alessandra looked desperately at his lowered head, hoping he would bring his gaze back up to meet hers. When he didn’t, she kissed the top of his head and let out another tear. “I love you too, Papa.”
Back in her apartment, Alessandra found herself sitting with her feet up in the chair, embracing her own legs. The corners of her mouth were drawn in, and tears were beginning to burn her eyes. She looked around at her postage stamp of an apartment and thought that Daphne never even got a chance to see it. Her breathing started to get heavy, and her heart started to feel like someone was trying to pull it out.
Enough. She looked up and blinked a few times to force the tears back in. She looked down at her coffee mug.
JOHN JAY COLLEGE OF CRIMINAL JUSTICE
Alessandra smirked and sighed. Daphne had gotten her that mug as a going away present. I’m so proud of you, Lessie. You’re really going after your dream! she had said. Now the mug was empty. Empty inside. Nothing left to give. Alessandra’s smirk faded.
She rubbed her eyes. More coffee. She headed into the kitchen and poured herself another cup. It was Saturday and there were no classes. Brady was coming over later for dinner. He could afford to eat anywhere he wanted, but instead chose dinner Alessandra made in a tiny corner kitchen that would probably fit in a space smaller than his shower.
She sipped her coffee. Whenever they went out to eat, it was at places like the diner. It was almost as if he purposefully avoided ritzy places so that she wouldn’t feel badly for not being wealthy. He did say once that, for her birthday, he would take her to Delmonico’s and wouldn’t accept ‘No’ for an answer. She demurely agreed to endure being seen in public patronizing such an establishment, but only because it was her birthday.
That memory made her smile. Brady liked her wry humor. He never complained about her small apartment, or the modest places they went. He also never flaunted his family’s wealth in front of her, and never made her come to his much larger three-bedroom luxury apartment unless she asked. Thankfully for Alessandra, Brady didn’t take after his father. He was never petty, unlike that horrible woman at the grocery store.
Her smile dropped. Her eyes narrowed. She started playing out the scene again in her mind and found herself speaking aloud, saying what she wished she had said in the moment.
“Are you so ugly and miserable because no one likes you, or does no one like you because you’re so ugly and miserable?”
Alessandra savored the thought of the ugly woman being put in her place on the spot.
She poured the rest of the coffee down the sink and told her plant in the kitchen window, “What good would that have done? She would have just said something even more nasty back at me. This city is full of angry, horrible, selfish people who would rather die than admit they’re wrong or show one iota of grace to another human being.”
A soothing blip permeated the room. Alessandra walked the six steps it took to reach her ‘living room’ (which was a mere five steps from her bedroom) and picked up her phone from the coffee table. It was a message from Brady.
My father set up an appointment for me tonight, so I have to cancel our dinner plans. Sorry.
Alessandra’s face became flush with annoyance and anger. She thought, Typical. His Dad made him cancel his plans with me. God! Brady is such a coward when it comes to his father. She was even more irritated because now the whole episode at the grocery store had been for nothing. That despicable woman got to be a jerk to me, and for my troubles, I get to eat here alone on a Saturday night. Great. Thanks a lot, Mr. Wexford.