"Well? Say something, son."
George has no words. At least not any he can utter without unpleasant repercussions. Drenched in disappointment, he can only stare with drooping eyebrows at the object before him.
"I thought you would like it," expresses his dad. "I wanted to get you something fun for doing so well in your classes. The guy said it was special."
George's mom, Beth, leans toward her husband's ear. "What guy?," she whispers.
"The guy. You know, the man in the...ahem...the thrift store."
John Charles Redding isn't the prototypical bargain hunter. Far from it. He can pretty much afford anything his capitalist heart desires. Nonetheless, he is rather devoted to the practice of frugality. To a fault, according to a significant other.
"You mean you went back to that dusty junk pile?" Beth is incredulous. She leers at her cheap, paradoxically-loaded hubby.
"Thrift store, honey. It's a thrift store. And yes, I like a good deal. What's so terrible about that?" He waves his hand with all the flair of a game show model. As if to say, without actually saying it, How else do you think I made enough money to buy all this? You're welcome.
Beth isn't having it. "So pathological cheapness is the secret to success? Is that what you're driving at? You couldn't go all out just once, even to buy your son something that doesn't need to be dusted off?"
It's officially on.
"All out? Go all out? Are you kidding me, Beth? All I do is go all out!" He begins to twirl his arms in the air. "How else do you think --"
Beth thrusts her quivering palm in his face. "Stop it! Just stop right there! If I hear one more time about this palace that the king has so graciously built for his ungrateful queen, I'm going to explode!"
"You're not exploding already? Well call me when your fuse gets lit!"
George might as well not even exist when his parents go at it like this. In fact, he has been absent for a good ten minutes before they even notice. He has once again retreated to his bedroom. Eventually, the storm dies down. Day turns into night. And there in the darkness, a vestige. A trace. A lone and out-of-place object. The "gift" remains on the dark Brazilian Cherry floor.
"I'll be with you in a sec."
The elderly proprietor calls out from the back. It takes a little bit for him to emerge. When he does, he is greeted by his most loyal customer.
"Well hey there, son. What can I do for you?"
The customer grins from ear to ear. "Son! Ha ha. That's one of the reasons I love this place. Where else can I be made to feel so young?"
JC Redding has a recent purchase tucked under his arm. The playful banter has somewhat mitigated his annoyance. Until, that is, he is forced to explain the reason for his visit.
"I need to return this thing, if I can." He holds the object of contention in his upturned hands. "I bought it for my son. But he doesn't give two flips about it. And my wife -- "
The old man interrupts. "I'm sorry, Mr. Redding. I don't give refunds or accept returned merchandise. That's been my policy for a long time. I thought you knew that."
At this news, Redding wrestles with almost unbearable exasperation. Cursing under his breath, he turns to leave. "Hold up there, son." The old man is beckoning his return with gnarled fingers. "Let me take another look at that thing."
Hesitantly, a cherry-cheeked Redding approaches the counter. The old man reaches into his faded shirt pocket and pulls out a pair of beige-rimmed spectacles. The object shakes in his hands as he inspects every square inch. As if he hasn't seen it before. As if it wasn't sold in his own store. Redding watches in ever-growing confusion.
After a few minutes of awkward silence, curious grunts turn into commentary.
"Interesting. Very interesting. I'm not sure where this thing came from. My son does most of the acquisitions these days. I can't get out there like I used to. You know?"
The old man briefly and pitifully looks up. Redding nods with understanding. At the same time, he struggles mightily to hold in a booming thought. So are you gonna give me a refund or not? Otherwise, what's the point of this inspection? I could be outta here already. You see, that's the rub with one John Charles Redding. His mood can swing more wildly than his hedge funds.
Respectfully, though, he must ask a burning question.
"Do you not remember selling it to me? Yesterday? You told me it was special."
The old man sets the object down on the rotting counter. Removing his glasses, he looks at Redding with a blank expression. "I'm sorry, son. I really don't. My memory ain't what it used to be. But if I said it was special, then it must be special." He begins to chuckle. "I wouldn't lie to you. I am sure of that. You don't last in business this long by being dishonest."
Both men turn their attention to the object. There it sits, partially illuminated by a dim light bulb hanging overhead. The shape is square, a cube, inset with circular "windows" of various colors on the sides. There is strange writing on the top and bottom. The old man theorizes that it's a Japanese toy. Redding doesn't think so, having spent considerable time in Tokyo on business. That is most definitely not Japanese script, he assures himself.
The old man steps away to answer the phone. Redding drums impatiently on the counter's edge with his uncalloused fingertips. He pivots his head around, scanning the disorganized heap of secondhand items. Too bad. Else he would be in a better position to avoid some impending and unbelievable pain.
What appears, at first glance, to be a bowling ball has rolled off the counter onto his foot. The subsequent curses are so loud that the old man is forced to hang up the phone. A young mother, covering her son's ears, quickly exits the store.
Redding picks up the offender, surprised at it's lack of weight. How can something so light inflict so much pain on a human foot? On the counter, it becomes apparent that the object is no bowling ball. No finger holes, no indentations of any kind. It's transparent, clear as crystal. Simultaneously, the two men reach out to touch the curious object. When they make contact, it begins to vibrate, emitting a humming sound. And as if the strangeness hadn't quite reached its peak, the "ball" begins to glow -- from the inside. A pulsing array of beautiful hues. Brief but breathtaking.
Redding thinks to inquire about this spherical oddity, but he quickly discards the notion. He can see that the old man is equally perplexed. It's obvious this is his first encounter with it too -- at least that he can remember. One thing is for certain, though. Redding must have this thing, even if he has to reach uncomfortably deeper into his pocket.
Both men have utterly forgotten about the original item. The underperforming cube which brought Redding back here on this day. It's nowhere to be found, anyway. Vanished out of sight. Not that anyone is looking.
"Oh I can't BUH-LEEVE this!"
The drive home had been going so good. Redding was uncharacteristically beside himself with excitement. He had pulled off yet another impressive deal back at the thrift store. Sure, this deal won't make millions. Or hundreds. Or any money, actually. But he is confident that it will earn him some coveted brownie points with George.
He takes a quick glance at his unique "passenger" -- intermittently pulsing with an array of luminous colors. Strangely, he feels a sense of serenity mingled with purpose. As if some higher power is pleased with his acquisition.
Then it happens.
Beams of red light flood the car. Followed by blue. Redding looks in the rearview mirror, but he can't see the police cruiser. The flashing lights are too bright. Angrily pulling over, he figures his infraction must have been speeding.
Clearing his throat, Redding reaches into his mental holster for a legitimate excuse. He rolls down the window, anxiously awaiting for the officer to appear. Thirty seconds. One minute. Two minutes. Three. When five whole minutes have elapsed, he realizes that something is amiss.
It's not the wisest course of action in a situation such as this. Redding knows it. He's watched enough cop shows to know it. But, beset by confusion and growing anxiety, he does it anyway. He opens the car door and steps outside. Slowly, cautiously, on his own initiative. Once outside, squinting through the sunshine, his perplexity only deepens.
Not only is there a missing cop, but there is no cop car. Nothing. Nil. Nada. His beloved Benz sits eerily alone by the side of the road.
A breeze sweeps across his bewildered countenance. A final shake of his head and he turns back toward his car. At the precise moment when his fingertips touch the door handle, the flashing lights return. They are so bright that he stumbles backward, shielding his eyes with his forearm. You see, and he now sees, the red and blue lights don't belong to a police cruiser. Instead, they originate from his most recent, and most unusual, purchase. That ball thing can flash like a police siren, too! Oh yeah, I'm golden. George is gonna love it.
Redding reaches out to touch the spherical object in the passenger seat. But when he tries to remove his hand, it feels cemented to the "toy." Then, with his hand still irresistibly attached, two words reverberate through his mind. A simple instruction. Go slow. Go slow. Go slow.
Curious. The mental directive sounds like his own voice. But he knows that it's more than his imagination. He is confident that it's beyond mere internal dialogue. It's as if the sphere is telepathically communicating with him. Ordinarily, he would quickly discard such a "ridiculous" notion, provided such a notion ever gained entrance to his brain at all. But considering the day's bizarre goings-on...Well, maybe more is possible than JC Redding has allowed himself to believe.
Regaining control of his hand, he returns to the road. All the while repeating to himself the pointed command. Go slow. Go slow. Go slow. Actually, he is surprised when he hears the words flowing out of his own mouth. In any event, he does indeed go slow. The wisdom of this decision will soon become apparent.
Traffic is sparse at first. But a few miles up the road, Redding approaches a queue of motionless cars. He can see several people walking around, clearly upset. There's been a major accident. As he would later learn, something caused the traffic light to malfunction, resulting in a multi-car collision.
For a flicker of time, Redding begins to feel annoyance at yet another delay. But his better self, the one with compassion, quickly takes over. He feels really bad for those people ahead of him. Those who were unfortunate enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong moment of time. And their loved ones. It could have very easily been him, if...
Wait a minute. The realization hits him with sudden and awe-inspiring force. He looks at the spherical object beside him. It dimly pulses with the same red and blue lights, as if to confirm its new owner's insight. That thing saved my life! Redding realizes that, had it not mimicked a police siren, causing him to pull over, it would be his mangled car up there under the traffic light. Then he remembers the telepathic admonition to go slow, for good measure. Tears well up in his eyes, an occurrence so rare to almost qualify as a miracle on its own.
It might be a while before he makes it home. That's okay. He will have something extraordinarily special under his arm, whenever he arrives.
"Are you kidding me?"
Beth slings the ice pack across the room. Her head is pounding to the beat of an epic migraine. She had hoped to get some peace and relaxation before hubby gets home. (If history is any guide, there will likely be an argument about something -- even if it's the most trivial of matters.) But it's not to be.
She bolts from the couch, annoyed beyond belief, to see what's the trouble with George. Although sequestered behind his bedroom door, she can hear his voice. He's yelling something. She can't quite make it out. Sort of sounds like the word "orbit," but she's not sure. Ordinarily, it would make her concerned that something's wrong. But as she approaches the door through blurred vision, she can hear him giggling and laughing between outbursts.
Must be playing a video game or watching one of his shows, she reasons to herself. Withdrawing her extended hand from the doorknob, she turns and walks away. Just in time to miss the colorful slivers of light escaping under the door.
"So George, how was school today? Anything interesting happen?"
Beth quizzes her unusually-quiet son, who hasn't made eye contact all evening. It's dinner time, and the youngest Redding seems inordinately focused on his bowl of soup. He manages to shake his head in the negative between slurps, hoping against hope to end the line of questioning.
What he doesn't realize, but should, is that his mother isn't seeking new information. Only a confession. For she has recently been apprised of the day's happening at school. By no less than the principal, in whose office George had spent some considerable time.
"Really, son?" She is light years away from giving up. "Nothing? So just another day of learning and schoolwork. Right? And you didn't get into any fights?" At this latter question George abruptly drops his spoon into his bowl. Busted. Now the only remaining slurps belong to his ravenous and disengaged father.
"Son, look at me. How many times have we told you to walk away? You know they just like to provoke you. Then what happens? You are the one who gets in trouble. Then I am the one who has to drop my plans and deal with another uncomfortable phone call."
Beth shifts her frustration to her furiously-slurping husband. "And you. Are you here? At all? Don't you have anything to add to this discussion? Take some sort of interest in your son's education, for crying out loud."
It's been a minute since John Charles encountered the mind-boggling capabilities of the "secondhand" sphere. Sure, on that day, he connected with a part of himself that he didn't know existed. A rendezvous with the paranormal tends to have that effect. But the memory of that day has faded behind the incessant demands of business, an incredulous spouse and his own self-doubt.
"Oh Beth, come on. Give the boy a break. Fights are gonna happen. I had my fair share when I was his age. Relax."
A grin of relief momentarily forms on George's freckled face. At least he's not completely outnumbered this time.
Normally, Beth's eyes are beautifully blue. But in this moment, as she glares at her other half, they might as well be flaming orange. She has crossed over beyond frustration to fury. She can't handle the indifference. Or being told to "relax." And she really can't deal with the fact that John Charles still hasn't bothered to look at her.
It doesn't take long for George's grin to fade. He realizes what's about to happen. Another screaming match. Probably a few broken dishes in a few minutes from now. In times past, he would run to his bedroom and cower in the closet. But not this time. The precocious boy who dreams of becoming a scientist decides upon an experiment.
George screams at the top of his youthful lungs. It's not enough to calm the storm. So he gives it another go.
"ORB IT! ORB IT! ORB IT!"
Eyes closed, he can't see their reaction. But he hears something wonderful. Silence. Carefully, slowly, he sneaks a peek through one slightly-raised eyelid. His parents are staring at him with utter confusion. Soon it transitions into compassion.
Beth is the first to speak -- with a broken voice and teary eyes. "George, honey, we're sorry. This is not the way parents should act. No wonder you have been fighting at school. It's all you see at home."
John Charles nods in agreement. Suddenly he leans over and plants a gentle kiss on his wife's cheek. "And I'm sorry, sweetheart, to you. I love you. I'm gonna try my best to be better around here. You guys deserve nothing less."
Broadly smiling, George looks upward. To the pulsing sphere of kaleidoscopic light hovering above his parents' heads. Hot dog, it works!
"What works?" Mom and Dad inquire in unison.
Oops. George didn't mean to think out loud. He just grins and asks to be excused. He is pretty sure they wouldn't believe him, anyway. Besides, there are more experiments to try.
"Okay team, here's the latest."
Dr. Kelly Chandler has assembled his volunteer staff of researchers in the briefing room of The O.R.B. Corp headquarters.
"A recent case has revealed further details concerning the capabilities of these things."
The things to which Dr. Chandler refers are the mysterious and ubiquitous spheres of light that have recently taken an influential interest in earthly affairs.
"So apparently the orbs can shape-shift, solidify into tangible form and even morph into an impressive array of material objects." He pauses for a moment to let the news sink in. "And, it seems, they can also mimic everyday sounds and other sensory effects. The good news? So far, they have employed these abilities for benevolent ends. Now it falls to us to determine, hopefully, the mechanism by which they're doing it. I don't need to explain the promising possibilities if we are successful in this task."
Suddenly the exhausted scientist undergoes a bout of coughing. His young assistant springs into action, bringing a cup of water.
"Thanks so much, Robbie. I really like that shirt, by the way."
The industrious intern sports a black, star-littered tee. In the center, a single word.
"What's it say?" Dr. Chandler leans forward.
© Matt Decker
Author Notes: SPHERES OF INFLUENCE series
Inspired by my poem "Zorb the Superb Orb"