The Practical Joke
by Linda L. Rigsbee
Story 12


"Come on, Carla," Mrs. Ledner coaxed, her voice almost a whine. Her penciled black brows sagged over sunken eyes. "It's just a little joke. You don't have to do anything but stand there."
Carla shook her head so vigorously that a blonde curl dislodged itself from the bun at the nape of her neck. She quickly tucked it back into place and repositioned her glasses with a neatly manicured index finger. "I'm not one for practical jokes," she said firmly. There were some things a supervisor shouldn't even think of requesting. Deception was one, especially of a bank employee.
"Don't think of it as a practical joke," Mrs. Ledner persisted. In her faded blue eyes, and on that heavily powdered face, there was an expression of exasperation. "Think of it as a lesson. My nephew is always bragging that he never forgets a face. Anyway, Lance enjoys a good joke as much as I do."
"But he's never seen me," Carla responded in a controlled voice as she pressed the button to start her computer. It was going to be one of those days. Mrs. Ledner was a nice enough person, but definitely entering her second childhood. The closer she got to seventy, the further she got from maturity. Why did everything have to be a game?
Mrs. Ledner stuffed her ample purse into a desk drawer. Her eyes twinkled with anticipation. "Of course he's never met you. That's just the point. He'll be racking his brain to remember who you are. It'll be a blast."
Carla carefully arranged her skirt and sat in her chair, rolling it up to her desk. Using her most professional tone as she reached for a stack of papers, she parried off the prank.
"I know you mean no harm, but one of these days a joke is going to backfire on you."
Mrs. Ledner chuckled. "Then you'll do it?"
Carla gave her boss a level look. "As I said, I'm not into that kind of thing. Besides, I'm going to be busy at noon. I'll be leaving on Wednesday and I have some packing to do.
Mrs. Ledner shrugged as she methodically selected a folder from her in-basket. "You're always so formal and…." She shrugged again. "You need to get out and enjoy life. Why don't you try going on one of those cruise ships as a passenger instead of an employee? You're far too young to be so serious."
Carla tried to focus on logging into the system. In Mrs. Ledner's youth, being twenty-three and single wasn't something to brag about. Back then a woman depended on the man to provide a secure financial future. Theoretically Mrs. Ledner appreciated the independence that women now enjoyed, but she was still hung up on a woman's role. Mr. Ledner had provided a secure future for her as well as a job in his bank. Maybe that was why she considered her new temp to be obsessed with work.
It wasn’t' obsession, though. It was dedication. Now was the time to tuck money away, not after she was married and trying to raise children. Anyway, after four years of study at the University, working on a cruise ship was more like an extended vacation.
Mrs. Ledner twisted around in her chair so that she could see Carla. "Money isn't everything, you know. You can't take it with you," she quipped.
The worn out phrases were as annoying as the scratchy voice. It was easy enough for Mrs. Ledner to say. She probably had more money than she had years left to spend it. The two sayings were excuses used by irresponsible people who wanted to live for today only.
"Oh, I know." Mrs. Ledner said. "You kids think you're invincible, but the clock is still ticking. Some day you'll wake up and wonder why you didn't have fun when you were young enough to enjoy it."
Carla stared at the blinking cursor on her screen, quelling down an angry retort. That argument was nothing more than a rationalization for horseplay. It was a sixties excuse for playing now and letting their children pay later. Well, this was a new millennium - a new generation that couldn't count on Social Security benefits for retirement.
Money, not adventure, had been her reason for accepting the aerobics instructor position on the Meridian. Since the Meridian only made one voyage a month, it left her with two weeks free for other jobs. This time she was filling in for a bank employee who was on vacation. Next time she was in port, the temporary service would find something else for her. They always did. Her little efficiency apartment at the edge of Miami wasn't much, but it was an economical place to sleep and eat. She could live comfortably without taking jobs on her leave, but she wouldn't be able to save as much money. Her schedule didn't allow much time for romance, but that was just as well. There would be time enough for that later. Her education and experience would give her a good chance at a job in school when her children were old enough. That was her ultimate goal.
She forced the thought from her mind and concentrated on her work. July was the best time to find a good job because so many people were on vacation. She intended to take advantage of every minute of it.

It was an unusually quiet Monday and the morning drug by. Finally it declared itself complete with a Westminster chime from the grandfather clock in the corner of the room. Carla grabbed her purse and headed for the door. Lance Ingram was supposed to take his aunt to lunch. According to her he was never late.
Carla avoided looking at Mrs. Ledner as she passed her desk. Hopefully the old lady had forgotten about the practical joke. If not, she didn't want to be standing there, handy for the joke. Nor did she want to witness the young man's embarrassment when he couldn't recall her name.
The door swung open and her attention unintentionally focused on the man. Lance Ingram was flirting with thirty in an unusually attractive fashion. Well over six feet, he was a big man who didn't appear to have an ounce of fat on him. His copper colored hair resembled a Brillow pad and bushy brows hovered in a straight line over a sharp chocolate gaze. That gaze met hers with a familiarity that warmed her cheeks.
Mrs. Ledner glanced curiously from one of them to the other. "You remember her name, don't you Lance?" She appeared a little worried that he might, at that.
"Certainly," Ingram answered smoothly.
Carla suppressed a smile. If she had met him, she would certainly have remembered. He was tossing bait at Mrs. Ledner - luring her in for a feast of revenge.
Ingram finally shifted his gaze to Mrs. Ledner. I'm afraid I have some bad news. Uncle Bill wants you to meet him at Hartman's Jewelry store." His facial expression was bland, but his eyes twinkled. "I think he has a surprise for your birthday."
Mrs. Ledner lifted her brows. "You mean he remembered this time?" She eyed him suspiciously. "Or did he have a little help?"
Ingram shrugged, his expression innocent. "I'm guessing you helped him out some."
Mrs. Ledner chuckled and then glanced at Carla. "Oh, maybe you could take your friend to lunch instead."
Carla gasped. It was bad enough to play a practical joke on her nephew, but to put them both into such a position was....
"That's a fine idea," Ingram answered casually as he turned to Carla. "Would you allow me to take you to lunch Miss Baynes?" 
Mrs. Ledner caught her breath and stared accusingly at Carla. "You know each other."
Carla retrieved her fallen jaw and smiled up at him sweetly. "I'd love to. We have a lot of things to discuss."
He brushed by the stammering Mrs. Ledner and took her elbow. "Marcey's Sea Food? Is that still your preference?"
For a moment she could only stare at him. "Y…yes," she finally stammered. "I didn't think you'd remember."
"How could I forget?" He glanced down at Mrs. Ledner as he guided Carla to the door. "If I was you, Aunt Millie, I wouldn't keep Uncle Bill waiting too long. He might change his mind."
As they stepped out into the bright sunlight, she squinted up at him. "I don't normally go for that kind of thing, but she really had it coming." She canted her head to the side. "But how did you know who I was?"
He lifted a brow. "I made it a point to find out."
She frowned. "Why? You couldn't have known she was going to do that. It was a spur of the moment thing - wasn't it?"
He chuckled softly. "With Aunt Millie, you never know. Anyway, she had nothing to do with my interest in you." He opened the door of a little blue KIA. "I noticed you coming out of Marcey's about a month ago."
She glanced nervously at the open door. What did she know about this man? "And you remembered?" she stalled.
His smile was beguiling. "Enough to inquire who you were."
She clutched her purse under her arm and frowned up at him. "But why?"
He shrugged, his eyes filled with mischief. "Maybe it was those lovely long legs, or the way you swayed back and forth so elegantly on those heels. I don't know. I simply thought I'd like to meet you." He held the door for her. "You're a hard person to approach. I'm grateful to Aunt Millie for providing the opportunity." He bowed and swooped a hand to the open car door. "Your carriage awaits, Miss Baynes."
She hesitated. She had agreed to the luncheon thinking he was merely teasing his aunt. How could she back out gracefully? Deep inside of her, a voice said there was no honorable way, but it was the voice of desire, not logic. She smiled up at him nervously. "Please don't feel obligated to follow through with this joke."
He sobered immediately. "I don't find the idea of taking you out to lunch even remotely amusing. As I said, I have been wanting to ask you for a long time." He studied her face for a moment. "On the other hand, if going to lunch with me is your idea of a joke..."
Logic and desire made friends instantly. "No. It's just that...well, we're practically strangers and…."
He smiled. "And it's time we got acquainted."
His smile was infectious. She accepted his outstretched hand and he helped her into the car. At some point, every friend was a stranger. At any rate, it wasn't as if she knew nothing about him.
One hour was enough to discover that Ingram was both entertaining and intelligent. Ingram could charm the fangs out of a snake, she suspected. And yet, he came across as sincere. Maybe that was part of his charm. Whatever the case, by the time they left the restaurant, she had agreed to joint him for lunch on Tuesday.

Two lunch dates shouldn't have been enough to form a significant friendship. Still, Wednesday morning he was at the dock with the rest of the crowd, waving to her as the Meridian left port. She waved and turned away from the rail. It was a good thing she had enough work to keep her mind occupied. The last thing she needed right now was a romantic relationship. It was unexpected and unwelcome. Her face warmed at the lie. Unexpected, to be sure, but unwelcome? For the first time she wondered if an eight-hour-a-day job in Miami might be more enjoyable. It was a premature thought. Five years from now a romantic relationship would fit into her plans, but not now. It wouldn't be fair to him and it certainly wouldn't be a sound financial decision. Lance Ingram was a temptation she would simply have to avoid.

If fantastic weather and quiet ports could be called an uneventful trip, it was all of that. Still, her thoughts often returned to a tall man. Would he be waiting when the Meridian docked? The question brought a warm flush to her cheeks. No more than a week ago the thought would have been unwelcome. She mentally shook her mind from the subject. It was one thing to dream, but quite another to let those dreams stand in the way of her future. Any warm fuzzy feelings she had about Ingram needed to be stowed away for a while.
And yet, as the Meridian docked, she stood at the rail, searching for him in the hundreds who joyfully met returning friends and family. Her solemn gaze brushed over the crowd and probed hopefully at the gates. He was a busy man. By now he would have forgotten her. Why should he….
"Welcome back," a familiar voice called from below.
She glanced down and her heart executed a childish leap of joy. She blushed. "What are you doing here?" Her blush deepened at his perplexed expression. "I mean, isn't this a scheduled work day?"
A wry smile twisted his lips. "Get down here," he ordered with mock authority.
She dutifully descended to the dock, and stopped in front of him. She saluted him. "Yes sir."
His bittersweet chocolate gaze melted with warmth as he reached for her hands. He pulled her into his strong arms and hugged her thoroughly. She returned his hug quickly and stepped back.
Ingram lifted his bushy brows. "How about a little enthusiasm here? You don't act like you're all that glad to see me."
Obviously he had no idea how her heart raced at the touch of his hands, at the sound of his voice. She sighed. "Of course I'm glad to see you. I'm just a little surprised. I didn't expect you to be here."
He eyed her suspiciously. "Have I stumbled into someone else's territory?"
She caught her breath. "No." She blushed at her instant denial. Still, his question provided the perfect opportunity to enlighten him. "I mean, at this point in my life, I don't want to be distracted by a romantic relationship."
He frowned. "Somehow I never thought of myself as a distraction. I don't know whether I should be insulted or flattered."
She laughed. "Well, consider yourself flattered."
He nodded; his expression unreadable. "All right, but what's so important about this particular point in your life?"
She shrugged. "Financial responsibility, I suppose. Some day I plan to get married and have children. I don't want to rush into it. I want to be financially prepared."
His eyes held a glint of humor. "My Dad always told me that if you wait until you were financially ready for a wife, you would accompany her down the isle in a wheelchair."
She stiffened. "Yeah? Well, if the wife had a little money in the bank, maybe she wouldn't be such a financial burden for him."
The humor left his eyes. "I suppose that's one interpretation. I just figured he meant that you could wait too long. Security is a facade, you know."
"Not if you plan well," she insisted resolutely. "And stick to your plan."
"I used to think that," he said. "But nobody knows what tomorrow holds." He brushed a loose curl from her forehead and then smiled. "You could slip on a deck and break your neck."
She made a face at him. "Or step on a crack and break my mother's back." She took his big hand in hers and met his gaze. "I understand that some things are beyond our control, but you can't expect to achieve goals you never set."
He squeezed her hand and lifted a one brow. "Oh, I don't know. I've achieved a few things without intending to do so." His expression grew somber. "Anyway, it seems to me that if you insist on focusing on one thing, you might miss something even better along the way."

They were words that came to her mind often in the next two weeks. Was he a distraction from her goal, or was he that something special along the way? Certainly his friendship was an unexpected pleasure. Still, the more she saw of him, the less she thought about her goal. Sometimes her fantasies even slipped into the marital mode. Love at first sight was a fantasy in itself. Sure, some people formed an instant bond, but that wasn't love. Love was something that grew in years, not moments. Three weeks was hardly enough time to fall in love - barely enough time to get to know someone.
The Meridian was scheduled for a special 20-day cruise on Wednesday. Lance wasn't fond of the idea, but he'd get used to it.
She climbed the stairs to her apartment with a sack of groceries in one hand and her purse in the other. As she fumbled with the lock, the telephone rang inside. She finally reached it on the fourth ring.
"Carla?" A soft voice inquired.
"Yes, Mom. How are things going?" She set the groceries on the cabinet and dropped to the couch.
"Fine. We just wanted to let you know your father and I will be out of town for a week. We're going to take that vacation you suggested. I'm anxious to see the Statue of Liberty. I'm a little worried about the flight, though. I hope neither of us get air sick."
Carla leaned forward on the couch. "That's great! You'll love it. The Meridian is leaving Wednesday and we'll be out for 20 days this time. Lance says he has a business trip to New York week after next."
"Oh really? That's when we'll be there. Maybe we'll have a chance to meet him finally."
Carla laughed. "Oh, Mom. New York isn't like Cartersville. It has more than one street." She tucked her feet under her dress. "I'll give him your cell phone number. If he has time, maybe he'll call."
"That would be nice." A brief pause and then, "Will you be coming home for Thanksgiving this year? I can't imagine people going on a cruise during Thanksgiving and Christmas. Maybe you could come home during one of your weeks in port. I know it isn't very exciting around here but we sure miss you."
It was falling into the usual conversation. She didn't have a car she would trust to drive 800 miles and a plane ticket would shrink her savings. She sighed. "I'll try to make it home for Thanksgiving or Christmas. Maybe I can get Lance to come along."
They talked for a few more minutes and then said their good-byes. Carla smiled as she replaced the receiver. She could picture Mom and Dad in New York City. They'd be lost, but they'd make the most of every minute, as they always did. How two people could have so much fun doing so little was beyond her comprehension. After thirty years of marriage, they were finally taking their first flight. That would be interesting to watch.

Lance had a meeting the morning the Meridian left port, so he wasn't there to see her off. Maybe it was better that way. He still wasn't too keen on the idea that she would be gone so long. She'd miss him, but it might provide her with enough time to regain her priorities. Love was wonderful, but it didn't put food on the table or provide healthcare. If they wanted a lasting relationship, it would need a financial backbone. They were young and still had plenty of time. If they loved each other enough, four weeks away wouldn't have a negative effect on their relationship. Unfortunately, Lance didn't agree. He wanted her to turn the trip down and keep her job at the dental clinic. It was a possibility. The girl on maternity leave was considering staying home with her baby. For Carla, it was a wake up call. If and when she had children, she wanted to be home with them. Lance was in full agreement with that part, but he wasn't thinking about the future. Lance lived for today.

The weather was fantastic and she soon fell back into the routine of her job. Two weeks into the cruise, she missed Lance, but she was convinced that she had made the right decision. They'd talk about it when she returned.
The trip was so relaxing that it was actually a little boring. All that changed the morning of September 11th. In the middle of an aerobics class, a woman came running out on the deck, screaming incoherently. She staggered across the deck, heading blindly for the rail. Carla grabbed her before she could fall from the deck. 
"Let me go!" The woman gasped, pounding on Carla's arms. "Oh GOD! No! NO!"
Carla dragged her away from the rail, her arms growing numb from the incessant blows. Finally the woman sagged to the deck, agonizing sobs shaking her body. "I told him he should have come with me!" she finally said in a trembling voice. "I told him." She moaned as she rocked back and forth, hugging herself. One hand clutched a cell phone so tightly that her knuckles were white. Her agonized gaze fixed on Carla's face. "I told him the company could live without him, and so could I." She sobbed uncontrollably. "I told him," she moaned over and over.
Carla wasn't sure what to do or say. Obviously this was more than a lover's quarrel. The deck was unnaturally silent except for the sobbing of the woman. The entire class stood around her, their expressions both perplexed and mirroring the woman's agony.
A man came running up to them. "Did you hear what happened?"
Carla shook her head. "I gather she had a fight with her husband and they separated, but…."
"The World Trade Center," he interrupted. "Did you hear about the attack?"
Carla stared at him. "What attack?"
Tears were running down his face. "Terrorist hijacked two of our airplanes and crashed them into both towers. They collapsed. They got the Pentagon, too."
Carla continued to stare at him, unable to comprehend. Surely he was mistaken. How could such a thing happen?
He wiped the tears from his face with his shirtsleeve. "It's all over television. The planes hitting the towers. The Pentagon burning." He nodded toward the sobbing woman. "I guess her husband was on one of the planes."
In an instant the class was racing below deck, leaving her alone with the sobbing woman. Slowly comprehension crept into Carla's brain. Her heart skipped a couple of beats and then raced frantically to catch up. Lance was in New York, and so were her parents. The blood drained from her head and she felt faint. For a moment she stood over the woman, longing to race inside the cabin and use her cell phone.
Finally she knelt beside the woman. "You couldn't have known," she soothed. She put an arm around the woman. "Let me help you to your cabin. I'll get the doctor."
The woman shook her head. "No," she moaned. "I shouldn't have come on this trip." She sobbed again. "I should have stayed in the States."
A sea gull swept over them, announcing a port of call with its nasal cry. A gust of wind snapped the flag crisply and she glanced up at it. Strange that she had never noticed it before.
She helped the woman to her feet and led her to the cabin. People were huddled around televisions in the massive lobby. Pictures of the towers burning and collapsing were on every set. It was surreal, like a movie no one could resist. They all stood transfixed, some with their hands over their mouths as they watched the towers collapse, over and over - one angle and then another.
At the infirmary, Carla gently eased the woman down to a cot and then the doctor was beside her. He said nothing, but his eyes were bloodshot.
The woman safely in the hands of the doctor, there was nothing more Carla could do. She retreated to her cabin and found her cell phone. She sat on the bed for a long time, afraid to dial the number. She thought of her mother's excited voice as she announced their plans to visit New York. And Lance, the look on his face when she told him for the last time that she was going on the Meridian. Yesterday they had a lifetime ahead of them. Was any of it left today? She dialed the number methodically and waited for the connection.
The telephone only rang once before a voice answered. "Mom?" she asked in a hushed tone.
"Carla? Thank God! I was so upset that I couldn't remember your number."
Carla's heart pounded. "Is Dad all right? Where are you?"
"Your father is fine. He's here with me...and so is Lance. We were at the Statue of Liberty when it happened. Lance wanted to see the Trade Center first, but..." her voice faltered and she started to cry. Finally she gained control. "He said he'd rather be with us. Can you imagine that?"
Carla's throat constricted and a tear slid off her cheek, splashing on the hand in her lap. She wiped the moisture from her eyes and sniffed. "I can imagine it," she finally responded. "I wish I was there right now."
The telephone scrapped as if it were exchanging hands. "Carla?" It was Lance. "I just wanted to say that I love you."
Carla cradled the phone in her hand and swallowed a sob. "I love you too," she finally managed. "When I get back, I'll see if that job is still open."
Today luck had been with them all. With the instability this day had brought, it was hard to tell how many more days they would have to share. Life wasn't so long after all. A person could only plan to an extent. The rest depended on fate.

****

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