The Marvelous Mind of Marilyn Hansen
By Lauren Derrick
Episode 2: Birthday SurpriseRobert Byrd climbed out of his yellow Jaguar convertible and eyed an aging brick rambler with peeling paint on the door frame. He wore a gray golf shirt and dark shades. Even with his whitening hair and tan slacks, his bearing was that of a man with nothing to fear. Quentin, a middle-aged man with a permanently worried expression, scrambled out of Byrd's passenger side.
“I think I should have grabbed a gift,” Quentin muttered. He clutched a paper sack full of glass wine bottles.
“What do you think you should have got her?” Byrd asked sarcastically. “An air fryer?”
Quentin scowled as they approached the front door. “It just seems rude to go to someone's birthday without bringing a gift.”
“The best gift you could give Mar,” Byrd said matter-of-factly, “is to show up and treat her like a friend and a human being. She doesn't show it, but she's actually really self-conscious about her telepathy.”
“Why's that?” Quentin asked, furrowing his eyebrows.
Byrd put his shades down a little to look Quentin in the eye. “Because when some idiots find out about it they treat her like a freak.”
Byrd knocked on the door, and Marilyn soon opened it, wearing a yellow floral print dress with a blue jacket. The local radio host jabbered in the background while guests mingled throughout the house. Marilyn smiled up at Byrd. “Oh good, you weren't too cross with me to come.”
“What, after you got my lazy butt to the publishers with my novel?” Byrd's smile was charming and jovial. “Of course I'm not mad. I didn’t even skewer your helper.”
Quentin’s mouth hung open a little, and Marilyn chuckled.
“May I?” Marilyn asked.
“Of course,” Byrd said.
Marilyn looked intently into Byrd's eyes for several seconds. He closed his eyes briefly, then opened them and blinked a few times. He grinned and walked inside, staring with an odd fascination at the right wall and ceiling.
Quentin stood face-to-face with Marilyn. The old woman shuffled uncomfortably.
“I'm creating an illusion,” she explained, “that makes it seem that we are somewhere else. It was a lot of work and preparation to create.”
“I bet.” Quentin said nervously. He glanced over at Byrd, who seemed to be walking around the living room, staring wide-eyed at the ceiling with a dopey grin on his face. He cleared his throat. “I...could I...be a part of it?”
Marilyn smiled. “Are you sure? I know how uncomfortable you were last time I got in your head.”
Quentin shrugged. “Oh, you know—PTSD. Everything makes me nervous. It sounds neat, though. I think I'd regret it if I didn't give it a try.”
“I could refer you to some good therapists. You aren’t alone,” Marilyn trailed off. “I'm going to make eye contact with you for a moment, then you need to close your eyes for a good five seconds. When you open them again, everything will seem different.”
Quentin stared uncomfortably into Marilyn's glassy black eyes. He shuffled a little, then closed his own eyes. When he opened them up, he was in New York City. Now it seemed that they were on the rooftop of a sky riser. Stars glittered in the night sky overhead. Balloons and birthday banners decorated the rooftop, along with tables and folding chairs.
Around lunchtime, Finley sat down at a white tile kitchen counter and poured herself a bowl of cereal. She shoved a heaping spoonful into her mouth. She checked her newsfeed and leaned in a little towards her phone, looking intently at an article entitled, “Wonder Pug Strikes Again: Alerts Man to Runaway Car.”
Finley smiled and wiped a little milk from the corner of her mouth with a paper towel. She sent the article in a text message to Jake.
Look at this—it looks just like Ladybug. We have to show Grandma.
A few bites after she sent the text, her phone vibrated in response.
idk, pugs all look the same to me squashed nose and bug eyes
ps the game was canceled. on our way back.
Finley chewed thoughtfully and then sent back, Why was your game canceled?
Finley replied. It must have been really bad if they canceled the championship game over it.
i know u only met the guy once and said he was a total creeper so right again
Finley grimaced uncomfortably and put her phone face down on the table. She took a few deep breaths in a disturbed silence before pulling her hair back into a ponytail. She finished her cereal then started digging around in a cupboard. She found a small bottle of off-brand acetaminophen and shoved it deep into her pants pocket.
Marilyn crossed the roof platform to where Byrd stood. He was gazing out at a series of buildings that had banners down their sides, each banner with a face and a set of years marked beneath the face. One showed an elderly woman of Asian descent, “1945-2002” beneath her stately gaze. Byrd gestured to the banner.
“She sure had a good run, didn't she?” He asked.
Marilyn smiled. “Yes. She taught me Korean, you know.”
Byrd looked confused. “I don't remember you speaking Korean.”
Marilyn's mouth cracked up into a grin. “I don't—I was a terrible student.”
“Have you seen Francesco yet?” Marilyn asked.
Byrd sighed, scratching the back of his head. “No, I've got Monica and Kirby watching for him. Everyone's worried about him.”
Marilyn scowled. “If he'd just admit he needs to see a therapist…”
“Francesco doesn't exactly live in the realms of reality. Probably still hitting on waitresses half his age and not realizing what a creep he's being.”
“His capacity to be in denial has always been impressive.” Marilyn sighed.
There was a pause as they gazed out at the night sky. Behind them, well-toned seniors chatted with a few younger guests sprinkled in. Classical music filled the air. Wind and the sound of sirens pierced their ears. The banners on the buildings were a stark contrast to the dark hues of the city and the night sky.
“This was a nice idea, memorializing them all like this.” Byrd gestured to the many buildings that held banners, faces of long-dead friends staring stoically back at them. “It's a nice fantasy—seeing them recognized for the heroes they were.”
Marilyn's eyes turned down reverently. “Being a hero when nobody else will ever know—that's the truest form of heroism, isn't it?”
“It just may be.” Byrd said quietly. “Though if anyone has a right to know,” Byrd said thoughtfully, “it would be their families.”
Marilyn eyed Byrd suspiciously. “Now just what are you getting at, Robert?”
Byrd sat down in a folding chair—or at least, what appeared to be a folding chair Marilyn hesitantly sat next to him. “It just wasn't for me, doing the whole family thing.”
Marilyn smirked. “I think you would have made a wonderful father.”
“Yeah, well, you were taken...” Byrd trailed off and cleared his throat. “It’s actually one of my biggest regrets—not starting a family. Maybe we're heroes. Maybe we're better heroes because nobody knows about it. But if I'm being selfish, and you know I'm good at that—I want someone to know. I don't want to be another manila folder that gets lost in a filing cabinet somewhere only to be memorialized on someone's Twitter feed in 50 years.”
Marilyn raised her eyebrow. “We all know about you.”
“Sure, sure. But it's different. Everyone here is the family I never had. But they ain't blood—you know? Not a legacy.”
Marilyn shifted uncomfortably in her chair. “I'm sure you're about to make a point as to why I ought to tell my daughter and grandchildren, Robert. But I can't.”
Marilyn paused, casting her eyes downward. “I never told you what happened to my husband. He... he didn't take it well. When I told him, that is.”
Byrd turned his gaze to his feet. “I'm sorry, Mar.”
“I’m always recommending therapists to people—I suppose I really ought to have seen one about it.”
Byrd started. “You mean you haven't?”
Finley had her phone wedged between her ear and her shoulder while she tied a pair of Converse sneakers. “Oh—I, uh, finished looking into the psychology program pre-reqs.”
There was a shifting sound on the phone, as if someone was shifting around uncomfortably. “Psychology, hon? What about your headaches? Don’t you think—don’t you think working with people like that might make things worse?”
“No, Mom. Why?”
Finley's mother paused and let out a long breath over the receiver. “It's just...you seem to get more of these headaches when you're around people. Particularly people who are…struggling. Have you spoken to Dr. Bankhead about social anxiety?”
Finley rolled her eyes. “I don't have social anxiety, Mom. It’s—it’s hard to explain. Dr. Bankhead says I have chronic migraines. I think he’s just blowing me off.”
“Okay, okay. Just asking. So Jake told you his game got canceled, right?” Her mother changed the subject so quickly that Finley barely had time to react.
“Well I thought since it's Grandma's birthday that we'd head over and give her our presents a day early. Can you pull them out of the closet? They should be wrapped up and ready to go.”
Finley finished tying her right shoe and hobbled over to the closet with her other shoe untied. “Sure.”
She opened up the closet and found three gift bags sitting on a shelf above the jackets.
“Great—we're probably still half an hour away. I'll call Grandma and let her know we're coming. Can you meet us over there?”
“Yeah, I don't have work until 5—late shift again.” Finley said, grabbing a blue bag featuring a pug in a party hat. She gave the goofy googley eyes on it an appraising look.
“That's great,” her mom said. “By the way, did Jake tell you that the other team's coach got arrested? It's awful—I'll have to tell you all about it later. Just be SO careful around older guys you don’t know…”
“I will, Mom.” Finley said, rolling her eyes.
“Your husband has been dead for... what... 40 years? And you haven't seen a therapist or talked with anyone about it?” Byrd's eyes were wide and his eyebrows raised.
Marilyn set her jaw. “Robert, if you could press all the right buttons in your brain to stay functional and avoid feeling the effects of long-buried trauma, would you do it?”
Byrd faltered. “You’re always telling people to deal with their problems!”An evil eye glance from Marilyn told him to shut his mouth. Byrd stopped talking and reached out a hand towards Marilyn. Her eyes softened as she took his hand and squeezed it gently. “I know I ought to deal with it. It's just—I've been putting it off for so long now. Sometimes I think it's better if Jill and the kids never know.”
Byrd grimaced. “Well, as long as they don’t ever find out from another source.”
Marilyn perked up briefly, and a confused look crossed her face. “I think my telephone is ringing.”
“Francesco?” Byrd asked, and then he added, “I'm kind of surprised you didn't decide to disguise your telephone ring as a helicopter sound or something.”
“Oh, I would have—but sometimes those scam artists calling about my car's 'extended warranty' are so persistent. There may have been too many helicopter noises for the city to handle,” Marilyn said idly before walking aimlessly to an empty spot of the roof where nobody stood. She appeared to be lifting the receiver to an invisible phone.
“Hello, Hansen residence.” Marilyn said, speaking into the receiver.
“Hey, Mom!” A sweet voice came over the line. “Happy Birthday!”
Marilyn's eyes brightened. “Jill! Thank you—good to hear from you, sweetie. How did Jakey's football game go?”
Jill sighed. “The game was cancelled.”
Marilyn gasped. “After you drove all the way down there?”
“Yeah, Jake is pretty disappointed that he didn't get to play. What are you up to right now, Mom? It sounds like you have people over.”
“Yes.” Marilyn admitted. “A bunch of my old friends have come to throw me a party.”
Jill sounded pleased. “That's great! I've always wanted to meet your friends. We're actually just a few minutes out, and so we thought we'd run over some gifts for you and Ladybug.”
Marilyn's face fell. “Uh...oh...that's…”
Jill interrupted before she could finish, her voice breaking up as reception began to fail. “Oh, we're coming up on the dead spot now, so I'm probably going to cut out soon, but we'll see you in a few! Love you!”
“Love you too,” Marilyn replied weakly as the sound cut off. She gently hung up the phone and let out a long slow breath. When she looked up, Byrd was standing right behind her.
“Your kid is coming over?” He asked gently.Marilyn just nodded. A beautiful white table cloth fluttered on the breeze. Champagne glasses, desserts, and wine decorated it. Byrd patted Marilyn gently on the back before he walked over, took a glass and tapped it loudly with a fork. Nearly twenty guests settled down and turned towards him.
“So...we've got a bit of a situation.” Byrd began. “Marilyn's daughter and grandkids are on their way over, and they don't know about her telepathy, so we're going to have to end the illusion.”
Murmurs and whispers filled the roof.
Marilyn put her hand up, waving to get her guests' attention. “I'm terribly sorry, everyone. My daughter was supposed to be out of town today. I suppose the party is over.”
There was silence in the crowd for a moment. Balloons and bouquets of flowers stirred in the wind.
Finally, an elderly woman with a strong nose and black hair pulled back in a long braid, folded her arms. “We came to celebrate you, Marilyn. Not just to take advantage of your party tricks. New York, California—doesn't matter. I'm not going anywhere.”
A middle-aged Latina with a business-like air stepped forward and clapped her hands. “All right, people, time to see what you're made of. If you can fool drug lords and tyrants then this should be a cakewalk. Remember, Marilyn's main cover careers included psycho-therapy and editing.”
Marilyn stood, glancing around somewhat flustered as her party guests began to chat eagerly about what persona they would adopt for her family's sake.
Finley parked her car on a crowded street. Expensive cars lined the curb in front of Marilyn's house. A yellow Jaguar caught Finley's eye. She stared at it for a second then pulled out her phone, accessing the article she had seen earlier that morning. She scrolled down for a minute to a video that was obviously taken with a phone.
A little pug stood with paws on the steering wheel of the yellow convertible car and barked excitedly at an older man with white hair and a yellow golf tee. Finley noticed a heart-shaped tag on the collar. Finley's eyes darted between the cars. They were identical, right down to the purple leaf-shaped air freshener hanging from the rear view mirror and Betty Boop bumper sticker.
The party guests chattered quietly in Marilyn's rambler. It seemed crowded now with all the walls and furniture suddenly visible and no wide expansive sky and sea of skyscrapers to gaze over. Marilyn cleared her throat and spoke loudly, gesturing to a giant gaudy gold balloon shaped like a 75. “I'd just like to acknowledge Karen—she always brings me a balloon and some basic decor just in case something goes amiss at one of these parties. This may be the first time we've ever actually needed it...but thank you, Karen. Your preparation has really paid off.”A woman with a gray bob beamed at Marilyn. Other guests hurried to decorate the house. The doorbell rang. The guests watched solemnly as Marilyn began walking towards the front door.
“Thank you all.” Marilyn announced, voice tinted by emotion. “You are the best friends an old woman could ask for.”
Finley walked towards the door, phone pocketed and arms laden with gift bags. She heard a screech and jumped a little as she turned. A silver Volvo skidded into a short, empty space just behind the Jaguar. Finley cringed at the loud sound, like nails on a chalkboard, of the Volvo scraping the yellow car. Not long after, an elderly man with a classy brown tweed suit and a mustache exited the vehicle, carrying a dozen red roses and a bottle of champagne. He eyed the damage he had done and snorted.
“Eh, it’s just Byrd’s car.” The man muttered in a thick Italian accent. “He has no eye for detail. He probably won’t even notice!”
Finley stood, horrified, as the newcomer tipped his feathered Homburg hat and began shuffling toward her.
“Che piacare vederti! You are the spitting image of your grandmother!” The man exclaimed.
Finley stood awkwardly with her gifts. “Uh, thanks?”
“When Marilyn was younger, she had curls just like this!” The man made a swirling motion next to his head. “What a treat to get another glimpse of her in her prime!”
Finley cocked an eyebrow. Her mouth hung a little ajar as she stared searchingly into the older man’s eyes. “Uh... Thank you... How do you know my grandma?”
“Oh, we go way back.” The man said. His words seemed a little slurred. Finley tried to keep him at arm's length as he continued. “She saved my life.”
“Oh... So she, uh... You were one of her patients?” Finley said with a concerned tone.
“Patients? What, is Marilyn a doctor now?”Awkwardly, Finley and the man made their way to the door. The moment Marilyn's face appeared, Finley relaxed a little and smiled. “Happy Birthday, Grandma!”
Marilyn greeted her granddaughter with a hug. “It's good to see you, Finley.”
She peeked out over her granddaughter's shoulder as Finley bent down to hug her. “Francesco! You came!”
“Ciao, Marilyn! But of course I came!” The well-tanned man said, throwing his arms out.
Finley's eyes widened and her mouth hung a little open when she saw all the people inside. She set the gift bags down. Gently, she began rubbing at her temples. Marilyn looked over at her, frowning.
“Jill did say you've been having headaches. Do you need some medication?” Marilyn asked.
Finley shook her head. “No, but I think I might go sit down in the kitchen if that's all right.”
Marilyn smiled. “Go ahead, sweetie. Help yourself to whatever you need. Oh—are those for me?”
Finley turned to look at the gifts on the floor. Francesco set his champagne and roses on a side table and scooped them up. “Too many thoughts and feelings about. Marilyn, you never said how much your granddaughter took after you!”
Marilyn sniffed. “Francesco, how much have you been drinking today?”
Awkwardly, Finley backed away from an ensuing argument about how many glasses of wine constituted “too many” and whether or not red wine paired with omelettes was a “breakfast drink.” She came into the kitchen, where a white-haired man in a gray golf shirt sat swirling his drink around. Finley hesitated for a moment before sitting down next to him.
“Hey—are you that guy from... you know, um... the guy whose car was saved by the little dog?”
Byrd froze stiff. “Saved? Is that what they're saying?! Stolen is more like it!”
Finley winced a little and pulled her phone out of her back pocket. She showed the video to Byrd. The older man had to turn away for a second and roll his eyes in annoyance. He settled himself again and took a long pull on his drink. “Well that’s just great.”
“So... the dog... was that Ladybug?” Finley asked, her voice squeaking a little.
Byrd took a deep breath and swirled his drink around a little more, staring into the amber liquid. “You seem like a pretty bright kid. Mar doesn't like to talk about...a lot of things. But it would probably do her a lot of good if you’d ask her...and don’t let her blow you off. Your grandma is one of the best...”
Finley looked Robert Byrd in the eyes for a few seconds. A look of confusion with furrowed eyebrows was quickly replaced by wide eyes as he broke eye contact and turned his head abruptly. He finished his drink in a single gulp. “Talk to your grandma, kid, and don’t put it off. She needs talk to you.”
Robert Byrd stood abruptly and began to make his way out of the kitchen
Finley cleared her throat awkwardly. “Um—just so you know, I think the Italian guy may have scratched your car when he was parking.”
Byrd stiffened, glanced quickly back at Finley, then jogged towards the front door. Finley winced as she heard him curse loudly all the way from the kitchen. He stormed back in. Finley crept back in from the kitchen to see Byrd towering over the suited man in the front room.
“Francesco! You lazy drunk, what did you do to my car?!” Byrd demanded.
“Your car? Oh! It was just a little scratch.”
“Just a little—” Byrd’s eyes glowered. “You drunk buffoon! You better pay me for that!”
At the word “drunk,” this time Francesco stood upright. He only came up to about Byrd’s chin, but he puffed out his chest and stuck his finger into Byrd’s ribs. “I dare you to say that again!”
Byrd leaned in, eyes fixed on Francesco’s and in a painfully slow, exaggerated way intoned, “dr-Uh-nk.”
Francesco began throwing punches. He took a wide stance and moved deftly for a drunk, and with fairly good aim. The jabs came rapidly and from a variety of angles. Finley gasped and stepped back, mouth wide. Byrd easily dodged each jab, dancing backward and blocking with his forearms.
“For heaven’s sake, you two! CUT IT OUT!” A middle-aged Latina shouted, hands on hips. Her tone was that of a mother scolding a child with his hand in a cookie jar.
Finley just stood, horrified and frozen in place. Marilyn folded her arms, her eyes widening and her mouth screwing up into a knot of grandmotherly fury. She began gently pressing through her friends towards the fight.Francesco continued to attack, growing furious and red-faced. Byrd dodged a punch that instead hit the corner of a picture frame. The frame toppled off of the piano and was smoothly caught by Karen, her back straight and gray bob completely unperturbed by the sudden lunge. Finally, Marilyn stood before the two men, hands on hips.
“I am THIS close,” Marilyn made a pinching motion with her thumb and forefinger, “to breaking my code of honor and punishing you two!”
The room went completely silent. Most of the guests stood frozen, though they had largely seemed unperturbed moments before. Finley’s shoulders finally relaxed as the two men stood abashedly, heads down before a very cross Marilyn. After a few seconds, the Latina spoke up, navigating her way past the couch to stand by Marilyn. “Don’t expect me to back you up either. She has the right. You are in her home and exhibiting violent behavior. You keep at this and the two of you deserve whatever is coming to you.”
Guests murmured in agreement and Finley cocked her head, eyebrows furrowed. Quietly she mouthed, “What?!”
Francesco glanced around helplessly. Finally, his eyes rested on Byrd. “I—I will pay for the repairs on your car. I should not have scratched it.”
“You shouldn’t have been driving today!” Byrd muttered. Marilyn threw him a glare, and he sighed. “But I’m sorry I called you a drunk. I know you’ve had a tough year. Let’s get you a designated driver to take you back to your hotel though.”
Marilyn seemed to accept this. Gradually, guests went back to chatting and Marilyn strode towards her granddaughter. Finley made a hand-clapping gesture. “Way to lay down the law, Grandma!”
Marilyn put her arm around Finley. “Oh! I can’t believe those two sometimes. I’m so sorry, Finley, are you terribly shocked?”
“Oh, nah, something kind of like that happened at prom a few years ago—but, Grandma—what did they think you were going to do to them? What made them stop?”
Marilyn faltered. “Ah. I think, well, I don’t know. Do you think I ought to have paddled their bottoms?”
Finley laughed out loud at that. A few minutes later, Jill and Jake arrived. They chatted animatedly with party guests and Finley emerged from the kitchen to watch Marilyn open her birthday gifts. Finley's eyes kept on darting to the guests who had bare arms—many of which were quite muscular. Her eyes landed on Byrd momentarily, then darted back to Marilyn, who was holding up a photo blanket with a giant picture of Jill, Jake, and Finley on it. Marilyn smiled broadly and gave her daughter a big hug.Jill and Jake left after half-an-hour. Jake claimed he had homework to catch up on. Finley watched her grandmother until a nervous looking Quentin caught Finley's attention. He stood alone, awkward and apart from groups of chatting friends. When Finley asked him how he knew her grandmother all he would say is that he had “worked with her” before.
A few hours later, once Byrd had gently lead Francesco to the passenger seat of his Volvo and everyone else had left, Marilyn sat down on her blue velvet love seat next to her granddaughter. “Finley—how are you? I’m surprised you stayed so long.”
Finley smirked. “It’s just… My, Grandma, what odd friends you have!”
Marilyn shrugged. “All the better to party with, my dear.” They both giggled. “But yes, they are all quite unique.”
“And unusually spry.”
Finley’s mouth pulled down in dissatisfaction at the lack of explanation. She stared into her grandmother's eyes. Her grandmother stared right back. They sat like that for a moment, unblinking. Finally, Finley winced and her hand flew up to her temple. Marilyn took a big inhale, her mouth hanging a little ajar.
“Your headache?” Marilyn asked weakly.
“I—I guess so. I just... It's fine. It's my own fault.” Finley said, blushing.
Marilyn gently rubbed Finley's back, her eyes distant. “When you're around people, it can be really easy to get caught up in...well, caught up in how everyone else is feeling. Or wondering what they’re thinking. You don't have to carry all those emotions, Finley. Just your own. It's not empathy to try to feel everything.”
Her voice trembled a little as she said it, but Finley looked up at Marilyn hopefully. “So...this is pretty normal then? I’ve always felt like…I don’t know…like I’m just really different. Do you think that would help my headaches? If I try to just focus on my own feelings?”
“It's worth a try.” Marilyn nearly whispered. “You'll let me know how it goes, won't you?”
Finley smiled and gave her grandma a hug. “Why don't you tell anyone about Ladybug?”
“Ladybug's amazing—I saw someone posted a video of her driving your friend's car. Also, is she the wonder pug that's been on the local news?”
Marilyn stuttered. “I—well—um... yes... but you know we don't want all that attention...”Finley smiled. “I won’t tell anybody. I think it’s great though.”
“About your headaches,” Marilyn said cautiously, leaning in with her voice hushed “I think yours may be a unique case. My twin sister and I share a…very rare condition. There’s a chance your headaches are related to that. Will you come with me next week to visit her?”
“You mean Aunt Madelyn? Mom says she never met her. Isn’t she…in a nursing home?” Finley asked. “Like—for the past forty years?”
Marilyn licked her lips. “I think it would be good for us to pay her a visit. She’s probably the best one to explain about the headaches.”