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Mr. Ashbury, a Panther, and a River of Chocolate

A fiction piece by Blake Williams, senior English Major

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Mr. Daniel Ashbury is the exact type of man who is just boring enough to be taken away on some mystical adventure in a fantasy novel. He is the perfectly dull intersection of humanity, ripe to learn a moral about childlike wonder or doing the right thing after a long and arduous journey through some strange land and a good helping of perilous encounters.


This, dear Reader, is not a fantasy novel and, as such, Mr. Ashbury will not be abducted by a wardrobe or whatever is the rage these days but will instead continue to go to work. Yes, Mr. Ashbury will continue to put on the type of charcoal suit that is quite in vogue after serious-types decided tweed was out of fashion. Indeed, he shall put on a sensible blue tie with the small silver dots and things that tie makers put on ties when they can't be bothered to think of something more interesting. He will, as it is only sensible to do, match his stretched brown belt to his old leather shoes that he is definitely going to polish again soon, maybe even as soon as tomorrow or the day after. Then, being well suited for a good and productive day at the office, he shall climb into his practical car, a Civic or Camry or the like, and trundle off to work at a responsible speed, not fast enough to be reckless, nor slow enough to be infuriating. He shall then plop down his briefcase and work for some time in the half-aware way one works when they've done nothing but labour for their whole life. He shall then eat lunch. It will be a simple lunch in the classical American style, replete with sugars and carbohydrates complimented with a slab of meat and a hint of lettuce all smothered with a brown slurry of sauce, and paired with a diet cola of generic variety. He, being satisfied and full of sugar and bread and meat, will then work for some time more before returning to his practical car. Then, driving at his responsible speed, he shall return to his plain, suburban home where he shall, after cooking himself a TV dinner in his microwave oven, lounge for a few hours before returning to slumber at a perfectly reasonable time.


There will never be more to Mr. Daniel Ashbury's life than this. Every day, sans week-end, he will wake up, eat breakfast, dress, drive, work, eat lunch, work, drive, eat dinner, lounge, and sleep. Mr. Ashbury, Daniel to his coworkers, Danny to his parents, is categorically the least interesting person on Earth and, likely, in the Universe. He is perfectly average in every way, absent of any strange quirk that would lend him a modicum of interest. Simply put, Mr. Daniel Steven Ashbury, 35, Assistant to the Managing Director of Local Operations, is amazingly, absolutely, awfully, astoundingly, anomalously bland. That will be his mark on the world, a clockwork businessman, the only person on Earth to never love.


It is at this point, dear Reader, that I must admit something to you. I have lied about the poor Mr. Ashbury. So far, I have told you the story as it would have been. However, I am a poor narrator, burdened by the desire to tweak things from what they are, to what I think they ought to be. My concern is not any political or social cause, I have no agenda other than interest. Simply, Mr. Ashbury's story was so bland, so uninteresting, that I could not bear to see it played out as it was. Complain, if you will, about manipulating the fabric of reality to make a bland person more interesting, I've heard it all before. But, if you can bear it, stay and give your attention to the story as it is, I do think you'll enjoy it. The story of Mr. Daniel Steven Ashbury, 35, Assistant to the Managing Director of Local Operations, an unexpected romantic, begins with tragedy.


The recession in 2008 had not been kind to Mr. Ashbury, nor his employer. The company limped along for a few years, never quite as profitable as before. They bled money, shutting down local office after local office, then regional ones. Mr. Ashbury had, for 13 years at this point, worked diligently at one of the aforementioned local offices. His, being the closest to the corporate headquarters, was the last of the outboard offices to close. As there were no more local operations in need of a Managing Director, let alone an assistant to one, Mr. Daniel Ashbury was let go. It later came to light that the company had been on a downward spiral for years before the recession, as several members of the Board of Directors, including the CEO, had been embezzling funds from the ridiculously profitable company since before Mr. Ashbury had even graduated from college. Unfortunately for Mr. Ashbury, that wouldn't be discovered until years after the fact, and his employer went bankrupt before his severance package could be claimed.


As it was, 2011 now seemed to be even worse for the now jobless Mr. Daniel Ashbury. He had next to no money, no living family, and no comfortable routine to drown his mind in. So, being, as we know, a sensible man, he went to the unemployment office, followed post haste by a trip to the library to brush up his now very outdated resume. This is, of course, the tried and true method for those who are down on their luck to try and find a job quickly and not become homeless in the meantime. Coincidently, or perhaps not so, this was also the decision that changed Mr. Daniel Ashbury's story forever.


The science of love and the reality of love are radically different things. While a scientist might tell you that love is simply a series of chemical excretions and electrical impulses in the brain, any practical expert on love would tell you something quite different. They would tell you that love is far more like a total eclipse of the Sun, striking, beautiful, hard to look at directly, and wholly life-changing. I, a romantic as much as a storyteller, would tell you that love is not quite like either of those. No, love, in all its many forms, is more like a panther. Love strikes suddenly from the shadows and may stalk its prey for quite some time before doing so. When it does strike, it latches on to its prey soundly and does not go from them unless thoroughly defeated. The victim of love may act erratically, denying love's jaws their purchase, or may give in entirely, being wholly swallowed by love. The bystanders to the mauling of the lover will certainly notice love's bite, but will rarely do anything further than tritely remark about its charm and the awkward thrashing and doting of a fool in love. Love, indeed, is a painful experience, but majestic and unique in its ability to be so painful whilst also being, perhaps, the most pleasurable thing a human will ever experience. You may notice, dear Reader, that the simile of the panther has broken down somewhat. Surely, no one short of the most extreme masochist could extract pleasure from the pain of a panther-mauling. You would, of course, be correct, but, in my defence, love is a very difficult and complicated thing to explain, much like a panther-mauling in the middle of a library on a bright day in the middle of a sad year in front of an old computer with a brand new resume open.


You will remember, I hope, that Mr. Ashbury holds the inauspicious record of being the only person on Earth to never love. This is what my meddling has changed. Having never felt love before, Daniel Ashbury was caught completely unaware when the panther struck him full force in the middle of the library.


He was dutifully working on his new resume at the time of the attack, by which I mean he was searching his mind for any notable feature about himself that might make him more interesting to an employer. He had already listed his previous jobs (2), his high school and college, complete with GPA (3.0 and 2.9, respectively), and his leadership roles in college (secretary, backgammon club, 1 semester). Now, he'd run out. At that moment, for a reason he couldn't explain, maybe because there was no reason, or maybe because the hand of fate (A.K.A. your meddling Narrator) had willed him to do so, he looked to the left. Daniel Ashbury saw a man. More accurately, he saw a pair of eyes as dark and beautiful as a chocolate river, as serene as the face of a wacky chocolatier getting his candy back, and so tempting they turned Daniel into a round German boy, ready to drown in the aforementioned chocolate river for a taste of its treasure. It was at that moment, when Daniel began to melt into the stranger's river of chocolate, that his half-melted, semi-solid form was tackled by the panther with the proficiency of an NFL lineman, and, as the bits of melted chocolate that were once Mr. Daniel Steven Ashbury, 35, Former Assistant to the Managing Director of Local Operations, hit the floor in front of the chocolate-eyed stranger and were mauled by the panther, he, or the pieces that were cognizant in that moment, realised three things. First, that this strange man was beautiful in a way that Daniel was completely unfamiliar with. 2. That he had never felt like this before. 3. That this feeling, being mauled by a panther on the floor of a public library while your body melts to join the chocolate river of a dashing stranger's eyes, must be, couldn't not be, what love feels like. Daniel was amazed by these realisations, in awe of the fact that he had never before known the warm, brown, rich reality of the world and that he had never known the pure ecstasy of a violent, panther-mauling, falling-in-love-against-your-will moment.


"Uhm, can I help you?" The stranger said, after millennia of melting down the ex-loveless Mr. Ashbury into a molten alloy, ready to be poured into the unabashedly romantic cast of Daniel Ashbury, 35, unemployed.


"Oh! Oh my," Daniel replied, after the melting finished and he was up to temperature, ready to be cast, "I'm so sorry, I didn't realise I was staring."


The man wrinkled his eyebrows slightly at that, and cracked an ever so slight smile, showing diamonds beneath his mountainous façade.


"No worries, man, I get it. I know how it is when you get deep into your work and someone interrupts you, like you've landed back on Earth to find it filled with aliens. I'm James, what's your name?" Daniel's face flushed red. The molten metal had started to cool, but James' smile had heated it red-hot again.


"D-Daniel, nice to meet you," Daniel was as unprepared for this moment as he could have been, as nervous as he could have been, as in love as he could have been. The panther's claws tore at his stomach, sharper than any butterflies he'd felt before an interview and clearer than any emotion he'd felt either. It was as though James, the chocolate river's source, the diamond-studded mountain, had torn free a veil of drab normality and thrust him kicking and screaming into the panther-infested pit that was the world that interesting people lived in. It was, at once, terrifying and liberating, painful and joyous. Who was this beautiful tormentor? Who was this man carved out of marble by Aphrodite herself and gifted with eyes that melted hearts and sundered veils? As Daniel strove to answer these nigh-impossible questions, James spoke again.


"Well, nice to meet you too! What are you working on that's got you so wrapped up?" His words, simple as they were, utilitarian, friendly, and honest, were ambrosia, the nectar of the gods, ripe with Apollo's dulcet harp tones and smooth as Posideon's nurturing waters. Daniel set to work decoding this message from the gods. Notebook in hand, Detective Holmes searched their content, hunting for clues of James' intent. What does he mean by nice? Is he being polite or does he genuinely delight in my company? The question, what about the question? Does he really believe my work is the cause of my liquid state, unable to move from this crucible because I obsess over words on a screen? Does he know what he's done to me, the chocolate-eyed blast furnace he is, reducing me to mush, clay to work in his hands? Was this deliberate? Is he a great hunter? Did he send forth the panther to maul me so that he could bag his quarry? All these questions, boiled through the still of Daniel's frantic mind, distilled but one short, simple, elegantly stupid sentence:


"Huh? It's a resume." Daniel, no sooner than he'd said it, cursed himself. Surely he had ruined it, his chance at love and he'd drooled like an idiot, spouting a "huh" like Old Faithful's weakest, laziest, stupidest eruption. But, in the same moment, he questioned what other alternative he had. Lie? Deceive the marbled figure before him, the very work of the gods? No, surely that wasn't an option. Deflect? What other topic could he shift to? He knew nothing of James, save his beauty and his glorious song, so no, that wouldn't do either. Yes, he concluded, becoming the fool was his only option, he had no choice at all. What would James think, then, of this simplest and least eloquent of answers? Would he dismiss this unemployed suitor? Likely so, Daniel thought, for what good was a bland, lovelorn, unemployed puddle of melted man to such a titan? What could he do for Odysseus, Achilles, or Perseus? Surely, then, Daniel thought, he would be bereft of love just moments after first being mauled. The panther would sink its teeth into his heart, and tear it asunder with its claws.


"Oh, cool, I was working on mine, too. I just lost my job, figured I'd try to get back on the market, y'know?" James said, cutting the silent air, freeing the forest path to the temple of its overgrown vines. Daniel's heart thundered to life once more, the panther loosed its jaw and let him breathe and formulate a way to let this Adonis know how he felt, what James' eyes had done to his heart. The still came up to temperature once more, ready to distil that aqua amoris, that Irish Whiskey laced with desire, that spirit which would seep through diamonds, so that James would know, at long last, the way Daniel pined for him.


"Right, yes, do you want to get a drink with me?" The words spilled from the still, the toxic heads not thrown away in favour of the rich, flavorful hearts, but instead served to the figure of beauty they seemed destined to harm.


"I mean, I think it's a little early to start drinking, but I could use a lunch break. There's a Cuban place around the corner I've been meaning to go to, wanna join?" Lo, despite his error, his woeful failure, Apollo's harp rings out, its tones bright and warm! Surely, Daniel thought, James, Mount Olympus that he is, spring of the chocolate river and keeper of glittering diamonds, surely he cannot be extending his hand to Daniel, a lone waltzer reaching for his partner? Surely, he cannot view me as his equal, let alone a potential lover? What Daniel didn't know, dear Reader, as caught up in his panther-mauling as he was, is what I now share with you: James, too, had been mauled by the panther.


“Yes, that sounds lovely.”


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