UNEXPECTED

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“I can’t live in this hell anymore!” the patient shouted as he leaped from his chair, then he bolted from the office.

Ethan shook his head. Another one who’s not ready to face his demons. The word hell struck a chord in him and summarized the situation he’d put himself into. Sometimes he wished he’d never given in and gone to that party months ago.

Ethan had drunk a bit more than usual, but he couldn’t blame that for his uncharacteristic behavior. Truth is he’d left his comfort zone. He’d always played it safe, keeping away from temptations. Only this time he hadn’t.

Why did Joey have to introduce me to that woman? he thought now, remembering her caramel-skinned beauty and witty conversation. Who wouldn’t have been enchanted?And it hadn’t been his first one-night stand, so why all this fuss? Well, he’d never been with a woman whose sensuality was like flame to a touchpaper. It had been, truth be told, an unforgettable night. Therefore, it had also been hard to wake up to an empty bed the next day and not have the least idea where he could find her.

And to think it’s been months already.

Ethan’s frustrated attempts to find her had only emphasized the fact that it had all been a big mistake. He felt delirious. He’d even asked the guys if she were real. Thankfully they had confirmed that he hadn’t made her up.

“Man, I’m surprised by how crazy about this woman you are. What’s her name?” Joey had asked, then taken a sip of his beer.

“Amanda,” Ethan had answered.

“Oh, right. I remember. Anyway, it’s about time you stop mourning your wife and move on.”

“It just feels like she’s cast a spell on me. But it’s not like I’m looking for anyone. It’s not that.”

“Who are you fooling? Aren’t you ever gonna change? You’re a shrink, man! You should know better.”

Ethan cringed at that. “What does being a shrink have to do with the price of eggs?”

“You know people’s minds. So yours should be better. Look at how boring your life is,” said Joey.

“Newsflash: I’m not perfect. Nobody is. And I don’t think you’re in a position to criticize given your two failed marriages.”

Joey laughed. “Well, at least I have lots of fun, and my women don’t disappear into thin air. Do you remember what it’s like to have a life outside your office? You must have had a few drinks just to be able to hit on the woman.”

“I didn’t hit on her. She hit on me. She said from the start she just wanted to spend the night. The whole seize the moment thing. Amanda was…different.”

“Are you sure she was a woman? Sounds like a man to me. That’s the kind of thing I tell my chicks.”

Ethan sipped his scotch. “Very sure. That’s why I can’t get her out of my mind. She was anything but ordinary. Our night together…it transcended lust and passion. I’ve never been so hungry for a woman that I lost my head. You know me, it’s not like I sleep around.”

“Dr. Ethan Miller. Sounds like you finally found someone with the courage to match you at your own game. You’ve always been so controlled. Never thought someone could make you come out and play, you know?”

“Neither did I, buddy. And now look at me. Lost in my own personal hell.”

“Don’t throw in the towel now. If it’s not her, maybe someone else. There’s this chick I know—”

“Thanks but no thanks. I know it’s a fat chance Amanda will make contact after such a long time, but let me at least hope. I haven’t wanted anything in such a long time. It won’t hurt just to wish for it, right?”

“Yeah, and good luck. Who knows? Maybe she’ll surprise you.” Joey raised his glass. “A toast to this Amanda who seems to have made you come alive. She already has my vote. Cheers!”

Ethan kept hearing his friend’s words in his mind. Convenient or not, they had the ring of truth. It had been four years since Ethan’s wife had died; maybe he could try to leave the cage. If this woman were some kind of sexual kryptonite, he wanted to know. At least, he could prove to her that his interest was more than curiosity.

 

* * *

 

As Amanda walked past a construction site, a man let out a wolf whistle. It forced her to come back to reality, and she flinched. Her mind insisted on reliving that night with the shrink over and over. She’d had her share of lovers over the years, but none had held a candle to Ethan. Their instant chemistry had catapulted her into the wildest night she’d ever known. And that had been it: the thunderbolt she’d always prayed for. The catch was she didn’t know how to approach him.

She sighed. This daydreaming can’t go on. I have to call him. And if he didn’t remember her? His loss. She had to give it a shot. Ethan Miller, I’ll turn your world upside-down.

Wait. Maybe she should go easy at first. The man had sounded high-strung, judging by their conversation that night. She had to admit she frightened some men, and guys like Ethan tended to scare easily.

OK. I’ll come up with a plan. I can. I can. Can’t I?

 

* * *

 

Ethan was in the middle of a session when his thoughts began to stray again. Unprofessional, he thought. After his client left, he opened his suit jacket, loosened his tie, and drank some whisky to relax.

I can’t continue like this. I can’t be this absent-minded. It had been so long already. He should have gotten over her. If she wanted to, she could have contacted me.

It was no use hoping she’d show up in his life. After all, they didn’t have much in common. She’d said so herself. So why couldn’t he get her out of his mind?

This is crazy. I’m obsessed. Ethan shook his head. He needed something to occupy his mind. He went toward the phone to call his secretary, Lucy, but before he picked it up it rang.

“Yes, Lucy,” he answered.

“A Ms. Thompson is on the line. She’d like a word with you, Dr. Miller.”

“Is she scheduled?”

“No, she’s not on my calendar.”

Ethan sighed. “OK, I’ll talk with her, but after that hold all my calls, please.”

“Yes, sir. I’m putting her right through.”

“Thanks, Lucy.” Ethan said, then sat down and took a long sip from his drink while she transferred the call. “This is Dr. Miller.”

“Taking good care of people’s heads, Doc?”

Ethan snapped awake. His heartbeat quickened and he fumbled for words.

“Amanda! I can’t believe it. I’ve been looking all over for you.”

“So you remember me,” she said.

“Of course I do! You disappeared on me.”

“I told you I wasn’t staying.”

“I know, but you didn’t even give me a chance to say goodbye.”

“I’m sorry. I had to leave.”

Ethan was doing his best not to show how relieved he was that she’d called at last. He held the phone as if it were a lifesaver.

“I just wished we had more time. Where have you been?”

“Busy.”

“Can we meet? Let’s have dinner tonight.”

“One of these days. Not now, Doc,” Amanda answered.

“I’m glad you called.”

“Let’s just say you left a lasting impression, and I thought we could chat.”

“So we’re just going to chat? On the phone?”

“Yes. You did sound like someone who could use an ear.”

“I’m a psychiatrist, Amanda. I am an ear,” Ethan said, laughing.

“Even so. Let’s get to know each other and then when we’re ready we can meet. What do you say?”

“Well, I don’t know what to say. I’ve never done that.”

“Ethan Miller, you don’t know it yet, but you need me.”

Ethan leaned back in his chair. Oh, that’s dangerous. She had more power over him than he had imagined. Hold on tight, Ethan. Don’t get distracted. Play it safe.

He cleared his throat. “Excuse me?”

“What?” She chuckled. “Do you suffer from a God complex like most doctors?”

“No, I don’t. But you got that I’m needy from one night with me?”

“Gut feeling. Laugh all you want, but deep down you know I’m right.”

“Look—”

“I hate the sounds of people cracking their knuckles and singing out of tune.”

Ethan threw his hand in the air.

“Excuse me? I didn’t know we had changed subject.”

“You’ll catch up, Doc. Tell me something you don’t like in people.”

“Is this a test? Are you interviewing me to see if I’m boyfriend material or something?”

“Just part of the whole get to know each other project. I think you

already know I’m not the beat-around-the bush type. So come on!”

“Oh…OK. OK.” Ethan stood up and looked out the window of his office. “I don’t like when people won’t look me in the eye, or if they poke me while talking.”

“Me too! And I can’t stand mouth noises, tangled earbuds, people who don’t turn down the volume of their keyboard while texting, and when people ask if you’re OK when it’s obvious you’re not. Oh, and skinny jeans on men.”

“How long are we gonna talk about pet peeves?” Ethan asked, opening the window, hoping some air would make him less anxious. Cold wind gusted into the room, scattering the sheets of paper on his desk around the floor. He tried to catch some and almost let the phone fall out of his hand.

“Tell me one more,” Amanda said.

“OK. I don’t like when people assume things about me without knowing me well, and when people are secretive. Ahem!”

Amanda was silent for a moment. Then smiled at Ethan’s remark.

“Ouch! Message received”, she said jokingly. “OK. Tell me what made you become so shut down.”

“Wow.” Ethan laughed. “You really don’t lose time, lady.”

“Life is fast. So tell me why.”

“Who said I’m shut down?”

“It’s written all over you. You strike me as someone who’s quiet and serene on the surface, but inside you’re in turmoil.”

Ethan tossed the stack of papers he’d collected back onto the desk. “It’s not that. Let’s just say I like to keep things to myself, that’s all. What’s wrong with that?’’

“You don’t seem to be enjoying your life. I don’t have to be a shrink to see that’s a huge problem.”

Ethan felt attacked by Amanda’s remark and became defensive. He didn’t want to let her notice it. In desperate need to keep the conversation going, he threw out the first question that came to mind.

“How do you classify yourself?”

“If you’re asking if I think I’m normal, I guess by conventional standards like yours I’m probably not,” Amanda replied. “But then who is?”

“I didn’t mean you’re not normal. But you gotta admit you have a peculiar way of getting to know people.”

“You can say that. Well, I won’t lie to you. I have some bad stuff in my past, but I think I turned out OK in the end.”

“Bad stuff?” Ethan asked.

“That’s for some other time. I gotta go now. Can I call you again?”

“Of course. But wait! Please, just wait a moment. Don’t leave like this. Throw me a bone here.”

“OK. What do you wanna know?”

“Are you married?” Ethan asked, hoping he wouldn’t hear a lie in her voice—something that as a doctor he was used to doing.

“No. Wouldn’t be calling you if I were. I lived with a guy, but it didn’t work out.”

“Why not?”

“We simply fell out of love. In fact, I don’t even think it was love. But we talk occasionally. No hard feelings.”

Ethan nodded his head. Her answer sounded genuine enough. “What do you do for a living?”

“I’m sure you’re expecting a glamorous job, but actually I work for a janitorial service. I clean offices.”

“You’re joking, right?”

“No. Why?”

“I can’t believe that. Why are you a janitor? There’s so much more you could do.”

“Who said I wanna do anything else? I love what I do.”

Ethan chuckled. “I just find it hard to believe.”

“That’s because you only see what you know.”

“Goethe? How can a janitor quote Goethe?” Ethan was surprised.

“You know nothing about janitors.” She paused as if deciding whether or not to go on. Finally she did: “My mom was a maid for a rich family, and they gave me access to their library. I dropped out of high school, too, but I don’t need a piece of paper to prove I’m good at anything. With me what you see is what you get. Do you a have a problem with that?”

Ethan shook his head and smiled even though she wasn’t there to see it. “Not at all. I just think there’s so much more you can do.”

“I could and I might, but it won’t kill me if I don’t, and it doesn’t matter what people think. All that counts is me.”

“OK,” Ethan said gently. Though he wouldn’t admit it to her, this attitude only made him admire Amanda more. He had to keep her talking somehow. “Why were you at the party?”

“A friend of a friend took me. I wanted to have fun. That’s all.”

“Was I fun?” he asked, fearing the answer.

“Yes and no. But you were totally unexpected.”

“Should I take that as a compliment?”

“Sure.”

“What are you hiding from me?” Ethan looked at the ceiling, anxious for her answer.

“Too many questions, Doc. We’ll discuss that some other time.”

“You’re not gonna disappear again, are you?”

“I’ll keep in touch. Just don’t push too hard. I’m not the kind who takes pressure well.”

“Amanda—”

“I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”

Ethan hung up the phone and sat down again. He leaned his head back, wondering why she had such power over him. They were so different. Why was he so attracted to her? And would he finally be able to get on with his life and forget the past? Guilt and sorrow had been his only bedfellows since his wife’s death. Amanda stirred up a desire to which he was unwilling to succumb, but how long could he withstand her charms?

Standing up again, he tried to convince himself to sever the connection before anybody got hurt. He’d always seen things in black and white; Amanda was a gray area. The feeling was incredible, but it scared him stiff because no one had ever turned him inside out like this.

Still, after that first call, she phoned him every night, and he always answered. Their conversations were good and intriguing. Although he sensed she was hiding something, he was too caught up in the moment to confront her. Ever since his wife had died, he’d kept his distance from family and avoided his friends. Amanda was making him want to do things he had forgotten he enjoyed doing. Ethan decided to visit his old friend and colleague, Linda, at her office. He needed to get a few things off his chest.

“As much as I want to,” he told her as he took a seat in front of her desk, “I’m afraid of where this thing with Amanda might lead. I’m not sure I’m ready to start from scratch again.”

“Listen, I’m not saying you should jump headfirst into this relationship,” Linda replied. “You know you still have some fences to mend and bridges to build. Does she know about the accident, for example?”

“No. When we talk….Well, you know talk never was my forte. We don’t discuss our pasts. Linda, she’s really an amazing woman. I covet those hours we spend over the phone like a mama bear guards her cubs.”

“What do you like most about her?”

“So many things. She’s smart, funny, and irreverent. She’s so comfortable in her own skin. We hit it off immediately when we met, but she still throws me off sometimes.” Ethan paused. “We’re finally gonna meet this Saturday.”

Linda raised her eyebrows and smiled. She pursed her lips and ran her thin fingers through her light-blonde hair. “Well, at least it won’t be a blind date. You already know her.”

“It feels as though we’ve known each other for a long time. I remember every part of her face and body.”

“Well then, stop losing time and build those bridges! Eva was a good person—well, truth be told she had her issues. But anyway she’s dead. It’s clear this thing with Amanda isn’t one-sided. I’d say there’s a good chance you two will get along pretty well.”

“What about this feeling I have that she’s hiding something? What if it’s—I don’t know, something bigger than I can handle?”

Linda shrugged. “If she doesn’t live up to your expectations, move on. Live. At least she’s made you come out of your cave.”

 

* * *

 

A downpour struck the city early on Saturday morning, and by nighttime the odor of dampness still permeated the air. Customers came into the restaurant holding dripping umbrellas and taking off their overcoats. Amanda sat at a table in the back; despite Ethan’s offer to take her somewhere more sophisticated, she’d picked a place she was used to—one she frequented. If their date didn’t end well, she wanted to be on her turf.

As much as she wanted to meet Ethan again, she didn’t think their conversation would be easy. Her hands shook; she chewed on her lower lip, and the knot in her throat was the size of a boulder.

Holy mother of Christ! It’s happening. What will he think of me? What if…She stopped herself. It was too late for regrets. Just face it and go on with your life. You never needed anybody before. It’s not going to start now.

Amanda was staring at the floor, twisting her fingers, when she heard Ethan’s strong voice. “Hi there. I’m sorry. Traffic was heavy.”

She looked up at him and smiled. “No problem.” The man was downright take-your-breath-away gorgeous. She felt her heart struggling to decide whether to pound harder or stop altogether.

“Wow! You look dazzling—just as I remembered,” Ethan said.

“Thanks.”

He pulled out a chair and took a seat, then gestured to the coat she was still wearing. “Not planning on leaving fast, are you?”

“No. I think I might be coming down with a cold. I’m OK. Don’t worry.”

“Do you wanna have some wine?”

“No. I’m drinking juice.”

Ethan took off his jacket. “I feel as if we’ve done this already. You feel so familiar. Your voice. You.”

“I know. I feel it too.”

He kept staring at her face.

“What are you looking at?” she asked, red with embarrassment.

“I’m looking at you. I’ve been dying to, and I’ve been deprived. Amanda…are you all right? What’s the problem? You look…I don’t know…anxious?”

Amanda sighed. “I think I’m getting cold feet, you know? Now that we’re finally doing this.”

Ethan nodded slowly. “I couldn’t sleep. I spent the whole day thinking about this. I canceled appointments, I skipped lunch…. I feel like a young boy meeting his first girlfriend.”

“You have that effect on me too.”

Ethan touched her hands.

“They’re sweating.” He smiled. “I’m nervous myself.”

Amanda shifted in her seat and looked him directly in the eyes. Enough of this hemming and hawing around. “What do you expect from this?”

‘‘To begin with, I kinda expect to taste your lips again, if you’ll let me.”

“What’s holding you back, Doc?” She smiled.

Ethan got nearer and kissed her slowly, then they gazed at each other. Amanda tuned out everything but the two of them, and he seemed to be doing the same. Their time apart had not dulled his passion.

“Amanda, I think something happened when I met you. Something powerful. I’m at a loss to explain. If you don’t feel the same—”

She touched his hand. “I do. Something really powerful happened, Ethan. Something I’ve waited too long for.”

“You think we’re ready for this?”

“Don’t know. The jury’s still out on that one. But deep down I hope we are.” She looked at him for a moment, biting her lip. “I’ve been alone for a long time.”

“What about your family?”

“My mom died years ago from a heart attack. I’m an only child.”

“And your dad?”

“Mom kicked him out when she found him over me one night.”

Ethan stopped still and looked at her. He felt choked up. Then he squeezed her hand.

“I’m sorry.”

Amanda shrugged. “It was a long time ago. And everybody has to overcome something. I was lucky I had my mom and she acted in time. I try to leave it in the past where it belongs.”

“Do you ever feel lonely?”

She laughed a little. “Lately I’ve been feeling complete and needy at the same time.”

“You could have told me that. You’d be surprised by how many cases like yours I’ve come across over the years.”

Amanda looked at him. “Ethan, I’ve been meaning to tell you something.”

He looked back. “What is it? Let’s end the secrets here tonight so we can go on, OK?”

“I want that but….” Amanda propped her elbows on the table and cupped her head in her hands. “This is much more difficult than I’d thought it would be.” She looked at Ethan through her fingers. “You have to understand, I wasn’t ready for this. I may be extroverted and fearless about many things, but this is different. And I don’t know how you’ll react—”

“Amanda.” Ethan laughed nervously. “You’ve lost me. Is this a game? Just say it in plain English.”

She leaned back in her seat, unbuttoned her coat, and pulled up the hem of her T-shirt to let Ethan see the bump in her belly.

“This is what I wanted to tell you,” she said, pointing at it.

Ethan was mute. He looked bewildered. After what seemed like minutes, he found his voice again.

“You. You don’t mean—” His eyes widened.

“Yes, I’m pregnant, and it’s yours.” She looked at him, her eyes awash with tears. “I’m sorry, but I didn’t know how to tell you. Doctors have told me I’d have a very narrow window for conceiving, so I didn’t think I could. I never thought I could have a family of my own until I discovered I’m pregnant with your baby.”

Ethan couldn’t focus on her words. His gaze kept flicking to her stomach. Still, he couldn’t find his voice.

“Oh God! Don’t tell me you’re one of those people who think children are great from a safe distance,” Amanda said.

“No,” he murmured.

“Listen, I looked for you because I thought you have the right to know, but I…. Look, I don’t want your money. Please, just say something. Even if you’re angry with me. Please!” Amanda felt her joy and confidence escaping like helium from a child’s balloon. Ethan looked so shocked. His body was tense like a rubber band at full stretch.

“I…I…Oh hell.” He scrubbed a hand over his face.

“You can get involved in this as much as you want,” Amanda continued. “Or if you don’t want to, I can absolve you of all responsibility.”

Ethan shook his head. “It’s not that. You don’t understand, Amanda. The night of the accident…. The night when my wife died. I was drunk. We were coming back from a party. That was why she was driving. The baby was crying in the backseat, and Eva was worried. She looked in the back and didn’t pay attention to the road. We crashed because I was drunk and couldn’t drive. For years I’ve blamed myself for it. Do you have any idea what kind of hell I’ve made of my life?”

“You had a child? You never told me that.”

Now he brought his hands to his face. “A baby girl. She was ten months old. They both died instantly.”

“Ethan, I’m so sorry. You never talked about her. I could never imagine—”

“Do you have any idea what this means?”

“I’d guess you don’t want another child. Right?”

He moved his hands and looked at her. “Wrong. All these years I’ve been dreaming of having another chance at fatherhood.”

“Really? So that means you’re onboard with this? You want this baby too?”

“Of course I do. More than you can imagine.”

Amanda sucked in a breath, feeling relieved. She clapped her hands together, then threw her arms around Ethan’s neck and kissed his lips.

“I was so scared.” She wiped away her tears.

Ethan laid his hands on her tummy. Amanda was flabbergasted that he’d do it right there in front of strangers.

“Amanda, I never thought I could be this happy again.”

She put her hands on top of his. “I’m so relieved. I couldn’t hold it in anymore. Every night I promised myself I’d tell you and couldn’t.”

“You should have told me ages ago.”

“I know. I’m sorry.”

“How far along are you? Stupid question. Of course you must be five months.

Do you know what we’re having?”

“A boy.” She was so pleased by his enthusiasm.

“A boy? God! This is incredible. Tell me you’ll give us a chance. Please. Look at all I’ve missed out on already.”

Amanda looked into Ethan’s eyes. “I can’t say I’m not afraid, but I think we can make this work. And you know what? There’s something you haven’t missed out on.”

“What do you mean?”

Ethan fell silent as Amanda guided his hands across her belly, pulling them firmly against her.

“Well, allow me to introduce you firsthand to Junior.”

Ethan’s heart turned over in his chest as he felt his son’s first movements. Hell was finally gone. Heaven had taken its place.

WHAT YOU GET IS WHAT YOU SEE

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Jack folded his arms across his chest and set his lips in a tight line as he stared at some papers on his desk. As the heir of a wealthy empire, he lived fancy free and footloose and never interfered with the way Tom, his vice president, led his company. All he cared about was beautiful women and sweeping his doubts under the carpet.

He was a confirmed bachelor and absolutely uninterested in commitment in any way, shape, or form. When a woman got too clingy, he’d immediately cease communication. He’d ditched several good ones as none of the women he met was ever up to par. Be that as it was, something was different about Jack lately. He was tired of women looking to get close to him just because of his fortune and fake friends trying to take advantage of his social status. He was a millionaire in the prime of his life, and until recently—until today in fact—he had convinced himself he had it all.

“What’s going on, Jack? Why haven’t you signed the papers yet?” asked his partner, sitting opposite him.

“This is serious, Tom. We’re talking about letting hundreds of employees go. You know what that means?” Jack pointed to the papers.

“Since when do you give a damn? I’m the one who makes the fast and hard decisions here. That’s what you hired me for, and that’s what I’ve been doing for the past six years, which has just made you richer and richer,” said Tom, looking worried.

“This is different,” said Jack, standing up.

“How? Look, Jack, you’ve been living under a rock, okay? Our expenses increased twofold last year. We need to take severe measures. We let go of these employees, close this deal, and we’ll finally be able to keep our head above water.” He reached over and gave Jack a pen.

“Why do we have to grow richer at the expense of others? Doesn’t it bother you? You know I never meddle in these things, but I don’t know…It’s different now. I’m sure we’ve never fired these many.”

“Jack, that’s the way the cookie crumbles in business. Remember your dad’s motto: only the strong survive. These people are just collateral damage. Nothing else.”

Jack closed his eyes and lowered his head, realizing Tom had a point. He didn’t know anything about his company. He was beside himself with worry about all these employees who he’d never set eyes on. He knew his action right now would sound like a seeming contradiction, but for the first time in his life he felt a foreboding sense of urgency. He needed to summon the courage to take charge at last.

“I need time to think about this,” he said. “I’ll be out of contact for some time, and I’ll give my final answer as soon as I find it.”

“Do you have any idea how many times we’ve done this over the years, Jack? You’ve just never been here to see it. What’s made you grow a conscience now? Don’t you dare whitewash your part in all this. While you were doing a lot of navel-gazing, I was here making sure your expensive life was provided for.”

“It’s my say, Tom. Nothing will happen until I assess the situation. You’re right—I’ve been out to lunch for too long. It’s about time I face the music,” said Jack, making a beeline to the door.

“Okay, Jack. Go on and take some time. You’re just confused and in need of a break. A few days will scratch that itch and put an end to this. You’ll see.” Tom threw the pen hard onto the desk.

The truth was that Jack hadn’t seen beyond the end of his nose for a long time. In a way he had turned out to be like his father—something he had always tried to avoid. His dad blew his own horn, was an absolute sourpuss, and never really cared for the employees’ well-being. Maybe that was why Jack was afraid of taking control and following his dad’s footsteps. Now, however, it had finally dawned on him that by hiding from his commitments, he wasn’t taming his demons. On the contrary, he was feeding them.

 

* * *

 

Deep down Jack had grown tired of wild parties, rich people, and shallow dates. He felt the urge to find something different—something meaningful. He needed to detox his life, to clear out all the fake friends and players. He needed to feel what it was like for no one to know about his thick bank account. Maybe then he could find a candid relationship with a lover or even just a friend. He was love-starved, and he needed to satiate his hunger somehow.

At his apartment he took a long bath. He couldn’t stop thinking about his company and all the employees he’d fire if he went on with Tom’s plan. Afterward, in his bedroom he opened the window and stared outside. Restless, bored, and hungry, he decided to order some food. He grabbed the phone and dialed the number of a pizzeria.

“It’s nice to hear your voice,” said a woman on the other side of the line.

“Excuse me?” Jack asked, straightening up in the chair in which he sat.

“It’s nice to hear your voice, sir. How may I help you?”

“Uh…I think I dialed the wrong number. Is this Batti’s Pizza?”

“No, sir. It’s nice to hear your voice,” she repeated.

“Okay…I’m sorry.” said Jack.

“That’s all right, sir. Have a nice day.”

“You too,” said Jack, then hung up.

Did she say what I think she said? No. No one answers a phone like that. Or do they? When was the last time he had made a call, anyway? His secretaries always did it for him. Maybe this was a new trend in business. Okay. Let’s check this out.

Jack dialed the same number again.

“It’s nice to hear your voice,” said the woman.

“Hm…It’s me again.” Jack stood up and opened the door to his bedroom’s balcony.

“Hello again, sir. How may I help you?” she asked.

“Well, if you don’t sell pizzas, you really can’t do anything for me right now, but I was wondering what kind of business you’re in. Your greeting kind of threw me off.”

“We’re not in business, sir. We’re a nonprofit organization called It’s Nice to Hear Your Voice. We help those who feel distressed and need to hear a word of comfort.”

“Oh, like one of those suicide hotlines?” Jack asked.

“No, sir. Our aim is to make you feel better. Sometimes all it takes is having someone to talk to. Are you in need of a conversation?”

“Me? No. Thanks,” Jack said, stepping out onto the balcony and looking up the sky.

“Well, it’s nice to hear your voice. If you do need to talk, we’re here for you.”

“Thanks so much. So that’s—”

“What we see depends mainly on what we look for,” said the woman.

Jack paused. “Come again?”

“It’s a quote by John Lubbock.”

“And what’s it supposed to mean?”

“We provide quotes to our callers so they can reflect upon them later.”

“Oh, really?” asked Jack, smiling.

“Did it resonate with you?”

“No. But tell me why you picked that one for me.”

“There isn’t any specific reason, sir. I just wanted to share the wisdom.”

“I appreciate it, but I’d rather listen to you. You have a very beautiful voice, do you know that?”

That means you’re probably ugly. Jack shook the automatic—and cruel—thought out of his head.

“Thanks, sir. Is there anything you’d like to talk about?” the woman asked.

“No. That’s okay. It was good talking to you. I’m going to order my pizza.”

“Any time you call, there’ll be someone here for you.”

“Great. Listen, what’s your name?”

“Lisa.”

“Is that your real name?”

“Yes.”

“Hey, Lisa, let me ask you this. You said it’s a nonprofit company, right? How do you guys operate?”

“Through donations. We’re short-staffed and indebted right now, but we’re still functioning around the clock.”

“Do you volunteer there, or is it your job?”

“We’re all volunteers, but it’s work to me too. I take it very seriously. I have another occupation that pays my bills, though.”

“What do you do for a living?” Jack asked.

“We’re not allowed to talk about our personal lives, sir. It’s all about you.”

“I see. You know, I have to ask. What do you look like?”

“I beg your pardon?” asked Lisa.

“Describe yourself to me. I’m curious. The owner of a voice like that has got to be beautiful.”

Although I doubt it.

“Like I said before,” Lisa replied, “we don’t talk about ourselves, but if you must know, I’m not the kind of woman men look at on the street. Well, at least I’ve never seen any men looking at me.”

I knew it. Probably a dragon.

“Okay. I gotta go. I wish you good luck with your…work.”

“Thanks, sir. Anytime you want you can call us. All the operators are at your disposal.”

“Wait, if I want to talk to you again, how do I find you?”

“If I don’t pick up your call, you can ask for me.”

“My name’s Jack, by the way.”

“Bye, Jack. It’s nice to hear your voice.”

“See you, Lisa.”

What the hell was that? Jack shook his head again and laughed. Who knew what this Lisa really looked like? He might have just hit on an old, ugly fat woman. You’re really screwed, you know. What kind of millionaire has that kind of conversation?

But the truth was, he could use someone to talk to. And he would never see her in person anyway. And the call was anonymous.

Oh, whatever.

Turning on the phone again, he called another pizzeria.

 

* * *

 

Jack kept calling Lisa. They’d talk about many things, and she made him feel comfortable. She became a friend. Lisa didn’t know who he was, and she was a professional. That was a perfect combination. He simply needed someone who’d want his true friendship.

He was surprised, though, by his physical reaction to her voice. It opened a floodgate of emotions within him. Of course he tried to convince himself that it was just his inner womanizer putting on a good show. But the more they talked, the more he had to admit what he felt was real.

“How are you today, Jack?” asked Lisa.

“Well, better than most, not as good as some,” he answered, closing a book of quotations he had been reading and putting it aside.

“Ever thought of doing volunteer work so you’d help others feel as good as you do?”

“No. Sorry. That’s your department.” Jack stood behind the bar in his living room. Gin and tonic or brandy? Decisions, decisions.

“It’d do you some good,” said Lisa.

“Something tells me you’re a hopeless romantic, Lisa, besides having a heart of gold.”

“I just like to help. So tell me. Why does your voice always sound so sad?”

“I have to make a difficult business decision, and I don’t know what to do.”

“Why?”

“It’s hard,” said Jack, swirling his brandy in its glass.

“I see. I believe we have to stand up for something. Otherwise we might end up forever on our knees.”

“I’m not you, Lisa. You’d go out of your way to be larger than life for people in need.”

“There’s good and bad in everybody, Jack. ’Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.’ I hope Ralph Waldo Emerson helps you make your decision.”

“I like that. You know, now every time I come across a quote, I write it down…and think of you.”

“It’s contagious, isn’t it?

“You know, your voice recharges my batteries.”

“It’s good to hear that, Jack. I’m glad we’ve become friends.”

“So what do you say we meet?”

“Meet?” Lisa asked, sounding surprised.

“Sure. What’s the problem? It’d be good to put a face to the voice, you know.”

“I don’t know. This is not protocol, Jack.”

“You could stop being such a rule follower for once, Lisa. What’s the problem? We’ve connected in such a strong way. There’s no harm in two friends meeting.”

“I don’t know.”

“Don’t worry. I’m not a cold-blooded assassin. And I hope you aren’t either. Truth is I feel I can open up to you, and believe me that’s rare.”

“Okay. I guess…Where do you wanna meet?”

“Do you know Francis’s Tavern on Thirty-seventh?”

“Sure. I’ve heard the chef there is great.”

“MB. He’s my buddy. His ribs are the best in town.”

“That’s great. I love some good food. So when should I meet you there?”

“Is tomorrow at eight good for you?” Jack asked.

“Yes, it is.”

“So we’ll finally meet,” Jack said.

Lisa hesitated. “Yes.”

“How will I recognize you?”

“I’ll wear a black dress, and I’ll have a book on my hands. Does that help?”

“Sure. And I’ll—”

“No need to describe yourself, Jack. I’ll know you when I hear your voice.”

“Okay. So I’ll wait for you there.”

“Till later, Jack.”

“Till later, Lisa.”

Jack hung up feeling jittery. He was finally going to meet the woman whose voice had his undivided attention. He didn’t have much faith he was going to feel attracted to her physically, but his need to have a friend overrode all else. He decided to forgo his pride and, for the first time, act in an unassuming way. Truth was no one had ever turned him inside out like Lisa had.

Before he met her, though, he had one decision to make. He called his VP.

“Ah, I knew you’d come around eventually,” Tom said.

“I won’t let them go,” Jack replied. No sense in wasting time. “On the contrary I’m raising these people’s salaries. I’ll study each case, of course. And don’t try to change my opinion. My decision is final. You’ve been egging me on to fire these people, and that’s because I’ve been passing the buck by closing my eyes about the company’s affairs. But, like they say, the buck stops here. I’ll be in charge now. After all it’s my company.”

“But—”

“No buts, ands, or ifs. That’s what I’ve decided. It’s final. I’ll meet with you and the other suits later,” said Jack, then he hung up.

Man, did that feel good! Jack downed the rest of his brandy and let out a contented sigh. Finally he had faced the music. Now it was time to clear another hurdle: meeting Lisa and coming to terms with the fact that they might never be anything other than friends. That’s okay, he told himself. I can be friends with a woman. I can. There’s always a first time.

 

* * *

 

The following night Jack arrived at the restaurant, and the waiter took him to the table where Lisa was seated. Jack felt like closing his eyes to prepare for the disappointment but reminded himself that she deserved nothing but honesty.

“Lisa?” he asked as he approached, his pulse drumming.

She looked at him, and finally his suspicion was confirmed. Lisa was nothing like he had imagined. Her smile was welcoming, but her wrinkled face and chubby body were indeed nothing he would ever find himself attracted to.

“Yes. Hi, Jack,” she said.

“Nice to meet you.” He reached out to shake her hand.

She took his hand, grinning from ear to ear. “Nice to meet you too.”

“Well, so we meet at last,” he said, pulling out the other chair.

“You expected someone different, didn’t you?”

“No. I don’t know. It’s strange to meet someone you’re so familiar with but you’ve never seen. Don’t you feel it too?”

Lisa nodded. “I feel I’m not as beautiful as you expected. Now tell me, don’t you have somewhere to go?” asked Lisa, tongue-in-cheek.

“What do you mean? Aren’t we gonna have dinner?”

“Oh come on, Jack. It’s obvious you were expecting someone beautiful. No need to be kind.”

“I’m not being kind. I want to have dinner and one of those great conversations we usually have. Have I given you any indication that I don’t want to be in your company?”

“Okay. That was a good answer,” Lisa said, picking up her purse.

“What’s wrong? Where are you going? Please, I apologize if I—”

She stood up. “It was nice meeting you, Jack, but I gotta go. Duty calls.”

“But why? I said I’m sorry if I—”

“No need to apologize, Jack. I think our conversation can end here because there’s someone else who needs to see you. Or talk with you, actually,” she said, clearing her throat.”

“Someone else?” Jack asked. He had no idea what she meant.

“Yes. Your Lisa.”

He opened his eyes wide. “You’re not Lisa?”

“Well, I am Lisa, but not your Lisa. She’s sitting at that table over there. Don’t get upset with her. I was the one who came up with the plan. It was the only way to see if you were going to be honest with her. A truly good heart can be seen only in its response to the unattractive, my friend. I thought the moment you saw I’m not beautiful—which, by the way, is not a problem at all because my man thinks I am—you would leave. Since you stayed and wanted to keep on talking, I think you might be worthy of the real Lisa.”

“I can’t believe this.” He laughed.

“And Jack, Lisa is very special. Handle her with care. And beware that what you get is what you see.”

“I know. Well, thanks,” he said, although he was not sure what she meant.

“Okay. Give me a minute to fill her in, and you can go. She’s at the back of the restaurant. Good Luck.”

Jack took a deep breath. He waited a while and then approached the other table. He was taken aback by how beautiful the real Lisa was. She had wavy black hair and brown eyes, and her round face reminded him of a doll’s. The white button-up blouse she wore hugged the curves of her breasts, and that drove him mad. She was staring out a window. Jack’s heart pounded harder.

“Lisa?” he asked, blocking her view.

“Jack? Oh, Jack. I’m so sorry. This was all Lisa’s idea. I didn’t mean to play a joke on you.”

“That’s no problem. She was clever. God, your voice! How could I have mistaken it? I was so eager to talk to you that I didn’t even pay attention to the difference.”

“You’re not upset?” she asked.

“Of course not,” said Jack, sitting down—and feeling relieved.

God, she’s so much more beautiful than I imagined.

“I’m glad you see it that way,” she said, fixing her piercing eyes on him. She stared as if seeing right through him.

Or was she? It finally dawned on Jack that Lisa wasn’t really staring at him.

“Lisa, are you…?” Jack asked, trying to find the right words.

“Blind? Yes. How observant of you,” she said with a laugh.

“Oh, I—”

“It’s okay. I’m sorry I never told you. I hope that’s not a problem.”

Jack leaned against the table. “Of course not. I just…I don’t know what to say. You gotta give me some time to digest this. First I talk with a fake Lisa, and now my Lisa is stunning and…blind? I’m sorry. It’s all just so much.” He rakedhis fingers through his hair.

“She meant well. I’ve been in some uncomfortable situations before, and since it’s been a while since I’ve gone out with a man, she decided to play the older sister.”

“I don’t know what to say. Can I ask how you lost your sight?”

“Of course. I was born blind.”

“I’m so sorry.”

“That’s okay.

Jack wanted to kiss her so much. He wanted to reach out and cradle her face in his hands, to put his mouth on hers and take away the pain he was feeling for her.

“No need to feel sorry for me, Jack. I don’t see myself as crippled.”

He shook his head. “If anybody is crippled here, Lisa, it’s me. This week keeps getting better and better. Last night I just made one of the most important decisions of my life, and I feel so good about it. I’m so happy with myself. And now meeting you…It’s all so miraculously breathtaking.”

”I’m tickled pink too. I had wonderful news at work today,” said Lisa.

“Really? Tell me what happened with you, and I’ll tell you what I did.”

“My boss was going to fire hundreds of employees today, but we got news that he backed down and is giving us a raise instead. Can you believe that? We were all so desperate. You have no idea.”

“What?” asked Jack, unsure he had heard her right.

“You see, Jack? There are good people in the world. This man has no idea how he’s saved loads of families.”

“Where do you work?” he asked, then held his breath.

“At Worldview Enterprises. Do you know it?”

“Lisa…I can’t believe this is happening. I own that company.”

“You? But…Oh! Did you…? Are you…?”

“I’m your boss, Lisa.”

“That was the difficult decision you had to make?”

“Yes. I disappointed a lot of people today, you know.”

“I bet. But I’m so happy you did the right thing.” She paused. “Jack, let me touch your face.”

He hesitated as well. “What if you don’t like me?”

“I already like you, Jack. I just wanna know if my predictions are right.”

“How do you picture me?”

“Thin face, straight nose, and small hazel eyes,” she said.

“Wow! On the mark. You got that all from my voice?”

“No. I’m kidding. Lisa called and told me your features. She said you’re a sight for sore eyes, which suits me perfectly,” she said, smiling.

Jack got closer to her, and she touched his face.

“You’re more than a pretty face, Jack. You have a good heart too. I knew you’d make the right decision. I just didn’t know it was something so big.”

“It’s nice to hear your voice in person, Lisa. You have such a beautiful soul. I was right about you too.”

“And you can see that just by talking with me?”

“No. ‘It’s only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye,’” he said.

“Nice. The Little Prince. That one’s special to me. Used to be my bedtime story. Let me ask you something, Jack. What made you reach your decision about the company?”

“It was the right thing to do on all fronts. I felt it in my heart. Then I came across a quote that kind of opened my eyes. As you know, someone taught me to see the wisdom in quotes, and now I collect them.”

Lisa smiled. “And what was the quote?”

“’The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new landscapes but in having new eyes’. By Marcel Proust,” Jack said, looking at her mouth and wishing he could finally taste her lips.

“I’m proud of you, Jack,” she said.

“Thanks, Lisa. I owe it to you. You helped me see things I never thought I could.”

“Me? No, Jack. Take Proust’s words again. ’We don’t receive wisdom; we must discover it for ourselves after a journey no one can take for us or spare us.’”

“Hey, Lisa…can I kiss you?” Jack asked at last.

“Be my guest, boss.”

“You’re fired, by the way,” Jack said, moving even closer to her.

“What?” Lisa pulled back.

“You can’t work under me and be my wife at the same time.”

She grinned. “Are you asking me to marry you? We’ve just met, Jack.”

“Yeah, you’re right. Maybe it’s better to wait a month or two while we put that center you work at on full throttle with the help of my company. What do you say?”

“I think it’s a great idea. We’ll be able to help lots of Jacks.”

“What about my proposal?”

“We’ll see, Mr. President. Good things happen to those who wait.”

“Lisa, I want you in my life forever.”

“How can I say no to a voice like yours?” she said, then their lips met.

Jack couldn’t deny he had fallen in love with Lisa’s voice. He just hadn’t known there was more than met the eye.

 

 

 

GROWING PAINS

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Karen was playing in her bedroom when she heard the sound of his footsteps. She stood up quickly, blood rushing to her head. Her hands and knees shook so badly, she flattened herself against the wall in an attempt to hold on to something. Then she slid down to the floor and grabbed her doll. She closed her legs fast as if that would protect her from what was coming next. With her arms around her drawn-up knees, she went pale. When he finally entered the room, he was wearing his usual blue overalls. He waved, making the sound of his wristwatch resonate in the room.

“Hi, princess! How are you today?” he greeted Karen, locking the door behind him. He sat down and patted the spot beside him. Karen’s heart pounded harder. She broke out in a sweat.

“Reluctant today, huh? You wanna make me angry?” The fake tenderness in his voice disappeared suddenly as he arched an eyebrow. He rubbed his hands over his thighs.

“No!” Karen answered quickly with tears threatening to stream down her face.

“So come, baby. I don’t have much time. Don’t make me wait, or I’ll get very upset,” he warned, gesturing for her to go to him.

“Can I…” Karen began as she walked slowly toward the bed.

“You wanna ask me something? Go on, princess. Your wish is my command,” he said with a smile that looked exactly the way it felt: fake and forced.

“Can I…close…my eyes today?” she asked, finding her courage at last.

He took out a handkerchief. “Today is blindfold day, dear.”

The doll slipped through Karen’s fingers and fell to the floor. She felt herself peeing in her panties. The world came to a stop once again. Tears finally ran freely down her face. She went back to the corner of her mind where no one could hurt her with either words or hands.

 

* * *

 

Twenty-five years later

 

Sunlight flooded the bedroom. Karen tossed the covers off and creaked up to a sitting position. Her back was killing her. She had been meaning to buy a new mattress for months, but something else always took priority. It took every ounce of her willpower to get up.

After taking a shower, she got the first pair of pants in sight and tried to put them on. Bad idea. They got stuck on her hips. She took them off and sighed.

Karen, you might have covered all the mirrors in this house, but you can’t hide the facts. You pay a price for devouring Hershey bars and doughnuts. No gymnastics in the world will help you fit in those pants. Yeah, fat chance! She giggled and picked out a dress from the wardrobe instead.

Karen considered herself a creature of habit through and through. She liked doing things her own way, hated surprises, and was a firm believer in the old saying “what goes around comes around.” That was why she had spent her whole life weaving a plan to kill the monster of her childhood. She promised herself she wouldn’t rest until she found him and made him suffer the worst pain ever. She had become an excellent shooter and took pride in her fighting skills. She dreamed of the day she could silence her monster for good.

 

* * *

 

“What was the dream like this time?” asked her psychiatrist Rose.

“The usual. I tied him up, tortured him, and then cut his bomb. I threw hot water on it first.”

“Why do use this word? It’s so strange. Why don’t you just say ‘genitals’?”

“Because there isn’t anything worse than a bomb to destroy people’s dreams. Why do you always ask the same questions?”

“Don’t you think it’s funny for someone who harbors so much hate to save lives for a living?”

“The fact that I am a firefighter has nothing to do with my plans. I’m proud of saving people’s lives. His is a completely different ball game. He deserves to die. Period.”

“Don’t you plan on saving yours too?”

“What do you mean? I don’t need saving.”

“Don’t you think you want to be saved from yourself?”

“No, I don’t, Doc. I’ve told you a hundred times, I’m okay. I don’t need anything. I just want to go back to action. Why do they insist I need more time out? Ever since that fire, everyone looks at me like I’m an alien.”

“Do you feel like one?”

“Of course not. I just miss the action. Well, at least today I’ll give the lecture at this school. Talking about a firefighter’s job isn’t nearly the same, but it’ll make me feel engaged somehow.”

“I’m glad you signed up for that. What about your neighbor?”

“Daniel? He’s a sweetheart and a hunk. A hell of a combination. He’s always around. Sometimes I have a feeling he’s following me because he shows up out of the blue wherever I am. When he sees me coming up with groceries, he just runs to help. He always finds excuses to drop by my apartment. He’s kind of secretive. I don’t know but sometimes I have this feeling there’s something fishy about him. He probably has his own skeletons in the closet. When I’m near him, his gentleness and charm erase all my suspicions. He’s really hard to resist, I’ll tell you that.”

“Why do you need to resist? If the guy is showing interest, go ahead.”

“Not yet. I don’t feel ready to be in a relationship, Rose. You know that. Besides, maybe he’s just being nice. That’s all.”

“Why can’t you live fully? Go after your dreams. Fly high.”

“Fly high? Me? I doubt it. You reminded me of something now. I dreamed of butterflies again. It was funny. I just saw butterflies in this wide place. Lots of them. It was so beautiful. Whatever. I need to focus and continue my research. I contacted this detective today. I have a feeling he’ll find him.”

“You hired another detective? You gotta stop hunting this lunatic, Karen.”

“I will find my monster and kill him like I’ve always imagined.”

“Karen, look at yourself. You’re not seeing the bigger picture. It’s over. He can’t harm you anymore. Stop nurturing hate, revenge. You’re the one suffering.”

“I can’t have peace until I’m certain he won’t hurt anybody else.”

“But—”

“Your time’s up, Doc. Gotta go.”

“Once you see the beauty of what’s inside you, you’ll change your focus. You could start by uncovering those mirrors. You’ll be surprised by how beautiful you look now.”

“No can do, Doc. See you!”

 

* * *

 

“People die needlessly every day because many don’t know how to act when they see an accident,” Karen explained to the class of high school students who had come to hear her presentation. “They end up worsening the situation because of their ignorance. Most of the time, when we firefighters and the paramedics arrive on the scene, we find people either yelling and not doing anything or doing exactly what they shouldn’t, such as pulling an injured person out of car. If the person’s neck or back is broken, improper movement can damage the spinal cord and disable or kill them. A broken bone may lacerate an artery.”

“What’s the correct course of action then?” asked a teacher.

“Unless it’s a matter of life or death, there is no pulse and CPR is needed, or the car is about to catch fire, you should keep the victim immobile, using your hands to hold the head and neck steady until help arrives. One other thing that’s important to remember is not to force anything into the mouth of someone having a seizure because you’re afraid the person will swallow his tongue, which can’t really happen. The best course of action in both cases is to keep calm and call 911 immediately.”

“Karen, thanks so much for your words,” said the principal. “We heard of your heroic act—saving a man’s life from a huge fire months ago. That was amazing. Let’s give her a hand, guys.” She clapped along with the students.

“Thanks.” Karen felt a bitter taste in her mouth after the principal’s remark.

“Can I ask a question, please?” asked a student.

“Sure,” answered Karen.

“Have you ever killed anyone?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“I mean unintentionally like you said people do to victims.”

“No, I haven’t. We’re well trained for situations such as those.”

“Lois, what kind of question is that?” the teacher asked. “Karen is a firefighter. She’d never kill anyone. Her job is to protect not the other way around.”

“Yes, ma’ am.”

The student’s question had hit home. Karen went back to her house feeling down and disappointed in herself. However, she couldn’t back down now, not after all these years. She needed to follow through with the plan she had outlined.

This is different. I have my reasons. Anybody would want the same. I was a child, for Christ’s sake! He used me. He took away all my dreams. I didn’t—

The doorbell rang, interrupting Karen’s thoughts and bringing her back to reality. She opened the door to find Daniel standing there. Just the sight of him helped her calm down. She couldn’t hide it anymore—she was indeed attracted to this man. But she had to hold her horses and not give in to her feelings. She didn’t know anything about him. What if he was not what he seemed? Suspicion was second nature to her. After all, she had learned from experience that those who seem the friendliest could be the most dangerous ones—like her monster was.

“Hi, Daniel. Come in.” She opened the door wide, gesturing for him to enter.

“Hi, Karen. I saw the lights were on and decided to drop by. How are you feeling?”

“I’m okay, thanks. Sit down. Dan, can I ask you why you always ask me that?”

“What?”

“You never ask me how I am or what’s up with me. You always ask how I’m feeling. It’s as if you think I’m sick or something. I’m curious. Do I look sick?”

“Of course not. Karen, I’m so sorry. I don’t mean it like that. It’s just my way of greeting you.” He looked disturbed.

“Don’t worry. I’m not upset. It’s just funny. Would you like a beer or anything?”

“Are you drinking?”

“Just juice, but I must have one or two beers in the fridge. I don’t have many visitors these days.”

“Juice would be great. Thanks.”

“Just one sec then.” Karen excused herself and went to the kitchen. After she left the room, Daniel took the opportunity to check her purse. He found her medication and counted the number of pills she had taken, then put it back quickly. Before closing her purse, he caught sight of her gun and thought of stealing it, but that would raise suspicion.

“There you go,” Karen said, coming back in with a glass of juice. “I hope it’s cold enough for you.”

Daniel took a sip. “It’s great, thanks.”

“I’ve been meaning to ask you, what is it that you do exactly? It’s something with computers, right?” Karen asked, sitting down on the couch, putting up her feet.

“Yeah, I’m a systems analyst. I design new IT solutions to improve business efficiency and productivity. I examine existing business models and flows of data.”

“I can’t picture you doing that, Daniel. I don’t know why,” she said, smiling.

“Really? Well, that’s the paycheck, but I also paint. I dream of painting to my heart’s content.”

“Why don’t you? What’s holding you back?”

“I guess I need some support. You know, like someone who’d be willing to give me a hand. I guess I’m waiting for my muse,” he said, staring at her.

“Oh…You’ll find your muse for sure.”

“Actually I’ve found her already,” Daniel said, standing up.

Karen cleared her throat and stood up as well, trying to keep her distance from him. ”So what do you like painting?”

“Scenery. Landscapes mostly, but I tackle anything these days.”

“Are you good? I’d love to see some of your work.”

“I’m okay if I may say so myself. You know, if you really mean it, you could come to my friend’s house this weekend. She bought a place and wants me to paint something to hang on her wall. I introduced you to her the other day. Susan. Remember? ”

“Oh sure. She was so friendly.”

“She keeps asking about my beautiful neighbor. You’ll like her. She’s a great person.”

“I don’t know. I’m not much into going out these days.”

“So? That’s a perfect reason for you to come then. We don’t have to stay long.”

“Oh, I don’t know…”

“I don’t bite, Karen.”

“It’s not that, Daniel. You don’t understand. I’m not very good company. Believe me.”

“I beg to differ. It’d mean a lot to me. I’m desperately in need of company.”

“You? Come on. You must have a bunch of girls after you.”

“The one I want doesn’t seem interested,” he said, approaching her.

“Oh…” Karen avoided eye contact.

“I’m patient. I just don’t know if I’ll be able to resist kissing her much longer.”

Karen was hopelessly attracted to Daniel. And Daniel seemed intent on making it crystal clear that he wanted her. His gaze settled on her, and he strode to where she stood. He slid his hand around the back of her neck and pulled her close. He kissed her hard. By the time he drew his lips from hers, she was gasping for breath.

Emotion welled inside Karen, making her chest hurt. Daniel was a very attractive man, and it was hard to believe he’d be interested in a chubby, simple woman like her. It was a good thing she never looked in the mirror. Otherwise she’d doubt his sanity. Anyway his kiss was intense, the kind any woman would dig. Her instincts were on red alert.

Karen, you’re getting involved. Back off right now. Remember you have a plan. Nothing can interfere. Well, maybe he’s just after a short-term fling. That wouldn’t hurt. After all you’re made of flesh and blood. And that mouth of his is out of this world.

Despite their near-combustible chemistry, she couldn’t let her guard down for too long.

“Karen, please don’t think I’m forcing anything here. I just thought maybe we could spend time together—like friends, you know.”

“I don’t kiss my friends like this, Daniel,” she said, smiling again.

“I’m up for anything you decide this should be. It’s your call.”

“Listen, let’s keep things the way they are. I’m a mess right now. Maybe some other time. I’m sorry.”

“No prob. Just know I’m here. So can I pick you up on Friday at six?”

“Okay. We can go after I talk with my doctor. You’re right. I really need to get out of this apartment.”

“Great. See you then,” said Daniel, sounding excited.

As soon as he left, Karen regretted having agreed to go out with him. It’d be hard to look at his mouth and not surrender. And she still felt something was off with him. She could have been wrong, but he might have been hiding something from her too. Whatever it was she would discover it. And she wouldn’t be surprised if he had some abuse hidden in his past as well. She could smell that kind of thing easily, which just highlighted the fact that being near him too often wouldn’t be good. Karen would be extra careful and not give in accidentally on purpose again next time.

 

* * *

 

Daniel’s friend Susan welcomed Karen warmly. Karen felt as if they were old friends already. She didn’t remember the last time she had felt so comfortable around anyone, but then again she was never really around anyone else.

“This is an amazing house, Susan,” Karen said while they were eating dinner.

“I just bought the property. My previous house became too big for me after my husband died, and my kids moved out. I decided to move to something smaller, but not too small so I can have my kids and grandchildren around any time they want. Why don’t you take a tour? Daniel can show you everything. Never mind the mess in the yard. I’m expecting my landscaper at any moment.”

“I’d love to,” Karen replied.

After dinner, Daniel took Karen outside and showed her around. She marveled at the elegance of the architecture and the trees scattered around the property. She was taken aback by a jungle of gargantuan ferns in the yard. She inhaled their scent—like moss after a warm rain.

“Well, I think this is it,” said Daniel. “There’s the garden, but I don’t think you want to see it. There are a bunch of flowers.”

“I don’t remember telling you about my dislike of flowers.”

“You said it right at the beginning when I moved into the building—when I gave you some.”

“Oh yeah. Well, I think we’d better go, Daniel. It’s late, and I’m tired.”

“Sure. Let’s get going, then.”

Inside the house, Susan asked, “So, Karen, what did you think?”

“It’s all so breathtaking, Susan.”

“As soon as the landscaper checks it out, it’ll be better. He’s just arrived, actually. What a nice old man he is.”

“Susan, it’s started raining. I don’t wanna get stuck in traffic with Karen. We’d better go,” said Daniel.

“But the weather forecast predicts a downpour later,” Susan said as she cleared the dinner dishes from the table. “Why don’t you stay for the night? This is summer rain. By morning the skies will be clear.”

Daniel shrugged and looked at Ellen. “It’s okay by me. What do you think?”

Ellen did not hesitate; she shook her head. She did not like sudden changes like this and could not do without the creature comforts of her home. “Sorry. I appreciate the offer. But maybe next time.”

Susan smiled at her. “That’s fine. Come back any time you want, dear.”

The doorbell rang, interrupting their conversation. Susan went to answer it, and the others made their way down the hall behind her.

“Oh, hi,” Susan said when she opened the door. “Come in, please. Let me introduce you to my friends.”

Before Karen turned to see the man, the loud sound of a wristwatch filled the room. She stopped, fear paralyzing her as memories of her monster’s watch invaded her thoughts.

“I’ve been waiting for you. I’m glad you came on such short notice,” Susan told the landscaper.

“I’m so sorry, ma’am. I don’t do much landscaping these days. My eyesight is not the same anymore. Blame it on old age. I brought you some flowers. They’re from my new garden.”

“Oh, that’s so kind of you. They’re beautiful.”

Karen turned around, and the sight of a tall man with shaggy gray hair and blue overalls made her flinch. The man who had stolen her innocence and haunted her dreams had come back. All color drained from her face. Sweat trickled down her neck. Her adrenaline churned. Her pulse and heartbeat soared. She held her breath.

Karen stumbled back, bumped a chair, and crumpled in the seat as panic engulfed her. She dropped her head forward, tears rolling down her face. The old man didn’t recognize her. She was sure of that. Maybe his thick glasses had something to do with it.

My gun, she thought. Where’s my gun?

“Karen? What’s wrong?” asked Daniel.

“Where’s my purse?”

“You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

“Where’s my purse?” she asked again nervously.

“It’s here. Why?” asked Daniel.

Karen was so nervous, she started feeling pain in her whole body. She got her gun out of her purse and pointed it at the monster. She shook badly and couldn’t find focus because her eyes blurred; she was so scared, she peed in her panties.

Damn it! Get a hold of yourself, Karen. You’re not a child anymore. You’ll finally do it.

“Look at me! You’ll pay for what you did,” she shouted, pointing the gun at the man.

Everybody looked at her openmouthed.

“Karen, what’s this? Drop the gun, please,” asked Daniel in despair.

“Stay out of it, Daniel. You don’t know who he is. He raped me for years. You monster! I hate you! You’ll pay for what you did to me,” said Karen, wiping her tears with one hand.

That was when Karen connected the dots: Daniel had orchestrated this whole thing. It was a trap. His insistence on her to come to his friend’s house. His approaching her like a friend. It was all a plan to get her into her monster’s hands again. How could she have been so naïve? They were all in this together. But why?

“Karen, dear, calm down. Don’t do this. You don’t know what you’re saying,” said Susan.

“I don’t know you, ma’am,” said the man.

“Stop! I’m not stupid! You’re all in this together. Daniel, I know what you did. You brought me here for him. I know now. Who are you, damn it?” said Karen, walking backward.

“Karen, put the gun down before somebody gets hurt. Please, calm down. Let’s talk,” Daniel begged.

Karen’s sudden backache assaulted her hard. “I’m going to kill him, and if you get in the way I’ll kill you both too. I’ve got nothing to lose. You don’t know how long I’ve waited. Now, take off your clothes. I’ll shoot you in that dirty place between your legs. That bomb! You won’t hurt any other little girls. It’s over. I promised myself I’d find you one day.”

“I don’t know who you think I am, ma’am, but I’m not that man. I’ve never hurt anybody in my whole life. Please, calm down. This is not good for you,” said the landscaper.

“Stop! Take off your pants now! I’m not joking,” Karen said in tears.

“Ma’am, calm down. You can hurt yourself and your baby.”

“What?” Karen replied.

“Sir, are you the baby’s father?” the man asked Daniel. “Talk to her.”

“What?” Another sharp pain hit Karen, and she pointed her gun down. Daniel ran to her. Karen felt her brain freeze.

“Karen?”

“What is he saying, Daniel?”

“Baby, my butterfly, come back to me. I need you,” he told her.

“What? What did you call me?”

“Karen,” said Susan, “I need you to calm down and listen to my words. Everything’s going to be all right.”

“Honey,” said Daniel, “you need to see this. It’s the only way you’ll believe our words.”

“See what?”

“Yourself, honey. Take it easy. Everything’s gonna be all right. Breathe.”

Susan got a mirror and showed Karen. She closed her eyes at first but then opened them. She was flabbergasted by what she saw. She wasn’t fat like she thought. She was expecting a baby.

“Look, honey. Look at yourself. You’re a beautiful mommy.”

Karen stared at the mirror. She couldn’t utter any words. Silence took over the room. You could hear a pin drop. She couldn’t have lied to herself all this time, she thought. Yet suddenly, like bees buzzing in her brain, it all fell into place. Her backache, her clothes not fitting anymore, the way she got tired easily. At the mercy of her emotions, she gave up the battle, buried her face in her hands, and wept like a heartbroken child.

“I tried to protect you as much as I could, butterfly,” said Daniel.

“I need to talk to my doctor. I wanna talk to Rose, please. I need her now.”

“Karen, there is no Rose. It was you all the time.”

“What?”

“Baby, you stopped your treatment and medication months ago, after the fire.”

“But I take medicine.”

“Those are prenatal vitamins, Karen. That’s all. I check if you’re taking them every time I can. Susan is your OB, but you avoid her at all costs. You created your own version of helping yourself by talking to Rose. You’ve been living in that world all this time. I didn’t know what to do. I rented an apartment right beside you so I could keep an eye on you. You secluded yourself after the fire.”

“My monster,” Karen said. “I didn’t invent him. I didn’t. I’m not crazy,” Karen said, clutching her mother’s pendant, which hung around her neck.

“No, you didn’t,” Daniel said. “But you weren’t able to kill him when you had the chance. That’s why you went on this downward spiral. You couldn’t forgive yourself for not doing what you had planned when the time came. You faced a tremendous emotional roller coaster when you rescued him from that fire.”

“What? I saved him? I couldn’t have. No.”

“Sweetheart, it’ll come back to you. It’s over, but you went through a very traumatizing moment. People who have been sexually abused can be delusional at times if confronted with intense stress like you were. They can create worlds outside reality, and something of this magnitude may happen. It was your way of surviving the pain of finding your monster and not being able to act. He has already paid for what he did to you and the other little girls he hurt for all those years. He was in a wheelchair, alone, and bitter when you found him. Loads of charges came upon him when his face showed up on TV, and he killed himself in prison. You discovered you were pregnant right afterward, and the lack of your psychotropic meds made it all worse. You secluded yourself in that place and refused to believe what had happened.”

“But I had to kill him. Why didn’t I? Why?”

“Because you’re not a monster like him, Karen,” David said. “You saved his life despite knowing who he was.”

“I did that?”

“You did, baby.”

That was when Karen remembered who Daniel was: her beloved husband. The man Karen had fallen madly in love with three years ago, the one with whom she had shared a beautiful house with a yard. They had been ready to welcome their first child. His butterfly collection, his paintings, and the undivided attention he constantly gave her all came back at once. The shock of discovering she was pregnant overshadowed her anger, however, leaving her suddenly calm. It was over. She didn’t need to fear anymore. She was free at last.

Karen felt like in the character in the movie The Purple Rose of Cairo who walked off the screen and came into the real world. Her world was real; she had gotten all she needed. The pain that had crippled her all these years was finally gone. She felt a mixture of emptiness and fullness, with the baby inside her reminding her that she had been given a second chance at life. She settled down and grimaced as a tight pain constricted her belly.

“What’s wrong? How are you feeling?” David asked.

“That’s why you kept asking me that question?”

“Yes…We’re having a baby, Karen.”

“My water just broke. I thought I had peed.” A look of embarrassment came over her face.

“God! Susan, do something. She’s having the baby!”

“You don’t say!” Susan replied. “Calm down, Daddy. First babies take a long time to make their appearances.”

Memories suddenly flashed through Karen’s mind. She remembered the fire and the moment she had set her eyes on her monster lying on the floor. For a split second, she had thought of turning back and letting him burn in hell, but she finally saw she couldn’t be what he had been to her. When his eyes met hers, Karen saw fear and despair—the exact feelings she had endured every time he had entered her bedroom. He begged for forgiveness. Although Karen could never forgive him for his monstrosity, she would make it her new goal in life to outlive her memories and start from scratch, allowing herself to live a life pregnant with meaning.

 

Check out other short stories in my book Rise. It  is available at the links below:

http://www.amazon.com

http://www.barnesandnoble.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

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