He motioned with his left hand at the girl as she walked by his table, his head still down looking at his journal.
“More coffee?” she asked motioning toward his empty coffee cup, briefly stopping on her way to the counter.
“Yes and keep it filled”, he muttered at her with an air of annoyance.
“Sure thing”, the young waitress replied as she bounced away to the counter grabbing up the coffee pot. “Anything to go in it?” she inquired as she refilled the mug, smiling in that vacant way too many people have that have not really experienced life.
Jesus H. Christ, he thought to himself, how hard is it to remember after three days that he only took his coffee black except for the occasional Irish whisky he would spike it with. “Just hot, strong and black. Nothing more, nothing less. And keep it filled. Now that’s not too tough to remember is it?” he growled toward the waitress.
“No sir. Sorry.” she quietly replied, her voice ever so slightly quivering from the rebuke. Jenny filled the cup and walked back to the counter glancing over her shoulder at the man, her face a mask of confusion. Only 19, this was Jenny’s first real job and she had taken it to earn some extra spending money while attending the local community college. Her mom and dad were taking care of all the school costs so it was like a free ride for her.
The man sipped the coffee grimacing at the burning in the pit of his stomach as the acidic fluid hit. The past few years coffee had become a major staple in his diet. Some days the only things he would eat or drink would be coffee and alcohol. The former for most of the day to keep him going and the latter to chase the demons away that tormented him at night.
After a few minutes of reviewing his notes and putting down some new thoughts he pulled out his laptop, an old one that had seen much better times. He plugged it into the outlet at his booth since the battery was long dead and he couldn’t find another for it. He thought about finally breaking down and buying a new one, but quickly dismissed it. It wasn’t the cost that stopped him, but rather this computer had belonged to his wife and as long as it worked he would use it. Opening the laptop he powered it up and sat back and watched the people coming and going while he waited for the obsolete processor churn through the required tasks to bring all the functions online. This usually took a couple of minutes which he used to just observe. The welcome screen announced it was ready for him and he connected to the wireless network to do a little research on the internet. He thought back to when he first landed in this shop and found that this normally simple task was nearly impossible.
Ted, the owner of the coffee shop, had bought the space with the intention of having internet access for his customers just as the chain stores did. This shop had appealed to him since it had been an ‘internet cafe’ in the late 1990’s and early 2000s. Much of the old wiring and equipment was still in place even though it was seriously outdated. Being short on money Ted had tried to do a lot of the work himself or had hired teens on the cheap which usually left him with a larger mess. The result was any connection to the internet was spotty and slow at best and nonexistent at other times. The man proposed a bargain of sorts with Ted where he would straighten out his access woes in exchange for a perpetual reservation on the booth of his choice. It only took a couple of days to completely rebuild his system at minimal cost to Ted. This feat had come easy as he had worked for many years with computer and network systems as a consultant. Ted seemed overjoyed and readily agreed to the bargain when he saw how well it worked afterwards with little cost to him.
He had found this particular coffee shop a day after arriving in town and was out walking. He was a couple of blocks off the main traffic flow in the town when he spied it. Immediately upon entering he saw that the people who frequented it were locals. There were no plastic, trendy tourists which could be found in every quaint northwestern town on any given day. The regular customers were made mostly of society dropouts, might have-beens, poets, artists, and young dreamers. Along which came the few transient travelers who were not the normal tourists. These were people who felt life and enjoyed living it. This is what brought this particular man to settle on this shop as a type of day home. The people who came into this shop were real people with real thoughts, feelings, hopes, dreams, fantasies, pain. Their stories were made from interaction and experiences, not by living vicariously sitting in front of a television set or reading supermarket tabloids.
These people also had soul. Not the kind that people kneel and pray for salvation, or that is associated with rhythm & blues music. No, these people had a soul that transcended flesh. This is the type of soul that lives on after the mortal body has turned to dust and someday takes on another to taste the sweetness that only life and living can offer. These were the people he wanted to be around, observe, and sometimes write about, incorporating bits of their personalities into the characters he created for his stories.
There was a time that he thought he had one of those souls. Life seemed so large and grand. More than could be experienced in a single mortal lifetime. He had allusions that he had even previously lived different lifetimes with some interesting similarities. He was always amazed and confounded by those who were so willing to say they would welcome death when “their time came”. He, on the other hand, was never so flippant about life and dying. There was just too much to experience in a thousand lifetimes, let alone one. Because of that feeling he did not fear death. Instead, death angered him. More than that, he hated death more than anything else. Some of it came from the unknowing, but more from what it had already taken from him.
What was death? Was it a doorway to another existence? Did the soul go to heaven or hell as some chose to profess? Did the soul become one with the universe? Did it take on a new mortal coil to try again? Or, the ultimate question that drove many to search for higher meaning due to an insurmountable fear, was death the end? The flipping of a switch to off. No further input or output. The cessation of everything. All questions with no answers. This always made him feel apart from mainstream humanity. However, that was all in the past. Now he just felt hollow inside and grasped at anything to try and regain a semblance of feeling alive. And always failing, resulting in more bitterness. Each day he understood more clearly, and sadly, that as we come into this world alone, so we leave. Even now he lived that way. Alone. No family. No friends. Just acquaintances who only had a glimpse of who he was.
Several hours had passed pounding on the worn, nearly blank keys when the setting sun’s rays flashed in his eyes. Awakened from his reverie he blinked several times trying to refocus on his surroundings and stretched his suddenly weary body. He was actually surprised to see Jenny still working behind the counter thinking she was putting in a pretty long day. Seeing him gaze her way she quickly grabbed the coffee pot almost in a panic and started for his table. “No thanks, I’m done for the day”, he said in an almost congenial manner. Swigging the last, cold dregs from his mug and almost cursing at himself for the bitter, cold taste he began gathering his things together and put them away very orderly in his shoulder bag.
Jenny watched as he put away his things with a care that was at odds to his rumpled and unkempt appearance. She seemed to be puzzled as if wondering what this man was about. What had brought him to this point in life? If truth be known, these were deeper thoughts than she usually pondered. Recognizing the look on her face he stepped over to her while slinging the bag across his shoulder. His abrupt, but quiet voice visibly shook her from her thoughts.
“I imagine you were born and raised here. I expect you have no real plans for your future and will probably marry, have a couple of kids. Buy and live in that one special house your entire life. Ponder an affair later on, but you will go to church on those occasions it is expected. You will participate in the expected causes of the day. And, eventually, die and be buried in the plot you and your husband picked out 20 years previously. Basically live a very beige life. If the picture I just drew was revolting then I have once in a lifetime offer for you. There is a catch, it is only good until I walk out that door in just a minute. If you want your life to be something different, a real life, then I will give you $1000 right now. No questions asked. I don’t care to know what you do. Now, here’s the catch. You walk out that door with me, right now. You then go straight home, pack, and leave town tonight. Go. Live. Experience what is out there. You will never know what that is until you go and do it for yourself. Remember though, you have to leave tonight. I do not want to see you in this town after this evening. On the other hand, if that is too frightening a concept for you, then here is $20 for the tab and tip. We will forget this conversation ever took place. You have about 30 more seconds to decide”.
Ted had just come out of the storeroom and heard the last part of the speech. “Goddam it!” he quietly roared, storming up to the writer who was a only an inch taller, quite thinner, several years older, and yet, somehow more imposing. “Would you quit bribing away my help? I am going to have you barred from coming in here if you don’t stop.” In the preceding six months, two of Ted’s employees had taken the offer and left town to start their own adventures. “You are bad for my business.”
“How am I bad for your business?” the man mused with the beginnings of a slight smile on his lips. He really loved this game. “I have not bothered any of your customers. I rarely talk to anyone except you and your staff. I have heard nobody complain about me and on any given day there is a steady flow of customers with three-fourths of the places filled at any time during the day with standing room only at lunchtime and only dropping off the hour before you close”, he continued, feigning being wounded.
Ted sagged his shoulders and sighed in resignation to the man’s argument. “You know what I mean. I have to hire and train someone new all the time. It’s hard to find good help, you should know.” The last part was true. Good, reliable help was becoming harder to find. It seemed each year most applicants just wanted to get paid for doing the least amount of work possible. Pride in one’s work was becoming a rarity. As for the first part, by the end of the second day, even the slowest learners had their feet under them and could function with minimal supervision.
“Ted, you know as well or maybe even better than I do”, the man evenly reminded him, “those who took my offer would have soon become bored and unsatisfied. As a result, either their performance would have suffered or they would have soon left anyway. Either way, you would have lost a good employee. One way was just a little quicker and cleaner than the other.”
This took the steam out of Ted and he stood looking first at Jenny and then the man with a resigned air about him “Look, you may be right. But, would you please stop paying my staff to quit?” Jenny appeared a little shaken by entire scene. Ted turned toward her. “Jenny, I will say nothing to talk you outta leaving if that is what you want to do. It’s your mind you have to make up. I won’t hold nothing against ya. I’ll even give you a good recommendation even though you’ve only been here a few days. What d’ya say?”
Looking at the man who had given her such an offer she seemed to try and rationalize what had just transpired. Her face was a little pale with her eyes wide unblinking. Almost in fear of what breaking the new silence she finally swallowed and faintly stammered out, “I-I d-don’t know if…if I can do that. I mean, I should plan for what I’m going to do. Where would I stay? Where would I go?”
In a very gentle, yet very final sounding tone as though announcing there would never be another chance at adventure the man replied, “I see you have made your decision. I wish you well in your life. Here, this will cover the tab and here is $20 for you. Have a good evening, I’ll see you tomorrow.” Turning toward the door he nodded to Ted and only then did she notice him putting a folded stack of $100 bills back in his front pants pocket that he had actually been holding out for her the entire time. He was truly serious? He was going to give her $1000 no questions asked if she left town tonight? Before she could begin to fathom the events that had just transpired he was out the door turning right, walking in resignation as a man who had seen another soul again lost to complacency.
Jenny turned to Ted and asked, “Ted, I was right, wasn’t I? I mean, he wasn’t really serious, was he? And even if he is that crazy and was serious, you can’t just go around leaving like that. Can you? It is just so frightening thinking of taking off like that. What would my folks think? Then there is this guy, Javier that I’ve been seeing for a few weeks now. And my friends. How could I just up and leave like that? Isn’t it irresponsible to pick up and go without thinking it through and having a plan?”
“All I can say is we all make choices in life. And no matter what, we have to live with the consequences of those decisions. If you think that was a bad choice he offered, then you did right by you. But, if you have to ask me, then are you being truthful with yourself?” Ted placed a gentle hand on her shoulder and looked into her eyes with a touch of sadness. “Don’t worry, he won’t bother you again with any nonsense. Now, why don’t you go and wipe down those table over there and forget about it. Don’t let it bother you anymore.” He motioned to the tables he wanted cleaned and sent her on to her duties.
Jenny smiled feebly at Ted. “Thanks, Ted,” was all she said and made her way to the tables that she was to clean. Just then a friend walked in and she struck up a conversation as though the past few minutes were had never transpired.
At the corner the man turned right and regarded the long shadow that was being thrown on the sidewalk in front of him. It seemed to mock him and represent what his life had become, form but no substance. His thoughts turned to Jenny and a further sadness came on him. He actually saw a bit of himself in her at that age. When he was 19 he had lied about getting his underage girlfriend pregnant so they could get married, using that as an excuse to get out of the small, rural town that he never felt a part and away from his family. But, he was naive and soon had to shoulder the responsibilities of decisions as the fake pregnancy soon became a real one.
He was brought up to be a straight arrow. Hard work, honesty, responsible, compassion; these were the value that were instilled as a child. When he realized that he was soon to have a family he quickly forgot any dreams that may have floated in his head and sought out what would provide a stable income and benefits for those dependent upon him. He quickly decided that the Army was where he needed to go. And go he did. While somewhat frightening to be away from those he loved he never wavered in his commitment to be the provider for his family.
He had been the class nerd in high school, never quite finding his niche. Always on the fringe and never really accepted. There were a very few classmates that were the closest he could call friend. He actually did manage to date a few girls, but usually only once and only a couple of times were they from his school. Then he met his soon to be bride and there was a chemistry. Perhaps because she showed the most interest in him than anyone else had. Being the impatient teen he was, after a couple of months of dating he decided this must be the one he was to be with. Even though she was still underage at 16 they decided that marriage was what they wanted and wanted it immediately. To this day he was never sure if that was a mistake or not.
He regarded his shadow that was being cast before him and noticed how it was more a nebulous figure with no real defining characteristics. This struck him as representative of how his life was now. No real purpose, no real meaning. Going from day to day mostly filling it by putting down his thoughts, a practice he had started out of necessity all those years before to keep from going crazy and try to figure out what his real feelings were. Before things went to hell. Back when he had more than just dark feelings. Back when she….No! He wasn’t going to go down that path. He cursed at himself for even thinking about her. It just reminded him of how alone his life.
Yeah, he mused to himself, time to get laid. He decided then to head over to The Tavern and pick up some lithe, drunk female companion and take her home to bed, his or hers didn’t matter. There was always someone at The Tavern he could find drunk enough to impress out of her clothes. On most nights, he would hang out at Jeff’s Pub and Grill. Jeff’s was a rather small bar that had a quirkiness to it that appealed to him. Most of the people were regulars and accepted him as one of them though none could really tell you anything of substance about him. And yet, he could recite jobs, spouses, children, mistresses (though he wouldn’t), important events, and other life items about the majority of them. The regular bartenders had become adept at reading him and knowing as soon as he stepped through the door if it was a night for beer or something harder.
His efficiency apartment always had a very slight musty smell to it. It was never enough to bother him and only really noticeable when he would first enter. He had never been able to pin down what the cause was, but the rent was cheap, the landlord didn’t bother him and the view of the bay was breathtaking on any given day. This evening was even more so with the purple hue of the sky, the sun now just below the horizon, being reflected by the water along with the first stars of the night.
He closed the door and hung his bag and jacket on the back of the closest chair. Heading for the bathroom he pulled his shirt over his head. Feeling the gold rings hanging on the necklace around his neck caused him to pause and, with a start, realized what the date was. A shiver ran up his spine. “Shit and double shit”, he mumbled aloud. Today was his wedding anniversary. “Well”, he said out loud to himself, “I guess I won’t be going out after all”. Fingering the smaller ring he turned and walked to the small refrigerator. Opening the freezer he pulled out a bottle of vodka. After pouring a rather large amount in a tumbler, he lifted up the glass and announced, “Happy anniversary, babe. Wherever you may be”. He tossed back the vodka, and wiping the tears away that were now streaming down his face he poured only the second of many more to be that night. He pulled a chair onto the small balcony that had the magnificent overlook of the bay and began his wretched night of self-torment, self-loathing, and getting blind drunk.
As the fog of an alcohol induced sleep slowly receded he realized he was cold. Damn cold. Sometime during the night after the bottle had been drained he had come in and sat on the floor in front of the sofa which doubled as his bed. The door to the balcony was still open and the cool morning breeze was coming in off the bay. He realized he had slumped over on the floor. Sitting up and opening his eyes he realized he was still holding an old, well-worn snapshot taken of his wife during a much happier time in his life. Picking up the wallet that was lying beside him, he carefully placed the picture back inside. It was the only evidence in his wallet of a previous time. Of a happier lifetime. A life much opposite what he was living now.
Getting up he felt the familiar aches and soreness in his hip and knees. “Fuck getting old”, he thought. As he became more awake and aware he noticed two sensations. The first was an intense pressure in his bladder. The second, and more concerning was a burning in the pit of his stomach. He just knew he was getting an ulcer with the way he was abusing his body. Walking to the bathroom he relieved his bladder first then turned to the medicine cabinet and reached for an antacid along with some ibuprofen to try and dull the aches that seemed to come from everywhere. “Breakfast of champions” he murmured and swallowed the pills with some water. He regarded his reflection in the mirror on the wall. His hair, now with much more grey than he remembered, hung to the middle of his back still pulled back in a ponytail. It was really beginning to look dirty and greasy. His face had sparse clumps of whiskers on his cheeks, but a full goatee and moustache. He had never been able to grow a full beard and his facial hair grew slow. This too, seemed to have more grey every time he looked at it. Age was starting to catch up with him he grudgingly admitted. He looked more closely at himself and thought he was actually starting to look thin. At one time, he had packed on the weight and tipped the scales at 350 pounds. Now he doubted he was half of that.
eaching into the shower stall he turned the water on before undressing. Rubbing his hand over his face he decided against shaving the unkempt facial hair. Once the steam was rising from the shower he stepped in and let his hair down. The hot water felt good and helped to wash the final cobwebs away. As he bathed and washed his long brown/grey hair his mind starting turning to the story he was currently writing. Despite a quart of vodka, he didn’t have a hangover. Never did. Funny that, he mused. He felt his story was starting to wander and didn’t know quite where he wanted to go with it. That was always the way he wrote. Started with a premise and let the story play itself out. Many times he was actually surprised when it would end a certain way.
After a good thirty minutes in the steamy shower, he finally got out, dried off and dressed. He straightened the small apartment making a note to pick up some more vodka and some ibuprofen for his joint pain. Maybe he should get some food he thought, but then decided it would probably just go bad and have to throw it out as usually happened. Satisfied the apartment was in good enough shape he shouldered his bag and headed out the door to his second home, the coffee shop. Hopefully, he thought inspiration would come today to give the story more of a path. He actually felt a little lighter this morning. A little less darkness on his heart.
He walked into the coffee shop thankful for the warmth and shook the rain off his coat. A particularly cold and wet winter storm had moved into the area a couple of days previously and seemed to have settled in to stay for a while. Looking around he noticed the place was a little busier than usual and, more importantly and irritatingly, his normal booth was occupied by a foursome of presumably college students he didn’t recognize. No matter, he thought and settled into a booth more in the back with an unobstructed view of the counter and the front door. He hoped this wouldn’t be too distracting. Maybe his booth would open up soon and he could relocate.
Within a minute of sitting down Jenny set his usual steaming mug of strong, black coffee on the table before him. He was a little surprised to see her this particular morning as it seemed she was normally in class at that time. “No classes today?”, he inquired.
“No sir. Just finished finals so we’re out for winter break. I’m so ready for a break from all the books, too.”, she continued. “This lets me work some extra hours. What with Christmas coming up and what not, I can use the extra money. Found some really fantastic shoes yesterday that were actually on sale. What a find! Course, I’ll have to wait for the weather to get a little better to wear them.” She actually seemed to beam when relating her shopping conquest.
“Ah, that explains why it’s a little busier than usual”, he observed. “So how did you do this semester?”, he pleasantly asked. He actually liked Jenny. She still had an innocence about her and had actually been the one to suggest leaving a thermal carafe of coffee on his table so he would not run out and when it was empty he would place it by the edge to indicate it needed refilling. This arrangement actually worked very well to the point he tipped her a little more at the end of each week.
“No official grades until tomorrow.”, she informed. “However, I’m pretty sure I got B’s in everything except Psych. There was a new teacher this year. She really knew her stuff and expected you to, also. She was really pretty hard. Essay questions for her tests. How is that fair for a freshman class in Intro Psych. Don’t get me wrong, I think she’s OK as a person. Well, maybe a little out there, but OK. Anyways, I think I was able to pull a C out of the class.”
“Actually, it’s too bad more instructors don’t use essay questions. The schools might just help people learn how to discuss their thoughts with a little more foundation. Guess that’s the difference in Harvard and Podunk Community College.” Quickly changing the topic he asked, “So, what do you mean this instructor is ‘out there’. She doesn’t fit your definition of normal?”, picking up his coffee and enjoying the strong brew that was Ted’s own special roast.
“No, really, she’s just fine. I like her, I guess. It’s just….well….I’m pretty sure she believes in astrology and shamans, stuff like that. I wouldn’t be surprised if she wasn’t a pagan.” Jenny explained in a hushed tone, glancing almost in a conspiratorial way at some of her fellow classmates that were in the shop this morning. “I don’t think she believes in God. How can you be a psychiatrist or a psychologists and shrink people’s heads all the time and not believe there’s a God?”, her eyes slightly widened in disbelief.
He chuckled softly at Jenny’s discomfort at the thought of someone not believing in a God, but gently responded, “Jen, I am not going to get into a philosophical discussion with you today about religion and the impact it has on the psyche. Suffice it to say this is a large world, larger than you can imagine. You would be surprised what some people believe or don’t. Let’s just keep it positive and say your instructor is a fine person. Now, we probably need to bring this to a close for now. I already see three people with empty cups and one is starting to look annoyed at having to look for you. Also, there is a small group about to come in that will need waiting on and that young woman over there is finishing her latte as we speak.” He actually smiled at her, a rarity these days and opened his bag reaching for his black journal and well-worn pen.
Jenny was a little surprised at the smile. Come to think of it, she couldn’t recall ever having seen him actually smile at anything since she had come to know him here at the coffee shop. He always had a congenial manner about him except for the one time when she first started working and didn’t recall how he liked his coffee; Hot, strong, and black. Nothing more, nothing less. That was the only time she recalled him being different. She smiled back and bounced off with her blond ponytail swaying to wait on the other patrons that were trying to find harbor on this cold, wet, winter morning.
He had been working on notes for the past hour trying to work out a few rough spots. He was almost finished. The realization was met with mixed feelings. He had come to enjoy the company of some of his acquaintances, but knew the time to move on was rapidly approaching. He felt staying in one place stifled him. Made him too complacent. So at the end of each story he wrote, whether only ten pages or 400, he would move on. This stopped him from making too close of attachments to anyone he met. There was too much danger of future pain with that. Had he not had enough for this lifetime?
After making a few notes and marking through a few others he just sat regarding his scribblings. Something brought him out of his trance and more aware of his surroundings. Without looking up he contemplated what it could have been. Was he just tired? No, not really. Actually he had awoken feeling rested and in a better overall mood than he could recall in a long time. Somewhere in the recesses of his mind he had the nagging sensation that something was about to happen. Did he need a restroom break? No, he smiled inwardly, that wasn’t it either. He noticed no other indications there was something he physically wanted or needed. What was it then? Just as he was about to look up see if anything was amiss he was frozen by a voice. Not just any voice, but a voice from the past. He listened closer. Yes. He was certain. It was her. How the hell did she end up in the same shithole town as he? Bracing himself he looked toward the counter. No mistake. There she was ordering a hot beverage from Ted. At once the emotions of anger, joy, and sadness flooded through him, not necessarily in that order.
“Fuck me running. I don’t fucking believe it”, he muttered out loud to no one in particular without realizing it.
“Excuse me?” Jenny asked startled as she was just walking by, worried that she had done something wrong.
“Huh?” Unexpectedly realizing someone was beside him and had heard his epithet. “Oh, sorry, Jen. It’s not you. It’s me. Really, nothing to be concerned about”, reading the look on her face. “I’m OK. Just had a bit upset at myself there for a minute.” He then turned his gaze back on the slender, rather attractive woman at the counter.
Standing about medium height, she had straight, brown, shoulder length hair. She was fair complected with bright blue eyes. Her lips were naturally full and she had a smile that lit her entire lightly freckled face. Even under the large coat and scarf she wore it was obvious she was slim in a fit way. She thanked and paid Ted for her beverage and found an open table by the windows to sit. She was alone. He watched as Jenny walked over to her struck up a conversation in a way that they were familiar with each other.
He could not make out what was being said, but sat entranced looking at her. He so wanted to look somewhere else, anywhere else, but couldn’t avert his gaze. How could this be possible? He thought to himself. After all these years and now here. He felt a sudden urge in his bowels and got up heading into the men’s room. He quickly found a stall and sat down. He was amazed at the many different feelings running through his mind. A part of him wanted to puke. Another part wanted to just run. And yet, a small piece wanted to walk up to her and ….. And, What? What could he say? He sat there for thirty minutes fighting the conflicts within him wishing one would win out with no resolution. The nausea had subsided. He relieved himself and headed back out to his booth after washing his hands. Walking out into the shop he searched, but did not see her. Did she leave already he wondered as he sat back down and finished the cold dregs in his mug, slightly grimacing at the cold bitterness.
Jen came back by a few minutes after he had sat down and looked a little concerned at him. “Are you alright? You look a little pale and you were in there a long time”, nodding her head toward the restrooms.
“Yes, I’m just fine, nothing to worry your little head over”, he offered as way of an explanation in a slightly condescending way. “By the way, who was that woman you were talking to sitting by the window? You seemed to know her. I haven’t seen her in here before so I figure it must be from elsewhere.” he asked.
“Oh, that was my psych prof I was telling you about earlier this morning. Funny about that, huh. Talk about her and there she was. Maybe she’s a witch”, Jenny half-jokingly said. “Turns out I did get a C, thank goodness. Maybe all that praying paid off. Anyways, I was wondering if you knew her the way you were looking at her.”
“She reminds me of someone from a past lifetime”, he answered in a subdued tone and then asked, almost as an aside, “What’s her name? Maybe they are related or maybe just a doppelganger.”
“Oh, she is Dr. Allison Barber. I think she may be a psychologist or something like that. I’m pretty sure she specializes in art therapy. She just came here this semester. I think she was working around Portland before. Someone said she has a clinic that she opened near downtown, just a few blocks from here. I haven’t been over to see it and don’t know if that’s true or not. Just what I’ve heard”, she explained.
“Dr. Barber, eh? No, don’t know anybody by that name. Must be a long lost twin as they say.” he half-lied to Jenny, shaking his head. It was definitely her, though, he noted to himself. No doubt. Barber, huh? Must have finally gotten married. Wonder who the creep was? And actually got her doctorate. Well good for her. His thoughts rambled on while putting his journal back in his bag. He stood up and remarked to Jenny as he put on his coat, “I think I’m going to leave early today. I know. Another first. Here’s for the coffee and tip. I think I’m catching something and don’t want to spread it around”. He handed the bill to Jenny and started for the door.
“Well thanks and I hope you’re going to be OK. I hope you’re here tomorrow. I was going to introduce Dr. Barber to you. I had told her about you that you were some kind of writer and especially about the time you tried to pay me to leave town. She said it sounded very intriguing, I think that was the way she put it. Anyways, I thought it would be cool to introduce you two. She had a meeting of some kind today, but said she’d be back tomorrow.”
He stopped in mid stride and turned back to Jenny. “Now why did you go and do something like that”, his voice became very low and serious, almost menacing as a darkness seem to come over him. Quickly he caught himself and added in a much lighter note, “No, it’s OK. So, are you trying to set us up or something? Isn’t she married?”
“No, I’m not trying to set you up with anyone. Really”, she exclaimed her eyes widening suddenly frightened by him. “I just wanted her to meet you. You are some kind of mystery man and I thought it would be neat. And, no, I don’t believe she’s still married. I’m pretty sure she said something about being divorced. I’ve never seen her with anyone that seemed like they could be a boyfriend or anything. She has a lot of girlfriends she’s always talking about. Maybe she’s a lesbian.”
“Well, let’s just say I wish you hadn’t, but that box is already open now, isn’t it. I make no promises”. He then turned and hurried out the door.
“What was that all about” Ted asked Jenny as she bused his table. “Is he OK? Did something happen?”
“He said he thought he was catching something and wanted to go home. He handed me enough money to cover his tab and a big tip then left like you just saw. Whatever it was, it seemed to come on fast”, Jenny answered, a shiver running through her. She had only briefly caught a flash of something in him that was truly frightening, though she couldn’t quite put her finger on what it was that had briefly brought sheer terror to her soul.
Ted nodded and sent Jenny off to take care of some customers and get things ready for the lunch crunch. It was probably going to be very busy given the weather threatening more rain and the college students now being out for the winter holidays. Ted correctly surmised there was more than the man had let on. The startled look on his otherwise unflappable expression when that woman, Dr. Barber was it, had first come in and ordered. Then the way the blood drained from his face when he looked up and recognized her. Yes, there was recognition. The recognition that goes with someone who had made a major impact and meant something very special. It was the first time Ted had seen any real reaction from him about anything. He didn’t know quite what to think about it know, but was very interested to see how this little melodrama was going to play out. He might just learn something about him after all this time.
The man hurried home and without even taking his coat off pulled the bottle of vodka from the freezer and took a long drink straight from the bottle. Coughing at the sudden burning running down his esophagus he began cursing aloud. “Goddam it! How did this happen? Why now?” He then took another long swig and fell into the sofa where he contemplated how his life had gotten where it was now and what tomorrow might bring. Many bittersweet memories came flooding back to his conscious mind.
Several years prior, in another lifetime, he had met Allison. They would talk in passing, getting to know each other as new acquaintances do. In a short time, they found they had quite a bit in common and a true friendship blossomed. As more time passed, the friendship grew by leaps and bounds. They began sharing private, intimate details with each other, trusting each other, implicitly. He had never had a friend like this. There were things he shared with her that he would never think of mentioning to his wife. Yet, there was never anything romantic. At least, he had never thought of her in that way since he was hopelessly in love with his wife. In a way, he realized that he did love Allison. But, that love was only as a best friend. At least, in his mind.
One day Allison was talking about her dreams and what she should do to reach them. Of course, he supported her and eagerly encouraged her to follow those dreams even though he knew she would have to leave. In one way, he hated the idea of her leaving and not being able to see and chat with her on a regular business, yet, in another way he was excited to see her strive for her dream. Then, he realized that they could keep in touch with email and the occasional call.
Soon Allison left with the promise they would stay in touch. In one of their last meetings she revealed that she had very deep feelings for him. He just figured this meant that she regarded him as a very special friend. That was until one evening he emailed Allison and mentioned how he missed her and was feeling conflicted with the path his life was taking. The next day he sent an apology stating he did not intend to imply he was upset at her leaving and asked forgiveness for the previous evening’s message. Later that afternoon she sent her last message to him stating she could not be the third wheel and was ending the relationship. They never communicated again. He was very confused and hurt by the sudden turn of events. His heart was broken and in a way felt betrayed. Yet, he could not forget her.
Several hours later he finished the half gallon bottle of vodka and realizing it was now night, decided it was time for some sleep. Hopefully, the booze would keep the dreams away tonight. He had made no progress in making a decision of what to do while simultaneously thanking and cursing seeing Allison again. The old, unfounded feelings of hope tried to poke their heads through the morass of his darkness. He trotted off to the bathroom to relieve himself of a large quantity of urine, weaving from side to side on the way bumping to the the door frame and bathroom sink, almost falling in the process. Returning to the sofa he didn’t even try to pull out the hideaway bed and instead just stretched out on it. Lying down he pulled an old, thick quilt over him. He waited for Morpheus to ease his suffering with unfettered sleep. Unfortunately, it was not to be.
He was very tired and the hour was late. They had been out late visiting their son and were heading back home. As soon as they were on the freeway he noticed his wife had drifted off to sleep as usual. He opened the window to let the cool night air help keep him awake. His eyes burned with fatigue and weariness. Luckily there never was much traffic on this stretch of freeway this late at night. He just hoped he wouldn’t swerve too much and be pulled over. He also hoped that he wouldn’t fall asleep and wreck. Turn the music up, sing to it. Rub your face. Stay awake. All these thoughts were running slowly through his tired mind. About half-way home he noticed some police lights on an overpass. Trying to keep his eyes on the road and trying to make out what was going on was not easy in his tired state. Suddenly, time seemed to freeze as he saw a large pick-up truck coming on to the highway traveling the wrong way on the off ramp. He noticed the lights were off and the truck seemed to be a charcoal gray in color making it almost cloaked in the darkness. The driver seemed to be oblivious that he was about to crash into the van. He estimated the truck was traveling at about 80mph and heading straight for the van that he was driving at about 75mph. As quickly as his tired reflexes allowed, he swerved away from the oncoming truck while braking at the same time to decrease the speed of collision. He knew it was too late to avoid being hit, he just hoped he could lessen the impact some. The instant before impact the driver of the truck saw the van and in the drunken stupor he was in, turned sharply into the van instead of away and mistook the gas pedal for the brake.
The sound of the vehicles colliding was deafening. Instinctively, he swung his right arm to try and hold back his wife even though, in reality he knew the force would be too much. He felt her body rocket past his arm, pushing it out of the way much as a thrown rock goes through wet tissue. It was later determined there was a catastrophic failure of her seat belt latch resulting in the belt coming undone and providing no restraint. As time continued to creep forward he saw the upper part of her body break through the passenger window and try to fly out only to be held back by the door which was now being pushed in by the front of the truck, pinning the lower portion of her body in the seat. Suddenly, time returned to normal and glass flew, the world was now upside down then back upright as the van flipped on the pavement. All sound vanished momentarily and the world was quiet as the vehicles came to rest. What were all the lights, though? They seemed to suddenly be everywhere, flashing white, now red, now blue then all together. Shadows, a sense of commotion and rushing, figures all converging in one spot. Now yelling. Who was doing that yelling? Who would be yelling out here on the road? Beth? Why won’t she answer me? Beth? Wake up. You need to help me stay awake so we can get home. Beth. Why won’t she wake up? She can’t be that tired. Beth? Why are you sitting like that?
He regained consciousness and opened his eyes as the paramedics were pulling him out of the van and placing him on the backboard. Before he was completely out he noticed a sheet had been draped over the still form of his wife. “NO!” he screamed. “SHE’S NOT DEAD. YOU HAVE TO DO SOMETHING. SHE CAN’T BE DEAD!”, he kept shouting to the paramedics. A young female police officer tried to calm him holding his hand and offering inane reassurances, but he already knew the truth. He had known as soon as he saw the truck about to hit. Only a true miracle would have saved her. And miracles of that sort just did not happen. Not in his life, anyway. He knew. She was gone. It happened quickly and she probably never even knew. He was truly alone now. Mercifully, he blacked out again.
He awoke in a panic sitting straight up on the sofa, sweat pouring off him yet, shivering in the coolness of the morning air. His breathing was quick and erratic. “Where….!” he started and then realized the demons had visited again to have their fun with him. Torture him yet one more time. One day it would be too much. One day he would put an end to their fun at his expense. One day……, he reached between the mattress and the arm of the sofa and fingered the .45 cal semi-automatic he kept loaded with hollow-point rounds. One day one of those large rounds would find itself mushrooming, tearing through, and utterly destroying the soft gray material inside his skull. One day….., but no, not today. Not today. There were other demons to face first.
He got up and busied himself with showering, shaving the scraggly whiskers that grew helter-skelter over his face, and getting ready for the day ahead. While brushing his teeth he noticed an uncomfortable feeling in the pit of his stomach. He looked at his reflection while contemplating the sensation. This was not the normal burning or pain of his as yet undiagnosed ulcer. Though this was a familiar sensation it was from a time long since passed. Suddenly it dawned on him that this was anxiety. He was actually anxious. “Damn you Allison for doing this, for being here”, he told the face in the mirror. “Why did you break off our friendship?” Anger flooded over him, but the butterflies in his stomach did not abate. So this is the way it is going to be. He finished getting dressed and sat down at the table. It was still too early to head out to Ted’s shop so he pulled out his journal and began working on his story as a way to occupy his mind. Noting the sun shone for the first time in several weeks as the winter weather broke for a brief respite he decided this was a sign for a change.
The morning passed quickly as he was absorbed in his writing. Right after noon he realized that he was finished. The story had reached its conclusion. Perhaps the jolt from yesterday and the search for a way to block Allison from his mind had been what he needed to finish. Pulling out his cellphone he sent a quick text message to his agent stating he was finished and, after a couple of days of reviewing and editing, would be forwarding the manuscript. He noticed the time was right after noon. Now what to do? He reached for the vodka bottle that had been sitting on the table and filled his coffee cup. He thought hard about this for a little while and came to a conclusion and took a couple of long drinks of the harsh, clear liquid. He was going to avoid Allison. He had gone this long and was not ready to reopen that wound any wider. His story was finished. It was time to move on anyway.
He got up and busied himself with picking up his belongings and made an effort at straightening the apartment. The few clothes he had were packed in an old duffel bag with his toiletries thrown in on top. Last to go in was his vodka and glass. Satisfied that he had all his belongings accounted for, he called up the landlord to let him know he was leaving. The key would be on the table and keep the deposit.
Stepping out the door of the apartment for the last time, he paused and set his bag down. He looked out over the bay and the mirror image reflected on the still water for several minutes. During this time he contemplated his life. It had not been fair. He had lost two loves in violent acts. Over the years he had accepted the realization that love and belonging was not going to be part of his life. No close friends or close family. He quickly decided he was more comfortable with this fact than to try and begin anything new and have tragedy strike again. Sometimes, he reckoned, familiar misery was better than the specter of the unknown.
He deeply breathed in the cool air and headed down the steps to his car. The one luxury he had afforded himself. The realization of a teenage dream. The one thing he owned which he cared anything about. When he had sold his first story and decided to continue writing he had used his earnings to buy this car. He searched for a few months before finding this one, special car. When he saw it, it was as if his fantasy had come to life. He paid the seller the asking price, not even trying to bring the price down. This was a 1972 Corvette Stingray, Ontario Orange in color which actually was more of a gold color. The car actually didn’t ride that great and newer cars had more horsepower. The gas mileage was terrible and the insurance was outrageous. But, it was what he wanted and could now afford it. The body style was the most seductive thing to him. He got in putting his few belongings in the passenger seat. Putting the key in the ignition he cranked the car. The engine caught immediately and the low, powerful rumble talked to him as only the most experienced seductress could. He turned on the radio and tuned to a classic rock station. Satisfied with all the settings, he stepped on the clutch and slid the shifter into first gear. Easing off the clutch and pressing on the gas he started out on the road and out of town. But first, there was one stop to make.
Entering the coffee shop he saw Ted was behind the counter putting some freshly ground beans in the brewer. He would wait a few minutes to get some of the fresh, awesome coffee that he had come to enjoy so. Jenny was not in today. Instead, he saw Sarah was busing the tables. He liked Sarah. She was smart and vibrant, not to mention very attractive in that next door neighbor, free spirit sort of way. Sarah was of average height and build with natural red hair and emerald green eyes. Normally she wore her hair in a ponytail that bounced when she walked, though today she wore it down with loose curls hanging to the small of her back. She had come to this town a little over a year ago, not too long after he did. She was something of a gypsy, moving every year or two, just enjoying what she would find wherever she happened to be. When he had asked she said that she was looking for that one place that would hold her heart forever. However, she hadn’t found it yet, nor was she too upset that she hadn’t.
Making his way to the counter he noticed Allison was at the same table by the window where she had sat the day before. She had a laptop on the table in front of her and it appeared she was checking her email. Engrossed in her task she did not look up as he walked by. Ted, on the other hand saw, him immediately. “Hello, you’re running a little late today. What’s up?”
“Just came by to thank you for putting up with me all this time. Didn’t want to skip town without letting you know that and to get a thermos full of your coffee”, smiling good naturedly at Ted as he answered. “My work here is finished and it’s time to move on. You know the saying, ‘a rolling stone gathers no moss’. When that’s finished, would you mind filling my thermos”, he added as he handed his old, stainless steel thermos bottle to Ted while motioning to the brewing coffee. “And”, he said scooping Sarah in his arms as she walked by, “I had to get one last hug from the cutest waitress this side of the Rio Grande. Why don’t you just quit this place now and come with me”, he asked Sarah only half-jokingly as he gave her a bear hug, feeling her warmth and softness while breathing in her soft, sweet fragrance. For months they had playfully teased and flirted with each other, neither being serious. He had come to regard her rather fondly, though that was all. She was nearly 30 years his junior after all.
She blushed and giggled as she mockingly fought against the hug. “Oh, to be swept away in your golden chariot. I’m not worthy”, she laughed out a reply. Then she stopped and hugged him back and gave him a big kiss square on the mouth. A small tear came to her eye as she pulled away. Then, in a serious tone she said, “I am going to miss you so much. I hope I’m as lucky as you. You take care. Maybe we’ll meet again one day, and then who knows.”
He looked deep in her eyes and could only say, “No, you don’t want to wish for that. You just keep living life as makes you happy and nothing can go wrong.” Turning to Ted he saw Ted’s features soften in a way he had never seen before. “Now don’t you go and start. I have been a pain in your ass. I know you will be happy to be rid of me.”
“No, that’s not true, at least not a complete pain”, Ted softly chuckled. “I may not know you well, but I always knew I could trust you and count on you if I needed. I hope you find what you are searching for. That booth will never seem the same without you there either writing, just watching, or anything else.” Changing subjects Ted leaned forward on the counter and asked, “Listen, I wanted to ask you before you go, do you know that woman over there? Yesterday, you looked as if you recognized her, almost like you had seen a ghost” Ted looked deep into his face to watch for any betrayal of feelings, but seeing nothing as the wall was up firmly in place.
He glanced over at Allison and let his gaze linger for a minute while choosing his words. He turned back to Ted just as Allison looked up. “Do you know who she is?” slightly deflecting the original question. Did she see him and recognize him he wondered? Playing it dangerous he cautioned himself. He had no intention of interacting with her and did not want to attract her attention. She had made it clear then that they could not have any further relationship and that was the way he intended to keep it. The pain had been great and he had no intention of pouring salt into that wound. That was the only way to stay sane.
“I believe she is a professor at the college, though yesterday was the first time I recall seeing her in here. Not real sure if I’ve seen her around town, but then, I don’t get out that much” Ted answered. Ted’s life really did tend to center around his store and not much else.
“Well, I don’t know anyone who teaches at the college except for Toby Schmidt who teaches history. And that’s definitely not Toby”, the man chuckled at himself while further avoiding the original question. He had come to know Toby while hanging out at Jeff’s Pub and Grill. Toby was one of the regulars. A portly man of average height with a receding hairline and a paunch in his 60’s who had settled here after retiring from the Navy and getting his degree in history about 20 years ago.
Ted grunted and grabbed the thermos to fill it up. “Yeah, for sure that’s not Toby, and this one’s on the house” he said as he poured. Do you want a cup, also” he asked as the dark, hot liquid mana flowed.
“Sure, a cup would be great. And thanks for everything.” Grabbing the thermos with one hand, he shoved a $100 bill into Ted’s shirt pocket. “No such thing as a free lunch. That’s for your time and friendship.” Without hesitation he turned and headed toward the door. Passing Sarah he slipped another $100 into her apron, patting her firm, shapely bottom and winking at her as he walked by. Out of the corner of his eye he saw that Allison had noticed him and started to regard him with interest as if trying to decide if she recognized him. He continued out the door making no sign of recognition or acknowledgement.
Allison hesitated, searching her mind, then stood up and followed him out the door. When she rounded the corner she only saw a Corvette quickly pulling into the street. She noticed she had butterflies in her stomach. The sensation startled her. Could that really have been him she wondered? Was that the one person that she was not able to truly shake? Someone her heart longed for after all these years?
Walking back into the coffee shop she stepped up to the counter and caught Ted’s attention. Stepping over to her he asked, “Is there anything I can get you?”
She looked a little pensive and slightly hesitated before asking, “Who was that guy who just left? A friend of yours?”
Ted blinked his eyes. He took a deep breath, crossing his arms and resting his chin in his right hand. It took a minute before answering, his brow furrowed, “You know, I guess I could call him a friend. He has been a daily customer here for more than a year, but I don’t know his name. Isn’t that something? I can tell you almost all my regular customer names, but I just now realized that I don’t know his. Never really learned anything about him. I know something happened a few years ago and I think he is a writer. Don’t know anything he wrote though. Friendly enough even though he was a bit odd. Bought off a couple of my staff a few months ago. I think he made an offer to almost all the ones who have worked here since he started coming. Except Sarah, there. For some reason never tried to bribe her away. Even Jenny. Third day she was working for me he tried it on Jenny.”
“What do you mean he bought off your staff?” Allison asked, her curiosity piqued by Ted’s description of the man’s actions.
“Just that” Ted responded. “At some point after he would meet them and talk to them he would offer them some money if they would just pack up, pick up, and leave town. He always said he didn’t care what they did or where they went. His only condition was that they had to leave town that night and not come back. A couple of them took him up on it. Good workers the both of them. Heard from one, working as a deckhand on a merchant ship going from the west coast to Asia. Seemed happy with it. We would have fights about it each time he tried it. But, I have to admit his argument was always right. He would say that those who took the offer would have gotten bored working here and left soon enough anyway. Those who stayed had no imagination or zest for life, kinda like Jenny. Don’t get me wrong” he quickly added, “I like Jenny a lot and she is a solid, dependable worker, but she will never leave this town. She’s too afraid to leave what’s comfortable.”
Allison slightly nodded as if in agreement before saying, “I know exactly what you mean about her. She was in my intro to psychology class this past semester. Good enough student, but didn’t know how to think outside the box. She did tell me about the time he tried to offer her money to leave town. Her story sounded a little outlandish, but I see there was truth to it now. Any idea why he never extended his offer to Sarah?”
“My only guess is that she isn’t from here, all the others were originally from here. Apparently she has been working her way across the country, never staying anywhere for any stretch of time. Just going when and where the mood struck her”, Ted answered wistfully.
“So why did you hire her if she has such a history of transience?” Allison inquired of Ted.
“Why? I’ll tell you why. That son of a bitch made me”, Ted chuckled in reply. He was sitting right over there when she came in looking for a job”, motioning to the booth he normally occupied. “I was about to tell her I didn’t think she would work out. He must have sensed it somehow. I didn’t even know he could hear us, but before I could utter a word he looked up and said, I remember his exact words, ‘Ted, you better hire that fine young woman or I’m going to go in the back and piss over all your coffee.’ There was no threat or contempt in his voice, but I knew somehow that he wasn’t kidding, either. He was just so matter of fact about it that you knew not to cross him for you own good. So, what else could I do, but hire her on the spot?”
Allison looked over at Sarah before asking “And how has that worked out? Going to keep her around?”
“Damn straight. She’s one of the best workers I’ve had, sweet as can be. A real pleasure to have around. The customers just love her.” Ted lowered his voice and leaned forward conspiratorially and said, “If I wasn’t her boss and 15 years older I wouldn’t hesitate to ask her out myself. She is quite a breath of fresh air.”
“A bit of advice” Allison offered, “don’t let that stop you. ‘In the end, you should only have regrets for things you have done’. A very dear person told me that a long time ago. I didn’t listen. Should have, learned a lot since then”, her voice and gaze drifting away.
Ted looked quizzically at her before nodding slightly. “I think I’ve heard that before. Wait! He said that to me one night over a beer. I’ll really have to think on it now. Anyway, why the interest in that guy? Do you know him?” he added.
“I don’t know. He reminds me of someone I used to know. Long ago” was her reply. “Familiar, yet different somehow. Not just older either. Sadder perhaps. Alone? I’m not quite sure.”
“Mm-hmm”, Ted muttered not quite believing her. “You know, I swear yesterday he looked as if he had seen a ghost when he saw you. He quickly covered it up, but there was definitely recognition if only for a brief instance. If I hadn’t been looking straight at him I would never have suspected anything. When I asked him about it earlier, you know what he did? He danced around the question like a ballet dancer or something. He always had this knack of avoiding answering your questions without you even realizing it. Unless you specifically thought about it, you didn’t even know he had done it. He was that good. That’s one reason I don’t know anything about him. Ask a question, get a dance performance. He would make a great politician with that skill.” Ted joked. “Though I think he would just as soon kill his opponent than debate him if he did become one. Sorry I can’t tell you more.”
“Well, thanks for the info. Very insightful. By the way, my name’s Allison Barber. I really like your shop so you will probably be seeing more of me”, Allison stated. Returning to her table and sitting down she looked out the window at nothing in particular as her mind was a thousand miles away, in another time. She thought of the way they used to talk with each other about nothing and everything. Could that have really been him? She had ended their relationship very abruptly, feeling caught up at the time in a situation she had been uncomfortable with. Afraid of what might become of their relationship. Knowing that he was married and could no longer trust herself with him. Afraid of committing to someone she had to admit to herself. Then nothing. Even when she did try to find him again a few years later it was as if he had fallen off the edge of the world. No one knew what happened to him or where he had gone.
Allison was startled out of her reverie several minutes later by Sarah. “Would you like another?” she asked pointing at the empty cup Allison was clutching between her long, slender hands.
She looked up at Sarah and fixated on her bright green eyes, instantly knowing that Sarah was happy and alive, enjoying life and living as few really do. Glancing down at her cup and then at her watch Allison answered that no, she was finished and got up to leave. Placing a tip on the table she put on her coat and headed out the door. No appointments today, she headed for her apartment lost in thought.
She entered her sparsely decorated one bedroom apartment. It was obvious someone lived here, but nothing very personal was found. After hanging her coat and scarf on a hook she went to the bedroom closet and began searching in the back. It took her a few minutes to find it. Pulling it out and walking into the living room, she held a picture he had drawn for her years ago. One that she used to keep by her desk, until the pain from the memory of no longer being around him was too much. She hung it on the wall across from her sofa then sat down and looked at it for a considerable amount of time thinking of the past; the discussions, the lunches, the shared moments.
Finally, she stood up and set up a canvas on an easel in the middle of the room, then pulled out her water colors and brushes. She spent the remainder of the day painting. Invariably, all her work that day ended up having the figure of a man and woman together inside of a heart shape, floating in the sky. She sat back after several hours and contemplated the meaning of her work. After all, what good was she to her clients if she couldn’t interpret her own art, her own subconscious, answer her own questions? Had that truly been love, something she had believed all these years, or was it just that, an image, a dream? Is that why it was in the air? Or was it in the air because this love transcended all earthly obstacles? Did she dare answer that for herself? Part of her was very frightened by the implications and so she sat staring, trying to consider any other meanings.
Jenny was spending her day off as she usually did, shopping in the town’s only mall with her girlfriends and flirting with all the good looking guys. It didn’t matter she had a boyfriend. She didn’t see any harm in it as it was only harmless fun to her. She wasn’t looking for someone else. At least not unless he happened to have been really cute, then all bets were off.
The group of five girls walked out of the food court and stepped into the bookstore to check out any new magazines. Marybeth who was probably Jenny’s best friend, stopped at the clearance table and began looking at the books that were deeply discounted to $5 or less. Her current boyfriend was into science fiction and his birthday was coming up soon. She was hoping to find something here that he might like. Marybeth picked up a book that seemed to be about cowboys in space, which she simultaneously found amusing and absurd, and opened the front to read the synopses. At the top of the summary was a photograph of the author. Something about him seemed familiar. She concentrated on it for a couple of minutes then came to the conclusion this was the weird, old guy who hung out at the coffee shop where Jenny worked. Looking up she called to Jenny across the store standing at the magazine counter, “Jenny, come here. You have got to see this. Oh my God.”
Jenny shouted back to her friend without looking up, “What is it?” Bring it over here.”
Without missing a beat, Marybeth started walking over to where Jenny was standing saying, “You will never believe who has been in your coffee shop all this time.” Other customers were starting to get annoyed at the young women and their carrying on. The sales person behind the register and the manager just shook their heads as this was a regular occurrence with this group of girls.
Jenny looked up as Marybeth came walking up holding the book out for her. She looked at the cover and shrugged, “What are you going on about? Who’s been in the shop? Here, look at this cute hairdo. Do you think I can pull that off? I think it’s too short for me”, she concluded handing the magazine she was holding to Marybeth while taking the book.
She looked at the title and the author’s name and didn’t recognize either. She saw that it was a science fiction book and wondered to herself who would read such garbage. The only science fiction that she was interested in were movies who had really good looking guys in them. Looking at Marybeth she asked, “What are you going on about? I don’t know who this is.”
“Open the front and look at the picture. Gawd, you are so slow sometimes” Marybeth replied in mock exasperation as she opened the book cover for her friend and pointed to the picture.
It took a minute for Jenny to realize she was looking at the guy who sat at the same booth everyday all day long, only drank coffee, and would be either typing on his laptop or just looking at the people in the shop. The picture had obviously been taken a few years prior and he was cleaned up. Actually, not unattractive for an older guy. “OH, MY, GOD! This is that guy!” Jenny exclaimed to her friends who looked up and clustered around to get a look. “Did I ever tell you guys the time he offered me $1000 to leave town? I mean just pack up right then and there and leave?” Of course she had told them in excruciating detail a number of times about this deplorable request.
All the girls chatted about the guy’s looks and the fact that he was an author. Something of a celebrity. Helen, a short somewhat chubby, but attractive brunette finally said, ”Well at least you know his name now.”
With a dawn of realization Jenny replied, “Yeah, I never knew before and didn’t even realize it until I was trying to tell Dr. Barber about him.” Looking at the book she suddenly clutched it to her ample chest and declared, “I have to get this so I can show Dr. Barber.”
Marybeth stared at Jenny and in a slightly whining tone said, “No, give it back. I was going to get it for my boyfriend” even though she hadn’t yet decided on purchasing it.
“You go get another. I’m buying this one” Jenny replied indignantly and held the book even tighter.
“Fine.” Marybeth huffed and whirled on her heels to storm back to the clearance table and get another book. She neither knew nor cared if her boyfriend would like it.
The following day the weather was beginning to return to the normal gray, cold skies that everyone was accustomed. Dr. Barber entered the coffee shop and ordered her usual tea. Something about the quirkiness of the place had grown on her. She sat down at a table by the window and pulled out her schedule. After a couple of minutes Jenny approached her. “Hello Jenny. How is your day?” Allison inquired. She saw that Jenny was holding a book and had an odd look in her eyes, almost mischievous.
“You will never believe what I found out yesterday. Just look at this” was her reply holding the book in front Dr. Barber’s, actually too close to read.
Allison took the book from Jenny and read the title and author. She turned it over and saw some reviews that were on the cover regaling it as a ‘not to be missed book’ and ‘can’t be put down, a real page turner’. Holding the book in one hand and looking at Jenny feeling a little confounded and asked, “I’m sorry. Is there something special about this? I’m not really into science fiction.”
Slightly exasperated Jenny answered, “No, open the cover and look at the picture. That is the guy I was telling you about. That guy was here every day for nearly a year “, as she opened the front cover and pointed to the picture. She couldn’t believe Dr. Barber could be so dumb about not opening the book.
Allison sat the book on the table in front of her stared at the man in the photograph. She caught her breath. Her stomach uncomfortably tightened into a knot. All sound seemed to stop. There in front of her was the face of a man she had not seen in years until yesterday. Someone she had tried so hard unsuccessfully to forget. That was undeniably him. The name didn’t match so she concluded he must be using a nom de plume. This confirmed that she had seen him yesterday. Regaining her composure she looked up and asked Jenny, “Do you mind if I borrow this?”
Jenny responded in a generous tone, “Actually, you can keep it. I only got it because I wanted to show you the guy’s picture. I don’t read those kinds of books.” If the truth were made known, Jenny didn’t read any type of books except the little she had to in order to pass the tests.
“Thank you, Jenny. As I said before, I don’t usually read this type either, but I want to see what this guy that made such an impact on you is about”, Allison said. She was so intrigued to see what this man who had meant so much to her wrote about. Allison glanced at her watch and saw that she had about two hours before her first appointment of the day. Seeing as how she had some time to kill she decided to go ahead and start reading. After ordering another tea she opened the book. Instantly she froze, a wave of emotions flooding over and through her. There in black and white, she had an answer. He did still care. Her eyes hovered over the words:
Dedicated to Allison, I will always be your friend
Tears welled in her eyes and a heaviness came to her heart that she had not felt since all those years ago. She had to trust that fate would bring them together again. After all, fate had brought them to the same little town even if only for a brief moment. She did believe in fate and karma, something he used to kid her about. She would not hesitate then to try and undo the mess she had started years ago with the next meeting. Another question answered; he still had feelings for her.
Before leaving, she walked to the counter and showed the book to Ted. “Well, at least we know a name for your mysterious writer.”
“Hey, how about that. He really does write books. A real life author.” Ted glossed over the reviews and summary then handed it back to Allison. “I don’t know if you care or not, but I got to thinking after our conversation yesterday. The only other place I know where he used to hang out was at Jeff’s Pub and Grill. It’s over on 4th street. If you want to know more about him you might try there. There’s a pretty regular crowd there so someone might know something more. People do tend to say a little more once they get lubricated, if you know what I mean.”
“Thanks, I’ll keep that in mind.” Allison slid the book into her over-sized shoulder bag and walked out trying to gather strength to keep her emotions in check. Did she really want to go down this road? Did she want to torment her soul more than it was? Maybe she did need to do this and try and bring some finality to the longing in her heart.
It was around 8pm when Allison sat back in her office chair finally finished with the billing paperwork ready to be filed with the insurance companies. She was fatigued from the long day of emotions, clients, and paperwork. She stretched with her arms over her head and took a few deep breaths to chase the aches and cobwebs away. Putting away her files she caught sight of a small picture he had drawn and framed for her several years ago. She had dug it out after seeing him and placed it on her desk. Memories flooded back of a happier time, a happier place. Allison decided she was going to try and find out as much about his time in this town and where he might have gone. Recalling what Ted had said about him spending time at Jeff’s Pub and Grill she made her mind up to pay it a visit.
Jeff’s was situated in the middle of a small strip mall between a game store and auto parts store. The exterior was rather nondescript and Allison realized she had passed by it several times never noticing its existence. Walking in she was greeted by older, classic rock music playing on the jukebox. In the far right corner was the bar, rather smallish where only eight to ten people could sit. There were a variety of different sized tables with chairs and booths set seemingly almost randomly around a couple of well used pool tables. Spying an empty seat in the corner at the bar she made her way to it. She ordered a gin and tonic and sat back to drink in the place.
The bartender set her drink in front of her. “Hi, I’m Jed. Do you want to run a tab?”
“Thanks. That will be fine. I’m Allison by the way. Jed? You don’t hear that name too often.”
“Ha! No you don’t. I don’t think I’ve run across anyone by that name either. Nice to meet you, Allison. Don’t think I’ve seen you in here before.”
“No, it’s my first time. Heard about it and thought I’d check it out. You work here long?” she inquired.
“Actually, this place is mine. Bought it about three years ago”, he replied with a disarming smile.
“Then why not Jed’s Pub and Grill?”
“Well, to be honest I didn’t have the money for new signs”, he replied with a soft laugh. “I bought it from Jeff Knight, the original owner and just never changed the name. I also don’t have a grill. The kitchen never really made money, that’s why Jeff got out. I do have a deep fryer for chicken tenders and a microwave to heat cheese dip. And, of course, the usual chips, pretzels and popcorn. Speaking of which, would you like anything?”
“No, thanks anyway. I will say you pour a good drink”, as she held up her glass and took a sip. “So, I know you probably get this a lot, but is Jed a family name or something?”
“It’s short for Jedidiah. My father had a thing for old, forgotten names. I was told he and mom had quite the extended argument over my name. In the end, he won out. So my entire name is Jedidiah Ezekiel Kawolski. Quite the mouthful isn’t it. When I was a kid I really hated my name and him for giving me this monstrous moniker. I so wanted to be called Steve, Bob, Ray, even Walter. But, as I got older I understood it was more unique, meaning I was more unique. Unfortunately, my father died before I ever got a chance to thank him”, Jed explained. “Oh, excuse me”, he said as he made his way to another customer.
Allison sipped on her drink while observing the patrons. It was obvious that many were regulars who knew or at least familiar with each other. The age ranges were from the early 20s to late 60s, quite the eclectic crowd. She began to understand why he had gravitated here. After a few minutes she felt like she was being watched. Turning to look she saw a face she recognized.
“Allison, right? You’re Allison Barber if I’m not mistaken. Toby, Toby Schmidt from the college”, the older, overweight man said sitting down on the vacant stool next to her.
“Yes, you are correct. You teach history, don’t you? I’ve seen you around, but we seem to travel in different circles there. It’s nice to meet you. Aren’t you glad the semester is over? Finals week just wears me down. Everybody asking what they can do to make up this or that, or what they can do for extra credit.”
“Oh, you’ll get used to it. You have to make your mind up now what your policy is on that and don’t waiver from it. The faces may change with each class, but the stories will always be the same. Don’t let them sucker you in. If they were that worried then they would have studied the material in the first place”, Toby advised the younger colleague.
Allison considered the advice being offered, “Thanks, I’ll keep that in mind. This is an interesting place. Seems to have quite the regular clientele. Do you come here often?”
Toby slugged back the rest of his scotch and motioned to Jed for another. “You could say that. It’s a nice place to knock back a few with some good conversation. Some days more than others after the inane questions that get asked by what passes for students these days”, he replied shaking his head. He picked up the fresh glass Jed had just poured and contemplated it. “Come to think of it, these people are probably the closest people I have to a family. And there is always the regular influx of new people who come for a little and move on. Like you for instance. This is your first time in here, right?”
“You are absolutely correct. Ted who owns that coffee shop over on Jeffers Drive mentioned this place to me. So I thought I would check it out.”
“Yeah, I know Ted. He comes in from time to time, but no real schedule. Just at random. Good guy. That coffee shop is practically his life. He seems OK with that. Doesn’t really have anything else. You know he was married to a rather attractive woman. I think her name was Rachel. They had met when he was in the Navy. He was only in a few years and not long after he got out he bought the coffee shop. I guess she felt it was taking too much of his time and I don’t think she really cared for the smallness of this town. Anyway, it wasn’t too long before she found someone who paid more attention to her and ran off with them. He was really hurt, just torn up. After that, he just wrapped himself in running his shop. Can’t say I blame him.” Toby savored his scotch while sizing up Allison. He thought she was attractive enough, though she was way too skinny for his liking. “You came down from Portland, correct? How do you like it here so far?”
“So far so good. This has really been a new experience for me. I’ve never lived in a town this small. I’ve never taught before. I’ve opened my own clinic and I’m starting to get more clients. I’ve learned a lot about myself in the process,” was her reply. She sipped on her drink as they made idle chit-chat. Finally, Allison noticed the time had grown rather late and said, “Listen, Toby it has been pleasurable talking with you. I’ll keep your advice about the students in mind.” Allison caught Jed’s attention.
Toby finished off his drink and motioned for a refill. “The pleasure has been mine. Come on back any time. I’ll probably be here and I can regale you with more tales of intrigue and maybe I’ll even buy you a drink or two.”
Allison looked at her tab and laid money on the bar to include a good tip. “Thanks again.” Turning to leave she waved goodbye to Jed and turned to head out the door. This would definitely not be the last trip to this bar. Allison felt confident she would be able to get some kind of information on him. She shook her head at the thought and considered what she was about to embark on a dangerous road. There was a good chance she would not uncover anything about where he had gone. This could end up being a painful obsession, but she felt she had to try. Just as she reached her car Allison suddenly stopped and looked around. An eerie feeling as though she was being watched came over her which sent a chill up her spine. She clutched her arms to her chest while scanning the area. Seeing nothing out of the ordinary she quickly unlocked the door and slipped into her small car. Allison locked the door when she closed it and started to slide the key into the ignition stopping mid-way in the act. Her gaze had stopped on a small envelope placed on the instrument panel with her name written on the front. A sudden panic seized her and she quickly checked the back seat for someone hiding then insured all the doors were locked. Satisfied that she was alone and secure she picked up the envelope retrieving the note from inside. Written in a strong, forceful hand the note simply said “The universe seems to be quite the cosmic joker”.
Allison regarded the note for several minutes. The handwriting seemed vaguely familiar. She wasn’t quite sure what to make of it all. How was it placed in her locked car. She always locked the doors, it was a force of habit. And who knew she was here or that this was her car? Could one of her students done this? No, that didn’t seem right. She knew this handwriting, but from where? It was the message itself that puzzled her the most. Her mind kept going back to something she had heard once. Something she just couldn’t quite remember. Finally, Allison slipped the note into her purse and started the car. She headed home looking for anybody that might possibly be following her. She recognized that as paranoia and let it continue. Paranoia did have its place in life taken in the right doses. She reached her apartment and was satisfied that no one was following. Walking into the apartment she went about getting ready for bed. As she was lying in bed beginning to drift off her thoughts kept going back to happier times with him. Her dreams that night were filled of broken conversations with him and scenes of her turning her back and ignoring him as he tried to talk to her.
The gray daylight entered through the bedroom window. Allison started stirring with the last of the night’s dreams fading from her waking mind. He was sitting across a lunch counter from her and was explaining some point and ended with “sometimes I think the universe is a cosmic joker having quite the laugh at my expense”. Allison’s eyes snapped open as she gasped, suddenly wide awake. He had to have been the one who left the note, she realized. Had he come back to town and why? Also, was he following her? She contemplated these and other notions while staring at the ceiling. Finally, she got up and pulled the note out of her purse to read it again. Walking over to the picture he had given her those years ago she pulled the back off the frame and compared the writing on the note with a sentiment he had written on the back of the picture. It was obvious the writing was from the same hand. This did not take a forensic expert. The similarity was unmistakable. But, what did all this mean? Could he still be bitter by the way she had ended their relationship? Reluctantly, Allison shoved this distraction away and began her daily routine. After all, she still had clients to see and try and help them come to terms with their problems. They would probably think she was quite the fraud if they had an inkling of what she was going through these last few days.
He had been forced to come back to town due to a small repair that was needed to his car. He had not gotten far when the car started acting up. Knowing there were no other larger towns on his route to obtain the proper parts required he made the decision to turn back. He nursed the car back, taking nearly three times as long to get back. That was alright with him. He did not care about time and was in no hurry. It was pretty late in the evening when he finally pulled into a hotel. The auto parts store was already closed so he would have to wait for the next day to get what he needed. He checked in and quickly fell asleep without unpacking or undressing.
The next morning he awoke feeling a little disoriented. He pulled some clean clothes out of his bag and padded off to the bathroom to shower and change. Feeling a little more refreshed he decided to take advantage of the free breakfast offered at the hotel and helped himself to the coffee and waited for the auto store to open. He had already said his goodbye’s to everyone he wanted and had decided not to look anyone up. So he sat at a table in the corner farthest from the door, drank coffee and read the newspaper to catch up on what was going on in the world. Finally, he saw it was time where the shop should be open and he called them up. More than likely they would have to order at least one of the parts. But, hopefully it might be able to get there by late afternoon. Sure enough, one part was going to have to be shipped and was guaranteed to be there by 4pm. That would give him plenty of time to fix his car.
That afternoon he confirmed the part had arrived and nursed the car to the shop. The parts store had a garage on the side where the owner had let him work on his car in the past. He pulled up to a stall which he saw was empty. Walking into the store, he paid for the parts and made arrangements with the owner to use the stall. While the repair was relatively simple, it turned out to be rather time consuming. Finally, a little after 8 o’clock that night he was finished. The owner had just closed the parts store and was standing with him outside the garage chatting. After a few minutes, he thanked Pete for the use of the garage and started to get in his car to leave when he saw Allison drive by. Curiosity got the better of him and he decided to follow her. He quickly caught up to her and followed at a discrete distance. After a few minutes he saw her pull into a parking lot of a strip mall. He slowed and had just reached the entrance when he saw her enter the bar. He parked his car and thought about what to do next. After a couple of minutes of mulling different ideas around his brain he decided to just leave as he had the previous day. He still wasn’t sure if she had truly recognized him before.
Then an idea struck him and he decided to have a little fun. Perhaps put a little mystery in her life. He rummaged in his shoulder bag and found some blank note cards with envelopes. He took on and wrote his one sentence note. Not signing it, he placed it in its envelope and printed Allison’s name on the face. He walked over to her car and, using a technique picked up many years before in a part of his life that involved shadows and secrecy, quickly unlocked her car, placing the note on the instrument panel. He quickly made his way back to his car and sat waiting.
Not too long later he observed Allison leave the bar and walk to her car. Suddenly, she stopped and looked around. She looked straight at him, but he could tell she did not see him sitting in the dark shadows of the night. The man continued to watch her get in her car and could tell she was somewhat shaken by the note. Once she drove away, he waited a couple of minutes longer before leaving and driving back to the hotel. Entering his room he pulled his bottle of clear alcohol from the mini-fridge and poured a drink. He really was not sure why he had done what he did. He had been hurt by her, but there were still warm feelings for her. And at this point in his life he wasn’t sure what to do about that. He had shunned any real relationships for the last few years. There had been too much pain and loneliness has become his security from having to face more potential pain, except for the dreams that would invade his sleep. The night waned as he sat there drinking and contemplating his life until he finally fell into a fitful sleep.
The sun was shining bright and the sky was clear blue with no hint of cloud. The breeze was warm on his face. Allison was standing by her car looking solemn with her hair fluttering across her face by the light wind. He finally broke the awkward silence. “Allison, I just don’t understand why we can’t be friends. What happened? What did I do to drive you away?”
Allison’s shoulders sagged as she let out a deep sigh. She kicked at a small pebble with her foot before lifting her gaze to meet his. The sadness in her face was almost unbearable for him. “Don’t you know? Haven’t you figured it out by now? You’re a very smart man. Surely you know why. Do I actually have to come out and say the words?” With that she got in her car and began to drive away.
naive in that relationship? He almost couldn’t bring himself to allow the thought to coalesce in his mind. Had he sent the wrong messages and let her fall in love with him. The thought scared him.
Arising from the bed the man went about getting ready for his journey back to his house. He had not been there in over a year. It was a place he loved and hated. He and his wife had purchased the place in hopes of possibly retiring there. It was somewhat remote with clear views of open plains and snowcapped mountains. The weather was moderate with sunshine for the majority of the year. After the death of his wife the place would remind him of what he once had. It never took a long time before the pain was too much and he would head out to a new place. The thought of selling never seriously crossed his mind. No matter the pain, he wasn’t ready to let go. He knew that wasn’t healthy and he would have to face it eventually. But, again, right now he was comfortable in his misery and loneliness.
He checked out of the hotel and threw his belongings into the passenger seat. He paused before getting in and looked around. He had come to really like the town and the people he had met. More so than other places he had visited. If his life had been different, he considered, he could see himself settling down here. The dream from the previous night kept creeping into his conscious thoughts. Could his life be different? Could he allow himself to feel again? Settling into the driver’s seat and steering the car onto the road heading south, he pondered these thoughts. What surprised him the most was that he was considering them at all. Was this all because of seeing Allison? Did he have feelings for her that he had never acknowledged? These thoughts continuously occupied his thought for the entire journey without any resolutions.
It was an uncommonly cold fall. November was fast approaching. “Where had the past year gone”, Allison thought as she entered the coffee shop on this particularly blustery afternoon. It was hard to believe she had been in this town for over a year, teaching at the college and getting her practice going. She was still teaching introductory psychology to freshmen. Her art therapy clinic was gaining more clients to where it was now sustainable on its own. She had even been able to hire a receptionist/office manager to take care of everything besides the clients themselves. Upon entering, she saw the shop was particularly busy this afternoon. No doubt, people who trying to escape the unseasonably cold and windy weather. The weather service was even predicting snow by the end of the week. That would really cause a mess, she considered.
Sarah was managing the shop today and saw Allison as she came in. They had become good friends over the past year. She waved at her and once she had Allison’s attention motioned for her to come up to the counter. There was a seat vacant as chance would have it. A young man saw it and started for it, but Sarah stopped him by saying, “Get your ass away from that seat. It’s taken.”
The guy, in his early 20s and a semi-regular stopped short, but retorted, “That’s no way to treat your paying customers. I have half a mind to tell Ted.”
Sarah just laughed at him in reply and said, “What are you talking about ‘paying customer’? You haven’t paid your tab for the past two weeks. Plus you’re a lousy tipper”, which was all true. She continued with a smile, “And save your breath, I’ll tell him tonight when we’re in bed together.” A couple of weeks after the writer had left town, Ted had finally worked up the nerve and decided to ask Sarah for a date. She didn’t even hesitate. It wasn’t long before they were a regular couple and then he invited her to move in with him. Sarah had seemed to have found her home at last.
As the young guy moved away Allison slipped into the seat Sarah was saving. “Hey Sarah, how are things going today? Where’s Ted, taking the day off?” she inquired while taking off her dark, heavy winter coat.
“Very busy, today. It’s been like this all day. Worse at lunch. We’ll have to hire extra help if it stays like this. Jenny is running her little ass off today. As for Ted, he ran up to Portland to see about some new equipment. That cappuccino machine is on its last leg. It just can’t be fixed anymore“, Sarah replied. “How are you doing today and what can I get for you?” she added.
“Oh, I guess just hot tea to try and warm me”, Allison answered indifferently. She just wanted to warm up and hoped the skies weren’t going to drop rain this afternoon. That would just make it all the more miserable. “Say, how are you and Ted doing these days?”
“Things could not be better. He’s probably the best thing that has happened to me. Who would have thought I would go for an older man and want to settle in some little town on the west coast?” Sarah smiled broadly and had a slightly vacant look while thinking about Ted. Their relationship had also brought Ted out of his shell and he felt alive and happy again. Refocusing on Allison, Sarah allowed a small confession, “I can only think of one other person I would have liked trying to have had a relationship with. But, I’m so happy now it’s not even worth thinking about.”
Curiosity got the best of Allison and asked, “And who might have that have been?”
Sarah leaned close to Allison and almost whispered, “You can never repeat a word of this to anyone. And I mean anyone. Got it?” Her glare was intense.
A little taken aback by the implied threat Allison agreed, but now extremely interested. Who was this mystery person that had stirred passion so? “Sure, Sarah. I’ll never breathe a word of it.”
“Sean Barnes. You know, the writer that was here last year?” Suddenly, Sarah’s demeanor changed and she exclaimed, “Oh, my God! I almost forgot. I have been waiting to see you to tell you some exciting news. You will never guess what is happening right here next month. Go on, give it a guess”, she exuded excitement at the secret she was temporarily keeping.
“You know I’m terrible at this” Allison confided. “Alright,” she continued under the fake glare Sarah was giving her, “is it the President coming to try Ted’s coffee?”
“Allison, you are crazy.” Sarah playfully chastised Allison for the outrageous prediction. “Of course it’s not the President. That would really be a disaster considering the rising unemployment rate and latest round of tax hikes. Anyway,” she continued, “Ted just found out this morning. Sean Barnes is coming to town right before Thanksgiving.”
Allison looked at Sarah quizzically for a minute. Why would he be coming back?
“Yeah, I can’t wait to see him again.” Sarah leaned toward Allison and continued in a low voice, almost a whisper. “I actually had a big crush on him and was a little hurt when he left so abruptly. There was something so, I don’t know, unique about him, but very mysterious. Like there is nothing false about him. He’s the real article. I found myself just wanting to be around him.” Sarah stood straighter and continued in a more normal voice. “Anyway, I never got to thank him for my job. Did you know he actually threatened Ted that he would pee all over his coffee beans if he didn’t hire me on the spot? I think he would have, too.”
Taking her cup of tea from Sarah, Allison responded, “Yeah, I know what you mean.” She completely understood how Sarah could feel that about him because she also felt the same and wanted to tell her all about him. Instead she asked, “So what is bringing him back? Just visiting or is he coming back for longer?” A thousand thoughts were racing through her mind. One thought above all others popped up, was he coming back for her? One thing of which she was certain, she was going to try and right what she had done wrong. She was going to tell him how she still felt after these many years.
“What do you mean ‘you know’? I thought you never met him?” Sarah looked strangely at her friend.
“What? Oh, I just meant I know what you are saying. It reminds me of someone from my past that stirred the same feelings in me. That’s all”, Allison answered not being completely truthful.
“Really? You’ll have tell me about it.”
“Perhaps another day. I don’t know if I’m ready to go there yet.” And now she had a month to figure the answer to that puzzle out.
“So anyway, he’s using the coffee shop to debut his new book. He called Ted last night to ask if it would be OK. He said there will be a book signing and he figures it will bring a lot of traffic into the store”, Sarah explained. “Ted said that he was flattered and of course he could use it. First thing this morning his agent called with the date and other technical information. We are even going to get a shipment of books to sell a few days before he comes. If you want, I’ll set one aside for you” Sarah offered.
He’s coming back. What do I do? Do I talk to him? Will he talk to me? This can’t be coincidence. These thoughts raced through Allison’s mind. “Yes, of course,” she accepted the offer, “that would be so nice of you. I’d like to meet this guy that has made such an impact on everybody, especially you. After all, someone who would pee on Ted’s beans must be an interesting sort of person.” The clock in Allison’s head was already calculating the days and started to tick the time down. She sipped at her hot tea and felt the butterflies that were suddenly all aflutter in her stomach.
He was coming here for a purpose. But, was there another reason? He knew she was there. That had been made obvious by the note left mysteriously in her car the first time she had gone to Jed’s Pub and Grill. The only thing she had found out about him in her return visits was he had become more private and walled off from people than when she knew him. The only surprising note was that Toby had the unmistaken impression that her one-time friend had killed in the past. Toby had related that the man had gotten particularly drunk one night and some young punk had tried to pick a fight with him. According to Toby the man stood up, got an inch away from the punk’s face, and stated in a very low and sinister voice, “I have killed a man much more dangerous than you. You don’t want to end up like him.” Then he sat down turning his back on the other man. The young punk had been visibly shaken and eventually left. Toby said the words had the ring of truth to them as to never need to question them. It had not been a bluff. After that, the writer simply sat and drank without uttering another word the rest of the night, his mood very dark as if fighting inner demons.
Allison had been sitting at the counter for some time completely lost in her thoughts. Her reverie was broken when Jenny came bouncing up to hand off some orders to Sarah. “Hey, Dr. Barber. How are you today? I guess Sarah told you the news. Isn’t it exciting? I’m going to make sure I get my picture with him and get an autograph. I still can’t believe I waited on a celebrity all that time.”
Allison finally got to say, “It’s good to see you, too, Jenny”, as the young woman turned and left to wait on some other customers not really waiting on a response. As usual, Jenny was firmly ensconced in her own little world. She was the center of her universe and she expected everyone and everything else was to revolve around her. Anything that didn’t was expelled. He had pegged Jenny perfectly, Allison admitted to herself. Jenny would never leave this town. She would marry, have kids, go about life as she knew it and, eventually, die here. Then, unexpectedly, a deep sadness gripped her soul. Why, she cried in her head, why did I push him away? What did I do? Have I ruined my only chance at true happiness?
Sarah caught the look of pain on Allison’s face and stepped toward her. With sincere concern she asked, “Allison, what’s wrong? You look like you just lost your best friend. Can I help with anything?”
“No…No, I…I just need…. I’ve got to go.” And with that Allison threw some bills on the counter and quickly gathered her things hurrying out of the shop into the cold rain that had just begun to fall. The weather perfectly matched what she felt in her soul. By the time she reached her car she was drenched. Allison sat in the driver’s seat for several minutes realizing she had made the biggest blunder of her life those years ago. She had hurt him deeply and she felt there was no hope Him coming back to town in the next month was the karma getting even at her. His coming was to mock her. Here, he was doing well in his new career and she was on the sideline relegated to a bystander. Suddenly, the dam burst and the tears and uncontrolled sobbing began. The emotions she had kept under some semblance of control all these years broke free.
It was several minutes before Allison was able to get herself under control. She wiped her eyes and blew her nose. Next, she flipped open her cellphone and called Pam, her office manager to cancel all her appointments for the day, explaining that she had suddenly taken ill. Starting the engine, she knew there was only one thing to do. She was going to show up at that book signing. She was going to walk up to him and then beg for his forgiveness. She would not expect anything in return, but she had to let him know it had been her that had made the grievous error those years ago. With that, Allison drove off into the freezing downpour and spend the rest of the day fighting with her own demons.
The past year had been unusual, though a good one, the man mused. The re-writes the publisher had wanted took longer to hammer out than he had intended. In fact, several of the points he had considered non-negotiable. Finally, he had told his agent to pull the book from the publisher and they found a smaller publishing house that was pleased as punch to release his book as he wanted.
During the time that drama was ongoing he had been approached about making another of his science fiction books into a movie. He even helped with the screenwriting, which was a new experience. All of this meant constant trips and meetings and he spent the times in between at his house. Now that things were settling down he was getting antsy to go somewhere and begin writing again. He also decided that his house was going to have to go. He wasn’t going to sell it, but rather have it torn down and a new house built. This would provide him with just enough of a reminder of his happier life without it being so overpowering. A new start with a bit of old mixed in.
The meeting with the architect had just finished when his phone rang. The caller ID showed it to be his agent. “Hi, Bob. What’s up, now?” expecting some new problem in either the movie deal or the publisher.
“Hey, man. Lighten up a little will you? The world is not a bowl of pits, OK?” Bob was used to the constant sarcasm and cynicism and just took it as another odd quirk from one of his clients. Actually, this was usually about all he had to put up with from this client which made it much easier when working with him. “Listen, its good news. The publisher called and wants you to pick where to debut your book. So what do you say? Do you want to go to the Big Apple, LA, Windy City? Maybe Honolulu, I could use a little sun and surf myself. So, my man, what will it be? Dealer’s choice and you’ve got all the cards.”
This actually surprised and caught him a little off guard. “Hmm, give me a sec will you? He sat the phone on the table and walked over to the kitchen counter. He open a modestly decorated wooden box and took out a hand rolled cigarette. Many years ago he had completely quit. However, after his wife’s death he had started smoking again for a short time and now only had about one or two a week. He lit the smoke and walked out on his back deck into the cool, early fall air. He considered the places he could go. He knew the publisher would pick up all the expenses, so that was not a problem. But, where did he really want to go? And with that thought the image of Allison flashed through his mind. Taking one last deep drag on the cigarette, he turned to go back in extinguishing the cigarette as he did. He lifted the phone from where he had left it to his ear, “Bob, you still with me?”
“Yeah, man. I’m right here. Haven’t gone anywhere.” Bob was a good agent and allowed his clients their eccentricities. “So, man, have you made up your mind? Should I tell them to pack sun tan lotion and surf boards?” he said laughing into the phone.
“No. Not Hawaii. I’ve thought about this and I’ve made up my mind.” And with that he told his agent his plan to host the book signing at the coffee shop where he had written it. He explained he felt the shop deserved as much given all the inspiration that had come from there.
At first Bob was flabbergasted, “You want to WHAT!?” he yelled into the phone.
“Look, Bob. I owe those people a lot. Plus, it’s not that far from Portland so I’m sure you can arrange all the media attention you want. You can probably put a spin on the shop being part of my muse for the book and how without it or the people there would not have been a book. I’ve read the pre-release reviews and they are saying it is going to be a best seller. So use all of that to show how this is the place to be.”
Bob was actually quiet for a minute as he considered what he had heard. His mind was already racing with ideas for press releases. “OK, man. You got it. I’ll sell the publisher on the idea. They will think we are both crazy, but I’ll convince them this is the way to nirvana. I’ll get back to you on the details. Stay cool man. And you are one crazy dude.” With that the line went dead.
Why had Allison’s face suddenly flashed in his mind? He had managed to push her out for a while except for those late nights when he would be sitting staring at the stars and letting his mind wander. He thought back to his realization a year ago that perhaps he had been wrong. Wrong about why Allison had pushed him away and wrong about the way he felt about her. Perhaps, just perhaps, he was willing to stick a toe in the water and see if a shark would bite it off. He was frightened to allow himself to feel again. Well, this would be the test he figured. What really scared him was if things went well. He could handle being scorned.
Bob made good progress with the publisher selling the idea of where to have the book signing. It only took a week to get back to his favorite author and work out the final details. That was a little over a month ago. He could still hear the excitement in Ted’s voice when he called to ask permission knowing that would be no problem. Now he was on the road, driving his Corvette back to the town that held the answers that were waiting to be revealed to him. He really hated these book signing. Well, he admitted, not the signings so much. The people who bought and read his books were great in his eyes and he owed them so much for what they allowed him to be by forking over their hard earned dollars. It was the other things, the interviews, the seekers who thought he had the answer for them, the being put on parade. In fact, a magazine reporter was expecting an interview the evening he got into town. That was OK. He would make sure the magazine paid for his alcohol to dull the pain of the event.
But, what about Allison? The thought kept coming back to his mind. And, he had no answer. Finally, he said out loud, “Just roll the dice and whatever comes up, snake eyes or 7-11, it doesn’t matter. This just needs to happen.” He shook his head to chase the image away and tried to just concentrate on the road. It was no use, by now he was fixated on her. Thankfully, an hour later he pulled into town and checked in at the hotel the publisher was paying for and picked up his messages. He called the magazine reporter, Tracy Martin, and made arrangements to meet her in 30 minutes at the restaurant. With that, he went to his room, took a quick shower and changed.
He arrived early at the restaurant before the reporter and asked for a booth in the back. He sat with his back to the wall so he could see the majority of the dining area to include the entrance. This was an old habit that he never could break. He felt too vulnerable with his back to the crowd. There was no way to judge if danger was lurking. Unfortunately, it was a lesson learned another lifetime ago at a great cost. So it was not just another paranoid tendency that had literally saved his life a time or two. Settling in, he made note of any other exits and who was in the establishment. A few faces were familiar, but no one seemed to make any remark of him which suited him just fine, no danger in store. He considered this was partly due to the fact he was clean, hair brushed and pulled back, neatly shaved, and wearing a sports coat. There was probably not a single soul in this town who had ever seen him dress this way previously.
He had been sipping on his drink for about ten minutes when the report came up. He stood as she approached and waited for her to be seated. “My, such the gentleman,” she said coyly. “Hi, I’m Tracy Martin. I am very pleased to be able and do this interview.”
The writer just sat across from Tracy sizing her up. She was young and attractive, though he concluded those were her best attributes. As she droned on for another five minutes about the magazine she represented and his book it was obvious the intelligence level was mediocre. Finally, she paused as the waiter came up to take their order. He had started on his second drink before she got around to her first question. “So what caused you to stop in this town and begin writing your book?”
“My car needed repairs,” he answered simply.
“No, really. What was the magic of this place that inspired you?”
“Seriously, my car needed repairs and it being rather old, it took a couple of weeks for the parts to come in and carry out the repairs. I became bored quickly and to kill the time I people watched and drank a lot of coffee. It’s amazing what you can find out just by sitting, listening, and observing”, he offered as an explanation.
“You drank a lot of coffee? Is that why the book signing is at that coffee shop, what was the name?” she asked as she rifled through her small spiral notebook. “Tim’s, Tom’s, where is that?”
“It’s Ted’s Coffee House. He has the best coffee in the town, in my opinion, and the clientele are very interesting”, he was already becoming annoyed by the young woman. Their dinner arrived and he ordered his third drink. This was becoming a painful experience he quickly understood he needed numbing.
“Ted’s, got it. So you just sat, drank coffee and stared at the people. How did that help you get ideas for your book?” Tracy asked as she started to eat.
“I wasn’t staring, I was observing. There is a big difference. I was interested in the way the people interacted with each other, their dynamics, how they could go from being friendly one minute to arguing the next. Or how friendships were made and grew.” He could see that the young reporter was not truly comprehending what he was trying to convey. “OK, here’s an example. Look over there at that couple”, as he motioned to an older, graying man in his early 50s sitting across from a very attractive redhead young woman in her mid to late 20s. “What do you think their story is?”
“How am I to know that? If I had to guess I would say he is a dirty old man or she is a gold digger, or both.” She furrowed her brow in a sign of disgust as she spoke. “I’m sure you know, so why not enlighten me.”
“I don’t know. I can make an educated guess. I don’t know them, if that is what you are thinking. I have never seen them before.” He took a sip of his drink before continuing. “You might have made your guess based upon a biased stereotype of older men and younger women. You may have noticed he wasn’t wearing a wedding ring, but had been until recently.”
“Wait”, Tracy interrupted, “he’s not wearing a wedding ring? You saw that?” She strained to try and confirm what he had said.
“Yes I saw that. If you just sit back and look, observe, you will notice many things about people that give you clues to their lives”, the writer explained. “Back to where I was before you interrupted me. You can see that gentleman used to be a redhead also.” Tracy was able to see faded red still in the hair around the ears. “There are also very striking similarities around the eyes and mouth. The have a very comfortable familiarity about them. They have yet to touch in a way that paramours do. In fact, his demeanor is more fatherly toward the young lady than anything else. So I would have to conclude that they are father and daughter. As for the missing ring, you could surmise that he is not wearing it either because of death or divorce. What’s your pick?”
“Well, I would have to say divorce because the pain of the separation would make him want to make a break from the past”, the reporter offered as her analysis.
“You might be right. However, if you really look at him, he seems to have been under a lot of stress, a lot of sadness for a while. He seems to be just emerging from a dark period. Therefore, I think he lost his wife and is just now trying to move on with his life. Perhaps, he even is considering dating again and thus the ring no longer being worn.” The man sat back and looked at his plate. He had not eaten a bite and was not interested. Instead, he finished his drink and indicated to the waiter to bring another. After all he had no place to drive tonight.
“That’s all very interesting, but how are you going to prove it? Are you going to get them to tell their story?” Tracy looked at the writer with a raised eyebrow.
“No. You are”, he simply stated.
“What? Me? Why?” she queried looking a little shocked.
“Yes, you. Look, you are a reporter. It’s simple. You go over and identify yourself. There’s no reason for subterfuge. Be completely truthful. You’ll be surprised how far that gets you. You explain that you are interviewing me and why and relate our conversation. See what they have to say.”
“Alright. I will”, Tracy replied indignantly as she rose from the table. She crossed to the couple and introduced herself. He could see her explaining her purpose and saw the couple peer at him looking for any recognition and not finding it. The young woman could be seen catching her breath in shock as the reporter related their conversation. After a couple of minutes talking back and forth, Tracy returned to the table. “Well, I’m completely amazed. You were right on every count. She is his daughter and he lost his wife 18 months ago to cancer. His daughter has been after him to start dating again and so he said he finally took his ring off recently in an effort to move on. It is really amazing you picked up on all that. You must have been watching them for a while.”
“Not at all. They had only been sitting there a couple of minutes before I pointed them out.” He caught the waiter as he walked by and whispered in his ear that he was picking up the tab for the father and daughter. He wrote a quick note and had the waiter deliver it to the other gentleman.
“What was that about,” Tracy asked curiosity mounting.
“Just a private message”, was all he said then returned to the previous subject. He nodded his head at the other man who had read the note and turned toward him, an air of mutual understanding and respect was quickly apparent between the two men. He continued explaining to Tracy, “The fact of the matter is that anyone can do that. All you have to do is let yourself really see what is going on around you. Most people are too caught up in their own little dramas to even consider there is an entire world of events simultaneously transpiring right next to them. They only have to look.”
“Very enlightening, thank you.” Tracy then returned to routine questions for the interview. After nearly an hour she finally finished up. “Well, thank you very much. I think I have everything for the article. We’ll make sure and send a copy to you when it’s published. Good luck with the book and your signing tomorrow.” With that she stood and gathered her things, leaving the writer to nurse his drink. He had lost count by now, not that it mattered. The table had been cleared of dishes and he was left to contemplate what was going to happen the next day. He knew Allison would probably be there. It was more a feeling, though he thought there was no reason for her to want to show up. She had gone on about her life and he had endeavored to go about his.
He had been sitting alone for another half hour when he saw two couples enter together. As the hostess led them to a table he suddenly recognized Allison as one of the women. It was obvious she had not seen him sitting in the back all alone. He did not recognize the other three, all around the same age as Allison. Unexpectedly a flood of emotions flowed through him. He was completely caught off guard by this development. Analyzing his feelings he discovered jealousy was the topmost. He watched the two couples interact for some time until he couldn’t take it anymore. He left a tip on the table, the dinner had already been paid, and quickly left. To his relief, Allison’s back was to the exit and she did not seem to notice him leave. He had always had the ability to walk among a crowd without being noticed. He was glad that skill had not deserted him. Leaving the restaurant he walked the short distance to his hotel room thankful for the chilled night air that cleared away the cobwebs that were starting to take residence in his mind. Entering the room he walked over and threw himself on the bed.
Lying on his back he stared up at the dark ceiling. No lights were on in the room and the only light entering was through the slightly ajar curtains. Shadows and shapes moved and played about. The vodka he had drank that night was clouding his thoughts. He allowed the images and impressions in his brain to jump at will. Invariably, the image of Allison in the restaurant kept returning. Finally, he tried concentrating on just that and the feelings it evoked. She had seemed happy and at ease. Perhaps she never thought of him at all. It could be that his growing interest in her over the past year, especially the last month, was simply an old man’s fantasy and nothing more. He toyed with different ideas of what to say to her the next day, never satisfied with how they sounded. Eventually, he decided that events would just have to unfold as they would. This was not a movie scene that could be scripted. He closed his eyes and fell into a fitful sleep.
The day broke clear and sunny, though somewhat cold. The weather forecast on the radio dampened hopes by predicting rain by the evening. Typical, Allison thought. It was hard for her to keep focused this morning. Her mind kept racing to a thousand different thoughts and a thousand different feelings. She felt like her stomach was doing somersaults while tying itself in knots. She understood why, but it was the uncertainty of what would actually happen that distracted her. There were a couple of classes that morning to teach and she had an early afternoon client and then the day was free. The book signing was to start at three that afternoon and she made sure her calendar was clear. The first thing to do was apologize, she had decided. She had been wrong and had done him wrong by it. Then, well, she didn’t know. Voices in her head were shouting to tell him she loved him, yet just as many were yelling other things. Never before in her life had she been as excited and terrified at the same time. Allison decided to trust in the universal forces and let things just happen. Oh, but she so wanted to grab him and never let go. Such was her morning, distracted and unsettled.
Across town another soul was stirring. The writer sat on the edge of the bed and tried to stretch the aches out of his joints. He grabbed a couple of ibuprofen and chased them down with a shot of vodka. Dreams and images had filled his head all through the night not allowing him good rest. He felt the ragged tiredness that coursed through his body. Another shot to smooth the edges, he thought as he downed the second of the morning. Hopefully, the booze and painkillers would begin their work soon. Walking into the bathroom, he stared at his older looking reflection. He studied the lines that were appearing around the eyes and on the forehead. The grey in his hair seemed to increase almost exponentially on a daily basis. Or had it just been that long since he had really regarded himself. Running his hand over his face he felt the stubble that still only formed in clumps on his cheeks. Never enough for a full beard. Out of curiosity, he had allowed it to grow for a year just to see how full it would get. Instead of a beard, he got something that he felt belonged more on a science experiment gone wrong. Only good thing about it was it allowed him to shave quickly and still not have to do it on a daily basis.
There was nothing planned for the morning and he had already decided to spend it at Ted’s shop. He really missed the coffee and Ted and Sarah were the closest to what he could call friends in this town or anywhere. He didn’t know if Allison would show up and after seeing her the night before if he would try and contact her. Maybe it was better to let sleeping dogs lie. No chance of getting bit that way. As the writer was finished getting prepared for the day he felt the rough edges start to lessen. He so hated getting old.
The walk to the coffee shop was just what he needed to clear his head. The cool fall air finished the job of fully waking him up and actually lifted his spirits. Some of the anxiety that he had abated. As soon as he stepped into the coffee shop it almost felt like walking into a warm welcoming embrace. The aroma of the brewing coffee, the constant drone of chatter by the patrons and the bustle of the workers seemed like he had never left. Sarah spied him first and ran over to him. He grabbed her up in a bear hug, lifting her off the floor. “So, are you ready to run away with me? We’ll go right now, damn the book signing.” He grinned broadly at her while allowing himself to feel her warmth with the hug.
Sarah blushed and gave him a kiss on the cheek. “Oh, if you had only asked me that a year ago. Now, it might cause a little problem”, unconsciously placing her hand over her stomach and glancing at Ted. She held up her left hand to him revealing a diamond ring on her third finger.
“Damn straight there would be problem. Besides, who would want to go off with an old bum like you,” Ted said while coming out from behind the counter. He reached the other man and grabbed his hand, pumping it up and down. “And she is already spoken for.”
The man stared at both of them in stunned silence. Finally, he grabbed them both in a hug. “Ted, I can’t believe you finally had the cajones to do something like that. Good for the both of you. Sarah, I guess you finally found what you were looking for. I am really happy for the both of you. So, am I invited to the big event?”
Sarah quickly replied, “Of course you are. If it hadn’t been for you threatening him to hire me, none of this would have happened. But that’s not all. I just found out last week that we are going to have a baby.” Sarah and Ted looked at each other and smiled broadly.
“Well, Ted. I apologize. I guess you do have the cajones then.” He let out a big laugh and clapped Ted on the back. “You will have to keep me up to date on everything. I’ll give you my number where you can always get me.” He saw they had a new person working that morning. Since the shop wasn’t too busy he suggested they sit down and catch up on other news. They talked about various topics. Neither Ted nor Sarah had ever seen him so animated before. They didn’t know what else they would see today. Eventually, the conversation turned to the book signing later that afternoon. The man suggested how to arrange the tables and chairs for the event.
“You know, you have become a little bit of a local celebrity. The books that were sent to us have nearly sold out”, Sarah said.
“That is not a problem. My agent should be bringing more with him. There should also be a pretty good turnout. I know they have been publicizing it pretty heavy in Portland.” He looked at the time on his phone. “In fact, he should be getting here pretty soon. Listen, can you trust that guy to run the shop for a little bit?” He pointed to the young man who was currently behind the counter waiting on customers.
Ted responded after looking over. “Paul? Sure, what’s up?”
“In that case I’m taking you two out for lunch. How’s that new Greek restaurant I saw up the street?”
“The Delta house? I’ve heard it’s really good. I haven’t been there yet”, Ted answered.
“Oh, Allison said it was really good. You remember a couple of weeks ago she was telling us about it”, Sarah quizzed Ted.
Just at the mention of her name his stomach tightened into an uncomfortable knot. How could a woman he had not seen or had any contact with in so many years have such an effect on him? He merely looked quizzically at the couple.
“Sure, she had some kind of date or something. Said the food was the best part of the evening.” Ted chuckled at the thought of the past conversation and turned to his friend. “You might remember her. Allison Barber. Teaches psychology at the college. I think she was one of Jenny’s instructors. Slim, straight brown hair, blue eyes. I think she had just started coming in here right before you left. And for some reason she seemed a little intrigue with you.” Ted sat back and mused on the past.
“Hmm, seems like I vaguely remember her”, he lied straight faced. “Has she become a regular here?”
Sarah answered, “Oh, yes. We’ve become good friends. In fact, she will be the maid of honor at our wedding. Anyway, I think she is kind of anxious to meet you. I know she is planning on coming later this afternoon.”
What does all this mean, he thought to himself. Is she really interested in me? She wants to meet me? And what about the guy she was with last night? He felt tormented in his soul unlike any time in the recent past. In fact, he had not allowed any feelings like this to emerge in a long time. Outwardly, he revealed nothing and merely responded, “You’ll have to introduce us. I’ll be glad to meet her.” And with that he stood up and waited for the couple to grab their things. “It’s such a nice day, do you feel like walking over? Or do we need to hail a cab?”
Again it was Sarah who spoke up, “I don’t think it’s too far for a walk and the sun is great today.” Ted nodded his head in agreement and they headed to the restaurant.
A couple of hours later the trio returned to the coffee shop. It was already a little busier than usual and it was obvious that Paul was up to his armpits in alligators bustling behind the counter trying to keep up. The man spied Bob Thomason, his agent, sipping on a cup of coffee and waved him over. “Good, Bob’s here.” He introduced Bob to his friends. They exchanged pleasantries for a moment before Ted and Sarah both begged off to help Paul get caught up. Bob and his client returned to the table Bob had been occupying.
“I was a little concerned at first because I didn’t see your Corvette in the parking lot. But, the young guy behind the counter said you had come in and left with his boss and was expecting you back anytime.” Bob started off. “So, what is your plan for this afternoon? How are you handling the signing?”
“Well, it’s good to see you, too”, he jabbed at his agent. “And did you bring the extra boxes of books like you always do?”
“You know I did. In fact, they are already in the back. I had that guy help me bring them in.” Bob looked around the shop. “Kind of small for a book signing, don’t you think.”
“It is just fine. It’s no smaller than some of the corners the bookstores usually shove me into. We just need to arrange some of the tables and chairs. I was thinking of setting up over there.” He said pointing out the area as he talked. “I’ll start by explaining the premise of the story embellishing on the characters and their problems. Next, I will explore the plot, but leave the ending for the book. That will be followed by a Q&A session. All of that should last between an hour or two depending on the questions. Then, we’ll start the signing. That will last until everyone is finished. I have nowhere to go so I’m in no hurry.”
Bob made note of his comments and suggestions. He got up and walked through the shop carefully studying it and then sat back down. “OK, that all looks doable. When do you want to start moving things around? We start at four, right?”
“Yeah, four. The crowd should thin out here in a little and we can move things around as the tables open up. Shouldn’t take but a few minutes. Oh, listen. I want to change the contract a little.”
Bob eyed his client warily. He was always suspicious when his clients tried to get cute, but he had never known this one to try and pull anything. “Depends, what’s on your mind?”
“I want you to set it up so that half my proceeds for this book go into a trust fund. Ted and Sarah are going to have a baby next year and I want you to set a trust fund up for the child.” He sat back and sipped on the coffee he had ordered earlier. Then he spoke again, “No, change that. Just make it so all the profits for this book go to the trust fund. With the deals you’ve got for me this year, I really don’t need it. And I really owe them both.”
The agent was really taken aback by this revelation. Usually, his clients tried to get greedy as they became more successful. This guy was different. “Dude, that’s really nice of you. I don’t see where that will be a problem and I will get on it as soon as I get back to my office tomorrow. Any particulars?”
“If the child goes to college it will pay for all costs with a living expense. Upon graduation, half of the remainder is paid out. When he or she turns 33⅓ whatever is left is disbursed. If the child decides not to go to college, then pay out a quarter at age 20. Half of the fund is paid out at 33⅓ with the remainder at age 51.”
Bob was rapidly taking notes. “33⅓, that’s cute, dude. Sure, I can set this up.” They discussed a little more deciding on who to use for administering the trust and various other concerns the agent had. By the time they were finished with that discussion it was time to arranging the furniture for the upcoming event. As it turned out, just as they finished people started showing up to meet the author and have their books signed.
As the writer was arranging the space he would occupy for the next few hours he heard a familiar young voice. He looked up as Jenny was coming up with a group off her friends. It was obvious she was here to work and prove to her peers that she knew him. “Hello Jenny, it’s good to see you again. And is this your personal group of fans?” He gave her a hug and small peck on the cheek to the giggles of her girlfriends.
“You haven’t changed at all. I seems just like yesterday you were sitting right over there working on this book.” She picked up a copy and flipped through the pages not really looking at anything. Jenny introduced her friends to him and they all shook hands. Eventually, she shooed her friends off and began to get to work.
“Say Jenny, I’m going to be sitting here for a while today. Would you keep me supplied with coffee? I’m sure you remember how I like it; Strong, hot, and black. Nothing more and nothing less.”
Jenny had joined in on the recitation and laughed. “Of course I remember. Do you think I could ever forget that?” And with that she turned and bounced off to get his coffee, her blond ponytail flipping from side to side as she went.
He smiled to himself thinking how some things never change. He took a long sip of the strong brew when Jenny had reappeared with a cup. She smiled and returned to her duties. The place was really getting packed and he motioned to Bob to come over.
“Dude, I should have learned by now not to distrust your ideas. This is going to be a good turnout. Are you about ready to start?”
The writer looked at the clock on the far wall and nodded in concurrence. “Let’s get the show on the road.” He picked up his cup for another drink. “By the way, how do you like Ted’s coffee?”
“Another thing you were right about. Some of the best coffee I’ve had.” With that, he turned to the crowd and tried to get their attention. The cacophony of disjointed conversations slowly subsided. When Bob was satisfied he introduced the writer and the new, next bestseller that he was hawking.
For the next hour the man everyone had come to see was engaged with describing the forces that went into writing this particular story. The crowd listened to his descriptions of the characters, their strengths and flaws as well as what their driving forces were. After that, he spent another hour answering questions of all types. Some wanted to know more specific details while others tried to divine who the characters were based on in the town. Finally, his agent felt it was time to start the book signing and explained that for those who didn’t have a copy, Ted would be glad to remedy that situation with the exchange of money. Ted added that paper or plastic would be gladly accepted to a group chuckle.
The man they had come to see was starting to develop a case of writer’s cramp in his hand from signing a seemingly unending stream of books. He saw the shop was starting to be less full and realized that he had not seen Allison. An edge of disappointment made its way into his mind. He was still distracted 30 minutes later with signing and questions when the hair on his arms stood up. He didn’t have to look up to know what caused it. Just a few seconds later he heard her voice greeting Sarah. So, she did show up, he thought to himself. Now what?
He looked on as Allison and Sarah hugged and chatted about the day. Allison looked over to where he was, but he avoided her gaze concentrating on signing the book in front of him. Not yet, he wasn’t ready. Would he ever be, he wondered? With a break in the people he felt a presence beside him. He braced himself and looked up. He heard Sarah start to speak, but interrupted. He stood up, towering over both Allison and Sarah. “That’s OK, Sarah. Allison and I don’t need introductions. We are very old acquaintances.” He purposefully fixed his gaze on Allison’s face trying to read her reaction, trying to read her soul. “Hello, Allison. It has been a long time. You look just as beautiful as ever”, he stated honestly remarking to himself that time seemed to be passing her by. Perhaps an extra wrinkle around the eyes, but that was about it.
Allison was a little stunned by the sudden recognition from the man she had once known, but had left with no real explanation. A flood of emotions suddenly burst through her thoughts. She simply responded, “Hello, Steve. It’s good to see you, too.”
Sarah was shocked as well by how the scene was playing out in front of her. “Steve? I thought your name was Sean. Wait, Allison? You know him? You two know each other? What the hell is going on?” Sarah stood staring at the two with her arms akimbo.
After a brief pause, it was Steve who responded. “Yes, Sarah. We knew each other in a time and place long ago”, he answered cryptically. He pulled a chair over to offer it to Allison. “Allison, why don’t you have a seat? I think I have a few more people that want an autograph and then we can talk.” Jenny had just come up to the small group with a very puzzled look on her face. “Jenny, why don’t you bring Allison something to drink while she waits. Let’s see, if I remember you liked jasmine green tea. Please bring her a cup.” And with that he sent Jenny on her errand and turned back to sign the last books of the evening.
Sarah pulled another chair around and sat at a right angle to Allison. “You never told me you knew him. What is going on? Where do you two know each other from?” she asked her friend probingly.
Jenny had just returned with the tea and Allison accepted it, taking a sip before answering. “When you asked me the first time last year, I wasn’t sure it was him. It was a number of years ago and when I left, I left badly. I’m not going to go into the details now. I will tell you the whole story someday. I probably owe you that much. Just not here, not now”, Allison implored her friend. She sipped her tea in silence the remainder of the time watching her old friend sign books and interact with his fans. Her thoughts eventually turned inward as she examined the feelings that were awakening as if after a very long winter’s slumber.
Finally it was obvious the last book had been signed and the final questions were answered. He turned to assess the woman who still had some sort of hold on his heart after so many years. Thoughts of their times together played through his mind. He saw she appeared to be doing the same in regard to him. “It is quite something to see you after all this time. What’s on your mind?”
Allison was a little taken aback by the forwardness of his questioning. Suddenly, she was at a loss of words and could only stumble out a few words. “My God. Steve. It really is you. But, how….?”
“Yes, Allison. It really is me. This is not a dream. This is as real as it gets. Pure, raw, reality” he affirmed. “Let’s skip the pleasantries and get down to brass tacks. What the hell are you doing here”, he asked with hint of anger. “What has brought you back into my life? Do you know how hard I have tried to get you out of my head and, more importantly, out of my heart. So far, I haven’t succeeded very well and now this”, he stopped and sighed deeply as he was surprised by the sudden rush of anger that he felt. His whole body had tensed, but then seemed to sag. He sighed and then continued in a softer tone, “I’m sorry. That really wasn’t fair or kind. But, I have been dealing with this for several years now, and not too well I might add. And now here you are, sitting across from me looking much the same as when we last parted.” He reached across and picked her slim hands up with his massive paws and held them. They were cold and slightly shivering. He closed his hands over hers, both to feel her skin and to try and put some warmth back into them. “Let me start over. Allison, it really is good to see you after all this time. Please tell me what brought you to this burg and what is with the ‘Barber’ business. Did you finally find your true love, your lobster?” He looked deep into her crystal clear eyes and fought the sudden urge to reach over and kiss her.
Allison was caught completely off guard by his sudden outburst. She swallowed a couple of times and had to clear her throat before she was able to speak. The shock from his affront was starting to abate. She sipped her tea to help clear her throat then said, “I really can’t believe it is you. I honestly never thought I’d see you again. You look so different”, remarking on the considerable weight loss since she saw him last, and more importantly, the look in his eye or the air about him, whatever you wanted to call. He seemed so much darker, perhaps menacing than in the past. No, that wasn’t quite it. Not menacing, yet she couldn’t quite put her finger on it. “First off, I want to say I heard what happened to your wife and I am so very, very sorry. After a while I tried to get in contact with you, but you seemed to have fallen off the map by then and I never heard anything else. No one seemed to know anything about where you went or what you were doing. So this is what you do now, write books?” She omitted that she had already read all of his previous work.
“Well, I appreciate the sympathy for what it’s worth, but that was a long time ago. What’s done is done. However, we were talking about you. Why here and why the different name”, he stated matter-of-factly steering the conversation away from him as he so often did these days.
“OK. It took a year after I left to get back into school. About halfway through the program I was approached by one of my professors to ask if I had plans to go on for my PhD. I told her I had seriously considered it, but had no clear plans. To make a long story short, she became a sort of mentor, working with me and steering me to get my doctorate. After that I worked in a couple of clinics and came to the conclusion it was time to do what I wanted. A job opened here in the psychology department and I figured I could use it as my revenue source until I got my place up and running.” She paused and sipped at her tea looking down at the table and his hands holding his mug.
He sensed a hesitation in her to continue, but wanted to hear her story. More importantly, he just wanted to bask in her presence and hear her talking to him. “Go on”, he urged. “And what about the ‘Barber’.” He leaned forward trying to see her face clearer. The butterflies were in utter chaos in his stomach. He also sensed Sarah was close by trying to catch their conversation.
A deep sigh and then she continued, “Right at the end of my program I met this guy, Mike Barber, he was an engineer. I never thought I would say this, but”, her voice grew quieter, more far away, “he reminded me a lot of you. I wanted to be around him all the time. No, that’s not quite true; I wanted him to be around me. I wanted to remember what it was like when we were friends. Anyway, he eventually asked and I married him. It lasted about a year and a half. I know I said I would never get married because I was so afraid of divorce. It’s just that…….” Her voice caught in her throat and quickly turned her head away and stared out the window into the darkness that had fallen. The clouds that were building seemed to mimic the storm she felt brewing within herself. He was still able to see a tear roll down her cheek which she quickly brushed away. Allison quickly regained her composure and turned back to him. “Your turn. When did you start writing? It looks like it’s working out for you. Most of all, what the hell happened to you?”
He braced himself as he had not discussed this part of his life with anyone, previously. “After the accident, I was sort of lost for a bit. Then my son was killed during a shootout by a recently fired worker at his business. I was truly alone and didn’t know how to cope with life anymore. Writing started as sort of self-preservation mechanism. I have written a few articles, nothing of consequence”, he lied unaware of her knowledge. His first series of short stories for a sci-fi magazine had turned into a well-received novel which, in turn, had led to a very lucrative movie deal. That one thing had allowed him to pretty much live as he wanted. When he first started writing he chose a nom de plume to try and keep his private world just that. “Mostly, I just wander. Nowhere seems like home anymore. Don’t really feel like I fit in anywhere. Maybe I’m looking for something. Don’t know what. Hopefully, I’ll know it when I see it.” He wanted to say that he felt he was looking at that which he had been searching all these years. But, he didn’t because he no longer felt he deserved anything a good as her.
She looked deep into his eyes, but could not discern what he was feeling, but knowing that he was not telling the complete truth. “Always the mystery with you isn’t it. You really do have trust issues, don’t you?” she asked pointedly. “You have never been able to open up fully to anyone”, she added.
No, he screamed in his head, that’s not true. She had been the only person he was totally open with and he felt betrayed by the way things had turned out. He had never even felt able to truly bare his soul to his wife. There had been one other for a very brief time that had come close, but she had been taken away suddenly and violently and he never really got the chance. “I guess we all have our issues of trust we have to deal with, don’t we.” was all he said. In his mind he was screaming at her and berating her for the way he felt he had been abandoned and betrayed all those years ago. Changing the conversation back to her he said, “You always used to say the universe conspired for your happiness. How has that been working out for you?” He saw he had opened a deep wound with that and immediately was sorry for it. Quickly he added, “That was unfair and I am sorry. I’m just not used to talking with someone like you”, someone I love, and someone who hurt me he didn’t add.
The conversation suffered for a while with nothing much shared between the two. Jenny came around a couple of times, but the stare he gave her after the second time told her in no uncertain terms to stay away and stop trying to snoop. About the only thing Jenny had learned through the entire ordeal was his real first name and that they seemed to have some kind of history. He sensed Allison was becoming uncomfortable with the situation, but did not want her to leave. He did not care for the way their first conversation in many years was going. It was nothing what he envisioned. Finally he suggested, “You know, we really have a lot to sort through and this isn’t the best place to do it. Would you mind coming with me to a more private spot where we can talk a little freer?”
“Where do you have in mind?” she asked uncertain how much further she wanted to go, yet, feeling a need to see this through to some conclusion. Allison was feeling a little hurt by the tone of the conversation, but wanted to clear some issues between them and within herself.
He looked her square in the face and said, “Your choice. We can go to my room at the hotel or someplace else. I prefer something private”, insinuating her place not wanting to say it out loud. “We can stop on the way and get something to eat or pick up something to drink. Both if you want.” The butterflies were driving him crazy and he hoped some food would calm them a bit and if that didn’t work, he would drown them with alcohol. He also noticed the palms of his hands were moist. He was actually nervous about her taking him up on his offer.
Allison’s eyes widened when he made his proposal. She looked down at her empty cup which she had been fidgeting with for quite some time. Slowly a small smile came to her and she looked up at him. “Yes. We do have some things to talk about.” She noticed she was also a little nervous at the proposition, but the lost feelings she had those years ago were flooding back. She almost felt like a schoolgirl. She picked up her coat and bag and stood up. “Let’s go to my apartment. We can order out and I have plenty to drink.”
Their friends in the shop watched in silent amazement as the couple left without uttering another word. Sarah turned to Ted who was standing with his mouth agape. “There is a lot more there than either has let on. I’ll get to the bottom of this if it’s the last thing I do. Tonight they can have their fun, but tomorrow one of them is going to answer some pretty pointed questions.” She ran her hand across Ted’s back. “Don’t you worry. I’ll get some answers. Now, let’s get this place straightened up.”
Ted and Sarah along with the help of Bob and their staff had been working for about twenty minutes to put the shop back in order as well as serving their customers. Bob was talking over some details with Ted when a woman walked up to them with a questioning look on her face. She appeared around 60 and yet was still fairly attractive with light brown hair that framed her roundish face. Her light blue eyes searched furtively around the shop as if looking for something or someone. Ted noticed she was rather buxom and that she seemed much firmer than most women of her age. In fact, he regarded her as very attractive despite her age. Ted turned to her and asked, “How may I help you today?”
The woman picked up a book that was on the counter. “I’m afraid I’m a little late. I was hoping to meet the writer of this book. Is he still here?” She opened the book to the front cover and studied the picture of the author.
It was Bob who answered. “No ma’am. I’m sorry, but the signing is over and I’m afraid he has left for the night. Is there anything I can help you with?” Both Ted and Bob noticed the woman spoke with an accent, though neither could place it. It seemed to give her speech an air of sophistication.
“I was really hoping I might meet him. Will he be back tomorrow or do you know if he is having another event where I might meet him?” By now she also had the attention of Sarah who felt rather protective of the writer for reasons she had not yet identified.
“You seem rather intent on meeting this man. Is there some reason you are so interested in him?” Sarah asked the older woman.
“Please, it is a very personal matter. I mean no ill by it. I just need to meet him and beg to ask a couple of questions. Nothing more.” The woman’s entire demeanor almost had an air of desperation at this point.
“Could you be more specific? What type of questions? I’m his agent, perhaps it is something I can answer.” It was Bob’s turn to question the woman. The group now stood where they were almost encircling this unknown woman asking about their friend.
“I’m sorry, it is all rather private. I would rather not.” The older woman studied the author’s face in the picture for a moment then looked at the agent. “Perhaps. Perhaps you can answer a question. I see the author’s name is Sean Baker. Would you tell me if that is his true name? Is his proper name Steve?”
The question caused Sarah to gasp and catch her breath involuntarily. She brought her hand up to cover her mouth. “How did you…I mean, do you know him?”
“So his name is Steve, yes? Do I know him? I’m not sure. He reminds me of someone whom I knew quite intimately for a very short time. If this is the same man I knew then it is rather important I speak with him.” Her eyes seemed to almost beg.
Ted decided it was his turn again. “Yes, I will confirm his name is Steve. Where do you know him from if this is the same Steve you knew?”
“Forgive me, I really am not at liberty to say. Perhaps he will tell you if this is the same man. Is there any chance I may meet with him?” Her voice seemed to carry a sense of old pain on it.
Ted studied her closely for a moment. “I tell you what. He is supposed to stop by here before he leaves town. I don’t know when that will be. If you would care to stop by again tomorrow maybe you can see him. That is the best I can do for you, ma’am.”
The older woman sighed in resignation recognizing that this was the best she would get out of this group. “Thank you. I will come back tomorrow. Please give this to him if he comes in and I am not here”, she said as she passed a business card to Ted.
He examined the card. Katherine Edgar, Computer and Network Security Consultant. “OK, Ms. Edgar, I will give this to him when he comes by. Is there any message that should go along with it?”
“My cellphone number is on the back. Please tell him he may call at any time of day or night. Also, please repeat this to him: 1968 was a year of change for Strazny. Thank you very much. I will attempt to be here tomorrow, but, alas, we never know what tomorrow will bring.” With that Katherine replaced the book on the counter where she had first seen it and turned to leave. There seemed to be the glimmer of hope reflected in her eyes as she was leaving.
“My God, what next?” Sarah exclaimed. She turned to face Bob. “Have you ever seen one of his ‘fans’ act like that? Could she be trying to hook her claws into him or something along those lines? What could she really be wanting with him?”
“I have seen all kinds and that takes the cake. I will say that I think she is genuine. I don’t think she was feeding us a line. But, what about that line: 1968 was a year of change for Strazny. Who, what or where is Strazny? And what kind of accent did she have? You picked up on that, right?” Bob stood shaking his head trying to make sense out of the day’s events; first the revelation that he had known this Allison woman sometime before and now this rather exotic woman. What did it all mean? He couldn’t make much sense of it. Spying Paul’s laptop on the bar behind the counter gave Bob an idea. “Listen, look up Strazny on that computer. Do a search for it and let’s see what comes up.
Paul opened up the browser on his laptop and typed the word into the search engine. In a second he had results. Peering closer at the screen he scratched his head and pursed his lips. Finally he said, “Top results are either some guy’s last name or a town in the Czech Republic on the border with Germany. Does that help any?”
“What was that she said, ‘1968 was a year of change for Strazny’? That would make it seem a little more like a place. That just sounds crazy. He was a kid in 1968 and I’m don’t think he was there then. Of course, I’m beginning to realize there is even more I don’t know about him.” Ted turned to Paul and his computer to look at the screen.
Everyone was lost in his or her own thoughts when Paul broke the silence with a snap of his fingers making Sarah jump slightly. “Wait a minute. Wasn’t 1968 the year the old Soviet Union invaded what was then Czechoslovakia? Sure, that was it. I remember that now. There was a big uprising by the people who almost overthrew the government, but the Soviet Union rolled their troops in while the international community just sat back and shook their heads going tsk-tsk. How could I have forgotten that?” Paul was currently earning a degree in history, but had no idea what to do with it later.
“OK that all ties in, but what does that have to do with Steve and this woman? I guess we’ll just have to wait till tomorrow and see if we can get any answers out of him.” This was Sarah’s recommendation to the group.
Bob responded with a laugh. “Good luck with that. I have known that dude longer than any of you and I know next to nothing about him. Well, that is enough amateur sleuthing for me tonight. I bid you all adieu.” Bob gathered his belongings and headed out the door. The idea of his client and that mystery woman having some sort of past did intrigue him. He would have to remember and ask him about that at a later time.
It had been a long day and even a longer night for Katherine. She opened the door to the hotel room and threw her coat over the back of the nearest chair. She still couldn’t believe where the events of the day had taken her. She had been in Portland for the week on a consulting job. Earlier in the day she had overheard a couple of people in the office talking about an author and the new book that was coming out. Before Katherine knew it she had been drawn into the conversation. She had not heard of this particular author before, but the premise of the book interested her. It was then she learned there was a book signing in a town not too far away. One showed her the advertisement which had a picture of the author. The shock of seeing his face almost caused her to faint, which was an extremely difficult task. It had alarmed the other two so much that they forced her to sit down. For a while the world was in a fog for her, unable to think straight.
Katherine walked into the bathroom and started to draw a hot bath. She thought back on how she studied the picture for a very long time. She was 99 percent certain that it was him. The man was older and had long hair as well as facial hair, but it was the eyes that convinced her. There was no denying those eyes. She would recognize them anywhere. He was not dead, they had lied to her. Had they also lied to him? Is that why he never looked for her? The time of the book signing was before she could possibly make it there due to prior commitments, but she had thought just maybe he would still be there for a little while afterwards. She finished undressing and slid into the hot water and felt the stress of the day abate a little. Absentmindedly she began fingering the old scar in the upper right portion of her abdomen. It was not a large scar, but it had been made by a violent act and changed her life in ways she would never have imagined.
She closed her eyes and laid her head back. The memories of that night came flooding back like it had been just yesterday. The moon had been full the previous day and still shone with a brightness that illuminated everything in the open. The air was fragrant with the late spring flowers and blossoms. Another month and it would be summer, but that night there was a warmth on the breeze that was more suited for romance than treason. In fact, they usually only met on nights with no moon as a rule making it much easier to slip unseen into shadows. This had been an exception due to the urgency of the information she had to impart. The meeting had gone well and they were saying their goodbye with a hug and passionate kiss when they were confronted by Major Mikhail Petrovich Ivanov of the KGB. He challenged them and pulled out his pistol pointing it at Steve. She realized he was about to pull the trigger and shoot her lover when she jumped at the major, covering the gun with her body. The sound of the retort echoed in her head and the sudden burning in her side like a hot poker caused her to go limp. Quickly the world became a series of disjointed sounds. Nothing made sense; light, shadows, sounds movement. She recalled the feeling of being held in Steve’s arms. At that time she knew him by another name which she understood was a cover. With a hesitant, weak voice she asked his true name. “Steve, my name is Steve” was all he said. Suddenly, he was gone and then she felt a body fall beside her. She could not open her eyes, but was terrified he had met his end beside her. That was the last thing she could remember until she woke up in an American military hospital in Germany three weeks later.
When Katherine asked about her friend, it was confirmed that he had died from his wounds, but not before he carried her to a waiting helicopter and flown out. The only bright spot to come out of her tragedy was learning she was six weeks pregnant. This would be her only link to Steve for the rest of her life, she had thought. Three weeks before the incident they had met for a couple of days and stayed cooped up in a hotel room, not going out, ordering room service, planning strategy and determining what information to gather, and a lot of love making. She understood he was married with a family and they would likely never be a couple. But this was her life and she was going to live it her way.
Of course, the government had been grateful for the priceless information she had passed to them through Steve for the previous two years. In return, they gave her a new identity and provided for living expenses. Katherine did provide further information for a few years along with suggestions of how to increase their low level military communications security. Eventually, she was relocated to the United States and was helped in setting up her consultancy business with a couple of prized clients which she still had to this day. On occasion she would still be asked to provide advice on matters of national security in the field of communications and computers.
Katherine had never had a serious relationship after that and she now wondered if she had been more in love with him than she had ever admitted to herself. And now? What was she going to do? She didn’t even know how she felt about him being alive. What would tomorrow bring, happiness, sorrow, or nothing? Katherine got out of the bath, dried off and put on a simple nightgown for bed. Her light brown hair had very little gray in it and hung to the small of her back. She sat down to brush it out and put in a braid to keep from becoming tangled while she slept. Picking up the newspaper she looked at his face in the ad yet once again. Surely, this was the same man who had touched her heart as no one else ever had, or even come close. She walked over to the bed and slid beneath the covers, turned off the light and thought, “Tomorrow.”
Allison drove Steve to her apartment. Once there they ordered Chinese and she made them a drink while they waited. Steve sipped at his drink and wandered around the small apartment noticing the art on the wall. Then one piece caught his eye, it was the first picture he had made for her. It surprised him to see it hanging on the wall, but he didn’t allow his face to show this emotion.
“You remember doing that? Are you surprised I still have it?” Allison looked at him to see how he would react. As was customary he held everything close. It had always been so hard to judge him.
“Yes I am surprised you have it. I would have thought you would have gotten rid of anything that might remind you of me. Obviously, I was wrong. Now I have to ask. Why? Why keep anything if you wanted to have nothing to do with me? It goes against common sense. Wasn’t that something you believed in, part of a cleansing to enable you to move on?” He downed the rest of his drink and headed to her cupboard to fix a second. Much more was going to be need tonight. Much, much more to survive the awakening emotions that were starting to war in his mind and his heart. When he came back Allison was still standing in the room looking at the picture. Walking up beside her, he studied it for another moment then raised his glass as to make a toast, “Here’s to serendipity”.
Allison looked at him a little funny and then raised hers in return. “So you still think things happen by chance, that there is no plan. No overall force that causes things to happen?” she inquired of him. She had accepted that he was an atheist, no that wasn’t right. But, neither was he agnostic and definitely not a believer in a supreme being. It had always been hard to fit him into a category. That may have been one of the things that drew her to him in the first place. Always something of an enigma.
He smiled broadly at her. “After all the conversations we had back then you don’t think I would still feel the same way? Of course everything happens by chance. Of course the sun was out today because that one butterfly was eaten by a bird and couldn’t flap its wings. Yes, there is a cause and effect, but no, I don’t believe there is one overall power that guides everything whether you call it God, the universe, or the flying spaghetti monster.” They had once carried out lengthy conversations on such matters, never agreeing on everything, but always accepting the way the other felt and believed and respecting that.
“No, I don’t expect you would be any different and would actually be shocked if you did” she said back. There was a knock at the door and a muffled voice announced their food had arrived. Allison greeted the delivery boy and paid for the food. Returning to the room she placed the contents on the small table in the kitchen. They both sat down and ate a little in silence. Finally, Allison broke the silence. “I always enjoyed our talks about, well, everything. I have even used your arguments about religion and people’s belief systems to see how others would respond. I must say, I got some very interesting responses.” She searched his face for something, any hint of how he felt toward her and saw….nothing, blank.
They continued reminiscing for several hours. As the time grew on the conversation became more familiar, more intimate. The talk had gotten back around to her marriage. Something about it just didn’t sit right with him. He finally asked, “You said something earlier about your former husband reminding you of me. Just what did you mean by that?” Maybe he was feeling jealous of this man who had had something he couldn’t.
A deep sadness came over her demeanor. Almost immediately a blush rose into her face and her eyes became moist. She paused for a couple of minutes before answering. “Just that. He reminded me of you.” she lied to him by omission. “I don’t know exactly. He just did” she continued to lie and became more fidgety with her plastic cup and started to avoid eye contact, a sure sign she was not being truthful and was uncomfortable with the subject.
He looked out the small kitchen window into the dark night deepened by the storm clouds that had pushed away the sunny day and sighed. The conversation, almost a debriefing, had been going pretty well on both parts until now. He got up and took the empty glass from her hands. He walked to the cupboard to refill both their drinks. While pouring he started talking, “My life was never the same after you told me you were ending our relationship with never a true reason why. I never got over that and I’m not sure I ever really learned to live with it. Nor did I really understand why. But, it was a decision that was made and who was I to stop you from living the life you wanted to live.” He paused briefly as he refilled her drink then said, “But, since we are here now I am going to ask. Why? Why did you end our friendship like that?”
Upon turning around he was startled to see that she had walked up behind him. Looking down into her clear blue, beautiful eyes he saw tears were now streaming down her cheeks. He put the drinks down on the counter as she laid her head against his chest, wrapping her arms around him, tentatively at first. She sniffed slightly, and then ever so quietly she answered his question that he had held for so long now. “Because I loved you so much and I couldn’t have you. You belonged to someone else and I couldn’t live with that. I cried for a solid week after that. I never stopped thinking of you every day. At some point you would pop in there. It was torment. When I met Mike he reminded me of you, but only as an old faded picture reminds you of someone you once knew. I finally figured, if I couldn’t have you I would have the next best thing. But, that never works out in the end. It was fake, built on falsehoods and fantasies. He figured out pretty quick that he was only a surrogate for something, or rather someone else. We parted civilly, he went his way and I, mine. I tried to bury myself in my work and it would help some. But, in the stillness of the night you were always in my thoughts. I actually wondered if you were dead since no one seemed to know where you were or what had happened to you.” She still kept in touch with a few mutual friends from that time and place.
He was taken aback by this sudden confession Allison had made. He was actually speechless for a time. He held her close to him, feeling a few sobs from her crying. He relished the feel of her warm, small body pressed against his. He finally placed a crooked finger under her chin and lifted her face out of his chest. He gently wiped the tears away from her wet cheeks and looked longingly into her eyes. Looking for any hesitation on her part and not seeing any, he framed her small face with his large, strong hands and gently kissed her.
Slowly Allison pulled away and picked up her drink, downing the contents in one swallow. She quickly refilled it and walked back into the living room, leading her friend by the hand. They sat next to each other on the old, brown sofa. “Your turn. What happened to you after your wife’s death? Where did you go?”
Now it was Steve who sat back a little overwhelmed by the series of events. They sat in silence for a couple of minutes sipping their drinks while he contemplated where to begin. He found the pain of remembering that point in his life was still ragged and deep. Gazing ahead at nothing in particular he began, “Where did I go? Huh, interesting phrasing.” He laughed rather sinisterly at himself and the recollection of events. “I guess you can say I went a lot crazy. My life mate had been taken from me in a quick, violent way. This was not the first time someone I loved deeply had been taken from me in a vicious, brutal manner. I found I was only able to work part time and eventually quit to try and work as a consultant. But, I found I was unable to concentrate on anything and found it difficult to work. Then about six months later my son was killed where he worked. He had been the only thing holding me together. I was totally alone.”
Allison interrupted, “Didn’t you have a daughter? What about her? Wasn’t she there to provide some support?” She placed her hand on his arm to try and convey some sympathy.
He blinked at her for a second or two before he realized another part of the story she didn’t know. “That’s right, you wouldn’t have known this. A few months before Beth was killed, my daughter was beaten to death by her boyfriend. So you see, I had lost my entire family to barbaric acts all within the space of a year. I had no one left and after my son’s death I completely lost it. I started drinking nonstop. I had quit my job and quit life, I guess. I was more than happy to drink myself to death. I no longer cared. And in fact, I almost succeeded” He looked at his glass, studying it before taking another sip. “In many ways it is still a crutch. I still use it to quiet the pain.”
“So how did you come back to the living? What changed your mind about dying?” Allison had unconsciously sidled closer and was now hold one of his hands almost in an attempt to draw some of the pain out of him as his was now almost palpable.
“I went on a drinking binge for about a month. I probably would have died if a good friend of my son’s had not come to check on me. Martin had probably been his best friend and we had grown fond of each other. Apparently he had been trying for a few days to get up with me and when that failed he decided to come over and check on me. He said he saw me lying on the floor with empty bottles all around. Martin broke the door down to get to me. He stayed with me for a week and nursed me back into the land of the living.” Steve paused for a moment thinking on that dark place he had been. “Let’s just say that I figured since he had put so much into keeping me from that appointment with death, I should at least hang around for a bit just so he wouldn’t feel so bad. As you can tell I haven’t stopped drinking or getting drunk. Just not killing myself quickly with it any longer. But, I needed something to keep me occupied. I didn’t want to go back to what I had been doing and was stumped for a little while. I had always fancied that I could write stories. So that was what I started to do in a hope that some of what I was feeling could escape through the words I wrote. Maybe it has helped, I’m not sure. Before I knew it I had a short story that seemed worthy of being published.”
A part of Allison felt ashamed for not knowing about the rest of his family. If I had only known, she thought, I would have gone running back to him and been his support. She wiped the stream of tears rolling down her freckled cheeks with a tissue and blew her nose. “I’m so, so sorry all that happened to you. I can almost understand why you felt and acted as you did. I see clients all the time who have only a fraction of your problems, yet they think it is possibly the end of their world. If they only knew, and I guess that is what my job is about, putting their lives back into a more realistic perspective. But, I want to ask you about something you said. You mentioned there had been someone else you had loved in the past who also died a brutal death. I thought you got married out of high school? So when did this happen?”
The sudden flame in his eyes and the complete change of demeanor at this question brought a terror to Allison’s heart such that she had never known. Steve spoke in a low and very grave tone, his words precise leaving no doubt to their meaning. “That subject is not open for discussion. You are to never bring it up again. If I ever decide to discuss that then I will let you know and not before.” Just as sudden as the darkness had seem to fall over the entire room, it lifted again.
“I…I’m sor-sorry. I understand. I’m sorry.” The words seem to stick in her throat. Allison also nodded to try and convey her complete understanding and willing to abide by that one request. She hugged his arm to her chest and laid her head on his shoulder. Closing her eyes, she tried to wish away that last question she had let out. Silently, they sat like that with Steve staring into his glass as if to divine what the ice and bubbles were trying to foretell.
After what seemed a short eternity, Allison reached up and wrapped her arms around his neck, drawing their bodies closer together. She returned the kiss he had given her earlier with a ferociousness and passion he had not encountered in too long of a time. Neither caring, they began to explore each other’s body. Before long their clothes were off and they made love desperately and passionately, lost in each other and the intoxication that love long overdue brings.
He awoke very early the next morning and felt her relaxed body lying partially on his. They were still on the sofa and a blanket which had been on the back was pulled over them. Her breathing was slow and even. A small amount of moonlight entered through the one window in the kitchen. Apparently the clouds had abated for a while, he thought. There was just enough light to make out her figure. They had both fallen fast asleep after their torrid lovemaking. Allison had awoken an hour later and turned out the lights before lying back down with him. A wisp of hair was partially covering her face which he brushed behind her ear with a finger ever so gently. He laid there for a while basking in the feeling of contentment and just watching her sleep. He felt that somewhere deep in his heart he did love her so very much. And after their conversations and actions that night, he felt there was more than a little in her heart from him. He just didn’t know if he deserved it or really wanted to wade into that pool again.
Steve had long wondered if he wasn’t cursed to wander the rest of his life alone. He had lost so many loved ones long before they should have been taken from him. First his parents in a house fire when he was in his twenties, then there was…No, Steve thought to himself, that subject was dead in the water. In fact, that was the problem, everybody was dead. All of his family and very close relationships except for Allison. Did he want to put her in that kind of danger? Was he just the subject of some bizarre cosmic experiment to he how he would react to such misery? He sighed and laid there looking into the darkness running his fingers through her hair, partially comforted by her warmth and closeness.
He awoke to the pleasant sensation of warm, moist, soft lips pressed against his. He was a little surprised to recognize that he had fallen back asleep. He opened his eyes and looked into Allison’s as she pulled back.
“Good morning, it’s still a little early and I have to get up in a bit. I still have classes today, but thought it would be nice to start the day off on a good note.” Allison gazed upon his pace as she ran her hand under the blanket to fondle him getting an immediate response. “Oh, I can tell you don’t mind,” she added with a somewhat mischievous smile.
Steve reached around her and pulled her on top of him, running his large hands caressing her soft skin. He smiled up at her and said, “I can’t think of a better way to start.” His lips met hers and then parted with both tongues probing, searching. Their love making this time lacked the urgency of the night before. They were more at ease with each other, neither hurrying to finish, merely exploring, trying to find what pleased the other the most.
Half an hour later they were lying, basking in the afterglow. Finally Allison propped up on an elbow and looked down at her lover. “So now what are we going to do? I so want to get to know you again, I just don’t know where to start.”
“Well, I think we have made a decent attempt. Don’t you?” He smiled disarmingly at her while reaching up to trace the outline of her face with his finger. He put his other arm behind his head to reposition a little more. Suddenly his demeanor became a little darker. “But I honestly don’t know where I want to go from here. I haven’t allowed anyone to get close to me in a long time. To be honest I don’t know if I’m ready to open that door. And yet, I have found that there are feelings locked away for you that I don’t think I realized I had. You were…you are a good friend. Maybe that’s our starting point.”
Allison laid her head down and nuzzled his neck. This is not going the way I want, she thought. Tears started rolling down her cheek dripping onto his neck. Did I ruin my one chance at true happiness all those years ago? Is this my punishment for squandering that chance? These thoughts bringing a sorrow to her heart that she had never felt to this extent. She held him tighter in a futile attempt to prevent Steve from escaping her life.
Feeling her sadness and the tears Steve returned the embrace. He kissed her forehead then took a deep breath. “Don’t torture yourself so. Listen, the future is not defined. Don’t make any rash decisions or jump to any conclusions. I don’t know where this is going to go. Let’s just step back a little and see what happens.” He lifted Allison’s face out of his neck, brushed the tears away and softly kissed her as if to promise he would not just disappear as if a dream. Breaking the moment he changed the subject. “Now, didn’t you say something about having to get ready for class? We should get up and start the day.”
Allison sniffled a bit. “Why can’t we be irresponsible and just run away? Why go back to being alone?” Her eyes were pleading, almost trying to pry the answer she wanted to hear out of him.
“No. That is not the answer. There are a multitude of reasons why. But perhaps the reason is that you don’t really know me. And what of your clinic, something you have wanted and worked so hard to obtain? You would be willing to just give that up to end up with what? Me? Poor substitute, I assure you.” Steve thought, of course I would love to run away with you, leave my so called life behind, but I don’t deserve you. You should have something, someone much better than me.
“Yes. Yes, I would give it all up right now and start my life over with you. I am ready to do that right now”, she exclaimed back at him. “I can’t lose you again. I was foolish the first time and I am not going to make the same mistake again.” The sobs and tears started again belying the fear that gripped her.
Steve pulled her still naked form closer to him almost in an effort to force the fear from her body. “I am not going to allow you to make a larger mistake on some misguided fantasy. I am not going to just leave you either as long as you want me in your life. I’m not saying I’m going to just move in and set up shop either. I can’t do that. There are some things I must work out on my own. Please allow me that. But, let’s just start at friends and see where that goes? Please?”
She laid there in silence for a couple of minutes allowing all her conflicting feelings and thoughts to fight each other in her mind like a free-for-all wrestling match. Finally, she silently agreed with his reasoning and looked up at him with the beginnings of a smile. “OK, we’ll do it your way. I have just one last request.”
Feeling a small sense of relief he gazed on her tear streaked, freckled face, blue eyes sparkling from all the tears she had spent. “Sure, what is it?”
“Make me late for class”, mischievousness returning to her face. She began rubbing her body against his to further advance her desire.
He could feel her erect nipples rub against his chest. He was somewhat astonished that someone could still feel this way toward him. Somewhere in his soul hope stirred the beginnings of something better. He shifted his position on the sofa and allowed his physical response to speak for him. They embraced each other in a sensuous rhythm that brought them to a simultaneous climax and then left them spent.
An hour later they left her apartment still basking in the warmth of their shared experiences of the past sixteen hours. Allison dropped him off at the hotel. He went to his room to collect his things and check out. His reflection caught his attention which caused him to pause and regard more closely that he had in too long of a time. He didn’t understand it all, but perhaps things could turn around for him. Steve then stopped and wondered if he wasn’t somehow putting her in danger. Nearly everyone else he had loved had their lives ended abruptly and too soon. Was it to be any different if he allowed her in his world? That was the thought that was to keep sticking in his head for the rest of the day.
Allison got to her first class just as it was to begin. Her thoughts were still in the clouds as she lectured on basic psychology principles. When the class was over she walked straight to her office and closed the door, locking it behind her. She had an hour until the next class and she spent it trying to make some sense of the last night. It was obvious that Steve did have some deep pain and that she was probably responsible for at least a bit of it. But there was so much there. In her heart she knew that that he had a very sensitive and loving soul. He seemed to feel things on a deeper level than most people, almost as if he could actually feel some else’s emotions. To her, it was obvious he deserved better than life had thrown at him and she wanted to be part of making it better, of helping him come out of the darkness. This time, she resolved, she would be there for him no matter what. The hour passed in what seemed an instant and she braced herself for another class, another hour that she couldn’t be with him.
It was just before noon when Steve parked his car at the coffee shop. One more time to say goodbye to a couple that were the closest to friends he had dared call anyone in many years. The shop was surprisingly sparse with customers. He spied Sarah and Ted behind the counter busy with everyday business activities. “Good morning you two. Say did I scare all of your customers away with my appearance yesterday? Don’t tell me it is always like this.” He waved and smiled at both as he walked up to the counter. “Please forgive me if I ran everyone away. Would you still let me buy a cup of coffee?”
It was Sarah who responded first. “Of course you can get a cup of coffee. And it’s on the house, no arguing”, she added seeing the objection forming on his face. “You are actually a little early for the crowd. They should start coming in about twenty minutes.” She fetched a cup of hot coffee, the steam and aroma rising with the promise of subtle delights. “So how did your evening with Allison go and how do you two know each other?” Sarah propped her elbows on the counter placing her face in her hands to take in the story.
“No. That is not open for discussion right now. If she wants to divulge any information then that is her prerogative, but I will not say any more on that.” He sipped at the hot, steamy brew. “Well, I hope you are right and I didn’t hurt your business.”
“Nonsense. Yesterday was one of the best days we have had and we had a pretty good morning rush. Oh, Ted, tell him about that woman who came in last night looking for him.”
“Really? A woman looking for me? Wow, must be either a lawyer or a deranged lunatic. I think I would prefer the lunatic. So what did she want?”
“She said she just wanted to meet you. Said it was personal and important. At first she seemed to not be sure if she knew you or not, but she knew your name was Steve. She left her card here.” Ted searched the drawer under the counter for the card. Upon finding it he handed it to Steve. “She said her cellphone number was on the back. Do you recognize the name?”
Steve inspected the card for a moment. The name nor business were familiar to him, though he had been in the same field for a number of years before his life had been changed. “No, no I can’t say the name rings a bell. Perhaps I met her at a conference at some point. What did she look like?”
“Well, she was actually a rather attractive woman. She had this sexiness about her even though she was dressed rather conservatively.” He winced as Sarah good naturedly elbowed him at his observation of another woman being sexy. “Ow, stop that. Anyway, I would say she was about mid-fifties, very fit, light brown hair that she wore down, light blue eyes, round face. Full body without being overweight at all, like I said before, very fit. Owwww, stop elbowing me.” He held his side where he had received the second jab from Sarah.
“When you stop observing other women in such detail, I will”, was her reply. She then added, “Don’t forget to tell him what that woman wanted you to say.”
“Look, love, it’s hard not to remember someone that looked like her, but she can’t hold a candle to you. Besides, you have my heart, why would I want anyone else.” Ted kissed his fiancé and soon to be mother to his child before turning back to Steve. “Oh yeah, she also spoke with some kind of accent, none of us could quite place it. Not real strong like someone who had learned English recently, more like someone who normally spoke it, but had grown up speaking something else. Anyway, I was to tell you ‘1968 was a year of change for Strazny’. What does that mean? We were curious and looked it up and found Strazny was either some guy’s name or a town in the Czech Republic. Seems all kind of crazy. So, any ideas?”
The phrase shook Steve to his core. He had first heard it in what seemed to be another life. For a brief instant his reality swirled around him. There could only be a couple of people beside himself that had ever heard that phrase. The description of the woman was also too familiar, but could not be possible. That person was dead. He had seen her bleeding body, heard the shot that took her away from him. This had to be some cruel joke. Could there actually be someone after him after all these years and after all that had changed in the world? Nothing made sense.
Ted witnessed for the second time since knowing the man a slight, extremely brief crack in his facade. This made it even more interesting. “Steve, I don’t know if I should have, but I told her that you were probably coming back today for a little bit. I mentioned she might be able to meet you then. I haven’t seen her yet, though. I’m sorry if I have done anything wrong. I’m sorry if I shouldn’t have told her anything.” Ted was starting to feel real regret in his part of all this.
“No, Ted. Everything is fine. You did nothing wrong. I tell you what, I’m going to make myself at home in that booth over there,” he pointed to one in the back corner, the same one he had occupied while writing his book. “If she comes in, you can point her toward me. I’ll see what she is after.” With that he pick up his coffee and walked to the booth. After sitting down he took pulled his personal journal out of his shoulder bag. His journal served as a diary, notebook, sketchbook, and repository of disjointed ideas, lists, and thoughts. He flipped to the back and searched for a number finding it in a list of unrelated items. Pulling out his phone he dialed the number and entering a short series of numbers after hearing a undulating tone.
“Intelligence and Security Command, Mark Whitcomb. How may I direct your query?”
“Mark. This is Steve. How are you doing today? Can I ask a personal favor of you?”
“Steve! Long time no hear, man. How the hell are you doing? Just saw you got a new book coming out? So things going well?”
“Yeah, yeah, things are going fine. Listen, I hate to be abrupt, but I need some info if you can give it to me?” Steve asked in a very matter-of-fact fashion.
“Well, that depends on the nature of the information. You know this is an unsecured line and you have no clearance status.” Mark was curious since it had been a number of years since he had known Steve, back in a time when they had been friends.
“Nothing to compromise you, I assure you. I just need to know if there has been any kind of query on me or my background.”
The nature of the question raised all kinds of personal and professional flags in Mark’s mind. Why would Steve be asking this since he had been out of the field for a very long time? Given the rate the government was declassifying information in the last few years, almost anything Steve had been involved in would have been declassified and released. “Sure, let me just pull up your file and have a look. Why the sudden concern?”
“Can’t go into that right now”, was all Steve would say indicating the reason was very sensitive in nature.
Mark was typing and trying to make sense of the information coming up on his screen. Mark had one of the highest clearances available, but the file he was getting was obviously sanitized of any real information. He whistled into the phone, “Man, what were you into? Your file is too clean, even for me. There are flags on it that I’ve never seen. What’s interesting is you seemed to be flagged from ever working for the government again, even as a dog catcher, yet all I can see are high ratings on your evaluations.” He mumbled unintelligibly as he continued his search. “OK, to answer your question, there was a search on you about seven years ago. Nothing since. Does that help?”
“Nothing in seven years?” That didn’t set well. Why would have someone looked at his file around the time of his wife’s death? “Can you tell what was being looked at then?”
“Just your personal information. Nothing in depth. The only things since then were just additions to the file. No searches. Funny, seems despite being blacklisted someone wants your information kept up to date. You’re not…., never mind.” Mark had caught his idle curiosity before actually saying anything over an open line. There were obviously parts of his old friend’s life he was not supposed to know. Better to keep it that way. “Is that what you needed? Anything else I can do for you?” Mark had turned all business to try and cover his near slip.
“No, thanks Mark. Maybe if I’m out that way I’ll call you up and we can go have a drink for old times. Is that bar, The Depot still in business?”
“Man, that old dive? Yeah, I think it is still open. They probably haven’t changed a thing. Yeah, sure, call me up and we’ll have a toast to old times and old friends. You stay out of trouble, OK my friend?”
“Sure Mark. I keep it pretty quiet these days. Thanks for your help.” With that he hung up his phone and picked up his coffee. Paul had just refilled it so it was hot going down. He didn’t really notice and stared out the window for a few minutes completely lost in his thoughts trying to make some sense out of the last couple of days.
It was completely unusual for Steve to be startled by someone. She had walked in and spied him sitting in the corner. She walked up to him instantly knowing that it was the man she owed her life to. To ease the nag of that one percent of her mind that still questioned she spoke in Russian, “Kapitan John Smith, 1968 was a year of change for Strazny.”
His blood turned to ice, instantly recognizing a voice that could not be possible. The phrase had been chosen many years ago as the sign of his contact. His training suddenly kicked in and without turning to the voice, he continued to gaze out the window and replied also in Russian, “As it was for all the world.” Only then did he turn to face the voice and gaze into a face that also could not be. He continued to speak in Russian, “How is it I am looking at a ghost?”
The reply was in English to indicate how the rest of the conversation was to be carried out. “The same way I am gazing upon you now. We were lied to. That is the only explanation. Steve, I did not know until yesterday that you were alive. I have much I wish to say to you. Is there somewhere we can go?”
Quickly recovering from his shock he responded. “You have had one day longer than I. If there is anything to discuss, we can do it here. We will not be disturbed I assure you.” With that he motioned to get Ted’s attention and bring him over. “Ted, would you please make sure we are not disturbed?”
“Yeah, I can do that.” He glanced at both, obviously with a multitude of questions, but knowing when to keep quiet. He walked back to the counter and told the others not to bother the couple. Ted then directed Paul to put a bucket on the booth adjacent to Steve’s to discourage anyone from sitting there.
Steve was the first to ask, “Please tell me what happened to you. You were barely alive when I had to leave you on the helicopter. They were to take you to the Army hospital in Frankfurt, but I was told you died before you got there.”
Katherine regarded the man who probably was most responsible for her being alive today. “They did take me to the hospital and obviously, I was still alive. Though, what they told me was I was indeed, very close to death. I, however, was told the same lie as you. You were to have died from your wounds. Please, tell me what happened. The last I could recall before awaking in hospital was a body falling beside me. I was too weak to open my eyes, but just knew it was you.”
He studied her face, the memories of them together so many years ago coming alive as if no time had passed between then and now. She was possibly even more beautiful now than previously. Yet, there was no longer the spark that had made her so irresistible, as if it had been yanked from her. “That would have been the major’s backup, a young lieutenant who obviously had very little skill. Apparently, he was a couple of blocks away when he heard the gunshot and had made his way to see what had happened. I spied him first and stepped into the shadow of a doorway. Once he was passed, I stepped behind him and made sure he wouldn’t bother anyone again. I made sure there was no one else to surprise us and got you to the helicopter. I was never wounded. I wanted to stay with you, but I had my orders and had to leave. Now, why the insistence on meeting me after all this time.”
She sat back and took in the information to process. Katherine sighed then started, “As is said, life is short and there is no time like the present. When I discovered you were alive it was as if a small portion of my life was given back to me. I don’t know if we would ever have had anything more together than we did at that time, but I did love you in my own way. I needed to tell you that. I also wanted to tell you…”, she paused at how exactly to say the next part.
“Please, go on. What do you want to say?”
“Steve, we have a daughter. When I was in hospital I was informed of carrying a child. I knew instantly she was yours as you were the only one I had been with in quite a while. I wanted you to know there was something wonderful that came from our time together.” She observed him closely to gauge his reaction.
Of course this came as a complete surprise to him and he allowed it to show. “Does she know about what you did? Does she know about me? Please tell me about her.” It suddenly occurred to him that there was a part of him alive. He wasn’t completely alone in the world. Would she accept him?
“No. No, she knows nothing of my past life. I told her I was shot trying to escape to the west and that you saved me. We were lovers and that you had died. She has been my only link to you. Her name is Stephanie after you. She is so smart and beautiful. She is a trauma surgeon and works in the Baltimore area. She is now married and has two children, a boy, three, named Stephen, and a girl, one, named Kathy. Can you believe that? Steve and Katya. Can you believe I’m a grandmother? Or, that you are a grandfather?” She dug out pictures of his daughter and grandchildren and handed them over.
Steve studied the photos. Stephanie looked just as her mom did when she was younger except her hair was darker like his. The boy and girl were absolutely precious. He realized tears were welling in his eyes and he quickly wiped them away. “Katya, I can’t believe all this. They are just beautiful. Thank you for sharing this with me. Does Stephanie know I’m alive?” He motioned to hand the photos back.
“You keep those. I will get you more, also. To answer your question, no, she doesn’t. I had to be 100% sure and I needed a couple of questions answered before I could make a decision. I am satisfied and will tell her next week when I’m back there. That is something that I just cannot break over the phone. There will be too many questions.”
“I have a question, why ‘Katherine Edgar’?
Katherine smiled. “I have not been called Katya in a long time. You were probably the last person to call me that. I guess you could say Ekaterina Gregorevna Egorova died all those years ago. The government was kind of stuck with me and gave me a new name, Katherine Edgar, to help start my new life and try and keep me safe from the GRU or the KGB. Neither tolerate traitors too well. Remember that defector killed by the Bulgarians with the help of the KGB in London. We hurt them and that never sits well with people like that.”
“So much has changed now in the world. Have you ever thought about going back? See the old neighborhood, so to speak?”
“No. My home is here. My life is here. I left nothing behind that would really entice me to go back. My daughter…our daughter and grandchildren are here. That belongs to a different person and a different world.” Katya smiled at the thought of being able to share her daughter and grandchildren with the man solely responsible for their existence.
“So what now? I am a total loss as to what you really wanted. There is something you are not telling me. It may be 35 years since we’ve seen each other, but you haven’t changed that much. I got to know you pretty well then. You’re holding something back.” He tried to read her body language and could learn nothing more than he suspected.
She reached out and took his hand to assure herself that this was not a dream. That he was not a ghost, but a real life, flesh and bone entity. The sensation stirred more in her than she was prepared to experience. Quietly, in a near whisper she replied, “Please, not here. I was not ready for this. It is too much.” She paused and considered for a moment before continuing. “Are you occupied with business right now? Would you consider coming back to Portland with me tonight? We can have a nice dinner in celebration of finding each other. Then we shall see.” She looked into eyes she had not seen in three and a half decades and saw the caring and love she remembered in her dreams.
“OK, I’ll go back with you. How did you get here today?” This decision came to him easier than he could ever have imagined. She brought out something in him that had wanted to be set free after a seemingly eternity of captivity.
“I have a rental car. Do you want to meet me this evening?”
“I was thinking of riding together. I have a car here, but I can leave it with Ted, the owner. We can leave now if you wish. For some reason, I would rather stay with you right now.” Her proximity seemed to validate to himself that he did once have more than sorrow and heartache. He didn’t know what was to come. “Would you mind meeting a couple of people who have been trying to listen in and yet give us our privacy?”
“Da, drug s drugom.” With that they stood and headed for the counter. Ted and Sarah tried to not appear as if they had been watching them.
“Ted and Sarah, I would like for you to meet a very old friend of mine. This is…”, he stopped and looked at Katya as if to ask how he should introduce her.
She squeezed his hand and whispered, “It’s ok, ‘John’.” She laughed out loud with a release of emotion she had not felt since before she thought she had lost him.
“OK, then. My friends this is Ekaterina Gregorevna Egorova. She is a dear friend of mine from many years ago. In fact, I owe my life to this woman.”
“No, it is I who is indebted to you. If not for you…well, much would not have happened”, Katya interrupted as she gazed rather lovingly at her long lost friend. She placed a hand on his arm as if to reassure herself that he was indeed standing beside her.
He looked at her for a minute lost in the memory of that fateful day. “OK, we’ll never decide that point to any amount of satisfaction. Anyway, she is a very, very dear friend and remarkable woman.” Turning back to the counter he continued, “Katya, this is Ted and Sarah. Ted owns this shop and Sarah is his fiancé. And they are going to have a baby.”
“It is a pleasure to meet you”, Sarah said as she offered to shake her hand. “I’m so happy to hear of your good news. Is this your first?”
Sarah beamed radiantly as she responded, “Yes it is. We just found out last week. Do you have any children?”
“Why, yes. I have a daughter. She is a trauma surgeon on the east coast. Her name is Stephanie”, she finished by glancing at Steve upon mentioning their daughter’s name. Steve smiled slightly seeing her look.
“Ted, I’m going to be taking a little drive up to Portland with Katya. Would you mind looking after my car for me while I’m gone? Here’s the keys”, he said while tossing the keys into Ted’s hands. “Why don’t you take Sarah for a drive in it? Maybe the last time you get a chance to drive something besides a minivan for some time.” He gave a devilish smile at the thought of Ted caught up in family life, after all, he had already been through that and knew how uplifting and mundane it could be at the same time.
Ted was shocked by this. Something remarkable was happening to the man across the counter from him. He had never known him to lend anything, though he did know that despite seeming very hard and gruff Steve had helped out quite a few people whether they realized it or not. “Sure, I’ll look after it. How long are you going to be gone?”
“You know, I have absolutely no idea. I’ll have to let you know. But, listen, thanks for everything. I’ll be in touch.” Turning to Katya he said, “Are you ready?”
“Yes, we have much to discuss.” Katya called back to Ted and Sarah, “It was very nice meeting you. Good luck with everything.” She then looped her arm in Steve’s and led him to her car. After retrieving his bag from his Corvette he climbed into the rental and indicated he was ready to go.
“Will you excuse me for a moment? I need to call someone to break a date.” He punched up Allison’s number and listened to the ringing. She answered on the second ring. “Allison, this is Steve. I know we still have a lot to sort through, but someone has come up from my distant past and I need to be out of town for a little bit.”
“What? What about last night and this morning? Didn’t that mean anything to you?” She was almost shouting into the phone where Katya could pick up the gist of the conversation.
“Allison, calm down. Last night and this morning was very special. But this is very important. Before last night we hadn’t even spoken a word to each other in about eight years. Right now there is just us as friends. I want that. But I need to attend to another matter right now. I have never lied to you in the past and I never will. That is just not my nature. If you don’t know that about me then there is no trust. And if there is no trust there is nothing.” Steve was firm in his tone, but was somewhat taken aback by Allison’s outburst.
His tone and talk of trust seemed to have made a mark on Allison. She paused to gather her thoughts before going on. “Steve, you are right. I guess I just expected things to…, I don’t know. I guess I don’t know how I really expected them to go. Trying to make a fantasy come true I guess. Of course I trust you. I always have. If this is important then you need to take care of it. I would like very much to stay in touch. I was so wrong back then and I apologize. I should never have shut you out like that. It was wrong and I’m sorry. Please forgive me. And please be careful.” Allison had tears rolling down her cheeks, but kept her tone even. She couldn’t believe that she was able to finally have him to herself only to possibly lose him in the same day. She could only hope beyond all hope that he would come back to her. She wanted that so deeply in her soul she thought the longing would crush her heart.
“I will Allison. You be careful, too. I have been and ever shall be, your friend.” He smiled a little. “I’ll call you soon.”
“You and you’re Star Trek references. I will be waiting. I love you.” And she hung up the phone before hearing his reply. It didn’t matter right now. She just needed him to know how she really felt in her heart.
Katya glanced at her companion and asked, “Ty lyubish’ Allison?”
“Yeah, I guess I do love her. We were close friends years ago. I guess closer than I realized. She moved away and there was a parting of ways. I’m still not sure I understand exactly what happened. I was still married at the time, but we didn’t have an affair or anything. I guess she fell in love with me, and perhaps I fell in love with her not realizing it. Anyway, we met again last night. Let’s just say that it was very steamy.”
“So you are no longer married?”
Steve grew quiet and looked out the passenger window. The pain was still sharp whenever he thought of that dreadful night. He saw Katya try to catch his expression. Finally, he sighed, “No, I’m no longer married.” He then explained the events that led to his wife’s death. The outpouring became somewhat cathartic for him as he then went on to relate his daughter and son’s death within the same year.
“Steve, my God. I am so very sorry for your pain. You have been all alone this time?” Her eyes were moist from hearing the story he had related. She reached over to hold his hand in hers. “But you are not alone any longer. You have a daughter and two grandchildren who are just wonderful.”
He turned away from the window to look at her. As good as it sounded he had no idea if he would be accepted. “Katya, do you really think they will accept me? Especially Stephanie? I mean, I have no part in her life. As far as either of you knew I was dead. I still am to her. Why would she want to accept me?”
She detected a hint of desperation in his voice. “I told you she got your intelligence. You remember that? Well, that is not all she got from you. She has your heart. You must trust me when I say she will accept you and want you to be in her life.” She gave his hand a little squeeze as reassurance.
“It’s been so long, I’m not sure I know how. When will you tell her?”
“This is so important I will wait until I get back to Baltimore. This is something that I must tell her face-to-face. Perhaps you can come with me?”
Steve was surprised at the request. “I would love to meet her, but I don’t want to barge in on her life. Do you really think that will be OK?” The image of meeting her flash in his mind bringing a small smile. “You know, it’s hard to wrap my head around the idea that you are alive and that you…, I mean, we, WE have a daughter. Just as I’m sure seeing me is still quite a shock for you.” He held her hand, feeling the strength and warmth in it. After all these years he still thought she was one of the most beautiful women he had ever seen, let alone been with. His thoughts raced back to the clandestine meetings they had in that small town in Czechoslovakia, the danger, and the thrill. It was amazing that their feelings for each other had grown despite the brevity of each meeting. Perhaps the danger added to that. There was no doubt in his mind that he had fallen in love with her, but he never expected it to advance beyond the one affair they had. He never imagined they would have a life together. After he believed she was dead, he remembered regretting the affair, cheating on his wife was against what he had promised. He never allowed himself to get that close to a woman again. That was one reason his feelings for Allison had come as somewhat of a shock to him. Suddenly he shook himself back to reality. “Please tell me what you have done these past 35 years.”
“Where should I start? When I first awoke in that hospital I was convinced it was a KGB trick to find out how much I had told you. It was only when I was stronger and able to get about more that I finally realized I was free of them. As much as I could be. I found out after the fall of the Soviet Union that there was a dossier on me. They had spent quite a lot of effort to find me, though they never did. I am glad my file was liberated. After the FSB came into existence, they reverted back to many of the old KGB practices. Did you ever find out how the major found us that night? I knew of him, but never met him. As far as I was aware, he was in Prague.”
“As a matter of fact I did. By pure happenstance. My operation was very, very guarded. This was because it was illegal. The army was not allowed to carry out covert operations like that. As a result, there were extremely few people who even knew of its existence. So it was actually easy to trace. As you are aware, in anything there is a weak point. Ours came in communications. There was about six months that my communications were routed through our station in Berlin. This should never have happened. There was an analyst there who had been selling information back to the East Germans and ultimately the Soviets. He stumbled across my communications and concluded it was worth something. The East Germans quickly passed it on. The major was given information of when I would be in Strazny and waited. Through other means we found out he watched a couple of our meetings before that night. The idea had been to kill you and capture me. He almost succeeded. Anyway, the guy that sold us out is spending the rest of his life in Fort Leavenworth.”
“He should be dead as far as I’m concerned.” Her eyes flared thinking of how he had affected all their lives, and all for money. At least she had been a traitor for ideological reasons. She had understood that the leaders of the USSR were lying to the citizens. They were elitist who kept all the good things for themselves and denied the people, sometimes even the basic of needs. They also dispatched any who questioned their lies as had happened with her father. He had been an undersecretary in the agricultural department. He saw firsthand how the reports of grain harvest shortages were ignored, how the infrastructure was ignored, how the people were allowed to wait in line for days and then pay a week’s wages for one loaf of bread. After trying to shine a light on the corruption he was branded a traitor to Mother Russia and condemned to living the rest of his life in the gulag in Siberia. He died within the year. She had been told he had a heart condition that had killed him. Katya knew that was a lie. That was the final stroke that made her decide to assist the west against her native country.
“Perhaps, but it would not change anything. And this way he is punished. Death is too easy of an out for someone like that. But go on about your life.” He shifted in the passenger seat to focus fully on her.
She spent the remainder of the trip discussing her life. How the government had helped her. As she told her story, Katya came to the conclusion that except for Stephanie, her life had been devoid of companionship. She had put all that energy into raising her daughter and making her business successful. How different it could have been if they had been able to share it. Finally, she pulled into the parking garage of the hotel where she was staying. “Please come up to my room with me. I have been up since very early this morning and then the trip down and back has tired me. I would really like to rest for a little. I want to take you out for a nice dinner, but first I must rest. I would like you there so we may talk more.”
“Sure, Katya. I’ll come up. If it’s a nice dinner I should shave and put something a little more respectable on.”
“Good, it is settled then. The elevator is this way”, she said while motioning the way.
At that instance a scruffy looking young man, in his early 20s came around the column he had been standing behind. He stepped in front of the two pointing a semi-automatic handgun at Katya. “Give me your money, NOW!”, he growled at them while holding out his free hand. Steve could see the hammer was pulled back ready to fire.
Katya gasped in the same instant that Steve moved into action. With his left hand he reached toward the gun and wedged his hand to where the hammer would strike it and not the bullet. At the same time he swung his bag toward the legs of the punk knocking him off balance. Rushing into him, Steve bowled the man onto his back, pinning his left arm with one knee, the other on his sternum, all while continuing his grip on the gun and controlling the right arm. In the continuation of the motion he reached up with his right hand and began crushing the young man’s trachea.
It was at that point that Katya stepped up and stepped on the gun still in the man’s hand. Satisfied he was no longer a threat she spoke low, but with enough force to get Steve’s attention. “Don’t kill him. There is no reason. He is no longer a threat. Let go, Steve. Let go. As you said earlier, his death serves no purpose.”
It took another second before Steve relaxed his grip at which point the man started gagging, coughing and sputtering. Steve picked up the gun and turned the man over on his stomach. He ensured there was indeed a round in the chamber and then placed the barrel at the base of the other man’s head. “Don’t think I have any qualms about pulling this trigger and adding some ventilation to your skull. You will lay there quietly and still. If you understand my intentions nod your head slowly. I might feel a little remorse if the gun goes off because you nodded too vigorously.” At that point the man lying face down on the parking deck very slowly nodded his head. His breathing was still ragged, but with less coughing now. “Katya, would you please call the police to take this off our hands. By the way, are you alright?”
She had been a step ahead of him and had already spoken with the dispatch center. She hung up the phone and looked down at the two. “There is some twisted irony in this. A gun being pointed at us the last time we were together and today.”
“Yes, I guess it is. Unfortunately, then I hesitated for an instance or else you would not have been shot. I never forgave myself of that and had little tolerance for anyone who hesitated afterwards. I swore I would never allow something bad to happen because I let fear get in the way.” He looked down at the man. “You’re lucky she was here to stop me. I would have killed you right then.”
“Steve, there is nothing to forgive. I was just quicker than you that day”, she said with a smile attempting to lift the spirit of her friend.
Within a couple of minutes the police arrived and Steve relinquished his prisoner and the weapon. They both gave their statements and quickly satisfied the investigators. They admonished Steve for taking the action he did, yet privately were amazed that he had been able to take the assailant out so well. They instantly knew he was not a man to be underestimated.
Steve walked over to Katya and noticed she seemed pale and weary. “Are you OK? Do you need to sit down for a minute?” The concern was very obvious in his tone and on his face.
“No, it has just been a long and emotional day. I need to get to the room and rest for a little.” She turned to the officer who was apparently in charge. “Are you finished with us? May we go?”
“Yes, I believe we are finished. We have your contact number if we need anything else. Thank you.” He turned back to one of the other officers and began chatting.
Steve and Katya walked to her room in silence. Steve watched her closely the entire way. The color had yet to return to her face. After she had unlocked the door, Steve held it open for her to enter and noticed what seemed to be a wince of pain on her face. “Are you sure you’re not hurt?”
“No I’m not hurt. I’ll be….”, she stopped in mid-sentence. Her face was twisted in obvious pain. She let out a gasp as she grabbed her abdomen with her hand, her legs almost giving away under her weight.
Steve caught her and lifted her into his arms. He bore her into the next room and gently laid her on the bed. Sitting down beside her, he laid his hand over hers. “Please tell me what is wrong. What can I do for you?”
Catching her breath and slowly relaxing she pointed at a small, gray piece of luggage that had been set on a small table. She gasped out in short fragments, “Pill bottle….pain pills….please, water.”
Steve strode to the bag and found a prescription bottle for oxycodone. Picking it up he next went into the bathroom and filled a glass with water bringing both to her.
Katya propped herself up on an arm and took two tablets from the bottle. She washed them down with the water and laid back closing her eyes. “Thank you. I just need to rest for a few minutes. I will be OK. Please, sit beside me?”
“Of course, there is nowhere else I would be right now”, Steve said in a soft, gentle manner. He pulled a chair beside the bed and sat there holding her soft hand in his. His thoughts turned to how the day had veered onto a path he would never have foreseen. It was still bewildering to him that here she was, in the flesh, warm, alive and more beautiful than ever. Another ten minutes passed when he noticed her body relax and her breathing belying the fact she was now asleep. He continued to keep his vigil over her and held onto her hand lest this become some dream and she slip away into the ether.
An hour later she awoke and felt her hand in his large paw. It seemed to give her a little strength. She squeezed his in a small embrace. “Thank you for being with me. I am feeling much better. I am sorry about earlier.”
“Do you care to tell me what that was all about?” He asked with concern in his voice and written on his face.
Katya breathed in deeply as is to muster courage. “I will, just not right now. For now let’s freshen ourselves and go out for a nice dinner.” Her face pleaded with him to drop the subject for now.
“OK. When you’re ready. Why don’t you go ahead and clean up. I need to stretch my legs a little.” He held her hand as she stood up ready to catch her at the first sign of weakness. When it was obvious whatever malady had took a hold of her earlier had abated. He watched her step into the bathroom and partially close the door. He grabbed his duffel bag from the floor and set it on a luggage stand. Opening it, he took his bottle of vodka from it and poured some in a glass. He gulped the contents in one swallow and refilled the glass. Steve placed the bottle on the table and opened the french doors to the balcony, stepping out. The sun had just set and there was orange and purple mixed in the gathering clouds. The breeze had a chill to it that caused him to initially shiver slightly.
He was lost in his thoughts when Katya slipped up behind him and put her arms around him burying her face in his back. “I see you still drink the same brand of vodka.” She took the glass from him and knocked back the remainder. “But then, there is nothing like a good Russian vodka to keep you warm on a cold night.”
“Except a beautiful Russian woman”, he replied as he turned around in her arms and looked into her eyes. This was the second time in one day she had been able to come up on him undetected. Was he getting old or was he letting the events of the last couple of days let his guard down? The question caused him to wonder more about what he was feeling. Suddenly the urge leaped on him and he bent down kissing her on the lips, a soft, sensual kiss, tasting her, feeling the softness of her lips. He didn’t know what to expect, but was pleasantly surprised when the kiss was returned with equal feeling. For a moment the world melted away leaving the two of them in their embrace, feeling the 35 years of absence disappear. To them, it was as if their time in Strazny had happened yesterday. He finally came up for air. “Let me go wash up and put on something a little more presentable or we won’t get out of here.”
She looked at him coyly saying, “That is such a bad thing?”
He just smiled and gave her a peck on the cheek then broke the embrace. Snatching up his bag he walked into the bathroom. “So, did you have any particular place in mind?” He called out while washing his face.
“Do you like Thai? There is a place just around the corner a few blocks from here. We can walk over to it if you would like. Parking can be difficult at times.” Katya had refilled the glass she had taken from him and was sipping on it while sitting at the small table by the balcony.
“Sure sounds good. Say do you know where a liquor store is? I’m almost out.”
“No, I don’t. And you are incorrect. You are out.” Katya smiled at him when he stuck his head out of the door as she drank the last of his vodka.
“Oh, that’s not right.” He playfully threw a towel at her. “I’ll be ready in just a minute. Do you need to call ahead?”
“No, it should be alright.”
Steve finished getting ready and they left for dinner. Along the way and though dinner they talked about their lives, their successes and failures, their families, and events that had shaped them over the years. Reluctantly, Steve turned the conversation to her, no, their daughter he realized. “Are you going to tell her that her father is alive?”
“Of course. I want you to know each other. I want you to know our grandchildren. It is not your fault that you did not know their existence. It is not your fault that you were not in their lives before now. But, now you can.”
“You do realize if events had not played out as they did, I still would not have been in her life. There was no future for us. Even if you had finally come over to the West, I would not have left my wife and son to be with you. As much as I loved you then, you were a separate life. It really was as if I were two people in two places at the same time. I don’t know how else to explain it. You deserved better and I’m sorry I couldn’t give that to you.”
“Steve, I never would have asked you to make a decision to choose. If we had not been compromised and I found out later I was pregnant, I may have had it terminated. A single woman with an infant was not conducive for service in the Soviet Army. And I planned to stay in as long as possible to hurt them. That government was so corrupt it needed to fall. I wanted to help that happen. It was only because of what happened that I chose to keep the baby. Of course, I have never told Stephanie any of this. There was never any need for her to know any of what I or you did. Only that I loved her and that if it were not for you neither of us would be here today. You are responsible for a lot.” Katya reached over and laid her hand on his arm and looked at him warmly. “Do not feel bad for what may have been, only rejoice in what is now. Can you do that?”
A slow smile came to his face hearing her advice to him. “That’s funny. I have been living my life by a saying I heard a few years ago and give it as advice to others. It is basically what you just said. I tell others ‘in the end, the only regrets you have should be for things you have done’.”
Katya returned the smile. “See, just live by your own advice and everything will be fine. Don’t you worry. Stephanie will come to love you as I have. You really are a very warm and caring person despite the hard, cold exterior you show to others. I can understand that has probably become a defense mechanism for you.” Standing, she offered, “Come, let’s go back to the room and forget about the past 35 years.”
He stood after placing sufficient cash to cover the dinner and tip. Holding hands they walked back to the hotel he listening intently as Katya told him more about their daughter and her life as a doctor and mother. When they returned to the room, she ordered a bottle of Russian vodka from the bar to be brought to the room. While she was in the bathroom changing in a large t-shirt she had found in his duffel bag the vodka was delivered and Steve poured both a drink. Upon emerging from bathroom he whistled at what he saw. “You better be careful. That shirt may not stay on long.”
Picking up her drink and taking a sip she replied, “I had no intention of wearing it too long.” She beamed a happy smile in his direction.
“In that case”, he stood and lifted her into his arms in one fluid motion. After carrying her to the bed, he laid her down and turned the lights off before lying beside her. The room was dark except for the light coming in through the balcony doors. He remarked to himself how beautiful she looked in that light, as if time had not elapsed. Slowly and softly they kissed and touched each other. They were both lost in time and space, present only in the moment with each other. Eventually making love slowly to draw the moment out as long as possible.
An hour later they were lying quietly in each other’s arms feeling the afterglow of passion. Not the passion that comes with lust, but rather the passion that comes from love and trust. Steve was lying on his back with Katya turned on a side resting her head on his chest. Softly she said to him, “I have cancer. It is in my pancreas and I am told it is incurable and inoperable. They are giving me six months to live.”
The thought of losing her again caused him to feel a grief that did not compare to all the other loses he had endured combined. “This is what caused you such pain this afternoon?” A thousand other thoughts ran through his mind. Why did she find him to cause him pain again? Why bring him back into her life? Why? Why? Why?
As if she was reading his thoughts she answered, “I can’t really say, but I just had to see you when I found out you were alive. Then I decided that you needed to know about Stephanie. I wanted her to have someone she could talk to, a parent for advice, after I was gone. Please forgive me for bringing more pain to your life. You do not deserve it.”
Steve felt tears running down the sides of his face, then felt hot tears falling on his chest from Katya. “No, you have nothing to apologize for. I am so grateful for you finding me and telling me about the family that I didn’t know I had. So what now?”
“This was my last contract. I am going back to Baltimore to close my business. I intend to spend the remainder of what time I have with Stephanie and her kids. I would like for you to come to Baltimore and meet them.” She knew she was asking for a lot, but hoped against hope that he would agree.
Steve was quiet for several minutes taking in everything he had lived the last two days, trying to digest and divine a meaning. Abruptly, he made a decision. He hoped against hope that she would agree. “Let me come to be with you and take care of you. We may not have had any of the last 35 years together, but at least we can have the next six months. It will give me time to know you, Stephanie and the kids better. I really want to do this. Please, allow me to do this.”
Katya started openly sobbing at this request. She had never expected this and was so overwhelmed by his compassion that she thought her heart would explode. Finally, after a few minutes she pulled herself together. “I don’t want you to put your life on hold for me.” This was the best argument she could come up with to try and dissuade him, even though she was overjoyed at spending the rest of her life with him as short as it was.
“There is no plan in my life. There is nothing I have to do. I am a writer. If I decide to write while I’m with you, then I’ll write. Right now I’m not working on anything other than helping with a screenplay. They’ll just have to agree to let me do it at a distance. If not, oh well. I would much rather be with you than that.” Steve shifted on to his side so that they were now face to face. He placed a delicate kiss on her cheek.
“What about this Allison? You said you thought you loved her. Will this not put that at risk?
“I think I do love Allison. That does not diminish how I feel about you nor make me want to change my mind. Allison and I were very good and close friends a number of years ago. Let’s just say that relationship was severed until yesterday. Despite the passion we may have felt yesterday there is no telling yet where that relationship is going to go. Relationships must be based on trust. Ours was and still is special because we literally trusted our lives to each other. If she cannot trust me and our relationship with each other to last because of my decision, then maybe it is not a relationship I wish to pursue any longer. I have always been open and honest and I will tell her everything about this. She will make her decision based on that and then we will see.”
“You don’t sound like anything will change your mind. That is good. I would like for you to be with me. I finish here tomorrow and fly back tomorrow evening. When will you be able to come out?” Katya ran her fingers through his graying ponytail. “I still cannot believe your hair is so long. Your hair was always so short before.”
“I actually got tired of getting it cut and just decided to let it go.” He took his hair and tickled her nose with the tip of the ponytail making her giggle. “There are a few things I need to arrange and pick up my car. I think I can leave in two days. It will take a couple of days to drive out. So, I should be there in about five days.”
“If you are sure then it is settled. Now let’s forget the past 35 years and relive those two days locked in that hotel and, how did you put it, fuck like bunnies.” Her face had somehow transformed into that of a much younger and vibrant woman. Steve responded by pulling her closer to him feeling her body pressing against him with promises of a special night ahead.
The rain was cold and drenching as Steve stepped off the bus. Reaching up he pulled the hood of his olive green poncho over his head. He was unsure of how his encounter with Allison would go later. He had called her during the bus ride and she invited him back to her place to talk. He had already made up his mind, he just wanted Allison to understand his decision. Steve was still in a bit of shock in how his life had been turned upside down. And yet, he wasn’t upset. The walls that had been erected many years ago had come tumbling down as if made of matchsticks. Feelings and emotions were flooding back. He recognized the danger of everything falling apart and turning him into a block of stone, unfeeling and uncaring, for the rest of his miserable life.
A few minutes later he stepped into Ted’s which had become almost his second home. Hanging his poncho on the back of a chair he waved at Ted. “Could really use a hot cup today.”
“Hello to you, too. How was your trip by the way?” Ted poured a steaming cup of coffee and handed it to Steve. “Oh, watch out for Sarah. She was up with Allison half the night offering her shoulder to cry on and she is really mad at you. Just a warning.”
Taking a sip of hot coffee and letting the hot liquid warm him up allowed a moment to take in the warning and information. “Well, thanks for the warning. Won’t be the first time a woman has been mad at me for something. I’ll just keep an eye out for flying objects.” A small, almost mischievous smile came to his face. “This should be an interesting evening since I’m supposed to go over to Allison’s this evening. Speaking of going, is my car here?”
“Yeah, it’s here. I parked in the back. I was hoping you would be gone longer so I would have time to get that big crack out of the fender.” The look Steve shot at Ted was enough to let him know this was not a subject to joke about. “Hey, hey, just kidding. It is fine sitting out back just the way you left it. I wouldn’t dare let anything happen to your baby. I know it is dear to you.” Ted was holding up his hands in mock surrender.
“I wouldn’t have left with you if I didn’t trust you, Ted. You can put your arms down, I’m not going to kill you. Not today anyway.”
“Now back to my question. How was your trip?” Ted asked while digging in his pocket for the keys to the car.
“Very enlightening, to say the least.” Steve’s gaze drifted into the distance as if trying to see something in the future.
“That’s it? Enlightening? Come on, you can do better than that. Where do you two know each other from? And was that Russian I heard you two speaking the other day? I didn’t know you knew Russian.” Ted was trying to egg on his acquaintance to try and get glimpse into his life. So far all he knew was what Sarah had learned from Allison, which wasn’t enough to fill an eyedropper.
“You know Ted, there is an awful lot you don’t know about me. Probably better that way. Here’s something enigmatic for you, we knew each other in a time and place that no longer exists. So let’s just drop it, OK?”
Ted could tell that there was no way he was going to get anything else out of this guy. He had dug in his heels on the subject like a stubborn mule and there was no way he was going any further. “So now what? What about Allison? That girl’s heart was nearly broken in two when you took off like that.”
Steve let out a long sigh and finished his coffee. “That is a very good question. What about Allison? As for her heart, I think it has been in a state of disrepair for a while now. She is the one who needs to figure out what she wants to do about it.” With that he picked his keys up off the counter and put some money down for the coffee and talk. “I think I’m going to go and dry off. Take good care of that woman of yours as well as the baby-to-be. Give Sarah a kiss and hug for me.” Ted just stared at the man as he walked out into the rain. In a second he was out of sight. Ted wondered if that was the last he would ever see of the man.
Steve rang up Allison on her cellular and inquired about going over to her apartment early and using the shower. He felt cold and damp to the bone and wanted to warm up and change into drier clothes. She told him where the spare key was kept and he headed to the apartment. After stopping to replenish his supply of alcoholic refreshments, he reached the apartment and entered heading straight for the bathroom. By the time Allison returned early in the evening he had showered, changed, and finished half a bottle of vodka.
“Starting early I see”, Allison said upon entering the room with no trace of humor on her face.
“I don’t usually start or stop. I just have periods where I’m not drinking”, Steve replied trying to add a little humor to the gray day and even darker evening.
“Well, pour me one, too.” Allison walked into her bedroom partially closing the door.
Steve could hear and partially see that she was changing clothes as he fixed her drink. This was going to be a tough night as he could tell she had been stewing on this for some time. Walking back to the living room he placed the drink he had fixed on a small table beside an overstuffed chair and he sat on the sofa nursing his own.
Allison walked into the room and picked her drink up, finishing half in one gulp. The second finished the drink and she turned and walked into the kitchen without uttering a word. After a minute, she returned with a refilled glass and sat down in the chair. “Can you tell me what is going on?”
OK, it’s going to be like that, he thought. “Well, sit back and make yourself comfortable. I spent yesterday with a ghost. At least, she was a ghost in my world. I honestly thought she was dead. Then, there she was right in front of me in flesh and bone. So I went with her back to Portland to find out what happened in the past 35 years. One thing I find out is we have a daughter together. Another is that after I tie up some loose ends in the next couple of days, I’m driving out to Baltimore to spend some time with her and get to know the daughter I never knew.”
Fire was in Allison’s eyes and a blush came to her face. “Is that what I am, a ‘loose end’ that needs tying up?”
Steve’s demeanor and tone both took on a very soft manner. “You are not a loose end. But, I was not going to just leave without telling you what I was going to do. I cannot tell you how good it felt to be with you and talk with you again. You are so special to me. I very much want to spend more time with you and get to know you all over again. We have both changed dramatically in the few years we’ve been apart. But, you must understand that Katya is very special to me. Perhaps more special than anyone I’ve ever known, and that would include my late wife. I’m sorry, I will not go into that story now. Perhaps, one day I will be able to tell you that part of my life.”
“What makes her so special? I don’t understand. Someone you know over three decades ago and you act like nothing changed?” Small flecks of spittle flew as she nearly assaulted him. Then, she changed and calmly asked, “Do you love her?”
“It’s like I never stopped loving her. I can’t really explain it. But, it is very near to what I feel for you. I never realized until this past year and especially the last couple of days how deeply my feelings for you go. We had something special and I never wanted that to go away. It did for a while, but I hope it is back. Unfortunately, this is something I must do for me and for her.”
The tears had started running like rivulets down Allison’s face. “I don’t know what to think. I don’t really know what to do or say. Go if you must.” She arose from the chair and almost ran to her room. “You can sleep on the sofa”, she mumbled just before nearly slamming the door.
Steve reclined on the sofa and sipped at his drink. Not really the reaction he had expected, but then he wasn’t sure what to expect. He didn’t sleep much that night and kept thinking he could hear sobs coming from the direction of the bedroom. At first light he gathered his things and left after leaving a note he had written on the table.
Allison heard the front door close and she got up to see if he had gone. She was a little surprised and hurt when she realized he had indeed left. Seeing the note she walked over and picked it up to read.
“My dear Allison,
I cannot explain why, but this is something in my heart that I have to do. I will be back in a few months. I am sorry if you feel hurt, betrayed, and abandoned. That was not my intention. When I come back, I hope you will let us start over and see where that leads. There is love in my heart for you. For a time I didn’t think there was anything left, but the last few days have proved different. You have awakened something in me that I thought was long dead. Please wait for me if you can.
The trip had been long, but enjoyable. The apartment building where Katya lived had been easy to find. He parked and took the stairs up the eight floors. Elevators had a tendency to make him feel vulnerable, too much could happen in an elevator to his way of liking. Finding the door he knocked and waited. He had thought he heard female voices carrying on a conversation when he had first walked up. They stopped when he knocked and a few seconds later the door opened. Katya was standing in the doorway highlighted from behind by the setting sunlight coming through the sliding door to the balcony. The vision reminded him of a Greek goddess. “You are so beautiful”, he said in Russian. He felt thunderstruck in her presence.
Katya reached for his hand and led him into the apartment. Closing the door she wrapped her arms around his neck and gave him a very warm, sensual kiss. “Come, my love let me introduce you to someone. Steve, this is Stephanie.”
Stephanie had stood and walked over to her mother. She had never seen her act this way with a man before, at least in front of her that she could recall. When she looked at the man standing next to her mother there was something about him that felt very different, yet familiar at the same time. It was the oddest sensation she had ever had. Then it struck her as if she had been blindsided by a truck, it was the eyes. When she looked into his eyes she saw herself. Instinctively, she understood. “Hello, Steve. It’s very nice to meet you. Mother has told me a little about you, but she left out something.” She paused to gather the courage to go on. “You’re my father aren’t you?” The look in his eyes told the story, she was right. She grabbed his hand and led him to a chair. “Please have a seat and tell me about the time you saved our lives.”
Katya turned toward Steve, her face beaming. “I told you she was smart like you.”
At that point, no matter what else happened, Steve understood that he would always have a family. There was no question that Stephanie had accepted him. “Well, thankfully you have your mother’s looks. Go ahead and make yourself comfortable, I feel like telling the long version. I first met your mother about 37 years ago in Czechoslovakia on a cool fall night.”