Karen Raylor figures that a class will be her best way to learn self-defense. Pulling up the browser on her phone, she keeps one hand on Mr. Totsley, knowing that if she doesn’t, he will become so insistent that he might cause her to drop the device. He has before.
“Tots, look at this,” she says. “There’s a place five minutes away that has self-defense classes for women every Saturday morning. I could start tomorrow.” He continues purring but shows no signs of caring about her pleased tone or even noticing that she has spoken.
Karen’s off-cat hand vibrates as she gets a message from her friend Jamie, but she wants to finish thinking about her Saturday morning routine before conversing. She knows that Jamie tends to send rapid series of messages instead of consolidating them together, so Karen sets her phone to stop notifying her and locks it.
Saturday mornings, she thinks, not bothering to speak aloud to the indifferent Mr. Totsley. I usually run, shower, and go grocery shopping, but I could go shopping, skip the running, and still be back in time to head to class, then clean up. I’d get enough exercise walking the aisles at Great Oak and practicing self-defense, so I’d be all right not running once a week. Yeah. Okay. Sounds good.
Satisfied, Karen checks her phone. Sure enough, Jamie has sent three more messages, the most recent just a moment prior. Karen lets it sit for another ten minutes while she enjoys the relative silence of Mr. Totsley’s purring and the muffled breath of the wind as it inspires leaves and branches to dance.
Hitting the button again, Karen sees that Jamie has sent her last message eight minutes ago. She unlocks her phone.
How you doing?
I didn’t want to intrude on family time yesterday for more than a quick hug but it was a nice service.
I think Nana would have liked it.
You want to get together for dinner? Where?
Karen smiles and sends back one message with several paragraphs:
I’m okay, considering.
Yeah, it was a really good service. I also think Nana would have liked it. I was happy so many people could make it. Thanks for coming.
Dinner would be great! How about Fratelli’s? 6:00?
Karen locks her phone. Again, she waits ten minutes.
Fratellis sounds great.
6 is good.
See you there!
Jamie includes a heart after her last message. Karen sends back a smiley face and a heart. She glances at the time before locking her phone. It’s only a little after 2:00.
“Well Tots, what should we do this afternoon?”
Mr. Totsley continues purring, casting his vote.
“Yeah, that’s what I thought you’d say. But I’ve got a house to take care of and laundry to do, so I’d better hop to it.” Mr. Totsley seems to sense her meaning and resolution, for he jumps down and dashes to the sliding glass doors that present him a kingly view of his imaginary backyard hunting grounds: the bird feeders, their colorful patrons, and the chipmunks and squirrels that skitter beneath.
Fridays are just as busy at Fratelli’s as at every other successful restaurant. The hostess tells Karen there will be a half-hour wait. Karen grabs a seat at the wraparound bar and politely refuses when the cute bartender asks if she wants a drink.
Karen had chosen a spot that would let Jamie see her face when she came in. She discards the thought of sending her friend a message to update her, as she knows Jamie will read it and type back a response while driving.
Quickly scanning the crowd, she recognizes nobody. A man maybe twelve years younger is smiling at her, and Karen makes sure not to glance at him again. Sorry, she thinks, I’m not looking to be a cougar. Karen briefly wishes she still wore her wedding ring; but, she had stopped a year after Brad died, and she’s glad to have reached such a place of strength and stability.
The television is tuned to a channel that shows perpetual sports highlights. Karen couldn’t care less about the content, but it gives her a place to settle her gaze while her mind wanders. She can generally think about Brad now without crying, and she allows herself to focus on memories of him, knowing that Jamie will show up soon and pull Karen out of her reverie.
Just as Karen starts reliving one of their beloved, aimless road trips, her skin crawls. Her eyes widen, but she forces them to stay on the screen and relax instead of indulging her curiosity and looking around.
Karen doesn’t know why, but she has the feeling he’s there at Fratelli’s. Watching. Drinking. Eyes focused on her like the red dot of a weapon.
Karen startles so badly she has put a foot down to stop herself from falling off the bar stool. Jamie. Karen chuckles and lets out a pent-up breath.
“Whoa there cowgirl,” Jamie says, “been hitting the sauce already?” She smiles as though she hopes it’s true.
Laughing, Karen rights herself, swivels, and accepts Jamie’s embrace. As always, Jamie hugs as though she hasn’t seen Karen in years.
“Yeah, you know me,” Karen replies as Jamie takes the seat next to her. “I’m such a saucy wench.” Jamie hunches her shoulders as she chuckles, her face scrunching a bit and her eyes twinkling with mischief. Karen gets a surge of affection.
The bartender stops by again with a wide grin. “Get you ladies something to drink?” he asks.
Karen glances at Jamie and sees her check out his torso in half a second. “Maybe,” Jamie says, mildly flirty. “Your sex on the beach any good?”
“Always,” he says, his voice a little deeper.
“Well then, my friend and I would both like some sex on the beach.” Jamie’s grin could arouse a blind man.
“Of course,” he says, reigning his voice back to professionalism but holding Jamie’s eye for a moment before heading to make the drinks.
“Geez, Jay,” Karen says, smiling. “Sometimes I wonder how you’ve stayed married for so long.”
“That’s exactly how,” Jamie replies, following a script they’d repeated several times over the years. “Flirt a bit, but never too many times with the same person. Keeps things exciting.” Jamie twitches her eyebrows up and down once.
Karen just laughs and shakes her head.
“Anyway Kay, how are you?” Jamie’s voice takes on an edge of concern but is still mostly upbeat. That’s Jay, Karen thinks, ever the enthusiastic cheerleader. Nothing keeps her down for long.
“I’m pretty good. I mean, not great, but better.”
“That’s good. I just think about you living there all alone… I mean, you have for a while now, and yeah you’ve got Tots, but you don’t have anyone to really talk with. Not every day. Not like you used to.”
Not like I used to with Brad, and then with Nana after he died, Karen completes the thought.
“I know. But I’ll adjust. I always do.”
Jamie smiles again, her crow’s feet creating dozens of valleys around her engaged, affectionate eyes. I know you wish you could be my daily talk-to person, Karen thinks, but the phone has never been your style. But it’s okay. Really. She holds Jamie’s gaze with the inclination that maybe her lifelong friend guessed what she was thinking and agrees.
“Here you go, ladies,” the bartender says as he sets down their drinks, his confident voice and easy smile making his charm irresistible. Despite being completely disinterested in dating, Karen feels a brief surge of attraction.
“Mmm, looks delicious,” Jamie says, holding his eyes as she takes a long pull through the red straw. “Uh huh. Delicious.” She sets a twenty on the bar. “We’re all set.”
The bartender smoothly grasps the bill, nodding once to show his thanks without ruining the mood. “Glad you’re enjoying it. Just wink if you want some more.” He turns and attends another customer.
“God, if I wasn’t married with kids…” Jamie muses.
“Jesus Christ, Jamie Hoffer!” Karen says, and then stares at her friend, shocked at her own words.
Jamie’s laughter explodes, her eyebrows up. “Wow, Miss Goody Two-Shoes! Welcome to adulthood.”
Karen looks down, mortified that someone else might have heard. Her drink is fully opaque and with a gradient that starts where the ice cubes float and gently deepens from light orange to crimson. She feels her face matching the darkest tone. Chuckling once as she tries the drink, she still isn’t quite able to look at Jamie; regardless, she can hear her friend’s laughter over the noise of the restaurant. Thankfully, the fruity drink is delicious and distracts her embarrassed mind.
The bar next to Karen’s hands starts buzzing wildly, startling her. Lights dance back and forth.
“Come on, let’s go get our table.”
Karen orders meat lasagna with a Caesar salad, and of course they get as many hot, soft breadsticks as they want. Dinner is just as amazing as their drinks.
“We really should come here more than a few times a year,” Karen declares.
“No doubt,” Jamie smiles. “We don’t get together often enough anymore. Yeah, I have the girls to take care of, but they’re both teenagers now — God, that makes me feel old — and they need me less, not that I don’t want to spend time with them, but I do have more time to get together these days. Relatively speaking.”
“We should,” Karen says. “It’s easy to stay in the same old routines, but we should definitely change that.”
“Definitely,” Jamie agrees, but then her smile falters. She gives Karen a strange look.
“So… I know what I did was kind of odd and a little creepy, but I hope you liked it.”
“Huh? What do you mean?”
“Maybe you didn’t even see it yet, so I might be ruining it, but I made a heart out of leaves in your backyard. I just wanted to do something special after you lost Nana.”
Karen almost drops her fork.
Her mouth tugs into a partial grin and then falls slack again. Relief flows through her body in slow surges.
“Oh shit, you didn’t like it?” Jamie’s face compresses into a mixture of regret and disgust. “I knew it was creepy. Sorry, Kay.”
“No, I just… thank God it was you.” She feels on the verge of her eyes watering up. The fact that she rarely touches alcohol but has finished half her drink doesn’t help.
Jamie draws her brows down. “Did you think it was someone else?”
“Yeah,” Karen says, staring at her plate.
“Well… who? I mean… who else could it have been?”
“Mercer fucking Evans?” Jamie says, her volume rising. Karen meets Jamie’s gaze just in time to notice from her peripheral that several other diners had gawked and are turning their heads back toward their companions.
Jamie lowers her voice with visible effort. “Why would you think that piece of shit did it? Why would he even cross your mind after so long?”
Karen sucks up another large gulp of her drink and then tells Jamie about the card. Jamie’s eyes open wide, and she slowly leans in as she grips the table, knuckles white.
“What the fuck!” Jamie whispers loudly. “That was definitely from him! What are you going to do?”
Taking a calming breath to stop Jamie’s agitation from infecting her, Karen tells her friend about the police reports and her plans to start a self-defense class in the morning. Jamie relaxes. Sort of.
“Okay, good, but… Mercer Evans. Jesus. I swear, if that psycho bastard ever lays a finger on you…”
Karen just smiles. “If he does, hopefully I’ll be prepared.”
Jamie offers for Karen to stay the night, which Karen promptly refuses. “I really appreciate it, Jay, but I’ve adopted a motto of, ‘Act like I don’t even care.’ Meaning, I’m living my life as normally as possible while still taking precautions to protect myself. I’m not going to let Mercer make me live in fear.”
“Damn, Kay,” Jamie says, clearly impressed. “You’re so strong now compared to back then.”
“Yeah, well, fifteen years is a long time. Nana, Brad, you… you’ve all helped me become who I am now.”
“Aww. I love you too, Kay.” They both grin at the gushiness of their comments.
As Karen drives home, the moon is a waxing crescent bright enough to turn half the clouds on the horizon into a thin blanket of glowing cotton. The tops of some trees have already gone bare, and the silhouettes of their countless fingers reach toward the translucent blanket as though to cover themselves.
Pushing the remote button to open the garage door, Karen inhales quickly and holds it. Her brakes almost squeal as she stops just short of her driveway.
In the beams of Karen’s headlights is her mailbox. Its red flag is up.
Hanging from the flag is a loop of red yarn that pierces the top of a heart made of red construction paper. It flits and twirls in the nighttime breeze.
I know that wasn’t Jamie. She would have mentioned it, and wasn’t there before dinner.
Chapter 4 Choice: What should Karen do about her mailbox?
- Mailbox Now: Use the flashlight on her phone to see if anything is inside. (0%)
- Mailbox Tomorrow: Investigate in the daylight. (100%)
- Police: Call and ask them to check it out. (0%)
This poll closed on November 6th, 2017.