Episode 3: Standard Ink

In the weeks since my orientation with the indomitable Mr. Mullens, I had graduated from college and moved out of my parents’ house to an apartment just a few miles from the Standard Ink office. I had spent most of the holidays sitting on the floor of my sparsely-furnished living room playing video games and eating whatever I wanted, which consisted mostly of Cheetohs and Mountain Dew. Mullens had given me a thick volume on company policies and procedures before I had left the orientation, but I barely picked it up during the intervening weeks because there was too much going on, namely playing Red Dead Redemption 2.

When my first day at Standard Ink arrived a day after I welcomed a new year by playing video games for 18 hours straight, I struggled to get up on time. During my five years of college, I had purposefully scheduled my classes for late morning or the afternoon to avoid getting up early. I’m not a morning person. Nevertheless, I staggered out of bed with just 45 minutes to get ready and make the ten-minute drive to the office. I downed a couple of cold slices of pizza left over from New Year’s Eve and some Mountain Dew before I showered and threw on my suit, which really needed a good press.

My drive to the office was only a few miles, and at any other time of the day would only takeĀ  ten minutes, but the moment I nudged my car onto the main street toward downtown I met a long line of commuters edging their way down the street one car length at a time. It took ten minutes for me to get to the pizza joint down the street from my apartment, the same one I had walked to on New Year’s Eve for a late-night snack. By the time I pulled into the long line to get into the parking garage it was already 9:30 AM. Surely Mullens would understand I had misjudged traffic on my first day and give me a reprieve for being over 30 minutes late on my first day. Or maybe not.

I wasn’t the only one who was late. I stepped onto an elevator filled with grim-faced people in the parking garage and followed the flow of unhappy people into the office building like a school of spawning fish swimming toward our imminent demise. No one talked in the elevator on the way up to the 15th floor. Everyone just stared straight ahead or looked at the tiny screen on one side of the elevator that evidently played Standard Ink’s greatest hits from the 1950s. I was sure nothing good had happened at the company since then, but hey, it was a paycheck, and I had proven my dad wrong about my being capable of making it on my own.

The elevator spat me out on the 15th floor with a slew of others who quickly disappeared behind the door next to the receptionist’s desk. I stopped before the desk and waited for the rotund woman with the headset to get off the phone.

“May I help you?” she barked once she ended her call.

“I’m Travis Potter. It’s my first day.”

She didn’t seem impressed or the least bit interested. “Please have a seat,” she said nodding to my left. I looked at the tired chairs next to her desk, which sagged under a faded floral print several decades past its prime. They felt about as comfortable as they looked when I sat down.

I had barely relaxed in the rigid chair when a terminally old man trudged through the door next to the receptionist’s desk. His head slowly swiveled across the room until his eyes met mine.

“Potter?” he asked in a gruff, abrupt voice.

“Yes.” I stood up and smiled at him, but he didn’t return the favor. I stepped toward him and extended my hand.

He looked at my hand and then back at me. “You’re late.”

“I’m sorry. I misjudged traffic.”

“We expect our employees to be at their desks at 9 AM every day. That’s stated very clearly in the policies and procedures manual. Did you get the manual at your orientation?”

I thought of the thick notebook sitting on the bar at my apartment where I had placed it the day I moved in. I hadn’t moved it since then. I had briefly looked at the first page of the manual in the elevator on the way out on the day of my orientation, but the densely worded pages had discouraged me from opening it again. It felt like that time my literature teacher had assigned Beowulf. I never read that either.

“I did, but I haven’t finished reading it.”

“Hmm, the attendance policy is in the first chapter.” His eyebrows arched and his eyes narrowed at me. He knew I was lying.

“I’m sorry, it’s been a busy few weeks. I graduated, moved into a new apartment, and then the holidays happened. I’ll read it this week.” I scrambled to regain his confidence, but his facial expression remained the same, gruff and uninterested.

He considered me for a moment before he stepped back and opened the door. He pointed his hand toward the opening. “After you.”

I walked through the door and stopped. He walked past me and I followed him like a student going to the principal’s office. “My name is Mr. Smith. I am your supervisor.”

“Nice to meet you,” I said to the back of his head as I walked behind him. We came to the end of the hallway and the floor opened up into a sea of cubes similar to the floor that I had been on for my orientation. The big difference was that this floor had people on it. As we walked down the corridor every cube had a person bent over an old monitor with a headset on talking quietly. The chatter rose and melded into a mere vibration across the low ceiling. I could only make out a few muttered words as we passed each inhabited cube.

Finally, Smith came to an abrupt stop at the end of one row of cubes and turned to face me. “This is your office.” He impatiently pointed me to the desk.

“You’re in luck today Potter. I’m in a generous mood, but going forward, you have to sign onto your computer by 9 AM every day. Today doesn’t count, but you get three late sign-ins and you’re fired.” He paused and looked at me, no through me. “Do you understand?”

“Yes. It won’t happen again.”

“It better not. This is the real world Potter. College is over. This is your life from now on.”

I smiled to try and lighten the mood, but Smith didn’t alter his mood in the least. “I understand.”

“I’ll let your trainer know that you finally obliged us with your presence.” He huffed as he walked away as if his annoyance wasn’t obvious enough. I put my bag on the floor next to my desk and sat down in the creaky, old chair, which tilted slightly to one side.

My cube looked like a yard sale from the late 1990s with a bulky monitor and an over-sized mouse and keyboard tethered to the boxy computer that sat under the monitor. It reminded me of some of the junk my dad kept in the basement, relics from the bygone days of his home office. I tapped the bulbous keys on the keyboard and they clicked loudly. I wanted to laugh because I felt like I was in a time warp, but mostly, I wanted to run from the building screaming because this nightmare was my reality now.

“Travis?” a feminine voice said behind me. I wheeled around in the chair to see Julie White standing at the entrance to my cube. All of my dread evaporated in her presence.

“Julie? I wondered if I’d see you here.”

She smiled, and appeared relieved that I remembered her. “Well, you’ll be seeing a lot of me this week. I’m here to get you trained.”

This excited me beyond any remorse I had about working in this dreadful, dying company. “Great! I can’t wait to get started.”

Her smile broadened revealing more of her perfect, white teeth. She had her long hair pulled back in a tight ponytail that really exposed her face. She had a soft, youthful face and piercing brown eyes that sparkled despite the dull fluorescent lights overhead. When I stood up from the chair, I was a good foot taller than she was. She looked up at me, and I felt my heart flutter. She was the only reason I was here. Why else would I subject myself to this misery.

“Do you want to grab some coffee before we get started?”

“Sure.”

“Okay, I’ll give you a tour as we go.” She looked up at me and smiled again. I wanted to say something smart, but my thoughts tripped over each other in my head. I just smiled back at her.

She stepped out into the corridor and I followed her. She wore a white blouse and form-fitting black skirt that highlighted her taut figure. Fireworks popped in my chest when I caught the scent of her perfume, which rippled in her wake like a soft, summer breeze. She pointed out things as we walked down the corridor. I couldn’t recall anything of import she called out, but by the time we reached the tiny break room at the end of the floor, I knew I was in love.

Episode 2: Standard Ink

On the Monday after the career fair, I showed up at the address on Bert Mullen’s business card as Julie had instructed. My classes were winding down as I prepared for my fall graduation. I was basically coasting to the end, so I didn’t think it’d matter if I skipped my sole Monday class to meet Bert and learn about what I’d be doing once I graduated.

As the Uber pulled up in front of the office tower at the address, I examined the slim building wedged among a slew of gleaming, new office towers. Standard Ink’s office tower looked more like an eyesore than a beacon of commerce. It had probably been built in the 1970s when, apparently, architectural design had reached its nadir of inspiration. Its sandstone-colored exterior with an emphasis on vertical lines gave it a boxy, cramped look, especially with the narrow windows that promised very little natural light on the inside.

When I walked through the doors of the lobby, it smelled old like that historic theater where I had seen HamiltonĀ or my grandmother’s house. The drab carpet leading to the receptionist’s desk had numerous stains and marks from the endless traffic through the lobby. Even the dark walls moaned like old men sitting up in their recliners.

The cavernous lobby yielded to two elevator banks at the back behind the receptionist’s desk. I followed the strip of carpet to the desk where an affable woman with a big smile sat. She watched me as I approached from the throng of office workers hurriedly making their way to either elevator bank. She kept her big smile even as I told her that I had an appointment with Mr. Mullens.

“You’re a trainee?” she asked. Her sing-song voice sounded warm and inviting.

“Yes,” I replied, although I wasn’t sure what I was.

“Please sign in,” she said, nodding to the clipboard on the desk between us. I grabbed the luxurious pen next to the clipboard and signed my name on the first blank line I saw. The pen felt substantial in my hand, and the ink flowed flawlessly from its tip. I had never used a pen so nice before.

The lady turned the clipboard around so that she could read my name, and then, she looked through a stack of folders in front of her. She pulled out one and handed it to me. “Welcome to Standard Ink, Mr. Potter.”

“Thank you.”

“Please take the elevator to the second floor. It’s this one on your right,” she said extending her left arm behind her and pointing to the crowded area around the elevators. “Tell the receptionist there that you’re here to see Mr. Mullens, and she’ll tell you where to go. Good luck!” Her smile radiated from behind the desk. She seemed genuine, but I had the feeling that her smile was forced for some reason. In that instant, I felt something strange about the building and the people moving anxiously across the lobby. I shook it off and merged into the crowd around the elevators.

On the second floor, another smiling receptionist greeted me at the end of the tunnel-like elevator bank. No one else had exited the elevator to join me on the second floor, so it was just me standing in the dimly-lit corridor. I felt like I had entered a dungeon.

“Good morning. May I help you?” the receptionist asked. Her automatic smile belied her temperament. A more sinister character flickered beneath her toothy grin.

“I’m here to see Mr. Mullens.”

“A trainee,” she said more to herself than me. “Please sign in.” She nodded to a clipboard on the rim of the desk.

I smiled and grabbed the fancy pen to sign in. Before I signed my name, I rolled the pen between my fingers. It had the company name and logo on its side, and like the one at the first-floor receptionist, it felt weighty and significant in my hand. I signed my name on the log. This company may have had an outdated office building and a dying business model, but it sure had nice pens.

“Mr. Mullens’ assistant will be here shortly,” the receptionist said. Her smile quickly disappeared as she returned to her reading behind the desk. I stood back away from the desk because I felt like I needed to give her some privacy.

I expected Julie to come through the doors to greet me, but instead, an elderly woman with a substantial turkey neck plodded through the doors. She stood no more than five feet tall and had teased, thin hair that encircled her head making her look like a lollipop in a business suit. Her suit, whose color suggested that it was probably a few decades old, hung stiffly on her feeble frame. She didn’t so much as walk as shuffle across the floor as if lifting her feet required too much effort.

“Travis Potter,” she called as she opened the door. I was the only one near the receptionist, but she seemed surprised when I sprung to life to greet her. I shook her frail hand, which felt limp and delicate in mine. “Welcome to Standard Ink. I’m Fran.” Her gravelly voice suggested she’d spent most of her life in a smokey room. “If you will please follow me.” She didn’t wait for me to acknowledge her instructions. She turned in the doorway and walked back into the office. I grabbed the door and walked in behind her.

We walked in silence down a dark hallway that was truly tunnel-like, even worse than the elevator landing. The dull light at the end of the tunnel opened up into a sea of drab cubicles as far as I could see. As I suspected the slim building with narrow windows didn’t let a lot of natural light inside. Even the glass of the windows was cloudy and almost opaque giving the office an artificial feeling with the buzzing fluorescent lights overhead. I had never been to a mental institution, but I imagined it looked like this office.

Fran dragged her feet toward a cubicle at the corner of the office, and I followed her. A dreadful feeling churned in my gut. The thought of working in this office for any amount of time depressed me. At the cube opening, Fran turned toward me. “Have a seat. Mr. Mullens will be here shortly.”

I stepped into the cube and sat down in the lone chair at the mouth of the cube, and Fran walked away without another word. I put my bag between my feet and pushed it under the chair waiting for Bert Mullens. It didn’t look like he had arrived at work yet because his chair was still pushed under the desk, but it was hard to tell with the mounds of paper on every available work space in his cube.

After a few minutes, I relaxed and sat back in the chair when it became apparent that it would be a while before Mullens arrived. I tried not to look at his desk, but I couldn’t help it. The stacks of paper, some of which looked like they would fall over with the slightest provocation, made it seem impossible to do any work in the space. His computer monitor, an old, bulky one from the late 1990s huddled in the corner of his desk among the stacks of paper. A stained coffee mug that said “#1 Dad” sat in the one available space near his keyboard, and a framed picture of a baby of indeterminate gender smiled back at me from the furthest corner of his desk. The faded picture suggested that its subject was likely an adult by now.

I turned away from the desk and leaned outside the cube opening hoping to see someone, anyone, walking down the corridor, but the floor was remarkably quiet. Despite the crowd at the elevator bank in the lobby, it felt like no one else was on the second floor other than Fran and the receptionist. I sat back in the chair and pulled my iPhone from my pocket. If Mullens was going to make me wait, then I would play some games at least.

I had finally made it to the third level of this game I had bought on the app store over the weekend when Mullens arrived, huffing and puffing from some apparent exertion. He stopped short of his cube and eyed me with suspicion like he was surprised to find me there. I clicked off my phone, slid it into my pocket, and stood to greet him.

“Hi, I’m Travis Potter.” I extended my hand toward him. He looked at my hand like he was confused. “Julie White told me to come here about a job.”

“Oh, yeah. That’s today?” He shook my hand but his grip misfired and it felt like he simply pinched my palm between his fingers. He released my hand and squeezed past me into his cube. “Let me get settled here…” He put his briefcase by the desk and began shuffling stacks of paper around with his back to me. I sat back down in the chair behind him.

Mullens stood about a foot shorter than me but made up for it in girth. I was certainly no expert in business attire, but from what I gleaned from my dad’s bantering on the subject, I could tell Mullens needed a refresher course on business dress. He looked rumpled and unkempt in his cheap suit. His shirt had come partially untucked and flailed down the front of his pants, which were about an inch too short. The white shirt he wore had turned a grayish white and a cloudy stain peeked out from the edge of his limp tie, which was visibly frayed.

After he shuffled the stacks of paper into some indiscernible order, he re-tucked his shirt and tightened his tie before he turned to face me again.

“Well, Mr. Potter. Welcome to Standard Ink. I’m Bert Mullens, the Senior Vice President of Standards, Conduct, and Training. I’ll be providing you with an orientation before you can start your training. Did you already complete your new hire paperwork?”

“I gave Julie some information, but I haven’t done any paperwork.”

“Oh.” Disappointment rippled across his face. He turned and scanned his desk until he found a bundle of paper clipped together. He handed me the bundle of paper. “Well, first things first, please complete these forms, and then, we can get started on the orientation.”

I looked at the substantial bundle he had handed me. There were probably 30 or so pages of paper in the stack.

“Oh, and you’ll probably need this,” he said handing me a pen similar to the one I had used at the receptionists’ desks. He stood up to lead me out of his cube.

The thought of filling in all of these forms by hand made my fingers cramp. “Is someone going to type all of this information into a computer somewhere?”

“What?”

“I mean, don’t you have to input this information into your computer system once I fill out these forms?” I held up the bundle of paper to help him understand.

He still looked confused. “I don’t know. I just get the forms completed and then I drop them in intercompany mail. I don’t know what happens after that. That’s a different department.”

“Wouldn’t it be more efficient if I just typed my information directly into the computer system?”

He looked as if he had never heard such a suggestion before and it took him a moment to process it. A stern look crossed his face. “Mr. Potter, Standard Ink is a serious company. We’ve been around for almost a hundred years. Serious companies need documentation to hire employees, so if you could complete these forms, we can get started on your orientation.”

Without another word, he stepped out of his cube. I grabbed my bag at my feet and slid the bundle of paper into a side pocket before I followed him down the narrow corridor of cubicles, none of which seemed occupied.

“Where’s everyone else?” I asked.

Mullens stopped abruptly and I almost collided with him. “Who?”

“Where are the others that work on this floor?” I waved my free arm across the sea of cubicles.

“Oh, not many people work on this floor.” He left it at that and continued walking down the corridor. I followed him into a cube that was completely empty except for a chair that was tucked under the desk and an old, hulking phone that sat on one end of the desk. He pulled the chair back and offered it to me. I sat my bag on the desk.

“When you are finished, please bring the forms back to my desk. If you have any questions, there’s a phone number on the front page. You can call our HR department and they will help you.” He pointed to the phone. “You can dial the four-digit extension directly on the phone.”

He turned on his heels and walked away without another word. I felt like I had been left alone to take some standardized test except with pen and paper instead of a computer. I watched his bulky form grow smaller down the long corridor until his head ducked beneath the cube wall when he reached his desk. I sat back in the chair and took a deep breath. The walls of the cube closed in on me, and a sense of dread clenched at my chest. I desperately wanted to stay in college.

Episode 1: Standard Ink

My dad always told me that I had to make good grades if I wanted to get into a good college and that gaining admission to a good college was half the battle in landing a good job, but I didn’t listen. He’d lecture me so frequently about this that his delivery is forever etched in my mind. He’d get this serious look on his face, arching his eyebrows inward as if he were concentrating on something productive. He’d spread his arms out wide and say “All of this…,” meaning the house in which we lived, “…is the result of your mother and me going to college.”

He had been reduced to appealing to my tangible and superficial side after his noble appeals to my intellect and logic failed miserably. I don’t remember the first version of this lecture too much, but the one where he talked about all the things I could have if I went to a good college stuck with me for some reason even though I didn’t take to the inherent message. At the time I didn’t think I needed to get into a good college to get these things. I had them already. It was only years later that I discovered the flaw in my logic.

For what it’s worth, Dad’s life didn’t seem too enviable. Sure, we had these things he liked to point out, but he worked long hours, traveled endlessly, and rarely spent any time in the house he was so proud of. What was the point of working so hard for stuff he didn’t enjoy? That’s what I wanted to ask him, but I never had the gall to ask him that. Instead, I just stared intently at a spot on the wall above his shoulder until the lecture was finished, and then, I’d mope off to my room to play video games.

My grades weren’t failing, but they weren’t the stuff of legend either, not by a long shot. My biggest claim to fame in my entire school career involved a hook shot of a wad of paper from the back of my eighth-grade classroom that threaded through my exasperated homeroom teacher’s hands and landed squarely in the waste basket to the stunned amazement of my thirty or so peers. I earned detention for that careless shot, but my place in the annals of school legend was assured because of my brash stupidity.

By the time my senior year in high school rolled around and my peers were making big college decisions, I was relegated to the community college route, hoping to get my grades up so that I could sneak into a big-time college. After spending a couple of years at a community college not far from my parent’s house, I managed to squeak into one of the lesser state colleges to finish my four-year degree. It was there that I realized how true my dad’s words were.

The state college was nothing more than a degree mill for the less-capable among us, which I had become by default. Everyone graduated as long as they gave a minimum of effort, and if I’d proven anything in my life, it’s that I was good at giving the minimum. I was just a few weeks from graduation with a major in business, not marketing, finance, or accounting, just business, which as far as degrees are concerned might as well have been basket weaving because nothing says “aimless” like a broad, nondescript degree.

The state college had a rudimentary career placement office, mostly because no one of substance recruited from the school. The state itself practically owned the meager career fair held late in the fall semester hiring wannabe bureaucrats for its endless array of departments and agencies. Nothing depressed me more than the thought of rotting in some mindless state bureaucracy for the rest of my life. The few companies that did show up for the career fair were mostly has-beens in their industries, old or failing companies that were one innovation away from death or were in industries that had been completely disrupted by the future but had failed to recognize it.

With nothing better to do, I walked the languid, makeshift aisles among the tables at the career fair eyeing the men and women in cheap suits suspiciously. My dad had warned me that I would have to start paying him rent once I graduated, and I had no intention of doing that, so I decided I had to get a job so that I could move out on my own. I stopped at a few tables and talked to rotund, middle-aged, balding men about their boring state jobs. After each conversation I felt a sense of gloom so great that I wanted to run screaming from the conference center until I noticed a gleaming jewel in the gray sea of the career fair.

At the far end of one haphazard row of tables, I noticed a beautiful, blonde woman standing behind a table smiling and greeting passersby. I quickened my pace to get to her table, almost running past tables for the State Treasury, the Office of Corrections, and some state agency responsible penalizing people for no apparent reason. A small crowd of mostly male students had gathered around her table. I listened as she talked to one particularly listless student who hadn’t even bothered to dress appropriately for the event. Even I had replaced my usual t-shirt, board shorts, and flip-flops with a reasonably appointed suit my dad had bought me for graduation.

I waited eagerly for the student to finish his conversation with the woman. He gave her a gummy smile as she talked and sort of snort-laughed after he said something. I could tell she was a little disgusted, but she kept flashing that big smile. Finally, the student moved on realizing either he had no interest in whatever agency she was pedaling or that he had no chance of asking her out.

The woman didn’t even watch the student leave. She simply turned in my direction, and I stepped forward and introduced myself, cutting off another male student who had probably been standing there longer than I had, but he was too feckless to protest.

“Hi, I’m Travis Potter.”

Her smile broadened and her eyes brightened as she took my hand, “I’m Julie White. I’m here for Standard Ink.” Her handshake was warm and comfortable but firm. I liked her immediately.

“Standard Ink? What does that agency do?”

“It’s not an agency. It’s a company.”

“Oh. What does it sell?”

She looked at me like I had missed the joke. “We sell ink, as in ink pens.”

“That’s it?”

“Yes.” A worried look flashed across her face as if she thought the conversation had taken a turn for the worse. For my part, I couldn’t believe there was a company dedicated to selling ink in a world that had mostly converted to digital. I barely used a pen in class, and my school wasn’t known for being a trend-setting educational institution.

“Do you sell ink for printers?”

“What kind of printers?”

“Like the ones attached to computers.”

She shook her head as if I had just asked her to have my child. “No. We’re a very focused company. We do one thing, and we do it very well.”

I must have had this incredulous look on my face because she immediately followed that up with “We’re the best in the industry. We’re a leading producer of ink. Our ink is in all of the leading pens around the world.” She seemed confident and self-assured by this. “Would you like to learn more about the positions we’re hiring for?”

I shook my head mainly because I didn’t want to leave her just yet. Her radiating beauty held me into an orbit around her, and I found myself willing to endure anything, even the inane idea of an ink-focused company in 2018, just to hold her attention. She leaned down across the table and opened a glossy brochure with lots of pictures of people doing serious stuff in offices. All of them were focused on writing something on paper with an ink pen. There was even a photo of a classroom of students, all with ink pens, writing notes in notebooks at their desks. Even in my community college, all of the students had laptops in class. I don’t remember a single Luddite taking notes with a notebook and pen.

She flipped to the last page of the brilliant brochure. Some high-quality ink had been used to produce it for sure. “Does your company produce the ink used to create these photos? I asked, hopeful that this company was at least trying to be part of the modern era.

She shook her head. “We believe focus is the key to success, so we only do one thing. We’re the best in the industry.” She smiled proudly. I must have stared at her dumbly because she kept going. “You’ll find we have that same focus in terms of career development. All of our new hires go through an extensive training program to teach them the Standard way. What’s your major?”

“Business.”

“Great! You’d be perfect for Sales.”

“Me?”

“Yes. You have that look of determination that we seek in our sales staff.”

I looked around us. The crowd of fawning young men had dispersed as if they had intruded upon two necking lovers in a public place. A large, lumpy student who wore jeans, sandals and an un-tucked white shirt with a red, paisley tie looked at me from across the aisle and then looked at Julie. He shot me a look of envy. I felt like a dull bulb in a box of burned out ones.

“What do you think? Julie asked. I felt despondent. Nothing looked good at this career fair. I was either destined to work a dreadful, boring job or live at home with my parents for the foreseeable future. Most of my friends had jobs at exciting companies, startups, or consulting firms. Many had already moved to bigger and better places. I was stuck and in decline already at the ripe old age of 21.

“When do I start?” I said jokingly, smiling back at Julie.

Her eyes brightened and, if it was even possible, her smile grew bigger. She pulled a business card from her suit pocket and handed it to me. “You are going to love working at Standard Ink. Here is the business card for our sales trainer, Bert Mullens. I just need to get some information from you.”

Julie pulled a clipboard from beneath the table and handed me an ink pen (of course). “Please fill out this form and sign at the bottom.” She pointed to the lines and rested the tip of her well-manicured finger near the edge of the signature line. She had leaned closer to me to explain the form, and I could smell her intoxicating perfume. I didn’t care if this was the right choice for me. I just wanted to work with Julie everyday. I looked up from the form at Julie. She kept smiling for me.

“The training center’s address is on Bert’s card. Please be there at 9 AM on Monday. If you have any problems, just call the number on the card.”

“That’s it?”

“Uh-huh,” she said through her radiant smile.

I had been prepared for a much more grueling process or at least a few tough questions. I wasn’t prepared for this. I apparently had a job. I relaxed a little, probably a little too much.

“What do you do at Standard Ink?”

The smile on her face flipped off like a light in a dark room. “What?”

“What’s your job?”

She paused for a moment. “Oh, I’m the Senior VP of Outbound Communication, Inquiry, and Recruitment.”

“Wow, that’s a mouthful.” I chuckled at my joke. Julie did not.

“Hi!” she said as she ended our conversation abruptly and greeted another student who had survived the perilous sea of damnation and boredom to make it to Julie’s table. I watched for a moment as she interacted with the student. Her approach seemed like a recording of our conversation, and I realized I wasn’t so special after all. Deflated, I walked away from the table and directly toward the exit. Outside, the day had turned cloudy and drizzly, much like my future, but at least I had a job.

Episode 4: Donna Quixote

The key under the planter had rust stains, little splotches like the liver spots on the backs of her hands. She tried to brush them off with her fingers to no avail. She’d clean it when she got inside the house. She scanned the vacant street behind her. The quiet abandonment of workdays and school days meant she was alone for the moment. She felt free from the eyes of the neighborhood.

The door knob popped when she turned the key. As she stepped through the door, her foot hit something solid. The package. The EMTs must have placed it inside her door when they took her away. She bent down slowly to pick it up and cradled it in her arm as she walked to her kitchen. She sat it next to the other package on her counter. Like that package it had no return address, but she could tell they were from the same person because the handwritten labels were very similar.

As she took her medicines and chased them with cold, unexpired water from her refrigerator, she stared at the packages. She wondered who sent them and why. Once the blood pressure cup released her arm and she had written the reading down in her log, she returned her attention to the packages. She tore open the first one.

Inside was an old Folgers coffee can, not the new plastic ones, but an old tin one with scrapes and dents. The color was more burgundy than red with gold writing across the face. She imagined she had seen this before, but she couldn’t recall where. She had stopped drinking coffee years ago. Something rattled in the can when she pulled it from the box. She removed the plastic lid, which had been so stretched over the years that it almost fell off unforced.

Pictures and letters were stuffed the inside of the can, so many that she almost couldn’t get her hand inside to pull them out. She pinched the edge of one of the letters and pulled it from the can. She recognized her writing and the address right away. Her heart beat in her throat and her eyes welled. She had to sit down.

She cradled the can in her arms as she sat down in the recliner. The letter had been addressed to her ex-husband, one of many she had sent to him after he had left and taken her children away. She peeled back the flap of the yellowed envelope and removed the folded paper. This letter had been a short one, only two pages. She flipped open the letter, which was dated October 5, 1979.

As she read the letter, the old feelings returned. The sense of loss overwhelmed her. The words on the page wailed at her much like she had mourned the absence of her husband and her two daughters. She only read the first paragraph before she folded the letter again and shoved it back into the envelope. She stuffed it into the rattling can. She shook the can again and peered into it trying to determine what was bouncing around in the bottom. She turned it upside down and shook it until a sparkle of gold tumbled from its lip. The ring landed in her lap. She pinched it between her fingers and took a close look at it. A moment passed before she realized she held her ex-husband’s wedding ring – the one he had worn when they were married.

The plain, gold band had scuffs and scratches on its surface, but it still gleamed in the light like a twinkling star in the night. She rolled it between her fingers. A flood of emotions pushed her back into the squeaky recliner. She stared at the ring a bit longer before she dropped it back into the can and replaced the flimsy, plastic lid. She sat, breathless and bewildered, wondering why her ex-husband would send her these things.

Donna retrieved the other package from the counter, but before she opened it, she examined the handwriting. It didn’t look like her ex-husband’s writing. He could barely write the way it was. If she remembered correctly, his handwriting was bulky and shaky like that of a child’s. The writing on the package was rounded and decidedly feminine like hers would have been had she ever focused on such things.

She tore open the package carefully as if she were afraid of what she might find. Her fingers slid along the edge of one of the box flaps as she opened it, and she winced in pain at the paper cut opened on her index finger. At first, it was just a slice of skin on the side of her finger, but then, blood flushed the superficial wound. Pain radiated through her hand. She put the finger to her lips and held it there until the pain subsided. She put the package aside and ambled into the kitchen to attend to the wound.

With a fresh bandage on the cut, she returned to the package and opened the flaps. Another letter, not ancient like the others, sat on top of several wooden picture frames. She ignored the letter for a moment and pulled the pictures from the box. The first one showed her and her husband on their wedding day on August 5, 1971. She stared at it in disbelief. A tear trickled down her cheek.

She peered into the box at the next framed photo, which was her with her two daughters, Emily and Ann. They were still little girls then. The picture had been taken in the backyard just beyond the wall in front of her. She looked that way as if she could peer back in time and see them playing on the tire swing that hung on the big oak for so many years even after they were gone.

The last photo in the box was a family portrait taken just before her husband left with the girls. Donna looked at the pained expression on her face. She remembered that day well. She put the pictures back in the box and pulled the letter toward her face. She squinted at the swooping words on the page as she slowly read it. Her heart thrummed in her chest and her breath hitched until a sob escaped. She crumpled the letter in her fist and crammed it back into the box before she pushed it to the floor at her feet. She sat back in the recliner as tears rolled down her cheeks. The refrigerator purred to life filling the anguished silence for a moment. Her ex-husband had died.

Episode 3: Donna Quixote

Before Donna opened her eyes, she could sense the unfamiliar around her. She’d had a dream of her mother and she hoped that by keeping her eyes closed she could linger in the dream just a little longer. She missed her mother dearly and thought of her every day. The day her mother died had been the second worst day of her life.

A low hum droned next to her head on her right, a faint chatter echoed somewhere away from her, and she could feel someone next to her. She slowly opened her eyes. A young Indian man stood next to her cloaked in light blue scrubs and a white coat. She took him in with half-closed eyes and blinked hoping that he’d go away, but he remained next to her making notes on a tablet.

“Good morning, Ms. Scott. I’m Dr. Kolachalam,” he said. Her name rolled off his tongue in a strange way, but she understood him. “How do you feel?”

Donna turned her head to the side and felt the stiffness from her shoulder roll up her neck. She felt pain in her expression. “Where am I?” she asked.

“Eastside Hospital. You had a fall and hurt your shoulder. The EMTs brought you here this morning.”

She thought about this for a moment. She remembered falling and pain radiating up her shoulder. She remembered the tinny voice on the end of the line when she dialed 9-1-1, and she remembered wondering if the dispatcher recognized her voice.

“You’re lucky it wasn’t worse, Ms. Scott. It appears you fainted from low blood sugar and fell against your kitchen counter. You’ve got a sizable bruise on your shoulder, but it should heal in time. Have you been taking your insulin as prescribed?”

She couldn’t remember when she last took her insulin, but she usually took it at night before she went to bed. “Last night,” she replied. Her voice croaked as if she hadn’t had anything to drink in a very long time. “Can I get some water?”

“Sure.” The doctor turned to the space behind him and poured some water into a plastic cup. He pushed the cup toward her lips, but she stuck up her hand and he put the cup in her hand instead. She swallowed large gulps of water as he watched.

“You should be fine, but you need to ensure you take your insulin. The bruise will hurt for a few days, but nothing is broken. The nurse will be in to discharge you. You can go home.”

“Is the ambulance going to take me home?” she asked.

“Do you have someone who can take you home?”

“No. I live alone.”

“Oh, let me tell the nurse. She can help you.” A look of sympathy washed over his otherwise stoic face. His eyes lingered on her a bit longer before he turned and disappeared behind the room’s swinging door.

Donna pushed herself into her pillow and looked away from the fluttering door. The machine next to her bed had been disconnected from her and turned off. She wondered what her blood pressure reading was. She wanted to compare it to what her own readings had been to see if she’d been getting incorrect numbers. These thoughts rippled through her mind as a wave of exhaustion washed over her. She closed her eyes and drifted off to sleep.

A murmur of hushed conversation woke her from her slumber. At first, she just heard the disembodied voices hovering over her, but as she slowly opened her eyes, she could see blurred faces. It took her a moment to realize her eyeglasses had slid down her nose. She pushed them up to her eyes and took in the two women staring at her.

“Ms. Scott,” the nurse said, “your daughter is here to take you home.”

Donna looked at the woman beside her. She had aged a good bit since the last time she had seen her, but she still had that dismissive look on her face, one that she had worn so well for so many years.

“Ms. Anderson called me and said that an ambulance had brought you here. I’m glad you’re okay.”

Donna blinked and looked away toward the skinny window in the room. The light outside had dimmed.

“Are you ready to go home?” her daughter asked.

She turned back toward her daughter. The nurse had left the room. “You didn’t have to come here.”

“I know, but I thought I should. Ms. Anderson was very worried about you.”

“She needs to mind her own business.”

“Donna, be glad you have a neighbor who cares.”

“She doesn’t care. She’s just nosy.”

“You haven’t changed a bit.” Her daughter shook her head with a look of disdain framing her face. Donna looked toward the window.

“Alright, at least let me take you home. Otherwise, it’s going to cost you. Can you get dressed, or do I need to call the nurse back?”

Donna shifted her gaze back to her daughter and then winced in pain as she tried to sit up.

“I’ll get the nurse.” Her daughter turned and left the room, and a few moments later, the nurse returned smiling a bright white smile that even made Donna want to smile in return.

After the nurse helped her get dressed, she sat in the lone chair next to the bed. Her shoulder throbbed, and her heart pounded in her chest. She grasped the bottle of pain medicine the nurse had given her. The door swung open and her daughter’s sour face hung above the bed in her line of sight.

“You ready to go?”

She nodded.

“Do you need help, or can you walk yourself?”

She nodded again and stood up as if to offer proof.

“Let’s go.”

Donna took a tentative first step and then shuffled toward her daughter. Silence engulfed them as they rode the elevator down to the main floor and walked out to the parking lot. Her daughter walked in front of her and she followed her broad back down the aisle of cars and through a line near the back of the lot until her daughter stopped at a small, red Kia.

“This is my car,” she said. Donna stopped and backtracked to the passenger side. She waited for her daughter to unlock the door, and then, she slid into the passenger seat, which felt like it was almost on the ground in the small car. When her daughter cranked the car, the radio came on louder than Donna cared for, but she didn’t complain. The piercing noise of the music drowned out the words left unsaid.

The drive to her house only took about ten minutes. Years ago, when she had her children, the nearest hospital had been almost an hour away, but in the intervening years as her neighborhood became something she didn’t recognize, the town around her grew in importance, enough so that it now had its own hospital. Donna watched the world go by outside the passenger window, a blur of buildings and houses, some new and some old blended into a smear of colors in the late afternoon.

The car came to a stop in front of her house. Donna almost didn’t recognize it from the outside since she rarely looked at it from this angle.

“Do you want me to help you?” her daughter asked.

Donna shook her head without looking at her daughter. She took a breath and opened the car door.

As she stood up and before she could shut the door, her daughter said, “Donna…”

Donna bent down and peered into the car at her daughter. Her daughter froze as if she had forgotten what she was going to say.

“Take care of yourself,” she said after an awkward pause.

“I will,” Donna replied. She shut the car door and turned toward her house without another word or glance at her daughter. She heard the engine hum and the crackle of tires on the asphalt as her daughter drove away. She felt a sense of relief mixed with exhaustion as she walked toward the planter on her porch that hid the key to her house. She couldn’t get back in her house soon enough to get away from the world that shunned her.

Episode 2: Donna Quixote

A creaking sound woke her, one like that of someone stepping on a squeaky floor board. Her eyes opened wide absorbing only the soft glow from the faint night light that she kept plugged into the wall opposite her bed. She kept still except to pivot her head toward her bedroom door. The slight glint of the meager night light shining onto the door knob winked at her. Her heart, the drum beat of her fears, pounded in her chest. She slowly placed her right hand on her heart as if to soothe it. Her ears remained on alert, but no other dissonant sounds greeted her.

She panned around her room. All of the shadows looked familiar. The chest of drawers stood as dark as tar in her sparsely-furnished room. In the opposite corner of her room, the cushions on her comfy chair, the one where she’d nap on occasion reflected an unseemly yellow in the exasperated night light. The block numbers on the tiny clock on her night stand glowed a blood red. She sat up and reached for her glasses on the night stand. Once she put them on, she could read the blurry red digits on the clock – 4:45.

Her heart beat had settled down, but she felt light-headed from sitting up. She was tempted to lie back down, but she knew she had to check her blood pressure. She couldn’t miss any signs that may put her in peril. She kicked her feet into her worn house shoes and padded across the room to the door. She slowly opened it as if she expected someone to be on the other side, but she was greeted with nothing but more darkness and more familiar shadows. She shuffled down the short hallway to her kitchen.

She kept the light above her stove on all of the time. It comforted her to descend into her kitchen at night to see the soft dome of light coming from her stove. She didn’t need any other light to see what she wanted. The blood pressure cup sat on her kitchen counter near the edge of the light. She picked it up and wrapped it around her left arm. Going through the usual motions revealed that her blood pressure had not changed since her last reading. She viewed the display skeptically and considered taking it again until she realized that the package that her neighbor had left at her door still sat outside. She hadn’t opened her door to retrieve it yesterday because she didn’t want her neighbor to see her.

It had almost become a game for her, one in which she tried to avoid seeing her neighbors. She didn’t really know any of them because the neighborhood had changed so much. Many of the people she had known had either died or moved away. Even some of the houses that she had known so well had been torn down and replaced by unfamiliar structures often much larger than the small homes that had been the setting for much of her life. It felt as if the neighborhood had changed around her without her consent, so she avoided these new people that she didn’t know by only venturing out during the day on weekdays when most of them weren’t home and couldn’t spy her.

She walked to the front door and opened it peering out onto the dark street. The county had never installed street lights in her neighborhood, so she could only see the ambient light from the houses across the street including the Anderson’s house. They had installed a series of small lamps leading from their driveway to their front door. Theirs was one of the houses that had replaced a much smaller home that had been there since she was a little girl. She remembered the old couple that had lived there once. The wife had died first, and then, the husband had died a few years later. The old house sat vacant for a few more years before it had been unceremoniously razed to make room for the Anderson’s big, new house. She missed the old couple.

The package, a small box wrapped in plain brown paper with a single, white label attached, sat at her feet on the worn welcome mat she had at her front door. She quickly grabbed the box and shut the door behind her. The label showed her name and address, but the return address had no name, just a street she didn’t recognize. The weight of the package suggested something substantial within it. She shook it slightly, but the sound did not betray what might be inside. She hadn’t been expecting anything, and she wondered why her neighbor had had her package in the first place. Was it delivered to her by mistake? Or did one of her children take it and she had returned it?

Donna placed the package on her kitchen counter next to the blood pressure cup and walked into her living room just beyond the reach of the stove light and sat in her recliner. She felt a chill in the stale air, so she pulled the blanket from her chair and covered her arms as she lay back and closed her eyes. Her ears remained on alert, but no sounds greeted her other than that from the cranky refrigerator. She drifted off to sleep.

A knock at the door startled her awake. She sat up quickly, the blanket fell into her lap as she rubbed her eyes. Light pushed against her tightly closed blinds, but the sun had yet to descend into her backyard, so it was still before Noon. Another knock. She stood up to a chorus of her years with pain blaring in her hips and her shoulders causing her to stoop and shuffle to the door slowly. By the time she made it to the window to peer onto her porch, the man at her door had already turned and walked back to the street. She only caught a glance of the back of his light blue shirt as he disappeared from view. She angled the blinds to look down onto her porch, and there sat another package. She sighed and closed the blinds tightly.

The pain in her shoulder radiated through her back. She couldn’t lift up her arms up because it hurt too much, so she dropped them to her side and shuffled back to her kitchen as if her head were an unbearable weight. Leaning on the counter, she began her morning ritual of taking her medicine. She had three pill boxes stacked upon one another, each with 14 compartments for AM and PM and the day of the week. She took the first pill box and flipped open the lid labeled “W-AM”. She popped the pills in her mouth one at a time and swallowed with a sip of water. After she had downed the contents from the third pill box, she took her blood pressure again. The static reading concerned her. She wondered if the electronic panel had broken and was giving false readings.

She took one step back and her leg gave way. She grabbed the counter to steady herself, but she could not grip anything before she fell to the floor. She came down hard on her shoulder and the pain reverberated through her like a shock wave. She felt dizzy and maybe she blacked out for a moment. As she lay there, she looked up at the single dome light in her kitchen, stained from years of use such that the outline of the bulbs could be seen through the opaque plastic of the dome. She wondered when she had last changed the bulbs and if the light would burn out before she was able to get up.

She rolled her head to the side and stared at her phone on the wall. The long cord curled and twisted up the wall to the yellow plastic case. The end of the cord dangled just above the floor in her line of sight. She summoned the energy to crawl toward the wall, and after much effort, she reached the end of the cord. She tugged on it. At first, it just rattled in place, but after she gave it another, more forceful tug, she pulled the receiver on top of her. The receiver struck her stomach as it fell to the floor. She pulled it to her face and punched 9-1-1 on the key pad and waited for the voice to respond on the other end of the line. The female voice sounded familiar, or maybe she just imagined it so. When she hung up, she hoped that the EMTs that were dispatched were different from the two men who had come last time. She didn’t like the way they talked to her. They didn’t understand. Few people did.

Episode 1: Donna Quixote

The refrigerator purred to life startling Donna Scott as she padded across the cheap linoleum floor in her kitchen. She took a deep breath to settle her frayed nerves and placed her hand above her heart feeling for anything that seemed abnormal. Her heart thumped and stuttered and her chest tightened. This was it. The end she feared had come and caught her off guard in the late morning in her kitchen. She grabbed the edge of the counter to steady herself, to wait for the inevitable wilting to floor. Her knees wobbled and her breath hitched.

The kitchen brightened in her widened eyes. Her pulse shot fireworks in her field of vision, which blurred at the periphery. She glanced at her blood pressure cup folded upon itself on the counter next to the row of medicines, vitamins, and assorted herbal remedies she had yet to consume for the day. None of it had helped. Nothing she had done had really mattered in the end, and this was the end.

The refrigerator clicked off returning the room, the whole floor of her tiny house, to the silence she craved. Her heart still thumped wildly in her chest, but she felt a surge of meek determination that pushed her across the small kitchen to the counter near her neat line of vials. She grabbed a bottle and shook two pills into her palm. She popped them in her mouth and swallowed. She did the same for each bottle in the line, pausing briefly to ensure she had swallowed each pill.

After she had finished taking all of her medications and supplements, she feared that some of them had become lodged in her throat. Suddenly, she couldn’t swallow. This was it. She would die from a clogged esophagus. She hadn’t considered that possibility. She stumbled to the refrigerator and grabbed a bottle of water. She checked the date she had written on its side before she opened it and drank half the contents. She thought the water had dislodged the blockage in her throat, but she wasn’t sure. She considered calling the doctor or perhaps 9-1-1, but then she relented as the air hissed from her inflated fear.

Satisfied that she wasn’t under immediate threat, Donna grabbed the blood pressure cup from the counter and snaked her arm through the loop. She pulled it snug around her bicep and pushed the button on its electronic panel. It inflated and cramped her arm before it slowly deflated. She could feel her pulse cranking in her arm. The tiny screen on the panel blinked and beeped until it displayed 117/78. She swallowed hard as she wrote the reading onto her notepad she kept on her counter. She compared the current reading to the four readings she took yesterday, and her worst fears had come to fruition. Her blood pressure was dropping. Her high blood pressure medication had overcompensated and forced her into a state of hypotension. She’d have to call her doctor as soon as possible.

Before she could do that, she needed to shower or at least clean up. She couldn’t remember the last time she had showered. She tugged the sleeve of her night gown and inhaled. The sour smell of sweat and body odor greeted her. She needed to sit down because the gush of thoughts in her mind made her dizzy. She shuffled over to the old recliner near the edge of her living room and dropped herself onto its tired cushions. She could feel the grit of food crumbs at her seat beneath her thin night gown. She caught a whiff of something she couldn’t name, something tangy and sweet but unpleasant nonetheless. She pushed back into the recliner and closed her eyes.

A beam of sunlight shot across the room from an opening in the tightly closed blinds. Dust particles floated through the beam as if someone had beaten a path down a dusty road. Donna watched the dust float in the sunlight as her eyes adjusted to the brightness. She had fallen asleep in the recliner and most of her day had passed her by. The sun was already in her backyard, which faced the western sky.

She kicked at the footrest trying to push it down, but her weak legs couldn’t move it. She pushed herself up with her arms and leaned all of her weight onto the footrest until it folded beneath her. She sat up and her neck and back ached. A pain shot through her arm as she reached up to massage her stiff neck. She needed to get an x-ray of her neck and spine. She had too much pain there for it to be nothing other than cancer or some sort of early onset of paralysis. One of her medications had warned of potential paralysis or was that an article she had read in some magazine? She couldn’t be sure, but her doctor had to know. He wouldn’t dismiss her concerns this time. The evidence was clear.

The clock on her wall read 5:30. The doctor’s office was already closed. She’d have to call tomorrow. Hopefully, he’d be able to fit her in this week like he did most weeks. She put her hands on her knees and pushed herself up into a standing position slowly. She felt all 62 years of her existence on her shoulders as she stood up. She grunted as she straightened herself as much as she could nowadays. Her night gown stuck to her shoulders and her torso dampened by sweat.

She glanced at the digital thermometer on her wall, which displayed 76 degrees. The evening sun usually raised the temperature in her house during the spring and summer, but she couldn’t open any windows. She didn’t want to give any thieves or rapists an opening to get her into her home. Instead, she turned on an oscillating fan that sat on a table behind her sofa. The fan cut the thick air with its small blades giving her a temporary respite from the heat, which dissipated as she walked away from the limited radius of the fan. She sighed and wished she had AC, but then, she remembered that AC makes people sick because it recirculates stale air that has become saturated with germs. She couldn’t afford to get sick at her age.

She left the living room and ventured into the darkened foyer leading to her front door. There were no lights on in her house at the moment. She didn’t use lights during the day because she wanted to keep her electric bill under control. She also suspected that the electric company was over-billing her, so she kept her usage to a minimum. She unplugged all of her appliances when they weren’t in use except for that loud refrigerator, which, unfortunately, had to be plugged in all day. She had considered replacing it with a cooler, but that would require her to leave the house to buy ice every day. She only left her house to go to the doctor or to buy groceries from Old Man Smith’s store down the road.

At the window beside her front door, she stuck her fingers in between the slats of the blind and peered out into the street in front of her house. In that instant she recoiled and pulled her face back. Her neighbors across the street were in their driveway. She feared they had seen her looking at them. Curiosity got the best of her and she looked through the blinds again. The wife pulled bags of groceries from the trunk of her car and carried them into her house. One of her kids helped her. Donna watched as they made the trip back and forth until the trunk was empty. The wife slammed the trunk shut and paused a moment. She looked Donna’s way and seemed to stare directly at her. Donna jumped back from the blinds and gasped. Her ears burned as if she had been caught doing something embarrassing. She checked that the blinds were firmly closed and she walked back to her kitchen.

When she had grown up in this house, when her parents were still alive, there had been no black people in her neighborhood. Now, there were black people across the street from her and elsewhere in the neighborhood. She had seen them walk or drive by on occasion. The couple across the street had moved into the neighborhood over 15 years ago. They had been the first black people she had really seen in her life. Over the intervening years, she had said very little to them and they to her. Of course, nowadays, she rarely ventured outside for them to say anything to her.

A sick feeling settled into her stomach. Stomach cancer? She wasn’t hungry. What else could it be? Her doctor had not taken her earlier concerns seriously. Yes, he had done x-rays, but he claimed there was nothing to see. He had even shown her the x-rays, but she couldn’t make sense of the cloudy images.

Before she could return to her recliner, someone knocked on her door. The reverberating sound took her breath away and she almost gasped before she stopped herself. She stood very still as if the intruder could see through her front door. She finally willed herself to turn back to the door and crept up to the window next to it. She poked a finger at one of the slats on the blind and lifted it just enough to see the woman from across the street at her door. She let the slat down slowly and stood back from the blind. She didn’t know what to do.

Another knock. She jumped at the sound.

“Ms. Scott, it’s Jamie Anderson from across the street,” the woman said through the door.

Silence.

A shadow moved across the blind on the window by the door and Donna froze as if the woman could see right through it. The shadow paused, and then, Donna heard another voice, a young boy’s voice, before the shadow moved away. Donna let out a breath and her chest heaved in relief. She hadn’t realized that she had been holding her breath.

After a moment passed, Donna stepped back toward the blind and slowly lifted one of the slats to peer onto her front porch. She jumped back as someone walked away from her door right in front of the window. Her heart raced in her throat. She stumbled backward and caught herself against the wall next to the door. Someone was trying to break in. She tried to calm herself so that she could hear what was happening, but the thumping of her heart drowned out everything around her. She was too dizzy to move.

She held onto the wall, her palms braced against it ready for the impact of the intruder as he came through her door, but after a while nothing happened. Her terror subsided, and nothing but the humming of her refrigerator shushed away the silence. The light of the day had receded further behind her house and cast the usual shadows through her living room. The dust carried on as if nothing mattered. She stepped back toward the blind and lifted a slat with her shaking hand. No one was on her porch nor was anyone visible on the street in front of her house. A car passed by, a red smear of metal as it rolled down the hill. She panned left and right as far as she could see. Nothing.

She pulled on the cord of the blind and flipped the slats downward so that she could see the floor of her porch. That’s when she noticed something sitting at her door. She held her breath again. The woman had left something there. Curiosity burned her thoughts, but so did fear. She didn’t know this woman. She had only spoken to her reluctantly a few times in the early years after they had invaded her neighborhood. A frown creased her face. Now, she had something else to worry about.