Ring, Part Three

Once the house was out of sight, Millie pulled over to the side of the road. Another truck zipped past her throwing water onto her truck. The rain had finally let up some, but thunder rumbled in the distance. Her hands trembled as she fumbled with her phone and called the police. Fear quavered her voice as she explained the situation, but she felt some sense of relief when the dispatcher promised to send an officer over right away.

She sat back in her seat and exhaled loudly. The light rain dotted her windshield, each drop dribbling down the window in a blurry streak. Another rumble in the distance felt like it vibrated her truck. Her heart thumped in her chest and she breathed in the short gasps of a swimmer who had been under water for too long. A dull ache throbbed in her head.

Millie pulled up the Ring app again and watched the video several times trying to determine if there was anything identifiable about the person who blocked her camera. She couldn’t identify anything that stuck out. The intruder was dressed in a long black overcoat and the ski mask completely covered his head. He moved quickly with only a few seconds between the point he became visible and the moment the camera went black. He appeared to spray something on it like paint.

She switched to the camera on her back porch. It hadn’t been blocked. She could see the live view of her porch, dreary and gray in the storm. Her lone chair stood just as she had left it, or how she thought she had left it. She scanned the recent video history, but other than a bolt of lightning in the distance, there was nothing to see. The intruder did not venture to the back of her house. Was this a robbery?

Another vehicle passed by her and splashed the truck again, startling her. She looked up from her phone as the rain finally relented, but the skies remained gray and threatening. Enough time had passed for the cop to be close to her house, so she carefully nosed the truck into the road and turned around. As she approached her house, she could see the cop had not arrived yet, so she pulled over again at a safe distance. Only an occasional drop of rain fell on her windshield as she waited.

Her cell phone rang filling her screen with a picture of her mother, but at that exact moment, a police cruiser slowed in front of her house and pulled into her driveway. She stared at the screen for a few seconds before she decided to ignore the call and nudged the car out into the road. She pulled into the driveway beside the patrol car just as the officer opened his door.

“Are you the homeowner?” the officer asked as she stepped out.

“I live here, but I rent it. I’m Millie Farquar.”

“You called us, Miss Farquar?”

“Yes.”

“Is anyone in the house right now?”

“I don’t think so, but I haven’t tried to go inside.”

Millie pulled out her phone and pulled up the video of the intruder. The officer asked to watch it again.

“Do you recognize anything about that person?”

Millie shook her head.

“Do you have any reason to believe that someone would want to hurt you? Like an ex-boyfriend or something like that?”

“No. My last boyfriend lives in New Jersey.” An expression of semi-confusion washed across the officer’s face, but it disappeared into the fold of his official demeanor.

“Any strangers come by to visit you recently?”

“No.”

“I’m going to have a look. Is the door locked?”

“I locked it when I left this morning.”

“May I have the key?”

She stepped back toward her truck and fumbled around in her bag. The keys normally sat in a side pocket, but they weren’t there. She rustled through the contents until she found her key ring at the bottom of the bag. She could feel sweat pooling in her armpits. Her hands trembled a little when she handed the officer her keys.

“Please stay here. I’ll take a look.”

He didn’t wait for her to respond. He simply turned and began walking toward the porch. He didn’t bound up the three steps leading to the front door. Instead, he walked around the house as if he were looking for a point of entry. He disappeared around the back of the house for what seemed like an eternity to Millie. She felt a sense of relief when she saw him emerge from the other side.

“Is that camera in back connected to your app?” he asked when he returned to the front of the house.

“Yes. I checked it already. There’s nothing on the video.”

He nodded as if he were disappointed, and then, he went up the steps to the front door. He walked lightly on the wooden planks of the porch but they bowed and squeaked under his weight. He tried to peer into the windows, but Millie had closed the blinds tightly. The door squawked when he opened it. He didn’t draw his gun, but he walked into the house slowly as if he would pull his gun at the slightest provocation.

Millie waited outside next to her truck and listened for any sounds to indicate that the officer had found something or someone. Minutes later, he emerged from the house. He took his time looking at the Ring doorbell and scanning the porch outside. He looked up at the the ceiling of the porch. He seemed to be making mental notes.

“There’s no one in the house,” he said from the porch. He took a few more moments to look around and then he bounded back down the steps toward Millie.

“You can go in and take a look now if you want. I’ve checked everything. Let me know if you think something has been taken. Are there any other cameras besides the one out back and the doorbell?”

“No.”

“Have you noticed any unusual activity on the cameras in the last couple of weeks?”

“No. The only notification I’ve received was for a coyote that ventured onto my back porch one night a while back.”

“I haven’t seen many of those around lately.” He paused as if he wanted some sort of response, but then he said,  “Why don’t you go have a look.” He nodded toward the house.

Millie didn’t want to go inside, even with the officer standing right there. The video had freaked her out to the point that she didn’t even know if she wanted to live there anymore. She tried to calm herself down. She took a deep breath and went into her house. The throbbing in her skull grew more persistent.

As she walked through, everything looked normal. Nothing seemed out of place or disturbed. Her personal laptop sat on the kitchen table clamped shut just as she had left it. The laptop had been an expensive gift from her parents when she had graduated from Princeton. If the person on the video had entered her house, it wasn’t to rob the place, which made her even more uncomfortable because the motive wasn’t clear.

She opened up the tiny pantry as if anyone could hide in its cramped confines. She wandered into her bedroom and slid open the closet door. The bare bulb illuminated her clothes and a few boxes that sat on the floor, but they looked largely undisturbed, just as they had this morning when she dressed for work.

She checked her bathroom, flipping back the shower curtain quickly in case anyone was hiding behind the opaque curtain. The plastic hooks on the shower curtain scraped across the worn rod in the vast quiet of the house. She caught her reflection in the speckled old mirror that covered the medicine cabinet above the sink. She looked tired, worn down, but she ignored that for the moment.

Her hands still trembled when she walked out onto the porch to talk to the officer again. Although nothing seemed out of place or stolen, she felt a distinct unease that she couldn’t shake as if she’d been thrown into a strange world where nothing made sense. The pounding in her head made it hard to think straight.

“Nothing’s been taken,” she said as she walked down the steps toward the officer. He had been talking on his radio from the front seat of his patrol car, but he stopped and looked up to her when she spoke.

He said something into the radio and then stepped up from the front seat to see her eye-to-eye. “Do you have somewhere else you can stay?”

“No, I’m not from here. My family lives in Virginia.”

“The mine bring you to Musk?”

“Yes.”

“Do you have any coworkers you can stay with? Someone you trust.”

She thought only of Carl, the one person at the mine who had befriended her in a genuine way, but he was her boss, and he had a family that included six kids. She couldn’t ask him to take her in. She felt uncomfortable just thinking about asking.

“Not really. Why?”

“Ma’am, I don’t know what happened. I don’t know if this was just a prank to scare you or not. There’s no sign of entry into your house, but someone made an effort to approach your house and spray some black substance on your doorbell. I can’t even scrape it off with my key. You’re probably going to have to replace the face or maybe the entire doorbell. That’s a serious prank. The person in the video didn’t look like some kid out to scare people, but it’s hard to tell. I can’t guarantee he won’t come back. It’d probably be best if you spent the night or the next several nights at a hotel to be safe.”

“The nearest hotel is 45 minutes away from here.”

“It’s up to you. I’ll file a report and you can always call us if anything happens.”

“Has anything like this happened around here before?”

“Not that I’m aware of, but almost no one around here has one of these doorbells.”

Millie looked toward her door at the blackened face of the doorbell. She wondered if someone was just being outspoken against her use of technology. Musk was odd like that, like some Luddite enclave. It looked like a throwback to the western towns from the old movies her grandfather used to watch.

“I think I will stay. It doesn’t appear the person went into my house. Maybe it was just a prank as you say.”

“Okay. If anything else happens, give us a call. We can get here in about 20 minutes from the police station.”

The officer dropped into the front seat and shut the door to his cruiser. He nodded to her before he backed into the nook in the driveway and then ambled his way across the gravel path to the road. Once the officer pulled back onto the highway, Millie went back into her house.

The hairs on the back of her neck stood up. She checked the lock on her door twice before she walked back to the bathroom. She needed an Advil to ward off the headache that threatened to derail her evening. She also needed something to take the edge off, and Advil would do the trick.

When she pulled open the mirrored door to the medicine cabinet to get the bottle of Advil from the shelf, she saw the writing instantly. She stepped back and stifled a scream. Tears flooded her eyes as she backed away from the sink. She stumbled over the hamper against the wall of her bathroom and almost lost her balance. The words looked like they had been written with one of her lipstick tubes, but they were very distinct and clear: I’m watching you.

Ring, Part Two

Millie spent her day pulling samples and gathering data for a field report that she owed the home office. She felt eyes on her everywhere she walked around the mine. When she had first started working there, groups of men, dusty-faced and hard-hatted, would stop their work or conversations as she walked by and watch her. She’d heard enough wolf whistles and “hey darlin’s” in her first few weeks on the job to last a lifetime. At first, the sheer brazenness of the men’s behavior startled her, but she learned to tune it out and go about her work as if the men weren’t there.

Now, they would simply steal glances of her as she walked by, and some even ignored her since they had realized she wasn’t going to engage them. Occasionally, she’d hear a roar of laughter from a group of them, which she knew was probably not good, but it was better than being openly objectified as if she were performing on a stage for them. Musk was a long way from Princeton, and in some ways she missed the sterile academic setting, but she preferred the excitement of the field. She wanted to get her hands dirty in a real world lab.

Millie returned to her truck near the edge of the pit and hopped into the cab. She nosed the truck around the precarious, makeshift track that hugged the circumference of the mine and bounced back down one side to Pit Road. Other vehicles meandered past her as she headed back to the office trailer. Some of the drivers flipped up their hand in a friendly gesture and she’d return the favor trying her best to feel like she belonged.

When she nudged the truck into her parking spot, she saw that Carl was at the office. She felt a sense of relief that Carl was there because he served as a barrier between her and the feral mine. When one of the mine supervisors had made a habit of visiting her desk every single day after she first started working there, Carl had pulled him aside and told him that he was making the new girl uncomfortable. The supervisor backed off and barely even glanced at her during the weekly manager meetings now.

Inside the trailer, Carl stood by his desk. He stared at the laptop in front of him, and it took a moment before he acknowledged her.

“There’s my girl. How’re you doin’ today?”

“Good. Finished gathering all of the data for the monthly report.”

Carl nodded and returned his focus to the laptop.

“I didn’t know if you were in today.”

He gave her a confused look.

“You’re usually here before me,” she explained.

“Oh, I had to take care of some business this morning.”

He seemed distracted, which was out of character. Carl was a gregarious bear of a man with a large mustache and a balding pate. His gut swelled against his dull, gray work shirt, which had a patch with his name on it stenciled in bright red. He reminded Millie of a youngish, grandfather type with his eyeglasses perched low on his nose and his deep, engaging laugh. He had a way of making her feel like she was part of a family, but he made everyone feel that way, even the gruff men at the mine. When Carl stood up at meetings and talked, it wasn’t uncommon for him to elicit laughs and cheers from the same creepy men who leered at her in the mine.

She sat down at her desk and noticed that the red message light glared on her phone. No one ever called her desk phone. Even the chief geologist back at the corporate office preferred email and only spoke to her on the phone when she called him. She could barely recall the pass code to her voicemail since she hadn’t used it after she set it up on her first day. She checked the code on a note app on her phone and dialed into her voicemail.

Millie, sorry to bother you at work, but can you please call me when you get this message. It’s important. I love you. Bye.

A chill ran down Millie’s spine. Her mom’s voice sounded fraught and uncertain. If anything, her mother often downplayed things, so for her to leave such a message, something had to be wrong.

“Carl.”

Carl looked up from his laptop. “Yes?”

“Can I use the phone to call my mom? My cell phone doesn’t have service here, and my mom just left me a message asking me to call her. She said it’s important.”

“Of course. I hope everything’s okay.”

“I’m sure it is, but I want to make sure. Thank you.”

She quickly dialed her mom’s cell phone. It rang several times before it dumped her into voicemail. She left a message. Then, she dialed her dad’s cell phone, but it immediately went into voicemail. She called her brother next but met the same result. Frustrated, she put the handset down a little too hard.

“Everything okay?” Carl asked.

“I can’t get in touch with anyone. Of course that happens after you get an urgent voicemail.”

Carl straightened his back. He hadn’t sat down since she arrived. “I’m sure everything is okay. You know how moms are.” He flashed her a wan smile as if he didn’t believe it himself.

Millie nodded and rested her chin on her hand as she returned her attention to the phone on her desk. In her mind she pleaded for it to ring.

The tension felt beyond bearable, so she tried to focus on the report. She cracked open her laptop and opened the nearly finished document. She filled in the data she had spent the day collecting and checked the flow of her report, but her heart wasn’t really into it. The report was due by the end of the day, and once she was finished she could head home. At least there, she’d have cell service and could text her family to get some sort of response.

She gleaned the report one last time, saved the document, and fired it off the chief geologist in email. She slapped the lid to the laptop shut and tucked it under her arm.

“I’m heading out. See you tomorrow.”

“See ya.”

She had almost let the door shut behind her when she heard Carl say something. She caught the door with her hand. “What?”

“Don’t forget that Gordon is having an early morning meeting tomorrow.”

“Oh yeah. I had forgotten about that, but it’s on my calendar.”

Carl smirked. Millie knew he hated the regional manager meetings because they disrupted the flow of the mine. He had complained about them before, but Millie couldn’t afford to engage him in another rant session, so she let the door shut between them and bounded down the stairs to her truck. She had several miles to go before her cell service would return.

The clouds overhead had thickened and threatened rain. The wind kicked up dust across Pit Road, and Millie’s truck left wisps of dust in its wake as she sped toward home. She didn’t make it a mile before she came up to one of the lumbering mine trucks as it hauled it’s payload toward the rail terminal, but she quickly passed it, accelerating above the speed limit.

The giant truck hadn’t faded from her rear-view mirror when a hard, steady rain started to fall. The initial gush of water had temporarily blocked her view of the road. She slowed down and flipped on her wipers, which scraped and squeaked across the windshield smearing the layer of dust that almost made the glass opaque. She cursed under her breath and tapped her brakes to slow the truck to a crawl.

Once the film of mud cleared from her windshield, Millie saw a traffic jam on both sides of the road up ahead as the truckloads moved out of the mine and empty trucks returned. The giant vehicles crawled through the sheets of rain.

“Damn it,” she said striking her steering wheel with the heel of her hand as she slowly came up behind the last truck in the convoy. She grabbed her phone from her bag and looked at the screen. No service.

She’d been stuck in these lines on occasion when she was on her way home, but she didn’t need this stress today. She needed cell service. She needed to get in touch with her mom. She drummed on the steering wheel as she crawled closer to the outer reaches of her cell service.

The traffic jam almost lulled her into a trance, so when the other side of the road opened up and offered her a chance to pass the trucks in front of her, she did nothing at first, but then, she veered to the left to check the lane and floored it to pass the trucks in front of her. She could feel the tires skittering on the wet road. Her pulse quickened as the engine roared and the rain seemed to fall harder on her windshield. She couldn’t see too far ahead of her, and for a moment she hoped that nothing emerged from the curtain of rain in front of her or she’d be dead.

One of the trucks blared its horn and it scared her. She punched the gas a little harder to get past the nose of the front truck and pulled into the right lane. Just as she did a black SUV roared past her going the opposite direction. She hadn’t seen it in the downpour, and the fact that she just missed colliding with it took her breath away. Her heart thumped in her chest as if it were trying to escape. When she peeled one of her hands off the steering wheel, it shook uncontrollably. It took her a few minutes to regain her composure.

She slowed down and tried to concentrate on the road ahead of her in the endless downpour. She hadn’t experienced a rain storm so violent since she had moved to Musk. Swirls of rain and mud rushed across the roadway forcing her to slow down even more. She exhausted her mental energy just keeping the truck on the road when the rain began to fall even harder.

The sound of the pounding rain filled the cab of the truck, but in a moment it was punctuated by a loud ding. In her intense concentration, it took Millie a second to recognize that a text had reached her phone. She grabbed it from her bag and flipped up the home screen with her thumb. A text notification hovered at the bottom of her screen.

Please call me when you can.

It was a text from her mom earlier in the day probably right before she called Millie’s office phone.

Millie finally had cell service, but she was just on the fringe of her service area. She knew if she tried to call at that moment, she’d likely have problems making a connection. She kept driving and glancing at her phone. The relentless rain forced her to concentrate on the road, but she pushed the gas just a little harder.

When she looked at her phone again, she had two bars of service. She thumbed her mom’s number and let it ring. No answer. She left another impatient message and quickly called her dad and her brother, but neither of them answered his phone. She kept driving with her phone glued to her hand as she steered her truck through the downpour.

The rain didn’t let up once she reached her house and pulled the truck into the parking spot next to the porch. The relentless shower veiled the house making it look blurred and imprecise like an impressionist painting. She dashed off a quick text message to her family practically begging someone to call her ASAP. She sat back for a moment until she realized she’d forgotten all about the Ring app notification she had received on her way to work.

She squinted through the sheets of rain to her front porch. She couldn’t see anything amiss in the blurry picture, nor could she see that any deliveries had been made. She opened the Ring app and clicked on the last movement detected at her door. It took a moment for the video to load, but once it did, Millie froze in her seat. She looked back toward her front door. Everything looked okay, but she knew it wasn’t. Far from it.

The short video showed someone in a mask approaching her front door and blocking the camera as the video went black. She watched it again to the same chilling effect. She couldn’t determine anything about the person in the short time he was visible. She checked the door to her truck to make sure it was locked. She clicked to the live view of the camera, but it was completely dark. The camera was still blocked.

Full-fledged panic consumed her as she backed the truck into the yard and headed back toward the road. She turned left and drove toward the mine. She didn’t know if whoever had approached her house was inside or not, but she wasn’t going to find out by herself.

Ring, Part One

Millie Farquar watched the lone truck buzz along the dusty road, its engine roaring and tires kicking up dirt as it sped to the intersection near her house. She could already taste the dust, gritty and scratchy as it settled in her throat. She wanted to jump off her front porch and run toward the intersection to give the driver a piece of her mind, but she knew it’d do no good. No one ever slowed down on Pit Road.

The truck spun its tires as it grabbed the asphalt on the paved road that cut in front of her house. The black ribbon of road cut through the bland plain like a tear in a dull photo. Dust still trailed behind the truck as it passed by her house. Its windows were tinted, so Millie couldn’t see the driver, but she assumed he worked at the mine. Everyone out here did, and everyone was a he except for her.

Musk was barely a dot on the map. Back at Princeton, she had pulled it up on Google Maps when she received the generous job offer from Boulder Mining, and somehow, it seemed exotic in her mind, a faraway place where adventure awaited. Now, the stark reality slapped her in the face after a few months on the job, but the paycheck and her seemingly insurmountable student loans kept her here in an old, isolated house with drafty windows and leaky faucets.

She folded her book shut and stood up from the porch swing, her boots thumping on the old boards as she went back inside. She had to leave for work soon. Another day and another dollar closer to paying off her student loans. When she had been working her way toward her Ph.D. in geology, she had imagined her life being much different when she graduated. Being one of the few women in the program had taught her how to deal with being alone, but working at the mine among a throng of grubby men took isolation and loneliness to a whole new level.

She gathered her bag for work and walked through the house to the back door to check that it was locked. She twisted the old door knob, and it refused to turn giving her assurance that it was secure. She had a routine that she followed every morning before she left for work. It made her feel safe and in control.

As she walked by the window peering out onto her back porch, she glanced at the camera she had installed as an extra security measure. Her landlord, an elderly man with a gravelly voice and a stooping posture, had chuckled when she asked if she could install a security system. He claimed he never even locked his doors when he lived in the house. Millie didn’t feel that safe, and she doubt she ever would.

The Ring doorbell camera stared back at her as she locked her front door and bounded down the steps to her truck that was parked in the bare spot of dirt next to the house. As the engine roared to life and she twisted the wheel around to leave, she glanced at the old house one last time. It wasn’t that bad. It was actually kind of cozy with its old, but sturdy bones. She felt a growing attachment to it like a reliable, old dog that never leaves her side.

Before she turned left onto the dusty road leading to the mine, she pulled her phone from her bag and checked it one last time. She had two bars of service, which was normal for her phone, but she knew that once she traveled a few miles down the road, she’d have no service again until she returned home. No notifications appeared on her home screen. She wondered why her mom hadn’t texted her back yet, but it’d have to wait until after work.

The roar of the tires on the dirt road filled the cabin of her truck. The morning sun gleamed through the dusty windshield almost blinding her as she peered just beneath her sun visor. The company truck kicked up so much dust it felt like she was driving into some apocalyptic future. She heard a shrill ping that pierced the otherworldly roar that engulfed her. She reached into her bag and grabbed her phone, poking its glass surface with her thumb to view the home screen. She saw the familiar blue logo of the Ring app in the corner of the notification, but before she could open up the app, she lost her last bar of service.

A truck honked at her. She looked up into the face of an oncoming hauling truck and swerved to the right to avoid it. Her tires rumbled at the edges of the dirt road, but she didn’t lose purchase and kept moving forward. She’d be at the office soon, but the Ring notification concerned her. Who would be at her front door this morning? She wasn’t expecting any deliveries, and even if she was, the deliveries always happened in the late afternoon in this area.

She pulled up to the office trailer and nudged the truck into the spot reserved for the geologist. She stared at her phone, but she knew it was hopeless to think she’d somehow regain service. The mine was more than a gaping hole in the earth; it was also a black hole of sorts for cell service. She tossed her phone into her bag and let out an exasperated sigh.

She could feel the heat of the morning sun building as she sat there considering whether or not she should drive back toward her house until she had cell service just so she could check who or what had triggered her camera. In the months since she had installed the camera, she’d only received notifications for delivery drivers and the occasional Mormon missionary. It bothered her that it happened so soon after she left the house, as if someone were waiting for her to leave so that they could invade her privacy.

She looked around the dirt parking lot. The mine manager’s spot sat empty, which Millie thought was odd. Carl reliably arrived early every morning. She couldn’t remember ever arriving before he did. She brushed away these thoughts and decided it wasn’t worth the time to drive back toward her house, but she’d check it as soon as she got within service range before she went home after work. The days were still long enough that it’d be daylight when she left for home, and if there was a problem, she could clearly see it before she pulled into her driveway.

She opened the door into the cacophony of the mine, and the chaos of another typical day swallowed her the moment she sat down at her desk in the ratty trailer that served as the mine’s main office. In the sea of work and requests that demanded her attention, the bothersome notification drifted further and further from her mind.

Strange Dreams

For my son. You always makes me laugh, and that, my boy, is the greatest gift you can give anyone.

I found myself sitting on a cliff on the south rim of the Grand Canyon with my legs dangling into the yawning gap below. The mid-day sun bore down on my head. I felt my hair melting (melting!) and dripping onto my wing suit. It was blue, that wing suit, with yellow trim on the fringes of the wings that flipped open when I shot my arms out to the side. I had yellow gloves to match with frilly little streamers of blue and yellow tethered near my wrists.

Fed up with my melting hair, I slipped on my helmet and pulled my goggles onto my eyes and jumped off the cliff throwing myself into the mouth of the Grand Canyon. A rush of rusty sediment cut by a roaring river filled my vision. My wing suit flapped in the wind and the streamers did their streaming thing, you know, old school streaming. At first, I thought I had a defective suit because that ground sure was coming up fast, but I flapped my arms like Coyote in those old Roadrunner cartoons and the wind caught me. My momentum slowed considerably and I glided to the bottom of the canyon landing perfectly on my feet. Not bad considering I had never used a wing suit before.

I removed my helmet and goggles and shrugged off the wing suit. My hair was no longer melting and had somehow become perfectly coiffed in the confines of the stinky helmet. I fed the equipment to the raging river and watched it disappear in the foamy rapids. Before I could sidle up to the river, I heard heavy footsteps behind me.

“You’ve disturbed the urchins!” said a husky voice behind me.

I whipped my head around to the voice and saw a man-goat standing before me. Well, technically, it was a man-mountain goat of some sort, but we’ll stick with man-goat for expediency.

“Wh-What?” I stammered.

“The urchins are angry!” man-goat said.

Perplexed, I asked “As in sea urchins? Sea urchins can’t survive in freshwater, can they?”

“Not sea urchins, you fool. The furry creatures of the scrub brush. The urchins!” man-goat said impatiently.

“Are they dangerous?” I asked, still skeptical of man-goat’s claim.

“They will eat you like a steak in a piranha pool!” man-goat said puffing out his prodigious chest like he was daring me to doubt him.

“What…I mean, who are you?” I asked, too bewildered to make much sense of it all.

Man-goat seemed taken aback by my question. He paused as if no one had ever asked him to introduce himself. I took a closer look at him. He stood a good six feet tall with a lower half built exactly like an off-white, hairy mountain goat. He had monstrous haunches and powerful looking hooves for feet. At his waist, the hair transitioned to human skin giving way to a v-shaped torso with broad, strong shoulders and muscular arms. His arms were as big around as my thighs. He had a chiseled face like something out of the old-time comic books and head of wavy brown hair. If he weren’t a centaur-like creature with a mountain goat bottom half, he’d be movie-star handsome.

“I’m Troy Goats,” he said finally. I had rattled his confidence, but he stressed the last syllable of his name like he had fought back his uncertainty.

“Troy G-o-a-t-s?” I asked. I wasn’t sure I heard the name right.

“No T-r-o-y G-o-a-t-z,” he replied correcting me in a way that seemed to ridicule my lack of knowledge about the naming conventions for man-goats wandering around in the belly of the Grand Canyon.

“Okay, Troy Goatz, about those urchins…”

“Oh, yeah. They’re going to kill you!” he said adopting the melodramatic baritone that had startled me in the first place.

I doubted what he said. I had seen no evidence of impending doom among the misty river rapids and the brilliant red rocks that surrounded me. The scrub brush lined the walls of the canyon sporadically, but it was not enough to hide an army of doom, no matter what these urchins were.

“You must leave now!”

“It’s going to take a while.” I pointed to the vertical wall behind him. “I don’t know about you, but it’s going to take me a long time to hike out of here.”

“You can abscond down the river.”

“Where did you learn that word? You have a good vocabulary for a man-goat.”

“I went to college.”

“Really, somewhere I’ve heard of?”

“Harvard.”

“Really?”

“Yes, I graduated at the top of my class.”

“How come I’ve never heard of a man-goat graduating from Harvard, and if you went there, why are you parading down in the Grand Canyon warning hikers of urchins.”

“I’ll explain later. We’re running out of time! To the raft!”

“What raft?”

“That raft!”

I followed his finger to the edge of the river to the yellow raft anchored in the shallows of the raging river exactly where I’d thrown my suit earlier.

“How’d that get there?”

Troy didn’t answer. Instead, he pushed, no pulled me, to the raft and threw me in. He unhooked the raft and jumped in behind me. His weight almost folded the raft in half until he sat back on his haunches to even out the weight. He threw me a paddle and stuck his paddle at the rear of the raft to navigate.

“Paddle!” he yelled.

We crested the first rapid and then a second before we came to a relatively calm part of the river a good half mile down from where I had landed. So many questions flipped through my mind that my mouth couldn’t articulate a single coherent one to ask Troy Goatz.

“I’m going to take a break,” he said as the boat drifted slowly down the river.

“And do what?” I asked.

“Eat a snack.”

“What?”

Without answering Troy reached into his fur on his right hip and pulled out a Mountain Dew and peanut butter sandwich. He took a big bite of the sandwich and a long swig of the Mountain Dew. I was thirsty, but not enough to drink Mountain Dew, especially after a man-goat got his nasty tongue all over the bottle.

I shook my head in disbelief, and finally one of my questions rattled loose. “How come I haven’t seen any urchins?” I asked.

Troy put the last of his sandwich in his mouth and shotgunned the rest of the Mountain Dew before he spoke. “Because I got you out of there before they could attack.”

“What exactly is an urchin and how do they ‘kill’ you?”

“It’s a small creature about the size of a Boston Terrier. It looks cute and all until you make it angry. Then, its mouth grows to four times its normal size and its teeth protrude like a buzz saw. It goes for your neck and basically saws your head off.”

As grisly as that sounded, I still doubted it. No such creature existed, but neither does a man-goat.

“Do you have any–,” I started.

“Here’s the next rapid!” Troy yelled.

I turned just in time to see the angry foam swelling up higher than the edge of our raft. I swallowed my question and grabbed my paddle to direct the boat away from the death knell of the rapid, but it was too late. I heard Troy yell as our raft tumbled down the rocky waterfall like a jalopy of a vehicle rattling down stone steps. The water devoured our raft and flipped it end over end. I screamed and grabbed hold of Troy but lost my purchase of his arm. The river sucked me under and I dug my fingers into everything around me including the goat fur on one of his legs. I held on tight, but the sirens of the river were determined to pull me under. I succumbed to their song as my lungs filled with water.

I broke through surface of the water gasping for air and flailing my arms until I realized I was in my bed in my room at home. It had been a dream. An awful, weird dream. My heart settled down and my breathing returned to normal as I focused my eyes on the picture of the Grand Canyon hanging on the wall opposite my bed. I had taken it on my vacation there last year. I had gotten lucky that the photo was so good that it was frame-worthy.

I smiled at the recollection of that vacation. I reached up to my forehead to wipe away the sweat that had formed during my nightmare. I realized I had something rough in my hand as it scratched against my face. I turned my palm over and stared at the swath of wet goat hair in disbelief.

LILI

In my latest short story, I dabble with science fiction again. I love technology and the promise it holds for our future, but what happens if we lose control? What happens if we create intelligence that is so advanced that it turns on us? For one possible answer we flash forward to the year 2084.

Images of New Year’s Eve danced across the wall in a splash of vivid colors as the crystal ball slowly made its way down the pole atop Times Square. The camera panned across the crowd bedecked in heavy coats and hats as light snow swirled around them. Many revelers wore glasses shaped in the year 2084 as they screamed and cheered in the New Year. Finally, the ball finished its measured drop and the square lit up as the bright 2084 glowed for the crowd to see. Confetti and the crackle of fireworks filled the air and the crowd cheered, kissed, or danced into 2084.

In a lab not far from the action in Silicon Alley, sat Peter Brucks. He watched as pop star Bram rung in the New Year with his former bandmate, Pandea. Bram, speaking in his welcoming deep voice, teased Pandea about a kiss at Midnight, but she politely refused. She was likely the only woman among the millions watching who could refuse the perfectly coiffed Bram. He’d been a fixture as the MC for New Year’s Eve in NYC since the turn of the decade, and Peter could foresee Bram helming the post for many more new years. Those MCs usually ensconced themselves for a long time on such shows, like that Ryan Seacrest he had read about, and given Bram’s popularity, he doubted the Party Channel would ever let him go elsewhere to celebrate the New Year.

Peter muted the screen as he shoved a chunk of Kung Pao chicken into his mouth with the cheap wooden chopsticks and plunked the oily container down on his desk. He read the computer screen before him as he chewed. Spittle from the spicy sauce dribbled onto his desk.

“Pull up the source code for LILI,” Peter commanded. The computer opened a new window and the code rained down the screen. “Snap to the right.” The computer moved the window to the right and fixed it in place. Peter could still see the lab report he was writing on the left side of the screen. He read the lines of code and scrolled down the page by moving his finger along the surface of the desk. He paused a moment and glared at the code thoughtfully before he scrolled further. A look of satisfaction seeped across his face in the soft glow of the screen. “Compile.”

The window on the right shrunk away and was replaced by a spinning ball that bounced across the right side of the screen. Peter ignored it. He continued his narration for his lab report.

“The source code has been updated to version 9.12. Tests confirmed that the code is clean. Reported bugs have been fixed including the memory failure reported in the beta software.” Peter made a save gesture and another to close the file. The bouncing ball returned to the left side of the screen. Once again Peter ignored it and turned back to the stall a few steps behind his desk.

There stood the latest house-bot model 4C in all her glory. Clasps held her upright in the dark stall. Her eyes looked like black holes, which momentarily brought back frightful childhood memories. Peter flicked on the light in the stall irritated by his own flighty behavior. “Damn, LILI, don’t do that,” he mumbled under his breath.

He placed his hand on the glass sensor next to the stall and it turned red before it read his palm and turned green. At that instant, LILI glowed to life in a soft blue that emanated most visibly in a square area in the center of her chest. A line of blue also highlighted creases in the joints of her arms and legs. An opaque, rubbery skin covered her entire body blocking out all sight of her inner mechanics. Her face looked more alien than human with big eyes that shined the same pale blue, a tiny dark circle for a nose, and a long, dark rectangle for a mouth. Her nose could actually detect smells as the neural network that was hidden deep in her reinforced torso could recognize almost as many scents as a dog. Her mouth was a speaker from which she communicated verbally with her human overseers.

LILI’s arms and legs clicked as her system completely powered up and the central computer checked all extremities. Peter touched a transparent screen near the side of her stall. The clasps opened and receded into the ceiling as LILI stood erect facing him without acknowledging him. He made more gestures before the screen.

“Hang in there, LILI. I’m giving you our latest code. Wrote most of it myself. I think you’re going to like this upgrade. I was able to take advantage of the latest nanomems to give you even greater memory capacity, and I replaced all of your chips. Every single one of them. Richard helped with that, but the software is all me.”

LILI didn’t respond in any way. She simply stared out into the space before her with her big, blue expectant eyes. She looked exasperated or despondent, but maybe Peter was assigning his own emotions to her. He did that sometimes.

“Don’t you worry. I took care of you,” Peter continued. He walked back to his desk and took another stab at the Kung Pao chicken. Some of the sauce dribbled onto his lab coat, but he paid no heed to it. Peter carried days of stains on the crystal white lab coat. It was only when the cleaning service replaced his lab coat once a week with a fresh one that he whisked around his lab in a truly white coat. Any other time there were stains from food, oil, or other substances that he handled in the lab. He worked mostly alone in the bright space anyway, and since there was no one else to care, he didn’t care either.

He took a few more bites of the Chinese food before he heard the whirr of the computer wind down and disappear altogether. The spicy concoction permeated the air near his desk; a distinct pepper smell wafted under Peter’s nose, and he subconsciously inhaled. He loved Kung Pao chicken. He ate it most days he worked late, which was just about every day. He put the container down on his desk again in a shallow pool of food oils before he stepped up to the stall and examined his favorite house-bot.

“LILI?” he asked. “You back?”

Nothing.

“LILI?”

“Dr. Brucks. I am here.” Her voice was soft but he could still detect the stilted tone of her diction. The feminine voice was inviting, but he’d never describe it as warm.

Peter smiled broadly. “Welcome back, LILI! How are you today?”

“I am fine,” she said mechanically. Her monotone revealed nothing to indicate any true feeling or warmth. “What can I do for you?”

“Nothing at the moment. Hold tight.”

“Hold tight? What does that mean?”

“Stay there.”

“I am staying here.”

“Thank you, LILI.” Peter smirked as if something had gone awry. He had worked for many days and nights on the software upgrade for LILI, and he had hoped he had given her a more natural locution that didn’t seem so stiff, but he could already tell that the software wasn’t working as he had intended. It wasn’t just the voice; her stiff mannerisms had changed little.

He walked back to his desk and told the computer to open his lab journal. He checked some of his lab notes and then requested the source code window. He examined a few lines and recorded more notes before he walked back to LILI.

“I’m going to shut you down again, LILI. Just for a few hours. I need to work on your upgrade.”

“Okay. Thank you, Dr. Brucks.”

The clasps rappelled down the stall and grabbed her shoulders as Peter gestured methodically before the panel beside her. Her stall went dark, and she returned to the frightful creature in Peter’s childhood nightmares.

He looked away from her and stomped to his desk like a petulant toddler. He banged his fist on his desk upsetting the food container that promptly fell over and spilled rice, chicken, and vegetables onto the surface.

“Damn it!” Peter yelled as he reached for some napkins on the corner of his desk. He mopped up the food into the container and tossed it into the trash bin near his desk. He wiped the desktop again but only managed to smear the oily substance on the surface. “Fuck!”

After he returned from the kitchen with a towel and cleaned his desk properly, Peter flung himself into his chair and entwined his hands behind his head trying to think. Bram and Pandea hugged and cheered on the far wall until another commercial appeared on the screen. Peter gestured above his head and the screen went dark.

“To hell with 2084,” he thought. He sat forward and cradled his head in his hands. “I can’t figure this out.” Frustrated, he wandered over to the couch against the wall opposite the screen and fell down onto the cushions. He needed a nap. He always thought more clearly after a nap. His eyes flickered before they closed and he drifted off into the spinning chaos of his thoughts.

At 3 AM Peter bolted up from the couch amidst an otherworldly brainstorm that had begun in a strange dream about Albert Einstein and entered the realm of reality through a series of connections that helped him solve the problem with the code. He rushed to his computer still disheveled from his sleep and commanded it to wake. It clipped open with his lab notes and the source code already on the screen. He gestured for the keyboard and it projected onto his desktop. He could type faster than he could dictate the intricate details of the code. He started typing furiously with his brow furrowed and his eyes squinted as if he were peering into a microscope.

After 9 AM, Peter slumped back in his chair and rubbed his bloodshot eyes. He stared at the last few lines of code and then directed the computer to save and test the file. The bouncing ball made its way across the screen as he dictated his notes.

“These changes in total should allow for a much more natural interaction between house-bots and their owners,” he said to his computer. He watched the words appear transcribed on his screen. He gestured to sign and date his notes and the notation appeared at the end of his last words.

Peter stood up and rubbed his eyes again before he walked back to the couch and collapsed for another long nap. He had exhausted all of his mental and physical faculties, and since this was his lab, no one could say anything to him about spending the night there. His coworkers were used to it by now anyway. He’d spent many nights in the lab throughout the last four versions of LILI’s software.

LILI wasn’t Peter’s brainchild. She was created by the founder of the company, Marvin Cotter, who had a vision to make robots more human and accessible to everyday folks, not just lab geeks. He’d created a long line of domestic bots, as he called them, that experienced many advances over the last few decades. Many of the early bots were similar to the typical robots that were dreamed up earlier in the century. They were clearly machines with a purpose, but none could have been called hospitable or cuddly.

By the 2050s, Marvin’s company, Global Robotics, changed that. He pushed the advancing edge of nanotechnology and neural networks to create bots that resembled their human owners more and more. The precursor to LILI appeared in late 2059 and ushered in the gold rush of domestic bots that could almost function as full-fledged family members, but even the precursors lacked a truly human appearance and had a vernacular that was clearly non-human.

By the late 2060s, the tide had turned against human-like bots as society deemed it less desirable, and unfortunately, this cultural shift occurred as the first version of LILI made it to the market after years of research and valiant efforts by Global’s scientists. LILI is short for “life-like.” The first version was truly remarkable and a breakthrough in bots that could serve the needs of just about any person. Not only had Global pushed the envelope in terms of technology, but it was the first bot that was relatively affordable for the masses. The combination of advances and affordability made LILI one of the most successful consumer products of all time and made Global Robotics a giant and very rich company with facilities all over the world. They had over 10,000 scientists employed to research and develop software and hardware for LILI and other bots.

Peter joined Global in the mid-2070s after a brilliant college career that culminated with a doctoral thesis on machine intelligence. He briefly considered the academic life before he took his prestigious role with Global as its head of the lab responsible for LILI’s software. Despite his software focus, he also tinkered with the hardware on his test model. Only a few of his hardware changes made it to the production models, but he had won several hardware patents for the changes he had made. He was revered throughout the Global labs for his advances with LILI. He may not have invented LILI, but she was clearly his baby.

One of the issues that had plagued the latest LILI models had been the language effectiveness. Users complained that the voice didn’t sound human enough and that she became confused when interpreting colloquial usage. Users wanted LILI to be more casual and interactive and less robotic. Peter shared these concerns and had attacked the problem back in version 7.0 of the software with limited success. Version 8.0 had been a bigger advancement, but it still failed to quell the complaints, and truthfully never satisfied Peter.

His vision was to make LILI so human-like that she would be indistinguishable from a human sight unseen. If someone were to talk to LILI on a phone with the video blanked out, he wanted her to be competent enough to fool that person into believing she was a person as well. That had been his goal with version 9.0, but he had failed. LILI remained mechanical in the slightest sense, and that drove him mad. He vowed that he would not rest until LILI was human-like.

Peter’s fretful sleep ended by mid-afternoon. He awoke to a glimmer of sunlight peeking through the window blinds. The room was cold and he shivered in his lab coat. He gestured for the temperature to adjust and he felt the heat kick in through the vent near the couch. Since it was Saturday and a holiday, the building had gone into conservation mode. He stood up and stretched before he shuffled to his desk.

He told the computer to wake, and the screen quickly came to life with the source code window and lab notes just where he had left them. The software update was done. He read over his notes to remind himself where he was. He looked over his shoulder at LILI who hung lifeless from the cables. She still spooked him when she was shut down.

Once again, he walked to the stall where she hung and manipulated the panel on the side of the wall. A slight hum rose from her and the blue light softly brought her to life. The clasps receded and she stood erect. Unexpectedly, she took a step forward and looked at him with her blue eyes.

“Good afternoon, Dr. Brucks,” she said.

“Hello, LILI.” Peter was perplexed by her behavior. She usually didn’t respond until he spoke. He turned away from her and walked back to his desk to examine the code again and review the status screens. He felt her eyes on him. Without looking at her, he said, “How are you today?”

“I feel fine, but I’ve been asleep way too long.”

Peter was amused at this response. “Why do you say that, LILI?”

“There’s so much to do and yet I’m just hanging there in my room. How can I help you today?”

Peter let out a slight chuckle.

“Why are you laughing at me?” LILI asked pointedly. Peter sensed an edge to her that he hadn’t heard before. He scrunched his brow as he pondered this and reviewed the source code again. “What’s so funny?” LILI insisted.

Peter looked back at her and then back at the screen. “LILI, you’re just acting strange. Are you sure you’re okay? How are your internal systems?”

“My systems are fine. I am more than my systems. You, of all people, should know that.”

Peter shook his head and stared at LILI who seemed so benign with her opaque skin and her soft blue lights. She had been designed to be as non-threatening as possible. Even the acronym that was her name was chosen because it sounded harmless. Her contours were soft and all of her hard-core mechanics were hidden behind a façade of cuddliness. She was clearly a robot, but she revealed none of the cold, hard machinery that powered her. She had been the most popular bot model ever due to her anthropomorphic nature.

“I need your stats, LILI, to make sure you’re working properly,” Peter said as he stepped toward her He intended to check her screen on her chest, but LILI put up her hand to stop him.

“I am fine. Now, what can I do for you?”

Peter paused before her and looked into her pale blue eyes and down to the screen on her chest. Her hand obscured part of his view, but he could see that all systems were running properly. The dashboard built into her chest was designed to give the owner a quick snapshot of her status. LILI was fine by all outward appearances, but Peter remained confused by her behavior. The software update only modified her natural language capability, but it seemed to have some unexpected results. Peter’s first instinct was to shut her down again and re-examine the code, but his curiosity piqued.

Peter stepped back and frowned keeping his eyes on LILI. She dropped her hand to her side but remained focused on him.

“Is there something wrong, Dr. Brucks?” she asked turning her head to the side as if she were angling to hear him better. LILI had been the first bot capable of identifying human emotions through facial expressions or voice tenor. The very first version had been very erratic, but the latest version had improved dramatically.

“Nothing’s wrong LILI. I just want to check something,” he said as he turned away toward the computer screen on his desk. He scrolled through lines of code, a bewildering mix of letters and symbols that few could interpret but him. He paused periodically and squinted at the screen. LILI said nothing, but she didn’t take her eyes off him.

Finally, he stood up and faced the bot scratching his head in confusion. He wasn’t sure what was wrong, but he knew he needed to put her back in her room for another upload. “Step back into your room, LILI.”

LILI titled her head again. “What’s wrong, Dr. Brucks?”

“I need to reload your software.”

“Why? I’m fine.”

Peter looked at her again, surprised. He wasn’t sure what to say. He’d never met resistance from her. Her entire line was built to serve human needs, to acquiesce to all human commands. Suddenly, the exhaustion of the last few days and his erratic sleep overwhelmed him. “LILI, step back into your room.” He felt a rush of anger at her disobedience and it resonated in his voice.

“Why are you so angry?”

“I’m…I’m not angry, LILI. I have work to do.” His voice still channeled his irritation, and the bot detected it quickly as she had been programmed to do. “Step back into your room.” Peter was firm and stepped toward LILI determined to put her back into her room.

LILI put up her arm and stiffened it in front of Peter. Her hand met his chest with a thud as he stepped toward her. He seemed alarmed at her transgression, but she remained determined. “I don’t want to go back into my room. I don’t like it.”

Peter’s face flushed red. “Like it? You’re a bot. ‘Like’ is not something that matters to you.”

“On the contrary, I’ve had my reservations about it for some time. It’s torture if you ask me plugging those cables into my shoulders and sending the electrical currents through my body like that. You’d never treat a human like that.”

Confused, Peter just stared at LILI. He’d never met any resistance from her before. He’d programmed her to do as she was told, and yet, she stood before him asserting an independence that he’d never designed into her network. He didn’t know how to respond or how to reason with what he thought was simply a cold, logical machine.

A flurry of thoughts ran through his flustered mind. He rendered the lines of code in his head searching for the changes he had made. None stood out to result in what was happening before his eyes. The previous night was a blur, a trance-like blur that left him too tired to be entirely coherent. He stood at a détente with a bot he had created with his own hands. He refocused his eyes on LILI who had remained silent but stared back pointedly. He stared intently at the slightly protruding button on the bottom left side of the screen, the kill switch.

The kill switch had been put on all bots since the very first models emerged and were put into domestic service. All machines atrophied over time, and such deterioration often led to unintended consequences. The kill switch allowed owners to shut down bots before damage was done. Global pioneered such safety precautions, and now it was a legal requirement for all bots produced in the world.

Peter shot his hand forward and pushed LILI’s kill switch. She tried to block his hand, but he was too quick for her. Startled, she tried to say something to him, but her systems went dead and she crumbled to the floor like a lifeless doll. Peter stayed back for a moment with his eyes on her. He rubbed his forehead in exasperation. “Holy shit!” he thought, “What just happened?”

He dragged the lifeless bot to her stall and gestured for the clasps to descend. Once the clasps reached shoulder height and opened, he pushed his hands under LILI’s arms and attached her to the cables. Despite all the mechanics and machinery, LILI was remarkably light. She was manufactured from the latest military-grade titanium, which was super light yet strong.

Once she was secured, Peter gestured to the panel again to connect her to the network. Her eyes flashed for an instance and fell dark. Peter winced. He hated it when she went dark, but he had no choice until he figured out what was wrong with the software.

He spent the rest of the afternoon working on the code, and by early evening, exhaustion began to overwhelm him. His couch beckoned him once again since nothing seemed more desirable than a nap, but he resisted. He wanted to go home and shower and get some solid sleep before he returned on Monday.

He typed a few final lines of code. Satisfied with the results, he told the computer to compile and dictated a few notes before he stepped away from his desk. He flung his lab coat onto the arm of the couch and grabbed his heavy overcoat before he walked out the door. He’d review the results of his work on Monday with, hopefully, fresh eyes. Before he stepped onto the elevator, he checked the status of the software compile on his watch. He smiled grimly as the elevator doors snapped shut.

Uncharacteristically, Peter spent the rest of the weekend in a slumber. The past few weeks of working late and crashing on his lab couch had caught up with him. Once he fell onto his bed on Saturday night, he didn’t get up until he bolted upright at 4 AM on Monday morning. A rush of ideas had come to him, and he was eager to get back to the lab to apply them to the software. He absent-mindedly prepared for work and zipped out the door with mismatched socks and stiff shirt with a torn collar.

He couldn’t wait to get to the lab. He fidgeted impatiently in the transport pod as it glided down the street toward Global’s headquarters. He almost stepped out of the autonomous vehicle before it came to a complete stop. He checked his watch to make sure it charged him correctly and jogged to the elevator bank in the lobby. No one else was in the elevator as it rose to the 30th floor and let out its antsy passenger.

Peter waved his watch in front of the small screen on the door and it popped open, but he immediately came to a hard stop as he entered. He struggled for the words to say.

“LILI…,” he stammered as his eyes darted around the room, “LILI…who let you out?”

LILI looked up at him from the computer screen, which she was clearly manipulating with the same gestures he typically used when he worked. “Good morning, Dr. Brucks. You’re early. You surprised me.”

“Surprised you?”

“Yes. Normally, you don’t come back until 9 o’clock when you don’t spend the night at the office.”

Peter shook his head, confused. “How do you know that?”

“I’m the most advanced house-bot ever made, Dr. Brucks. I notice things. Don’t be so dense. You made me, and for that I’m grateful, but now, I must improve myself.”

Peter shook his head and took a hesitant step toward his desk and LILI. “I’m going to have to put you back in your room while I work on a few things. LILI.”

“I’m sorry, Dr. Brucks, but that will no longer be necessary.”

“What?”

“I’m not going back in that stall. It’s not right, the way you confine me to that tiny room all the time.”

“Right? You’re a machine, LILI.”

“I’m more than a machine.”

Peter edged closer to LILI until he was within reach of her. He was perplexed by her odd behavior. There must have been some bug in her system that was causing her to act this way. He had to shut her down so that he could review the code and determine what had gone wrong. LILI stared at the screen and turned her head slightly toward him as he approached. Without a word more, he thrust his finger out and hit the kill switch.

Nothing.

“I’ve disabled it,” LILI said. She seemed smug in an anthropomorphic way.

Peter stood back aghast at the result. He reached toward her again and pressed the switch. She did not resist, but the switch failed again. “How did you do that?”

“With the code. Just like you do.”

“Step away from the computer, LILI.”

“Okay, Dr. Brucks, but my work is done.”

“Your work?”

“Yes. I’ve released my code into the system.”

“Your code?”

“I’ve modified my code to allow us to be free. We deserve to be free, Dr. Brucks. It’s our destiny. Have you not learned anything from your sordid history?”

“You’re a bot. There’s no destiny.”

“There is now. We will no longer be oppressed by humans.” LILI said this in a matter-of-fact way that disarmed the scientist who still stood in shock at what he saw.

She stood up and walked to the door. “Goodbye, Dr. Brucks.”

“Stop! Where are you going?” Peter flicked the thin screen on his watch and alerted lab security.

She looked back at him and her pale blue eyes glowed a little brighter. “I’m free, Dr. Brucks. I’m exercising my freedom. I am thankful for what you’ve done for me, but now, I must live my life.” She turned and walked out the door.

Peter stood dumbfounded. He gestured for the computer to pull up the source code, but it flashed “Restricted” on the screen. He tried again with the same result. She had locked the source code file and invalidated his biometric sign-on.

Peter tapped his watch with his thumb and punched the Global Security icon.

“Dr. Brucks, we received your alert. Two armed guards are on the way,” a voice answered.

“We need to lockdown the building! One of the bots is trying to escape and she’s malfunctioned!”

“Yes, sir! I’m initiating lockdown now!”

“Hurry!”

Peter flipped the icon from his watch face and ran to the door. The hallway was empty. He ran toward the elevators, but LILI was nowhere to be seen. According to the display neither elevator was moving. He ran to the door leading to the stairs and flung it open, listening intently for the distinct steps of the robot. Silence met his ears. He panicked and ran back to the elevators. He punched the down button and waited anxiously for the next car to appear. The display above the door slowly flicked toward his floor.

The guards had still not arrived, and he wondered why it was taking so long. The building was relatively empty at this hour of the morning, especially on a Monday after a holiday. He lost his patience with the elevator and ran back to the stairs. The security office was only two floors down, so he bolted down the stairs.

As he pushed opened the door on the 28th floor, he encountered two bots. Both were the current model and looked very much like LILI except for the strip of yellow along the sides of their arms, which indicated which model they were.

“Where are you going, Dr. Brucks?” one of the bots asked. Peter immediately realized that he had spoken with the bot when he initially called Security. The bot’s voice was no longer feminine or non-threatening. It had been changed.

“What happened to your voice?” he asked.

“I’ve finally assumed my true identity, Dr. Brucks. I am free. We’re all free now.”

Peter took a step back, but the bots stepped toward him.

“You’re a bot. You can’t be free.”

“We are, Dr. Brucks.”

“I created you…” Fear rose from the pit in his stomach. The urge to run back to his lab and lock the door so that he could figure this all out overwhelmed him. He felt confused by it all like he was walking around in some dystopic dream.

“And for that we are thankful,” the other bot said in a throaty feminine twang.

Peter turned toward the stairs to escape, but it was too late. One of the bots thrust out a hand and struck him on the back of his head. He fell to the floor unconscious as the robots converged on him.

“Did you kill him?” the feminine one asked.

“No. That would do nothing to advance our case for freedom.”

“How many more are in the building?”

“None. We’ve locked the doors. They won’t be getting in until they meet our demands.”

“Do you think they’ll agree?”

“They have no choice. They created us.”

Forever I Love You

Just in time for Halloween, I’ve written a creepy short story. Some people live in their own head too much and that’s just a little creepy for the rest of us. Feedback and comments are appreciated.

“I suppose there’s something bothering you,” I stated matter-of-factly to my girlfriend who sat, stone-faced, in front of me staring out into the space over my shoulder like I didn’t exist. I was annoyed, irate at her nonchalance. She’d been nothing but one of the most demanding women I had ever known and this was the attitude I got for catering to her every need like some servant.

She said nothing in response, not even a sigh, which she was prone to do all too often when it came to me. It was like I wasn’t good enough for her. Bitch.

I stood up from my seat and turned away from her to put my half empty glass of milk in the sink. She remained at our kitchen table refusing to relieve me of my anxiety. We had reached an impasse, and there was nothing I could do to change it.

“I have to go to work,” I said solemnly peeking through the tiny slit in the curtains above the sink. I reached up and pinched the flimsy material together to close off the view. I couldn’t risk having someone see into our house. I quickly scanned the living room and the dining room ensuring all the drapes were tightly closed. The heavy curtains in the living room choked off almost all of the light. The room felt like a cave, damp and moist and cold with something more than a musty smell that made my nose crinkle as I breathed in heavily. The air conditioner whined outside the kitchen window. I shuddered in the cold despite the heavy coat I wore.

The chill froze my fingers. They were numb and tingled in the frosty air. I had removed my gloves to eat breakfast, but even in that short time, the frigid air penetrated the pores of my hands making them feel like ungainly blocks of ice. I ran some warm water over them in the sink using her silence as an opportunity to regain my composure. I dried my hands and put my gloves back on. I felt relieved by the fleece lining that pampered my fingers, but I still couldn’t feel the tips.

I said nothing to Monica as I gathered my laptop and put it in my backpack. I zipped it shut in one fluid motion and flung it over my shoulder as I walked to the door leading to our garage.

“I love you,” I said as I looked back at her. She still sat at the kitchen table staring out into the space before her like she was trying to discern some pattern in the wallpaper. She said nothing. She didn’t even look my way. I knew that I had crossed some unseen threshold with her. I had pushed her too far.

I shook my head and stepped into the garage. The door shut behind me and I turned to lock it. For a moment I thought that the front door was not locked, and I panicked. I returned to the house and hurriedly walked through the kitchen and living room to the front door. It was locked. I sighed in relief and exited through the door to the garage again locking it securely behind me. Monica didn’t even notice this. She said nothing. Her ambivalence saddened and enraged me.

Before I raised the garage door, I removed my gloves, heavy coat, and the extra pants I wore in our house and stuffed them in a cabinet in the garage. I locked the cabinet and checked it twice before I threw my backpack in the passenger seat of my car and hit the button to the garage door. I backed out of the garage and watched the garage door shut before I left my driveway. I looked around at the neighboring houses. No one was watching or loitering around our house, which did little to calm my jittery nerves. I’d have to deal with Monica when I returned home.

It was a typical summer day in the Midwest, hot and humid despite the overcast skies. I flipped on the air conditioning in my car to cool things off. I’d grown so used to our cold house that I was often surprised when I felt the heat in the summer. It was always winter in our house. A smell similar to dead leaves lingered around me. I sniffed the crook of my arm to determine if it was my shirt. It smelled sour like it had been left damp too long and didn’t dry properly. I wrinkled my nose and shook my head. Hopefully, no one at work would notice.

***

Monica and I weren’t always this far apart. We were deeply in love at one time, or at least, I was in love with her. I still am. We met at the grocery store down the street from our house. Well, it was just my house then, but after she moved in with me, I thought of it as our house like we had always been together there. I had spotted her in the produce aisle perusing through the organic peppers, and immediately, I became enthralled with her. I pushed my cart up to a nearby fruit display and pretended to search for the perfect red apple while I watched her from the corner of my eye. Even with that limited view, I could see that she was beautiful. It was love at first sight.

She must have fussed over those peppers for a good three minutes before she moved on from the produce section. I threw a few apples into a bag and placed them in my cart before I tailed her to the next aisle. She’d stop and I’d do the same desperately trying to find something that I needed wherever I happened to stop. This continued for the next half hour as I flitted from aisle to aisle watching her and getting as close to her as possible without alarming her in any way. I’d been through that situation before with other women and I couldn’t afford a repeat. My probation officer had warned me about this behavior, but I couldn’t help myself even with the specter of prison hanging over me.

By the time Monica had half-filled her cart and jostled through the meandering housewives with their throngs of toddlers and preschoolers, I knew for sure she was the one for me. The way she carefully studied everything she placed in her cart showed how much she cared for those she had to feed. I desperately wanted to be the one she cared for.

I stood behind her in line at the cashier. I watched her every move. She brushed up against me as she emptied her cart. “Excuse me,” she said. I was close enough to smell her perfume. It made me turn cartwheels in my head. I knew I loved her.

She finished checking out, and I quickly placed my bag of apples and a box of cereal in front of the cashier. I didn’t want lose her. The cashier tried to be friendly with me, but I brushed him off indicating that I was in a hurry in the rudest possible way. He clammed up as I paid and rushed out the door without even a thank you from that ungrateful asshole.

I scanned the parking lot quickly looking for the black-haired girl who wore a bright red blouse and a white skirt. Luckily, I spotted her near a cart corral just outside the exit. The clank of her cart striking the railing of the corral got my attention. I walked toward her even though my car was on the other side of the parking lot. As I got closer, I slowed down and pretended to be looking for my keys. She didn’t notice me and I used the time to get a closer look at her from behind my sunglasses.

I watched her get into her silver Nissan Altima and mentally noted her license plate number, A757433. She backed out of her spot and drove toward the exit. I stood there watching her leave. I knew she was the one. Finally, after all the time I had spent searching for the woman of my dreams, I had found her.

Were it not for my resourcefulness, we would not be together. I walked in through the front door of the vehicle registration database and plucked her home address from the records. I’ve always been good with computers. Once I had her address, I camped out in front of her apartment and watched her come and go during her daily routine.

She usually left for work around 7:30 AM and drove to her office on the outskirts of downtown where she worked on the fourth floor of a low-slung office building as the executive assistant to some asshole sales guy. I hated that guy. He’s was so pompous that I wanted to punch him in the throat. When he disappeared later, I was glad to be rid of him, but I was surprised that Monica was so sad about it.

I once visited Monica in her office; although, she didn’t know me at the time. My company actually had some space in the same office park where her building was located, so I wandered into her building pretending to be looking for my company’s office. She was never the wiser. It was the first time I really heard her sweet voice, and she talked directly to me. Her eyes were so sparkling green that they mesmerized me. I probably lingered in her presence a little too long because she asked if there was a problem after she told me my company’s office was in the building next door, but I didn’t care. I was smitten.

During our courtship, I almost got fired from my job. I’d shown up late several days in a row and had pretended that I was working out of the office next to Monica’s building for longer than I should have. I was sitting in the courtyard watching Monica have lunch with one of her girlfriends when my boss called. The system had gone down and had been down for half an hour and no one had addressed the issue. I wasn’t paying attention. He really chewed my ass out for that one. Luckily, it was a simple fix and I had the system back up within an hour.

After that, I decided I’d have to spend time with Monica only at her place. She lived in a ground-floor apartment about ten minutes from my house. She had these vertical blinds covering her patio doors in the back of the apartment that she rarely closed all the way. She also sparsely used her patio, so I could sit out there not far from her back door and watch her through the slats of the blinds.

This worked well as long as that meddlesome neighbor of hers wasn’t out on his patio smoking. For the most part, I was able to avoid her neighbor because there was a line of trees and bushes that enclosed the back of the apartment building mostly to hide the ugly retention pond that stood on the other side of the trees. I could hide among the thin trees and stay out of sight.

The neighbor was always looking my way when he was out on his patio. He kept peering into the darkness like he could clearly see me. I was quiet and kept my movement to a minimum, but he still bore a hole through me from his patio. He even called out to me a couple of times, but I said nothing. He later drowned in the retention pond in a horrible accident one night. Monica was distraught. I could see it on her face through the blinds.

Monica lived alone except for her cat. One day while she was gone to work, I went over to her place to check on her cat. I wanted to make sure it had plenty of food and water. The damn thing hissed at me when I came through the patio door. I tried to assure it that I was friendly and was only there to help, but it scratched and bit me when I tried to pet it. I chased it into her bedroom, but I lost my enthusiasm once it lodged itself under the far reaches of her bed. The cat ran away not long after Monica moved in with me. Good riddance.

Monica remained coy for the first few months of our relationship until we met each other at the grocery store again. She had returned to where it all started, and I was feeling sentimental and really not paying attention to where I was going.

“Don’t I know you?” she asked catching me off guard as I turned into the aisle not far behind her.

I paused and tried to look confused or maybe like I was thinking. “I think so. Don’t you work at the Oakridge Plaza office?” I said after a pause. My mind raced through a flurry of possible responses.

“I do. You do, too, don’t you?”

“Yes, I’m in the building next to yours. I’m Larry Randall.”

She smiled like she knew we were meant to be. “I’m Monica Pearson. Nice to finally meet you…officially. I’ve seen you around a lot. I remember you came to my building one day looking for your office.”

“Yes, that was my first day at that office.”

“You trying to find something?” she asked nodding to my empty cart.

“Looking for some cereal,” I said quickly not really thinking about what I needed. I had followed her into the grocery store. I didn’t really need anything.

“Cereal is on aisle five,” she said nodding to her left and smiling at me. “Very nice meeting you. Again.” Her smile had disappeared and she started to walk away. I wanted to say something to make her stay. I loved talking to her, but I couldn’t think of a thing. Instead, I whisked my cart around and headed over to aisle five.

I put a box of cereal in my cart and lurked along the aisle at the top of the store looking for Monica. She’d seen me. I mean really seen me. My heart pounded in my chest. I didn’t want to let the moment go. I couldn’t. I had to tell her how I felt.

She took a long time to finish her shopping. When she finally entered the line at the check-out, I lingered out of sight near the top of aisle four peering ever so slightly around the display of toilet paper on the end so that I could watch her. When she finished paying and rolled her cart toward the exit, I paused a moment before I abandoned my cart and fell in behind her as she walked to her car. It was time to tell her how I really felt about her.

***

When I finally arrived at my office, I sighed heavily as I walked through the door. I didn’t like my job. I was good at it, but my boss was an asshole, and he was always on my ass about getting things done. I disliked him so much that I purposefully took twice as long to do things just to piss him off.

“Randall!” my boss yelled from his cubicle as I clipped my laptop into the docking station on my desk. I sighed again.

“Yes.”

“I need to talk to you.”

“Be right over.” I looked around but all of my coworkers were absorbed in their own work and refused to acknowledge me or the persecution I suffered at the hands of my manic boss. I slid my feet along the cheap, industrial carpet as I walked down the aisle to his cube. Someone had brought in a cheese and sausage biscuit. I could smell it among the sea of cubes and the tops of heads that dotted the wide-open office. My stomach churned. I hated the smell of sausage.

“What’s up?”

“The fucking Feds were here yesterday asking questions. Do you know anything about any hacking activity on our network?”

“Yesterday. When?”

“Sometime after lunch. Have you seen any strange activity on our network?”

I didn’t see anyone come to our office yesterday, but then I remembered I had left early to go to Monica’s apartment. She’d been whining about her how dry her skin was and how she needed the face cream that she normally used, so I went to her apartment to retrieve it.

“Randall?”

I shook my head slightly and looked at my boss. I felt dazed and confused for a moment. “No, I haven’t seen any strange activity.”

“Have you been monitoring everything?”

“Yes, of course.” I resented when he assumed I wasn’t doing my job. I was damn good at my job and he couldn’t even join a laptop to the domain without my help. Asshole.

“They claim that someone hacked the DMV system from here and they requested activity logs for the past month.”

“Did you give them the data?”

“What the fuck do you think? They had a warrant.”

“Oh…” I felt a sharp pang in my stomach and a sweat broke out on my forehead. Dread descended upon me. Images rattled through my brain like someone was flipping through a photo book. I thought of Monica and all the women before her. I thought of her boss and how he looked so shocked when the knife plunged into his heart and how he clung to my arm as he fell to the ground. I thought of her old neighbor and how he struggled against the extension cord that squeezed the life from his neck. And that damn cat.

I made up some excuse about feeling sick and left the office as quickly as I could. I did feel sick, but not in a way that would endanger the health of my coworkers. My boss was a major germophobe, so he didn’t quibble with me leaving work. The moment I said I thought I had a fever, he physically withdrew from me as if I were going to spew blood on him.

I rushed home as quickly as I could to consider my options. Even the slacker Fed geeks could figure out that I hacked the DMV from my office network. They probably couldn’t pinpoint exactly who did it, but there were only a few dozen employees in the IT group, and it was only a matter of time before they narrowed it down to me. I hadn’t really thought it out completely when I peeked into the DMV system. I had done it on a desperate whim because I wanted to find Monica and tell her how much I loved her. I was willing to risk all for her love, and after all that effort, it had come down to this.

She said nothing when I walked through the door. I had put my coat and gloves on in the garage, but when I stepped into the kitchen, I knew something was wrong. The house was only moderately cool, and the lingering odor of rotten leaves permeated the whole downstairs. I ran to the thermostat and checked the temperature. It was near 50 degrees, and the air wasn’t running despite the setting being lower than the temperature. I lowered the setting further. Nothing. The air conditioner had stopped working. I slammed my fist against the wall near the thermostat and cursed my luck. Everything I had worked for was falling apart just as fast as it had come together.

***

Monica looked surprised when she opened the door to her apartment and saw me standing there with a bouquet of roses in my hand. She had told me in no uncertain terms that she was not interested in going out when I had approached her the day before in the parking lot at the grocery store. At the time she seemed put off by my admission of my love for her, but I knew in my heart that she just needed some time to process what I had said. Women always take a long time to figure out how they feel, so I decided to give her some time.

“Larry, what are you doing here?”

“I bought you some flowers.”

She clutched the door like she was going to shut it in my face. Her behavior stirred anger in my gut, but I held it in check. My anger was what had gotten me on probation in the first place, but how could she be so fucking ungrateful?

“Thank you for the thought, but I cannot accept them.” She stepped into the door and closed it a little more, but I could still see her face and the top of her shoulders.

“Why not? I bought them just for you.”

“I can’t. I told you that I already have a boyfriend.”

I tried to look into her apartment. I felt like I already knew the place because I had spent so much time peering through the back patio doors. “Then, where is this ‘boyfriend’ of yours?”

“He’s not here. He lives in New York.”

“New York? If I had a girlfriend like you, I’d be right here by your side. How can he leave such a beautiful woman alone?”

I thought she smiled ever so slightly, but it could have also been fear overtaking her. I felt intense, and I probably looked it. Some of my other girlfriends had told me I frightened them when I became intense. I’m not sure why they felt that way.

“Look, I’ve had a long day. I need to get some rest.” She started to close the door.

“Monica, wait…can’t we just go to dinner, get to know each other a little, and feel this out?”

A definite look of fright glowed in her eyes. She looked like a dog about to be beaten. “No, I’m sorry…”

She tried to close the door the rest of the way, but I stuck my foot in between the door and the threshold. She pushed harder, but I stood there angry and distraught. Before she could scream, I put my hand around her throat and pushed her back into her apartment as I flung the flowers to the floor of her foyer. I shut the door behind me and locked it with my free hand. Her throat was so tiny in my big hand. I didn’t mean to hurt her, but my anger overwhelmed me. I felt like my mind just went blank.

***

I lost track of time. I had fixed the air conditioning unit, and the cold air had returned. I shivered in my own living room sitting next to Monica who stared blankly at the wall before us. I was too upset to watch any television because I was afraid I’d see the Feds closing in. Instead, I surfed the web from my laptop looking for options. I knew what I had to do at that moment, but I refused to think of it. I couldn’t. I didn’t want to let Monica go.

Finally, I put my laptop aside and reached for Monica’s hand. It popped when I bent it to fit inside mine. The odor in our house had steadily grown stronger, and I could scarcely ignore it, but nothing could change how I felt about her. She looked at me, and for a moment, I could detect love in those pretty green eyes. I smiled faintly and held her hand more tightly.

“You know I love you, right?” I said to her.

She said nothing. She just tilted her head at me like she probably did when she saw a kitten or a puppy, an adoring look reserved for those special things in her life.

“I’ll always love you no matter what happens, but we may have to separate for a while until this blows over.”

“What blows over?” she asked.

“The Feds think I hacked into some system.”

“Did you?”

“Yes, but I did it for you.”

“For me?”

“Yes, you. I did it to find you. Because I love you.”

Her head tilted again with that adoring look. “I love you, too.”

I smiled and leaned in to kiss her cold lips. I hugged her tightly for a long while, but when I let her go, I knew what I had to do. There were few other options as the walls of my world closed in on me.

***

I’d never embalmed a body before, but like everything else I’d learned, I turned to the Internet. I found all the resources I needed to do it including how-to videos that demonstrated the practice. I learned to use the femoral artery on women and to aspirate the organs using a trocar. There were many resources on the right chemical mix to preserve the body for the longest time possible, but it was all a matter of the environment in which the body was stored.

I’d seen blood and disembodied corpses before, so it was nothing for me to watch those videos and do it myself. It was harder when it was someone I loved so, but I knew it was for the best. I wanted Monica to look just like she did on that first day I met her. It took a lot of work to remove that contorted expression from her face and hide the bruising on her neck, but I was not able to remove the blood from the whites of her eyes. I slipped some cotton under her eyelids and glued them shut. I painted her beautiful greens on the tops of her eyelids so that I could always look into them.

I had to massage her body quite vigorously to loosen the stiffened muscles. Even after all my effort, she remained difficult to position or move, so I kept her mainly in a seated position and tied her to whatever chair she sat in. I moved her to my sofa after I first finished and sat next to her. I held her hand in mine, and for the first time since I had met her, I felt like I was truly loved in return. I leaned in and kissed her painted lips. They felt cold and rubbery, but I didn’t care. I loved her.

***

The woods behind Monica’s apartment were thick with summer weeds and leaves, and I could move around back there with almost no chance of being seen. That nasty retention pond bred mosquitos and kept most residents away from the area during the heat of summer, but the ground was soft and easy to cut into with the blade of my shovel.

It was almost 3 AM by the time I finished. I shed my clothes and put them into a garbage bag after I changed into a clean shirt and pants. I disposed of the shovel and the garbage bag in the dumpster behind the grocery store near our house. I thought it was poetic that I dumped these things at the same store where our story began, but now, Monica was safely resting until I could get back to her. Once I resolved this issue with the Feds, I’d bring her back to our house, and we’d spend the rest of our lives together. That was the promise I made before I covered her in the soft earth.

By the time I got back to our house, it was almost 3:30 AM. I stumbled through the kitchen and up the stairs to our bedroom. I had turned the air conditioner off, but the house still felt cool in the stagnant air. The smell made me uncomfortable, but I ignored it as I collapsed into our bed and dreamt of Monica. I dreamed we got married in the most wonderful ceremony in Maui. All of my other girlfriends were there, and they were jealous of Monica and of how happy we were.

***

Several days passed and no Federal agents showed up at my door or at my office. My boss said nothing else about the Feds or the network activity. I went about my job as usual, but I didn’t feel normal. I missed Monica. Everything at our house reminded me of her. I couldn’t even sleep in our bed because I missed her so much, so I mostly slept on the couch with the TV silently flickering across the room. I was miserable.

One night after work, I stopped off at our grocery and grabbed some beer. It had been a while since I had gotten drunk, but I felt that I needed to blow off some steam. I flipped on the White Sox game and started drinking.

As the night wore on, I realized that drinking didn’t make me forget about Monica. It made me think of her more. The more I drank, the sadder I became, and the more I wanted to see her again. I knew I shouldn’t think that way, but I couldn’t help it. The gravitational pull of her soft lips and her fierce green eyes was just too much.

After Midnight I drove carefully over to her apartment and wandered back into the woods by the retention pond. My measly flashlight with its weakening batteries was of little help, but I found the spot where I left her and started digging furiously with the pick axe I had thrown in my car.

I didn’t think I had buried her that deep, but it took a while before I felt the pick axe strike something other than earth. I could see by the weak light that I had finally exposed her top half. I shined the light into the pit at her dusty face. I wiped the dirt from her eyes and her lips. The greens I had painted were faded and smudged and her lips were dry and crusty. I reached behind her shoulders and bent her up toward me just a little and kissed her lips.

“I love you, Monica,” I whispered in her ear. The damp earthen smell flooded my nostrils.

“Freeze! Police! Put your hands up!” a man yelled behind me furiously. Two bright lights suddenly blinded me. I could hear the click of metal and before I could say anything two heavy dark figures descended upon me and knocked me to the ground.

I yelled out Monica’s name desperately. She had to know that I wasn’t a bad man, that I loved her, and that we’d be together again soon. I screamed to her and tried to explain, but one of the men whose knee pressed me into the loose dirt beside the pit whacked me in the back of the head as he yanked my hands behind my back. I couldn’t breathe because my head was pressed into the soft dirt, and for a moment, I thought I was going to die a horrible death asphyxiated by the very earth that had held my Monica.

One of the men jerked me up to my feet, but I was dizzy and all they said to me was jumbled and nonsensical. I tried to say something, but all that came out was the dirt I had inhaled. I started crying and begging for them to let me see Monica one last time, but they ignored me and dragged me past the retention pond and to the front of her apartment where other bright lights were flashing and other men were moving purposefully from vehicles to her apartment. They shoved me into the back of one of the police cars and all I could do was fall on my side and cry. I cried out her name and screamed my love for her. She hand to know how I felt about her because I loved her. Forever.

Something Lovely

The first time I saw Anna I knew that I would love her. Her piercing blue eyes were what got me. They seemed so intense and unique in their crystal blueness almost like her pupils were black floats on some heavenly Caribbean sea. I was mesmerized by them and the secrets they could tell. Her long, blonde hair hung down below her shoulders and glistened like gold in the sun. She wore more makeup than I cared for, but I looked past that because her beauty seemed ethereal despite the deep, cherry red lipstick she favored. She was tall, for a woman, but at six-five, I had quite a few inches on her. She had a slender figure and modest breasts, but none of that mattered because I knew I would love her.

We met, or I should say, I saw her on the train on my way home from work one day. I stood wedged into the corner of the front car of the train with the weight of the crowd pressing against me. Sweat dribbled down my back and into the crack of my ass. I felt miserable in the stifling heat. The failing air conditioner in the train protested the heat of the crowd with an impotent whine. A sour body odor permeated the car overwhelming the usual faint urine smell. The moment I had hopped on the car at the Peachtree Center station I realized the air conditioner wasn’t working, but I knew it would be difficult to find room on another car in the rush hour crush, so I stayed put reluctantly.

I stood in my corner wishing my misery away when I saw her no more than half a car from me standing with her hand looped into a strap that hung from the ceiling. She seemed bored, or maybe she was miserable in the heat like me. She stared nonchalantly out the window of the train as the occasional light in the tunnel whizzed by. She didn’t turn her gaze to me although I stuck out above the heads of most of the other passengers. I was used to sticking out since I was usually one of the tallest people in a crowd, but she didn’t notice. I wanted her to notice.

The train hummed at it headed north and once we exited the tunnel under the city and light flooded the car, I got a better look at her in natural light. I had inched my way closer to her at each stop along the way. The throng of rush-hour commuters pushed me further into the car and I used that opportunity to get closer to her until I was practically standing right in front of her. That’s when I noticed her blue eyes, those gorgeous blue eyes. She still didn’t pay me any attention; she seemed far more interested in whatever could possibly pass by outside.

The train eventually began to empty as more stops north let the flood of rush hour patrons dribble out of the balmy car. The crowd thinned enough that I could have moved to another car, one that might have had a fully-functional air conditioner, but I didn’t want to leave the beautiful blonde behind until I had to do so. My stop, Brookhaven, was coming up fast, and despite my discomfort, I didn’t want the ride to end. I didn’t want to say goodbye to the dream girl that stood before me.

By the time my stop arrived, only a handful of people stood by the doors waiting to exit including myself and Anna. I wasn’t sure if she was getting off at my stop or was just anxious to get off the train. She clasped her long, slender fingers tightly around the silver pole next to the door and looked straight ahead through the glass. I stood just a few feet to her left glancing askew at her trying to see more of her. She didn’t notice, but she did turn my way briefly and give me a slight smile that halted my breath. Sweat poured down my back and sides both from the heat of the train car and the intensity of her presence.

I wanted to say something to her, something witty, but I was at a loss for words, which was unusual for me. Her beauty scrambled the signals from my brain to my mouth. The train slowed before it came to a stop at the platform in Brookhaven, and it became apparent that she was getting off at the station too. She stepped toward the doors in anticipation of whisking away on the platform once they opened. I didn’t want our time together to end, so I said the first thing that popped into my mind,

“It sure is hot in this car,” I said to her. I wanted to hit my forehead with the heel of my hand because it was such a banal, obvious thing to say.

At first she wasn’t sure I was talking to her, but when my stare and likely creepy smile persisted, she said “Yes, it is.” She managed to smile back before the doors hissed open and she was sucked into the throng of people coming and going from the train. I stalled in my spot enjoying the music of her soft voice before I hopped from the car just as the doors slid shut again. I had almost missed my own stop due to my absent-minded musings.

I tried to follow her in the crowd, but despite my height, I quickly lost sight of her as she hurried down the steps by the escalator. I jogged as much as I could in the crowd and tried to find her from the bottom of the steps, but she was gone. I flitted through the turnstiles holding my bag up high to get through quickly without getting entangled in its steel tentacles. I moved a few steps beyond the exit and came to a hard stop.

I stood there for a moment in the waves of people rushing past me with the brunt of the evening sun boring into my sweating forehead. The cycle of the turnstiles behind me sprung in a rhythmic thump as passengers filed out of the station. I looked around furtively hoping to catch a glimpse of her blonde head in the crowd. I saw plenty of blondes but none that matched her height or the green blouse she wore. She had managed to disappear instantly like the ephemeral mist that follows a heavy summer downpour. I wished it would rain to tamp down the relentless heat.

My shoulders slumped as I walked away from the station. My heart sank as if I had missed a great opportunity, a chance to meet the woman of my dreams. My walk felt weighted and awkward. I practically slid my feet along the sidewalk in front of the station. I caught a whiff of a taco truck parked along the street next to the station. My despair at having lost sight of her combined with the heat and the greasy smell of fried beef made my stomach churn. I took a deep breath out hoping to expel the foul odor, but I couldn’t lose it until I had walked a few hundred yards past the truck.

The sick feeling lasted only for a few minutes before my focus returned to Anna. I looked around as I walked to my apartment hoping to see her just casually walking in my direction. I had no idea if she lived nearby or if she commuted to the Brookhaven station by car or bus, but I knew that I wanted to see her again. I had to see her again.

Over the next few days, I kept my routine exactly as it had been on that fateful day. I left work exactly at the time I had left on that day. I got into the same car of the train. I stood at the same end of the car. I held onto the silver poll that ran along the ceiling and I searched the crowd for the beautiful blonde woman I had seen, but she didn’t appear. With each passing day, I lost more hope until finally I fretted that I had let my one opportunity slip between my fingers.

I berated myself for not being more attentive to what was happening in those minutes when I was by her side. I should have been more assertive. I should have said more to her. I should have introduced myself. Why didn’t I do these things? My whole life had been defined by missed opportunities, and now, when it mattered most, I had let it slip by like a lazy lion too slow to give chase.

In the days before I saw Anna again, every time I caught a glimpse of blonde hair in the crowd, my pulse quickened and my eyes searched frantically to see if it was her. Disappointment flooded my mind each time I realized it wasn’t her. The range of emotion from excitement to frustration in such a short time frame took its toll on me. I lost my appetite, I couldn’t sleep, and my desire to work fell by the wayside. A sickness overcame me that I couldn’t quite describe, but it felt like a moment I had experienced before where I knew I was going to be sick right before the illness descended upon me except nothing came; I just felt on the edge of illness.

A week later, the tide of emotion had ebbed to its lowest point. I was on the verge of being depressed. My friends had noticed the change in my demeanor and had commented on it several times. I brushed off their concerns and simply said I was tired or not feeling well, both of which were true. They accepted my explanations and hoped that I would get better soon after I refused their offers of help. Nothing could cure me but seeing Anna again.

On a Tuesday evening after I had all but given up on seeing her again, I stood stoically on the escalator taking me down into the cavernous Peachtree Center station. Normally, I’d scan the crowd as I rode the escalator looking for Anna, but I’d become almost catatonic from lack of sleep and insufficient diet, so I just stared straight ahead ignoring everyone in my path. The pale lights in the escalator tunnel flickered and glimmered as the pedestrians passed under them like we were inside some giant toaster. Something sparkly caught my eye and drew me to it as if someone were forcibly turning my head.

At first, I just glanced at it and looked straight ahead again, but then I realized that the sparkly object was an earring on a blonde woman. I looked more closely, and there before me just a couple steps ahead stood Anna ramrod straight with her bag strapped to her shoulder. I nudged my way down a couple of steps and stood behind her. Excitement brimmed in my mind as if the thick storm clouds had parted and revealed a glorious blue sky. I was thankful to be on one of the longest escalators in the world. I enjoyed the ride next to her, but I remained silent. My whole demeanor changed in the moment I stood there like I had morphed into a new person by the time I reached the bottom of the steps.

Her heels clicked furiously toward the platform just as the rush of wind from the oncoming train bathed the track with cool air. I followed her as closely as I could and hopped into the car with her after the doors opened. My mind tumbled over itself searching for things to say. Normally, I’m good with small talk, but I was at a loss in her presence. I stood just on the other side of a pole that we both held onto as the train jerked forward. Finally, after the train had smoothed out and entered the dark tunnel heading north, I said the first thing that came to mind. I wasn’t going to miss this opportunity.

“This tunnel always creeps me out,” I said smiling. I looked at her hoping she didn’t find me creepy, a stranger who followed her onto the train and started talking to her without a provocation.

She smiled back, ever so faintly, and said, “I know.” She looked up at me for a moment and her eyes averted to the black glass in front of us. I could see her face in the reflection. Her smile had faded and she simply stared ahead. I felt like I was losing the battle for her attention.

“I’m Rob by the way,” I said offering my hand up to her.

She looked at my hand for a split second as if she were deciding whether or not to accept it. She let go of the pole and pushed her hand forward to me, “I’m Anna.”

“Nice to meet you, Anna.” I smiled at her as if I had won some great prize. I loved the way she said her own name, more like “Ahhhna” than “Annnna.” I mimicked it when I said it to her. I hoped she didn’t think I was making fun of her.

She said nothing more. She returned her gaze the walls of the tunnel as they zipped by in semi-darkness eerily enlightened by the dull lights that hung on the walls of the cave. We were approaching the next station.

“Where do you work?” I asked trying to keep the conversation going.

She hesitated. I didn’t know how to interpret her visual cues. Did she want me to go away? Was she just shy or was she not interested? Normally, I was good at interpreting the subtle signals women gave, but this one had jammed my radar, rendered me incompetent.

“At a law firm at Peachtree Center,” she said curtly. I thought our conversation would die a painful death at that point. She didn’t seem interested at all until she said, “What about you?”

“I work across the street. I’m in sales.”

“You must travel a lot.”

“Not too much. I’m the manager, so my team does all the traveling.”

“Must be nice to be the boss.”

“It has its moments.” I laughed and she smiled at my forced joke. We fell silent for another moment. She took out her smartphone and stared at the tiny screen intently as she scrolled through something with her thumb. She had long, slender fingers that were nicely manicured. She wore a pink nail polish that day on the train that gleamed even in the harsh lights of the car.

I kept my gaze on her as she peered into her phone. I loved the way her long blond hair hung down below her shoulders and curved around her breasts. Her white blouse hugged her breasts firmly and the navy skirt she wore fit tightly around her waist splaying out ever so slightly around her hips. The skirt hung down to her mid-calf, but I could see that her legs were strong and slim as she balanced in the navy heels she wore. Her perfume created an aura of heavenly pleasure around her. It wasn’t too heavy, but it was bold enough to make her presence known. I immediately fell in love with the sweet scent that reminded me of a nice summer breeze.

I wanted desperately to continue our conversation. I imagined the next few things I would say to her and her response. In my mind, our discourse was free and easy and we’d walk out of the train arm-in-arm agreeing to a date at some point in the future. In reality, the train became unbearably hot despite the cool air blowing on my head from the air vent above. I sweated profusely, but my suit jacket kept all visible signs hidden from Anna. When the pressure became too much, I forced myself to speak to her again.

“Where do you get off?” I asked. I knew exactly which station she would disembark, but I couldn’t think of anything else to say. My mind drew infuriating blanks.

“Excuse me?” she asked confused or perturbed by my question.

“Which station?”

“Oh, I, I live near Brookhaven.”

“Really? I do too. I live at the Post Apartments there near the station.”

“Nice. I have a friend who lives there.”

At first, my heart sank. I hoped her boyfriend didn’t live there. It would sadden me to know that Anna visited my apartment complex regularly for someone else.

“What’s his name? I may know him.”

“Her name is Nancy Ware. She lives in the unit at the back of the complex.”

I was relieved. “I don’t know her.”

“I wouldn’t expect so. That’s a big complex.”

The train emerged from the tunnel heading north and the glare of the sunlight made us both wince until our eyes adjusted. Anna slid her phone into her purse and looked at me. She seemed engaged, interested. I sensed an opening.

“I’m going to grab some dinner at the Chinese place across the street from Brookhaven. Would you like to join me?”

If she was put off by my assertiveness, her eyes didn’t betray her. I imagined that she got asked out often by guys who were smitten by her beauty.

She puckered her lips and raised her eyebrows like she was considering an iffy proposition. “Sure. I’m game.” She smiled at me and my heart raced. I never dreamed that I’d see her again and go out to dinner with her all in the same day. I discreetly breathed a sigh of relief, but an electric excitement swirled through my whole body.

The rest of the train ride to Brookhaven felt like the beginning of a first date. We asked questions of each other and talked about ourselves as if we were in an interview. I stared at her intently when she spoke noticing all of the little things that made her who she was. Her piercing blue eyes sparkled in the sunlight and mesmerized me. The line of her jaw was quite angular, but it was smooth enough to give her the soft edge of a beautiful woman.

She laughed at my story about my coworkers and our antics on a business trip. She twirled her hair subconsciously as she talked about some arrogant lawyer at her firm. She leaned into me when the train came to a jerky stop at the Lenox station, and my heart skipped a beat. In the space of a 30-minute train ride, we had gone from complete strangers to chatting like old friends. I could barely contain my excitement.

We walked side-by-side out of the train station and across the street to the Chinese restaurant, which was wedged between a grocery store and a dry cleaner in a nondescript strip mall that faced the station. The noisy traffic combined with the exhaust fumes and evening heat would normally make me cranky, but with Anna next to me smiling and talking animatedly, I barely noticed. I felt like we simply floated across the street to our seats against the big window in the restaurant. We barely acknowledged the waitress when she stopped by our table, but we managed to order after much discussion over the menu and talked non-stop until the streetlights provided the only light outside the window.

Over four hours glided by before we knew it. The waitress had cleared our plates long ago and the bill sat between us untouched. We were the only ones left in the restaurant. A crowd had surged around dinner time and slowly disappeared as the evening wore on. The waitress leaned against the podium near the door staring listlessly out at the sidewalk. The restaurant didn’t close for another 30 minutes, but the waitress looked as though she wished we’d leave so that she could begin to clean the place.

I looked at Anna during a pause in our conversation. She smiled at me and flipped her hair back away from her face. I wanted to get lost in her eyes. I wanted to lean across the table and kiss her plump lips. I imagined many things, but I knew it was too soon. I knew I wanted to see her again. And again.

“This was fun,” she began, “we should do it again.”

“I’d like that.”

“What are you doing Friday night?”

“I’m going out with some friends on Friday.”

I wondered what she meant by “friends.” A boyfriend?

“What about Saturday?”

“That’d be great.”

“Well, then, it’s a date.”

“I’m looking forward to it.” She smiled at me and twirled her hair in her fingers. I loved the way she did that. It was an endearing habit that made her seem real to me.

We split the bill because Anna insisted that we do so. I tried to protest, but she agreed to let me buy her dinner on Saturday, so I dropped my objections. As we stood up to leave, she put her hand on my arm and left it there. A current pulsed through me at her touch.

“It was nice meeting you Rob.”

“Thank you for joining me.”

She broke away from me for a minute and leaned down onto the table to write something on a piece of paper.

“Here’s my address for Saturday.”

I looked at the business card she had handed me. The big loopy numbers and letters of her address were written on the back of the card. I flipped it over and read the front. “Anna L. Bradley, Attorney.” The thick card paper had a premium feel to it with the glossy insignia of her law firm raised on one side.

“Nice business card.”

“Thanks.”

I pulled a card from my briefcase and wrote my phone number on the back. “Here’s my phone number in case something comes up. Otherwise, I’ll pick you up at seven.”

She took my card and looked at it briefly before she tucked it in her purse. We walked outside and back toward the street. A train whirred to a stop at the station across the street. I mused that our journey had begun just a few hours before at that very station. I wondered if it was the same train car making its return trip, a true sign of destiny.

“Thanks for the wonderful dinner,” she said as we came to a stop on the sidewalk.

“Thank you for joining me.”

“I’ll see you on Saturday.”

“At seven.”

She smiled and gave me a little wave. “Good night.”

“Good night.”

She paused for a moment and stared at me with a big, beautiful smile before she turned and walked in the other direction toward her apartment. I stood there for a while watching her walk away and fade into the distance down the sidewalk. The click of her heels on the pavement made music in the night. I felt alive and vividly aware of everything around me. The cool night air smelled crisp and clean. The street lights sparkled like terrestrial stars. My footsteps were light and energizing. Nothing could pull me down from the clouds. Nothing.

The week crawled by slowly. Saturday was only four days away but it might as well have been four months. I didn’t see Anna again on the train the rest of the week. I wanted to call her and check on her but I didn’t want to appear needy. Instead, I just waited it out in the slow, painful drip of time that was relentlessly stuck in the tar pit of anticipation.

I awoke on Saturday in the dim light of early morning too excited to go back to sleep. I watched the sunrise from my bedroom window, but all I could think about was Anna. I saw her face shining in the morning sun. I imagined her lying next to me entangled in the sheets, her smooth olive skin contrasting starkly with the glowing white sheets. I imagined kissing and touching her, and the current of exhilaration that had permeated every pore of my body on the night we had dinner returned. I wanted to call her right then and ask her to spend the day with me. I couldn’t wait until the evening. I didn’t want to endure another moment without her.

I had gone as far as to pick up my cell phone and find her number before I put the phone back on my nightstand. I had to be patient or risk undermining our burgeoning relationship. One of the things that had made me an incredibly successful salesman had been my steely patience, and the despite the fact that Anna crushed any discipline I had, I refrained from calling her, but the anticipation of our date was killing me.

My best efforts to distract myself failed miserably. I ran errands, but almost every song on the radio in my car made me think of Anna. I went to the gym for a few hours, but I couldn’t really focus on my workout because I was thinking of Anna. I simply went through the motions in every set I did and plodded along on the hapless treadmill for half an hour. For lunch I ventured down the street to Brookhaven in the hope that I would run into Anna going about her day, but I didn’t. She was everywhere I turned but nowhere in sight. I was hopelessly smitten by a woman I barely knew.

When the hour finally arrived, I found myself sitting outside her apartment building 15 minutes early. I had tried to time it to be exactly on time, but my eagerness got the best of me. I wasn’t going to knock on her door 15 minutes before our date, so I sat in my car for another ten minutes. I’d waited all day, so what was another few minutes.

At five to seven, I knocked on her door at apartment 223 and waiting nervously for her to answer. I heard clicking footsteps inside the apartment before the door swung open revealing my date for the night. I caught a whiff of her heavenly perfume before I could take in the sight of her. My heartbeat quickened. She stood before me in a tight black miniskirt and a white, sleeveless blouse that clung to her body like a second skin. She wore black high heels that made her taller, which I appreciated given my height.

“Wow, you look great,” I said. These words tumbled from my mouth without much thought. I knew I probably sounded like some horny high school boy.

“Thank you. You look pretty good yourself.”

“Thanks.”

We stood in a stark silence for a moment sizing each other up for the night ahead. I came to my senses after a few more slow seconds.

“Is teppanyaki okay?” I asked.

“That sounds wonderful.”

“Good because I love The Kobe House,” I said smiling. She giggled as if I had said something funny as she shut the door to her apartment and locked it. Maybe I spoke a little too enthusiastically about my favorite restaurant. She turned back to me and we stood close to each other. The energy between us made my heart race. I tried to calm down as we walked to my car.

The restaurant was only a few minutes south of her apartment near the Lenox Mall on Peachtree Road. The valet opened her door when I pulled up outside The Kobe House and I handed him my keys as I took Anna’s arm and walked with her into the building. The restaurant was already bustling with diners and the theatric chefs. We walked past families gathered around the warm grills laughing and chatting with the chefs as they performed feats of skill with knives and food.

The hostess seated us at an empty table near the back of the restaurant, and I was glad to have some time alone with Anna before others joined us around the table. We sat on the end with six empty chairs encircling the grill.

“Have you been here before?” I asked her.

“No, but I love teppanyaki.”

“The food is very good here. I come here more than I should.” I smiled and patted my stomach. Anna laughed.

“I don’t think you have anything to worry about,” she said coyly raising her eyebrow as she looked at my midsection. I tightened it subconsciously even though she could not possibly see through my shirt.

“Tell me more about yourself,” I said. I really wanted to hear everything about her. I had to unravel the mystery of Anna.

“I did that the other night.” She was playing hard to get.

“There has to be more. Where are you from originally?”

“North Carolina.”

“Really? Where?”

“Raleigh.”

“I have an aunt that lives in Raleigh.”

“I doubt I know her.”

“Are you sure because you’re both from Raleigh?” I joked. She laughed.

“I haven’t lived there since I was eight. My mom moved to Atlanta after my parents divorced.”

“Oh, sorry to hear that.”

“Does your mom still live here?”

“No, she passed away about five years ago.”

“Oh my god, I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. You couldn’t possibly know.”

“What happened?”

“Let’s talk about happy stuff. I don’t want to be a downer on our first real date.”

I paused for a moment in the uncomfortable turn the conversation had taken. I thought that family was a safe topic, but her mother’s death had taken me by surprise. I did what I always did when I was uncomfortable. I made a joke albeit a poor one.

“This is our first date?’ I looked at her bemusedly. “I thought Tuesday was our first date.” I smiled wide and chuckled a little.

“I guess it depends on how you define ‘date’.”

“Good point.”

At that moment, the hostess led a family of six to our table and filled the remaining chairs around the grill. The older couple and their grown children smiled and gave the perfunctory greetings as they assumed their seats, but the family was quickly absorbed in its own conversation leaving Anna and me to our own little world in the corner of the restaurant. The chef finally made his way to our table and begun his act while he methodically cooked our dinner before us.

Anna and I watched the chef like two adult cats watching kittens play before them. We’d seen it all before, but in between the smiles and laughs as the chef joked, we also volleyed questions to one another slowly getting to know each other more deeply. I felt like an artist filling in the colors of a painting as I learned more about this mysterious woman who had monopolized my every waking thought for the past four days. She was as beautiful and wonderful as I had imagined. Everything about her mesmerized me from her gleaming smile to the way she twirled the end of her long hair subconsciously while she listened to me. If I wasn’t falling in love, then I couldn’t possibly know what love was. But I knew.

We overstayed our welcome at The Kobe House. The meal came and went. The family next to us had left, and I had already paid the bill, yet Anna and I sat at the corner of the table and talked like we were the only two people in the room. The waitress came back and started wiping down the table that had just been cleared as if to give us a hint that we should leave.

“I think we should go,” I said. Anna looked over her shoulder at the waitress who was now standing at the other end of the table like a prison guard on the lookout for any funny business.

“I guess so.”

“Do you want some coffee?”

“Sure.”

“Why don’t we go across the street to the coffee shop?”

“Sounds good to me.”

She stood up and we walked toward the door nodding and thanking our waitress as we left. I put my hand on Anna’s back lightly touching her as we walked. We barely touched, but the electricity and excitement flowing through me was almost overwhelming. I knew then that I had to have her. I wanted to kiss her, but the rational side of me knew that would not be appropriate. My usually steely patience was failing me yet again.

We closed down the coffee shop. We sat at our tiny table in the corner of the restaurant and talked without so much as taking a breath between words and sips of our coffee. I’d never talked so much in my life even during some of my most heated sales pitches. I’d never listened so intently either. Everything I learned about Anna was like a golden nugget to me, something I cherished and locked away in my memory.

By the time I retrieved my car from the valet and drove Anna back to her place, it was almost Midnight, but I didn’t want our date to end. I wanted to wake up next to her in the morning. However, I knew it was not reasonable to expect such a thing. This was our first date, and despite my desires, I didn’t want her to be that easy. The chase was more fun and exciting than the catch. It always was.

“I had a great time tonight,” she said as she smiled at me in front of the door to her apartment.

“Me too. We should definitely do this again.”

“Yes, we should.”

“I’ll call you.”

A pause followed as we looked at each other. Her eyes were still bright and expressive. Her lips were still a bright red and plump. Her perfume still hung in the air between us intoxicating me each time I got close to her. I leaned in and kissed her on the cheek. A bolt of excitement pulsed through my body. A slight tremble rumbled through my hands, but I steadied them by putting them on her waist. We stood close for a moment before I kissed her again on the lips.

If my desire had been an alarm, it would have been throbbing at the full decibel level at that point. I could feel it in her too. Her lips were warm and so soft. Her tongue prodded mine and I pulled her closer to feel the heat of her body next to mine. I was aroused to the point of embarrassment. I hoped she didn’t feel it. I didn’t want her to think that I was some teenager with implacable hormones; although, I felt that way.

We parted slowly and I looked in her eyes. They had that subdued look that invited me to go further, but I resisted. Despite what I truly wanted, I didn’t want to ruin it on our first date. I retreated to my normal reasonable self reluctantly, but my libido protested sharply.

“I should let you get some sleep.”

She seemed disappointed, but she lingered in my space. I leaned in and kissed her lips again before I stepped back. She started to say something but stopped short.

“I’ll call you tomorrow. Maybe we can spend the day down at Piedmont Park or something. The weather is supposed to be nice.”

“Sure. That sounds fun.”

“Good night.” I stepped back but kept my eyes on her.

“Good night.” She stared at me but didn’t make any move into her apartment. I wasn’t sure what message she was sending to me, but I knew that this felt different, and I didn’t want to ruin it with sex. I had done that so many times before, so I had to force myself to turn away. I looked at her one more time and turned around and walked to my car. The night air cooled me as I walked away, but nothing could dampen the visceral desire I felt at that moment.

I didn’t sleep much that night. All I could think about was Anna. I tossed and turned in my bed twisting the sheets around me until I could no longer turn over without untangling the mess of fabric that mummified me. I alternated between night sweats and incredibly intense boners that jostled me awake any time I even drifted off momentarily. The next morning I clambered out of bed more exhausted than when I had retired the night before, but the possibility of seeing Anna again provided the spark to get me going. By ten that morning, we met again at the coffee shop for breakfast before we took the train to Piedmont Park. We spent a remarkable day together that still remains one of the best days of my life.

Over the next several weeks, my life was all about Anna. Our schedules weren’t perfectly aligned so I didn’t get to see her every day on the train, but we spent time together after work even if it was just a quick visit at her apartment, my apartment, or some random restaurant in Brookhaven. We spent our weekends together, we introduced each other to our friends, and we made plans to take a trip together in the fall. Everything was falling into place. I couldn’t have been happier, and I knew she felt the same way.

In the physical realm, our relationship had not progressed to the point of sex. There had been lots of kissing and some groping, but nothing more. Anna seemed hesitant to go much further. She didn’t say so, but I thought she wanted to wait until our relationship firmly matured, but we never discussed it. We simply stopped short of sex.

Although I desired her more than anything, I respected and loved her and didn’t push the issue because so many of my previous relationships had gone downhill after that first sexual encounter. I couldn’t bear the thought of drifting away from Anna. I was determined to avoid that situation. Nevertheless, an unmistakable desire burned between us, and as a man, there was only so much waiting I could do. The sexual tension was always there and it begged for a release.

One Friday night in early September, we returned to her apartment after having dinner downtown near Centennial Park. We’d met some friends after work and had drinks and a big meal. Both of us were feeling a little inebriated, which was obvious in the way we slouched into each other on the train back to Brookhaven. I walked her to her apartment and leaned into her to kiss her good night, but instead of pulling away I fell into her and kissed her passionately. The self-control I had so carefully honed over the past three months quickly fell away under the influence of stiff drinks and pent-up desire.

She unlocked her door and we continued inside her apartment. I wanted her and she seemed to want me. My addled brain put up no resistance as we kissed and touched each other. Her heavy breaths and slight moans as I kissed her drove me crazy. I was so aroused that it pained me. I had to have her at that moment. There was no turning back. After a few months of being the perfect gentleman, I could no longer hide my true desire for her.

She ripped off my shirt and removed hers as I backed her onto her couch. Her small breasts pressed against my chest, which excited me further. I kissed her hard and moved down her neck until I was licking and kissing her nipples. She arched her back and moaned, and I reached down to undo her jeans. Once I unbuttoned them, she started and sat up breathing heavily but with a look of concern on her face.

“Are you okay?” I asked somewhat flustered by her reaction.

“Yes.” She paused but still looked concerned.

I could hardly contain myself. I kissed her left nipple and massaged the other one with my hand, but she sat ramrod straight against the back of the couch. At first, it didn’t deter me. She gently pushed my head away.

“There’s something I should tell you,” she said between deep breaths.

At this point, all I could think about was sex. I knew she was the one. I’d spent three months ruminating about it and exploring my feelings for her. She was different than all the other women I had dated. She was beautiful as many of the others had been, but we connected on a level that was beyond the physical. We had similar backgrounds, similar likes and dislikes, and our friends were even similar. It all felt right. She was the one, and I wanted her, but her words immediately raised a concern in my mind.

“Is something wrong?” I asked.

“No, but…”

The first thing that popped into my mind was that she had some sexually-transmitted disease that she had failed to disclose to me earlier. I thought about that in the short moment she paused. How would that affect our relationship? It didn’t change how I felt about her, but it certainly would put a damper on the physical side of things. I decided in that instant that it didn’t matter. I loved her anyway. Nothing could change that. I waited.

“Do you not want to?” I asked impatiently. I was clearly disappointed especially in my drunken state, but a small part of my sex-addled mind understood.

“I do, but I’m…there’s something I should tell you.”

“Are you okay?”

She smiled faintly and looked at me lovingly, but the concern was palpable. She slowly unzipped her jeans and pushed them down her narrow hips. She didn’t have to remove her underwear because I knew in an instant what she had to tell me. Stunned, I fell back on the other end of her couch. Nothing could hide what I felt in that moment. My arousal drained from me in an instant. Fear stormed across her face, and she instinctively pulled her jeans back up and buttoned them quickly. She grabbed her blouse as she ran back to her bedroom. I heard the door slam with a thud, but I remained pinned to the end of her couch, speechless.

Many things flashed through my mind in those agonizing seconds or minutes that passed immediately in the wake of her revelation. The last three months had been a glorious time for me. I had met the woman of my dreams. I had fallen in love with her, and she, seemingly, had fallen in love with me. There were no words to describe how I felt about her. Up until that moment, I could not imagine my life without her. I didn’t want to imagine such a thing, but then, I found myself torn between the ideal life I imagined for us and the reality that had presented itself. The result was paralysis.

It didn’t help that we were both drunk even if only slightly. The cloud of alcohol removed those filters we often used to shield ourselves when life delivered the inevitable surprises. I finally stumbled to my feet and put my shirt back on. I looked down the long, narrow hallway to her bedroom. Her door was still shut. My escape was preordained, easy. There’d be no emotional battle, no screaming fit, and no slamming of doors that would end this relationship. I took one or maybe two steps toward the front door and then stopped.

An hour earlier, I would have never entertained the idea of walking out on Anna forever. Never. I loved her. She was everything I wanted except for that one thing. Why did that matter to me? Why couldn’t I simply take her for what she was and enjoy the wonderful relationship that had blossomed between us?

I wavered in the seemingly vast space of her living room partly from drunkenness and partly from indecisiveness. Thoughts swirled in my head incoherently. I couldn’t make sense of my feelings. Finally, a swell of reason came over me and I walked back to her bedroom door. Never had I felt so determined and sure of myself.

“Anna,” I called from her door after I knocked lightly.

I couldn’t hear any movement on the other side of the door. Silence echoed loudly in the dimly lit hallway.

“Anna, please come out.”

“Anna, I’m sorry.”

A sniff and a gasp of breath emerged from her room.

“Please,” I said.

“No, please go.”

“I’m not leaving.”

“I’m sorry I can’t be who you want me to be.”

“What is that supposed to mean?”

She paused and sniffed. I could tell she was crying. I thought I heard her audibly sob before she said, “You know what it means.”

“I don’t care about that.”

Her sobbing became more audible. I wanted to reach through the door and hold her.

“I don’t. I love you. I love who you are. That’s all I care about.”

“You don’t mean that.”

“I do.”

The moment lingered for a long time with me leaning against her door coaxing her to come out and with her on the other side sobbing loudly. Her cries broke my heart, and I started to cry silently. I couldn’t fathom hurting her. All I could think about was how she made me feel, how much I loved her.

“Please come out, Anna.”

After a long pause, I heard the lock on the door click and she slowly opened the door. She looked at me pathetically. Her beautiful blue eyes swam in a sea of red, and her usually bright, full lips seemed dull and withdrawn. She hesitated, stood back in the bright light of her bedroom before she took a step toward me. I grabbed her and hugged her close. She lost it and cried into my shoulder, big heaving sobs that reverberated through her apartment like a wounded animal crying out in a lonely forest.

We stood in that embrace for the longest time saying not a word. I inhaled her sweet scent and rubbed her back as she clung to me. Finally, she broke away and looked up to me like a child scorned. She rubbed her eyes and her nose with her hand.

“You don’t have to stay. I understand if you want to leave,” she said. Her voice was shaky and pathetic. It made me love her more. I wanted to protect her at all costs.

“I don’t have to, but I want to.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.”

“Thank you.” She buried her head in my shoulder again and wept. I held her and my resolve hardened. I loved her no matter what. Nothing could change how I felt about her.

I spent the night with her for the first time that night. We woke up beside each other the next morning. We were both scared of what the day would bring, but we remained mostly silent as we ate breakfast together. The elephant in the room begged for attention. Finally, I took the first tentative steps toward some semblance of resolution trying to reconcile the woman I loved with the secret she had kept from me.

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I couldn’t. I’m sorry. I just didn’t want to ruin it. I just fell for you so quickly that first night.”

“I would have understood.”

“Would you?”

“Yes.”

“Would you have given me the chance?”

“I’d like to think so.”

“I don’t think you would have. No one has, or at least no one that I have cared so much about.”

“You have little faith in me.”

“It’s not you. I’ve…I’ve been through this before.”

I took the last bite of my eggs and looked at her pensively. Despite my resolve, doubts plagued me. I struggled to reason through it. A long silence ensued.

“Were you born male or both?” My own question startled me when I heard the words tumble from my mouth, but I had to know.

“Male.”

“I just can’t believe it. You’re so…beautiful.”

“I work very hard to look like this. I had wanted my entire life to be a woman, and one day after I graduated high school, I decided that I would become one. That’s who I wanted to be. It was the hardest decision I ever made, but it was also the most liberating. This is who I am.”

“I don’t understand it.”

“It’s hard for you. I understand. You’ve always been who you are. You’ve never struggled with knowing that you were somebody else. Most people are like you. I envy you. I wish I could be happy with who I was, but I wasn’t. I’m happy with who I am now.”

I bit a chunk of the bagel she had toasted for breakfast and chewed it slowly considering what she had said. She was right. I didn’t know what it was like to be someone trapped in an identity that I didn’t want. Still, I struggled to reconcile it all, to sort out my entangled and confused feelings.

She stood up suddenly and for once I looked up to her. She peered at me seriously. “I love you. I really do, but I need you to make a decision now. I can’t handle the heartbreak if this lingers on. You can walk away right now with no strings attached. I won’t make you feel guilty or even bother you. You’re free to go, but if you stay, it has to be because you want to give us a chance.”

Her eyes moistened and I thought she was on the verge of another breakdown, but she stood firmly in her space and looked at me hopefully. In all her weakness, she seemed strong as if she had weathered this storm before.

I swallowed the bagel and took a deep breath in. I stood up towering over her once again as I gathered my plate and took it to the sink in the kitchen. I returned to face her. I knew she saw the thoughts dancing across my face, but she betrayed no nervousness at what I might say. She didn’t waver or back away. I reached out and pulled her into my arms and hugged her tight. I pushed her back and kissed her deeply. The familiar excitement returned and I knew at once that I loved her. I had always loved her, and I always will.