Excerpt, Six Leaks A’Leaking

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6 x 9 in. paperback; 200 pages

ISBN: 978-1470164157

Author: J. L. Lawson

Six Leaks A’leaking   It is said that people could do amazing things if they were able to harness the vast energies that are otherwise wasted in the course of a single day’s activity. That is perhaps most clearly seen through the way in which people generally approach their simplest actions—so cluttered with unnecessary and extraneous movements that should a snapshot be taken at any given moment during their progress, it is oft times difficult to say just precisely what they are actually doing.

These are a series of Short Stories illustrating six ways we lose that vital energy necessary for any inner progress we might be inclined to pursue.

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Excerpt, Six Leaks A’Leaking, Chapter: Pending Dilemma  © J. L. Lawson 2012

“It can’t be the way you say!” Emma balked and whined as her father tried again to explain the reality facing her. “Maybe I didn’t explain it right? You don’t really get it! None of my friends say anything about their dads not letting them wear ‘em!” She took a deep breath for the coup d’grace, “You can’t know; you’re not a girl and you’re too old to get it anyway!” and she stomped out of the foyer determined to go and sit in her room, even if it meant being tardy to school. This was just another example of her dad’s inability to see her side of the situation.

She stared at her reflection in the mirror on the back of her door. She turned this way and that way. “You sooo can’t see anything…” she hesitated, “well nothing really…” The scrap of cloth pinch-hitting for a skirt hanging from her hips totally matched the rest of her outfit. Just because her socks actually covered more of her skin than her skirt, “…That’s stylin’!” she reaffirmed to herself. She pushed at one side and tugged a little at the other, shimmied and shook a few times just to see for herself that everything stayed in place and voila! “I look great!”

Her father rapped at her door. “Emma; perhaps I am out of touch, but please humor me. I can’t abide having my little girl appearing in public in essentially a thong-bikini-with-ruffles as an outfit…”

“It’s not public!” Emma shot back through the door, “It’s just school!”

She could see him sighing, even though the door intervened. She was going to win this round, she just knew it. With that expectation looming nearer, she pushed and tugged her ‘skirt’ into its proper situation—practically not there at all. She smiled at her reflection, “Let Willow get an eyeful of this and choke!” she snarled contemptuously at her absent rival as she performed a maliciously erotic runway turn in front of the mirror. She grinned coquettishly and posed for herself.

“At least put on a jacket, Emma; please?” her father moaned in surrender.

She glanced at the clock. Ten ’til eight; tardy, but what an entrance! “Sure, of course I’m wearing a jacket! That is what I came back here to get… Daddy, you are so cute!” she equivocated, rushing to throw her favorite faux fur over her shoulders and open the door at the same time.

He couldn’t even look at her anymore; it was too scary a prospect. What was it his wife warned him before she left—’she’s not your little girl anymore?’ How utterly defeating. Girls should just skip over the thirteen to seventeen years. Maybe set up an island somewhere they can all live and have it out at each other and not infect the rest of the world… His thoughts clouded both their moods as they rolled up to the side entrance of the high school.

“Just promise me you’ll keep the volume low today; okay duckling?” he begged as she swept out of the car.

She giggled and blew him a kiss. “Thanks daddy, twelve decibels, no more!” As she slung her book bag over her shoulder, her jacket slipped off that shoulder at the same time and the “volume” was cranked to the max as she wriggled toward the fortress doors beneath the classroom windows reaching up above her.

“Cripes!” he really couldn’t bear to see what Emma had wrought.

Ten years later.

Looking down from her office windows, three stories above the entrance to the building, she was fixated by the figure of a young woman hurrying across the street through traffic to reach their doors. What drew her attention, however, wasn’t the girl’s maneuvering, but her obvious disdain for anything resembling conservative office fashions. Her thoughts drifted back to a fading memory.

“…Miss Hammer,” Ms. Utica, the Umberto & Zachs V.P. of North American Operations continued in an ambivalent tone that was lacking any real sincerity, “I simply want to reinforce what has already been said; it is not the policy of this company that our Account Managers seduce our clients to gain their good will and investment…”

Emma glanced up from her evaluation of the avant-garde costumed street-crosser, “Seduce?”

“That’s not my opinion, mind you;” Ms. Utica added cautiously, “that’s the considered input from Mr. Salinger, the CFO? Remember him?” she added unnecessarily. “Personally, I think your numbers speak for themselves. That you happen to be this company’s very own siren and bring in more traffic than our other offices put together… Well, just turn down the ‘volume’ for a week or so. That’ll do the trick, I’m thinking! Oh! I almost forgot, and do please repair the damage our other reps have wreaked on our good standing with Lloyd’s. Your assistant mentioned an appointment this afternoon…” she winked and sauntered back to her office, closing the door behind her.

Emma Hammer entered the final touches to her monthly report and reached for her clutch and document bag in one motion as she rose to leave her office for another appointment. Her walk was more of a march of triumph and her bearing was as regally provocative as ever. Nothing could dampen her attitude today. “Maybe a treat is in order…” she reflected, “…cappucino and a croissant, then to the Lloyd’s building and a shiny new, biggest ever account!”

Her shoulders were almost a separate entity from her torso, which were a foreign colony of movements from her hips and legs. Yet somehow, with years of entrenched practice, her walk was a symphony of allurement. She didn’t even notice, completely, the heads she turned as she glided from the bottom of Fifth Avenue and the U & Z offices, across Washington Square toward Astor Place and this week’s favorite coffee bar.

“Miss Hammer!” Jacqueline tried a smile as the chimes tinkled above the door announcing Emma’s entrance. “I have a fresh selection of jams and preserves. Can I tempt you with a warm croissant to go with your latte this morning?”

“You’re clairvoyant Jacqueline! Would that new selection include apple butter?” Emma tossed back to the proprietress without missing a step.

Jacqueline sighed in covert relief. “I must have ESP; here you are Miss Hammer…” and she set the small jar of sweetness next to the aromatic roll and steaming latte in front of her most demanding client. “Another new account today?” she inquired absently, though secretly eager to hear.

Emma tossed her hair to the side, sipped the coffee drink; foam decorated her upper lip and stayed there. Jacqueline didn’t say a word.

“As a matter of fact, Norris & Lloyd Ltd. is going down the primrose path today, and that should cap this month’s—this whole year’s figures, two months early. I’m planning on a bit of holiday after this evening’s endeavor…”

Jacqueline turned to greet another customer, but replied earnestly, “Please drop in around three, then. I have a new chef and he’s experimenting with chocolate sauces…” Emma visibly quivered. Jacqueline must have been psychic.

As the door chimes tinkled behind her, and all eyes in the cafe marked her passage crossing the front glass toward the Metro, there was a muted sigh of yearning expelled almost at once from the lot of them—male and female. Emma Isabel Hammer was a force of natural selection. She rang up the ‘gym’ as she walked and confirmed her mid-day appointment with her trainer after class. Then she dialed ahead to Eliot Lloyd’s executive assistant.

“…Ten-fifteen to Eleven? Plenty of time; pencil me in Dolly. I’m almost around the corner just now and wouldn’t miss a pre-emptive strike for the world. Certainly I’m keeping my Four-thirty, this is just an aperitif for the main event later… Thanks Dolly, you so deserve next Wednesday’s Spa treat! Ciao…”

Maybe she put too much wiggle in her sashay turning the corner from the Wall Street Metro exit. Maybe the atmosphere was lighter or heavier or something. Whatever it was, Emma Hammer snapped the stiletto heel of her left shoe. She froze as if hearing the growl of a tiger near at hand. Every sense and thought in her body recoiled in the stillness. Her mind raced and became quiet, her left foot was still poised above the ground as if terrified to touch the earth once more. The traffic on the sidewalks of lower Broadway thrummed around her and there she stood near to Trinity Church and like the statuary on the spires above, she was an iconic monument to poise in that sea of chaos. The profundity of the stillness into which she was plunged lasted seemingly interminably. She felt a terror in the occasion as if abandoned in an inner silence she’d never encountered—or at least rarely. As the crunching, frenetic throes of traffic insisted attention once more, her thoughts turned to her mental directory of nearest boutiques. She had twenty-five minutes to bag a second pair of power shoes and make her covert debut—Lloyd’s pre-emptive walk-by: Operation Appetite. Even though her assignment to the Lloyd’s account was a given, and her own confidence in her research afforded a successful conclusion, Emma left little to chance.

The transience of the episode of inner silence was washed away from her and in a single motion she reached to remove her right shoe, grasped at the lost heel lying shamelessly just behind her left foot, as she slipped off the maimed left shoe. All her movements appeared directed and with purpose after the years of long and practiced habitual paradigms of acting. As a girl, when her Literature teacher introduced Shakespeare, Emma encountered and claimed: “…All the world’s a stage…” as her own raison d’etre. How ever thin she may have stretched that concept over the years, she had tortured her every nuanced movement into the service of that vision of ‘appearance.’ Of course along the way had crept in more than a few extraneous motions: an extra wriggle here, an over-pose there, an ephemeral sigh sprinkled hither and thither absently. And those were just the ones she noticed at odd moments. On the whole she was quite convinced that she was the model of fluid feminine expression—in that she was not too very distant from reality. But what a toll it was taking on her daily energy and focus.

She backtracked to the nearest refuge of cultured footwear, and in less time than it took to hail a taxi she was in a forced march—albeit as casually as possible—to the revolving doors of the Lloyd’s building. “With minutes to spare…” she lauded herself as the elevator rose and she smoothly arranged her blouse to reveal without exposing.

The doors opened, a gentleman stepped aside to allow her egress as she cleared her throat behind him. Smiling and entranced he gulped in her wake as the doors closed on him. She winked to Dolly who carefully shot her eyes toward the imposing double doors not fifteen paces from her desk. She held up three fingers and Emma detoured toward a corridor and the refuge of the Ladies’ room she knew was at hand.

Inside, she glanced at her watch, straightened her shoulder bag, appraised the substitute shoes and wished them luck. When she stepped back out of the women’s sanctuary into the hallway, she could hear the approaching voices on the other side of the fortress’s double doors. Without a hint that she knew they were opening behind her, she leaned over the side of Dolly’s desk. With her rear profile toward the corner office she asked in a soft almost imperceptible voice, “Dolly dearest, do they see me?”

Dolly didn’t even look passed her; she knew as well as Emma that the cessation of voices at the double doors could only mean one thing. She nodded with a slight smile fleeting across her eyes. Emma didn’t look back either, but with a flourish of shoulders and hips, a subtle turn of profile offering her ‘facade’ to her audience for a moment’s appreciation, she headed for the elevator as if on an errand of urgency.

“Miss Hammer?” a man’s voice tinkled through her like chimes.

She counted to two and looked over her shoulder toward the voice, careful to not turn fully toward him again. Her eyes caught both gentlemen at once and she nodded to them as if acknowledging the crowds at a parade held in her honor. “Mr. Lloyd. Mr. Anshutz. I will try to reschedule…”

Eliot Lloyd turned to his Assistant, Dolly, plaintively, “Has my Four-thirty with Miss Hammer been postponed?”

Before Dolly could respond, Emma answered with sympathy, “Perhaps next week; truly I will try to stay in the city…”

Eliot Lloyd demanded, “Dolly whatever has intervened on my calendar, move it. I will keep my Four-thirty with Miss Hammer…” With his face turned to Dolly, his demand concluded, he glanced back toward where Emma had been standing. The elevator doors were set to close. He called, “Four-thirty is still a go, Miss Hammer!”

Unseen by the gentlemen, Emma smiled to Dolly through the closing doors, “As you wish, Mr. Lloyd!” she replied almost loud enough for all to have heard—but not quite. She let out a sigh, and would have giggled had there not been two pair of ears accompanying her down to the mezzanine.

Her phone chimed; she opened it and heard Dolly’s voice whisper, “…Especially well-played. Neither gentleman was sure if you heard Eliot, I’m supposed to make sure… You are an artist, Emma Hammer!”

“Thanks Doll. Be sure to ask for Lawrence at the Day Spa; even if he’s too soft on your shoulders, he’s easy on the eyes…” Dolly’s embarrassed titter erupted as Emma closed the connection. The doors opened to the sedately sumptuous mezzanine. She stepped toward the stairs leading to the foyer. “Now; for a wardrobe change and a bite to eat…”

With perhaps a bit more sway in her step than necessary, Emma Hammer emerged onto the street. A breeze raced along the sidewalk and her silk blouse was pressed to her back. “Wardrobe change indeed!” She summoned her strength and faced the wind, turning heads was a matter of course; she didn’t even try to conceal her figure in the face of nature’s airy spotlight.

After a couple hours ‘hunting’ through the few boutiques she favored, and a nibble to maintain her stamina, Emma ducked into the opened doors of the Glannen Day Spa and crossed the foyer with a wave to Dave at the desk. Navigating the corridor and then into the changing room, she encountered only a few ladies struggling to appear ignorant of her passage. She set a special key to the lock of a private entry and exited the common locker room into her own ‘apartment.’ Her trainer came in shortly after.

“Shenade, please ‘ask’ Vernon to repair the outside entrance today; I’m not passing through the common rooms to get in here even one more time!”

Shenade’s voice answered from the hall to her left, “Certainly Miss Hammer, and might I suggest you refrain from referring to him as an ‘autistic savant’ in the future. He does have some feelings somewhere down inside after all is said and done—no matter how well hidden they may appear. Your One-o’clock session is waiting… I’ll be in the weight room when you’re through.”

“I’m practically on the mat as we speak…” Emma retorted and opened a side door into a brightly windowed dojo lined with seven kneeling students around a venerable looking old woman kneeling in the midst of them.

In a reverent tone she said, “G’day Sensei,” and took her place at the vacant position with the others who inclined their heads to their teacher.

Sensei Ru returned a modest bow, paced slowly from the center of the room and went to one knee. “Let us see just what you remember,” she enunciated in clipped tones. “Ronald, center.”

The only male among her pupils rose and advanced to kneel in the spot she’d vacated at the center. He lowered his head and breathed slowly. Emma turned her head slightly to see Master Ru nod to the nearest student on her left. The girl was on her feet, and as silent as death stalked Ronald from behind. She leapt toward his neck without even a whisper of a sound. Her movement was enough however to alert Ronald to impending attack. He turned his shoulders only enough to raise a hand toward the descending threat, but the girl was quicker. In mid-air she brought her left foot suddenly forward and stabbed at his hip.

Sensei Ru waited no time to send another and another from those circling the mat, into the attack. Ronald had shifted only barely in time to avoid being pinned by the initial onslaught. That attacker had been deflected and was rolling unharmed in front of him. He was still on his knees as he shifted in a fluid circle to prepare for the imminent simultaneous attack of Emma and another student from opposite sides. Emma veered toward his still outstretched leg, as her partner-in-assault slid toward his support leg. Unable to leap directly up, Ronald was forced to decide in the instant which was the greater threat to his stability. He chose poorly.

Emma grasped his outstretched leg in both her hands as she hand-sprang over his head. Her partner swung through beneath him as if he weren’t solid. His arms grabbed futilely at both women, but as their momentum was directed in opposite directions, he was spread-eagled at once. The original attacker was already poised for a leap into the air above and down onto his unprotected head as he went down. Sensei Ru called, “Stop!”

They all returned to their former places around the mat. “Now, Ru continued, “What was Ronald lacking?”

Ronald himself spoke, “Master, I am still using my eyes to guide my body.”

Ru nodded and glanced from one to the other of her pupils. She inclined her head to Emma. “Hammer; center.”

Emma had dreaded this more than anything. She knew as well as any of her class that she was no where near even Ronald’s depth of presence. But she obediently rose and took position at the the center. Her mind drifted to that morning’s shock when her stiletto betrayed her on the sidewalk. She was filled suddenly with that altered time and space of silence that was such a rare visitor to her usual active consciousness.

She felt a trembling in her thigh and shifted her weight distinctly to remedy the sensation. One of the students landed on the mat in a forward roll beyond where here shoulder had been a split second before. A quivering presence tickling her neck behind her right ear which caused her to rotate her shoulders and raise her right elbow and forearm. A press of cloth and mass greeted her hand; she allowed herself to orbit the passing body, her hand still grasping the cloth she’d first encountered was there.

She struggled to regain that ineffable quietude dancing just at the rim of her emotions, as the third and fourth sensations called out for her response. Her head turned of its own accord; she thought she was watching herself from the outside looking in. Her left hand shot out to greet the nearest ‘visitor’ and almost at the same instant her right foot swept backward to greet the second. She rose in an almost elegant pirouette to stand and open her eyes facing her teacher—the two would-be assailants’ momentum carried them through the air in opposite directions from her as if shot from cannons.

Emma shuddered with a sudden realization that she was inhabiting her own skin once more and was bowing to her sensei. The applause of her comrades was too much like the splattering of rain on windows for her to readily acknowledge their adulation at her accomplishment. Master Ru inclined her head to Emma.

“Now then Hammer, perhaps you will describe for your partners where you have just been, and how four assailants were unable to distract you from that refuge?”

Emma shrugged and shook her head slowly. “Honestly Sensei; I was here… I know that I was; but truthfully? I haven’t a clue as to how this just happened…”

Master Ru clapped her hands together once in a loud: pop! “Then your journey will be a struggle. You must undo much to regain the simplicity of that secret haven within you.” Turning to the rest of the class, “Enough for today. Silence is more than the absence of sound and fury; it is the presence of your self. Seek your selves earnestly.” She bowed to them all, winked to Emma and sat her self down in the center of the mat as she had been at the outset.

Her students knew enough to absent themselves quietly as their teacher assumed her posture of meditation. Glynnis, the girl who had joined Emma in the initial attack on Ronald, asked her in a whisper, “Do you suppose she’s always here? I mean has anyone ever seen her anywhere else but in this dojo?”

Emma smiled in spite of herself, and whispered, “I practically live here myself and I’ve never seen Master Ru outside of these walls…”

Behind them, Master Ru coughed, “Do not mistake what you perceive, for what actually is…” and she chuckled.

The two ladies stared into each other’s incredulity and hurried through the main doors and out.

Ronald remarked off-handedly, “Nice, Hammer. Very well done today.” That was the most Ronald had spoken to any fellow student since he’d joined the classes eight months before. He ducked into the men’s locker room just as suddenly, and was gone. Emma gave Glynnis a squeeze of her hand and retreated toward her own rooms—with a knot of her fellow students looking after her.

Glynnis muttered under her breath for each of them left standing in the corridor. “…And her own apartments nearby to Master Ru… She should have made it to this level by now!”

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As her door closed behind her, she murmured, “What happened in there today? What happened on the street corner today? What is happening to me?” Her thoughts evaporated as quickly as they intruded. She crossed the room, tossed her loose martial clothing in a heap revealing her skin tight workout garb beneath. She slipped on her sneakers and went out the door opposite the one through which she’d entered. The clanging of weights echoed from the passage around the corner ahead. She offered a furtive smile to Shenade and began a series of stretches that she hadn’t, and wished she had, performed before her recent class.

Later, sweating and hungrier than she thought she’d be, Emma showered, donned the trophies of her earlier shopping expedition and headed for the Norris & Lloyd building to arrive at the moment of her arranged appointment. She knew Eliot Lloyd and his partner Willa Norris would insist upon moving their meeting to Angelina’s—their habitual business dinner haunt—so she ignored the muted rumblings of her own stomach. Willa was hovering over Dolly’s desk as Emma emerged from the elevator for the second time that day.

She turned, following Dolly’s gaze. “Ah, Miss Hammer; so shall Umberto & Zachs land another five star client this afternoon?”

Willa’s voice didn’t sound exactly skeptical. Perhaps the tone was clandestine envy or disdain. Dolly had made it as clear as she could to Emma during their first interchange that Willa Norris wasn’t a woman to pass over lightly. She was a force in her own right; it had been rumored that it was herself that pulled all the strings—though a junior partner at Norris & Lloyd, New York—her tentacles were deep in the international administration of the company, with direct connections to their parent organization: the Selena Trust Institute for Rutatois Relations (STIRR).

Emma cocked her head respectfully, “My principals are hopeful that I shall. It is of course wholly up to your and Mr. Lloyd’s discretion whether Umberto & Zachs is the right fit for both your North American and international programs in service of the Selena Trust. I happen to think we are.”

Willa chuckled and it wasn’t readily clear whether she was entertained or disgusted. Eliot Lloyd came through the double doors behind them at that moment. “Grand! Shall we step into the conference room then and hear what U & Z have sweetened their latest offer with—besides assigning a new Account Manager to us?” Willa’s tight-lipped smile betrayed her acknowledgement of the obvious ploy. She had rather liked the previous representative.

Emma sauntered to her left, a little to the side of Willa Norris, as if she’d made the walk to the Lloyd Executive Conference Room a thousand times. Her poise and confidence were compelling; even Willa caught herself shuffling to keep a step ahead of their ‘guest.’ At the entrance, Eliot smiled to another gentleman standing near at hand, “Brian, would you please let Anschutz and Collier know that we should be down to Angelina’s in about…” he glanced to Willa and Emma, “…forty-five?”

Emma didn’t wait for Willa to respond. “Perhaps less, my proposal is as simple and straight-forward as ever my principals have offered.”

Willa snickered, “And yet, here we are on our third round of negotiations from as many representatives in as many weeks…”

“Not everyone in our offices sees the same vision, Ms. Norris.” Emma was as smooth as syrup; she added, “Had I been here two and a half weeks ago, and not in Dubai, we would likely not be chatting just now in the hallway.”

Eliot held the door for them and they crossed to seats near one end of the long table. The late afternoon light filtered through the glass from the softly illumined spires, towers and glistening facades of the lower east end of Manhattan. The door eased itself closed behind Eliot Lloyd as Emma’s voice soothed, “Allow me to be concise…”

Forty minutes later, and with an evidently very contented Willa Norris leading the way, the conference moved downstairs to Angelina’s. Anschutz and Collier were already rattling the ice around in their second high-balls as the partners and Emma joined them. Angelina’s was an interesting favorite retreat for those particular folks, as the atmosphere and clientele of the establishment were neither sedate nor particularly elegant. What it lacked in decorum, it completely made up with in service and cuisine; both of which were employed as soon as Willa and Eliot reached the corner where their associates waited.

For her part, Emma appeared to be at home, though she’d only been in the place once before, and that had been just that very morning reconnoitering for this occasion. Eliot began to regale the table with his and Willa’s acceptance of the last U & Z proposition, but the others’ attention was still rather glued on Emma herself. She ignored their stares and instead maintained a rapport with Willa that she had consummately achieved over the last half hour.

Willa noticed the unabashed stares on Emma’s account. “Rolly, George, perhaps you’ll listen better if Miss Hammer and I excuse ourselves for a moment?” Turning to Emma, who was already rising at the suggestion, “Shall we freshen up a little?”

Quietly Emma followed her through the dining floor proper to the adjacent lounge. “Emma… If I may call you Emma…” Emma nodded casually. Willa continued, “It has not escaped my attention that you are both a little younger than myself, in better shape and have all the moves a debutant would envy. So tell me Emma Isabel Hammer, who are you?”

A thousand other questions might have been asked and Emma would have replied adroitly and with assurance in her voice. This question hadn’t been on her radar.

“Ms. Norris…” she began.

“Please, I am Willa to my peers and you have this day entered that circle,” Willa confided easily; gone was any hint of acerbic disdain.

“Willa,” Emma countered cordially, “I suspect you aren’t making an esoteric or existential inquiry, so let me just say that I am precisely who I appear to be.” Then she checked herself and added in a note of affinity, “As much as any of us are, I suppose.”

Willa cackled and drew the attention of several fellows along the bar near at hand. “Touché! I don’t suppose I might’ve answered any better or with more conviction. Now, let’s you and I agree to work on this project as equals seeking the same aims. Do you believe that is possible?”

Emma was inwardly relieved. She’d almost expected Willa to make a pass at her, not petition for an ally in a common business struggle. “Willa Helena Norris, I consider it an honor to join you in such an endeavor. Shall we see if your partners…” Willa held up a finger and cocked her head. Emma smiled and corrected herself, “…If our partners are ready to look past my appearance and gaze instead at our mutual futures?”

“After you…” Willa held out her hand and Emma proceeded, without a thought to the precedent being established between them.

One month later, beyond the other end of the Brooklyn Bridge…

The clatter and squeal of the shopping cart wheels were grating enough; not finding the the hot chocolate packets without those annoying marshmallow floaties was irksome. “I’m obviously not the only one needing a cocoa fix…” A shabbily groomed young woman in an odd assemblage of running pants, Dead concert t-shirt under a rumpled striped oxford cloth dress shirt muttered to herself as she pushed boxes out of the way to see if what she wanted was hidden in the back of the shelf. That her costume was a clash of color and pattern wasn’t lost on any shopper in the market. That she was also seemingly oblivious to the rest of her environment—earphones firmly embedded in her ears beneath a flurry of tawny brown hair escaping from beneath a Yankees ball cap—just made her appear that much more of a mis-informed alien dropped off in the wrong neighborhood grocery.

The muted sounds of an approaching shopper and a ‘distant’ voice disturbed her search. “Melanie? I thought you were sick in bed?!”

Melanie looked up sheepishly in the direction of Dolly’s voice. She pulled down one of the earbuds.

“I… uh… I do have a raving temperature,” she began to respond as a cascade of boxed products streamed from the shelves onto the floor behind her. “I had to call in sick today; I was so achy and nauseous this morning. But then this afternoon, well, I got a craving for hot cocoa and cinnamon rolls, you know, to have something on my stomach at least.”

Her acquaintance from the Lloyd’s offices was kind enough to not roll her eyes. Dolly continued to watch as Melanie futilely tried to re-arrange the chaos she’d visited on the shelves around her.

“Comfort food, I get; but don’t you think maybe soup or maybe even some fruit would help your body more than those?” Dolly glanced at the several packages of sweet rolls and melting pints of ice cream strewn in Melanie’s cart. Melanie ignored the assertion and unconsciously ran her hands through her hair ostensibly straightening the unruly mess.

“I know, but still…” she looked furtively up and down the aisle for no apparent reason. As she tossed the box of the hot cocoa mix she didn’t like into the cart, she thrummed her hands rhythmically on the cart’s handle and continued, “I missed the conference call with your bosses, but I did already turn in my projections and schedules for the Drummond project… Anything I should know?” She shivered as a wave of fevered chill rushed through her.

“Nothing new actually;” Dolly reached to a shelf across the aisle and retrieved a box of soda crackers. She turned to finish her shopping list and smiled to Melanie. “Don’t worry; get some more rest tonight and tomorrow. Everything will no doubt still be there when you get back. Some thing’s never change.” She patted Melanie on the forearm and pushed her cart on down the aisle.

“Thanks;” Melanie called after her, “See ya soon I hope…”

Dolly looked over her shoulder and nodded genially.

“Don’t really blame her for evacuating; I’m probably contagious,” she muttered, tapping her foot and looking at the rows and rows of products on the shelves around her as if confused and trying to remember what else she’d come to the market to fetch. She pushed the cart briskly off, apparently remembering the other items on her wish list. She reached the end of the aisle and headed for the dairy section.

Half way across the store she shuddered again, rolled her eyes and wheeled the cart around in a 360 that would bring a smile to a stunt driver, to go back the way she’d come. “I guess when Dolly got crackers I thought I got them too! I am so losing it…”

Back and forth across the market she pushed and pulled her cart; doing in half an hour what could have been done in ten minutes. She waited fitfully in line at the front to at last begin arranging her groceries on the check-out stand conveyor. For every few items she removed from the cart, she inspected the next item as if not recognizing it as what she’d selected. She peered at it, looked around to the store at large, shrugged and absently put it with the others on the conveyor. All the while her feet were tapping to a tune she couldn’t get out of her mind—that Leonard Cohen song that was synced with her throbbing headache before she pulled her earbud out to talk to Dolly—the one she neglected to put back in her ear. The result of which had birthed a one-sided pulsing within her tortured brain-case.

With shopping totes in hand, she ambled out and around the corner to her street. Without noticing that she wasn’t actually able to reach the hair blowing into her face with her hand, but as if it had a will of its own, it persisted in attempting to raise the tote load and accomplish its habitual duty to her tresses, to no avail. Her ‘unique’ march-walk caught the attention of the delivery guy just stepping onto the sidewalk from a neighbor’s brownstone.

“Miss Armitage?” he posited uncertainly. She looked up from studying the grey mottled cement at her feet.

“Hey Jerry,” she tried to be winsome and friendly, but her shakiness overrode the attempt.

“You shouldn’t be out and about like that! Pardon me for saying so but you don’t look so good…” he stammered arresting the comment no woman wanted to hear. “I mean, shouldn’t you be in bed?”

She sighed; nodded absently, as her hand finally managed to reach her forehead and push her hair behind her ear. The loaded shopping bag banged against her chest then her face. She gasped in surprise and pain, and tottered unsteadily. He reached for her elbow, but too late. She dropped the tote. There was a dull crunch from the bag as it hit the sidewalk.

“Uh oh,” he grimaced sympathetically, and bent down to see what was oozing out of the fabric, adding yet another splotch to the bespotted cement.

“That’s just great…” her voice accused through clenched teeth. Her now feed hand went to her nose and she felt the tenderness of a bruise rising. “You had to grab at me like that?!”

Shocked in dismay, Jerry blanched. “But I… I mean you just…” He shoved his clipboard under his arm and stood up innocently with the dripping tote in one hand. In the voice of the falsely accused, but none-the-less embarrassed, “I’m really sorry Miss Armitage.” She yanked it from him as he escaped to the safety of his truck and slid the door shut.

“So much for OJ.” Melanie ignored the dripping mess that trailed after her the half block father on to her own steps.

Her landlady, Beth, was just leaving on an errand as she reached the stoop. “Melanie! What’s that making a mess on the landing?”

Melanie shrugged, “Orange juice. Just one more thing gone wrong this week.”

Beth tsked; “I’ll ring Billy to mop this up. Gotta catch the 5:50 bus or miss happy hour…” she was still mumbling as she fumbled through her purse for her phone.

Melanie let herself into the foyer and looked up at the stairs. “Maybe I should leave this bag here and come back down to unload the unspoiled things…” She made a motion to set the tote down beside the door, then thought better of it and stood up again with it still in her hand. “No; if I hurry up the steps it won’t drip too much and I’ll save a second trip down and up again.”

She turned for the stairwell and reached for the bannister out of habit. The tote in that hand banged against the newel and another cracking noise issued from the bag. Her voice was truly pitiable. “Aahng! What is up with this! Why is the world out to get me today?!”

Determined to keep to her ‘plan,’ she tried to hurry up the steps. The first twelve steps weren’t a gigantic struggle, but just as she reached the landing, her foot caught the last riser and her momentum carried her like a linebacker toward the wall. As her face neared the sudden stop, in what seemed like slow motion her knee struck the floor, she ducked her shoulder down and averted her face from a second impact. The thud seemed distant, not like it was herself there on the landing at all; like it was someone else, some where else.

Footsteps above her rattled her back to the ache in her shoulder and side of her head and nose. “Miss Armitage! Here let me help you up. Anything broken?” Billy, the kind-witted handy-guy that served the building under Beth’s command, held her arm and raised her back to her feet. He lifted the totes now strewn out of her grasp across the landing. “Miss Armitage? There’s stuff broken in these bags.” He pointed out the obvious with considered insight.

Leaning against the reassuring solidity of the wall, Melanie nodded, “Yeah, I know. I was trying to hurry up the stairs to keep from dripping on everything…”

Billy interrupted, looking at the glistening trail that led downstairs to the front door. “Shouldn’t have run up the stairs with…”

She seized on his words as an accusation. Before she could defend her decision she shuddered again from chill and fever. Billy’s expression made him look even more like an offended puppy than usual. “Gosh. You’re as white as a sheet, and sweaty. You’re sick, Miss Armitage. Here,” and he herded her toward the flight leading up to her apartment, “I’ll carry these; you hold the railing. You should really get to bed.”

She stood before her own door and stared at it stupidly as if she couldn’t fathom how to make it open. Billy’s keys jangled behind her, then he was reaching passed her and unlocking the dead bolts. “You go on to the bathroom and fix yourself up, Miss Armitage. I’ll put these in the kitchen sink. You can get to them later…” He held up the soiled shopping totes, but Melanie was oblivious to her surroundings.

The sound of her front door closing and Billy’s steps receding down the stairwell outside only emphasized her detachment from herself. She woodenly went through the motions of running a wet cloth over her face, plodded into her bedroom and fell toward the bed. She hit the edge and simply rolled to the bedside rug on the floor. She pulled at the comforter and dragged it from the bed onto herself already at the threshold of oblivion.

Fidgeting in front of the stove in the morning, waiting impatiently for the pot to boil, Melanie tried to review for herself why she ached so badly and why she woke up on the floor next to the bed. There was a rap on the front door.

“Maybe I should just go on into work…” she concluded aloud as she looked through the peep hole at the distracted face of Billy handy-guy.

“Miss Armitage,” his voice came through clearly, “I just wanted to let you know that…” The door opened. Melanie attempted a genial smile. “…I got all the orange juice cleaned up and I, and I…” He was curiously at a loss for words as his eyes met her face.

She didn’t miss a beat. “Oh! the orange juice! I remember now. Thank you Billy!”

He wasn’t sure how to take that last admission, still fascinated that Melanie’s face was overly puffy and smeared on one side with creases from an obviously uncomfortable sleep.

“Uh, yes ma’am. Well just thought I should tell you. Didn’t want you to give it too much thought and all…” he splattered and turned to return to his morning chores.

Melanie put a hand to her face and felt the rumpled creases. “Thank you Billy, really. Thank you,” and she shut the door heaving a sigh of chagrin, her back pressed against its solid reassurance. The kettle whistled.

“Finally!” She scurried wobbily back to the galley kitchen and poured the steaming water into the waiting coffee filter over her cup. She took a deep breath. “It’s a new day. I’m a wreck. It’s only Tuesday and I shouldn’t go near other people.” She let the brewing liquid drain a little, poured in the last bit of hot water and decided. “So off to the office with Melanie-girl!”

It was a poorly reasoned decision perhaps compelled by habit. In any case, she was showered and dressed inside the half hour and sipping her coffee as she turned the lock-latch closed on her flat. She took a deep breath and followed her feet down the flights to the sidewalk below. Another deep breath as she gazed both directions up and down her street. The morning’s chilled breeze played irreverently with her irregularly conceived miss-mash of an outfit.

“Maybe a half-day at the office and a couple hours at the gym.” Her feet turned her toward the subway entrance. “Definitely a couple hours at the gym.”

After an uneventful passage on the underground train, Melanie stood in front of the elaborately unassuming facade of “the office”—the Norris & Lloyd Ltd. New York City presence of STIRR. A little light-headed, but still determined, Melanie pushed through the heavy door and put on her best professional air.

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