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Craig Quackenbush

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Member Since: May, 2007

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   Recent stories by Craig Quackenbush
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The Rule of Nines
By Craig Quackenbush
Saturday, November 01, 2008

Rated "R" by the Author.

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A victim of circumstance finds his way back into the world he long ago abandoned.

I can look in the mirror now.

After years of reflection, my image still arrived as a static-electric shock. I live and breathe inside this stranger. I fumble with denial and repression, potent mechanisms to camouflage what is unwanted, but I also realize that what I see cannot be denied. I look and I can almost accept.

Memories are dampened echoes in my brain that lurk inside dark crevices. The whispers of the past are reminders of who I was and what I can never be again.

Perhaps I’m best described as a bundle of walking scar tissue. Damaged. Disfigured. Maimed.

My right eye is still the same hazel. But a monster hides behind my left eye, opaque in a hue of wet, glossy white. My mouth, partially composed of false teeth, is a deformed grin. The left side of my face is a crisscrossed mishmash of sunken crimson scar tissue like tiny canyons. The right is an almost flawless permanent shade of baby blanket pink. If I hold up a sheet of paper in front of my face, I can compare. I laugh to know I’m a comic book villain.

They’re dancing again on the television. Dancing to win a competition. Fluff entertainment to comfort me. I dance through them. I am a vicarious master of the light fantastic. Later I will drowse off in my recliner with half my face coated with ointment.

In the dark lit only by the cathode ray flicker, slouched in the chair, between consciousness and sleep, my mind replays the accident. Slow to start, like a projector gearing up to speed, blurred images become clear. I see the contained explosion. I see me on fire. It was easily extinguished, but left burns on a total body surface area of seventy-two percent.

I was a thirty-eight year old whiz kid in the lab, and the youngest on staff. I was a well-paid chemical engineer in the beauty industry. I was the behind-the scenes specialist whose job it was to make the ladies look good and smell better. My daytime world consisted of acids, bases, oxidizers, reducing agents, toxins and solvents. I was unrestrained professional bravado. For what turned out to be my final assignment, I had to refine and perfect a cutting edge facial astringent for a high-end client. A missing label, a leak, and a volatile admixture made the room go boom and transformed me into a shrieking human fireball. My attorney called it improper implementation of safety procedures and neglect of the company to provide adequate safety guidelines for its employees. I was Exhibit “A.” The case never reached a courtroom. The settlement was impressive, even after my attorney took his piece of the payoff. Still, the amount I received did not make my slow transition into a sideshow freak any easier.

I was pulling in six figures. I was engaged to Roma, a lovely woman who worked as a magazine editor. The day of the accident, I was supposed to pick Roma up after work, meet our friends Perry and Cathy (both doctors), put away Porterhouse steaks, and top off the night with prime seats on Broadway. There was a different plan for me that Friday. I ate dinner through a tube.

Roma and I were going to do what every couple seems to do once rings and vows are exchanged – buy a four bedroom Colonial in the upscale ‘burbs. Roma and I shared a condo then. We had a standing table at swanky Sushi Edo, we’d have late night suppers at the Uptown Club with friends, we relished our enviable box seats at the Met. We took vacations to Bali, Spain, Italy. Life was good and it would only get better.

But that was all before I learned the "rule of nines.”

The rule of nines is a system doctors use to determine the total body surface area that has been burned. To assess damage, the body is divided into nines. For example, a leg, or the torso area is a nine, the head or arm is roughly a four, and the penis ranks a one percent. As with everything else in my life, I was an overachiever in the rule of nines. My prognosis wasn’t exactly something to be cherished. Second and third degree burns. Damage to my ligaments and muscles. Hair follicles, nerve endings, and sweat glands destroyed with portions of my reticular dermis. Infection set in, but I fought it off with the assistance of topical antibiotics. Mycitracin. Silvadene. Lidocaine.

I was in the hospital for nine months. I lived in a tent. People beyond the tent were blurred ghost movements. It was immobile sterility. Maybe this is what it was like to be inside a space capsule. The rest of the world seemed so far away. I heard the murmur of voices, the clatter of hospital equipment, the chatter of a television I couldn’t see. I endured graft after graft, surgery after surgery.

I was a human bandage in a wheelchair the day I was released. Supportive, loving Roma took me home. She wept. My good eye focused and watched. She fed me. She took me to my appointments with surgeons and attorneys. All the while I wore a burn treatment mask, a plastic shield I had to strap across what my face had become, for at least twenty-three hours a day between reconstructive surgery sessions.

Four years gone. Four years of isolation. When I moved into this place, I covered the medicine cabinet mirror with a towel. I took down the full-length mirror inside the walk-in closet. When I removed the towel in the bathroom months later, I got to know the new me.

What I did was, I cut and shaped the burn treatment mask. I strapped it on and traced with a marker the precise line between my charred scars on the left and the almost-normal right sides of my face. I then fit the half-mask around my head and looked in the mirror. I was half a Kewpie doll with an opaque eye torn from a nightmare acid trip. I colored in a theater of tragedy frown with a red permanent marker. Macabre, I suppose, but preferable to the sullen fork-across-mashed potatoes tissue jumble of my left side. I thought of it as artistic and, perhaps, sexy. After all, it’s been said that the ladies like a guy with a few scars. Though seventy-two percent of the body might be overkill.

My facial hair is gone, except for a mélange of right-side growth. The hair on my skull is patchy, but if I adjust it properly, it looks less like a comb-over and more like a short Caesar-shag. I do save money on razor blades and aftershave. My upper left lip is gone, and the lower left is so emaciated it hardly exists. The reconstruction on my nose resulted in something petite and feminine. I breathe with difficulty through just the right nostril. The surgeons replaced the one missing eyebrow, but it doesn’t match the brow that survived the blast. Yeah, vanity creeps. My neck, torso, arms, and legs are boiled lobster red with geometric patterns of ghost white.

I treat myself with ointments and lotions and meds. Only rarely do I now sprout an infection. There are pills for that malady. I swallow then down with a vodka neat or a whiskey sour. With enough pills and enough booze, sometimes I forget.

I don’t go out. Here within the walls of my lair I have every creature comfort I need. Even my groceries and drugs are delivered. With the computer’s online virtual world I order my virtual medication and virtual food while I message and chat with virtual friends. Sidney the doorman is kind enough to bring my purchases up. I slide cash under the door and wait until I hear the elevator doors close and I pull my items inside, and close and lock the three deadbolts. The doormen will even go to the ATM for me. They have my PIN number. If I need cash for their tips when they bring the food or my laundry, they fetch the cash. There’s even a tip in that task: Bring me a stack of bills and keep one for yourself.

If I need release there is always online pornography. Sustenance, stimulation, or a new oversized shirt – all is available with a stroke of a key.

During the day I sometimes open the heavy vermilion curtains and allow what I feel is eighteen percent of the world inside. If there’s rain, I can sit in my overstuffed easy chair and watch it for hours, my mind washed into complacency by the hypnotic pattern of rainfall. I will look outside to the street and peer out at a place to which I no longer belong. I study the motion of normal people going about their lives, on personal journeys toward their own completion. I was once one of them.

I did not find completion. Completion found me.

There are days when I do not prefer the light. The curtains remain closed, but the treacherous sun edges across white walls like an incandescent assassin. I switch on a lamp instead and lose myself in the television or a movie or a book. I’ve tried my hand at writing. I have pages and pages of documents and notes and medical records. What I wrote recounted the experiences that brought me to this place, replete with sketches and diagrams and charts. I call them my memoirs. Sometimes, when the whim strikes, I scribble a random word on the walls.

Friends from long ago still call or send me email. They are familiar, but simultaneously seem like strangers. They were part of a different life.

I’ve found a sense of peace in solitude. I slump in my chair drooling onto my robe and I hear the sounds of the city beyond my windows. I remember that world.

At night the memories recur most keenly. I slump in my chair drooling onto my robe and I hear the sounds of life beyond my windows. I remember that world and I clench my teeth behind my misshapen grimace, my fingers dig into the fabric of the chair, and my eyes don’t blink while I gaze into the great nothing. Because for those panicky moments I realize that this is all nothing. There is an awful emptiness of where I am, who I am, and the life I have built for myself. I realize I exist as a long-dead philosopher’s quote.

One day while I apply my ointments and elixirs to the eighteen percent of my head and neck, I receive a call. A young woman tells me she’s with a primetime news show. She tells me they want to interview me for a “human interest piece.” They want someone whose successful life was permanently altered by catastrophe. Apparently, someone on the show’s crack research team followed an information trail and came across my tragic saga. They pitched me in a production meeting. I find that humorous. Even as I danced here in my lair, I was someone else’s idea. Everyone on the production staff agreed that I would be a fascinating subject. I tell them that I don’t have a happy ending for them. They say that’s fine – they don’t need a happy ending. They just want to show survival in the face of adversity and its consequences. I don’t react and she asks if I am still there. I tell her to call me back tomorrow. And she does, right after I finish a bowl of sugary cereal. I accept the offer. What do I have to lose?

The next week the camera and sound crews arrive. Sidney called from the front desk the night before to remind me, so I was prepared. Sidney ushers them into my inner sanctum. The reporter leads the pack. She is an attractive woman with perfectly coiffed russet hair and dressed in designer interviewer attire. Her mocha skirt comes to her knees. Her lavender blouse is tastefully buttoned above her cleavage and a locket clasp rests around her neck. In the rule of nines, the reporter scores high. I haven’t been near a real woman for a long time.

I sit across from her, clad in head-to-toe black, gloved left hand, velvet dinner jacket, onyx ring on my right pinky finger, and my theater of tragedy burn mask. She asks if I am really going to wear that. Of course I’m going to wear it. It’s preferable to an executioner’s hood, don’t you think? My hair remnants are slicked back. The make-up girl, bothered by nothing, has pasted my exposed facial area with camera-friendly make-up. As if anything about me is camera-friendly.

The interview begins. The interviewer, regal and professional, goes through her perfunctory questions.

“How did it happen?” The lab blew up.

“How painful was it?”

Go turn a burner on, let it heat up, then set your face on it and leave it there. That’s a start.

The interviewer gets personal, of course: “How did your fiancée react?”

She was a saint. Next topic.

“You don’t want to discuss her?”

No. Next topic.

“Four years locked away in this apartment. How do you live like this?”

I offset my tragic side with a bleak smile from my exposed side. How can I not live like this?

“Did you write that word on the wall?” She points beyond me. I shift and look.

Freak. Yes.

“Why did you write that word on your wall? Do you feel you’re a freak?”

I am only eighteen percent focused on the question. Her well-defined calf muscles eighty-two percent distract me.

I think I’m normal. I think the world is a freak.

“Why?”

I feel like I’m talking to the hospital shrink again.

I accept what I am. It took some time, but I do. The world would rather deny it.

“Why do you think that?”

Do you live in your world?

She is even more attractive when she is desperate. I lean forward. There is the scent of perfume along the fine line of her neck. I want to bite that neck. There is dampness between her legs and I can smell it, like a predator. I have flashes of stripping off her interviewer clothes and taking her across my chair, taking her as she clutches at my half-mask, taking her as she massages my scars.

There comes what I expect and she asks me if I will remove the mask. They want to capture this theater of the grotesque right here on their video for millions of viewers. They want the audience to collectively cringe and count their blessings. I balk. My reluctance is what they want, anyway. She prods me, coaxes and coos in a genial seductive manner. I seduce her right back and finger the strap. Her hunger is in her eyes and in the way she licks her lips. I pull the mask up and away. The camera crew freezes and I hear their muffled reactions. The interviewer, professionally composed, cannot contain the clashing glint of victory and revulsion in her eyes. “I see, I see,” the interviewer says, a bead of sweat on her perfect brow.

Do you see? Do you? Because I think you don’t. One eye brooding hazel, and the other a near-blind opaque, I stare into her and wonder if she has ever felt so powerful.

In the alternate scenario, the interviewer asks me if I’ll remove my mask and I refuse. I don’t want anyone’s pity. “Don’t you want people to see what you’ve endured? Perhaps if they saw you, they’d more readily accept someone with a disfiguring injury.” I don’t require anyone’s acceptance. She gives up and the interview ends. The crew packs away their equipment. The interviewer thanks me and says she will keep me updated about the eventual airdate. I see them out. When they’ve gone, all is silent again. And I want her to come back.

My life continues, and six weeks later, the segment airs. That same evening and into the next couple days, the email dropped in. I am a sudden semi-celebrity. I hear from old friends, caution and sympathy in their communication. Some I read. Some I reply. Many I delete.

Few people have my phone number, so when the phone rings, I pick up. Hello? After a pause there is Roma’s voice. She saw the segment. I muster a “Hello.” The conversation is stilted. It’s not even a real conversation. It is my gentle Roma, talking softly in my ear. My Roma and her compassion and her love and I still feel it. My responses are muted monosyllables in the key of mourning. I ask no questions because I don’t want to know. I don’t want to know how agreeable her life is now. She tells me she loves me. She tells me I am loved and that I should never forget that. And she’s gone. The rest of the day and into the night I sit in my chair, silent and motionless and I only see her.

Roma didn’t leave me. She would have stayed by my side and she would have married me. I made her leave me. I directed my anger and self-pity at her. I lashed out with caustic remarks and aggression. She would plead and try to reason. But I wouldn’t have any of it.

I retreated. Until the out-of-court settlement from the company, I holed up in a hideaway in our condo. I snarled and snapped at Roma’s attempts to help me, or soothe me, or speak to me. Her tears seemed endless, but they weren’t. She stopped crying and started packing. Alone in the dark, I recall so keenly the sounds of the drawers and closets being opened in the bedroom. Snapping, zipping. When she finished packing, she rapped gently on the door of the den I had made into my hideaway. There was a mattress on the floor, a computer on the desk, a small flat screen TV atop the bookshelf.

She spoke with a murmur through the door. She told me she would be at her friend Annie’s place, or at her mother’s. She said she loved me. I didn’t even grunt a response. When I heard the front door close, I went to the bathroom and changed my bandages. It looked as if I’d be going alone to my next skin graft procedure.

The doctors told me these dozens of operations made significant improvements. I had to ask, an improvement from what to what? Anything besides what I had been would never be improvement enough. The hospital shrink tried to talk me through it with a patented congenial demeanor. Unless she could make me a real person again, I had no interest in her meant-to-soothe psychological truisms.

I am my own best company because I am my only company. That’s my truism. I found a place to hide myself until I am no more.

The dance television show features a cast of washed-up celebrities engaged in a contest to the end. And that end is the couple judged the best dancing duo and crowned victor. It’s fluff. But the ladies are lookers. The rule of nines applies. A couple of the women are definitely at eighteen-percent. They make me want to dance, and occasionally I will. I set my drink aside, heave myself out of the chair, and do a locomotive shimmy in front of the TV screen, naked under my robe, my genitals flopping about, arms in a push-pull motion at my side, feet forward and back, dancing with my scars.

Fatigue sets in and sleep cloaks my consciousness and I cannot distract myself from my dreams. I am loath to call them nightmares. Maybe “morbid visions” is a better way to describe what goes on in my mind behind closed eyes. Usually, the visions are clusters of disparate images. I see the panic at the lab and the glare of surgical table lights and weeping and long-lost words of devotion. Me, the monster assembled by the mad doctors. I stagger out into the world and I terrify the villagers who find their recourse in torches and mob rules. I stand on the edge of a cliff and look down into a bubbling crater of magma and I tumble toward the heat and find I look into the table candle flame at a dinner party with friends, out-of-focus behind Invisible Man bandages around my head as these vaguely familiar people point aghast with hands over mouths to hide their dismay at my gown and gauze. It’s winter, they say. Why are you wearing white after Labor Day?

Awake, I go through morning medical rituals. I log into the Internet. Over these many months, I have connected with people. They don’t have to see me. It’s not like these are real relationships. Even though I am disingenuous about myself, I can still manage to be me. I simply don’t tell them exactly who I am or what happened. My screen name is “Fire Dancer.” There is one young woman with whom I exchange instant messages several times a week. Her name is Amanda. I’ve seen her photos on a social networking site. She’s a pretty brunette with blue eyes. I wonder why she spends so much time online.

I’ve been burned, she tells me. I remind myself she is only using a metaphor. She goes on, I decided to drop out of the dating scene for a while. I need to concentrate on me. My job. My goals. Right now I prefer to socialize with my computer rather than at some bar or club. Even though my girls will drag me out.

Sometimes on the weekends Amanda is not around at night. I know she’s out there, drink in hand, laughing and gabbing with her friends and catching the eyes of many a hungry man. I feel jealousy. I am drawn to her. But I never let my attraction – or my jealousy - show in our messages and emails. I can’t.

One Monday night Amanda chimes in. I push out of my chair and saunter over to my laptop computer. It is a simple “Hi.”

Hi, I reply. She asks what I am doing. I tell her I am looking through some magazines and that the dancing show is on the TV.

“I have that on, too. I don’t pay much attention, but it makes me want to learn to dance. Better.”

You know how to dance already?

“Sort of, but not great. Not like those people on TV. Can you dance?”

I have to laugh. I dance with myself. No, I can’t.

“We should meet up. Take a class.”

You’re joking.

“Not really. It might be fun.”

I realize she thinks I look like the photos I put up on the social network site. Under the profession heading I put “Consultant.” I posted some old pictures of me as a strapping young lad at the Eiffel Tower, at the Parthenon, at Pier 39 with lazy sea lions in the background. The only indication on there of my current condition is the snapshot I took of my theater of tragedy medical mask, propped in my chair. She asked about that. I lied and told her it was a memento from my college theater days. Okay, it was a half-lie. I took a theater class to fulfill a humanities obligation.

I don’t know if I’m up for a dance class. Oh, how I want to meet Amanda in person. I would take her up on this dance class proposal if I weren’t a monster movie creation.

A thought occurs to me. I hesitate, but ask anyway. In the end, I don’t have to tell her the truth. I type: Did you see the interview with the burn victim on television a couple weeks ago? She says she did not. “Why? Should I have?” Yes. He was a fascinating character. I poke around on various sites in the virtual world. To my surprise, I find links to my interview posted in dozens of places. I read all of the comments people have left. Some call me arrogant. Others reason that they would have an attitude problem, too, if the world viewed them as a freak. Some show sympathy. I send Amanda a link to the interview. I tell her that it’s interesting. This guy seems to have become some minor celebrity.

“Oh yeah. I know about this. This weird guy at the office was talking about it.”

Well, now I know that a member of my audience is a “weird guy at the office.” Only appropriate, I suppose. I tell Amanda that I have to take care of a few things, but watch that interview. I’ll be back and we can talk about it.

I go to my chair. I wait while she watches me on her end. I want to give Amanda a chance to see me for who I am. I want to tell her. I want her to know. For once, I don’t want to hide behind my mask.

I return to the computer twenty minutes later. I message her. Hey, I’m back.

“Hey. I checked out that interview. That guy was kind of a creep. He was mean to the reporter.”

I’m a creep. I smile, use a discolored washcloth to dab a trickle of drool away from where my left lower lip once existed, and reply. A creep?

“Well, a little, I guess. I’m sorry he got burned. That’s awful what he endured. And how he lost the woman he loved. Maybe he has a right to be so angry.”

He’s not angry, I type.

“You don’t think so?”

No. I think he’s lonely and afraid. He hides himself away. I think that he’s the only person left to keep himself company. He’s not a monster.

“You seem like you really care about this guy.”

The feeling of care is periodic, not persistent.

“Huh?”

I drop my hands to my sides. Here it is, the perfect opportunity. I trace my fingertips over my scars.

“And when he took off his weird mask…”

She stops there. I become impatient. When he took off his mask… what?

“That mask looked a lot like the picture of your mask.”

Here is the first defining moment of my life I’ve experienced since I moved into this place. I type slowly. That’s because it is my mask.

“What?”

He’s me.

I await her response with the proverbial baited breath.

“Stop it. What are you talking about?”

I am that guy, typing to you right now.

“Stop. You’re freaking me out a little.”

I’ll prove it to you. I’ll take a picture of myself holding a can of sliced peaches, and post it. I tell her I’ll put it on the social networking site.

“This cannot be for real.”

I get my digital camera, get the peaches, and take a shot of myself in my mask. I load it onto my computer and place it on the site. Meanwhile, she sends messages: “You’re not serious.” “I don’t believe this.”

Believe it. I direct her to the photo. It is torturous as I await her response.

“Oh my god. You really are that guy. This whole time!”

Yes.

There is a long pause. “I can’t do this.” She signs off. And the freak leans back in his desk chair and bows his freak head.

I think about her all night and all the next day. She does not sign on. Days pass and I go about the routines of my life. The incident with Amanda remains sharp, but I accept that she might be gone for good.

She’s not. A week later, I hear the chime of the message from my computer. It’s her, again with a “Hi.”

I grin and I want to perform a foxtrot right then and there. Instead, I sit and reply. Hi there.

“I’m sorry I freaked out.”

That’s okay. I can’t blame you. It had to come as a shock.

“There’s an understatement.”

I don’t know what to type in reply, so I don’t.

“I thought about it and I realize that those photos you put up are you. Just, before.”

Yes.

“Fire Dancer. Clever.”

That’s me, clever to the end.

“It’s weird. I’ve told you some things, like about work or old boyfriends, that I haven’t even told my best friend.”

Sometimes it’s easier to engage a stranger.

“But I don’t think of you as a stranger.”

You know what I meant. I don’t feel like a stranger, either.

“I want to see you.”

I am immediately filled with both glee and dread. I don’t go out.

“You should. You have nothing to be ashamed of.”

The world feels like I do.

“Not in my world, you don’t. If people out here are going to act like you’re a freak, then they’re the ones who should be ashamed.”

What could I say?

“Come out. Thursday night. I’ll meet you at your building so that I’m with you the whole time.”

Not a great idea.

“I realize the prospect of stepping outside might be scary. But you can’t live like that.”

I’ve managed for four years.

“Too long. See me. Come outside.”

Let me think about it?

“Don’t think about it too much, or for too long.”

She gives me her phone number. I tell her I’ll let her know. Right now I have to take care of medical stuff. I don’t. I sign off, feeling overloaded.

She wants to see me on Thursday. I can’t do it. It’s not how things are. How could she still want to see me after watching the interview?

I don’t sign on to the message program for the next two days. Her suggestion is all I think about. I pace. I talk to myself. I examine my distorted face in the bathroom mirror.

Loneliness has been my companion for so long now. The possibility of breaking the cycle of my life does frighten me. I lost my swagger over four years ago. But an old confidence still exists in me, masked by doubt and insecurity. Flickers of self-assurance penetrate the years.

Last night, Wednesday night, I dozed off in my chair. When I wake up, it’s morning. I eat cereal, I watch a game show, I go online. All the while, the word “tonight” recurs, bouncing off rubber walls in my mind.

I spend a half-hour looking out the window. Just as I am about to turn away, an older man, probably retired, drops a handful of change at a newspaper box. A teenager comes over to him and helps him pick it up. The man thanks him and the kid smiles and walks away.

I do it. I call Amanda. I get voicemail. I say I want to see her. Tonight. I give her my address and hang up. Again I pace. I laugh. I can’t believe I’m doing it.

Amanda calls back an hour later. I am careful not to pick up too quickly. It’s like I’m playing the first date game again, except this time I’m a bit mutated. She is happy that I decided to come out. When she didn’t see me online all week, she figured that she’d scared me off.

I admit that I am scared. But I’m also excited.

“I’m excited, too. I’ll be there at seven.”

I’ll wait downstairs in the lobby.

“You don’t have to. I can ring you when I get there.”

I want to.

“All right.”

It’s a date.

She giggles and that exhilarates me. Then I am peeling around the apartment, to the closet to find good clothes and to the bathroom to shave my scraps of facial hair and determine a hairstyle.

I wear black pants and shoes, a striped maroon shirt buttoned to the top, a black overcoat. Gel molds my hair in place. I clean my mask in the bathroom sink and put it on – the finishing touch.

Where did I put my keys? I haven’t used them, ever. I look in the desk, the dresser, and the kitchen cupboards and drawers. I can’t find them. I call down to the desk. Sidney answers. I ask him if they have a spare set of keys for my apartment. He says they do. I ask him if he will bring them up. I lost my keys, apparently, and I need to lock the door behind me.

Sidney is dumbstruck. “You’re coming out?”

Yes. I have a date, I proudly declare.

“That’s wonderful. I’ll be up in a few minutes.”

I open the door. I tap the frame with my glove-free hand, listening for the elevator. There he is now. Sidney exits and sees me. He slows as he approaches, then picks up the pace.

Sidney locks the door. On the elevator he watches me with a smile, like a proud father. Do I look okay, Sid? “You look dashing.” Only an older gentleman like Sidney would use the word “dashing.”

I have a seat in the lobby near the front doors. I clutch my mobile phone in my gloved hand. I stare beyond the glass at a world I’ve not felt in so long. Sidney glances at me with his same smile from his doorman’s post.

I’m anxious and decide to wait outside. As I open a door, two tenants enter. They don’t disguise their shock very well. I’ll have to expect that. As they walk toward the elevator, I overhear the man say, “…on TV. Remember?”

I lean against the wall of the building. People pass by, gawk, and hurry along. I hold an ambivalent expression. I watch and wait. A woman, by herself, comes up the sidewalk. Long brunette hair, dressed like me in fashionable black, she sees me, hesitates. Then with a flourish of recognition, she comes over and stops in front of me.

“Amanda.”

Her blue eyes smile. “None other. You look great.”

I look great? I sputter, “I look great?”

“Yes.”

“You do, too.”

“Thank you.”

“Um, I didn’t think… well, I guess…”

“You didn’t think I’d come. An insult is not a good way to start a date.”

I grin. “Sorry. I’m a little out of practice.”

“I didn’t get us a dance class for tonight, so how about we go find ourselves a quiet little café?”

“Okay. Sounds good.”

“This isn’t my part of town. You know of any places around here?”

“No, I don’t get out much.”

“A joke. Much better.”

“I’m full of surprises.”

“I’ll bet.”

“Well, let’s go…”

She stops me in motion with a hand on my shoulder. “Let me see you. I like to know who I’m going on a date with.”

“See me?”

She nods. Her gaze is adamant but warm. It seems important to her. I feel frozen in place as though my feet have fused with the sidewalk.

“It’s okay. You can put it back on. Just let me see you. The man, not the mask.” She squeezes my shoulder, drops her arm. There is such benevolence in her voice.

I put the rule of nines away. I don’t need them. I firm my resolve, unclasp the mask, pull it aside, lower it, and clench it tightly at my side. She doesn’t recoil or avert her gaze. Her eyes do not fill with pity. Rather she seems to become consumed with gentleness. Her lips turn upward into a tender smile.

She reaches up to touch my face.
 


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