Monday, September 23, 2013

Unlucky in Love: A Short Story

“What’s wrong with you? Stop calling me, Gwen. Just STOP.” The breakup was a week ago, the text was three hours old, and her response was already percolating.
An agitated Gwen Lundgren shuffled through design printouts next to her laptop as she waited for a Skype call scheduled for 9:30 Minneapolis time, 3:30 London time. After several seconds, the ruddy, smiling face of Tykon’s International Marketing Director Erick DeMint flittered up on the screen. He was a personable, handsome thirty-something with vibrant hazel eyes and an unruly shock of straw-colored hair. And although she had never seen the entire man from head to toe, that didn’t stop her from fantasizing. There was something different about the background today.
            “Gwen? How are you?”
            His accent made her shift positions in her chair. “Erick, I’m great. Happy Friday. Where are you?”
            “Took a day off. Can you believe it? So I’m working from home. This is my lovely office. Out that window is my lovely yard where I plan to spend the rest of the afternoon. And later my brother Timothy is coming over for dinner. Oh, and tomorrow morning my wife and I and Samantha are going north to spend the week at a country inn we love near Northampton.”
            The mention of his wife and daughter grated what she hoped was an imperceptible degree of enthusiasm off her voice. “You’re a busy person. Sounds great. How old is Samantha again?”
            “Nine, but of course she thinks she’s nineteen. Had the nerve to ask us if she could get her eyebrow pierced the other day. Nine years old.”
            “My sister is going through the same thing with her two girls. They both want to be Miley Cyrus when they grow up.”
            Genuine laughter. “God, no. Tell her we feel her pain.”
            “I’m sure you’re a great father.”
            “Oh, I have my days, but thanks. What about your weekend? Taking the boyfriend out on the town?”
            “Unfortunately there’s no one special in my life right now. Well, there was, but….I don’t know. Not the luckiest person in the world when it comes to relationships.”
            “An attractive young woman like you? That’s hard to believe. Stay positive. You’ll find someone or someone will find you.”
“Thanks. Well, so, should we go over the concepts I sent? You’re making me feel guilty about talking business on your day off.”
            “Don’t worry about it. This was on my calendar long before I decided to…” Erick turned in his chair and then turned back. “Sorry. Thought I heard something. Anyway, back to the concepts. Okay. I really liked number three. Nice work. I felt it captured what we were trying to….” He turned again. “There. Did you hear it that time?”
            “Sorry. Is anyone home?”
            “No. Kara’s at work and Samantha doesn’t get home… I apologize, but let me go check. I’ll just be a second.”
            “Not a problem.”
            One of life’s great mysteries was solved as Erick stood up and walked to the office door. He was trim with a very cute butt, just as she had imagined. She could hear his footsteps as he walked through rooms in the house and conjured up an image of him coming out of the bathroom wearing only a small white towel and a tender smile, approaching the bed and…Erick popped back into the room shaking his head.
            “It’s an older home,” he said, sitting down. “I know it doesn’t sound very macho, but sometimes I get a little freaked out when I’m here by myself. Okay, where was…I was commenting on design number three and why I was really drawn to this one.”
            Although her attention was focused on Erick’s face as he talked, Gwen caught a glimpse of a quickly moving shadow cross the window over Erick’s right shoulder. Most likely….obviously a bird, she concluded, and chose not to say anything. She really didn’t want to be distracted from the praise he was lavishing on her design, her abilities to capture just the right tone, how clever she was to distill a complex concept into a few beautiful images. She was wading in his warm words.
            There was a distant clang, as if something metal like a pan had fallen to the hardwood floor. 
            “I heard it that time,” she said.
            Erick’s expression became one of concern and he turned around several times. “I…I think someone’s in the house. I can hear footsteps.”
            “You’re sure your wife didn’t come home early?”
            “Duh. That’s probably it. Like I said, I get a bit spooked here sometimes.” He turned and called out. “Kara? Hey, is that you?” There was a muffled but discernable “Yes,” from another room in the house. Erick’s body relaxed and he smiled nervously. “Sorry about all the drama. I’m just going to see what’s going with my wife and then we can finish up here. Hold on.”
            As much as she enjoyed her conversations with Erick, this was taking longer than she had planned and it was bumping into another meeting that was about to start. Gwen leaned back in her chair and toyed with a pen while waiting. A shadow moved across the hallway beyond the office threshold followed by a murmur of voices and then two loud thumps, which sounded like someone pounding a fist on a countertop. She leaned forward, eyes now zeroing in on the hallway. There was another flitter of a shadow and then a door closed somewhere in the house. This was followed by unnerving silence.
“Erick? Hey, what’s going on? Erick. Are you okay?” Gwen took in a breath and held it. Someone sneezed in a nearby cube and her muscles clenched up as if she’d been stuck with a pin. “Erick?”
“No. I’m okay. Everything is fine.” It was Erick’s voice coming from somewhere in the house. “Made a mess I need to clean up.”
She waited a minute, her heart racing, then called Erick’s name several more times, but there was no response, no movement in the house at all. Do I call 911, she wondered? What’s 911 in London? Maybe he just decided to go…no. He didn’t…he wouldn’t just leave me hanging. Would he?
            A passing cube mate made the un-asked for observation that she looked pale and asked if she was okay. Distracted, Gwen nodded and then, part hurt, part still concerned, terminated the call. The screen went dark and there was only her own vague image floating in the blackness of the monitor. An hour passed, then another. Too unnerved to work, she began making inquiries as best she could from another country. She was finally able to track down Erick’s boss at Tykon, who said he’d gone on holiday with his wife, which was actually a plausible explanation after what he’d told her, but still…. 
Three weeks passed. Gwen emailed and called Erick every day, but received only “out-of-office” replies or was dropped into voicemail. Her time at home was spent checking London newspapers online for any crime that might relate to Erick or his family. She knew that something was not right with Erick’s sudden disappearance, that possibly a crime had been committed, but she had no evidence and could not find anything concrete on which to base her feelings. She called his boss again and was told Erick had taken a brief leave of absence for personal reasons. Personal reasons? Like being dead?
            It was a chilly late fall afternoon as Gwen strode along Nicolette Mall in downtown Minneapolis in the direction of the Dakota when she heard a familiar voice rise above the din of traffic and call out her name.
            She spun around and to her astonishment saw Erick walking across the mall in her direction smiling and waving. He was wearing a long black coat with a red scarf around his neck and his hair was shorter, but she knew it was him from the instant their eyes met. Stunned, she stood like a boulder in a river of pedestrians flowing by, her attention fixated on the approaching man.
            “Oh, thank God I found you,” he said, putting his arms around her and squeezing tight.
            For a moment, she was too shocked to react, but then quickly wrapped her arms around him and pulled him even closer. “My God, Erick. What the—“ Before she could finish he put his lips to hers and kissed her passionately. She responded without hesitation. Several moments later they separated, and Gwen tried to formulate a coherent question from the dozens that were swirling around in her head.
            “What’s going on, Erick? Why are you here? What about Kara?”
            “There’s plenty of time to talk about all of that. Right now, however, I would like to take you to my hotel room.”
            Two hours later Gwen sat on the edge of a bed, a sheet draped over her naked body, pleasantly exhausted, but still shell-shocked. The sex had been loud and satisfying, but perhaps lacking a degree of…intimacy. She looked toward the bathroom door where Erick was taking a shower and tried to imagine various scenarios that ended with Erick coming to Minneapolis from England alone to find her after having disappeared for three weeks. None of them made any sense.
            Wearing only a white towel and a wicked grin, Erick set down on the bed next to Gwen and kissed her cheek.
            “That was unbelievable,” he whispered.
            Gwen blushed, but remained guarded. “Can we talk about what’s going on, Erick?”
            “Over dinner. I promise. Let me get dressed and we’ll have a quick drink from the mini bar and then go downstairs. I’ll tell you everything. Promise.” Eyeing him sideways, Gwen got up to dress.
            The bored waiter set their entrees in front of them and walked away without a glance. “Bloody moron isn’t very interested in a tip, is he?” said Erick just a bit too loud. “How’s your martini?”
            “Too good. I might have to order another one. So….”
            “So. Well, it’s not really all that complicated, although it is rather depressing.” His expression darkened. “That day of the call—“
            “The video call?”
            “Right, video call, Kara came home early, as you know, and then confessed to me she’d been seeing another man for several months and that she wanted a divorce. That was, of course, a huge shock. I felt like I’d been run over by a tram, but the part of her story that sent me entirely over the edge was that the other man was my brother. The…bitch had been screwing my brother. Well, I was in complete and utter insanity mode. It’s horrible to say, but I wanted to kill them both. Honestly, I had no idea this was going on. Call me stupid or blind or whatever, it came as a total shock. Anyway, I simply couldn’t deal with it and left the house immediately. I’m so sorry, Gwen. I’ve just been in a state of absolute inner turmoil the past few weeks, I can’t even tell you. But then I thought about you and the feelings I had felt whenever we talked and realized it was the perfect opportunity to get out of London for a while and see if my intuitions about you were correct. And it seems they were.”
            “Wow. So where’s your daughter?”
            “Samantha's with my Mum until I get back.”
            Gwen looked down at her salmon and shook her head not quite sure that all the dots connected, but considering the man of her dreams was sitting across the table from her, she swept her doubts into a dark corner of her mind and looked up, meeting Erick’s piercing eyes. “I’m terribly sorry for everything. It must be a nightmare.”
            “It was,” he said. “Until now.”
            Staggering and laughing arm in arm down the hallway of her apartment complex, Gwen and Erick made up lyrics to “The First Cut is the Deepest,” which had been playing in the elevator on the way up. “The first cup is the cheapest….” A wobbly Gwen apologized for the mess as she led Erick through her apartment to the living room. She dimmed the lights, poured them both a glass of wine and joined him on the couch, curling up next to him and nuzzling his neck.
            “What are you thinking?” she asked.
            “That I’m so glad I found you,” he said.
            They talked for another half hour until Gwen heard a familiar ping coming from her bedroom.
            “Sorry,” she said, gently brushing the back of her hand across his cheek. “Need to use the bathroom. Would you pour us another glass?”
            Erick smiled. “I’d like nothing better.”
            Not sure why she thought she needed a subterfuge to check her computer, she slipped into the bedroom, sat at her desk and tapped the space bar. The screen quickly brightened and up popped a news alert. She opened the email and scanned several recent headlines from The Telegraph. One caught her eye.
Murdered Family Members Identified
London — Scotland Yard was finally able to positively identify the remains of three family members brutally murdered in their Hampstead residence three weeks ago. The victims were 35-year old Erick DeMint, 34-year old Kara DeMint and their daughter, 9-year old Samantha DeMint. The police still have no solid leads….
A shadow enveloped Gwen from behind.
            “Don’t turn around.”
            “Erick? What’s going on?” she asked with a growing sense of alarm.
            “Remember several weeks ago during your little teleconference or video call or whatever you call it when I said I had a mess to clean up?
            “Well, I’m taking care of that now.”
            “I don’t understand.”
            “Erick told you he had a brother. What I think he failed to mention was that he has…had an identical twin brother.”
            The razor-edged knife slid effortlessly through Gwen’s neck muscles in a long red arch, releasing a burbling cascade of blood that flowed down her chest like warm red honey. Grasping a handful of her hair, Timothy held her head back until the spasms ended.
            “Erick was quite fond of you, Gwen. I’m so sorry, but I’m afraid you had a crush on the wrong man.”

No comments: