The worst part of the injured ankle was the inability to run. Running was more than just a healthy life choice. Running reminded her that she could be faster than the enemy. Running gave her a way to deal with the tide of emotions that seemed to wash over her on a daily basis. The tougher the day, the harder the run, the better she slept. It was painful to simply limp around the office, so she appreciated that today was Saturday, so she could elevate her foot, and just relax.
She donned a comfy pair of sweats, tossed her hair up in a messy bun, and grabbed an interior design magazine she had bought off the rack at the grocery store earlier in the week. She decided dry Lucky Charms could suffice for breakfast, so she carried the box with her into the nearly empty living room, forgoing milk or a bowl or even a spoon. She found a spot by the wall that would work for now. She leaned back against it, propped her foot up on a pillow, grabbed a handful of marshmallow oatey goodness, and flipped through the magazine.
About halfway through an interesting article on incorporating natural elements into a corporate setting, she heard footsteps down her apartment hallway, on her floor. It was a Saturday, so most likely one of her neighbors were heading out for the day. Maybe they were shopping, or dining out, or meeting family. She wondered if it was the single gal on the other side of the hallway, or one of the parents of the family that lived next door to her. The steps were too heavy to be a child’s.
When the steps went past her neighbors doors, she knew the steps were intended for her. The steps grew louder, getting much closer, and stopped right outside her door.The apartment was so incredibly quiet, and when she realized it wasn’t the friendly parents next door, she seemed to feel each of the footsteps as they slowly approached clearly, intimately, as if the small vibrations in the hall reached all the way to her chest, increasing her heart rate, her breathing. And she heard their absence as well, when the steps fell still, feet from where she was lounging.
Her heart nearly shot out of her chest when she heard a light knock at the door. Oh no. No, no, no. No one knew where she lived, not even her own mother. No one good could possibly be looking for her. Tucker didn’t even know which floor she lived on, let alone her apartment number. Only the Monster could figure something like this out. She crawled over the old carpet in her living room to the comfy chair as quietly as she could in her condition and grabbed the hand gun she kept hidden underneath it.
She clicked the safety off and shakily held it in the direction of the door. She tried not to make a sound.
She waited a few agonizing seconds. She heard the knock again, and this time a voice accompanied it.
Mr. Goodlooking she recognized. Good God. He had no idea the effect his unannounced visit had on her. And how did he know where she lived? And how did he get past the locked doors downstairs?
“Hey, Ann, it’s me, Tucker. Could you let me in?”
She refused to respond. She did not know what to say. Oh yeah, come on in. I could offer you some water out of a plastic cup or some dry Lucky Charms, what a great time that could be, huh?
No. It was much better he didn’t know she was home, so she remained silent.
“Ok. I’m sorry to bother you,” he continued. “I’ll just leave this by the door. I hope you feel better soon.”
He set something that sounded like thin plastic near her door, and she listened intently as the footsteps disappeared back down the hallway, towards the exit.
She threw her head back and let out the breath she didn’t realize she had been holding. She clicked the safety back on the gun and after a few shaky breaths slid it back into its hiding place. Pins and needles washed through her body. This is what the Monster has done. He has made her terrified of everything, taken away her dignity. That bastard! When Mr. Goodlooking found out what a fraud she was, he would never want her. He would stop seeking her out, stop flirting, and stop touching. She craved his touch so much it hurt to think he would reject her.
When her breathing had calmed down, curiosity set in. She crawled over to the door, carefully unlocked and opened it. There sat a small bouquet of flowers. She picked them up and brought them inside.
After shutting and re-locking the door, she read the note. “Thanks for casting your sunshine into my night. Here’s a bit of sunshine returned. Get well soon.” The bouquet was small and simple, but it was intentional. There were two small cattails in the arrangement, reminding her of their long conversation at the duck pond.
Her heart melted into a pool, and she savored the scent of the fresh cut flowers in her old, worn down apartment. And then the pool ached, painfully, knowing it could never work out with Tucker.
The million small decisions she made over the past few years that lead her here circled in her head, the crude, ugly, real details. The failed contracts, not seeing her family in years, the lies she repeated in each new town, the painful hunger she endured to keep on one step ahead, and the ugliness of her body from the scars.
She agreed to contract with the Monster, she chose not to involve her family, she made the decision to run, she made the decision to handle this situation on her own. The realization that she had shut herself out from the rest of the world caused a wave of grief and utter loneliness straight into her soul and washed over her body, drenching every nerve, every thought and every breath with a narrow, painful, laser like focus. She didn’t want anyone else to get hurt because of her, but the weight of taking it all on herself was starting to suffocate her. Finding a million new jobs in a million new towns, never holding down in one place long enough to make a human connection was as emotionally exhausting as it was physically exhausting.
She could never burden anyone else with the way she was feeling now. She could never put others in danger because of her weakness and desire to share her story. She hated herself at this moment, but she couldn’t live with herself if the Monster intruded on others’ lives.
She had made plenty of friends around the country, but none she could tell her story to. Not her real story. She heard theirs, and she enjoyed learning from so many people, but she now had the selfish desire to unload her fears, her disappointments, her aches and her pains on someone else for a while, just long enough to catch a breath, to heal, and then she could tackle the problem again.
She felt so weak. She needed a break from what? From who? Herself? The profound grief at her loss, loss of her former life, loss of her ability to do the things she loved, loss of her ability to simply sleep soundly through the night gripped her soul tightly. Grief was snaking its way in and was starting to set up residence.
She felt her chest tighten, the lump in her throat develop, the tears sting the back of her eyes, but they wouldn’t fall. She wanted to cry, to wash all this self loathing away and start fresh, but the tears wouldn’t fall. She wanted to bawl, her heart was broken, and all she could manage was to lie on the crappy old carpet, lifeless, so dead inside that not a single tear would fall.
She had to get rid of the Monster. It was the only way.