tagRomanceThe Muse

The Muse


Author's Note: Thank you to all those who have encouraged me to continue writing. Thank you Tim413413 for the hours of editing.


Sleep wasn't coming. Reading almost worked. My eyes would close and my mind would drift; then reality would slam back in. I rolled over and looked at the clock. Eleven thirty. At least it wasn't too late yet. I could still get six hours' sleep if I could just calm my mind. I took a couple of deep breaths, trying to slow my active heart. I relaxed my eyelids and tried to think of nothing. Tomorrow's interview invaded again.

The interview was just too damned scary. I really wanted the job. My career was in a holding pattern, circling through days of tedium. How I ended up as a buyer for a hardware chain is still a mystery to me. I blame the student loans. Their never-ending demands frightened me into taking the first thing with a paycheck. For five years I have trudged through wrenches and lawn mowers trying to do battle with my monthly bills. I was getting nowhere because there was nowhere to go. Every position above mine was filled with family members of Mr. Wilkerson, the owner.

My true love was marketing. Matching people to products. Analyzing trends, identifying core customers and designing plans to make them love a product. I had a pile of loans that proved I had the degree. I just didn't have that first real marketing job. The one where I could shine and follow my dreams up the ladder. If I didn't get some sleep soon, the interview could go poorly.

I rolled onto my back and reached blindly for my Kindle. The glowing words appeared and I tried to lose myself in the story. I read the same paragraph three times before I realized my mind was still centered on the interview. I had visions of an interviewer laughing at the dumb chick who dared apply, of the questions I couldn't answer or of simply getting lost downtown trying to find the office. More deep breaths.

The alarm drilled into me at six. The last time I had glanced at the clock it was two forty-five. I felt like crap. I waddled into the bathroom and blinded myself with light. In between the long blinks, I spotted the zombie girl in the mirror. Yep, dark circles surrounding veins of red lace. It was going to be a Visine and concealer morning. I dropped my nightgown to the floor, admonished myself for only exercising once in the last week and slithered into the shower.

I thought about lying down again after my shower. I was planning on being in the city an hour and a half early anyway. What's another thirty minutes of sleep going to hurt? I fought the temptation, knowing I would feel worse at the end of the nap. The interview was in a building I had never been to and downtown parking was always a question. It wasn't worth the risk to be late for the interview.

My navy skirt was tight. I hadn't planned on that little bit of joyous news. It was my only real interview suit. The one that said 'organized and driven.' I should have tried it on a week ago. The dreaded mirror had warned me about my waist and I chose to ignore the bitch. Now I had to pay the price. I slipped the skirt back off and carefully tried to stretch the waist band. I went around the whole band pulling it in little sections, trying to extend it without misshaping it. An act of desperation to be sure. When I slipped it back on, I was surprised that my efforts weren't wasted. It was snug, but no longer tight. I practiced sitting down and it all stayed in place. As long as I didn't attempt any gymnastics, I would look respectable.

My hair, surprisingly, gave me no trouble. About a year ago, I had it trimmed to shoulder length. The stylist talked me into a slight inward curl at the neckline. That gave it a bit of a style, something my head had always lacked, but remained manageable. I liked the way it moved. A sort of blond pendulum swing when I turned my head. It was my look now, one of the few things about my body I felt like I owned. Most of the rest owned me.

My hair was making me feel a bit better as I exited my apartment. Leather briefcase in hand, I was feeling rather important. No one would ever know the case only held an empty legal pad, some pens and a few copies of my résumé. Even Richard Thompson noticed.

Richard was one of those strange, lonely guys every apartment building had. They had trouble looking at you when you looked at them. They did most of their looking when your head was turned. It was creepy at first. After a while, it became apparent he had some kind of anxiety disorder that everyone ignored for his sake. I almost pitied him. Somewhere at the tail end of his thirties, he had no one and little chance of ever meeting anyone. Today, Richard gave me a double take as he exited his apartment. I was looking right at him and I got a few seconds of a stare, half a smile and then he disappeared back into his apartment. It was obvious he couldn't handle the stress of saying good morning. I took it as 'Looking good today, Mary.'

The drive downtown was uneventful and way too quick. I was starting to get a bit nervous and wished for a traffic jam just to slow things down. Instead, I arrived and was parked with an hour and forty-five minutes to spare. It only took me fifteen minutes to figure out where the Brindle Building was and locate the elevators. I had an hour and a half to kill. I didn't want to work up a sweat by walking around so I ended up in a small independent coffee shop. Someone had left the morning paper on the table to share. I shared it with a cup of Jeju Island green tea. I was careful to lean forward when I drank and made sure the cup was well away from my white blouse.

I killed a half hour in the coffee shop and played with my map app to find another distraction. I scored a bookstore two blocks west. I am the type of customer bookstores hate. I browse, evaluate and pick out my books in-store. I then buy them online. I used to feel guilty, but that wore off after some time. I walked slowly. My heels were sensible, but they were still heels. I figured two blocks wouldn't be too much of a strain if kept the pace down.

The store was fairly crowded. It looked like the latest thriller from Donald Rickers had been released. The line to the cashier was at least a half hour wait. Luckily, I didn't need to get in that line. I headed straight for my 'heroin' - the romance section. The aisle was empty so I could browse in peace.

It had taken me a long time to get over the tactile feel of a book. I, at one time, had the need to display my reading on a shelf. As my eyes cruised along the aisle, a little tinge of Kindle remorse set in. That small desire to have bulging bookcases that proved my voracious appetite for reading.

When I moved into my current apartment, I donated most of my books. It was either that or rent a storage unit. My apartment just didn't have the room. The donation was emotionally difficult. Almost like when Daisy, my childhood best friend of the Golden Retriever variety, died. Those books were part of me. None of which I would ever read again, but they were my proof. Now my bookshelves have been replaced by a folder on my Kindle called 'Read Books.' No one, except the internet servers, knows what I have read.

I ran my fingers across a series of titles by one of my favorite authors. Okay, I admit I miss my paper books. A digital list just didn't have the same weight. I sighed and looked for something new. I only had three unread titles and that would likely last me two months at most.

A series of firefighter novels caught my attention. Well, actually, the guys on the covers caught my attention. I was sure fighting fires with exposed abs was dangerous, but at least they looked good doing it. I took out my phone and fired up my store app. I purchased the first book and relished the idea that a beefy firefighter was waiting for me at home on my reader. If the book was as good as its cover, I would get the whole series. New books always put me in a great mood.

I knew I was using romance books as a crutch. My love life was a bit slow these days, not that some of my colleagues at work weren't trying to change that. There just weren't any firemen in my life. Those guys who were confident, decisive and could shed a tear at the right time. All of my past loves were exciting at first, but that feeling dwindled as time went on. I didn't need twenty-four seven passion, but being the obsession of a man once a week would be divine.

I completed my guilty purchase and decided to head to the interview. Showing up early was better than being late. I went the wrong way down the aisle and realized I would have to cut through the customer line to make it to the door.

"Excuse me," I said quietly. Two older men parted for me to pass through. One of them, a gray-haired gentleman in a dark banker suit, looked at me with a confused smile. The other gave me a muffled "wow" as I passed through the line. I took it as a compliment, thinking my suit was doing its job. Hopefully, the interviewer would think the same.

I overheard some more whispers down the line. "No, right there." "No way!" "Could be." It sounded like they were directed at me. I ignored them, thinking I had to have misinterpreted the blurbs.

On the walk back I let the words make me antsy. Self consciously, I stopped in a restroom before I headed up the elevator to the interview. I checked my clothes and ass to make sure I hadn't sat in gum or something. Once I assured myself I was clean, I headed out of the restroom, looking down at my skirt while trying to brush off a bit of lint I had missed. I walked right into a pair of brown leather loafers.

I looked up into the shocked face of Richard Thompson, my neighbor. His eyes were wide and he reached out his hand, almost like he was reaching for my breast, then snapped it back. I almost cried when I saw the open cup of coffee in his other hand. Then I felt it. Hot wetness soaking into my white blouse. I didn't need to look, but, like a traffic accident, I did. A wet brown stain ran from my right breast and widened its way down to my waist. My dark skirt now looked like I had peed myself. I bit my lip trying not to cry. Foolishly, I chose anger instead.

"You bastard!" I said more loudly than prudent. What the hell was he doing here anyway? We were in a rotunda near the front entrance. A lot of heads turned. "Are you trying to ruin my life?" I heard a small echo when I finished. Richard was trying to say something and couldn't find the words. I saw his eyes going red and his head turning back and forth like he was looking for help. I was pissed at his lack of compassion even when I knew I shouldn't expect it from him.

"What the hell, Richard?" I goaded with anger. I leaned over a bit to try to limit the wetness on my skin.

"Sorry..." Richard pleaded. There was pain in his voice and I could see his hand shaking a bit. I hated myself at that moment. I just couldn't stop myself from being me.

"Sorry? You throw coffee on me, fuck up my whole day and all you can say is sorry?" My voice carried venom. I saw my marketing dreams disappearing. My best clothes were ruined. My shitty job would remain my shitty job. I kept being me. "You're an asshole!"

Richard's eyes were blinking fast. I could see he wanted to run, but he stood, unable to do anything. At that point there was nothing he could do. I was about to send more of my anger at him, planning to break him for what happened. A gentle hand grasped my shoulder.

"It was an accident, Honey," a sharply dressed older woman insisted calmly, "let's get you cleaned up." She led me back to the restroom. Richard just stood there near tears, staring at me as I left. The longest look he had ever given me. Just before I entered the restroom, a red-haired woman ran up to Richard. It looked like she was trying to console him. I let it go when the door closed. My anger evaporated and tears I could no longer hold back came.

I spent a half hour in that restroom. Betty, my savior, and I talked while the hand dryer did a poor job of drying me out. There is something about having someone willing to share your pain. It made it tolerable. The interview was shot since I looked like I just spent the night drunk in an alley. I had wasted a paid day off, but I made a temporary best friend. Betty worked on the fifteenth floor for a lawyer. He was obviously an understanding boss since she didn't seem concerned about disappearing for thirty minutes.

By the time I walked my stained self out of the restroom, Betty had me cooled down and wanting to apologize to Richard. I was secretly happy he wasn't waiting for me. A public apology would be a bit too emotional. I suspected I was his least favorite person right now. Probably number one on his to-be-avoided list. Betty was right, I had handled it without proper decorum. She made me laugh with how she said it. I think that was her intention. I thanked Betty and got a hug. I headed home with the strong desire to put on my pajamas and read about firemen.

I tried knocking twice at Richard's door that evening. He wasn't home or, just as likely, he was not going to answer. I was feeling pretty badly about the way I acted. I had an excuse, but I knew Richard, and I should never have attacked him like I did. When I replayed the scene in my head, I convinced myself it was mostly my fault. I had barreled out of that restroom without looking. I estimated my culpability at around eighty percent.

Before I headed to work the next morning, I tried Richard's door again. No answer. Now I was feeling awful. Sometimes I hated being me. The guy was fragile and I was beginning to suspect he was avoiding his apartment in order to avoid me. I hated the word 'bitch,' but I was starting to think of myself as one. This was becoming one of those 'shiver' moments. Those times when certain memories send a sickening shiver through your body. I already had enough of those stacked up for a lifetime. I tried not to think about it.

Work sucked. Of course, it sucked before my new shiver moment. I spent the day matching invoices to purchase orders and verifying pricing. We had new forecasting models dishing out ridiculous numbers. It meant twice the work for me. A series of slow, repetitive calculations to verify numbers before submitting new requisitions. I would rather have been reading about firemen.

I felt worse when my knocks went unanswered again. I had visions of Richard in a straight jacket, taking shock treatments. I turned to my apartment and saw a large package waiting in front of my door. It was addressed to me with a return address of Themes Publishing, located in the Brindle Building. The scene of the infamous coffee incident.

Once inside, I opened the package. Inside the box was another box from La Casa di Moda, a ritzy downtown clothier. I had never been there since its prices don't mix well with my student loans. Inside there was a letter atop something wrapped in white tissue sealed with a gold sticker. The letter was from Richard.

Dear Ms. Higgins,

Please accept my apology for my appalling behavior Monday morning. My blunder and inaction after the fact were inexcusable.

I have attempted to replace the clothes I ruined. As if my deeds could hope to improve on God's Flower.


Richard Thompson

I read the note three times. I had barely gotten more than a 'hi' from Richard in the five years I had lived in the apartment building. This letter used words with multiple syllables that were grouped in coherent sentences. I read the last sentence again. Vanity had me interrupting it one way and fear another. Its meaning was clear and vague at the same time.

I felt my anger rise. I had meant to apologize first and now he had upended the whole process. I took a few deep breaths, trying to think it through. I had called him an asshole. That was the last thing that came out of my mouth. I collapsed in a chair and felt my anger turn to embarrassing guilt. That stupid shiver doubled in size. I couldn't even be social with the unsociable. I hated coffee and everything associated with it. I had a small cry.

When I got myself together, I parted the sealed tissue to see what I had to return. I had already decided I would refuse to accept whatever was in the box. It was the only decent avenue left for me. Under the tissue was a fancy certificate for free tailoring and under it a dark gray suit. The skirt and jacket were cut finer than I had a right to touch. The fabric was soft, but didn't look it. The thread count was well beyond anything I owned. When I saw the label I choked. It was an 'Arturo Carducci' original.

It took an internet search and a phone call to realize I had a three thousand dollar, one-of-a-kind suit in my apartment. It was gorgeous. I admit the price may have helped influence my assessment. How could someone who lives in my apartment building afford such a gift? Why would he give it to me and why wasn't he a fireman? I had moved the suit away from the kitchen and boxed it. I was terrified I would spill something on it. I was scared to even hold it.

I tried Richard's door again. Thinking he may be hiding inside, I spoke to the closed door, insisting I wasn't angry and only wished to talk. Silence was the only answer. I needed to fix this. Richard had gone too far. He should have fought back and named me for the reckless bitch I was. Slowing down, I realized I was blaming him again. It was Richard. I doubted he had been in a confrontation in twenty years. I had to be the one to make it right.

It was late in the night when I finally broke down and tried the suit on. Strange things happen when you step into something so fine. You feel rich and powerful. It's just a wrapper, but it definitely affects the innards. I really wanted to keep it and regretted ever trying it on. It hardly needed any tailoring at all. The waist had to be taken in a bit, which made me feel good. It took me three trips to the mirror before I finally packed it back up with a sigh.

I arose the next morning after a fitful night of sleep. I tried Richard's door again and wasn't surprised when no one answered. I called in sick to the office. I had to do something today. Guilt was eating me alive. I dug through the trash and recovered the return address on Richard's package. A little research on the internet and I had the phone number for Themes Publishing. I called a minute after eight.

"Themes Publishing, this is Clara speaking. How may I help you?" a friendly voice inquired.

"I would like to speak with Richard Thompson, please." I tried to match the receptionist's friendly tone.

"I'm sorry, he is not available. Would you like to leave a message?" Clara didn't even hesitate, and I sensed Richard was never available for phone calls. It made sense since he had trouble holding a conversation. I wasn't going to break through on the phone.

"I have a package I need to return to Richard. Could I drop it off at your offices?" I figured getting the suit out of my apartment would relieve some of my stress.

"Mr. Thompson is currently out of town. I am not sure when he will return," Clara stated in an obvious maneuver to avoid the package.

"If I brought it by, could you put in his office or something? I would really like to return it and I can't seem to locate him." There was a bit of a delay before Clara responded. Almost like she wasn't sure what to say. I heard one false start before she responded.

"Yes, we can hold the package for Mr. Thompson. I just can't promise when he will pick it up," Clara finally said hesitantly. It was good enough for me. That got it out of my apartment and returned to Richard in absentia, but returned nonetheless. I'll just have to write a note so Richard would understand.

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