Attaché

Note: This is a short piece for a challenge in which I take part on LinkedIn. As always, I’d be happy to receive input from my readers here.

Wiki Commons, Public Domain

Wiki Commons, Public Domain

Harriet extracts her feet from their high heels and slides them into the slippers waiting in the entryway.

“Tough day at the office?” calls Lisa.

“Yeah. What gave me away?” Harriet heads toward the kitchen where her partner is preparing dinner.

“You don’t usually take a full 30 seconds to unlock your own front door.”

“Good point.” She bends over to plant a kiss on Lisa’s upturned mouth.

“Dinner’s almost ready. Open a bottle of wine and take a load off. Then tell me what happened.”

Opening a bottle of her favorite inexpensive red, Harriet pours a glass for each of them. She perches on a stool at the bar and takes a swig from her glass. “New intern.”

“What makes this one so bad?”

“Jackson’s one of those greasy brown-haired boys, full of himself as you can imagine.”

Greasy brown-haired boys were the bane of Harriet’s existence through most of grade school, until she hit a growth spurt and the bullies stopped bothering her. By high school, most of those boys were football players who would have given anything for her to give them the time of day.

Lisa listens patiently to Harriet’s new-intern woes. “Maybe he won’t be as bad as you expect,” she assures. “Don’t blame him for someone else’s crimes.” Harriet changes the topic.

At work the next day, Harriet finds hours worth of busy work to keep Jackson hopping. She’ll show the little prick who’s the boss. He reminds her of the bullies-turned-football-players in high school, happy to charm her now that she is six feet tall and buxom.

“Jackson,” Harriet calls to the intern who is multitasking by scanning documents on the auto feed while filing months of paperwork. “If you don’t hurry, those documents won’t be ready for the meeting.”

“I’ll have it finished in time, ma’am,” Jackson replies politely. Turning toward her, he adds, “May I sit in on the meeting? If I learn more about the situation, I could be more practical help to you.”

“Look, Jackson,” Harriet snaps. “You’re an intern, not an attaché, and frankly, I’ve had briefcases more competent than you.” The wounded look in Jackson’s eyes startles her. She regrets her comment but resists the urge to apologize. Lisa’s right. She needs to move on.

The Beat

Image

Photo by Teemu08, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0

Historical note: During the 1990s, Kankakee, IL, held the nation’s highest per capita crime rate. Throughout that time, professors from the local university often purchased homes in Kankakee proper in an attempt to gentrify the area. The following work of fiction is inspired by events from that period.

Jenna twists the knob on the dash and cranks up the volume until her car windows vibrate to the pounding beat. The librarian peels out from the stoplight at the entrance to Olivet Nazarene University. This time, she remembers to turn left, not right.

Few circumstances could cause Jenna to be angry about moving from the cramped apartment she and Jeff called their “love nest” into a historic three-story home along the river. The biggest problem lay in the fact that their new home was on the Kankakee River. Good old K3, home of the three Ns—nuns, nuts and Nazarenes. Except, the nut farm had been steadily evacuated over the past decade, thanks to Ronald Reagan. Also, with the declining population of devout religious types, a non-Catholic could live here for years without consciously running into a nun. The Nazarenes, now intentionally listing Bourbonnais as their location, had left Kankakee with no Ns. Instead, the city wallowed in the shadows of the giant C—crime—as its sole claim to fame on the eve of the 21st century.

Because of crime, Jenna lives in Kankakee. She married Jeff as he was finishing at the police academy. His ambition to become a criminologist fit naturally into the course set by his first industry job with the Bradley Police Department. Then Jeff got bitten by the crime-fighting bug.

When the Kankakee police force had to replace a fallen officer, Jeff, wishing to abandon his desk and make a difference on the streets, took the job. Before he could take over the beat, he had to move into the jurisdiction.

Although Jenna expressed her dismay over her husband’s choice, she didn’t wish to stand in the way of his happiness. Although she balked at the thought of moving into crime central, her bargaining chip to keep Jeff out of the line of fire was wrenched away when a professor from the university presented a solution to the housing issue. The professor, leaving on an overseas sabbatical, needed someone to live in his house for the next year.

Jenna rides the brakes as she careens along Kennedy Drive. The river appears to her right as she prepares to turn onto Court Street. She glances at the numbers on the dash, 11:24. She’ll be home before midnight but hates the thought of entering the unfamiliar house after Jeff has left for his graveyard shift.

Arriving at the house, Jenna turns the stereo down from “drive by myself” volume and cuts off the engine. She takes a deep breath and forces her heart rate to slow. No one but Simon Bolivar is waiting for her to come home. The thought of the big, sweet cat brings a smile to her face.

Simon Bolivar doesn’t  greet Jenna at the door when she enters the house. He is, after all, a cat. A sense of foreboding still nags her. Trying to shrug it off, she heads toward the kitchen in search of comfort in a cup of hot tea.

The furniture in the living room casts great shadows on the wall as Jenna passes through. In the formal dining room, she stops cold. What’s that sound? It can’t be—but there it is again. Terror threatens to overwhelm her as she realizes she isn’t home alone.

Slowly, Jenna turns around, taking care not to make any abrupt movements. She scans the room, searching for the source of the heavy breathing that has betrayed her intruder. Her heart, pounding in her ears, grows almost as loud as the sound of the intruder’s respiration.

Jenna follows the sound. In the living room, by the light of two table lamps, she makes out a dark form in the wingback chair. Simon Bolivar’s steady breathing breaks into a jagged snore, and Jenna realizes her mistake. Trying to laugh, she feels tears forming as she scoops up the troublesome lump of fur and gives him an affectionate squeeze. “You scared me to death, Bo.”

His steady purr helps calm her nerves. When she finally sets him down, he stretches and follows her into the kitchen. Thankful for the company, Jenna gives him a treat while she waits for the tea kettle to sing.

The kettle has just begun its chorus when Jenna hears the sound that makes her heart sink—sirens. The long-short wail indicates that squad cars are dashing toward a crime scene. Jenna breathes a desperate prayer for her husband’s safety. The sirens cut off. Silence.

Jenna can’t tell whether or not she imagines the gunshot she hears before the ambulance’s  high-low wail shrieks in her ears. She regrets both her Vulcan hearing and her overactive imagination. Still, her concerns find a foothold in reality.

Worry stretches the fabric of time. Jenna wills the phone to refrain from ringing. If Jeff is safe, no one will call. When the silence becomes a burden, Jenna locates Jeff’s Enya albums and loads them into the CD changer. Sometime after 4:00, she nods off in the wingback chair. She awakes shortly after 5:00, disoriented. As the sounds of the past several hours replay in her memory, she realizes that the morning news will now be educating the masses concerning any overnight shootings, if any actually occurred.

Before long, she discovers that she had indeed heard a gunshot last night. She feels a flood of relief upon learning that the victim was a civilian.

Before stretching out on the couch to await Jeff’s homecoming, Jenna calls Benner Library. She hasn’t taken a sick day in months. No explanation will be necessary.

Jeff arrives home to find Jenna sound asleep in the living room. She stirs as he plants a kiss on her forehead. “Not heading to work this morning?” Looking into her eyes, he understands. “You heard the gunshot.” He exhales. “Sweetie . . .” He unbuttons his shirt to reveal the Kevlar vest beneath. “You need to stop worrying so much.”

Freeze

At school, it’s a game. Just a game. There is no imminent danger. The other kids laugh when I’m called out. I swallow the panic rising in my throat, blink to stop the tears. At home, there are consequences for losing.

I invented the game for my little sister a couple years ago. Life at home is better with the game. How could I have guessed other people played the game for fun? My eight-year-old survival instincts had been functioning at optimal levels when I explained the rules to my sister.

We call the game “freeze.” At school, on the playground, it goes by longer names–“freeze tag” or “freeze dance.” Those extra words make it sound more fun. Maybe I should have added a word when I introduced my sister to it, but I was more worried about saving her life.

Dad drinks. Mom told me this is the reason for our problem. I saw my friend Kristi’s parents drinking wine once when we had a sleepover. I asked her that night if they had the same problem. I shouldn’t have done that. Fortunately, she knows how to keep her mouth shut. As for me, I learned that drinking isn’t always a problem. For Dad, though, it must be.

Dad isn’t always mean. In fact, he doesn’t hit us often, even when he drinks. I think he might hit Mom quite a bit, but I know better than to ask. The game keeps him from lashing out at us kids. I think he appreciates when we play it, but I wouldn’t dare tell him why we play.

Right before my eighth birthday, my sister had a bad day. When I got home from school, Mom was scolding her for eating the frosting that was supposed to go on my birthday cupcakes. “But I was hungry,” she protested. Mom sighed and turned away.

“Mom has a headache, Lisa,” I said, giving my sister a hug. “Let’s go outside and play so she can rest.” It’s my job to take care of Lisa when Mom has had enough.

Supper was late that night. Dad was mad. When we sat down at the table, I could tell Mom had been crying. When Dad asked Lisa about her behavior earlier, she jumped up from her seat to hug him and ask forgiveness. That was the wrong thing to do. Dad just snapped.

Afterward, at the hospital, I overheard Mom tell Lisa, “You need to be careful with Daddy. He might kill you next time.” I vowed in my heart that there would never be a next time.

I saw the next time lurking a few months later. Dad came home late again. Mom didn’t have dinner on the table yet. Lisa was about to inject herself into the chaos. I grabbed her arm and pulled her down onto the floor behind the couch where I had been watching. “He’s in a bad mood,” I told her. Lisa always wants to make things better for everyone. The trouble is she sometimes makes them worse. “He won’t hurt you if he doesn’t notice you. Try to stay very still.”

That night, I heard Lisa crying in bed. “What’s wrong?”

“Dad isn’t happy. I didn’t help him.”

“That’s not true,” I said. “You helped a lot by staying quiet tonight. He didn’t hit anybody, did he?”

She sniffed and shook her head.

“Let’s make a pact. Whenever Dad comes home mad, we’ll play a game. Let’s call it ‘freeze.’”

Sometimes Lisa has trouble remembering to freeze. Now, after school, I  always take her outside to play and run off her extra energy. Mom’s headaches make it hard for her to entertain Lisa.

When Mom calls for supper, I remind Lisa to be good. Whenever Dad starts banging around the house or cursing under his breath, we hold our breath and freeze. Sometimes Lisa can’t concentrate long enough, starts to wiggle. Most of the time it works out okay anyway.

Last week the kids at school started playing freeze like it was some sort of recreational sport. My friends noticed that I was particularly good at it. I don’t like playing, but there isn’t any graceful way around it. Kids ask too many questions, so I play. When I lose, they laugh. I hide my fear inside, waiting for the next time Lisa and I have to freeze at home.