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I don't want to narrow my target audience by specifying, but I suppose the novel will appeal more to women than men. The themes in it are purposely Christian, but I pray that the book will interest nonbelievers, too. If it's preachy, I need to know this. I also don't want the piece to be boring since the momentum is not from action necessarily; please let me know if it's boring.
It began for Molly Dearling with a thought that should have been fleeting; as in, never to visit her again because of its incredulous and frightening nature. Early Friday morning she pushed open the door of her apartment building in downtown Leaves, Minnesota. Briskly, she walked down the row of shops and coffee houses, shoving her fists in the pockets of her dark blue jacket as she searched in vain for a ‘Help Wanted’ sign. Tears begged to show themselves, as they had yesterday when Molly came to the end of the sidewalk, the bright, twelve-story Riverside Hotel an imposing blur across the street. Briefly closing her eyes, she turned around and opened them, hearing it:
You have a body, brand new, too. (italics)
Molly lifted her haggard face to the wind to banish the thought. Before her, the serene procession of shops were mute and stone-faced, their dark windows like exhausted options. Closing her jacket against an autumn gust, she trod through the misty gray morning and returned to the apartment building with damp hair, and a weariness she’d only remotely felt before.
With dread she noticed that the door to the manager’s office was open, and that Pam Driscoll was seated vigilantly behind her desk, her sister Madeline flitting about the room either relocating the dust, straightening the paper on the desk, or talking to Pam who answered in murmurs or snorts, focusing on who’d materialize at the base of the stairs.
Molly had paused too long at the entrance to pull off hurriedness and tried nonchalance, crossing the office doorway while digging in her jean pocket, pretending to look for something as she ascended the stairs.
“Molly,” Pam crooned, as though she’d said, Oh Molly!
Her false, pleasant tone crept under Molly’s skin. She itched to drag her long nails across the woman’s smug, puckered mouth, to punish her for enjoying her job the most when tenants were struggling to make rent. Many of them were these days. They gushed, pleaded, futilely ingratiated themselves, and all for her, losing their dignity word by word. She called to Molly like a sympathetic benefactor to elicit her fix for the day.
“Yes?” Molly turned sideways, not stepping down to the main floor.
Pam’s bony cheeks brightened like cherries, and her blue eyes beamed with anticipation, as though catching an exotic species and calculating the revenue as it banged its head against the bars.
“You haven’t paid September’s rent yet.” She put a pudgy hand on the railing, about to encroach on Molly’s step. Resting a foot on it for a moment, she leaned a hand on her knee and executed a groan as she climbed the step. Evidently she was waiting for Molly to issue her pleas and excuses because her round, blue eyes blinked angrily.
“Why haven’t you paid?” Pam broke the silence, the high ring gone from her sharp voice.
That’s more like it, Molly thought, even as her belly tightened. “I don’t have the money.”
“You better get the money,” Madeline chimed from the doorway, her thin, ratted hair belying her authority. Her brown eyes darted back and forth from Pam to Molly, then flickered over to different places in the room.
The two of them made Molly queasy. They were strange to her, not altogether right. The only way to get their creepy attention off her was to pay the rent. Molly gripped the railing as though the stairs were about to shift from under her. How would she pay without work?
Before she could think it, another tenant crossed between her and Pam and disappeared after the landing. If only she could get up there and disappear. She hated that these leachy spinsters could detain her as long as they wanted. Heat filled her head and suffused her cheeks, Pam and Madeline looking at her, a smirk on Pam’s face. Madeline restlessly rolled a shoulder and involuntarily shook her head.
Pam waved her forward. “Come in here, Molly, I might be able to help you this one time.” She stepped down and hobbled back into the office.
Molly had no choice but to follow. As soon as she entered the office, it seemed the door had closed behind her. Maybe it was the smell, as though the furniture had been wiped down with dirty, stagnant water. But she heard the entry door open and whine shut. Pam gestured for Molly to sit down in one of the two chairs facing her desk.
Hands clenched in the pockets of her coat, Molly closed it and sat down. She heard rustling as Madeline paced behind her, her plump thighs rubbing against each other. Her unsettled air charged the room. Molly straightened and noticed a picture that hung at a slant from the wall, a nature scene with a farmhouse in the distance. She looked at Pam and saw in her a manipulative, bitter farm wife.
“This is what I’ll do for you,” Pam chirped. She seemed to wait for Molly to scoot forward in her chair, to raise her eyebrows with surprised gratitude, something. Receiving nothing, Pam pounded a thin packet of papers on the desk a few times. She grabbed a pen and scribbled it across the top sheet, then briskly separated it from the rest and tucked it into a drawer.
Was Molly supposed to be worried about what she’d written? Deathly afraid? For the moment she felt neither, her anxiety dulled by the woman’s antics.
Pam said less buoyantly, “As long as you pay October’s rent by the end of the month, I’ll forgive you September’s rent.” She breathed deeply and rolled back her creaky desk chair having loosed a painful act of generosity.
A warning tingle ran up Molly’s spine.
Madeline stopped swishing across the room. She evened out the pile of mints in the dish and smoothed the already flat doily underneath.
On her right hand, Molly saw a wedding ring that looked old and unpolished. She noticed the long, dark hair on Madeline’s arms as she picked at the objects on the desk. It repulsed Molly. Her own arms were smooth and hairless, twin gold bracelets accenting her left wrist like a bejeweled caster. The bracelets had been gifts from her parents, her dad running a jewelry store in one of Willmar’s strip malls.
Pam nudged Madeline, whose voice raised to an affected arch. “You’re being much too nice, Pam.” She put a hand on her wide hip, her short, bubbly fingers rippling against her jeans. “If we keep helping our tenants like this, we’ll never make any money.”
Molly looked up at Madeline, almost pretty if it weren’t for the splayed look of her brown hair, or the grimace warping her delicate features: dark, brown eyes shrouded with squinting and rapid blinking; small, shapely lips wrangled by clustered, unsorted thought. But her blatant preference for profit struck Molly as more truthful than Pam’s generosity.
“I will try to get October’s payment to you.” Molly felt her bracelets pressed hard against her leg. Selling them would not bring enough; she’d lose more than she’d gain. Molly though, did not always apply her reasoning uniformly, the value of gold bracelets much easier to see than the value of ourselves.
The upper lip of Pam’s smocked mouth twitched. “I cannot just keep giving you free rent, Molly. If you don’t have it by then. . .” She shook her head of short, gray hair and raised plucked eyebrows that were too thin for the amount of face she had.
Molly stood up. “I understand . . . thank you,” she got out with the same ease as a towel being wrenched from underneath a door.
Pam’s head went back, her broad, flaccid cheeks flushing. She smiled with her eyes wide open. “You’re most welcome, dear. Perhaps your rent money is just around the corner.”
Molly breathed easier the moment she walked out of the office and up the wooden staircase. Turning left from the landing, the narrowness of the hallway and the darkness of the carpet was like the road ahead of her. No where to turn but to her own room, her own devices. She laid a hand on the doorknob, footsteps sounding behind her. Molly caught the smell of cologne, whiskery but pleasant, and breathed in the security of maleness as she slowly turned her key in the lock.
She flipped a switch in the kitchen, the light fixture of stain-glass orange, brown, and gold emitting a glow rather than a glaring light. A mess of paper and envelopes covered the table. Taking off her coat, she threw it over a chair and picked up her cell phone, a suffocating lump in her throat as she entered the phone number back home.
But the screen wouldn’t light up. She tried turning the phone on but nothing happened. She scrambled for the charger in a drawer underneath the counter, plugged it into an outlet and jammed it into her phone. Still nothing showed.
Molly whirled around, her hazel eyes tearing as she looked beyond the kitchen for an answer. A blurred vision of a man in her living room met her frantic plea. He tilted his head benignly at her, the jutting tuft of blond hair from his forehead like a flirtatious hello.
“What d’you want!” Molly backed up, pulling out drawers until she found the one with knives. She clenched and held one up in front of her.
The man laughed. “Don’t worry. You’re not going to have to use that butter knife on me. But I would have been temporarily dissuaded by the hard muscle lines in your arms.”
Molly looked at the dull blade of the butter knife and whipped it at him. The man ducked just as she grabbed a truer weapon, a meat slicer that had the dual purpose of a neck slicer.
“Hold on, time out.” The man made a T-sign while slowly sidestepping to a lamp, watching her closely. Even if she whipped that thing the other way, by default of the knife’s huge, sharp blade he’d feel it. “I’m just shedding some light on the situation, okay? No bloodshed.”
The lamp turned on, illuminating the man’s tall lean height and eyes more gray than blue.
For a second, Molly saw two moons, bright and alone, gazing out from shadowy pockets. “Who are you? What are you doing in my apartment?”
The man splayed his palms up, his arms by his sides. “Despite what it looks like,” he paused, “I’m here to help you, not harm you.”
Molly must have relaxed her defense because she lifted the knife again, gripping it harder. “You nearly gave me a heart attack. You snuck in here God only knows how, and you want me to believe you’re here to help me? What do you want?” Molly had no idea where the words came from, or the riled, courageous spirit. She’d been so dead recently.
“Well, Molly Dearling, I think now is as good a time as any for introductions.” The man smirked, his head shaking back the tussled throng of bangs that weren’t long enough to bother his eyes yet. He’d taken a few steps closer before Molly realized he was advancing.
“Stop!” She jabbed the knife in the air at him. The kitchen table screeched as she awkwardly shoved it forward with her other hand, creating a blockade and more room to throw a four-legged projectile at him. “How do you know my name?” she demanded.
The man crossed his arms and leaned back on his feet with amused leisure. “It’s not hard to find out about people when you really want to know something, often learning more than that person will ever know.” He held out an arm. “I’m Brian, a recruiter for undercover operations.”
Molly rewrapped her fingers around the knife handle.
Brian pulled his arm back and sighed comfortably. “We can shake hands later, after we’ve come to an agreement and you’ve put the machete down. I know your situation, Molly.” He shuffled out his wallet from his back pocket and put down a business card on the back of the couch. “I need women like you.”
Women like you. Molly ceased from her fear that he would attack her. “Leave that card and make your way to the door. Government official or not, you had no legal grounds to enter my apartment and I will file a complaint against you.”
Again Brian took out his wallet and placed a few crisp bills beside the card, bending the ends so the hundred dollar marks were clearly visible. “There’s more where that came from, Molly. You’re only wasting time you can’t afford going to the police. I’m an expert at what I do.”
Molly sensed it was true, a thousand questions swarming like maggots in her mind. She could not speak anything, the deadness in her now enclosing its amorphous shape around her.
Brian opened the door. “Think about it.”
The door closed and Molly’s arm shook from a rage to throw her knife at it. *Thinking* about her miserable situation was all she could do. She’d already sunk to the point of calling home, a resort she particularly loathed, only to find that her phone had been cut off. Tossing the knife on the counter, the handle clattering, Molly grabbed her purse and coat.
The downtown library was still open. Sitting before a computer at the computer lab, Molly ignored her hunger pains and brought up her MySpace account and found that Cally was online.
What are you doing? Molly typed. Her heart pounded from the sickening combination of desperation and uncertainty. A pause ensued before Cally responded.
Totally sublime if it weren’t for my three other roommates.
Molly shuddered from the thought. Living between two other tenants with walls in between was at the top of her tolerance level. Isn’t your boyfriend one of them?
Is that supposed to make it worse or better? Cally replied.
Better? Molly typed, adding a comically unsure emoticon.
A slight delay. Should it be better?!!!
Molly’s forefinger tapped on the keyboard for a moment, hesitating. Why are you with him?
Cally’s reply was immediate. Now you sound like mom and dad, with even less justification. I’m not going to explain something you wouldn’t understand.
A sharp burn stopped Molly’s breath. Why had she even thought Cally could help her?
A message box popped up on Molly’s screen. Molly?
Another message box. I’m sorry, but you’ve never dated anyone in your life. You don’t even seem to like guys. I’m just stressed right now, between school, Nate, and two other drama queens besides myself. Do you want a roommate?! ;P
Molly typed with calm, succinct motions, her desperation receding back into its camouflage shell, receiving a mental beating for exposing itself. No thanks, Cally. Not after that. I think we should just stick with being sisters, eh? See you later. Molly clicked herself offline.
Back in her apartment, the kitchen light still on, she saw the money. She couldn’t very well throw it away. People would think her nuts if she tried to give it away, and she needed rent money. Molly took it and slid the money between her fingers, counting five one hundred dollar bills. She picked up the card with her other hand.
Brian Moore. Recruiter for undercover operations. Riverside Hotel, Rm 209. 256-8816.
Molly perched on the couch’s arm. Crumpling the card, she laid her hand on her chest, calming it. Lie, it had to be a lie. But he looked so good. He was the guy you’d see in the bleachers at a football game, wearing a wind breaker and biting into a hotdog drenched in ketchup and relish. But he’d violated her privacy! And what did he mean by women like her? What did he know? How did he know?
Molly crawled to her stereo on the living room floor and turned it on. Instruments began to merge delicately and then thunder into a large, mournful birth of sound, gliding up, then down, then drawing back before the world of light and far beyond what the heart can know --dreams, it was the melody, the dirge, the descent and dimension of dreams.
In it, Molly’s loneliness became her passage to the cathedral height of each song; her unknown, inner bruises were touched and acknowledged by the music’s tender hand; and her darkness opened like a dark flower, receiving glories outside of her limitating mind.
In it, she felt the impression of a greater existence, and safe enough to fall asleep.
His wife, Bev, would not ask him anything, just arrive with their sixteen year old daughter and go on as usual. They hadn’t talked to each other for what felt like years, decades. Brian shook his glass, the ice mixing the rum and coke.
“Do you want one?” he asked the man in a brown, tweed sweater sitting ramrod straight on a white, leather couch.
“Come sit back down, Brian,” the man replied, his voice tinged with a motherly whine. He pinched the edge of his glasses and set them more properly on his face. Brian received more therapy just watching and making silent fun of the repressed intellectual. Did he believe in the therapy, the mental messaging out of bad memories that only seemed to wake him up in the middle of the night more often than before?
“What do you want to talk about this time, doc?”
Jerry crossed his legs and tapped his yellow pad of paper with a long, thick pen. “Why do you always turn the situation around, Brian? It’s not me who needs to talk. It’s you; that’s why I’m here. Do you have trouble admitting there are things in your life you need to talk about?”
Brian laughed nervously. He shook his glass again and took a long swallow. “Where did we leave off there, doc?”
“Where did *you* leave off? Let’s see . . .” Jerry flipped the front page back.
“You don’t remember? I thought therapists were supposed to listen.” Brian slid onto the middle cushion of the white couch opposite Jerry. A glass coffee table separated them. Sunlight penetrated through the gauze-like curtains in dim rays of gray.
Jerry cleared his throat, irritated. “We listen to more than words. Right now for instance. You confront me with a potential argument, a means to distract me from asking you the probing questions you’ve come to fear.”
Brian, too, crossed his legs, wagging his foot. “I do not fear your questions. Ask me something, anything.” The muscle in his jaw started flexing.
Jerry tipped his head to oblige and met Brian’s eyes. “Why do all your stories take place in Afghanistan and around the same time, yet have no connection, no apparent reason why you’re telling them?”
Brian puffed air through the side of his mouth. “Listen, if I need to give you all the answers, there’s no reason I’m paying your cute ass.”
Jerry’s serious expression did not alter. “It’s true the answers come from you, but only if you let them. I’m here to help you let them.”
Brian laughed, hovering too close to a dark memory. “You almost sound like a doctor with all that psycho-babble crap.” He got up and walked around, arching his back, stretching his shoulders. The alarm clock on the table went off. “Well, time’s up, doc. Great session.”
Jerry pressed down on the alarm clock, turning it off. He lifted a thin, arched eyebrow in Brian’s direction. “What really happened there in Afghanistan?”
The door rattled, followed by nails clicking obnoxiously against the door. “We know you’re in there, Brian,” cried Teresa’s high-pitched voice. “Let us in or we’ll blow the door down!” The woman guffawed, a laugh that was noticeably robust.
“Hey, I’m supposed to be the big, bad wolf,” Brian yelled back, smiling. He saw Jerry’s quirked eyebrow. “No, I’m not having a kinky affair. I’m a very loyal man, you know.”
“Happily married?” Jerry queried.
Brian coughed, gripping the doorknob. “That’s for another session.”
“I can stick around for free,” Jerry offered, his blue eyes inflamed with curiosity. Showing it to men did not threaten him. Brian would never use his feelings against him.
Teresa and Rainy overwhelmed Jerry as they pushed into the room once Brian opened the door. Jerry changed his mind and quickly fidgeted his way out, relieving Brian the unpleasant necessity of asking him to leave. He’d already taken a risk letting the therapist up to his suite, any multitude of things potential disclosures. Like this most recent intrusion.
He looked sternly at Teresa and Rainy. “Only the Matriarch is allowed to even tap on my door unexpectedly.”
Rainy gave a dismissive snort. “Get off it, Brian. This is important.”
Brian hid his smile by going into the kitchen, setting out salad ingredients on the counter. Rainy put on a good show of respecting the rules until she felt that action must be taken, especially if it concerned one of the girls of the twelfth floor sisterhood. She was not unlike his buddies in the military. As elite soldiers, they had trained and proven themselves to the point where rules were only considerations, sometimes obstacles, but never guidelines. He knew Rainy had endured hell in her life that she’d earned a certain personal authority that no one could give her, either by education, money, or position.
“Make it quick.” He did not tell them that his wife was arriving at any moment.
Rainy sat on the bar stool near the window, her dark wavy hair long and loose compared to the short, curly bangs across her high forehead. She did not touch the bowl of salad Brian slid in front of them, himself hurriedly chomping on a piece of lettuce.
Brian’s fork clamored against the bowl. He threw his head back to wash down his food with water. “What?” he asked with feigned ignorance.
Rainy licked her lips and glanced at Teresa’s lowered eyes and said, “It’s Luis’.”
“You know what to do,” Brian replied testily. “Why do you bother me with it?” His eyes bore down on Teresa, coercing her gaze which met his with a wet, voluminous plea. He stalked to the living room, her look stabbing him like those of villagers on the side of the road, the helpless recipients of a ravaging war. But she could have prevented it; she was not helpless.
“She wants to keep it.” Rainy’s low voice sliced through Brian’s thoughts like a heated blade. Teresa, with her flamboyant clothes of primary colors and feline prints, her vibrant reddish brown eyes and outgoing nature, wore the demeanor of repentance. Not likely.
Brian spoke at her. “How did it happen?” Right away he saw the lie manifesting on her tongue. She worked hard to look at him.
“There’s always the possibility—” she started, Brian waving her off.
“Never mind. I’ll talk to Luis.” He looked at Rainy, whose large, dark eyes watched him closely. He still couldn’t decide what nationality she was, her haunting, gaunt beauty almost beyond the human race. “Pregnancy is not allowed in the sisterhood, am I not correct on that?”
Rainy’s low voice sounded hard, akin to a growl from her reluctance to concede. “Yes.”
Brian shot both of them a conclusive look.
Teresa’s face jerked up, her ripe brown eyes glistening with moisture. “You don’t mean to take me from the sisterhood? Where will I go?” She glanced frantically at Rainy, whose dark eyes glazed at Brian like black pottery.
“The Matriarch makes that decision, am I not correct?” Rainy returned.
Battle. They both loved and loathed battle. In reality, Brian was head of the Matriarch while she was tolled as protector of the sisters. Brian himself had established the organization, knowing from his elite status in the military that it would affect in the rented women a princess mentality, heightening their loyalty and desirability.
“I stand corrected.” Brian would not expose the powerlessness of the Matriarch. “I will meet with her as well.”
Not before I do, Rainy thought. The intercom beeped, its invasive, demanding pitch always causing her skin to crawl.
Brian swiftly pushed the button for entry onto the tenth floor, the row of private suites leased out by executives of all sorts. His stomach churned as he waited for his wife, Rainy and Teresa getting as far as the living room when he opened the door to Bev.
Her tall, reed-like figure entered coolly, striding past the beautiful women who looked curiously at her on their way out.
“Dad, who are they?” Jessica demanded, her arms crossed at the door. Brian had forgotten his daughter had come along.
“Jesse, darling,” Bev cajoled immediately. “Go down to the front desk and have them bring the luggage to our room, okay?”
She snorted, her lips pursed. “With pleasure.”
Silence filled the room like a gaseous poison. Even if the afternoon sun hadn’t dimmed, the room still would have been a dusty gloom.
“In front of our daughter?” Bev said first, her tone soft.
“My mistake. Forgive me,” Brian said contemptuously.
Bev laughed, as dry and hard as a cackle. “You toss that word around so conveniently, like a patch on every rip you do and do again. You meant for me to see those women.”
“They just happened to be here. On their own initiative,” he added, pouring himself a glass of vodka from the bar underneath the counter.
Bev merely murmured, taking a seat on the couch where the therapist had sat. Her suede purple suit tailored nicely to her thin figure, one long leg folded over and gently bouncing as she perused a men’s magazine, for all the world unconcerned about her husband’s waywardness. Lowering the magazine, she smiled at him, her dark plum lips lifting at the corner. “You asked me to come. Why?”
A shop downtown with their living quarters aloft had been a dream come true for them. Robert and Carol Harrington, each carrying a load of boxes from the back to the front counter, dropped them, sighed, and looked around the long, spacious store with shelves almost filled.
“The worst is done,” Carol said proudly, adjusting her sticky sweater correctly around her waist. She waved a chubby hand across her face like a fan. “Just need to let the air run for a while.”
Robert looked down at his short wife, hardly ever seeing her in anything but brand new knitted sweaters in the winter and thin worn ones during the summer. Even in their bedroom, the dark was like a covering over her body.
“You could wear something cooler,” he suggested, looking away. Maybe she did not like him looking at her. Maybe his past made her feel dirty. Maybe she made love to him out of obedience to Jesus rather than her own desire for him.
Carol’s hand curled into her palm and dropped to her side. “I’m fine.” She fought the urge to berate him for not helping dispose of the boxes when she really wanted to demand he fasten his gentle brown eyes on her again, but the words fled in different directions. What meaning was there in forcing him to do what he had done willingly before, stirring up the deep pool of joy in her heart?
“I’ll make the sign and put it in the window.” Robert lumbered around the counter for a scrap piece of cardboard, absently pulling on his brown beard.
“What sign, honey?” Carol stomped on a box and picked it up under her arm, looking at him expectantly. He glanced at her briefly, uncapping a yellow highlighter.
“That we’re hiring, of course.”
Carol put the box down and pushed it aside with her foot. “But we have people, someone from our group. I know Becky’s looking for a job.”
“And the Lord will provide for her, for all of us. Carol, the Lord wants us to bring people out there to Him.” He pointed to the window and then taped the sign in the center on the bottom.
The next morning Molly ambled past the living room for a drink of tap water and saw the business card still on the back of the couch. To her, it had moved closer to the edge and teetered: to fall or not to fall. At least falling was a direction to take. Down. She enjoyed the cold, morning rush of water down her throat, how it swelled like fullness in her belly.
The card swept to the floor. Molly felt the tail end of a cool breeze wafting from her bedroom window. Again she would muster energy that wasn’t buoyant from a nucleus of hope, but a heavier kind derived from a sense of necessity, guilt. Dumping the rest of the water out, Molly set the cup on the ledge and dressed in front of the bathroom mirror. She had tawny hair cut evenly just below her jaw that hung straight down and ignored the inward line of her cheekbones. Her deep-set eyes were hazel and Molly thought they looked like mud puddles.
She’d lost weight, having never seen the ridgeline of her rib cage before. She buttoned up her light blue blouse and noticed that the material lay looser across her generous bodice. A hunger pang echoed in her belly.
Grabbing her purse from the kitchen table, Molly glanced at her inanimate cell phone—no chance of it vibrating with life or heralding the voice of rescue. She snatched the business card from the floor and stuffed it in her pocket before locking the apartment door.
Her face set in one direction, she moved like a machine, mindless and unfeeling until she brought herself to Tub’s corner grocery store, the job she’d quit eight months ago. Pushing the door open, the same vacuum of loneliness and oppression sucked her in. The place was brightly lit, an artificial white that stayed that way even when outside was pitch black.
The girl in the first lane looked back at her, her stringy, black hair tucked behind a protruding ear. She smiled with a hint of sneer at the corner of her lip. “Hi.”
Molly glanced over at the next cash register, the other girl busy scanning food items. From the corner of her eye, she saw Craig, the emaciated supervisor emerge like a snake from his office. His lanky height and dead blue eyes hit her gut with the force of a bad memory.
“Well, well, if it isn’t Molly Dearling.” His chapped, stained red lips quivered from the inability to hide his excitement. A shrewd gleam lit his eyes, as white and artificial as the light in the store. His feet pointed forward as he walked, sure and leisurely.
Molly’s tongue stuck in her throat, her fingers clenching her purse strap. He knew.
Craig’s mouth split open before he said with sinewy eyebrows, “Would you like to come into my office? It will be more private.”
There were chuckles, short but cutting. Molly forced her legs to move. She felt trapped between Craig’s lair and laughing, gossipy eyes.
“Yes, I’m not surprised to see you here. It’s tough out there right now.” Craig nonchalantly walked behind his desk, picking up and rolling a pen between his fingers. His eyes indulged in a languor over Molly’s body. “Even though you left without proper notice, I might be willing to overlook the disrespect and offer you a position here. I’m not really hurting for employees, you know.” His upper lip curved lecherously, the office blinds concealing him.
Molly stayed at the threshold, the stares behind her like hands pushing her in for perverse amusement. The dread she came with turned into sickness. Was this her only choice? Why couldn’t she prefer living in a cardboard box under a bridge rather than beg this creep for a job?
Nobody had to know. (italics)
Molly felt sweat start along her hairline. “Are you hiring, then?” Her muslin blouse began to stick uncomfortably to her skin, outlining her shapely figure.
“No.” Craig sat down and rolled his chair back from the desk, moving his legs apart. He stared at Molly, telling her what he wanted with his polluted eyes.
Molly’s stomach churned and her thoughts washed violently up against her forehead as she stepped forward.
“Close the door.”
The autumn air whirled through the store when Robert came in from outside, a big smile showing a perfect row of short teeth.
Carol paused from sweeping the floor. “In all these years I don’t believe I’ve ever seen your teeth before.”
“You can notice my teeth but not the huge sign I just hung up with the name of our store on it?” Robert’s brown eyes twinkled as he gently took the broom from Carol’s hand and ushered her outside. She huffed at being pushed around, to which Robert did an extraordinary thing and lifted her up, carrying her like a bride.
Carol’s eyes jumped out of their sockets. “Really, Robert, put me down! We’re not young and beautiful to be doing these romantic acrobatics.”
The door flung aside as Robert kicked it with his foot, Carol squirming in his arms with nervous embarrassment. He laughed and set her stout frame solidly on the ground, a couple of passersby smirking and looking away as they passed.
Carol’s heart bloomed and beat furious red to her face, her breath like the first day she knew her feelings for Robert. “Really, I’m very astonished at you. What’s gotten into you?”
The woman was still not looking!
“The sign, darling, see the sign.” Robert’s long arm gestured with upward grandiose.
“Oh,” she breathed, craning back her gray-blond head.
The sign, Haven, was indeed beautiful, the wispy lettering like the silver lining through the graded cloud imagery that gave the word its soft, mystical appeal of the highest welcome.
Overcome, Carol turned and hugged Robert, and Robert froze.
“Praise God, praise God,” Carol cried, tightening her hold on Robert who watched other people flush with awkwardness while his own face drained of blood from shock that Carol had wrapped her arms around him in nearly broad daylight.
“Let’s go inside,” he said hoarsely. It was easy moving Carol, who was still caught up with wonder. Maybe her feet will float all the way up to their bedroom. Robert stared at the wicker door in the back like a commando about to blast to bits an extremely irritating obstacle.
The wicker door rebutted his silent attack and swung open, two cheery teenagers popping their arms through like a kid out of a barrel. “Mom, Dad, I’ve been looking for you,” laughed Brie with cropped blond hair and skinny limbs. Her friend, Denise, stared from behind her shoulder with messy, red-orange hair and lots of freckles.
Robert could not speak. Carol rolled up her sleeves but shoved them down again and readjusted her sweater. “What is it?”
Brie wrinkled her nose. “Nothing, just some people crammed at the back door waiting to get in.” She turned to Denise and they giggled, striding through the store pretending to put on inspector’s gloves.
Behind the wicker door of Haven was a room about the size of a café with a slightly raised platform and scattered chairs that Carol quickly organized into rows. “I completely forgot, Robert. Imagine.”
“Yes, imagine,” he replied grumpily, imagining what they could be doing upstairs, he able to see her woman’s body! He felt Carol’s hand on his arm. “Shall we pray?”
Robert sighed and gave his wife a wan smile. “Sure.” He laid his arms across a chair back and bowed his head. “Jesus, thank you for your provision during this time of economic difficulty. Thank you for not giving as the world gives, but knowing what our spirits need. As we host the going out of your Word this evening, use us, use this place to transform us, renew us, and make your love evident and a magnet. . . .”
“Don’t worry, I’ll get the door!” Brie shouted.
As Robert continued to pray, teenagers and young adults herded into the room, the density unnoticed against the joyful expectation of the night’s proceedings. While Robert invited the Spirit of Christ and bound any evil spirits, the musicians on the platform took their positions, the drummer rumbling his sticks in a deft, agitated manner as the guitarist tightened her strings. Missy threw her black, layered hair back and striking a cord, she closed her eyes and looked up, an unself-conscious smile on her angular face.
“Jesus, have your way. Melt our hearts with your love and truth and help us bend to your will, for we know it’s divine, touched, intricate beyond our understanding.” Her eyes opened and blazed like icy stars at her fellow worshipers, intensity matched. She lifted her guitar and slammed it down with a reverberating strum.
“Servants of the Most High God, followers of the One True King Jesus Christ who did not fail his mission but redeemed us all--” Missy created an energy of music that hovered like mist above a bog and spiraled up through the dripping trees -- “Let us rejoice.” The reverent whisper started the songs of praise, confession, and hope that burned through the hearts of believers at Haven.
Down the street, Molly leaned up against the side of Tub’s brick building, her hand pressed in a fist against a wildly beating heart. What had she done?
Walk, go, she commanded herself. Her legs felt like stilts and her whole body jerked with uncertainty. She felt the cool brush of night air, welcomed it, and opened her lips to breathe in the damp blueness through her mouth. To distill into the wind, carried, carried, carried like weightless air around and over every leaf, edge, and fear.
Molly looked up taking the next block and went into Jasmine’s, the vertical sign like a linear destination. She brought her chai tea to a corner in the front. Molly sank into a cavernous chair, holding the bowl-sized cup with both hands. She was done with her life, her lack of control.
Across the street, flickering against a dark window, she barely saw Haven and the lighted sign went out completely. It had to be a new store because of how many times she’d paced Center Walk without seeing it. Wait, it was the vacated shop with a For Sale notice that had pulled up in her a sharp desire to own it, to set up her sewing. She still felt the pleasurable rip of discovery, like the tearing of roots when pulling a red bulb out of the ground.
Molly sat up in the chair, squinting to decipher a word on the brown sign in the window that looked very much like “hiring.” Warm energy whirled through her, nudging her. Hands trembling, she took a sip for another boost from the sugar and caffeine. Why was she nervous when the place wasn’t even open?
The inside lit up suddenly and a robustly built man with a furry face stepped into view, stopping before the window with a puzzled expression on his face. Something about him drew Molly to her feet, her forehead pressed to the window.
Again that warm energy. This time it burned in her heart, urging her to go. She got to the exit door and stopped, realizing the depth of her desperation to fancy this complete stranger beckoning her, magically handing her a job on a silver platter. He probably wasn’t any different than Craig.
Molly laughed and indeed opened the door, like a cackling, self-deprecating witch throwing apart her chamber doors from a potion gone bad. About to cross the next street, she heard a shuffle and then an arm choked her waist. She let out a scream before a hand covered her face, dirt-salt skin smashed against her lips.
Perfect. Brian quickened his stride, steering through the evening strollers like he had a built-in radar, honed to harrowing accuracy by the military. He knew where the bastard had taken Molly and once he passed Jasmine’s, he jogged to the back of Tub’s grocery store. He’ll be a hero in her eyes and none of it contrived.
Adrenaline pumped through his veins like a madly administered IV injection. Brian reveled in the effect, as though his eyes and ears transformed into hypersensitive equipment.
I couldn’t tell Bev why I wanted her here, Brian thought, but I do know how to locate and destroy an enemy, even a sneaky son of a bitch. He pulled out a mini crow bar from the inside of his leather jacket, temporarily revealing other tools that some people might consider weaponry.
Brian wrangled with the heavy door, trying to wrench it open. Suddenly he felt a surge of power and cranked the door apart. Catching his breath, he went in and spotted the door to a silent close. He heard a struggle in the dark and a cry that was immediately muffled. Boxes crashed to the floor. He followed a raspy voice, distinguishing words the closer he crept.
“You should’ve bent to your knees, sweet Molly.”
Brian felt along the wall. Just as he found the light switch, he heard a groan that made even his groin hurt. The bent over figure was pushed to the side and Molly scrambled up, her hazel eyes widening when she saw his dark shape, then narrowed when she recognized it.
“I came to help you.”
“Then you did not fulfill your purpose.” Molly inched along the edge toward the exit. Eyeing him, she did not see Craig get to his feet, nor did she have the advantage of infinite backing up space. He grabbed her arms and twisted them behind her back. She cried out in pain.
The lights turned on and Craig whirled around, snarling. Brian’s fist made contact with his face and Craig flew into the mass of boxes.
Molly pushed through the door, grasping her throat as though she couldn’t get enough air. Brian was right behind her, keeping pace with her fervent stride.
“Wait!” He jogged ahead of her, in front of her and she crashed blindly into his arms, body shaking. He rubbed his hands up and down her arms. “You’re okay, you’re okay,” he murmured, guiding her under a tree. There was a block of birch trees not far from her apartment. They gave privacy to the park behind it. “You’re safe now.”
Gripping his shirt, Molly saw that word, safe, her mind sucking on it like a hard candy of heaven juice, squeezing out every meaning, determining any air bubble. His arms felt so good, so secure. She could pretend she knew him, that he was cherishing her intact.
It wasn’t true; the pain of that made her tears come. Molly drew back from his embrace, hiding and wiping her face as she got unsteadily to her feet.
Brian’s pulse thundered in his ears. Holding her was something he must never do again. The rich caramel of her hair was pushed back and her forehead and wet cheekbones glazed with arresting contour, narrowing at her jaw line. Molly looked down at him, her hazel eyes like speckled gems that contained a life climate of its own.
“Tell me now who you are and what you want.”
Brian shot out a leg and threw an arm over his knee. “I told you my name. As far as what I want, you’re going to have to make an appointment. My offer isn’t an everyday one.”
Molly’s eyes stormed and she stalked off, remembering on her way to the apartment that her purse had been lost somewhere outside Tub’s. She hurled into the wind a strangled, animal sound. She would have to buzz Pam Driscoll.
Or turn and take her chances with a man that had twice come to her rescue. One hand on the apartment railing, Molly looked back. Brian was gone. The thought of returning to Tub’s to find her purse caused her to dig out from her pocket Brian’s business card.
What other choice did she have?
Closing his prayer, Robert felt restless in his spirit. He stood up and gazed about him, Missy leading the group in rapturous praise of their Lord. Brie and Denise were whispering in the back; it was unlikely they were speaking in tongues. They caught his eye and Brie flashed him a smile and Denise sported a tiny wave.
Carol left his side and joined a young mother holding a baby with one hand, honoring God with her other one. Usually Robert walked around the room and prayed for each individual, but he found himself leaving the sanctuary.
He flipped on the store lights. In the mysterious place between his mind and his heart, he knew God was leading him. Robert went to the door and found it locked already. Confused, he went to the window, seeing only fleeting shapes until he looked right into a pair of eyes. Familiar eyes! No. Robert shook his head. She’s a mannequin. But hanging on the “J” of Jasmine’s was a lighted coffee mug of a coffee shop, not a clothing store, and she just moved.
Robert hoped he hadn’t scared her. Turning back, he wondered why God had brought him on such a useless errand. Then, a feeling like a hand compressing his spirit seized him. He latched onto the edge of the counter and started to pray. He spilled words from a cramped heart and ended on his knees, forehead against the wood.
That evening, he sought the comfort of his wife. She tried to talk to him, but he just needed to feel her presence, her love, and her warmth.
Afterwards, Carol leaned over him, stroking hair away from his face as they lay in bed. She should let him sleep, not coax it from him, but something had taken place tonight. His fingers had trembled over her body, which hadn’t happened since the Lord freed him from his night terrors.
“Darling, I missed you tonight,” she whispered shakily, squeezing his arm.
He murmured and pulled up the blankets. Carol couldn’t see that he was haunted by the eyes of that girl, their distinctly oval shape, the corners like a soft curl at the end, blending into the slant of her cheekbones. Had he seen all that or had he just seen that color before and filled in the rest of the details?
Carol recognized by the rapidity to which he returned to his deep breathing that he would not awaken. She’d only be rousing a bear from the deep slumber of hibernation.
Tomorrow, she promised, rolling on her back. By habit, like grinding one’s teeth at night, Carol’s arms crossed, her fingers clenching her arms, pinkies digging into the soft valley of her elbow joint, a comfort she would have abandoned had she known.
Molly’s hand slid from the railing and she walked back to where Brian had held her under the tree. She scooted around the tree until she faced the park and leaned her head against the bark. She would give anything to have her sewing materials, work her fingers until her mind drained of Craig’s bony body. Sewing sprawled pieces into something—a dress, shirt, curtain—upheld her. It kept her moving above her darkness, for whenever she lapsed into its texture-less midst, she recognized a painful eternity there.
Had she let Craig grab her and drag her?
Molly felt a tingling shame unfurl like a weed in her belly. So desperate for an answer (to what question?), that any response from the world was welcome, a reprieve from the inertia around her, the emptiness in her. Poke me so I laugh. Molly silently mocked herself. Rape me so I feel the pressure of impact, though it cost me pain. But pain’s fine, too, as long as it fills me.
She felt so abnormal, like everyone else in the world had a situation: Cally was in college, had a boyfriend, and lots of friends who also seemed totally fine with life and how they were living it. Other kids had jobs or stayed with parents. No, not an option, she told herself. Brian wasn’t exactly a saint, but he was nothing like Craig, and far better than living at home.
The bearded man in the window flitted through her mind, the profound concentration on his face as he looked at her without seeing her. How she’d almost run to him! She’d give anything to feel that strange sensation again, like sun and willow trees in the wind.
Molly’s head bobbed and she jerked awake, her body shivering from a dark wind that seemed to encircle her with an unearthly loneliness. She grimaced from the pain between her shoulders, the claw prints on her arms and legs, and the bewildering notion of homelessness.
Riverside Hotel, a castle filled with soft, comfortable beds and thick, warm quilts.
The polished front desk of Riverside Hotel rarely had a loiterer, the workers internally apprenticed and extremely efficient and discreet. If a guest waited, he or she merely blended into the décor of the hotel, slender and poised like the shiny black statues of Grecian men and women populated in the foyer. Bob Hamilton, the owner of Riverside Hotel, was notoriously prejudiced in his admittance of guests. Eloquent with a set of lazy eyes that swelled with a likeness to genuine regret, he denied room service to any homely thing that might blow in and tarnish the hotel’s image. Certain celebrities and social elites chose to rendezvous in simple Leaves, Minnesota because of the secrecy and beauty ensured at the hotel.
Brian knew about Riverside from Richie, a buddy out of the military who’d become a wealthy entrepreneur recruiting talent. With the economic slope, Richie stayed afloat by recruiting for other types of businesses. Just side business, something to tide him over, but training beautiful or otherwise alluring women to become male companions was too lucrative to give up even when prosperity’s head could be seen nearing the top of the hill.
At the time that Richie’s business shifted, Brian was still in Afghanistan, fighting out the end of his tour and not just with the terrorists and other hostiles. The command didn’t want him to leave. He was elite, highly trained across occupation, had picked up several dialects and had the special combination of potent energy and restraint. They didn’t know that at some point, energy so compressed and channeled might be provoked beyond restraint, the provocation a set of factors working in chorus against him, directed by a cruel fate master.
Brian tapped his forefinger on the counter as Winnie, the Asian receptionist, produced a card key. He counted the taps to keep at bay the onslaught of memory, a foe far more insidious than the most vicious warrior, more indelible than any brand on the flesh, and superior in power because of his utter helplessness to eradicate its hideous origins. He’d have to kill himself first, so he preferred intricate distraction.
Winnie glanced with bold disapproval at his nervous hand, so he studied her dyed blond hair fashioned around her face like a headdress of ancient regality, the dark roots of her bangs gelled up and back to display the compelling nativity of her beauty.
Brian wondered if she’d slept with Bob, and still slept with him, having been here longer than a few months. No one, not even him, knew what became of the girls who tried to leave.
Winnie slid the card key across the counter, the plastic hydroplaning across the impeccable polish.
Brian stopped it with his finger. “Keep it here. Give it to the young woman who comes in here and asks for me.”
“Oh?” Winnie’s black eyes glistened with interest. Hastily she lowered her fan of long, black eyelashes. She knew that Brian sat with Bob on board meetings and determined who kept and who lost their jobs and some speculated, their lives.
Brian had the power to ease her fear, but it was best for her that she learned to disassociate.
Upstairs, Brian strolled onto the floor of the Twelfth Floor Sisterhood. He’d organized the sisterhood to combine two pertinent mechanisms, the Japanese Geisha and elitism. The women who worked for him could feel pride in epitomizing high social standards and they could feel camaraderie amongst each other. The nature of the business was dealt with. Even women who could afford it often did not leave. They stayed through choice. Many of them were much improved since he found them.
All doors were shut. They had triangle mirrors of different colors framed around the peephole that reflected into the hall crisscrossing reds and tainted yellows.
He felt the effect of the hallway’s sensuality, a girl’s laugh going quickly faint, a man’s husky voice catching. The lack of sound played havoc on Brian’s imagination. He was forced to picture their motions and the most intense explosions rendered with almost muted release. Then he heard a man’s prolonged sigh, rustling of silk blankets and later, murmuring.
Brian could have announced a meeting in his executive suite from the elevator. Just flip the switch on his right and a blue bulb in each room, including the Matriarch’s, would give the signal. Instead, he had hovered by a door trying to pick up sex sounds like a boy needing to top off the pressure of unexpended hormones.
It’d been years since he’d had sex. A woman’s body, curvy and virginal, sat down facing him in his mind, her tawny triangle like a forbidden entry barred by creamy legs. Brian flicked the lever with unnecessary force and the elevator shields opened and closed, lifting him to the top floor of the executive suites.
After meeting with the sisterhood, he would try Bev tonight.
Molly walked up the hotel’s glittering, arched entrance without noticing its grandeur, the city lights of Riverside like an expensive picture taken for granted. She had lived downtown in the dingier apartments for almost a year. In that time she had wrested herself away from college, worked at Tub’s for two months, stopped talking to her parents, and used all of her savings for living expenses.
All through high school she’d dreamed of college, of freedom and possibility. It had only delivered the feeling that she was one in a million, that her girlish dreams were naïve splashes of paint on the looming canvas of life already marked, color inside lines that did not fit her. In her was a pulse to tailor her own lines, but only by conforming did one receive support and protection. Molly didn’t know in words but believed in her heart that conformity destroyed dreams.
The smartly dressed man who stood guard at one of the entrances lifted his eyebrows as she approached. Not cognizant of the hotel’s reputation, and what she looked like in comparison, Molly thought he’d heard the roar of her empty stomach.
“You’d think I hadn’t eaten all day,” she murmured wryly, waiting for him to open the door. Dreams indeed; she just needed to eat without owing anyone any explanation. Whatever it was Brian had to offer her at such a ritzy establishment, he could certainly afford to prime her, perhaps with something fitting for the occasion like prime ribs.
The man slowly pulled the glass door back.
Molly wondered at his strange reluctance given that he was in the hospitality business, but he immediately left her mind once the hotel’s astonishing plush interior filled her senses. Warning bells went off in her head.
Relax, you belong here. (italics)
Molly met eyes with a woman whose only cosmetic was her nationality, her bleached hair a stunning aberration. She, too, raised eyebrows at her, though they hovered in the section of a question on her face.
Molly turned off to the reception area, afraid to ask the woman for help. She didn’t know what Brian recruited for and worried about being implicated by mere acquaintance. Fingering his business card from her pocket, she sat down in a fat chair next to a black hotel phone.
She reached for it. As though in the mode of saying her last words, Molly recalled that fuzzy urgent sensation where her mind felt like spirit and forgot its usual weight of black and grey. Closing her eyes, she dialed.
“Leaves Police Department, can I—”
The line went dead. Molly opened her eyes and jumped from the chair. Brian was smiling at her, his left dimple like a subtle wink.
“I had faith you’d come.” His voice sounded scratchy.
“How did you know I was here?”
Brian laughed and lightly took her by the arm, impressed by his repose. “I was notified that a bag lady had entered the premises.”
Molly drew her arm back and glared at him. “I am not a bag lady.” Alarmed she patted her hair and pulled out a thin piece of bark. “As a matter of fact, I’ve lost my ‘bag’ and everything in it.”
“Your purse?” Brian guided her up the stairs by the elbow, sure that she would balk with anything firmer. He chose the stairs for her to fully view her potential living quarters, all of it at her feet, like a queen in her castle.
“Yes.” Molly passed Brian a queer look.
Brian tapped his head. “I’m well-trained, always thinking, analyzing, outsmarting. It was survival for me.”
“Do you have it, then?”
Brian threw his head back with another bark of laughter. “Now you’re thinking of me as a god.”
“You seem to know everything.”
Brian held back his laugh this time and looked at Molly, her attention sidelong at the widely spaced hallway, its rich burgundy walls rounding elegantly overhead, white, sparkling swirls in the ceiling.
Without trying, she made him laugh, made him feel strong and -- a sharp burn twisted him up -- warding him from that word. Noble was a fable. He had trained and fought with noble fervor, rescuing victims from powerful ogres, until that moment when something like a tiny, blazing replica of himself had flipped him on his head, crushing his perceptions like glass meeting the pavement.
“I know a lot.”
When they came to an elevator, Molly stopped, her shoulder angled at him like a stick. “I’m not going in there with you.” She reacted against a lull that beckoned her like dark sleep, that still haze where not even a shadowed life of memories moved. But the comfort of his omniscience. . .
The elevator doors retracted with enunciation. Brian’s finger left her elbow when he stepped inside. He did not take his grey eyes off her, and when the doors rushed her decision, he stayed them with his hand and said in a voice like sanded Maplewood, “You have nothing to lose.”
Molly entered. There was nothing to refute.
The next morning, when Robert came down the rickety stairs from the bedroom, through the wicker doors and into the store, the dawn filtered its rays everywhere with a feeling of calm and normalcy that disturbed his spirit.
Carol joined him and pushed a brown mug of coffee across the counter.
Robert considered Carol over the rim of his cup. If he told her about the girl in the window, how there was something uncannily familiar about her, she might misinterpret his interest. Lord, help me with this situation, Robert beseeched, looking down at his black coffee.
“Should we open today, Robert?” Carol could not stand the silence any longer. It swelled with the mounting fear of captivity that reared as big as her sudden desire to pray.
They both heard someone enter from the back and the wicker door kicked open. Missy held a guitar in one hand and a chocolate donut in the other. The look on her face was like a carriage driver reining in her horses. “It stinks like devil’s poop in here!”
Robert and Carol looked at each other and laughed, the sound rich and hoarse from the purge of built-up fear and guilt.
Missy threw her donut on the counter and plucked a few chords on the guitar, a jaunty smirk on her lips. “Listen to my new song. For the Lord has given us a new song to sing, a song of victory. Be not afraid, says He who conquered the grave.”
Missy’s eyes shut, her fingers imploring the strings. “In the name of Jesus, I rebuke the opening of a grave. Heal the underground and seal up the wound, Jesus. I cast out Satan, who seeks to share his prison of eternal damnation.”
Carol’s spirit cried out with inarticulate joy, her face beaming with her gush of words. “Yes, praise God! I must confess to you, Missy, let’s go in the sanctuary. Robert, we can delay the grand opening, right?”
He started after her, but the door thumped in his face. He wanted to know what in the world Carol had to confess when he was the one holding back. He promised to tell her about the girl the moment she returned.
Another shipment arrived. Robert leisurely dusted the shelves and put the items on display, setting the odd looking dragon things on the back shelf. They looked menacing, dark, and he wondered if he even ordered them. He placed the bigger statues in the back and dotted the front with the small ones. At some point Carol had joined him. She whisked past him, rearranged items he’d already placed and continued her busy industry, humming here and there.
“Carol.” He stood at the end of an aisle, arms stale at his sides.
She tapped a few more greeting cards in their slots and glanced up at him. “Yes, honey?”
“We need to talk.”
The smile disappeared from her eyes. He would finally demand a reason for all her sweaters, for the never-ending dark of their lovemaking. Carol chewed the inside of her cheek, not ready as she followed him into the sanctuary. The band practiced obliviously, their instruments as loud as their shouts to the Lord.
Carol often wondered what He had in store for Missy. Sometimes she feared for the girl; the depth of her conviction must be rooted in some terrible destiny.
Robert simultaneously pulled out two chairs and sat down heavily. He was a big man and pushed his chair back even more.
Carol ignored sitting down. “What is it, Robert? All the stores open in five minutes.”
“Fifteen,” he corrected, his voice a somber baritone. “Sit down, Carol.”
She did, hiding her arms under the table.
Robert stared at the floor a moment. Impart understanding, Lord, and prevent Satan from skewing the meaning of my words. He looked up. “Do you remember when I left worship last night?”
Carol nodded. Funny, when speech was specifically requested of her, those were the moments when nothing would come out of her mouth.
“I felt God calling me, but all that happened was that I saw a young woman through the window. And afterwards, God seemed to hit the back of my knees and there I was, on the floor praying for her. But I have no idea who she is or why. . . .”
Carol saw genuine confusion on his gruff, kind face. She squished into his lap, the table jabbing into the folds of her stomach as she held his bearded face in her hands. “Just obey, that’s what God wants. Trust in him with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.”
“God, I love you, woman.” Robert crushed her, immensely grateful for the gift of such a wife.
Whistles and whoops erupted in the room and Robert turned at all three band members staring at them with arms drooped over chair backs, eyes blinking with interest.
“What a testimony,” Missy breathed, a brilliant spark in her blue eyes. The others nodded and chairs squawked as they filed back up on the platform.
Brian let Molly into a room and told her to make herself at home until he returned.
Molly looked at the tidy hotel room that had the feel of an apartment, except the Queen-sized bed was in the open against the wall. The living room furniture of a couch and coffee table were in the middle and across the room was a window blocked by heavy crimson curtains. She cast them apart, her arms spread like a bird in flight. She clenched the material in that position and gazed upon Leaves with desperate hope. Something akin to life stirred in her breast, like a bird in a cage fluttering around to get free.
This was a beginning; she would make it so. Molly sank into the padded rocking chair next to the window and rocked with the pace of her heart. Soon the door rattled with the force of Brian’s knuckle knocks.
She rose to get it when the door almost hit her in the face.
“What are you doing?” she cried, stepping back.
He dwarfed her, the room shrinking once he closed all exits and crossed his arms in expectant enjoyment. “I’m returning just like I said I would.” He actually smiled, like a little boy scout.
Molly’s mind blurred with the inability to express her offended feelings, perhaps because she intuitively questioned what rights she had in this situation. She needed rules. Her parents had rules and she had obeyed them, living apart and beyond them in her mind, her fingers, and those nebulous dreams that drifted into consciousness by the power of certain songs.
“Mind if I sit down?” he asked.
“Why ask me that after you just barge in here?” Molly’s face heated up. “It’s time you told me what you’re about. What’s this ‘offer’ you’re so protective of?”
He ruffled his shaggy, blond hair and Molly remained standing. When he gazed at her silently, she crossed her arms, urging him caustically with her eyebrows.
“I recruit women who entertain and accompany very influential men for very high sums of money.” Brian hung his hands over his knees. He hadn’t meant to be so blunt, but she somehow made it compulsory. His fingers gestured as he added lowly, “especially for a particular kind of woman.”
“What do you mean?” Molly’s heart pounded. Surely the atmospheric part of her brain had suspected as much, but still, the words from his mouth were like boxy objects not quite fitting into her ears.
“You’ve never been with a man before.” Brian dropped his eyes and moved uncomfortably, even sitting up straighter.
Molly sighed with unbelievable disgust. “How did you get all this information about me?”
Brian met her eyes and spoke in a voice that had the tenderness of a vine and the hardness of a plank of wood. “Like I told you before, Molly, I’m an expert at what I do.”
She rubbed a hand across her eyebrow and turned to the window. “So you’re basically recruiting for whores and you thought I’m just the woman for the job?”
“No, it’s not like that at all.” Brian leaped up from the couch with conviction and hovered behind her. Molly could smell a faint sweet smell that was still somehow masculine. She turned toward him and raised her eyebrows.
“How is it like then?” Molly felt a strange crumbling inside, a certain dying that she couldn’t stop. She remembered feeling the same way after a solo audition for the musical, Cats, when her name had been announced with a long list of names for the choir. Her mom had called it a bad attitude and her dad had called it poor sportsmanship, but Molly quit the rehearsals. Either she sang solo or not at all.
“We don’t educate whores, Molly. You find those on the street, in hotel rooms, bars, as common as dirt. No, the women here are trained, sought, and highly valued.”
“Really? How much?”
Brian missed her dry tone. “You’ll never have to worry about money again. You’ll never have to work again if you don’t want to.” He looked at her, at her eyes. “You won’t be like other women. You’re not like other women.”
In that statement he recognized her. He was the reader of the magical inscription on the gravestone of her longing, bringing to life a release of truth.
She was not like other women.
There were other women like her, though, the girls of the sisterhood. If Molly stayed, she could meet them. Brian said this and then pulled out of his back pocket several cards. He went to the kitchen and splayed them with slaps on the table.
Molly willed herself to stay put at the window.
“Since your purse is gone, I’ve recuperated your losses. That’s what I do as your manager.” Brian pointed at the gold card. “That’s your money. The pin number is 5799. There’s a deposit on there of five hundred dollars. You can think of it as a trial period.” The upper corner of his lip twitched, and then he pointed to a shiny grey card. “This is the room key. You’re welcome to stay here tonight to think things over.”
“Do you have the key to this room, too?”
Brian sighed. “Of course.” He turned his grey eyes on her.
Molly thought of the moon again, how it revolved around the earth at a remote distance, yet eyed it continuously, with a sort of sobriety that contradicted his youthful blond hair, his vibrant smile.
“You’re not offering enough.” Molly couldn’t believe she’d just said that. Or that she was pacing now with an air of command right in front of him. She gesticulated with her hands, unwittingly giving Brian a beautiful dance of bewitching grace. “I get a say in whoever it is I ‘entertain,’” Molly said. “I’m not going to lay down for some filthy rich pig with lots of pimples, especially venereal pimples.”
Brian laughed. “I protect my girls. You must be clean to maintain your value, so all of your suitors will have to undergo medical screening--” Brian stopped, realizing this information came later, imparted by the Matriarch who was in charge of training, tests, and trips to the various doctors.
Molly hardly heard, recalling with pleasure his words of protection and strangely, of possession. “What exactly do you call women like me?”
Brian made his way to the door. “You’ll have many roles, Molly. Daughter. Wife. Lover. Your true identity is within yourself. I cannot help you with that.”
When he said things like that, things so unexpected and to her soul, Molly felt that she could trust him, that they knew each other on some level. “I don’t want you coming in my room without my say.”
“I’ll knock first.” Brian opened the door. “We will settle business tomorrow.” He quickly shut the door before he made any more insane and unprecedented concessions for this woman.
That night, Molly had expected to agonize, to twist and turn with mental anguish at her decision, staring up in bed with distraught, bedraggled hair. In fact, she had slept wonderfully, in strange trust that she would not experience any hideous intrusion. Aloft on the twelfth floor, away from the hawk-eyed Pam, and the concern of money and future vanishing into a single responsibility -- she would be stupid to turn down Brian’s offer.
Molly threw the covers off and slid down from the high-set bed. Scrounging through the cupboards, most of them empty, she found a cup and a boiling pot next to the stove. She brought her hot water and honey (the other item left in the cupboard) into the living room. Her finger tapped against the cup as she stared out the window. That ‘single responsibility’ wasn’t such a small thing. She’d never learned to undress easily around girls backstage, how would she do this in front of a man? And more besides.
The phone rang, its shrill vibration alerting Molly to its existence on the skinny end table.
“I’ll be down in a few minutes.” Brian hung up.
He didn’t have to knock twice and Molly opened the door, clothed in the filmy blue shirt and dark jeans that she had worn yesterday.
Brian stepped in, a look of surprise on his face at her solicitude. He seemed a little off balance, awkwardly seating himself on the couch. One of his legs wagged, and he rubbed his hands together as if to create an energy of persuasion.
“I can probably guess at some of your inhibitions.” His hand went out as he spoke, as if to sympathize with her. “You have moral considerations. You must or you wouldn’t be . . . untouched.” Brian glanced at Molly, who had taken a seat on the rocking chair. She did not offer concurrence on her expressionless face. “Right?” The uncertainty in his voice amused her.
She answered drolly, “Do you want me to have moral considerations? Have I ruined your morning quest to overcome all of my objections with your practiced responses? I do not understand morals. People are who they are; they will do what they do. Whether it’s right or wrong is according to their own conscience.”
“The nature of this business does not bother your conscience?” Brian’s grey eyes intensified with a power that could sear through iron.
Molly’s gaze shifted down some, her eyes honing in on a subject that had never been even in her peripheral vision. She shook her head. “I don’t know. I fear the unknown more than anything else.” She met his eyes unflinchingly. “I’m willing to make a trade.”
Brian leaned back against the couch with mute perplexity.
“What’s that?” Molly’s low, silvered voice brought Brian from wherever he had gone. He looked down jerkily, and then remembered he had brought a cajoling device. His large, beautiful hands grabbed the purse.
“It’s only an imitation, but I’m pretty sure it has in it the necessities your other one had.”
The serious lines of Molly’s lips transformed into a smile. She felt a girlish delight in receiving something so particular. Digging through, she found a cell phone, brush, fingernail clippers, and was impressed by the classy black wallet in one of the pouches. She laughed loudly, the sound like a harp being strung from some obscure corner. “You have no idea how close these contents are to what I had in my purse.”
Brian’s chest burned and he could not speak. He did know. He got up and went to the door. “I’ll start the bidding process.”
After phoning Jerry from his office, his executive suite on Riverside’s top floor, Brian impatiently waited for the chauffeur to pull up the hotel driveway in a tan Escalade. Brian motioned the driver from the vehicle and hopped in, peeling around the fancy, granite fountain that sprayed sparkling mist into the air.
Jerry’s office was across town, where a cluster of M.D.’s operated their various specialties, the abortion clinic right next to Jerry’s practice. Brian parked, picked up the car phone and dialed.
“Ladies in Waiting, how may I help you?” answered Vera, the Matriarch who spoke with a strong Russian accent.
“Vera, what’s the status on Teresa?” Brian could see Vera moving her head with arch exasperation.
“Brian, where have you been in hiding? I’ve been up to your room a million times; I’ve been to ask Bob if you are gone on business, and you know how much I loathe talking to that despicable king of morons. He’s always chewing on that little stick of his. I hope he chokes on it one of these days.” Vera had a propensity to indulge in humor when being absolutely serious. Her careful English articulation, usurped alluringly by her Russian tongue, enticed one’s ear to whatever she said.
She added pointedly, “We have a new lady in waiting I’m told.”
Brian looked at his watch, already a few minutes into his appointment. “I do apologize for not telling you, Vera, I’ve been extremely busy.”
“Busy, huh?” Vera said dryly. “I hear the new addition will be quite the attraction. A ragdoll among porcelain.”
“She’s not a ragdoll, Vera. She’s an ace of hearts.” They both knew what that meant.
“She’ll need your help.”
“Of course. Will I meet her or will you be keeping her all to yourself?” Vera also had a tendency to indulge in dangerous humor.
“Your tightrope gets thinner,” Brian said, his east coast accent more pronounced with her.
“I have terrific balance.”
Brian smiled, careful not to let it show in his voice. “Back to my original question.”
“Oh yes,” Vera said. Brian could hear her rustling through some papers. “Teresa is indeed pregnant and according -- ”
“I’ve replaced her.”
The line seemed to go dead. “What is to be done with her?”
“What does it say in the manual?”
“For Pete’s sakes, Brian, we’re not some military institution where there’s a manual for wiping your butt.”
“Don’t be vulgar; it doesn’t suit you.”
“What you’re suggesting is vulgar. She’s dependent on the sisters and Luis may have something to say about this.”
“For how much you girls are trained to please men, you sure don’t know anything about them. She’s out of the sisterhood, Vera. If Bob still wants to keep her for his clients, fine, but she’s off the twelfth floor.” Brian locked his car doors and buzzed Jerry’s office.
The new office building smelled like fresh paint, nauseating and pungent to the brain. Brian rapped on the first door from the landing at the top of the stairs and heard Jerry call him in.
The expansive window behind Jerry cast him in an elevated, sophisticated light, a bright college kid at his first job. “Please, sit down.”
Brian sprawled across the brown couch, folding his hands behind his head after he threw off the decorative pillows. “Bring me up to speed.” He closed his eyes for a power meditation; or rather, a meditation download from Jerry’s brain.
Jerry sat down and swiveled in his chair, smiling, chewing the side of his lip as he narrowed his gaze thoughtfully upon his complicated subject. “How do you feel today?”
“How have you been eating lately?”
“Have you been getting enough sleep?”
Brian turned his head and opened one of his eyes. “Is this going somewhere?”
“Do you want it to go somewhere?”
Brian sat up, scuffing up his hair as though he had an itch behind his ear. He dropped his hands and looked at Jerry. “Why else would I be here?”
“Sometimes I ask myself the same thing and frequently come to the conclusion that you’re just a generous man.”
“I do pay you generously.”
Jerry nodded, keeping silent. Brian cracked his knuckles, stretched out his arms, and then put his hands behind his head, beating his feet against the carpet.
Jerry leaned back against his plush leather chair, mirroring Brian in folding his hands behind his head. “Well then, we can begin exactly where we left off.”
“Which was where?”
“You had started a rant about being an underappreciated loyal husband to your wife.” Jerry summoned a bit of hauteur to keep the eagerness out of his voice. “Is this right?”
“You nailed it on the head.” Brian rocked to his feet and began to pace back and forth, the dim square office cornering him like a cage. “Of all the beautiful women who work for me, I’ve never dipped into any of them. Not once. Tempted, yes.” Brian nodded with self acquiescence.
“Dipped?” Jerry interrupted, his chair creaking as he rolled forward, arms braced on the desk. Realizing his composure, he relaxed and cranked a complacent eyebrow.
Brian answered distractedly, “Dipped. You know, taking what I haven’t paid for.”
“Yes, yes, of course,” Jerry encouraged, assimilating the intelligence. “Go on.”
“My wife’s a damn Catholic,” he blurted next. “It’s ingrained in her very soul. I can guarantee that she’s been faithful to me, even during the times I was gone. But so what? It’s just a whole lot of no sex going on.” Brian stopped pacing and looked up at the wall, a large mirror accosting him. He stepped closer, forgetting about Jerry, astounded at the image. He touched his taut, jutting cheekbone. The rims around his eyes were bluish purple and new lines had formed at the corners, deeper than what he had thought. Molly’s face appeared, melancholy but open and soft, her body ripe and pliable like a juicy peach.
He whirled around, seating himself on the couch. “I tried to start something. My daughter was gone with her violin, and my wife was lounging on a chaise reading a book.”
“What happened?” Jerry prompted when Brian hadn’t continued.
“Nothing.” Brian shook his head with amazement. “I came into the room, saw her there, even the length of her bare leg, and nothing in me wanted her.”
“I think we hate each other.”
Tell him, Carol heard in her being, the source of the Voice indistinct but present. It seemed to be on the verge of sleep, right when her mind came to a prayerful state that He spoke to her. She turned to Robert from lying on her back, his wide muscular shoulders like a mountain she could take refuge in. His arms sheltered her like a cave in all the storms that Satan hurled their way.
She wiggled closer to him and slid her hand between his arm and the slight dip of his waist. He stirred, murmured, and the mountain moved, shifting around until he faced her.
Robert reached around her back and drew her to him.
“It’s dark enough?” he joked sleepily. Their faces were close enough, and Carol had been awake long enough that she could see his eyes laden with desire. He began to undo the buttons of her nightgown and brushed away one side at a time, her arms still concealed within the sleeves.
She saw Robert squint, his eyes puckering thirstily to see her. He wanted her, had a right to her, and she was denying him! Robert glanced up at her distraught face and stiffened immediately, the desire in his eyes dying quickly.
Her time was now. Carol’s pressed lips trembled, needing to open the contents of her shame before a chasm of uncertainty destroyed their intimacy. The Lord’s Spirit was in the last thought, his command reverberating into a revelation that imparted courage.
“Take it all the way off.” Carol’s voice sounded strange, almost guttural. She laughed a little, to soften her rough, frightened tone.
Robert’s lips parted, and he looked at her for confirmation.
“You heard me, Robert. Take this prison cloth off my body. Now!” Carol giggled as only she would with him, feeling lighthearted and seductive as the Holy Spirit helped her.
Robert obeyed immediately, greedily, lifting her up from the pillow and pulling off the sleeves with passionate prowess. He groaned, tittered, and dropped devouring kisses along her right arm. Carol reached back with her free hand and pulled the lamp string.
A moment later, Robert gave a startled rumble and held her arm in horrified disbelief at the yellowish bruises in the shape of a hand print. “What’s this?”
Carol tried to take her arm back, but his grip was strong. Suddenly he let go and was out of bed, pulling his beard with agitation. She swung out of bed and walked to him, but he backed up, his expression so dislodged from its normal calm.
“I did that?” His voice was grotesquely high-pitched. He understood, now, the darkness, and the sweaters.
Carol wildly shook her head, stepping nearer, but he became only louder. “Stay back from me, Carol!”
Wait, the Voice told her. Carol pleaded silently in the Spirit as Robert hung onto the bedpost, his back against the wall as he stared at her.
“Tell me it happened when I was drunk, when I had no idea what I was doing.”
Carol didn’t answer right away, absorbed in recognizing his hollow tone as the remote storytelling voice he used when he felt forced and fatigued from describing his recurring nightmares. She licked her dry lips.
“Don’t lie to spare me, Carol. You’re speaking under God.”
“Robert.” Carol paused, just wanting to say his name, her nurturing instinct seeking to soothe first. She swallowed and for a moment had the perverse thought of actually lying, because she felt a stinging backlash from the disgusting self-pity of it all, the unnecessary depravity.
“It wasn’t you,” she said softly.
He erected his posture. “Then who was it?” he growled. His face brightened from hot confusion, anger pellets dripping from his temples. “Tell me his name or I swear to God --”
“No!” Carol cried, covering her face. “It wasn’t anyone! It was me!” She wrenched her hands away, uttering through tears, “Those days and nights that you drank and wasted away to forget about Vietnam—I wasn’t strong, not like you thought I was.” She closed her eyes, her voice a detached whisper, “I was lonely and you weren’t there to hold me.”
Unthinkingly, Carol grabbed her arms, hugging herself in the same way she did so many nights waiting for her husband to come back to her, the intensity of her need dug into her skin. The confessional silence calmed her. She opened her eyes and Robert wrapped her whole body in his arms, leaving no space between them.
“Forgive me. Forgive me,” he murmured brokenly. “It was my fault, not yours. Don’t cry now, honey, the pain is here between us finding healing.” Robert laid her head against his chest and looked up with his eyes shut. “Thank you, Jesus. Thank you.”
“Jesus,” Carol said, clinging to Robert’s body. He gently nudged her to look at him. “Come to bed, Carol.” He gave her a warm smile. “I want to cuddle.”
Carol laughed, her throat wet from tears. “I hope that’s not all.”
At first Molly thought the cold leathery material against her mouth was part of her dream. Then hands tightened around her wrists and pulled her from the bed. She screamed, seeing nothing but phantom shapes in the dark. She struggled fiercely, twisting back and forth to break free, but the hands -- four now -- were too strong. They grabbed her ankles next and dragged her off the bed.
Molly kicked with her legs like a supine bicyclist. She was dropped and from behind, a rolled up cloth was jammed in her mouth and tied at the back of her head. Another was tied over her eyes.
Molly screamed again, the terror returning to choke her. The hands grabbed her wrists and she felt rope wrap around her legs and ankles. Molly heard a grunt as she was lifted again, her butt swinging in the air. One of the captors tripped and Molly crashed to the floor, her ears ringing from the pain and the shrill sound of a curse.
At least one of her captors was female. Molly tried uselessly to wiggle her legs free, but she was swiftly picked up, the grip of the new captor different. Surer. She heard scuffling and a harsh whisper that also sounded feminine.
“Just get the doors.”
The elevator doors dinged open and Molly was folded in half and crammed inside, the box heating up with an unknown amount of bodies. There was shifting and heavy breathing, then the elevator dinged open again and she was hauled out to God knows where.
“Get the door, Janet!” The same curt voice. This time Molly heard a heavy accent and wondered that she hadn’t noticed it before.
A blast of cold air against her face and bare arms let her know they were outside. On each side of her, Molly heard the crisp rustling of clothes as her captors walked. The conveyance became smoother, but the sounds of the hotel receded to an eerie murmur. Leaves crunching and the snap of twigs recovered the muted world, as did a burst of girlish laughter.
Another girl garbled her laughter and Molly’s butt grazed the ground, dragging through the crackling leaves. The posse stopped and Molly was set on her feet, the rope unraveled from her legs. Each of her arms was taken by a captor who forced her forward, and then just as suddenly, she was pushed ahead.
Molly stumbled before she regained her balance, her heart beating like a rabbit’s pulse as she hastily took off the blindfold.
She found herself at the wide end of a majestic V formation, tall, flickering candles towering like ancient lampposts converging to a single point, in front of which stood a stunning woman of regal height and aura. Spanning from her like esthetically hewn statues were women of all shapes, sizes, and hues, the candle light producing an ethereal glint to their varied colored eyes.
“I am Vera, Matriarch of the twelfth floor sisterhood. We welcome you into our family, Molly Dearling, for you are one of us now.” The woman at the center walked forward, her fluid stride transforming her simple dark gown into a dress of royalty. Her white skin glowed with almost translucent quality.
When she took Molly’s hand, Molly felt a vibrant warm sensation, even though the woman’s skin was cold from the fall air. But she resisted the woman’s lead. The woman turned her head, her short blond hair parted so that it swept slightly over her left azure eye.
“You do not want?” Her accent was thick then.
Molly glanced past her at the other women, confident, beautiful women who didn’t seem like her at all. “What do I have to do?”
Vera’s smile was kind. “You can start by not being afraid. We wish to make you our sister.” She turned to the women and in accord, they untied their cloth belts and disrobed, their naked flesh like marble contours of grace.
Vera looked at Molly. “Your turn.”
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