Anne sat in her cubicle at work. She had twenty-two unheard voicemails and a problem with avoidance. She joked about it to anyone who noticed. She'd say, “Yeah, I know. But I’ll deal with it later.”
When his number popped up, she felt a mix of emotions. First, there was the adrenaline spike. Then the anger. She told him never to call her again. Never. Never ever.
His voice represented the life she could’ve lead. Should’ve led, if it weren’t for her cowardice. What possible reason could he have for calling now? After eighteen years. Before now, she wasn’t even sure he was still alive. She pressed play.
“Yeah. Hi. It’s me again. You made yourself perfectly clear about our offer, but we’d really like to get in touch. I left my card in your mailbox a couple of weeks ago. Then I put one in your front door. Thought maybe they got lost, so I decided to try this. We should really update our technology anyway. We don’t have much time. If you could call me, that’d be great.”
That was it. He didn’t address her by name. Didn’t identify himself. He knew he didn’t need to. She didn't need a phone to reach him either. A strong memory, a fleeting thought, that would be enough. But if he was calling her, on a phone? Well…it must be pretty important. She found his cards, just ignored them, hoped they might be some early on-set form of hallucination-based dementia. A part of her always hoped their encounters weren't real. Until this moment, she was able to stay detached enough to pretend this wasn't happening. But that voice. Finally, the big fat tears began to rise.
It’s such a cliché that I cry when I’m angry. I really hate that about myself.
She deleted his message and calmly walked to the ladies' room before her mascara could run. It was empty. She looked in the mirror. Her reflection was average in every way. Predictable fashion, a gray pencil skirt with a white button-down and a cardigan. Long red hair. Regular red, not comic book red or sexy red. Round facial features. Slightly overweight.
She hated what she saw and she hated herself for hating herself. Every podcast and tweet told her this was the age of female empowerment. She should feel brave. Love herself no matter what. But wrong or right, she felt a chin implant and a nose job certainly wouldn’t hurt. Lipo too.
She shut herself in a stall and unzipped her purse, began rifling through bits of eyeliner shavings and tubes of old lip gloss. They rattled around in her worn-out, over washed bag. She pulled out a small tin with a Walt Disney quote elegantly printed across the lid. She opened it and reached for a Xanax. She lifted it to her lips, but before she could take it, his voice filled the air. “I’d really rather you remain sober for this conversation.”
“Shit,” she dropped the pill. She answered his quiet judgment with a raised voice. “I’m not an addict. There’s no shame in medicating a panic disorder. A disorder you gave me, by the way.”
All these years I longed for another chance. Now I’m already angry and I don’t even know why.
He peeked through the slit in the bathroom stall. “Why do you think they make these things this way? Isn’t the whole point that humans don’t want anyone else to see them regulating their functions? I mean, why not a flush-close?” He seemed genuinely tickled, “Hey, flush.” His one visible eye searched her face for a reaction.
She stared him down instead. He backed away. She took three deep breaths, tapping the center of her chest with her fingertips. She stood. After all the time she spent imagining what it might be like to see him again and the first time she does, it’s through a slit in the bathroom stall at work.
She opened the door and emerged. He sat on the bathroom sink. He was dressed in business casual, which surprised her. Almost as if he’d read her mind, he pointed to his outfit and said, “Wanted to blend, how’d I do?”
Even though she hadn’t laid eyes on him for years, he matched her memories precisely. He was tall and thin, his facial features sharp. His hair, so black it was almost blue.
I wonder how I look to him? Older. Chubbier, no doubt.
She described him to a therapist once. Of course, she had to pretend she was there to get over an ex-boyfriend. Can’t exactly tell your caregiver you’re there to cope with the memory of some kind of magic man. Especially if you’re only eighteen. She had no idea if he was a devil or an angel. She frequently questioned whether or not he was even real.
She slipped her hands under a nearby faucet, trying to trigger the water. A long silent moment passed. No water. “Gah! Why don’t these things ever work?!” She feverishly waved her hands under each faucet in succession, ignoring the one closest to him, until one finally began to flow.
He seemed genuinely puzzled. “Why are you doing that? You didn’t even go to the bathroom?”
Avoiding his gaze, she flicked water off her hands and reached for a paper towel. “Whatever you want, just freaking tell me.” Instead of pulling out a whole sheet, it ripped at the seam. She tried to dry her hands with a two-inch strip of recycled paper.
He raised his eyebrows, “Freaking? You said shit thirty seconds ago. You’re a grown woman and you can’t say fu…”
“Shh, God can hear you.” She balled up the paper towel and tossed it onto the trash.
He went wide-eyed in response. “And he’s okay with shit, but not…” She gave him a blank stare. He gripped the counter a little harder, “Big evil stirring. Someone needs to save the world. You’re up again. It’s your turn.”
“Again? I’m thirty-five. I thought that was a one-time deal?”
He looked at the ground below his feet, “I might’ve told a little white lie.”
“Little whi...you told me I was the chosen one. You said fate picked me to save the world. I was the millennial hero, remember? You said, you literally said, ‘This is a one-time deal,’ and that if I passed, the calling would fall to the next girl in line and I’d never get another chance. That is what you said. Never.”
A woman opened the bathroom door and froze when she saw the two deep in conversation. “Oh, sorry,” she looked at the mysterious man sitting on the sink, then at Anne, “do you need help?”
“No, Sheryl. I’m okay." Sheryl didn't budge. She cast a caring glance to Anne. "Really, I promise. Can you give me just a minute?” Sheryl closed the door very slowly.
He smiled, “There, see? Now you know you’re not crazy. Sheryl saw me. You were just wondering a minute ago if I was even real, back when you were thinking about what a good job I did with this blazer.”
Oh, great. He can still read my mind.
Anne dropped to the floor and started searching for that lost Xanax. “I don’t want to do this right now. Can’t we make an appointment or something?”
He stood. “No. Time is…”
“Let me guess, running out? Well, I pass. If you would’ve given me some notice that I might get called again, I could’ve maintained a gym membership, at the very least. Or taken Krav Maga at the Y or something. I’m not ready. Go to the next girl. Woman.” She felt uncomfortable using the word girl at the age of thirty-five. She felt a migraine gathering storm clouds in her brain.
He knelt down to face her, “You can’t pass, Anne. There’s no one left this time. All the others are dead and it’s your turn. If you won’t do it...” he let the inevitable fill the air. If she didn’t step up, it was apocalypse time. He extended the palm of his outstretched hand, the little white oval sitting pretty.
There was a really long pause. Anne stood and paced, ignoring the pill. “Dammit, Jerry.”
He winced, “I really hate that name.”
She sighed, “Fuck.”
He stared at her wide-eyed. She slid down the wall and sat, extending her feet out in front of her. Her shoulders drooped. She exhaled, looking up into his face, “God’ll forgive you if it’s an accident.” She lifted her eyes and made a sincere confession to the ceiling, “Sorry.”
One of the faucets turned on for no reason.