A Simple Spell and the Dangers of Online Dating

 

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Chapter 1

    "I don't normally do this... online dating thing," I said, staring into my coffee. I was lying. I was a liar. This was the third date I'd gone on this month with someone from a dating site. I silently protested against my own desperation while I forced myself to sign up and answer all the ridiculous 'getting to know you' questions that really said nothing about me as a person. 
    On an average Friday night I can be found: in bed. Sleeping. 
    Would I consider sleeping with someone on the first date? No. 
    Would I consider myself a cat person?
    Dating sites ask the important questions. 
    It all came down to statistics in the end. Whether or not I liked cats wasn't important. It was a matter of whether or not he liked cats as well. So we could spend our whole date talking about... cats. 
    After I trudged through the preliminaries, I was a little addicted. Everyone warned me that one day I'd meet a serial killer and that would bring an end to the miniscule high I got from the danger of meeting strangers. But the odds of that were probably one in a million. What kind of a serial killer goes on actual dating sites, anyhow? That's something best left for Craigslist. 
    Well, when I put it down in words like that, my life seems terribly boring. 
    It was a little sad that my romantic life was not unlike job interviews: they make you nervous the first few times but then once you've gone on three you know all the answers without looking at the sheet. I was looking for a bit more of a romantic life, I will say, but I think on some level I preferred to keep my privacy. This caught me in a strange place: I both wanted and desperately did not want to go on dates. Dates meant meeting people. It was just easier to set up a half-blind date with someone equally desperate as me than it was to go out into the world and find someone worth the longer term. I needed a husband, so everyone kept telling me. My eggs were getting cold. 
    Brian scratched his head absently, his fingertips disappearing behind unkempt waves of sand-blond hair. He was significantly less practiced at meeting complete strangers than I was, but somehow we managed to have the same level of nerves, the difference being that I twiddled my thumbs in boredom and he seemed to be embarrassingly untalkative. We had decided on a little cafe downtown because it seemed much more casual than a restaurant with white tablecloths and waiters. The last time I had done one of those it had been a nervous little actuary who didn't talk to girls often. He reminded me of a nervous chihuahua. And, you know... me being a cat person and all.
    I had shown up early to the date, claiming the cushioned seat of one of the mis-matched tables that added to Quincy's Cafe's artsy charm. This left my quasi-mystery date with the somewhat less comfy, but still artsy, green armchair. I had decided that this 'fashionably late' nonsense was for people who were actually fashionable. Showing up early gave me the upper-hand, asserted my dominance. Plus, you could never count on a stranger to be a gentleman and offer you the comfy chair. 
    I had been there, hiding behind the conspicuously bright cover of a book of poems by T. S. Eliot, thinking myself incredibly clever and modern. I don't know what I had been expecting, to be quite honest: he hadn't been particularly specific when it came to his profile. Really, I had been attracted more to his profile picture than anything, which was the least offensive and lacked an off-set trilby, as seemed to be the reigning trend of lonely male cat persons. 
    I can't say that plaid was a refreshing change. 
    "Yeah, me neither," Brian said, putting his palms out and shrugging his flannel shoulders. "I guess I've just been too busy with... with work, you know? Got a little behind in the dating game." His face went through a series of motions that I'm sure were meant to be embarrassment and then indecisiveness and then indifference. 
    "What do you do, then," I asked him. "Your profile didn't really say."
    "Oh, I'm a hunter," he said proudly.
    "You do that professionally? I wasn't aware you could."
    It was almost adorable how his ears turned a shade of pink. Almost. "Well, no. I don't think I would say I'm a professional. Not like the ones you'd see on the TV shows. I can sell some venison or duck or what have you to the butchers shops when I get a good haul, but I take odd jobs when there's restriction or I can't get a permit or there's nothing really in season. Some folks have me do landscaping or shoveling snow. I'm not living in a mansion, but I don't have to I don't think." 
    Brian looked like he regretted what he'd just said, and at first I wasn't sure why, but then I thought about how I must look to him. I might not have come off as particularly rich, but I was for certain not living in a shack out in the country. I kept myself trendy: little floral dress and coordinating-colored tights, and with my clear fondness for poetry it was no secret that I considered myself somewhat of an intellectual.
    He probably only barely finished high school, if he had at all. It was likely he thought I was judging him, and I showed little guilt when I realized that this was exactly what I was doing. 
    Much to what I am sure would be my mother's dismay if I ever talked to her again, I was not looking for someone who was rich. I had long given up on that dream when I realized that my choices in my tiny Ohio town were mostly sugar daddies looking for some naive college tail. I might have been desperate, but I still had my standards. That aside, I was hoping to find someone with at least a steady job and a future. Brian seemed a little... oh, how can I put this lightly?
    He seemed a little dumb. And when he told me he was a hunter that brought to mind a future of heads mounted on the wall and plaid flannel. It was not the lifestyle for me.
    I could see that this was not going to work out for me and I considered leaving, but the date was only five minutes in and the poor thing just didn't look like he would take that abrupt rejection well. 
    "Well, I suppose you don't need a mansion," I said, trying very hard to keep the conversation flowing. That's what you have to do with dates, even bad ones. If they seemed dull, it meant that you had to try a little harder until he was proven completely hopeless.  "I'm not in the best situation right now, to be honest. I'm only barely making enough to pay my rent right now" I rolled my eyes. "I actually could probably move to a better place, but the cost of rent in this town is ridiculous."
    "Oh man, don't I know it. I got a little lucky, I guess." He smiled, glad that he hadn't committed a complete faux pas. "When my grandma died she gave my dad her house. But they'd just moved into a new one and my dad took her death pretty hard, so he didn't want to be living in a house full of memories. So they had me move in, keep the place in good shape."
    "So you pretty much own your own home, then?" He nodded. I had to admit, that was a pretty good setup, so long as his grandma wasn't... still in the house. You never knew with online dating, really. 
    I should have known better than to look impressed. He almost looked hopeful for a second date. He was taking this far more seriously than I was.
    "So your profile said that you work at Kohl's," he said, reaching for conversation material. 
    "Yeah, stocking and cashiering. Its... not great work," I admitted. 
    "I know how that feels." He put a hand to his forehead and rubbed at his temples.  "Before I started doing the seasonal stuff I worked in the back room at Walmart. Man, I tell you: the pay was pretty good for physical labor but they treated me like an idiot most the time and I don't deal well with that."
    I hoped the guilt didn't show on my face, and for a moment I thought about continuing the date for pity's sake. But I had absolutely zero interest in pursuing a relationship with this guy, and even if I had believed much at all in opposite attraction there wasn't much between us to really make it manage.  It was better to just be honest rather than to lead him on. I sighed into my latte. 
    "I'm sorry, Brian. This doesn't look like its going to work out."
    He shrank in size. "Oh. I see," he said. I stood and began to walk out. "Amy," he called after me as I reached the door, and I turned. "It was nice talking to you."
    I gave him a small, unsure smile. "Likewise."
    I left the tiny cafe and headed home to my tiny apartment with its light blue curtains and white countertops. It was worth significantly less than the $600 I paid for it each month, considering that the radiator clanged loudly any time it was turned on and the water had a distinct flavor of mud from the Ohio River. The kitchen was less of a kitchen and more of a klivingchen. I ate meals on my knees in front of the television.
    So I suppose I shouldn't be picky when it came to where suitors lived. There was at least a chance that they didn't have spots on the walls from previous tenants. I had been living there for about two years now and still wasn't sure whether that red spot was rust from the pipes or someone else's blood. Sometimes I thought maybe it would be worth lowering my standards just so that I didn't have to worry about what might be crawling in my walls, but that somehow felt a little shallow.
    Maybe deep down I knew that I was only going on dates because that was what women in their twenties did. Sometimes it certainly seemed that way, or at least when it was clear that I was starting to run out of men in this town. 
    I stepped out of the shower, running my fingers across my scalp and trying to catch strays before I left a mess of red hairs in the drain. Failed dates always made me feel dirty, and I could never tell if it was because they'd neglected to meet my expectations or I just felt shitty for being such a snob. 
    My laptop ping-ed, as I shook the mental ick from my conscience, indicating that I had new email from the dating site. I found that a little strange, since I am usually the one that sends out messages and rarely the one who receives them (apart from the occasionally 'hey ur hot,' presumably typed with one hand down one's pants.) 
    "Dear Amy," read the email. 
    "I found your profile and you and I have some things in common. Actually, it turns out that we went to the same high school, but I was two years ahead of you and that is likely why we never met. I feel like this is shameful: you seem very sweet. 
    Regards,
    Marcus."
    I racked my brain, trying to think if I knew a Marcus, but most of high school was sort of a blur to me. I remembered orchestra concerts and language classes, and I remember having really only one friend that I could rely on. Everyone and everything else that might have happened in high school was pared down to cliches not unlike what one might find in a coming of age film. I sighed, considering what kind of boys there were in that school. There weren't many there that weren't either farm boys or jocks, and even as a teenager I had no interest in either. I clicked on his profile, expecting another fedora or plaid over-shirt, and my jaw dropped. 
    He was gorgeous. I'm not one to immediately fall for a photograph, but it was hard to keep my feet on the floor for him. It was just something about his eyes: they were so piercing. An uncanny light green, like sea-glass. 
    I remembered those eyes now, I thought. I'd never had class with him, for sure. But he'd had longer hair as a teenager, that fell past his ears in soft curls. The idea that he would have to resort to a dating site now seemed silly, but I wasn't about to look a gift horse in the mouth. I nearly felt violated as I sat there, still dripping on my towel, trying to tear myself away from his eyes as they peered through impossibly long eyelashes. 
    "Marcus," I wrote back, trying to keep my cynicism. My face felt hot. 
    "I think I remember you. You were on the swim team, I think. I'm sorry to say that I didn't really go to the meets. Orchestra sort of took up the majority of my time. What are you doing these days?
    -Amy"
    I wasn't expecting him to reply back so quickly, but I got the notification before I even managed to lift myself from my seat. 
    "Oh, don't feel bad. Swimming is kind of a boring sport if you're not actually in it. I'm a lawyer now. Or I suppose I'm going to be as soon as I can find a firm. I saw that you're working at Kohl's now? I bought some of my suits there."
    I winced. I didn't mind saying what I did in front of Odd-Job Brian, but next to someone with an actual future I felt very small. He was probably lying. Who buys a suit at Kohl's, really?
    "Yeah, its just something to get me by until I can get a real job," I wrote him. "I'm looking into management."
    "That's one way to move up in the business," he wrote back. "So I was wondering, since we didn't get much of a chance to talk while we were in school, would you object to getting together and playing catch up? I know this really nice restaurant downtown."
    Between those beautiful green eyes and the calm manner I imagined him speaking, I was head over heels. I was bouncing up and down in my seat at the idea, and I was very glad that there was a computer screen between us. 
    "I would love to. When would you like to meet?"
    "Does Friday sound good to you?"
    Keep your head, Amy, I told myself. I mean, it was so likely that this photo wasn't actually of him. It could be some actor or model that no one's ever heard of. People did that all the time. But I remembered him: I remembered what he looked like in high school. It stood to reason. 
    "Friday would be lovely."
    Still, I held onto hope as he attached the directions to the restaurant in another email. It was not the usual casual cafe I have in mind for a first date. Saint Rosa's was about as expensive as you can get in our town.  I had been there once before, as a little girl with my parents. I dropped my fork and the waiter caught it on the second bounce, replacing it with a clean one before I could refuse.
    That was the kind of fancy this place was.  There was no way in Hell we were going to go dutch at a place where I couldn't even afford the salad. But I had a good feeling about Marcus. There was something about him and I could feel it: he was going to be important in my life somehow. 
    I have this little ritual I do when I feel like I might want to keep someone in my life. It has never actually worked, but I don't think that's really the point. I imagine myself as though holding a bow and arrow, and a rope around the arrow's end. I aimed it at Marcus' magazine-worthy photo and let go: sending it straight into him like I was Cupid going in for the kill. Look, people do weirder things, okay?
    I felt pretty good about Friday.
    Friday. My stomach dropped an inch when I realized that was tomorrow. To my left was a closet full of last year's dresses bought on sale with my employee discount. "Ohhh boy." 
    I spent a large amount of my Friday morning shift fretting about it. Would he notice that my clothes were several seasons out of date? He seemed to be the kind of guy that would care about fashion. Should I order the salad just in case he can't afford to pay for us both? What if he gets fed up with me being so plain? What if I wasn't interesting enough for him? I had never been this nervous about a date in my life. 
    By the time I clocked out at 3:06, I had almost talked myself into canceling the date. I stood at the edge of the bed, overlooking the jersey knit dress that I had at the time thought was both comfortable and stylish, but looking at it now I realized that it made me look like I was wearing shoulder pads. And that belt? No one wore belts with dresses anymore!  Oh god, I was hopeless.
    This wasn't like me at all. I didn't worry about first impressions. I didn't stress dates. I didn't get this flustered over men. Why was I worrying about a half inch thick  belt? Get it together, Amy. 
    I breathed, trying to bring myself back to center. It was because he was handsome. There. I said it. I was shallow. He was handsome and successful and I wasn't used to that. I was used to country kids with missing teeth and squirrelly accountants who didn't know how to talk to women. 
    I had to remind myself that he contacted me. I didn't go out looking for a handsome, successful lawyer. A handsome, successful lawyer went out looking for me. I was awesome enough to stand out to him. I was good enough. And I was going to ace this date. 
    Unless I was too nervous to talk, which started the whole cycle of negativity all over again. 
    Well, by the time I'd talked myself into keeping the date, it was already 6:30. Deciding at the last minute that belts were last season, I dared to slip on something more form-fitting that I had buried in the back of my closet, pulled on stockings and clunked my heels out the door. 
    Of course, I was still nervous as I pulled up to the restaurant. I ended up parking a block down from the building to give myself some time to ease the butterflies in my stomach. 
    I still held some notion to the belief that perhaps Marcus was not the beautiful human being on the screen. That maybe he was just another townie like me who couldn't handle his own reflection, so he made one up. Or that he wasn't as intelligent when he couldn't edit what he was saying anymore. And the idea crept up on me that perhaps I was not as clever where there was no backspace button. 
    And maybe the angle that my profile was taken at was a bit more flattering than the genuine article. 
    No, no. It was too late to go back. I'd put on mascara. That was the point of no return. 
    Maybe he would stand me up. It certainly wasn't the first time that I would have been. Maybe this was just another elaborate joke to play on the nerdy girl in school: wouldn't be the first time for that, either. Maybe that's what was going on here. I laced my fingers together, trying to find something to do with my hands as I went over the possibility that I was once again the victim of a stupid prank when I heard the tap of very nice dress shoes address the pavement of the sidewalk.  
    "Amy," said a very unfamiliar voice, but it carried with it a smooth tone that I somehow knew belonged to him. I turned to the source and all doubt was removed.
    As he approached me on the sidewalk, the headlights of a passing blue sedan illuminated him from behind as though he were emanating a holy light. Photographs hardly gave justice to height. He stood a whole head above me, with broad swimmer's shoulders. Even as the car whizzed by, the streetlights got caught in his hair and gave him the impression of a halo. 
    "Marcus," I inquired in a mock surprise. It was really hard to be shocked to see someone that you only barely remember having shared the same space with. That said, I was still rather surprised.
    "So glad to see you," he said, gently putting a hand on my arm in greeting. I shivered, not sure if it was because of the chill in the air or because I realized then just how long it had been since someone had touched me on purpose. "You've changed from what I remember in high school."
    "Yeah," I said, a little dazed. I wasn't really sure what he said, but it sounded nice coming out of his mouth. "You too, I mean. You look... um..." I struggled with words as they seemed to fall out of my mouth without any semblance of order. "You look nice." His tie matched his eyes. Did he know that? I bet he knew that. 
    He smiled: a mouth full of straight white teeth. Stop that. 
    "Well, let's get inside before someone swipes our reservations," he said, probably thinking that I was a complete idiot. Oh god, he was touching the small of my back. No, I wasn't supposed to be getting this giddy over someone I went to high school with.  
    The waiter lead us through a cherry stained foyer that looked as though it could easily hold fifty people, to a multitude of small tables meant to keep the space between patrons as small as possible without sacrificing functionality. Set in the center of the table amongst the empty wine glasses was a single candle in a red votive holder, and one rose leaning curiously over the rim of a glass vase. Ours seemed to be the only one that had this adornment, and I blushed furiously at the length he went to to impress me.  
    I might have spent the first five minutes staring at him instead of looking at the menu, and when I finally did glance down I couldn't concentrate on the letters on the page. I couldn't tell if it was because I was flustered or because they were all in Italian, but I felt very, very dumb. 
    "We'll take a bottle of pinot noir," he said to the waiter whom I hadn't noticed was standing by our table. "We'll both have the rib-eye, mine medium-rare. Amy?" I peered over the edge of my menu. The waiter stared me down expectantly with his thin face.
    "Ah... um... m-medium well," I stuttered. 
    I felt stupid. That's exactly it. I had always thought that I could look past a pretty face and see the human behind it, but every time I opened my mouth I felt like I was going to say something embarrassing. I needed to say something that was more than nervous sputtering if I was going to keep him interested at all. 
      "So," I began. Shit: I'd started talking, now I actually had to have content. "Did you decide to become a lawyer right out of high school?"
    He took a sip of his wine and smiled slightly. "To be honest, I didn't decide to go to law school until a few years ago."
    "What were you doing up until then," I asked, really enjoying the way his lips moved. 
    He laughed a little. "You're going to laugh when you hear this: I was actually a model for awhile.  I know that's a little hard to believe," which it very much wasn't. "But I had an agent and everything." 
    "So what happened to that? How did you end up back in Ohio?"
    "Don't ever listen to an agent with 'big dreams,'" he said, sighing. "She said she could get me a Hollywood contract, said she believed in me. But six months went by and I hadn't heard a word from her, she'd run off with all my money. So I got tired of being the pawn and decided it was time to be an advocate. Amateur models get ripped off all the time, but they're horribly underrepresented legally. I like to think I can change that."
    My breath was caught in my lungs. Smart, handsome, and he was so noble? This wasn't fair. I don't think I could pursue a relationship with this man. I would spend all my time worrying about how I could match up with him. This was not going to happen. 
    I realized then just how often I made excuses for things not to work out. 
    "I'm sorry," he said. "I didn't mean to spend all night talking about myself. What have you been up to since high school?"
    "My story is really dull compared to yours, Marcus," I said, frighteningly aware of the color that crept into my cheeks. 
    "I'd still love to hear it." He laced his fingers together and leaned his chin upon them. I wanted to take a photo. 
    "Well, you know," I said, trying to sound as casual as I could. "Got out of school, went back into school, found out my degree wasn't worth much so now I'm just trying to pay off my student loans without going broke in the process." I put a hand to my forehead, knowing that I probably should have just lied and told him I was the teacher I'd gone to college to be and just worked at Kohl's during the summer.
    "I know a lot of people who are doing that," he said. "To be honest, I envy your survival skills. I had a safety net to keep me afloat when I got ripped off. You seem to be doing well in spite of how hard times have been for you." I turned a bright shade of pink. Or I assumed that I did. At this point, I wasn’t sure how much pinker I could get.  
    "If you don't mind me saying, you don't really seem like the sort of person who would have trouble finding a girlfriend. Why are you dating over the internet?"
    "Oh, this is embarrassing," he said. "You know the girl I was with when we were in high school?" I struggled with the memory, but he did always seem attached to some girl's hip. I nodded. "I thought she was the love of my life, you know? She stuck with me through everything until that agent ran off. Before then, we'd gotten a little used to having nice things. I was in a terrible rut soon after and she said she couldn't be around me if I wasn't going to support us both. So she left me. I'd been with her for so long that I guess I'd forgotten how to go out and find people to date, and then I got the crazy notion to start school. So I guess I got a little out of touch."
     Our food came then, and I was glad to have something to keep my mouth busy instead of feeble attempts at talking, but that didn't exactly ease my nerves. I was worrying constantly about whether or not I was being ladylike, or if I was chewing too loudly. 
    I’m a worrier. Its a thing that I do a lot. 
    Wine helped. Wine helped a lot. Eventually I managed to swallow my nerves and the two of us began talking about inane things and that was how I knew that my date had finally actually started. I still couldn't keep track of the conversation between the way he looked at me when I talked and smiled when he did. 
    Our meal finished and we headed for the door. I was rather sad that it was nearly over. This was the first date I'd had in awhile that I could have said that I had a good time. 
    "Would you like to go for a walk," he asked as the wooden door closed behind us. "It's a lovely night for it."
    Feeling oddly comfortable around him, I laughed. "If you keep talking to me like that, people are going to think you're a vampire or something." Alright, so maybe the second glass of wine might have been a bit much. He looked at me a little strange, like I'd offended him somehow. "It... sorry. It wasn't a very funny joke."
    "No, it... it was funny. I was just trying to figure out if you meant Interview With a Vampire or one of those sappy teen romance novels."
    I laughed. "Oh, Interview. Interview all the way, no question."
    He gave me that model's smile. "Good. As it happens, I left my body glitter at home." Oh my god: he was perfect. 
    We both laughed and he lead me away from the entrance of the restaurant. 
    I was no longer nervous; it was actually going well, for once. But I could not for the life of me shake the feeling that something was wrong. A lingering feeling that we weren't alone, and that something bad was about to happen very soon. 
    My eye twitched. Someone was watching us. 

 

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Rachel R. Vasquez

I've got to say right off the bat, I was intrigued to read this due to the well crafted synopsis. Trading bones, necromancy and cursed muffins? You got me.

I get the impression that Amy's meant to be a snobby character who looks down on others despite that she doesn't have a very glamorous life herself. I liked her humor though. And your writing is great. I like how you describe things without getting too hung up on small details. There are still some areas I feel like could use some trimming down, like the whole ramp up to her dinner date and during dinner where she's freaking out the whole time.

I also feel like in some areas, the dialogue was too formal. Even well educated people use contractions when they talk. I wouldn't expect people in conversations to always talk that formally unless they were from some noble royal bloodline, that type of thing.

Hope you don't mind the feedback. I like what I'm reading so far. Looking forward to reading onward. :-)

El AK

Love the update and when I read it, I was surprised. Well, when I read the part where she found it funny when Robert mentioned the twig to ward of against witchcraft or something and she just dismissed it as his sense of humor, somewhere in my mind I thought that it might be true but then again I totally disregarded the first part of the title.

The latest update really got me looking forward to your next update! I'm wondering about Brian's intention to go out with her. Is he really in love with her or not? I'm rather scared to find out because I was shipping Brian and Amy since the first chapter, LOL.

El AK

This was really good! I knew Brian would have a main lead in the story! Can't wait to read more!

Chapter 2

It really was a perfect night for a walk, or maybe it was just perfect because I was with him. But something about the moon being so high and so full and the cool breeze of the oncoming autumn made our walk through the park absolutely lovely. He lead me through the paved path by the crook of his elbow. I'm sure we must have looked like such an old-fashioned couple.
    All in all, it was a perfect date; those are words that I don't commonly put in that order. I felt comfortable enough to rest my head on his arm, and it simply seemed right to do so. 
    Perhaps it was the wine, but I didn't seem to realize when he put his arm around my waist. Or when the path began to turn a little dark. 
    Or when my feet were sweeping across the cool grass. 
    "So," he said, and though the lights were dim, it was easy to tell that he was smiling.  Grinning, I would say. An inkling at the back of my mind rose above the wine and  told me that something had gone amiss. No, something was wrong. I should let this be the end, and call him back next week. 
    "So," I replied, and there was no mistaking that I had apprehensions about what this sudden dark turn meant for me. I'm sure I knew. 
    "Now that we're alone," he continued with that horrible grin that I couldn't see. "How about we-"
    "Not on a first date," I said. The man was beautiful, inside and out, but I don't make exceptions for anyone. And the way the light glinted off his teeth made me want to leave. "This was fun. Let's do this again sometime." I began walking away, if only to save myself from the mixed feelings he gave me. 
    "Now hold on," he said, grabbing onto the collar of my dress. "I don't think you understand, Amy. That steak you horked down cost me $40." I could see his face now: still beautiful but now cast in shadows that made him seem like the kind of person who could do the worst. "Law school doesn't pay for itself, you know. I think I deserve a little more kindness in return."
    "Excuse you? You know what? Second date is off. I don't owe you anything." I tried to brush him off, but his nails dug into my shoulder. He pulled me backwards and pinned my back up to a tree. Immediately my hand dove into my purse for my pepper spray, but he stopped the nozzle with his palm. I kicked, but he didn't seem to move. His hand enclosed mine and I could feel my wrist go limp. The pepper spray fell to the ground and rolled under a massive oak leaf. 
    I drew a breath to yell for help, but he clasped a hand over my mouth. My tiny, kicking legs did little more than make it difficult to find a way to hold me down, and even that was not going to last much longer. I was not made for this kind of stamina. 
    "I'm going to take my hand off  your mouth," he said in that calm voice that only hours ago had made me nearly fall in love. "And if you make a single sound, I will not hesitate to kill you. Do you understand?" I nodded. "Good."
    He removed his hand from my mouth and I let out a blood-curdling scream. Somewhere in my ears I heard him say 'you fucking bitch' before he threw me hard upon the ground and my shrieking sputtered to a halt. The taste of blood graced my tongue as I realized I'd bitten it. I drew a breath for another scream, but he kicked me in the side. I skidded against the grass and my back cracked painfully against the roots of a tree. He moved quickly: much more quickly than you would think a prissy male model might be able to.  I tried to scream again, but my throat felt tight, hoarse. I coughed, trying to make any sound so that someone could find me, but all that came out were whimpers. He stood over me, that once gorgeous smile shining in the dark like an alarm, and he shook his head. 
    "You shouldn't have screamed, Amy," he said in that velvet voice. "You know what I'm going to have to do now."
    Inches from my face, hidden under a leaf, was the can of pepper spray. The crunch of leaves beneath his shoes resonated in my ears as he moved closer. Marcus leaned forward and put a hand on my throat to keep me from making another sound, to keep me from moving. He held his thumb directly over my jugular, and I had no doubt that those well-manicured nails of his could slice through my skin and rip it out if he needed to. 
    No, he didn't need to do anything. He only had to want to. My head began to feel dizzy simply at the notion that my life could end in the next few minutes. He crouched over me, and all I could see of him was teeth and those pale green eyes as I felt his free hand reach for the black covered buttons of my dress. 
    But by then I had already gotten ahold of the pepper spray. I depressed the trigger, delivering a long stream of caustic chemicals straight into his eyes.
    He howled in pain and as both his hands reached for his face I wiggled out and away from him. I had to run. I had to get out of there and find someone and escape. But the kick he'd delivered to my side had made it impossible for me to move without pain, and my legs still shook from fear. 
    The stinging in his eyes wouldn't distract him for long. He was already  steadying his steps and opening his puffed eyelids. 
    And then there was a series of bright flashes. Marcus hissed. He...hissed? I didn’t think about it too hard.
    Bewildered, I rubbed the spots from my eyes and tried to stand, but found myself lifted from the ground. I flailed my arms and legs without aim, thinking Marcus had recovered, but whomever they hit was not Marcus, who was screaming obscenities at the mysterious flashing lights. This person was softer somehow, warmer. And whoever they were, they could certainly run.
    The world whizzed by, and I couldn't make heads or tails of where I was going, or even if I should trust this person. I pounded my fist on his chest, trying to get him to let me go, but they held on tight, barreling through bushes as though they were mere weeds. 
    The next thing that I recalled clearly was being set into the back seat of a car. The seats, I could tell,  were once plush, but they'd been matted down with age and now only offered a small bit of comfort to my reeling head. The car started and it finally dawned on me that just because I was away from Marcus didn't mean that I was safe. I bolt upright, or tried to. In the end, my attempt to sit up probably looked more like I was trying not to puke; which was also true. A mumbling sound reached my ears, low and quiet. He was talking on his cell phone with someone. The words were fast, they were jumbled, and they were only barely audible beyond the roar of the engine. 
    My movements must have caught his eye. He looked at me from the rearview mirror, but I couldn't see much of him. "You alright back there," he asked. I stared at the reflection of his eyes: small, with heavy brows. They looked older than his voice would suggest. He glanced back at me for a moment before averting his eyes back to the road. "Say something Amy. Don't look at me like that."
    "How do you know who I am?" I still had my hand wrapped around the pepper spray just in case, though I soon came to the realization that blinding the person driving the car was just as much a death sentence as whatever he might have planned for me. His voice was familiar. I must have heard it sometime within the past few days. So who was he? I peered closer, trying to make sense of this spinning world. "Brian?" 
    I'd just been rescued from a failed date by a failed date. 
    "Its not what it looks like."
    "You'd better explain this now because it looks pretty fucking bad. Are you following me? You were following me you sick f-"
    "I wasn't following you," he interjected. 
    "You followed me while I was out on a date! What, were you jealous? 
    "I wasn't following you," he repeated urgently. "I was following him."
    This took awhile to process. And when it did process, I'm ashamed to admit that words failed me. "What?"
    "I was following your date, not you!" He sighed when he realized that I was having trouble understanding. "I'm a private investigator and let's just say he showed up on my radar for pulling the shit he did with you."
     I was silent for awhile as I let this process. The private investigator story was a little hard for me to buy, especially from a country bumpkin like Brian. Trying to picture him as a film noir gumshoe was hard to comprehend. "So that date you had with me... was that some kind of setup?"
    He sighed again. "No. That was a genuine date. I had no way of knowing that you were going to be his next target: honest!" He put his hand up as though he were a Boy Scout. "But you know how the site has a scrolling doo-bopper that shows you who updated their profile recently?" Yeah. Private investigators say things like 'doo-bopper.'  "I'd noticed his face showed up there a lot and something like that didn't seem right. So I kept an eye on him and it looked like every time he updated his profile it was like a complete do-over. Today he was a lawyer. Last week he was a doctor who's just moved here from California. Before that, he was on shore leave from the Navy. It was starting to look like he was tailoring his profile to fit certain people. 
    "Turns out that's exactly what he was doing. So I hired one of my hacker friends to get a transcript of his messages to find out where he was going to be next."
    He fell silent as though he was hiding a pang of guilt and I picked up on why that was. I may have been bewildered by what was going on, but I was not about to ignore the obvious.  "You knew I was his next target and you didn't SAY ANYTHING?" 
    He winced, and I'm glad that my words hurt him. I was mad. I didn't know who I was mad at anymore, but this seemed to be a legitimate outlet for my rage. He could have prevented it and he didn't. "I needed to catch him in the act," he said. "I needed proof that wasn't... quasi-illegal hacking I bought from some kid prodigy in Crawfordsville. Illegally-obtained evidence doesn't count in a court."
    "I was bait."
    "No, you weren't- ugh." 
    "Just how long were you waiting in the bushes? Would you have let him rape me if it meant getting the right lighting?"
    He made a frustrated groan and pulled the car off the road so he could look at me and talk at the same time. We were now out in the country, far enough away that if he wanted to he could just drop me on the side of the road if he were frustrated enough. I held the pepper spray in front of his face like a threat.  "Put that away," he said. I lowered it, but my finger was still on the nozzle. "If I'd had a choice in the matter, you wouldn't have gotten the chance to be his next victim. I'd have caught him sooner and you'd have never met him."
    "A bit late for that," I said. "We went to school together. Can't believe this is what he grew up to be. He used to seem so nice."
    He put a hand to his face. "You were never in school together."
    "Of course we were. I remember it like it was yesterday," I asserted. 
    "Amy," he said, pontificating with his hands. "You are a very smart woman, and I respect that, but you did not go to school together. He made a suggestion that you had, and your brain filled in the blanks. Did he tell you that he'd had a girlfriend, too?" I nodded. "Did he tell you what she looked like?" I shook my head. "But you probably have a mental image of a blonde girl about a head shorter than him with blue nail polish and very nice shoes."
    I furrowed my eyebrows. "How did you-"
    "Because I just did it to you, too. There was a hole in your memory, so I filled it with something that fit, and your brain did the rest." I must have sounded offended by the idea that I could be that easily manipulated. "Don't get me wrong: you're probably one of the smartest ladies I've ever met. But there are some people who can just smooth-talk their way into your head and no amount of smarts is gonna change the fact that they did it. Fact is, there's no record of him ever living here before one year ago."
    I was speechless, and I sat there with my mouth wide open while he played with my brain like a cat toy. 
    "I've called the cops," he said, turning around as if to say that he was done talking about it. "They'll probably call you in for questioning. You can refuse, but if you want to see this scumbag pay, its in your best interest to comply." Even though he was facing forward, I could still see his eyes through the rearview mirror. The expression of them was somewhere between pleading for forgiveness and concern. He seemed to be asking if I was okay, and the truth was that I was not. The very idea that I could have been so easily swayed to Marcus' plan was a huge blow to my ego. 
    It had just dawned on me that I would not have been able to fight back for long, not with how weak my legs were. They still shook, even if the danger had passed. 
    Oh god. I could have died. I really could have died.
    "You seem to be taking this... pretty well," Brian told me, and that was the moment I began crying. I was ashamed to do it in front of someone, and the fact that I was ashamed made me cry more until it compounded and welled up in me. I curled up on the back seat, facing away from him as though that would prevent him from seeing me like this even if it was impossible not to notice.  
    "Oh, no no no," I heard Brian say between my hyperventilating. He got out of the front seat and joined me in the back. He hovered for a few moments above me, unsure of what to do. I felt a warm hand on my shoulder. Not wanting any of his pity, I shrugged it off. He put his hands up as a sign of surrender. Even in my broken state, I could tell that he didn't know how to handle it when people were crying. 
    So he simply sat there, next to me, with his hands in his lap and waiting for me to calm down. It might have been minutes or it might have been hours, I couldn't tell. 
    "Everything is gonna be okay," he told me when my sobbing slowed. My head swam from crying, from trying to process the evening, from everything. I ventured a glance at him and tried to sit up, but I could only barely lift my head. He reached an arm towards me and asked "May I?" I nodded and he pulled me close. 
    "God, I can't fucking believe it," I said. "I should have known better. Ugh. I feel like such an idiot."
    He gave my arm a squeeze. "You don't need to be feeling like that, Amy. You just made a mistake is all. Its the kind of mistake any person would have made and its none of your fault he's a jackass. And he's gonna get it for what he did, too. Just you wait and see. Tell ya what, though." He paused and I looked up at him. He smiled. "You were a wizard with that pepper spray."
    I shook my head. "No, I shouldn't have tried. He said he'd kill me if I screamed, but I screamed anyway. I should have just let him do it. I should have just-"
    "No, no no. Amy, you did the right thing," he cooed. "I mean, even if you didn't scream, he was prolly gonna kill you anyway." I started sobbing again. "Okay, so forget I said that part. Point is that you got him right in the face. That shit is going to burn him. I think he mighta been blistering."
    "I scarred him, you mean?"
    He smiled. "You did. I've never seen someone get burned that fast."
    "That's pretty fitting, I think." 
    We were silent for awhile, as my hands slowly steadied. "So this... private investigator thing," I said after awhile. "Is that why you made up that stuff about hunting? So I wouldn't know?"
    He laughed again. He seemed to do that a lot, even when things were tense. "No, no. I didn't make any of that up. I really am an odd-jobbist and a hunter. The detective thing is another one of those things I picked up so that when its not hunting season or no one needs me to do yard work, I can advertise myself as a PI. I found out you don't really need any kind of qualifications to get the license: just connections. And seeing as I do jobs for a lot of different folks around here, I already had plenty of connections. Gonna say it straight out, though: I'm not exactly the best PI out there. Really not the kind of work I like to do. I don't advertise myself as one much, so unless something catches my eye, I don't see any point in investigating."
    "That's a little flattering that I was one of the things that caught your eye," I said.
    "Really?"
    I shrugged and held a small space between my fingers. "A little."
    He chuckled. I couldn't tell by the lights, but its possible he might have turned a little pink. "I should get you home," he said. I nodded. "Do you think you can stand? The front seat is probably more comfortable."
    "I can try."
    He let me go and met me on my side to help me out and back in again. I could walk now, but my legs still felt weak and my head still reeled. 
    With the exception for directions on how to get to my house, the ride was fairly quiet. I found myself almost falling asleep to the sound of the engine, waking up only when the squeal of the brakes reached my ears. He helped me out of the car one more time and walked me up to my apartment. 
    I was reminded, briefly, of how much of a gentleman Marcus had been at first, and Brian's fixation on making me comfortable made me nervous again. I told him not to fuss over me and he let go. 
    "If you need anything," he said, fishing through his pockets and drawing out a white card. "Give me a phone call. If you just need someone to talk to, okay?" 
    I took it from him and smiled. "Thank you," I said as he walked away. I was still smiling as he left. 

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Chapter 3

My Saturday was amass with mixed feelings. Everything just seemed very numbing.  I tried very hard to concentrate on stocking shelves, on changing price tags, on scanning items, on folding median priced tops for women more shapely than me. But my brain was in a fog. My sleep had been interrupted several times by nightmares, to the point where I was getting more rest while awake than I was with my eyes closed. During the night I watched terrible television to rest my mind, surfed the Internet in search of someone to talk to and finding no one. I didn't want to bother any of my friends who might be sleeping with my stupid decisions. I flagged Marcus' profile as a sex offender, so I suppose that was one productive thing I did. I had so many thoughts in my brain that I needed to write down, but when it came to pen and paper there was nothing there. 
    Where would I even begin?
    So I watched television. I surfed the web. I waited for 9 am so I could go to work. 
    I didn't want to be at work. I didn't want to be around people. I thought I'd understood what people were supposed to be like before, but now... now that had all changed. I was seeing a potential threat in every person that passed me. Every co-worker, every stranger. And I told myself that this was silly, this was stupid. That just because one man had persuaded me into thinking exactly what he wanted me to did not mean that every person was out to get me. 
    So instead I thought of Brian, who was dull with words but full of heart. How could a date that I had deemed a failure leave that much of an impression on him, I would never understand. Rejection usually has the opposite effect on men. 
    Of course, I reminded myself, he really could have stepped in any time and taken me away from there. And that made me feel bitter, that finding evidence was more important than preventing me from ever going in the first place. 
    But... would I have listened? Or would I have just thrown him off as jealous, thinking that he was crazy enough to sabotage my next date? I looked back on the situation that had never happened: he would contact me and tell me not to. I would refuse to listen, even after he pleaded with me. And he would stand there, on the sidewalk, hoping that I changed my mind as I walked away. 
    Would he have come and helped me then?
    I cursed this theoretical stubborn self. 
    I was glad that he was there. That was all it came down to. I was glad that he'd been there to rescue me. 
    Oh god, when you put it like that it made me sound so pathetic. Rescue me? I could have taken care of myself. I was sure of it. If he hadn't kicked me in the stomach I would have been able to kick his ass, no contest. And I'd been doing well with that pepper spray until he knocked it out of my hand. 
    The idea that I'd left him partially disfigured filled me with sadistic glee. He'd certainly scarred me enough. Maybe I'd left him blind in one eye. There was no way he could refute that in court. Not with his face all messed up. 
    Yeah, I did good. 
    But I was glad Brian was there. 
    I kept coming back to that. I kept coming back to Brian, and how I would not have made it out of there alive without him. How even if I had managed to escape, how long would my shaking legs have taken me before Marcus came and slit my throat? 
    How long until they would have found my body, I asked myself as I folded a burgundy shirt. Would they have ever found it, I continued as I rearranged clearance priced earrings on the jewelry rack. 
    I shook my head, causing a nearby customer to offer me a concerned look. No... this wasn't productive at all. The cops had been called. He was going to jail. More of his victims would probably come out of the woodwork now to testify. There was no doubt that this would be wrapped up. I was safe. I was safe. 
    I was safe because of Brian. 
    I kept checking my watch. I wasn't sure why. There was nothing for me at home and I would be doing the same thing there as I was here. Just worrying, pondering, speculating, and then worrying again. The difference was only that there would be less people around to hide my tears from. 
    When four-o-clock rolled around, I was out the door as fast as I could run on tired feet. 
    I needed to talk to someone before my head exploded. There were only two people in my life that I could talk to about personal things like this. I took a seat on my economy-priced couch and reluctantly pulled out my cell phone, deciding that it didn't matter if calling them would be a bother. Finally convincing myself that this was something that I could count on my friends for, I began scrolling through my contacts list. I called Lucia first and left a voicemail. Sandra showed up at my door before I could even hang up, ringing the doorbell just once as though it weren't worth the effort to do it twice. 
    "So," she said as soon as I opened the door, greeting me with dark sunglasses and the smell of hairspray. Her blonde hair gave her an extra inch of height. "Run into some trouble, have you?"
    "Could you at least wait until Lucia gets here," I asked her. "I'd rather not have to go through it twice."
    "That bad, huh?"
    "That bad," I said, eyes downcast. "Just have a seat and get comfortable while she gets here." Sandra was easily a decade older than me and put on this air of someone who didn't care about anything that wasn't directly related to her and her needs. I don't know how she managed to be a travel agent with an attitude like hers, but she made a killing off of it. I wished I could have her confidence. 
    "So how did your date go last night," she asked. Any normal person would find it strange that she would know about it without having been told anything about it, but Sandra simply seemed to know things and I had learned to get used to it. 
    I put a hand to my forehead. "That's kind of what this is about."
    "Oh," she said. Then she looked at my face. "OH! You're kidding me-"
    "Hellooooo," Lucia said, coming in without knocking. "I got your message. What's going on?" She had a wide smile across her face and I felt like it almost mocked me. That was the face she always had, though. She almost always wore this giant, genuine smile; a perfect foil to the cynical Sandra. 
    "Amy almost got killed by a psychopath she met online," Sandra interjected.
    "What?"
    "Excuse me, are you going to let me tell it or not?"
    "I'm sorry, dear. Go ahead." She leaned back in the reclining chair as if it was boring the way I was going to tell it. 
    Lucia took a seat on the mostly unused sofa. "So tell me what happened!"
    "I met this guy online," I said. "And he seemed so sweet and smart at first, you know?" The hem of my shirt was in my hands and I was twisting the fabric nervously. "I mean... he was kind of gorgeous, and he told me he'd gone to college. I..." I turned to Lucia. "Do you remember a guy who went to school with us? Tall fella with curly brown hair and really pretty, green eyes? Was on the swim team?"
    She turned her heart-shaped head to the side and scrunched up her face as she thought. The short, pixie cut she wore her hair in bounced wistfully as she seemed to search her brain for a proper response. Eventually she shook her head. "No... doesn't ring any bells."
    "You're sure? You didn't see him at any of your brother's meets?"
    She shook her head again. "Unless I'm only remembering the time that they all shaved their heads, I think I'd remember someone like that. There was only like... ten of them."
    I felt like a moron at that, and I looked back down at the hem of my shirt, which would have to be ironed before I went back to work with the way that I was twisting it in my hands. "He lied to me and told me that we went to high school together. I guess I just... I guess I just liked him so much that I wanted to believe his lies." I dug my elbows into my knees and buried my face in my hands. "After dinner we went out on a walk and he...he said that if I didn't let him, if I made any noise he was going to kill me."
    Lucia's hands went straight to her mouth to stifle a gasp. Sandra leaned back in my recliner, crossing her legs and looking as though she should have a martini in one hand. "I'll tell you what I think you should do about it," she said in a bland manner that showed you she really cared. 
    "Sandra, now is not the time," Lucia retorted, pulling me into a comforting hug. 
    "I'm just saying that if there was ever a reason to-" Sandra furrowed her eyebrows as if something was wrong but just couldn't put her finger on it. Soon after, there was a knock at the door. 
    "Amy, its me," said a muffled voice through the door. It was Brian. Through my tears I smiled a little. "Is it alright if I come in?"
    "The door's open," called a very well-meaning Lucia, her cheerful voice resembling a flute. 
    The door swung open and he came in, looking a little shocked to be greeted with three ladies instead of just myself. "Oh, I'll come back some other time," he said. 
    "No... no, stay," I said. "Its nothing you didn't see last night." I glanced up at Sandra. She was staring at Brian as though he might try to steal the furniture. 
    "Yeah, we're just having a little pow-wow, us ladies. Talking about our periods and the like," she said. She had a tendency to judge harshly people she had not met yet. The fact that I had been allowed in her little inner circle of friends was meant to be a compliment, but I think its possible she simply would have rather had me where she could see me. 
    "I just wanted to uh... let you know that they caught Marcus," he said, scratching the back of his neck idly. "Turns out his name is actually Michael. He was still in the park when the police showed up, trying to get that pepper spray out of his eyes." I smiled proudly at my accomplishment. "They'll still probably call you in for questioning, but its not likely they're gonna hold much of a trial since you burned him pretty bad and there's plenty of proof. Gotta say, though, I've never seen pepper spray burn someone that bad. You must've got him while you were real close." He looked up at the three of us sheepishly. 
    "Oh," I said, wiping my eyes. "Lucia, Sandra, this is Brian. He... saved me." Saying it like that sounded embarrassing. "That is... he... um..."
    "I was passing by and heard her screaming, so when she distracted him with the pepper spray I got her out of there and called the cops."
    "Oh my gosh! You're so brave," Lucia said to him, beaming. 
    "I really don't know what I would have done if he hadn't been there," I said. "He probably saved my life." He turned a bright shade of pink at that. Sandra was still squinting at him. 
    "Well, I should... I should go," he stammered. "I've got a couple yards to take care of. I just wanted to let you know and... and you know. See if you were doing alright."
    "I'm... I'm doing well," I said. "Thank you." I smiled and he smiled back before leaving. 
    "I'll see you later," he said as he left. I stared at the door for a lot longer than I probably intended to. Lucia sidled up to me again and gave me a friendly squeeze.
    "Ooooh... I see. Your prince dashed in to save you just at the last minute. How romantic." She got this dreamy look in her big, brown eyes, as though she had just witnessed a fairy tale. 
    "Its... oh, no it isn't like that at all," I insisted. "We're just friends."
    Lucia nodded sardonically. "Uh-huh... I believe you, hon."
    "He's not your type," Sandra insisted, staring at the door. "He's too... rustic for your tastes. You're better off finding someone else anyhow."  
    "You don't know what my type even is," I told her. 
    "Not that," she said, pointing in the direction of the door. "What was that he said? Yards to do? Does he... mow lawns for a living?"
    It was terribly embarrassing when she put it that way. And looking back to just a few days ago I probably would have thought the same thing. I busied myself by wiping a bit of dust of the coffee table. "He's... a landscaper. He does a lot of different things for money is all. It doesn't mean he isn't a genuinely nice guy."
    Sandra laughed. "A nice guy? A NICE GUY? Oh, honey. That's really cute and all, but I think you and I both know that's an oxymoron. If last night was any indication, you should really stop looking for nice guys. They'll feel like you owe them."
    "You stop that right now, Cassandra," Lucia interjected. "The man saved her life, for Christ's sake. I think he deserves to be called a nice guy. And you can't blame Amy much for falling for him when he's been taking this good care of her-"
    "I'm serious, guys. He's just a friend," I insisted. "I mean, we went on that one date once, but-"
    "Ooooo," Lucia cooed, her demeanor flipping a one-eighty. "A daaaate. Was it a good date? Did he bring you flowers? What's he like when he's not saving you from peril?" She was bouncing up and down on the couch like an excited toddler, and I had to pull away from her because the amount of crying I'd done in the past twenty-four hours had given me a migraine already and she was making me motion-sick. 
    "Lucia, please," I said. "I'm really not in the mood. Can we just leave it at that he's a good man? I think after last night I don't foresee myself even thinking about going on any more dates."
    "Oh, I know, honey," she said, pulling me closer in again and stroking my hair. "You know I'm just trying to lighten the mood a little. But he did say that fella was going to jail, didn't he? Everything is gonna be okay, it looks like."
    I put my head on her shoulder. "I just can't believe I fell for it. I'm smarter than this. I should have seen it coming. But he was so good-looking..."
    "See, this is what you get for looking for men online." Sandra, of course. She had stopped staring at the door for now and recrossed her legs, shifting as though Brian had made her terribly uncomfortable. "Or looking for men at all, really. You should just do what I do and let them come to you."
    "I wasn't born with your natural charisma, Sandra," I retorted. "I'm just not going to bother with men for awhile." Lucia's eyes lit up, hopeful. "No, that's not what I meant."
    "You know I'm just joking, silly." She eyed the kitchen. "Darling, have you eaten at all since last night?" I shook my head. "I'll make you some lunch." I smiled as she let go of me. 
    Lucia had been my friend since I was in middle school. She had a family that extended out to the horizon, and even now at the age of twenty-seven she still had siblings that were going through high school. When she said that her brother was on the swim team, she meant that it was the brother that she was closest in age to. The oldest siblings ended up being more like parents to the younger ones. Sleepovers were always at my house because more often than not she needed a night away from the constant noise. 
    She had since detached herself from her family,  but even if her experience with eight (and ever-growing) siblings had left her vowing never to have children, she still carried some of that motherly instinct. She passed it on to me instead. Today I was grateful for it. There was no way I would have been able to take care of myself without help. 
    Sandra was a different story entirely, but that was Sandra in a nutshell. I passed her office one day on the way to work and I only barely noticed her head turning to follow me as I walked down the street. When she was done trying to figure me out, she tapped me on the shoulder and told me that I looked interesting. When I told her that she must be mistaken and that I had all the intrigue of vanilla yogurt, she insisted that I was in fact very interesting and gave me her business card. 
    She called me several days later, even though I'd never given her my phone number, explaining that she'd found it through Google. That's just the way that Sandra was, as I soon found out. There was no reason to ever have to tell her anything: she already seemed to know. 
    These were my only  two friends. Though Sandra was harsh at times with her words, she was a proper sharp contrast to Lucia's tendency to coddle me. Sometimes you needed both. 
    "I'll tell you what, though," Sandra said, snapping me out of my daze. "You be careful with that Brian boy. Something just isn't right about him. I can't put my finger on it, but he's a little strange. You be careful."
    "There is nothing wrong with Brian," I said, sinking back into the couch. The sound of Lucia's fussing around in the kitchen was almost peaceful. "You just don't like him because he looks like a lumberjack. He's really very sweet. And besides: I don't plan on doing anything with him anyhow. He's just a friend." 
    "For now he's just a friend, but I know how you like to get your head wrapped around ideas. You be careful with him."
    I sighed heavily as I gave up. Arguing with Sandra was impossible given that she was almost invariably never wrong. But the way her eyes seemed to trail off towards the door, the way she kept staring at the space he'd occupied long after he'd left; it made me wonder what exactly I needed to be careful about. But it was no use asking her what she meant. I'd learned long ago that asking her to expound upon specific feelings was a fruitless endeavor. 
    -
    They called me in for questioning several days later, asking me to relive Friday night in excruciating detail. Brian's photos were laid out in front of me on a cheap fold-up table in a bare room with two-way mirrors and I insisted that they didn't need any more proof, but it was no use. They wanted the whole story. From behind their thick mustaches, they asked me every question you might think of: how did I meet Michael? What might I have done to provoke an attack? What was Brian doing there? But it was all very simple: Marcus... or Michael, or whatever his name was... he was a creep and he deserved all the jail time he got.
    And looking at the fierce expression on my face in those photos was proof enough for me that I was stronger than I gave myself credit for. My lips were snarled like a wild animal and my hands were claws. It wasn't pretty at all, and that was good. I didn't care if I looked pretty while I gave him Hell: I wanted to look like I could take a bite out of him. People would see this photo and know that I was not someone to be messed with, if they ever let them see the light of day. 
    I got the feeling by the end of it that they had already made their decision: he was going to burn. I took great pleasure in the fact that it was because of me, and I smiled perhaps a little too widely when they said that I could leave. 
    They let me go and gave me the same warning that everyone else had given me that week: be careful with online dating. I nodded and thanked them, knowing full well that my decision about dating anyone in the future was going to be put on indefinite hold. 
    I think that I was okay with that. I didn't need a man to be happy. This whole desperation thing was just something I'd persuaded myself I needed. I was just fooling myself into thinking that I needed to get married. I could get by without a man. I was so done with dating. I could fill my apartment with cats. 
    It still was a blow to my ego, though, that I was quickly approaching thirty and I was running out of people in town that qualified as 'husband material.'
    As I walked down the steps of the police station, I was accosted by a bouquet of daisies. I stopped, knowing that it was Brian holding them I smiled. 
    "I know its probably a little soon for this," he said. "But do you wanna try another date? We can call the last one practice if you want." He was blushing so hard I thought his face might melt. 
    Truthfully, so was I. "Well, I mean," I began. "I don't exactly have a good history with dates. My last one ended up in jail, you know." He smiled at that. You know, for as average looking as he'd looked on our date, he sure did have a nice smile. It was smallish, it was sheepish. I'm sure that Sandra would have described him as being like a puppy dog. 
    I think I liked puppy dogs. I could be a dog person, too. 
    That was a very short dating hiatus. 
    "Let's try for this Friday," I said, and it looked to me like he might faint. Wow, did he really like me that much? I don't think I'd ever encountered someone who was this head over heels for me. "6:00? We'll try that little cafe again. I think I've had my fill of expensive dates for awhile."
    "Friday it is, then," he said, and we parted, me still holding the daisies like they were precious little things.

 

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