thanks to those of you who have read and liked the first part of my short story, simulacrum. below are parts the second and third of my melodrama-meets-mystery-meets-tragedy. enjoy!
simulacrum (part II)
Frank was sitting at the dining table, photographs spread all around him. He held each one gingerly as he sifted through the piles, taking care not to smudge them. The prints were fairly well organized by year, but he was looking for one in particular. He wanted to blow it up and frame as a present for Octavia; it was their twentieth anniversary, and finding china was just not his cup of tea. Maybe he could take the modern route and find a platinum frame? He chuckled at the thought.
“Did you find something funny there, Frank?” She had come up behind him, breaking his moment of introspection. Octavia rested her chin on his head, her hand skimmed his right shoulder as she reached down. She came away with an older picture, one that was hidden in the stack near his arm. It was sepia-toned and a bit faded: Three children standing side-by-side. The two older girls stared directly at the camera, their mouths upturned in prepared smiles. The third, a toddler, had turned to face the sister on her left, her head tilted back, eyes squeezed shut with laughter. They all wore what looked like matching Sunday dresses and white lace trimmed socks, shiny black shoes. Frank could feel Octavia tense as her left hand gripped his shoulder, the fingers digging almost painfully into his clavicle.
“I love that picture of your cousins, ‘Via,” Frank said, gently releasing her hand from his shoulder and pulling her down so her chin found a place in the crook of his neck. He could feel her soft breath, quick with anxiety, as she relinquished the photograph and let it fall to the table. “But I know it troubles you, so let’s put it away. I was looking for our wedding picture, do you think you can help me find it?”
She kissed his cheek as he slid his chair a little further from the table to accommodate her on his lap. Her curly hair brushed his nose and he breathed in her comforting smell. For the next few minutes he allowed her to look, contented to take a break as she searched, listening to her running commentary about why did they have so many photos of trees and who was that person in that photo and could they just toss out the blurry ones.
“We can’t toss any of them, doll,” Frank grabbed her around the waist and squeezed gently, “because you would have nothing to remember me by when I’m gone and you’re a crotchety old granny telling her grandchildren about their ridiculous harabeoji who could never take a focused photo.”
“Ah, yes,” she laughed, and then “Eureka! Here it is, buried beneath thirty blurry ones, a photo most definitely not taken by you!” She waved it in his face triumphantly, her teeth white against the blushed-brown of her lips. She stood up abruptly, turned around, made as if to hand him his prize, and then stopped. “I require a fee,” she smirked, pointing to her cheek, “and you must pay up!” Frank kissed her quickly, grabbing at the memento held just out of his reach. Octavia relented, muttering that she expected a richer reward.
“You’ll get your just desserts this evening,” he teased, shooing her away, “But now I’ve got some business to which I must attend before the kids get home.” Octavia gave him the side-eye as she sauntered to the kitchen. When the door closed behind her, Frank let out a sigh. He had some planning to do, and very little time before evening. He was so preoccupied that he didn’t notice that the photo of the three little girls was gone.
Annette meticulously followed the instructions she had received; no one could describe her way of completing tasks as anything but meticulous. Even when the tears in her eyes made a blurry wash of her computer screen, she managed to efficiently find and purchase the most reasonable ticket from Minneapolis to Boston. Snow had just started to fall, and Annette was convinced that this time it would stick to the ground and cover the cars with thick shrouds by morning. She felt a mild irritation that she would have to wait for the taxi in knee-deep drifts at 6 AM. She wrapped her fringed shawl more tightly around her shoulders and took a sip of tea as she blinked back her emotions. Annette was all business now, and read the flight and hotel rules carefully before entering her credit card information.
* * *
From a café across the street from his office building, Annette watched him as she sipped her tea. She hadn’t bothered to remove her coat or get too comfortable, but her gloves and phone lay within easy reach on the hardwood table. She had been watching all morning as he sat in his window office on the third floor, and had been lulled into a reverie. Her mind was momentarily calmed by the smells of coffee beans and foamed milk, and she closed her eyes. The sound of the bell above the door alerted her to the fact that her mark, a man named Mr. Hahn, was entering the café and she was still inside; this was not part of her plan. But it was too late to do anything, she would just have to wait and see what happened.
At first, Hahn walked up to the counter, lost in his cell phone, probably checking his email or text messages. He made his order and stood off to the side as he waited, massaging his neck absentmindedly. Annette looked out of the window.
“Is this seat taken?” Suddenly, Hahn was there, looking down at her, his black hair falling into his dark brown eyes. He smiled, his hands gripping the back of the chair as he pulled it out.
“No, knock yourself out.”
“Thanks.” Hahn sat down, placing his ceramic cup on the table across from her paper one. Annette gathered her gloves and phone, preparing to take up her position somewhere in the nearby park so that she could continue her mission. “Please, don’t leave–you haven’t finished your drink,” Hahn looked concerned as he touched her hand lightly, with an uncalled-for familiarity. Annette pulled away, but didn’t move. She sighed and quickly weighed her options; if she left, she might just run into him again, but if she stayed, she could revise her approach to the job she had to do. She was prepared for this possibility, but now she had to switch gears on the fly. She took a breath and smoothed her features as she looked him squarely in the eyes.
“Okay, why not? Strange man, strange city, I’ll take a chance,” she gave him a skeptical look as she removed her coat and hat, “As long as you can assure me that I’ll leave here in one piece.” Hahn’s eyes revealed his bewilderment at her statement, but when he realized she was joking, he relaxed.
And in that moment, when she laughed with her mouth slightly open, when blushed-brown lips revealed straight white teeth, he was assaulted by a wave of nostalgia and shock. Luckily she didn’t notice, he thought, so he gulped his coffee to recover.
“Well, since we’ll be sharing a table for the next ten minutes, might as well introduce myself,” Hahn held out his warm right hand to take her cool one. “I’m Frank.”
“I’m Annette.” She smiled again, and his heart and stomach flipped in a way Frank didn’t believe possible after almost five years.
It was lucky that Frank was the boss, otherwise the ten minutes that turned into two hours would have lost him his job. Annette had ordered another tea and a sandwich, and he had consumed two more cups of coffee before finally looking at his watch and realizing that it was almost time to head home. Joanie would be back from practice and the boys had promised to stop by for Friday dinner and he still had to go shopping.
“I’m sorry, but I really should go,” Annette started to gather her things, reaching into her purse for her card case. “I know it’s old fashioned, but I still carry a business card. I’d love to meet up again sometime.” She gave him her best smile as he took the proffered card and glanced at her information.
“You’re new here in Boston, I’d be happy to show you some of the sights worth seeing. But more likely, I’d end up taking you to watch basketball at my favorite bar.” Frank laughed nervously as he found his own card. He was self conscious and aware that his ears felt hot and the heat spread to his cheeks. Annette touched his hand.
“Well I can’t say that I enjoy basketball, but I’ve never been known to turn down a beer. Please call me.” Like a wintry breeze, she hurried out of the café, inventing an urgent errand to hasten her departure. Once outside and a few blocks away, she leaned against a brick building and cried.