J. M. Zuniga
I ran my fingers along my brand new, black, Dolce and Gabbana Jackie Dress. The sensation of expensive fabric underneath my skin melted me. The dress was classy, yet it hugged my body nicely. I picked up one of my black suede shoes and admired it. Although they weren’t my first choice for this outfit, they would have to do. I pulled the shoe up to my face and rubbed my cheek on it, but instead of feeling soft, it felt leathery and moist. I flinched at the strange sensation. Even though it didn’t feel like it should, I couldn’t stop rubbing the shoe on my cheek. Then, there it was.
I groaned as the image of me wearing my beautiful thirteen hundred-dollar dress fizzled into nothingness. Recognition of my often obnoxious five-year old Golden Retriever dragged me back into reality, kicking and screaming.
“Naples, stop,” I grumbled while he licked my face, trying to get me to open my eyes.
As usual, Naples continued with his daily routine, ignoring my requests. Every morning, without fail, he would get out of his fluffy brown doggy bed, jump onto my queen sized pillow-top mattress, and begin to lick my face. He wouldn’t stop until he had my full attention, after which he would sit and stare at me with his head cocked to the side and his tongue hanging out.
I tried to recapture the image of me wearing my dream dress; however, Naples wasn’t having it. The licking continued for a few more minutes before he began to alternate it with nudges. I knew I was on the losing end of this battle. There was nothing left to do but surrender to my furry friend and open my eyes to receive the first rays of daylight.
Six in the morning was not my ideal time to wake up, but it was necessary if I wanted to remain employed. I would get up at ten, if it were up to me. Mornings and I became bitter enemies after I found myself working the graveyard shift in the shipping department of V-Pak Industries. My body had become accustomed to being up all night and sleeping until noon. Now that I had ascended in the ranks of the company and had to get up early, it was like pulling my own teeth—without anesthesia.
I let out a heavy sigh and tossed off my down comforter. I figured it was like a Band-Aid, rip it off quick and get it over with. Surprisingly, the room temperature wasn’t as cold as I had thought it would be. I sat down and rubbed the sleep out of my eyes while Naples ran back and forth, wagging his tail. He was ready for me to let him out into the yard. The moment my feet touched the floor, I realized I had the same necessity to go, too.
I ran out of the room and down the hall to the back of the house. After fidgeting with the door, while hopping from one foot to the other, I managed to unlock it to let Naples out. Leaving the door slightly ajar so he could get back in, I ran back down the hall and into the bathroom to do my business. The toilet seat was cold enough to make me jump up before sitting back down again.
“Gwyneth?” I heard a female voice call from the back door. “Hon?”
“I’m in the bathroom, Shirley,” I shouted to my over-friendly neighbor.
I had met Shirley the day I moved into the neighborhood. She made herself known by peering into the kitchen window and scaring the living daylights out of me. Once I had recovered from my initial fright, I slid the window open and asked her if I could be of assistance. She introduced herself and let me know she was head of the neighborhood watch group on this street. Ever since that day, two years ago, she has been at my back door every morning, inviting herself in.
“You know you really shouldn’t leave the back door open like this!” she shouted back.
I rolled my eyes as I flushed the toilet. Shirley was always fearing the worst. I knew I had excellent protection, Naples. He could be intimidating in attack mode. Once, at my old house, an inebriated neighbor came on to me at a birthday dinner I was having for a friend of mine. I pushed him off, but he was insistent. Naples saw me trying to get away. Within seconds, his teeth had a strong grip on the man’s arm trying to pull him away.
I opened the bathroom door and walked toward the kitchen where I knew Shirley would be, drinking coffee. “I’m serious about the back door. I mean, what if Naples was to wander off looking for a female in heat. You would be without any protection, leaving yourself exposed.”
“Okay, okay. I’ll make sure I close the door next time.”
“And lock it.”
I poured myself some coffee and then gave her a small nod as I brought the cup up to my lips. I knew, if I didn’t give in, I would hear a twenty-minute lecture while I got ready. Now, I would only have to hear a ten minute lecture on the importance of safety.
Shirley droned on, between sips of coffee, about how I was young and beautiful and how rapists and serial killers looked for those things. I knew for a fact that it was utter nonsense. Most rapist and serial killers looked for opportunity, not beauty. I didn’t contradict her, though. If she felt better thinking she was educating me, who was I to stop her.
Shirley was in her late sixties, but she was healthier than a lot of forty-year-old women. Her hair was a different color every month. This month, it was a shade of pink matching the anti-diarrhea liquid I had in my medicine cabinet. She was wearing a skin-tight, mustard colored running suit with stone encrusted flip-flops. She had hot pink acrylic nails long enough to have their own zip code. Her toenails were painted to match. Shirley’s appearance could attract attention on its own, but if that failed, she also wore plenty of rings and earrings to pay my house mortgage for a year.
“I’m not sure,” I said hesitantly. I had become so accustomed to drowning her lectures out, but I knew better than to commit to anything.
“Well, okay. I’ll let him know.”
I wracked my brain to figure out who and what she was talking about. Then, I remembered. She had wanted to set me up on a blind date with her nephew. “You know I hate blind dates. And then there’s work.”
I was always able to put things off with work. Everyone knew I worked long hours and that I was practically married to my job.
“Speaking of work, are you still getting those gifts from your mystery guy?” she asked.
I was already headed down the hall, toward my room, so I could get ready for work. “Yeah.”
Shirley’s flip-flops slapped against her heels as she followed me. “What did you get this week?”
“A snow globe with the Eiffel Tower. Maybe he wants to take me to Paris.”
“Or bury you there.”
I picked up one of my smaller decorative pillows from the floor and tossed it at Shirley. “Why are you always so negative? Not everyone is out to kill,” I said after I slipped on my twenty-three dollar dress and fifteen-dollar shoes I had bought from my local mall.
In an instant, Shirley aged twenty years. Sadness filled her eyes. She sighed and said, “I’ve never told you this, but I guess it’s time I do, so you can understand why I’m so adamant about safety.”
I looked at her through the mirror while I put on my make-up. It wasn’t only to multitask; it was also because I didn’t want to look directly at her. The expression on her face told me what she was about to explain would be sad or intense. I listened to what she had to say as I lined my cerulean blue eyes with black eyeliner.
“Thirty-five years ago, I was renting an apartment with my sister. I had just lost my husband in a tragic car accident.”
“I’m sorry for your loss,” I said.
She waved a dismissive hand. “It was a long time ago. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I have my moments. But that’s not what this conversation is about. During the time I lived with my sister, we became tighter than what we already were growing up. We went everywhere and did everything together. One day, I decided to go out on a date. She didn’t feel like being a third wheel. No matter how much I insisted, she refused to go. The entire night, I felt uneasy. I tried to have fun, but I couldn’t get rid of the nagging feeling in my gut.”
“It wasn’t nerves from going out on a first date?” I asked while I brushed my chestnut brown hair into a French twist.
“It’s what I thought, at first. But then I decided to excuse myself and call home. After calling twice and no one answering the phone, I knew something had to be very wrong. I asked my date to take me home and he complied. When we arrived at the apartment, I noted how all of the lights were off. This was very out of the ordinary. My sister and I always left at least one light on, even when we went out, to make it appear as though someone was home. I went to open the front door, but it wouldn’t budge, so I went around to the back patio. It was when I saw the sliding glass door partially open. I decided it would be better to call the police. I was certain my sister had to have gone out and someone had broken in, taking advantage of the fact that we were both gone.”
“Hey, Shirley. I hate to interrupt. Can you finish telling me while I warm up the car? Otherwise, I’ll be late.”
“Okay,” she answered.
She followed me into the garage after I made sure everything was locked.
“Please, continue,” I said.
“Well, the police came and entered to check if everything was alright. It wasn’t. An officer came out to let me know I couldn’t go in the house. I wondered why, but then I overheard him say crime scene investigation and coroner. Right then, I knew something had happened to my sister. I fought to get in, but they wouldn’t let me. She had been strangled and mutilated.”
I gasped and brought my hand to my mouth. I couldn’t believe it. “Oh my gosh, Shirley. I am truly sorry.”
She shook her head and I could see moisture in her eyes. “Now you understand why I am so adamant about being safe?”
“Okay, now get going or you’ll be late.”
I gave her a hug and then got into my car so I could go to work. Shirley exited the garage after the car was out, so I pushed the button on the control, closing the door.
The entire way to work, I thought of poor Shirley. No wonder she was always on my ass about locking my doors. Although I had no intentions of becoming paranoid, I would at least lock the door so she could have peace of mind.
I couldn’t imagine the pain she must have gone through. I had no family. I had been in the foster care system from the time I was born and was shuffled from house to house, so I hadn’t formed any bonds. Once I had turned eighteen, I was ushered out the front door with my belongings and the money I had saved from working, one-thousand five-hundred eighty-seven dollars and thirty-two cents.
I arrived at V-Pak with a few minutes to spare. My usual parking spot was occupied, so I had to park in the last row. Everyone knew the spot next to Larry’s was mine. Larry was the CEO at V-Pak and I was his personal assistant. Every personal assistant to the top executives had a parking spot right next to their boss. Oh, things are not going to be pretty when I find you, you parking thief.
I got out of the car and marched toward the building, determined to let someone have a piece of my mind. I walked in through the front glass doors of the modern mirrored building and approached Camilo, the security guard, only giving him a small nod. I was usually more polite, but I was pissed off.
“You don’t look too happy this morning, Gwyneth,” he said with a concerned look on his face.
“Camilo, can you find out who’s in my parking spot? I had to park in the last row and now I’m late.”
“Sure. Hold on,” he replied.
“No, I have to go clock in. Just ask them to move,” I instructed. “Please.”
“No problem, Gwyneth.”
I walked down the carpeted hall, toward reception. Caroline, the main receptionist, greeted me with a raised brow.
“Don’t ask,” I said, making my way toward my cubicle.
The sectioned off space held my desk and two more. Although I was Larry’s PA, there were two receptionists who worked under my direction, Deidra and Dee Dee. Deidra was always in a happy mood. She seemed to exude happiness from every pore. Dee Dee was more of a “Betty Buzz Kill”. She nagged, complained, and worried enough for the three of us.
“You’re late,” Dee Dee griped.
“Someone parked in my spot, so I had to park in the last row,” I said.
Deidra walked over by my desk, where I was about to take a seat, and whispered, “I clocked you in already and coffee is almost done.”
I couldn’t help smiling. “Thanks, hon. I don’t know what I’d do without you.”
“You’d survive,” she said with a smile and walked back to her desk to continue her work.
It seemed as though I had only been working two minutes, when a delivery guy came back to the cubicle. “For a Ms. Gwyneth Warren.”
“That’s me,” I said with a sigh.
“Please sign here.” He handed me a tablet so I could sign. I always wondered why they bothered with these things if the signatures never turned out like the real one.
After I signed, he handed me a package the size of a shoebox. I looked at it, knowing it was another gift from my mysterious secret admirer. Besides snow globes, I had also received flowers, candy, stuffed animals, and movie tickets. This had been going on for about six months now. I was tired of trying to guess who was sending me the gifts, so I just accepted them and went on with my day.
“What did your mystery guy send you this time?” asked Dee Dee in a bored tone.
“Who knows? I’ll open it later,” I answered.
Deidra jumped up from her seat and snatched the gift from where I had placed it on the desk. She shook it near her ear trying to guess what it was. “Hmm. It doesn’t make any noise. My best guess would be clothes.”
“Clothes? Why would he give her clothes?” Dee Dee asked.
The questioning continued for a few minutes until I finally gave in and grabbed the package. With a letter opener, I cut through the tape. Inside the box, there was pink tissue paper and something surrounded by bubble wrap. I snipped through the tape holding the bubble wrap closed.
“What is this?” I asked. I felt my face scrunch in wonder.
“I…don’t…know,” Deidra said, confused.
Dee Dee walked over to my desk and looked at the odd glass-covered brooch I held in my hand. She took it from me and inspected it closer. After a few seconds of scrutiny, she gasped and dropped the trinket on my desk. She shook her hands like she was trying to get invisible dirt off.
“What is it Dee Dee?” I asked.
“Ugh! The fleur-de-lis is made of hair.”
“Hair, hair? Like human hair?” I asked with disgust.
“I don’t know what kind of hair, but it is hair.”
Deidra picked up the brooch and examined it as well. “Dee’s right, you know. It does look like hair.” She set it back down on top of the bubble wrap.
I stared at the brooch with an uneasy feeling in my stomach. I picked it up in the bubble wrap, so I didn’t have to touch it again, and I stuck it back in the box. I closed the box by tucking the flaps in on each other and then I moved it to the floor, by my desk. I would throw it away, outside, when I went to buy my lunch.
The next few hours were quiet, yet busy. I made sure to send out all of Larry’s memos and schedule his meetings. I took notes about new machinery to be ordered and the new quotas to be met. I took down the minutes of the meeting Larry had held with all of the office executives.
By the time lunchtime rolled around, I had gotten over my uneasiness. I figured whoever sent the gift probably thought it was beautiful and supposed I would like it. Setting aside the fact that it was made of hair, the brooch was beautiful. I still planned on throwing it out, though.
“Gwyneth, could you please make sure those faxes get sent off to Santa Fe before you go to lunch?” asked Larry. He was a tall, older gentleman. His russet-brown skin crinkled around his citrine colored eyes, especially when he smiled.
“Yes, Mr. Anderson.”
Deidra and Dee Dee went ahead to lunch without me, upon my insistence. I faxed the documents, but had to wait about fifteen minutes for confirmation. In the meantime, I sat at my desk and played solitaire on my computer. I turned up the sound on the game because, for some unusual reason, the quiet of the office was grating on my nerves, so I didn’t hear when Roland, the Chief Financial Officer, entered the cubicle.
I looked up to see him gazing at me. “Oh! You scared me,” I squealed, nearly jumping out of my chair.
“Oh, um, I’m sorry,” he said in a soft voice. His bottle cap glasses magnified his eyes which were the same shade of cerulean blue as mine. His jet black hair parted on the side and looked as if he had used hair grease to comb it. “I—I thought everyone was gone.”
“Nope. I had to send off these faxes,” I said, standing up when the machine beeped. Roland was easily three inches shorter than I was, and I was only five-foot-five.
“Um. Okay,” he said and began to walk away.
“Did you need something?”
Roland looked at me with a confused expression.
“Is there a reason you stopped in?”
“Oh, um, no,” he said and rushed off.
I decided I would only have enough time to run across the street to Jack-in-the-Box, so I grabbed my purse and made a run for it. On my way out, Camilo let me know my parking space had been freed up. It was definitely a plus, but I didn’t have time to move my car and grab a bite to eat. In order to get to Jack-in-the-Box by car, I would have to drive down the street and make a U-turn at one of the busiest intersections in the city. By the time I made the U-turn and got through the drive-thru, which always had a line of ten cars, I would be late. Inside, the restaurant was usually a ghost town. It was my best bet if I wanted to eat.
When I entered Jack-in-the-Box, there was nobody in line, so I was able to order immediately. After a burger and some fries, I headed back to the office with my strawberry lemonade. Caroline was already sitting behind her desk. She had her coppery red hair up in a bun with a pencil poking through it. Excessive amounts of blue eye shadow along with thick black, fake lashes surrounded her emerald green eyes. Fire extinguisher red lipstick shone on her lips. Her turquoise blouse hung low enough to make it look like she had a little butt sticking out of her blouse.
“So?” she asked before blowing a bubble with her chewing gum.
She popped the bubble and began to chew on her gum like a cow chewing its cuds. “What did you get this time? Everyone in the office is wondering what your mystery man gave you.”
I shook my head and laughed. “My mystery man gave me a brooch.”
She wrinkled her nose. “Eh, I’ve gotten better. You know, I don’t think the mystery man is such a mystery.”
I raised my brow. “Really? Do you know who he is?”
She looked around the office. I guessed it was to see if anyone was listening. She leaned forward exposing more of her cleavage than I needed to see, making me uncomfortable. Even so, I still scooted closer to listen to what she had to say.
“You didn’t hear this from me, but word has it—your mystery man works here.”
I rolled my eyes because it was something I had already considered.
“And, he works very close to you.”
Now she had my full attention. “In the office? Who?”
She nodded and looked around again. “Roland,” she said leaning back. She had her lips puckered to the side while she nodded her head.
“Roland? No way.”
Caroline raised both brows and said, “Everyone in the office, but you, knows how obsessed he is with you. He follows you around like a puppy dog when you’re not paying attention. He always finds reasons to go to your cubicle even when you’re not there. I wouldn’t doubt if he has you as his screensaver.”
With a heavy sigh, I walked away from Caroline’s desk. She was nuts. Why would Roland be obsessed with me? It was true he hung around our cubicle a lot for being a CFO, and there were times I’d turn around to see him staring at me, but could he really be the one sending me the gifts? Nah! Gwyneth, stop listening to looney Caroline.
I entered my cubicle where Deidra and Dee Dee were already working. I sat down prepared to begin my work as well when I saw something, making me freeze. “Deidra? Dee Dee?”
They both looked up from their work and spoke at the same time, “Huh?”
“Which one of you took this thing out of the box and put it on my desk?”
Both of the women looked perplexed and shook their heads.
“Then who—” I stopped mid-question, thinking of Caroline’s words. After all, Roland had been in here earlier. “Forget it.”
I put the brooch back in the box and on the floor. Afterward, I sat down and began to work with uneasy thoughts roaming around in my head for the rest of the day until it was time to clock out.
I arrived home and parked the car in the garage. I could hear Naples going crazy inside the house by the door. I knew he was just as excited to see me as I was to see him. I had to search my purse for my house keys because I made sure never to have them on the same key chain as the ignition key for the car. I had heard somewhere, I didn’t recall if it was on television or in an article, that the weight of too many keys could damage the ignition hole. The weight of my house keys, along with a lot of miscellaneous other keys, was probably more than enough to do the job.
“Hold on, Naples. Mommy’s coming, if she can find her keys,” I said trying to soothe him.
I unlocked the door and immediately had a set of paws resting on my shoulders along with a leathery tongue licking my neck and my face. I rubbed Naples’s head and scratched behind his ears. He kept licking away at me like a child licking an ice cream cone. I rubbed my nose on his and then I hugged him.
“Hey there, Naples. I missed you too,” I said to him in the same tone I had heard parents use with their newborns. “Who’s a good boy? Huh? Who’s my baby?”
When Naples finally settled down, we went into the house. I made my way to the living room sofa and plopped down. After pulling my legs up on the sofa, I pushed each of my shoes off. “Damn cheap shoes. One day, I’ll be able to afford a pair of comfortable expensive ones. They have to be better for my feet than these pieces of crap.”
I reached my hand over the side of the sofa and pressed the button on my answering machine to find out if I had any messages; I had three. The first one was from the vet, reminding me of the appointment I had made to have Naples groomed. The second one came from the pharmacy, reminding me I hadn’t gone to pick up my refill of birth control; there was no use in having birth control if it wasn’t being put to good use.
The third message jolted me upright to where I was sitting on the edge of the sofa. It sounded like Naples growling. In the background, I heard a door creak, the way my back door did, and then several footsteps. I looked down at Naples who was napping on the floor. He turned his head to face me and looked at me through his lazy eyes.
The recording stopped after a click of what sounded like the back door closing. “End of messages,” the machine stated.
I shook my head. I had to be mistaken. It was probably someone else’s dog and someone else’s house. Maybe whoever it was had accidentally pocket dialed me. I had done it a ton of times and who knew what those people had heard.
The explanation made sense in my head, to some extent, but there was a nagging feeling in my gut I couldn’t get rid of. With my cell phone in hand, and with deliberate movements, I rose from the sofa and walked toward the hall. I flipped on the light switch and gave one last look back to make sure Naples was following me. He let out a long yawn, stretched his front legs, and then shook his fur before trotting toward the bedroom.
It was moments like these I hated living alone. If I had a man, I could send him to check things out, but I didn’t. I would have to suck it up and be brave. Yeah, right! You know you’re chicken shit, Gwyneth. For God’s sake, you still sleep with the television on so you don’t have to use a nightlight!
Grabbing my umbrella from the decorative copper can near the back door; I tiptoed toward the bathroom and took a quick peek before reaching my hand in and flipping on the light. I pulled my hand back as if a snake had nearly bitten me. I didn’t see anything. Entering the bathroom, I extended the umbrella out in front of me and slid the shower curtain open—nothing.
I poked my head out of the bathroom and looked both ways before slithering back out to the hallway. I slid along the wall toward my bedroom. After a deep breath, I held the umbrella out in front of me and started swinging away as I entered the room. Naples perked up his head from where he was at, resting on my bed. I was sure my dog thought I was losing it.
I crouched down near the bed and peered under it. Although I knew nobody and nothing could fit with the number of boxes of cheap shoes I had stuffed underneath, I still felt the need to check, just in case.
I turned toward my walk-in closet. The door was cracked open about an inch. Didn’t I close it this morning? Or did I leave it like that? I couldn’t remember. The only memory from this morning was Shirley’s story about her deceased husband and murdered sister. A chill ran through me.
In my left hand, I held my finger on my phone’s emergency call button. In my right hand, I wielded my makeshift weapon, my umbrella. The tip of my umbrella poked through the opening to the closet and I slid the door open. My lungs began to burn, alerting me to the fact that I had been holding my breath too long, so I exhaled.
The closet was clear, as was the entire house. I had to stop watching so many damned scary movies. My mind had a way of coming up with too many possible scenarios when I was freaked out. The sounds of the house settling still made me nearly pee my pants.
I went to the kitchen, the only place I hadn’t checked because it was completely open to where everything could be seen from the living room. After acting like a complete fool—luckily, no one was watching—I needed something to drink. All I had was some cheap stuff Shirley had brought over, Boones. It would have to do. Normally, my taste was more finicky, preferring a really good Merlot or Gamay. I definitely wasn’t a wine connoisseur, but expensive variations of those two had been served in the office and my taste buds took a liking to them.
A gag and a shudder resulted after the first sip of Shirley’s stuff. I figured, after a few sips, I wouldn’t know the difference, and I was right. Half way through the bottle, it was starting to taste pretty good and I couldn’t remember why I was knocking the stuff in the first place. I wasn’t a light weight, so it took almost the entire bottle to get a good buzz. Within a half hour, I felt it and I headed to bed, not bothering with dinner.