With his heartbeat thundering in his ears Norman leaned against the wall of the short hallway that led to the main floor. Behind him the wind rattled the door in its frame and he glanced back over his shoulder half expecting to find that stranger following him into the interior of the building. He didn’t know what he’d do if that happened. Even though he was no longer the fat kid, and outwardly he portrayed the image of a self assured man, or at least tried to, he felt completely helpless in the presence of that stranger.
The door to the ladies room across the hall opened and Andrea stepped out into the hallway.
“Are you all right, Norman?” She said as she crossed to him. He felt her hand on his back, resting lightly between his shoulder blades as she bent over to check on him.
“I’ll be okay,” he said between gasps. He struggled against the panic attack. A familiar sensation he hadn’t experienced in quite a while. In fact it had been over ten years since his last attack. The night of his graduation from the local community college with an associate degree in office management. He’d asked one of his classmates, a cute blonde named Jennifer if she’d like to have dinner with him to celebrate their accomplishment. Her response had left him gasping for breath as he struggled against the panic washing through him.
“Are you sure?” Andrea said, concern evident in her voice.
“I’ll be okay, just give me a minute.” He said nodding his head. Andrea’s hand felt good on his back, it reminded him of how his mom would rest her hand on his shoulder or arm when he was younger. It was a touch that said, I’m here for you.
He’d have to go see her this weekend. It had been nearly a month since he’d been by, but she didn’t know that. Alzheimer’s had robbed her of her ability to keep track of the passing time. In her mind she was a young woman once again and in that fantasy there was no room for a thirty year old son. His father had left shortly after Alzheimer’s had reared its ugly head. She’d always been a little absent minded. In danger of leaving her head if it weren’t so firmly attached, she was so fond of saying. But absent minded had quickly become disorientation that led into the early stages of dementia as the disease robbed her mind of her identity.
The last straw had come when Norman stopped for a visit and his mother called the police to report a breaking and entering.
May I come in? That sinister voice whispered again, this time in his mind, and he pushed himself up from his knees.
“I’ll be all right.” He said as he took a deep breath and drew himself to his full height.
Andrea looked up at him with a worried expression and Norman got a really good look at her. With her head tilted up the light struck her face in a way that highlighted her plain beauty. She wouldn’t win any beauty pageants, but she didn’t look half bad. A little on the heavy side but who wasn’t when the years started rolling by faster than anticipated.
“Are you sure?” There was genuine concern in her voice and he felt flushed with a sudden excitement. He’d been working here for nearly three years, Andrea even longer than that. During that time he’d never paid much attention to his co-workers. Preferring his own company to anything they might offer. He’d spoken to them in passing, responding to their questions, acknowledging their comments, but he had never perused the conversation beyond that.
“There you are.” Leslie said from the end of the hall. “We’ve been looking for you two, Ted has called a meeting, I think they’re going to let us go home.” She turned and vanished into the main room.
“Not much to go home to.” Norman said.
“Ever since my cat died last month it’s been lonely in my apartment.” Andrea said as she nodded.
He was surprised to learn Andrea once had a cat. Most cat people had a certain odor about them. A harsh, ammonia smell that heralded their arrival everywhere they went. He couldn’t recall ever smelling that odor when Andrea was around.
“I didn’t know you had a cat.”
“I called him Smokey, had him ever since he was a kitten. I miss him, but he had a good thirteen years with me.”
“That’s longer than some marriages I’ve heard about.”
“What about you?” Andrea said. “What do you have waiting at home for you?”
“A frozen dinner, a good book, maybe some wine.”
“There’s no Mrs. Norman?”
Norman shrugged. “My mom has Alzheimer’s, I’ve spent most of my adult life taking care of her, never had much time for anything beyond that.
“Is she still with you?”
Norman shook his head. “She became too much for even me to handle so I was forced to put her in a home last week. She no longer even knows where she is. In her mind it’s 1969 and she’s hitchhiking across the country to follow some band.”
“We better get going.” Andrea said.
“When are you off again?” Norman said as a familiar panic rose to the back of his throat, threatening to strangle him.
“I’m off Saturday, what about you?”
“Same here, would you like to go to lunch with me?” Norman bulled his way through the panic, the last of his question coming out at a near whisper.
Andrea nodded. “I’d like that.” And she reached out with one hand to take his hand into her own. The contact was electrifying for Norman who had until this moment never gotten beyond the initial meeting with a woman. His shirt collar, that had suddenly grown three sizes too small when he was asking Andrea out, was now resting comfortably against his throat, and he felt a sense of confidence he’d never known before.
Before they entered the main floor of the call center he glanced back at the door leading to the smoking area at the other end of the short hallway. Through the small window he saw the swirling snow beyond, driven this way and that by the relentless wind. As it parted he spotted a shadowy figure standing immobile on the bank opposite the dock. He looked away, suddenly very frightened, wanting nothing more than to get away from this place. For the first time in three years he wanted to go home. He didn’t want to lose himself in the anonymity of being a faceless voice on the telephone. He had the feeling that tonight was not going to end well for any of them.
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