The Haunting of Leigh Maxwell

A tale well-calculated to keep you in suspense!
Esther Luttrellto add text.
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THE HAUNTING OF LEIGH MAXWELL

ONE

The wind was starting to kick up, he noticed. Even though the old car provided a cocoon, protecting him from the elements, he was aware of the dip in temperature. It was colder than usual for so early in October. Trees surrounding the big plant where he worked were bending in the slight breeze, disappearing from sight when shreds of fog shifted across the woods. He hunched down further in the seat, pulling his wool jacket tighter around him. 
“She’s going to be late,” he said aloud to himself, squinting at the clock on the dashboard. It was too dark to make out the digits. He knew he could turn on the dome light, but if someone happened to be looking out any of the windows in the three story building, they might see him and wonder what he was doing in the parking lot when he should be reporting for duty.
He squirmed around enough to glance out the rear window. The longer he lingered, the more furious his mother would be with him. He knew she hated for him to be late to work. After all—as she reminded him day in and day out—it was her recommendation that got him on at McKeery Electronics in the first place. It looked bad for her when he screwed up. Even though Eric Haynes was keenly aware of all that, he hunkered down even further in the seat. He was determined not to move until he saw Leigh’s car turn into the lot. 
That thought sent a warm wave of happy anticipation washing over him. He could picture her seven year-old Ford angling off of Highway 50, onto the nearly deserted 7. Eric closed his eyes, savoring the image. The road she was traveling would be very dark now. There were no street lamps along that stretch. Leigh would be concentrating on the spray of illumination from her headlights, alert for animals that might dart from the forest that stretched several acres on either side. She would then pass the Lake Lotawana 8 miles sign. A quarter of a mile further, she would begin to slow, watching for the turn onto McKeery Road. It was easy to miss if you didn’t know where to look. The narrow asphalt drive cut through sycamore and pine, ending where McKeery Electronics, a sprawling complex outfitted against the night like a box of shadows, began. Here and there a light spilled from a square window, but mostly it was dark at this hour. 
Eric smiled to himself as he continued to watch a kind of movie in his mind. The teal-colored Ford would brake at the gate. Leigh would reach out to slip her pass-card into a security slot. The wooden arm would lift, the Ford would pass through. Leigh would turn left, past a sign bolted to a chain link fence: Authorized Vehicles Only.
There were only a handful of cars in an employee parking lot that, during the day, was filled with nearly three hundred automobiles. Management was too cheap to provide more than a few—less than six, actually—old-fashioned, three-globe street lamps for the nighttime skeleton crew. The ones that were there arched down to peer into the well of darkness, dropping yellow-white globs of light onto gravel.
Eric was getting nervous. Time ticked away. His stomach tightened at the thought of what would be waiting for him when he went inside. His mother’s face, heavy with lines and thick with layers of fat she attributed to her German peasant stock, would be contorted in anger. When she spoke, her jowls would shake in fury. German heritage or not, Eric attributed her excess weight to the mounds of boiled potatoes she piled on her dinner plate, beside slabs of pork smothered in applesauce. And a lunch pail crammed with Little Debbie cakes she claimed kept her strength up during long nights spent scrubbing an acre of factory floors.
Eric shivered and tugged his jacket closer. He had to shut pictures of his mother out of his mind. He’d been working up the nerve for tonight ever since Leigh Maxwell came to work at the factory. He would not allow his mother’s wrath to deprive him of this night. 
His heart pounded in anticipation.
Crickets clicked their heels in the stillness. Frogs made barrupp sounds. It was almost as if an unseen crowd was cheering him on. Confidence, they were shouting. Don’t lose your confidence. Not now. Not when it’s so close to happening.
Suddenly, there was another sound. The one he had been waiting for. A car was approaching. His heart beat faster. His hands were damp as he gripped the steering wheel and pulled himself to an upright position. As he looked over his shoulder, headlights cut through the darkness. 
She was here.
This was it.



TWO

She liked the drive to the factory even if it did take nearly an hour to get there from her apartment on the outskirts of the Country Club Plaza. Urban streets were always crowded, and Highway 50 was not without its share of travelers, but once Leigh reached 7 she had the road pretty much to herself. The only negative that crossed her mind was a slight concern about having a flat on this desolate stretch. She realized she was probably one of the last holdouts on the planet, but she still didn’t own a cell phone. There was something unappealing about being so readily available to anyone who wanted to intrude as she watched a play or a movie, or had dinner out, or even the solitude of just driving and thinking. Still, she knew that if she should have car problems late at night, in a remote area, a cell phone could potentially save her life.
“So,” she mused aloud. “How’d you and the rest of the world make it all those years without the danged things?” 
She was driving now past dark hills that resembled little more than mounds of shadow bumping against a black night sky. There was no moon, no stars. She considered turning on the radio, but decided against it. The silence was soothing.
Her thoughts went back to the subject that most often came to mind when she found time to reflect: Mark Hollingsworth. Leigh had been in Kansas City nearly three months, yet she still hadn’t gathered the nerve to give him a call. She could rationalize it, of course, but the bottom line was fear. She was afraid he no longer cared. What if he married since the last time I saw him? After all, it’s been seven years. That would make him thirty-two years old now.
She couldn’t imagine Mark in his thirties. They had been best friends since grade school, he in the fifth grade, she in the third. Sweethearts in high school, lovers before he went away to college. That’s when everything changed for them. During the time he was away at college. How had he put it in his letters? He had outgrown Windsor, he said. Kansas City offered more opportunities. He wrote that knowing she couldn’t leave her elderly father. Since the death of her mother, she had been his sole caregiver. With him up in years, bedridden and nearly blind, Leigh finally had to give up her job at the library to provide full time care. 
In all their years together, Mark had never asked Leigh to marry him. Instead, he wrote “We can probably find an affordable house in Brookside, or maybe over in Gladstone” and “It’s time you saw more of the world, Leigh. Kansas City isn’t all that far away. We can visit your dad on weekends.”
Weekends? He needed assistance 24/7 and Mark knew it. Hiring a nurse or companion was out of the question. There weren’t funds for that kind of thing, even with government assistance. She couldn’t do it, couldn’t leave him to strangers.
The letters were Mark’s way of creating distance between them, Leigh felt. More distance than the miles between Windsor and Stanford’s School of Law on the west coast. 
Leigh’s throat constricted with what she knew could result in an onslaught of tears, but she swallowed them back. Life is what it is, she reminded herself. People change. They grow apart and find others to fill the empty places. But even as she said it, she knew she didn’t believe it. It had always been Mark. It would always be Mark, as foolish as that might be. 
At 10:51 she reached the McKerry Road turn-off. The night seemed to grow darker, shrouded as she was on either side by thick woods. A bend in the road revealed a long low building that covered an area the size of four city blocks. A white shell drive curved to the front of the factory where elaborate potted plants bracketed a wood-and-brass front door. But that was for visiting VIPs, not employees.
She turned, instead, to the left, to a gravel parking lot marked Employee Parking Only. As usual, there were only a few cars belonging to the crew who worked from 6 P.M. until 2 A.M. By the time Leigh arrived to begin her eleven o’clock shift, the well-lit spaces were already taken. 
Locking the door behind her, she pulled the collar of her suede jacket up around her ears, stuffed her hands deep inside the pockets and trudged toward a yellow security light over the employee entrance. Halfway across the lot she realized she was hearing footsteps other than her own. At first she dismissed the sound as her imagination. Without moon or starlight, she knew that even if she stopped to look around, she might not be able to spot whoever, or whatever, was behind her. In the two months she’d been coming to work, she had never run into anyone in the parking lot at that hour. 
She picked up her pace. The steps behind her picked up theirs.  
When she finally forced herself to wheel around, she was practically face-to-face with Eric Haynes, the factory’s maintenance man.
“Oh, good Lord, Eric” Leigh sighed in relief. “You nearly scared me to death.” She clutched at the collar of her jacket as they continued on, side-by-side.
“I didn’t know you knew my name,” he said so softly she could hardly make out the words.
“That’s my job. To know everybody’s name.”
“I know yours, too.”
She glanced at him. Although she’d seen him around over the last sixty days, she’d never really looked at him before. He was younger than she thought, maybe in his early twenties. It’s the weight that makes him appear older, she thought. It might also have been the fact Eric had one of those nearly invisible personas. It was easy to be in the same room with him and hardly be aware of his existence. Up close, however, Leigh could see that he was actually rather nice looking, in an overweight and excruciatingly shy way.
The lapse in conversation tore at Eric. Just a few more steps and it will be over, he was thinking. Talking to girls was the hardest thing he ever had to do, but he was determined it would be different this time. And it was. I’m talking to her and she’s answering me. Just like I knew it would be. 
He desperately did not want it to end. 
“I was changing a broken wheel on a desk chair in personnel the other night and I looked you up in the files,” he said in a rush.
“Why would you do that, Eric?”
“I kept thinking someday I’d get the nerve to talk to you. I wanted to know what to call you.”
She didn’t have an answer, nor was she alarmed that this odd young man had looked at her personnel files. There was something so backward about Eric, she had an urge to reach out and take his hand, the way you would take a child’s hand if you were walking him to his first day of school. 
The taste of bile rose in Eric’s throat. He was almost physically ill at the thought of their visit coming to an end. He had dreamed about this for two long months. Every single night. Even during the day.
“Where are you from?” he asked, fighting panic.
“You must know if you read my files.” She said, with a little smile.
His face flushed. “Yeah, I know. Windsor. Where’s that?”
“About eighty miles from here. Near Clinton.”
“I was born in Kansas City,” he said. They were almost at the side door.
He danced ahead then turned to her, walking backward. “I made a lamp out of a milk can one time.”
Leigh found his effort to keep up a conversation pathetic but, at the same time, endearing. “That must have been something.”
“It isn’t hard to do. I could teach you.”
She couldn’t imagine herself mustering the interest to turn a milk can into a lamp.
“You remind me of a girl I used to know,” Eric continued.
“A girlfriend?” 
“No. Just somebody I knew. She was nice. Like you.”
The door was only a few feet away. Eric fell in step with her again.
“They changed my hours. Same as yours now.”
He jumped ahead to pull open the heavy metal door. As Leigh walked past him, he made a low, sweeping bow. 
Her chuckle pleased the shy, young, maintenance man enormously.



THREE

The corridor was dimly lit. Eric dropped back a step as they passed a bank of elevators then entered a reception room filled with potted plants and plush sofas. Double glass doors to their right opened into a vestibule where VIPs could leave their coats on a brass rack before entering. Those doors were locked at this hour. There was no light in the reception area except for those directly over a desk where red-haired Carolyn Keegan squinted at a computer screen while typing on the keyboard and listening through a headset plugged into the pc. Customers, vendors and company representatives from around the world placed orders, filed complaints and left messages all hours of the day and night. 
Eric knew he should make a turn to the left and push his way through double doors to the assembly room. It was there he had to punch a time clock and report to his mother, who was also his superior. But he didn’t want to go. Not yet, even though the wall clock over the desk indicated he was already half a minute late. He couldn’t tear himself away. His mouth felt dry and sticky. There were so many words he wanted to say, but when he tried to form them on his lips, they weren’t there. 
If Leigh realized that Eric was still around, she gave no indication as she stopped to sign the evening log. Mounted on a shelf high in a corner, a closed circuit TV revealed a skeleton crew working in the plant. A security camera panned them, slowly, systemically. A cycloptic eye, peering, spying, peeking.
Eric watched Leigh put her purse in a lower desk drawer and nod a greeting to Carolyn who continued to type. When he could stand it no longer, he blurted out, “I get a coffee break in a couple of hours.”  
Leigh glanced up, surprised.
Eric stammered, “Do you? Get a coffee break, I mean?”
“No. I’m afraid not.”
Carolyn moved the mouse on the pad, clicked SEND on the computer screen, and yawned.
“How’s it going?” Leigh asked her. 
“It went. I’m outta here.”
A big Texas girl, Carolyn was pushing forty. Dragging thirty-nine as far as it would go. She got to her feet, untangling the headset from her hair.
“Ya need something, Eric?” she asked, annoyed.
Eric eyes darted from one of them to the other. Carolyn scared him, though he wasn’t sure why. Maybe it was the woman’s flaming red hair, or the set of her broad shoulders, or the formidable way in which she spoke. He couldn’t pinpoint the reason for his terror. Tongue-tied, he continued to stare, his face growing more red by the moment.
Carolyn shot Leigh an Oh brother glance, grabbed up half a dozen sheets of paper from the desk and stapled them together as Leigh slipped into the desk chair.  
Carolyn pointed to a pink sticky-note beside the computer keyboard. “See that Mr. Croft gets this here note from Fergie-the-welder, sugar. He called in sick. Says he’s got the flu and if you believe that I got a cute little seaside cottage I’d like to sell ya down in Tuscon.”
Leigh glanced at the note while adjusting the headset. “Anything else I should know?”
“There’s a couple of reports the big boss wants finished up by mornin’. Nothing special about them. Just type in the information from those handwritten sheets and put them on the forms. Then proof. The guy gets his jollies seein’ all them sexy little commas and exclamation marks sprinkled just so on them pages.”
Back down the corridor, the elevator doors made a low hissing sound as a tall, raw-boned woman, pushing a cleaning cart, stepped out. She was turning toward the double doors to the assembly room when she spotted Eric. His face went chalk white as the woman glared at him. Without another word, Eric rushed away. His mother lumbered along behind him.
“That guy gives me the willies,” Carolyn mumbled, pulling a headscarf from a drawer. 
“He’s all right.”
Carolyn tied the scarf under her chin and removed her sweater and a shoulder-strap, fake leopard-skin purse from a peg on the wall.
“Don’t talk to him,” she said. “You say anything and he’ll hang around, driving you nuts. Last night he kept asking for a Band-Aid. I gave him one and half hour later he wanted another. I told him this isn’t the damn first aid station, for crap sakes.”
“Why’d he want Band-Aids?”
“Says he got splinters in his fingers. I told him to quit scratchin’ his head.”
Leigh bit back a grin. “The kid’s just lonesome.”
“Never met a creep who wasn’t.” Carolyn leaned to Leigh, lowering her voice. “And watch the raging rhino. She get mad at you and you’ll have a scrub bucket up your butt.” She shook her head. “Man, if they ain’t a pair to draw to.”
“Eric’s hours have been changed. You’re out of it. I’m elected,” Leigh said, glancing at an incoming message on the computer screen. 
“See ya!” Carolyn called, heading for the exit.
Leigh waved then typed: 
McKeery representative, Leigh.
Hello, Mr. Herrmann. How is the weather in Stuttgart today and how may
I help you?

***

In the hours prior to dawn, at five after two to be exact, the computer screen was uncharacteristically dark. Leigh finished work on the forms to be filled out, and began proofing them. Intent as she was, she failed to notice the hiss of the elevator doors. Nor did she hear footsteps muffled by thick carpeting. It wasn’t until a shadow fell across the page she was editing that she looked up, startled. When she saw it was Eric, she felt a surge of anger. It passed as quickly as it had come, and she managed a civil tone. “Eric. Are you purposely trying to give me a heart attack?”
“It’s my break. I was wondering if you’d—”
“I told you I work straight through, to four. I don’t get a break,” she said, regretting her outburst. After all, Eric was only a boy. An odd one, but a boy nevertheless.
Eric’s mouth had been open as if to say something, but now it was closed, like a fish gulping air. His baby-round hands came together in front of him, fingertips pressed, as if to reassure one another.
“I thought you might want me to bring you something. I got a big thermos of hot chocolate Momma fixed for me. There’s too much for one person. I just figured…”
He let the unfinished sentence hang in the air.
“It’s sweet of you to offer,” she said, and meant it.
“I was thinking you might be lonesome out here. By yourself and all.”
“I’m fine, but I’ve got work to do.”
Eric glanced around the shadowed room. “It’s scary here. Like upstairs. I don’t like to go up there at night.”’
“I find it peaceful. I can get a lot done when it’s quiet.”
“Too much quiet makes me think of dead.”
Leigh studied Eric’s gentle, frightened eyes for a moment then said, “I have to get back to work, Eric. Thanks for the offer, though. About the hot chocolate.” She pointedly turned her attention to the papers in front of her.
“I was wondering.” Although it wasn’t a complete sentence, Eric hesitated as if waiting for a response. When Leigh continued reading, he added, “Can I give you a lift home?”
“I have my car.”
“Oh, yeah. I forgot. I seen you drive in. That’s right.” He stuffed his hands in his pockets, flustered. 
Leigh went back to the papers, but her mind was on Eric. The tall eight year-old in grown-up skin had done amazing things to Leigh’s mind and emotions in the space of a few hours. He had frightened her, thoroughly frightened her, twice. He had amused her, made her angry, brought out her most tender maternal instincts and, along with those, made her both wary and impatient.
Reluctant to leave, Eric noticed the closed circuit monitor on the shelf. He watched as the camera panned the assembly room until the image of his mother appeared. She was on her hands and knees, scrubbing. 
“This here’s a pretty good show,” Eric said.
Leigh glanced up then followed his gaze to the monitor.
“I can see where she is, but she can’t see where I am.” Eric bobbed his head in delight. “That’s pretty good. P-ret-ty good.”
“You’ve never seen her on the monitor before?”
“No. I seen you, but not her.” He grinned broadly, pleased by the look of surprise on Leigh’s face. “They got a whole line of TV screens in the security room. Sometimes I take my thermos and go in there on my break, and I watch you.”
“But your hours haven’t been the same as mine.”
“Momma gets her at ten, so sometimes, when I bring her to work, I have to get here early.”
“Doesn’t she have a car?”
“Sure. But it’s old and lots of times it won’t start. When that happens, I have to bring her to work and take her home.”
Leigh wasn’t sure why she found the idea of being watched so chilling. She told herself, that in this day of Big Brother spying from satellites, she shouldn’t have found Eric’s confession to be so unnerving.
His eyes didn’t leave the monitor. “Momma don’t like me talking to girls. Especially at work.”
“Why not?”
“She says they laugh at me behind my back.”
“Oh, Eric, I don’t think—”
“She says they tell stories about me in the bathroom.”
“I never heard—”
“Momma says girls are like that.”
“Not all of them.”
“Momma says they say one thing to your face and another behind your back.”
“What do you think, Eric?”
“I dunno.” He looked back up at the screen and watched until the camera swept slowly to his mother again. She was on her feet now, squeezing a rag mop into a bucket. “I had a girlfriend one time. You remind me of her. Did I tell you that already?”
“Yes.” She didn’t bother pointing out the discrepancy. Earlier he had indicated that the girl wasn’t a romantic interest.
“Momma hated her.”
“What happened?”
Eric shrugged. “She went away.”
On the monitor, Mrs. Haynes gathered up her scrub equipment. Her large breasts swung like massive pendulums as she moved across the room, toward double doors that would open into the corridor beside the reception room. Every step seemed to be an effort.
“I gotta go,” Eric said quickly, backing away. “My break’s over now. I gotta go.”
He had already disappeared from sight when his mother entered the corridor. Leigh wondered if it was only her imagination. She could have sworn Mrs. Haynes shot her a scowl of disapproval before stepping onto the elevator. 


FOUR

The three-story house on Holmes Road, off of Brush Creek Boulevard, had once been a show place, but its time had long since passed. Now it was just another old mansion chopped into eight apartments, two of them in the basement. Across the street was the neighborhood park a determined community rescued from drug gangs that had prevailed in the 60’s and 70’s. Catty-corner was one of the few mom-and-pop markets left in Kansas City. Oak and maple trees lined the street that, in daylight, gave the neighborhood a kind of old-world charm. Leigh told herself that her living arrangements were temporary. As soon as she was on her feet, she planned to find a place that had no park across the way filled with darkness and fog at four o’clock in the morning. It seemed to Leigh that everywhere she went in Kansas City, she was cloaked in fog.
Two street level windows did little to provide sunlight in Leigh’s small apartment. One of those windows was directly over her bed, on the west side, away from a morning sun that dribbled over the windowsill and fell in a puddle across Leigh and Miss Priss, her twelve year-old silver-white Persian cat. 
Three steps from the foot of the bed a door opened into a living room where another window looked out over the park from its north wall. No sunlight found this pathetic oblong of screen and the living area was locked in perpetual dusk.
If the bedroom door were open, Leigh would have been able to see straight through, to the front entrance that led to the hallway and, further along, to her left, up a flight of stairs to the first floor. But the door was closed, and Leigh was still asleep.
The shrill sound of a ringing phone startled Leigh and Priss awake. With her eyes closed, Leigh fumbled for the alarm, found it, pushed the OFF button. The sound continued. She opened her eyes and frowned at the phone. Only Carolyn had her home number, but she had never used it. Deciding someone must have dialed her by mistake, Leigh was tempted to turn over and ignore the call. On the other hand, maybe she had done something wrong on the reports she typed up the night before. Maybe someone at work had a question.
“Lo?”
“Hi.”
Leigh frowned, pushed herself up on one elbow to get a better look at the clock. 11:37. She had left McKeery at four, made it home by five, fed Priss and puttered around for half an hour then read until nearly six. She had not yet found a rhythm to her convoluted sleep cycle. It took a second for her head to clear. 
“Who is this?” she asked.
“Did I get you up?”
The voice sounded familiar and yet it took another ten seconds for her to place it. “Eric?”
“I was wondering if you’d like to invite me in for breakfast. Or is it lunch?”
Leigh remembered he had gotten her name from personnel files. He must have copied down her phone number as well. If that were the case, he knew her address, too. A warning sounded in her head, but it wasn’t revealed in her voice. “I can’t talk right now, Eric. I really don’t have time.”
“Oh.” The one word was heavy with disappointment. “I wouldn’t stay long—”
“No really. I’ve got an appointment with the dentist and I’m running late,” she lied.
“I’m right across the street, Leigh. It’s such a pretty day and I just thought—”
Springing to her knees, she looked out the window. She saw nothing but a couple of cars parked at the curb and a few more passing by. 
On the other end of the line, Eric was still talking.
“I want us to be friends, Leigh. We are friends, aren’t we?”
“Yes, of course we are,” she said, taking the phone with her to the living room where she peered out the window facing the park and the neighborhood grocery store. Someone was sitting in one of the children’s swings. While it was hard to make out details from that distance, it was evident she was looking at a man holding something to his ear. A bulky red coat concealed his build, but he appeared to be on the heavy side. There was no mistaking it was Eric.
In a knee-jerk reaction, she recoiled, stepping back from the window. “I’ve really got to go. I’m going to be late. I’ll see you at work.” She would have taken the time to say goodbye, but Eric had already hung up.
Leigh stood in the shadows of her dingy room, unnerved and not sure why. Eric was a strange young man, but she had no reason to be afraid of him. He was harmless and childlike. Or at least he seemed to be. Why then the wild pounding of her heart, she wondered. Maybe it was simply because he woke her from a sound sleep and took her by surprise. 
She peeked through the window again. Eric was walking out of the park, toward an old sedan at the curb. His shoulders were slouched forward, his gait hesitant. When he got into his car, Leigh assumed he would turn from Holmes, onto Brush Creek, a main boulevard. Instead, he drove slowly in the direction of her apartment building. 
Leigh shrunk back again. After a couple of minutes, she looked out. The sedan was nowhere in sight. 
She returned to the bedroom, slipped her old chenille robe over her pajamas and picked up Miss Priss. She sank to the bed, stroking the cat.  She tried to think but her thoughts were blurred at the edges so she gave up.
“Want some breakfast, kiddo?” She finally said, getting to her feet and setting Priss  on the floor. 
The kitchen was in a living room alcove, and shared a common wall with the bath partitioned off in the bedroom. With the window on the other side of the room, Leigh had to turn on a light before she could plug in the coffeemaker and find a can of 9 Lives tuna-and-egg for Priss. While the cat ate, and coffee brewed, Leigh asked herself why Eric frightened her so. He had made no threatening gestures. No advances, sexual or otherwise. She wished she had someone she could confide in, someone to help her see the absurdity in her misgivings. 
Leigh got up and went back to the bedroom, intending to dress. Instead, she sat on the side of the bed and stared at the telephone.
All I have to do is pick up the phone book, find his number and dial. 
She opened the door to a cabinet in the nightstand, took out the heavy Kansas City yellow pages, and opened it to Attorneys. It took only a second to locate Hollingsworth, Harper & Graham. She had gotten this far before.
Criminal Defense, the large display ad read. Federal, State and Municipal court, Felonies, Misdemeanors, Traffic, Appellate Practice and Expungements. Free initial consultation. Mark Hollingsworth, Sidney Harper, Debrah Graham. 816-555-2186.
Her heart raced. She felt a knot in the pit of her stomach grow tighter as she picked up the receiver and put her index finger on the first digit on the phone pad. But she couldn’t bring herself to do it. She slammed down the receiver and got to her feet. How many times will I do this to myself before I get the nerve to complete the call? 
She went to the closet, pulled out a pair of white jeans and blue striped tee, and took them with her to the bathroom. A quick shower, a brush to untangle the mass of brown hair, touch of lipstick and she was ready for the day. Or what was left of it.
Crossing the bedroom, she was thinking she should make a quick run to the grocery store then come back and pay a couple of bills, but she couldn’t muster the energy for any of that. And she couldn’t get Mark out of her mind. Only then did she realize why. He had a birthday coming up within the week. Every year for seven years she remembered him especially on October sixteenth. Scorpio, though an astrologer once told her that his Sagittarius rising countered the dark, brooding side associated with the sign of the scorpion. Throw in a bit of Virgo for order and neatness, Leo to account for his lion’s mane of dark hair, a dash of Capricorn for stability, and the result was Mark Steven Hollingsworth. Not that Leigh necessarily believed in a reading of the stars.
She sat back down on the bed and stared at the phone, trying to imagine his voice on the other end of the line. How would he react to her call? Would he be as angry with her today as he was seven years ago when she told him for a final time she would not leave her father to move to Kansas City? 
“Take him with us,” Mark had countered.
“He’d never make the adjustment,” Leigh argued. “He’s too frail.”
“Then put him in a home where he can get the kind of care he needs.”
“I give him the kind of care he needs, Mark. I’m all he has left in this world. I can’t do that to him, please don’t ask me.”
And on it went. Into the early hours of what would be their last night together. When he left the next morning, she knew in her heart it was over. Mark had had an offer from a Missouri law firm that he couldn’t refuse. Their home office was in Kansas City. So close and yet so far away. 
At first she thought he was too busy getting settled and established to return her calls. Finally, she had to admit he was never going to return them. After a couple of months, she stopped trying. And he never made an attempt to contact her. 
She thought surely she would hear something when he learned of her father’s passing six months ago, but no word came. No flowers, no card. Nothing. He had to have heard, she told herself. One or two of his friends in Windsor kept up with Mark. Otherwise, he severed all ties with the small town and its inhabitants. Both of his parents died in a plane crash while he was away at law school, and he had been an only child. Aunts and uncles had never lived in Windsor. Most of them were on the east coast, around Kennebunk, Maine. Mark’s father followed his dream of owning a cattle ranch in America’s heartland, and bought up over ten thousand acres, sight unseen, when Mark was only four years-old. Financial difficulties in the 90’s had caused Hollingsworth Senior to sell most of the land and downsize the head of cattle. He was on the verge of bankruptcy when he and his wife went down in a private jet, returning from a Colorado ski trip. Mark, who had planned to vacation with them, would have been on that ill-fated flight, had he not been in bed with the flu that weekend.
Fate, Leigh thought. I wonder what it has in store for us now? Maybe nothing. At least not together.
The phone rang on the other end of the line. 
“Five,” she said out loud. “If there’s no answer after the fifth ring, I’ll—”
“Good afternoon. Hollingsworth, Harper and Graham. How may I direct your call?”
Leigh took an even deeper breath. “Mr. Hollingsworth, please.”
“One moment.” The line was quiet for a time before the efficient female voice returned. “I’m sorry. Mr. Hollingsworth is in court this afternoon. Would you like his voice mail?”
Should I? Leigh asked herself. Or shouldn’t I?
“No. That’s all right. I’ll call back later.”
She had finally done it. She made the effort. She tried to reach him and fate said not today. In a way, she was relieved. She knew the next time—if there was a next time—it would be easier.





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