Horace’s morning routine hadn’t varied in more than two decades. First, he purchased a large black coffee in a white cardboard cup at the pastry shop. Next, he walked a half block to Bert’s Outdoor Newsstand to acquire a copy of the Wall Street Journal. He trifolded the paper with the date on the outside and tucked it under his right elbow. Then he took twelve long strides up the street, turned left at the corner, and entered Stevens and Humboldt Law Firm where he held the prestigious title of senior partner. He drank the coffee in his private office. This daily pattern kept him calm and ready for the day’s work.
On this seemingly ordinary Monday morning, a stranger handed him the paper. He hesitated, the quarters firmly gripped in his palm. “Where’s Bert?”
“I’ve been buying papers here for years and Bert’s never gone on vacation before.”
“Yeah, I know. But he decided it was time, he ain’t getting no younger, you know.”
Horace nodded, dropped the coins in the stranger’s palm, and turned to leave. He felt odd; his world seemed out of sync. The safety of his office beckoned like the siren’s song to a lonely sailor; but a woman with a cell phone glued against her ear blocked his way. Trapped between her and the newsstand, he tapped her shoulder. Startled, she jerked her arm sideways. A brown leather handbag slipped from her grasp, fell to the ground, scattering the contents over his freshly polished shoes. His right arm flew up as if to protect himself from an attack and his paper fell to the sidewalk.
In horror he watched her grasp the paper, the edges wrinkling under the pressure of her fingers. He felt the familiar tightening of muscles between his shoulder blades. The thought poked at his mind, prodding him to stoop over and help collect the contents of her purse. Instead he retrieved more quarters from his slacks’ pocket, bought another paper, and then sought the sanctuary of work. He stepped off the elevator on the eighth floor and greeted the receptionist with a half smile and nod of his head. Doris or Dorothy? Last week someone had left for maternity leave; there had been too many over the years. He firmly believed nametags should be mandatory.
In his office he set the coffee on a square olive green ceramic coaster that had sat on the upper left edge of his desk for twenty years. He placed the newspaper on the lower right corner. Horace leaned back in the chair, laced his fingers together and closed his eyes. Five minutes of silence before the actual work day began, three hundred seconds to recapture normalcy. He refused to consider the possibility that Bert wouldn’t be there tomorrow.
When he opened his eyes the newspaper caught his attention, reminding him of Bert’s absence. Sharp pains jabbed his stomach. Small balls of acid rolled through his intestines inflicting increasing amounts of discomfort. An army of a thousand feet marched up his spine with heavy steel-soled boots; when they reached his neck they attacked with battering rams. A heavy throbbing began in his temple and traveled back across the top of his head, tumbling down in a cascade of anguish. His left eye twitched. A small tic began beneath his other eye.
He opened the bottom left-hand drawer and stared at the ivory-colored manila folder that hid “it”. No one knew about it. “I know, I know,” he whispered. “I promised. I swore an oath.” Small beads of sweat covered his brow. One salty drop traced a path through his eyebrow. “I meant to keep the vow; after all, I’m a man of my word.”
Another thousand feet joined in the attack on his spine. The crescendo of pain coursed through his body. “What other choice do I have? Who can help me? I am helpless before this onslaught on my sensibilities!” He slid his hand beneath the folder and let his fingers touch it. A promise of sweet revenge invited him to caress it, to feel its power to bring order back into his life. Its very presence invited him to surrender.
Another jolt of pain gave him the courage. “I will do this. No one can stop me. No one.” His fingers gripped it, and he savored the release of adrenaline. Horace stood up, filled with courage and determination. It lay on his palm. Innocent. With trembling fingers he slid the brown wrapper off, folded back the silver foil, and took a deep breath. “I won’t even say I’m sorry. I’ll just do it and bear the consequences.” With a smile, he bit into the chocolate bar.
Anne Marie Gomez owns a business that designs custom gardens for people’s homes. She also raises a variety of flowers from seed and enjoys sharing the seedlings with other home gardeners. Her free time is devoted to writing, writing, and then more writing. She has had several short stories published in various magazines.