A Job Well Done (Short Story)
The following short story was inspired by a prompt to combine a broken watch, peppermints, and a hug that went too far. Enjoy and please share any feedback!
Kayleigh slowly unwrapped a peppermint, her own state of calm a sharp contrast to the screaming, excited children who careened around the yard in front of her, kicking about birthday balloons and chasing each other with ice-cream-sticky fingers. Placing the peppermint delicately in her mouth, Kayleigh let the taste tingle over her tongue. Sweet, but sharp, much like unrequited love, she reflected.
“Mommy, mommy! The clown is scaring me!” A shrieking blonde-haired six-year-old, resplendent in party hat and sparkling pink tutu, threw herself into Kayleigh’s lap. The woman sighed good-naturedly and kissed her daughter’s head.
“But you insisted on having the clown, darling. Don’t be afraid; go ask him to teach you how to juggle.” She pressed another kiss on the little girl’s curls and exchanged amused glances with one of the other mothers at the birthday party.
“Enjoy every moment you have while she’s so young and precocious,” the neighbor said. “Before you know it she’ll be all grown up, out risking life and limb for the Revolution, like my eldest.”
Kayleigh raised her eyebrows and pushed a strand of auburn hair out of her freckled face. “I hope the Revolution will be over by the time my Jessica is old enough to understand what it’s about.”
Kayleigh frowned, letting her gaze wander from the colorful profusion of life and happiness before her out beyond to the grey towers of the distant city. It was strange, in a way, that her front yard should be the scene of such careless normalcy as a child’s birthday party, while out there protesters and soldiers clashed in the city streets. Every day the newspaper she worked for carried some new story of government corruption, Revolutionary heroics, and military retaliation against the demonstrators. Of course, as a journalist she had tried to remain objective about the situation for a long time, and in public she still held an unruffled if unpopular position of neutrality, but in private she had been working for the Revolution in her own way for quite some time.
Her reflection was suddenly disturbed by excited childish screams and the yapping of a small dog as a white terrier burst through the garden gate into the middle of the lawn, running madly in circles and jumping up at the children who crowded around it. Following behind the dog came a tall, broad-shouldered man with a shock of dark blonde hair and a slightly beaky nose. “Excuse me, this is terrible, I’m so sorry! Bad Toby! Come here, boy!” The man fumbled for the runaway pup’s leash, apologizing profusely and backing away towards the gate.
Sudden chills ran down Kayleigh’s spine. She jumped to her feet. “Isaac!”
The man snapped to attention, his blue eyes opening wide in shock, his mouth quickly stretching into a smile of genuine delight. “My goodness! Kayleigh! Is that really you? It’s been years.”
Kayleigh hurried towards him, arms outstretched, but inside she felt sick. “Twelve years, to be precise.”
“Oh yes, back when you were a fresh-faced young intern at our newspaper office,” Isaac nodded. “You were one of our best—one of our most intelligent and conscientious. We were such good friends, then, hmm?” They embraced, laughing awkwardly, patting each other on the back.
“Funny how people who were such good friends don’t contact each other for twelve years,” Kayleigh said, leading him back up the path towards the porch. Isaac had the grace to blush. She handed him a glass of pink lemonade with a wry smile, offering him a seat. As he took a long sip of lemonade, she narrowed her eyes to scrutinize him. He may have put on a little extra weight, and tell-tale signs of approaching baldness were unmistakably present, but he was still an attractive man. She wondered how much of his youthful character remained, and she let her mind drift back to the moment when they had consolidated their friendship.
“Isn’t it a beautiful day?” Isaac smiled at Kayleigh as he handed her a stack of papers. “I have a scintillating transcript for you to type up into an interview piece, if you don’t mind. How are you, Kayleigh?”
The 18-year-old intern let out a shaky breath. Her rent was due but she didn’t have enough money, she was homesick, she didn’t think she would ever become a good enough journalist, and she was sick of making coffee and running errands for all the high-ups in the office. But there was no sense in letting him know all that. “I’m fine,” she said.
“No you’re not.” Isaac’s face was serious. “I know you love to tell everyone just how fine things are, but I want to know what’s really going on. I know something’s wrong. Please tell me.”
Startled, and impressed that he could see past her mask of tranquility, Kayleigh told him everything. Her spirit was soothed by his concern.
Kayleigh snapped back to the present as Isaac put down the lemonade glass and looked at her with the same intense gaze that at one time had set butterflies fluttering in her stomach. She wondered if he would be able to see past the masks she wore these days.
“So catch me up!” she said cheerily. “What are you doing these days?” She knew, of course—her job made certain that she knew—but she wanted him to admit it.
Isaac hesitated for a moment, looking warily around at the small clusters of parents and children that dotted Kayleigh’s yard. They were all absorbed in their own affairs, laughing together and eating jelly and ice cream. The clown was playing an energetic tug-of-war with Isaac’s dog. Isaac cleared his throat, turning his attention back to the woman in front of him. “I went into politics a year or two after we met. I’ve been there ever since.”
“Politics? That’s a risky place to be these days, what with the Revolution and everything. Aren’t you afraid for your life?”
Isaac chuckled. “No. Few people know who I am; I work behind the scenes, largely. What about you?”
“I still write for The People’s Report,” Kayleigh replied matter-of-factly. “You could say I’m in politics too, in a way. Also behind the scenes. I like to think of myself as a bit of a mover and shaker.”
“Ah, so you must be one of the anonymous writers who pen those fiery Revolutionary columns. Well, you know what they say about the pen being mightier than the sword, and all that.”
Kayleigh smiled and said nothing. The two stared out at the playful children and the peaceful neighborhood, lost in their own thoughts.
“Surely you don’t agree with all the tales the Revolutionaries are spreading about our government,” Isaac finally broke the silence. He was fishing for a more concrete understanding of her political affiliations, Kayleigh sensed.
“The government should be for the people,” she answered guardedly. “It no longer is. I can’t blame the Revolutionaries for what they’re doing. In fact, I would think that you would use your influence with the president to start speaking up for those you are supposed to represent. It’s the logical thing to do, and the right thing.”
“Just as you used to be, so concerned with reason and the right.”
“Of course. There was only one time I followed my heart instead of my head.” Kayleigh felt a wave of bittersweet nostalgia encompass her. The memory was still vivid in her mind. She willed him to remember it, too.
The hot air blew in through the open office window, offering little relief from the heavy atmosphere of the computer room with its broken air conditioning. Kayleigh stood by the window, feeling faint from the heat, wishing that a thunderstorm would come and clear the air. Perhaps a thunderstorm would help to clear her head, too.
“Deep in thought, as usual? What mysteries of the universe shall we discuss this time?”
The girl whirled around to see Isaac leaning casually against a desk, a smile playing on his lips and his gaze intensely holding hers. Her heart was pounding, and it was silly, she knew. In another three months her internship with the newspaper would be over, and they would go their separate ways. There was no point in falling for him; logic was against it. She wasn’t even sure how their genial friendship had developed into this palpable romantic tension. She admired his intellect and confidence. She liked how he seemed to see into her soul. She trusted him. That was all. And yet her heart suddenly burst into tango rhythms when he strode across the room and enveloped her in his arms. “You give good hugs,” he whispered into her hair. She melted into his embrace, fingers gripping the back of his shirt. “My heart will break when I leave here anyway,” she reflected as she nestled into his shoulder. “May as well break it completely.”
“I have to hand it to you, though, for giving me the happiest three months of my life after that night,” Kayleigh said. She dipped into the open bag of candy next to her chair and passed him a peppermint. “I fooled myself completely into thinking you really cared.”
Isaac looked thoughtful. “I did care about you.”
“You had a funny way of showing it, dropping me like a hot potato as soon as your ex showed a renewed interest.”
Isaac appeared not to hear. He leaned forward. “Why did you say it was the happiest three months of your life? Aren’t you happy now, with your home and your daughter, and a husband I presume?”
Kayleigh laughed. “I’d forgotten your trick of analyzing other people in order to shift the limelight away from yourself.” There was a sardonic edge to her voice.
Isaac grinned. “I suppose as a political figure I’ve perfected that art. But really, why?”
“My husband went missing four years after Jessica was born. He and I had the same job, you know, and I suppose that in some ways it’s a dangerous profession. Things can go wrong. But I never felt the same way for him as I did for you,” she admitted. “I’ve been loyal to you to a fault, I suppose—stuck in the past!”
“Rather like this watch,” Isaac looked down and tapped the timepiece on his wrist quizzically, evading Kayleigh’s eyes and an acknowledgment of her feelings. “I swear it showed this same time when I left the house an hour ago. I should collect my dog from the children and be on my way. I have a meeting this afternoon and I’ll be late if I don’t leave right away.”
Kayleigh sighed. “When you’ve got a job to do, you’ve got to do it well,” she quoted blithely from the Paul McCartney song, wondering if he would remember when they used to sing it together on long rough days in the newspaper office.
“You’ve got to give the other fellow hell!” Isaac finished the lyric for her with a laugh, obviously relieved that she wasn’t pressing the issue of her unrequited love for him any further. He rose to his feet and whistled for his dog.
Kayleigh got up too. “I’ll take you in the car,” she offered. “It would be no trouble; the neighbors can watch Jessica and it won’t take more than a few minutes, I’m sure. Just let me get my purse.”
“Thanks.” Isaac picked up the puppy cavorting at his feet and tickled its chin. “I’ve never understood women’s constant need to have their purse with them everywhere, and fill it up with everything but the kitchen sink,” he called after Kayleigh’s retreating figure.
“Oh, it’s a necessity!” she called back to him. Quickly she checked inside her bag. The essentials were all there.
The couple was silent as Kayleigh drove Isaac out towards the city. “This will do,” he announced a short time later as she pulled up next to a row of unremarkable brick townhouses, some of them defaced with Revolutionary graffiti.
Kayleigh got out of the car to give him one last hug. Her heart quickened again at his touch, the sensation of his cheek against her hair, and for a moment she was an enchanted 18-year-old again. She shook off the feeling. It was time to move on, for herself, for the nation. “This is our final goodbye, then,” she smiled a little wistfully. “I don’t think we’ll see each other again.”
Isaac looked disappointed. He was about to say something, but Kayleigh shook her head. In a flash, she had pulled the gun from her purse. A twitch of her finger, a muffled shot, and it was over. Quickly, Kayleigh got back into her car and drove away. Head over heart. Another job well done.