"Well, Sophie, you've been busy." My editor placed the typed sheets on her desk and pushed
her reading glasses to the top of her head, smiling in a way that suggested she wasn't simply
commenting on my productivity.
Barbara Evans was definitely fiftyish but her exact age remained a secret closely guarded
by her mother and the clerk at the Department of Motor Vehicles. No gray, no dye. No kidding.
The wrinkles around her eyes were laugh lines; gravity had yet to wage war on the softer parts
of her body.
I made a noncommittal noise as I fooled around at the coffee station in her office at The
Mag. I swore I kept this job just so I could drink her coffee. An invitation to Barbara's office for
coffee was like receiving royal honors.
"Unfortunately, I felt really inspired this week." I took a shallow sip of the coffee so I didn't
scald my tongue. Carrying the mug over to her desk, I flopped into the big red leather chair
across from her.
"I'll say. These letters make, what…" She shuffled through the perpetual piles on her desk
until she found what she wanted. Barbara was old school, preferring paper to electronic files.
"Seven. You made the regular issue as well as the summer bonus. I'm impressed."
Nodding, I reached for my cup. The summer bonus was a pain, if anyone asked me.
However, I got paid to do it. Money was nice, so I kept my opinion to myself. I had yet to master
a passable poker face and Barbara was a champion player.
"But you don't look like someone who's free and clear until next issue," she said. "You look
more like you expect someone to jump out at you."
"I just… eh, it's nothing." I tried to downplay it but her assessment was dead-on, hopefully
no pun intended. Her slight frown insisted she wanted a better answer and I grimaced, knowing
she wouldn't like the answer. "I've been thinking about Patrick."
"Him again?" She clucked her tongue and walked around the desk. Perching on the edge,
she softened her firm tone with a sympathetic look. "He needed professional help and you told
him so. You did what you could."
"I don't feel like I did."
"Enough. You're not a psychiatrist. Let it go."
Barbara was right. I was an advice columnist. People sought me out because they wanted
my help. Didn't help matters that, before joining The Mag, I'd spent more than a decade in
nursing. I was driven to help, to care, to make things all better.
Didn't I have an obligation to help them? "But—"
"But nothing," she said. "I know you like to dwell. At least dwell on something cheerful.
Think about those you help."
I scowled into my cup. She was right—I did get too hung up on people and their problems.
It was just the way I was wired.
"What brought him up, anyway?"
"I got a letter from him yesterday," I said.
She gave me a careful look as if she were determining whether or not our friendship would
survive a phone call to Crisis Intervention. "You mean from someone who sounds like him."
"No, him. His handwriting, his signature."
"I thought you said—"
"I did." I scooted on the slippery cushion so I could look up at her. "You saw the obituary."
"Dead is dead, Sophie." Barbara flipped through the stack in her inbox before selecting
several pages from the middle. She tugged a paperclip free and dropped it into a tray as she
reclaimed her seat. "They don't come back. Maybe he sent it before he—you know."
I cradled the cup, feeling the sting of heat through the ceramic. The warmth failed to travel
past my palms and I tucked my arms to my chest. "It was postmarked this week."
"Do you want the column mail screened?"
"Wouldn't help. It was mailed to my apartment."
Now I had her attention.
She sat back in her chair, papers forgotten. "How could anyone have gotten your home
"Beats me. The column mail comes here and I use a post office box for freelance subs."
"Anything else? Phone calls? Hang ups?"
"No. Just the letter." After a brief deliberation, I added more. Might as well spill all the beans
and not just the ones she'd believe. "And the feeling someone's… waiting for me."
Barbara's expression said Okay, I think you finally cracked but her mouth issued more
diplomatic words. "Seriously? Maybe you're being stalked."
"No, I don't think so. Just a vague feeling, like someone's waiting for me to… I don't know,
open my eyes. See them." I didn't ask if she ever had that feeling. Most people didn't get
impressions the way I did. I'd stopped asking that question a long time ago.
However, this was the first time a simple impression worried me. It was a solid, hovering
kind of expectancy that killed my concentration and made me look over my shoulder wherever I
"That's probably because the letter came to your apartment." The phone rang and Barbara
poked the voice mail button. "You feel vulnerable. Keep your eyes open and try to ignore it."
I half-agreed with her, raising the cup and hiding my mouth behind it. I couldn't shake the
distinct feeling something awful loomed. The sense of foreboding was like wearing a
turtleneck—a constant, constricting pressure. "Maybe I'll take self-defense classes."
"Never a bad idea for a woman living alone in the city. Then again, you might not need
them. Your witticisms are sharp enough to draw blood."
I grinned. "Eh, it's a defense mechanism I developed from working with Donna. I used to be
such a nice person."
"Speaking of her, she's looking for you."
I slid down in my chair so my head wasn't visible from the door. "Maybe I'll just stay in here
while I finish my coffee. Wouldn't do to be caught out in the open."
Barbara removed her glasses and tossed them onto her desk. "What did you do now?"
"Nothing," I protested. "Just– that Expo thing. She's in charge."
She pressed her lips into a stern line. "Haven't you signed up yet?"
"Heck, no. I have stuff to do. Me stuff."
"Your job is me stuff."
"Easy for you to say. You're salaried. Saturday is my day off."
"Well, I won't blow your cover." She glanced over my head toward the door before she
waved her pen warningly. "But she'll get her claws into you. One way or another."
I scowled and took a double mouthful of coffee so I wouldn't have to respond. Claws, Expo,
anything Donna—they all topped the list of Things I Wanted Least.
I stayed long enough to complete my hedonistic coffee experience before slinking back to my
desk. This was work, after all; I wouldn't remain a staff writer if I didn't act like one.
I lived in Balaton, a harbor-dependent city halfway between Philadelphia and Wilmington.
Halfway was an apt description in more ways than one. Big enough for a downtown but lacking
the sprawl of a mega-city. Too small for a subway but wide enough for several bus routes.
Taxes weren't as high as Philly but we didn't get a free ride on sales tax like glorious Delaware,
We weren't a major tourist destination, just another city people passed through on the way
to somewhere else. I guessed that was why I never left. Balaton was midway between point A
and point B—just like me.
This job was the closest fit I'd felt in a long time, even if the inseam wasn't quite right. I had
a leg up in the game, at least. My inner voice. My gut instinct. My compassion.
The job was easy. All I had to do was tell people what they probably already knew. Nine
times out of ten it was what they wanted to hear anyway, but they didn't trust themselves
enough to follow their own advice. If people were brave enough to listen to the spark of wisdom
that lived in each of us, I'd be out of a job.
Thank God for that one out of ten who actually needed my advice; they went a long way to
validate me. Only problem was, they were the ones who kept me awake at night.
I sighed and plucked my mail from the basket hanging outside my cubicle before dropping
into my chair. My position at The Mag was a haven for me. At least, it had been until Patrick's
needy letters arrived. Damn those depressed men who get attached to the first sympathetic
person they encounter. Damn the way they kill themselves and leave the rest of us to feel like it
was our failure, not theirs.
Damn them for coming back.
I knew it couldn't be him. I knew dead was dead. Plenty of dead had happened around me
in the past and never once had it been undone. Patrick could be no exception.
Question was: Who? Who now? Who was going to yank my heartstrings, get me
completely tied up in their emotional plight, and bail on me at the end? Who would be the death
I didn't want to find out.