Second Chances

Excerpt from the unpublished novel "Ghosts of Freedom"

Alex Shapiro

© Copyright 2001 by Alex Shapiro


Photo of Alex Shapiro

May was a torrid month in the Deep South, the air sticky and salty, glued to the bare skin. Despite the damp heat, Main Street, the lawyers' alley of Biloxi, Mississippi, was sprinkled with dark business suits and sunglasses. The multiple zigzags of tires imprinted their marks in the melting asphalt, as fancy convertibles left for the weekend.

It was almost five in the afternoon when Ann Smith parked her teal Rodeo in front of Robert Jackson's office. She stepped outside the car, her slender legs swirling the heated air, and allowed the sizzling breeze to penetrate her body, but not to melt her heart. With eyes closed and arms wide open, she imagined she could embrace the sun. A few moments later, Ann picked up her folder, locked the car, and forced her mind back to her appointment.

After three short knocks on the doorframe, she entered the waiting room, blew away a few strings of rusty hair shadowing her view and headed toward the secretary's window. It took all her strength to put up a weak smile. She had been driving for almost an hour, straight from New Orleans, where she was working as a cancer researcher, at the University of Medicine. She'd had a long day and an endless week, but the appointment with her lawyer deserved all the sacrifice.

Despite the hectic work schedule, Ann managed to spend her spare hours working on a personal project, her last will and testament ... and her sacred secret. She couldn't bother anybody with horror stories about the demons inside her mind, nor could she explain the shadows haunting her mind, always pointing out her mistakes. Therapy and medication only kept her thoughts floating, while her pact with death continued to dictate her daily existence. After half a lifetime of debilitating depression, Ann didn't have the strength to play a double life anymore, too exhausted to face the society with a morning smile and maintain a happy face throughout each painful day.

"Hi Miss Smith, how's it going today?" the middle-aged secretary greeted, her perfectly round face opened in a warm smile.

"Hello," Ann said, her shoulders shivering under her silky T-shirt. "I have an appointment with Mr. Jackson. "

"Miss Smith," the elder woman's voice resonated in a low singsong. "I'm so sorry ... we've tried to contact you, Miss. He's not here right now ..."

"Is he gonna be back?" Ann's arms squeezed the yellow folder to her body.

"Don't know Miss. He left in a rush. His buddy is in a coma and Mr. Jackson took off after the hospital called here. He tried to catch you at work, but you were already gone."

 "Ma'am, I'm sorry for his friend." Blood smudged on Ann's teeth, as they sank into her lips.

Ann sighed and checked her silver Gucci watch. She had to wear it on her right wrist after last year's accident, and the only time she'd missed work in all the five years since she'd been with the University research center. She couldn't tell anybody that she'd spent the weekend trying to slit her wrists open and that she had done a lousy job. Less than half a year after the incident she'd developed a meticulous plan and put together the final draft of her will explaining it all, her own disgust with herself and her bitter disappointment in life in general. But lately, with a solution seeded inside her mind, Ann had been feeling better about the phantoms of her illness. She only needed to meet with her lawyer in order to tie a few loose ends.

"Ma'am?" Ann asked, her drawl, a mixture of Smokey Parkway and voodoo mystery. "Should I wait in his office for a while? Maybe he'll show up in a few ..."

The secretary opened her face in a pearly white smile. "Sure, sure, it don't bother me. Go on now ... " Her fingers, glittering with jewelry, waived toward the lawyer's door.

"Thanks so much," Ann said, as tears of despair muted her words.

Once inside the shadowy office, she could feel her heart throbbing, throughout her body. Robert's favorite phrase welcomed her, glowing in front of her eyes, hanging on the wall, behind his desk:

"Helping You in Your Darkest Moments."

The carpet tickled her feet right above her low cut sneakers. Ann pressed the door closed with her shoulders and the wooden vibration curved her bony body into a question mark of pain.

"Hello ... " Ann whispered. After listening to the stillness of the room, her ears tuned in to a muffled clicking behind the lawyer's desk. Soon she recognized it was coming from a keyboard. She embraced her yellow folder until it curved around her waist and, leaving a trail of footsteps in the carpet, she followed the staccato noise.

"May I help you, ma'am?" The clicking stopped as the question echoed in her ears.

"Hello," Ann greeted again. "I have an appointment with Mr. Jackson."

"Sorry, ma'am." A CD case snapped closed. "He's not available today," the chatting computer ghost continued.

Ann swallowed the tears choking her throat.

"Can I be of any assistance?" the voice continued, as the computer announced its shutdown.

Ann gasped for air as her fingers felt the sweat in her palm lines.

"The secretary told me he's not here," she said in the empty office and, with a giant step, reached the lawyer's desk. She could smell the monitor's heat.

 Ann's veins pulsated. She had it all figured out, the pills, the knife, the shredded blanket waiting for her in the living room. She peeled the yellow folder off her body and patted it straight.

"I was supposed to see him today!" she said, trying not to scream. "Where is he? Why didn't anybody say anything to me?" The room started to spin around her.

"Hi, I am Julian Jackson," the man greeted her, standing by Ann's side, a head taller than she was. "Bob's nephew."

"Hi." She stared at the tanned face. "Ann Smith ..."

"Ah." Julian opened his voluptuous lips. "Miss Smith, I'm afraid my uncle is not available this afternoon."

 Ann's eyebrows arched above her chestnut colored eyes. "His secretary suggested I should wait ... "

"He couldn't get in touch with you." Julian looked out the window at the simmering parking lot.

"I was on my way here," Ann's hand reached the cellular phone hanging on her belt, as a disappointed sigh slipped through her lips. "Of course," she mumbled to herself while the phone beeped under her finger touch. "I didn't have it on." Ann explained, her eyes glanced at the wooden pendulum clock guarding the office from beside the window. "I'd better be going now, sorry for wasting your time," she gasped for fresh air, her palm grabbed the slightly peeled doorknob.

"Don't you want something to drink before you leave?" Julian's question stopped her before she could leave the room.

Ann's eyes searched the carpet for the right answer, "I'm fine, thanks." She could feel the goose bumps penetrating her black jeans.

"Is this your first appointment with my uncle?" Julian asked.

"Third ... " Ann responded. "I have to finish some personal business today ..." She checked out the man's long feet. He must wear a size thirteen, Ann thought.

"Of course it's personal ... " Julian continued, watching her.

"What do you mean?" She found her reflection in his dark eyes.

"Just making conversation, that's all," Julian answered, pouring himself a glass of Sprite he found in the small, but practical, office fridge.

"I really thought I would finish this today." She didn't know why, but felt comfortable talking to the dark man in front of her. "When can I talk to him?" Ann asked again.

Julian took off his thin, bluish glasses and scratched his eyes with both fists. "Not this afternoon, I'm afraid. He left me here to help you." Julian put the glasses back on his delicate nose.

"But you are not a lawyer!" Ann snapped in response. "Or are you?" her voice sparkled in the room.

"Nope, I sure guess I'm not a lawyer. Maybe you don't need one after all," his lips closed in a thick smile.

 "Look, I wasted enough of your time and mine," Ann's words spiked the air.

"Oh, come on, you can't be mad at him. Bob is just a balding old guy. I can show you around, if that is fine with you," Julian offered, his voice as calm as the still day outside.

"I have to drive back to New Orleans," Ann felt the doorknob turning in her hand.

"The city with no airport, right?" Julian's eyes became two phosphorus lights sparkling in the shadowy room.

Ann smiled, thinking of the airport sign. "Yeah, with N. O. airport," her voice stopped after each letter.

"I stay at the Hyatt this coming week, attending a conference," Julian said. "I'm a damn Yankee, so to speak, started this small company in New York, several years ago." His sensual lips closed in a voluptuous curve as he smiled. "Bob accuses me of neglecting Tiger," Julian continued, "my cat, looks like a tiny tiger," he sighed. "But nowadays the furry beast spends most of the time with my neighbor." Julian's face opened in a nostalgic smile. "She takes care of him while I'm away." He stared at the simmering parking lot. "I can show you around, what about a walk along the beach?" Julian dangled a ring full of keys.

Ann couldn't remember her last walk on the beach; besides, his baritone voice had a soothing effect on her. "Do you have a picture of your cat with you?" Ann asked.

"Nah, I don't carry pictures with me, would do no good, only make me yearn for home," he explained.

She pulled her own keys from the jeans' pocket. "Are you driving?" she smiled, watching his short moustache shaking under jolted giggles.

"Of course I'm driving, otherwise we'll both get lost," Julian responded, and followed her out of the office.

"Good then," Julian said, once in the parking lot, "we'll take my car." He stopped in front of a granite red Corvette. "Here you are." He opened the passenger's door.

The smooth leather seat relaxed her stiff body, vanished her worries into the summer breeze and the agony of life, on the streets of Biloxi. A long forgotten peace of mind warmed up her soul, altered her memory, as Ann forgot the reason behind the appointment with her attorney in the first place. Was life offering her another chance? She couldn't help but wonder.

Moments later, Julian parked the car by the Long Beach of Biloxi. The engine stopped together with the last words of Celin Dion's "Because You Love Me" as the greenish ocean unfolded in front of their eyes.

Ann took off her sneakers, ready to enjoy the foamy waves brushing over her feet. The smell of dead algae reminded her of the yellow folder left on the car seat.

"What's wrong?" Julian questioned the haunted look in her eyes.

"Nothing, I'm fine," Ann said, the strawberry smell of his body tickled her senses, fingertips twitched to brush over his silky skin.

They walked and talked, lost track of time. Julian told her stories about his military years and, then, some more, about his life in Manhattan. After a while, he stopped and his hands sheltered Ann's shoulders, careful not to damage the secret treasure hiding inside her body. His fingertip brushed over her lips, its touch turned magic onto Ann's skin, as her thoughts got lost in the sandy wind.

Gray clouds rushed across the sky.

"We should get to the car," Julian offered his hand, as the first raindrops sprinkled the sand.

Her fingers disappeared inside his palm and they ran across the beach. By the time they found the parking lot, damp sand coated their feet, as lost drops of fresh rain dripped from their clothes. The sunlight embraced them in a warm welcome, a giant orange, sneaking out from behind the clouds.

"Here we are," Julian said, as they reached the car. He unlocked the doors and started the engine. The air conditioning breeze wrinkled Ann's skin, slashed through her bones, throwing her jaws into an arrhythmic tap.

"Are you all right?" he asked, turning the icy air off.

"Hmm ... " Ann knotted, holding her chin with both hands.

"Here, put this on," Julian said, pulling out a blanket from behind Ann's seat. She watched helplessly as he tucked her in, too cold and exhausted to object his tender touch.

After a few turns and several raindrops left in the trees, they stopped in front of the office building.

"Thanks a lot, " Ann said, once out of the Corvette, "I had a wonderful time, rain and all." What am I doing here in the first place? She wondered, intrigued with herself, suddenly not sure she hated life so much anymore.

"I hope I'll see you again sometime," his words melted around her heart, like honey over butter.

"Tell your uncle he screwed up my plans for the weekend," Ann said, as a shadow past her eyes.

"Does it mean that you are free this weekend?" Julian inquired, pressed the car door closed for her.

"Maybe," Ann managed a faint smile. Her eyes turned muddy and hope flickered, jolted her heart, as his frame blurred into the twilight.

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