The Wryters' Block

Shaping, Designing, Sculpting Words

One In A Million

c. Arsoleen Woolcock

approximately 4,004 words

One in a Million

By

Arsoleen Woolcock

            Sheila Douglas stepped into the dimly-lit restaurant called LeBajo’s, famous for its cross menu of Italian and American meals. She slid in a corner booth beside her daughter, right across from her husband and son, and closed her eyes for just a split second to catch her breath. It had been a long day! She inhaled a deep gulp of air, then exhaled slowly, reveled in the restaurant’s calm, relaxing atmosphere. She opened her eyes, settled back, and allowed her husband, Tom, to order for herself and the twins. So accustomed to multi-tasking, she listened and smiled at Tom’s compliments, answered her children’s questions, and wondered where she could buy a pair of shoes and accessories for the new outfit her husband just bought her.

She acknowledged the second wink Tom cast her way with a smile and nod of the head. She knew she looked attractive with her thick, dark hair curled and hanging loosely about her shoulders. The red dress she wore hugged her thighs and accentuated her deep brown, flawless complexion. When Sheila smiled, her eyes glistened, and tonight she appeared younger than her twenty-nine years.

While they waited for their meal, she crossed long, shapely legs and laughed at Tom’s outrageous jokes, very much aware of the smoldering look that steadily burned in his eyes. She listened to the twins’ ceaseless chatter, then raised her eyes and assessed the other couples and families who sat at tables and enjoyed their meals together with talk and laughter.

It was then and there that her eyes connected with a man she hadn’t seen in years. Her eyes stretched open wide. Her breath caught in her throat. After all these years, she couldn’t believe she’d come face to face with the one person she never ever wanted to see again in her whole entire life – Rick Slater.

Even during six years of marriage to Tom, a banker at Security Federal, thoughts of her high school sweetheart vividly remained in her head, always found a way to saunter into her thoughts and invade her senses. Now just looking at Rick seated alone and only four tables away, Sheila trembled, felt the old familiar warmth steal inside and curl itself around her heart.

Gee! What’s wrong with me? Sheila thought. I’m sitting here with a man who loves me – my husband, for Pete’s sake! He’s treating me to a savory steak dinner with all the trimmings, and yet, I feel so incomplete. Why?

Sheila barely listened as Tom relayed office news, business deals he’d landed . . . she felt guilty.Traitor! a voice yelled in her head.

Tom’s voice droned on and on, much like an annoying drumbeat. She stabbed her steak, then realized suddenly that her appetite vanished the very moment she laid eyes on Rick. Hesitant, she lifted her fork to her mouth and nibbled food, but there would be no way she could swallow.

“Didn’t you hear me?” Tom repeated. “You should be laughing, Sheila! That was a good joke.” Tom picked up his napkin and brushed it across his lips. A frown creased his forehead. “What’s wrong?” he asked. Concern showed in his eyes. “Is everything alright?”

“Yes,” Sheila said. “Yes, everything’s fine!” she repeated with a bright smile. How could she tell him that she wished she could run – run away from him – from everything, to safety? She needed to get away from the onslaught of past memories that threatened to weigh her down. She plopped another slice of lemon into her tea and swished it around with her straw. “I just thought of another character for my next book, that’s all.”

“Oh, I can buy that,” Tom mused. A look of dismay crossed his features. He knew that when he married Sheila, writing was and would always be her first love. It had been a bitter pill for him to swallow, but in time, he’d come to accept it. Now that she had become an accomplished writer with her mystery novels rolling out and selling like hotcakes, he was very proud of his wife. But tonight, he wanted her to himself and the kids. No book characters. No writing ideas. No thinking of book deals and editors with deadlines and contracts yet to be signed.

Sheila kept her head down, tried to concentrate on her food, but even as she poured ketchup over the kids’ fries, she could not keep her eyes from his, Rick’s eyes, now staring back at her. He had that arrogant, self-assured look on his face that she knew so well with that teasing smile that curved his lips, taunting her. She noticed that he was impeccably dressed in a suit and bow tie. The tan coloring of his outfit suited his light-brown complexion. His hair was cut close and was wavy. Thick brows lifted as he watched her from coal-black eyes. His nose was long; his mustache, daringly heavy over thin lips.

She moaned inwardly. The man was too good-looking, too perfect, and she suddenly remembered enjoying his kisses, remembered wanting his touch. Slowly, she began undressing him. He had a tattoo of a lion etched on his upper right arm, and she recalled that she would kiss it time and time again whenever she lay in the crook of his arm. Above his navel was a tiny dark brown spot that resembled a strawberry; it was his birthmark. Ah, she knew the man too well, and she shook her head to shake away her vivid recollections.

“Okay, Mandy,” she said “wanna come with mommy to the ladies’ room?”

“No, mommy,” her five- year old answered as messy fingers busily piled fries into her mouth. “I don’t wanna go now.”

“You go on, honey,” Tom intervened. “I’ll watch Michael and Mandy.”

Sweet Tom. Why can’t I give my all to him? Sheila thought.

Tom was plain looking, an ex-football player with a heavy, muscular build, dressed now in grey slacks and an open-collared black silk shirt. His smooth, dark bald head gleamed under the glow of chandelier lights that flickered from above. Thin-rimmed glasses set upon his square face, covered small, hawk-like eyes; his nose and lips were big. He wasn’t exactly handsome, but he had strength of character. He was kind and gentle and caring and warm and compassionate, and Sheila knew all this, just like she never doubted his love for her for one second. Tom was a wonderful man. Maybe that was the problem; he was too wonderful.

She rose slowly. Sheila’s heart thudded wildly in her chest as she walked across the carpeted floor on her way to use the ladies’ room. “Almost there!” she whispered. When she rounded the corner, a hand clutched her elbow. She gasped, half turned. There Rick stood right in front of her looking like some handsome Greek god who had just been plucked right off the cover of some popular men’s magazine  – so close to her with his broad chest near hers, with his eyes gazing into her own.

Too close. Sheila was afraid to breathe, to be that close to him. Distant memories that should have been buried with the past flitted involuntarily through her head.

“Hello,” he spoke with confidence.

“Hello, Rick.” All Sheila could do was stand there and stare, unmoving, groping for composure. “It’s certainly been awhile,” she said. “You look the same.” Her breath seemed to come in shallow spurts.

“You are even more beautiful than what I remember. More beautiful than in my dreams, Sheila.” Like a spider’s web attracting its prey, Rick’s voice drew her to him, created a spell around her. “Married?” he asked.

“Yes, I am married with two kids – twins!” She laughed. She remembered talking with him about kids and the family that they would have together so long ago. It was a sweet recollection that brought tears to rest in her eyes.

“. . . Listen,” he interrupted her thoughts. “I’m going to be in town for a few days, Sheila. I’d like to meet you somewhere, alone, so we can talk. I’ve missed you. I – I made a mistake those years ago. I realize that now. I ruined both our lives.”

Water stood in Sheila’s eyes, threatened to overflow. She had waited too long to hear those words. Did they mean anything at all to her now?

She remembered the last time that she saw Rick – the painful scene, the cruel shock that almost destroyed her world.  Sheila was twenty-two then. It was graduation night, and it should have been one of the happiest days of her life. But after years of dating Rick since seventh grade, through high school, and on through college, she believed that he loved her. But that night after college graduation and eating an intimate, romantic dinner, Rick drove her home, stood on the worn porch of her parent’s house, faced her as he did now, told her his intentions to marry someone else, breaking her heart heedlessly, mindless of her feelings. What she hoped would be an engagement ring and a marriage proposal quickly escalated into a nightmare that nearly squeezed the life right out of her. Rick walked away that night with her heart in his hands, leaving her cold and empty inside.

It took many months before the numbness that surrounded her heart gave way to any sort of feeling. All those years since, Sheila never saw Rick again until now.

“Sheila . . .” Rick broke the silence, intruded upon her bittersweet memories. “Say you will. Please say you will. Meet me tomorrow.”

“Rick, I – I don’t know. We’re not kids anymore. I’m a wife and a mother . . .”

“. . . Please,” he begged. Rick reached into his pocket and pulled out a card. “Call me.” With his hands holding hers ever so gently, he placed a card in her hand, folded her fingers around it, and turned and walked away.

Sheila stared down at the card, unaware of how long their conversation lasted. Had five minutes passed . . . ten . . . fifteen? She walked into the ladies’ room, leaned back against the tiled wall with her face in her hands and sobbed uncontrollably.

**

The drive home had been strained and silent. Sheila was emotionally exhausted. She let Tom usher her and the kids inside, and she tucked them in their beds and helped them recite their prayers. Then she bent and kissed their small, brown faces.

“Goodnight, mom,” they echoed in unison.

“Goodnight. I love you guys!”

Sheila cut off the overhead light and left a lamp burning. She turned down the hallway to her room, wished she could just go in and collapse on her side of the huge bed in peace. There would be no questions, just silence.

“Tom, I thought you’d be asleep by now!” Sheila sounded surprised. It had been a long day, and nothing would please her more than a quiet, good night’s rest. No conversation. No romancing. Nothing.

Tom commented, “More than likely you were hoping I would be asleep.” He folded the newspaper neatly and set it aside on the nightstand. “I know you were talking with Slater at the restaurant. I know how you once loved the man. I don’t want you seeing or talking to him again, Sheila. You belong to me now. You’re my wife.” He paused. “There’s no way I’m going to share you with anyone.”

Sheila sat on the stool at the vanity, brushed her hair vigorously with quick strokes. She didn’t like the idea of being told what to do. She never did. She had her own mind. She was her own person. She didn’t feel like an object. That was how Tom’s statement made it appear.

“Well, he wanted to see me one last time before he leaves town. We’re only friends, Tom,” Sheila pleaded. “Rick knows that I’m married.” She laid her brush down and swiveled on the stool towards him. “Why make a big deal of it?”

In seconds flat, Tom leaped out of bed and held her shoulders tightly. “Don’t! I don’t want you to meet Rick Slater anywhere. Sheila, you’re my wife. School days are over and in the past. I love you too much. The kids and me – we are the here and now, your future. Tell me you’ll do exactly as I ask.”

Sheila stared back at Tom for seconds. She could see the pain in his eyes. But did it matter a whole lot at this moment? Seeing Rick would be harmless, and she didn’t like making promises she didn’t know if she could keep.

“Alright. Ok,” Tom stated flatly. He threw his hands up in the air. “Do what you think is best, Sheila. I guess I can’t stop you.” He narrowed his eyes. “And if it’s Slater you want, I’m not standing in your way. And I’m not going to cry either like some lovesick puppy.”

“Goodnight, I’m going to stay up awhile and write,” Sheila spoke. She grabbed pen and paper.

“Oh, I can dig that, too,” Tom said softly. He pulled back the covers and dove inside alone.

Sheila could see his eyes moisten, and in them, she could see a light dim. She walked away, turned the light out and closed the door behind her. With a heavy sigh, she plopped down on the plush sofa in the den. There would be no writing done this night. How could she? Her emotions were ripped apart. Rick. His apparition stood there in the room with her, blinding her senses, creating a chasm between her and Tom.

*****

Morning came all too soon. Half asleep, Sheila reached for her robe and walked toward the kitchen. She sniffed, smelled bacon, eggs, and the rich aroma of coffee brewing. “Mmm-m.” Already she craved a hot steaming mug of the brew with milk and sugar. She smiled happily and smoothed back her tousled hair.

“Sit down right here, Mrs. Douglas,” Tom commanded when he saw her enter. “I’m serving you breakfast this morning on a silver platter, baby.”

“Where’s Michael and Mandy? Still asleep?”

“Over at your mother’s.” Tom smiled in her direction and set the table for two. “Here’s your coffee. Drink up!” He busied himself loading bread into the toaster and continued, “Sheila, I’ve thought about it. I wish I could take the day off. It’ll just be the two of us, just like old times. I’ll take you out for lunch. We could stroll through the park,” he hastened. “We’ll even take in a movie tonight. How ‘bout it?”

“Tom, I . . .”

“Only one catch,” he interrupted. I’ve got thirty minutes to get to the office. I may not be able to get away any earlier than one o’clock.” Tom watched her expression. “But I want you here, waiting and thinking of me. “Promise?”

Sheila paused, quickly digested the information Tom just relayed. He couldn’t get away before one. Could she meet Rick briefly and get back home? Somehow, she had to pull it off. With her head bowed, she whispered, “Promise.”

Sheila ate in silence, watched Tom gulp mouthfuls of food. He washed it down with coffee and orange juice.

“One little thing I forgot,” he said in a hushed voice.

“What’s that?”

“Flowers for my favorite lady.” Tom walked into the living room and re-entered the kitchen with a dozen long-stemmed, red roses.

“They are so beautiful!” Sheila gushed. “I love them.”

“And you are so beautiful, my love. I love you.”

Tom reached for her and planted a lingering kiss full on the mouth. Minutes later, he lifted his head and backed away. “Bye, for now. Gotta run. I’m going to be late.”

*****

Outside, Tom breathed in deeply the cool, fresh air of early spring. He heard the chirping of birds. The sky was clear, promising a magnificent day. But inside he was wounded and devastated. He’d been married to Sheila long enough to know when she was lying. He knew when something was not quite right. He knew where she’d be today – probably in the arms of her old flame – Rick Slater. He sighed, and then climbed into his dark blue Volvo to head for the office, aware of admiring glances cast his way by a neighbor sitting on her porch. He knew he looked sharp in his cream-colored suit, but ever since Sheila, he had no desire or interest in anyone else. Sheila was his one and all.

He drove a short distance and parked in the space marked “RESERVED” at the bank and got out. He entered the cool interior of the building and spoke to the tellers as he made his way to his office. He had only time to sit in the comfort of his plush, swivel chair when Mr. Martin, his supervisor, barked, “What are you doing here on a day like this?”

“Well, I happen to work here, you know,” Tom told his superior.

“You’re dismissed, for now,” the older man emphasized. “I’m giving you the whole day off!”

“Wow! This is a sudden surprise!”

“Well, if you must know, you’re a fine young man, Douglas. You’re one of my best. You deserve a day off. Enjoy!”

“Thanks,” Tom sputtered. “I don’t know what to say. Thanks!”

*****

At home Sheila paced the floor back and forth. Her mind was telling her one thing, yet her heart told her something completely different. In her hands she clutched the card with Rick’s number on it, and she flipped it over and over again. With trembling fingers, she finally picked up the phone and dialed his number.

One phone call was all it took to arrange the date. They agreed to meet at Harry’s Place, a local diner that was secluded and cozy. They chose a corner table, blocked from view by hanging baskets. They ordered sandwiches, salads, hot fudge brownies, and tall glasses of sweetened tea.

Sheila, though nauseous from the pungent smell of cabbage and beef, thought how wonderful this outing would have been years ago. Now for the first time in years, she studied Rick thoughtfully without rose-colored glasses, and something inside her suddenly clicked. She wasn’t in love with Rick. Looking into his face now, she knew that. She’d come only to exorcise his hold over her.

She wondered why he came back. Why did he want to see her? Those years ago he had been selfish and self-centered. He left her. He made his choice back then. What made him look back now? What made him think for one second that he could return to town and disrupt her life as though nothing derogatory had ever occurred between them?

Rick broke the silence. “I guess you’re wondering why I’m here. The reason is I can’t live without you. I realize that now.”

“You realize that after all those years passed? Where’s Ella?” Sheila asked.

“We split up a couple of years ago. That woman lied to me over and over again. Ella told me she had thousands of dollars stashed away in her bank account. She told me she was rich. I believed her! I thought if I married her, life would be easy and good.” He paused and a frown creased his forehead. “So, we flew back to her native California. It was all fun and games for a while, Sheila. Then came the problems. No money. I left her. I wasn’t about to stay with a penniless woman!” Rick smiled that taunting smile again that used to give her goose bumps every time. “I’ve had a hard time, babe.”

“What now?” Sheila countered. She frowned. “I’m married. I’ve got two kids.”

“So what?” he snapped impatiently. “You get a divorce and fly away with me,” he said, “into the sunset.”

“And my kids?” she asked.

“What about them? Dump them on your old man! Truth be told, I never liked kids, Sheila. Too much hassle. They want too much.” He took out a cigar and lit it, showed brown-stained teeth as he grinned.

She had to ask, “Why me, Rick? Why come back to me?”

“I hear you’re a big time writer. Babe, with that kind of cash, plus the inheritance from your father’s death, we’ll be rich! We won’t have to worry no more.” He laughed, thinking he had it all figured out.

*****

Still driving, Tom almost gave up his search. He realized now that he should have gone home immediately to surprise his wife. Instead, he sported a clean shave and a trimmed mustache and goatee from the barber’s. Also, he bought some terrific outfits for Sheila and matching accessories. He loved spoiling his wife. Buying her things provided another opportunity to let her know how much he cared.

When he’d come home to an empty house, he jumped into his car, vowed that he would find Slater and break every bone in his “pretty” face. He just prayed to God that he was wrong, that Sheena wouldn’t be with Slater. Tom told himself as he drove to find her, “Maybe, she went shopping. Maybe she’s at the art exhibition downtown.” (The one place he hadn’t checked!) “Maybe she flew to New York to a writer’s convention.” (But, without telling him!)

Hungry and thirsty, Tom continued to drive. He remembered a place not too far away called Harry’s Place. He’d just stop there for a bite to eat: Maybe get a cold orange-ade. There he was again, Tom laughed to himself, using the word maybe again. “Man! Whew!” he shouted. “What a day!”

Tom eased into the parking lot and got out. “My!” he groaned. The place looked crowded. The two o’clock crowd must be getting off work. The bar was filled with men and women ordering drinks and munching away at food. Would he be able to find a seat?

Finally, Tom spotted an empty table and sat down, relaxed his tired muscles. Almost immediately the waitress came to take his order. Waiting, he leaned back, scanned the packed room for a familiar face. He found one alright. There in a corner table near a window was his wife and some dude – Slater! A terrible fury possessed him! He clenched his big fists. “No!” he moaned inwardly. “I’m a civilized man, not an animal!” Breathing haggardly, he threw a wad of bills on the table and took his departure.

*****

She stood weeping as she did before when he’d walked out her life, only now, their roles reversed. She could face the future bravely with no bitterness or anger. Indeed, she pitied the stranger boarding the plane, so lost in a world of fantasy and selfishness. Rick needed to grow up. He needed to take responsibilities as a man and work for the things he wanted out of life.

Relieved, Sheila walked away. She had a husband to love who loved her so very much. She had two adorable children she could never live without.

“Oh, my God,” she wailed, “have I lost him? Have I lost my family?” She checked her watch – four-thirty. “Please be home. Please be home,” she moaned. “Oh, God, Tom, how I love you!”

*****

Tom had been sitting there for hours in the park. He watched families walk together, observed children playing ball and eating bags of popcorn. Tears clouded his eyes. Judging from the darkness, he realized it was getting late. He knew he should go home. “Home!” he laughed bitterly. Where was home now?

“Tom?”

He frowned. Was he hearing and seeing things now, too? But there she was – Sheila, walking towards him. Well, she’d have to come to him all the way. He wasn’t going to make a fool of himself again. Maybe she planned to leave him. No, best not give an inch. In his mind, he remembered the scene at Harry’s Place, remembered begging Sheila not to see Rick Slater. That man was no good for her. Why couldn’t she see that?

Sheila sat on the edge of the bench, several inches away from Tom, for once, not sure of herself. Never again if they got through this, she promised herself, would she ever take him for granted.

“Tom, I’m sorry I wasn’t completely honest with you,” she began. “I met Rick and talked with him. Somehow, Tom, I don’t know,” she said, “I always thought that Rick could never leave me like he did. I believed he would call me up and tell me that what he said that graduation night was all a sick joke. Well, that never happened. In my mind those years ago, Rick was the only man for me. We had been together for so long, I thought that’s how it would always be. Then Rick became someone I knew I could never have. There would never be an “us” – me and Rick.” She slid down the bench closer to Tom.

“Don’t you see, Tom? I had to prove to myself that I didn’t really want or need Rick in my life. Sure, I was afraid of the outcome because I was still attracted to him.” She paused. “You want to know what I found out?”

Sheila turned to Tom with a wide grin. “Rick could never be as beautiful or as kind as you are. You’re one in a million.”

Sheila watched Tom’s face in the moonlight. His head was down listening. She saw the play of emotions flicker across his face. “Tom, I’m glad Rick came back. Now we can go on with our lives, only better than before.”

She moved close enough to Tom to rub his broad back and to smooth her hand across his dark, bald head. She watched him close his eyes, and she leaned over to kiss his cheek.

Tom removed his glasses and wiped away a lone tear that trickled down his cheek.

Tenderly, Sheila turned his face to meet hers. She loved this kind, gentle, magnificent, beautiful man. She cradled his face in her hands as their lips touched; her mouth moved against his, gently at first, then her lips opened wide to give and take and demand. Sweetness so pure like a delicate flower burst inside her chest.

“Mmm-m,” Tom moaned with his closed eyes when the kiss was finished. “This is like homecoming,” he breathed.

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