This is the 20th round of The Alphabet Challenge mentioned in THIS(link) post. As a refresher, the Broxson twins, Gary and Perry, and I will each write one story for each letter of the alphabet. Meaning, a story whose title begins with the given letter. For this round, it’s the letter “T“.
Readers have two weeks from the date of publication to vote for their favorite story in the current round. Points will be assigned to each writer based on total votes received.
In each round, the story with the most votes gets three points. Second place gets two points, third place gets one point. In the case of a tie, the points for the tied rankings are added and then split equally among the writers who tied. At the end of the year, we tally up and crown the winner with the most points.
Long or short, each story will appear on its own post and the trio will be followed by a fourth post where readers can vote.
The writing challenge has no restrictions and the stories span a wide gamut of genres. The majority of the stories fall in the PG-rating range with a few perhaps pushing into the soft R-rating. Some readers might find a few of the stories disturbing because of the topics, language, and/or plot points, and if so, stop reading and move on.
Here we go. Presented anonymously, the second of three stories with titles beginning with the letter “T” as submitted by its author.
Copyright 2020 — E. J. D’Alise
(3,400 words – approx. reading time: about 13 minutes based on 265 WPM)
Jody noticed the man looking at her. Out of habit, she assessed him as she did everyone she saw; about her age, handsome, with an intelligent and serious face. For a moment, she forgot one of the reasons he might be looking her way and smiled at him.
The tightness of her face muscles reminded her of her scars. Lowering her head, she let her hair fall forward, hiding both the blush that was working its way up from her neck and the scar tissue from the fire.
Her heart rate quickened, and her breathing shallowed and almost stopped as unwanted memories of the fire flooded her mind. She made the conscious effort to control her reaction and restore calm by focusing on the hand exercises designed to regain dexterity to her burned hand and damaged arm muscles. When she looked up, the man was gone. Just as well, she thought.
She struggled getting up from the ground. Knowing it was a bad idea to sit on the grass, she stubbornly kept doing it because it gave her a measure of normalcy. Unfortunately, halfway up, her damaged arm and hand failed her, and she lost control of her cane. Without the cane’s support, she had to brace herself with her left arm, and her books spilled onto the ground. She heard a few people laugh but didn’t bother looking for the jerks; perhaps they were laughing at something else.
Using both hands, she planted her cane and, with one knee on the ground, was about to retrieve her books when someone picked them up and held them as they offered their hand for support. Jody took it out of reflex, and stood . . . and faced the man who’d been looking at her a few minutes ago.
“Are you alright?” he asked. His face showed the concern Jody heard in his voice. His eyes held hers, unlike those of many people she met who invariably stole glances at the scarred flesh of her face and hand.
“I … I’m fine, thank you,” Jody answered, withdrawing her hand from his and looking away as she felt her flush returning.
It had been a long time since anyone had paid this much attention to her, and especially a handsome man. She suppressed a quick memory of days long gone when young men would often notice her and when such attention she took for granted.
“Can I walk you somewhere?” the man asked, still holding on to her books.
Jody looked up, surprised, and was momentarily speechless. Was he asking her to carry her books?
The man hesitated. “Sorry, I don’t mean to be forward,” he said, transferring the books to his left hand and offering his right. “My name is Scott.”
Jody reached for it out of reflex but stopped before actually touching the offered hand with her scarred hand and looked down at the two hands mere inches apart. Before she could retract it, Scott took her hand into his and lightly shook it once without putting much pressure on it. “And you are?” he asked.
Jody was still looking at her hand being lightly held by this stranger, something that hadn’t happened since the therapy sessions had ended.
Scott let go of her hand and held out her books.
“Sorry,” he said. “I’m probably making you uncomfortable. Here are your books.”
Jody transferred the cane to her damaged hand and took the offered books in the crook of her left arm, acutely aware of Scot’s proximity.
“Take care,” Scott said as he turned to leave.
“Say something!” she thought.
“Jody!” she blurted out, almost yelling it at the man.
He stopped and walked back to her.
“Jody,” she replied. “My name is Jody.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Jody.”
“I’m sorry about a few moments ago. You startled me.”
“My apologies,” he said. “I didn’t mean to.”
“No, no,” she hastened to explain. “It’s not … I mean, it wasn’t … I’m just not used to people …”
Jody stopped, wishing she hadn’t started to explain. The explanation had no clear destination and promised nothing but awkwardness.
“… to people helping others?” Scott finished. “Now, that is a sad state of affairs.”
Again, Jody examined his face; his now smiling face. An easy smile that invited others to join it, which hers did.
“Yes,” she answered and decided to continue to the awkward just to see where it would go. “Most people get uncomfortable around me.”
“Why?” Scott said. “Wait, that’s a physics textbook, and those notebooks had calculations in them. Is it because you’re too smart for them?”
Before she could answer, Scott continued.
“Sorry,” he said, “I tend to say things in jest without thinking.”
“Are you saying I’m not smart?”
“What? No, I mean …” Scott stopped on seeing her smile widen and the mirth in her eyes.
“Good one. Let’s start over. I’m Scott, and it’s a pleasure to meet you.”
“I’m Jody, and likewise.”
They ended up in the Student Union cafeteria for a coffee and were deep in conversation when her phone buzzed.
“Oops,” Jody said. “I need to get to the lab for my class.”
“You’re a student here?”
“Yes, and no,” she replied. “I’m a doctoral student, but I also teach the lab portion of physics courses.”
“Now I’m intimidated,” Scott said. “What’s your PhD in? Physics, I presume?”
“Material Science and Engineering. I’m working on the problem of upscaling superconductors for quantum computers applications.”
“It’s strange,” Scott said. “I understand what the words mean, but not the sentence. Suddenly, I’m intimidated.”
Jody laughed unselfconsciously but then remembered the image in the mirror that looked back at her when she had tried laughing at home. She let the laughter die, and discretely pulled her hair a bit forward.
“Don’t,” Scott said.
“What?” Jody asked.
“Trust in yourself.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Sorry. It’s not my place to say,” Scott said.
He was going to say more but looked past her right shoulder and changed the subject. “We both need to go, but perhaps we can see each other again, and you can explain what the aggregate of those words mean.”
He got up, produced a pen, wrote down his number on the napkin, and grabbed the empty coffee cups.
“I’m on campus a few times a week,” Scott said, “and we might bump into each other, but feel free to call me any time you feel like a coffee.”
Jody just managed a quick “Sure, I will,” before he smiled, walked to the garbage can, dumped the cups, waved, and walked away.
“What just happened?” she said aloud to no one in particular as Scott exited the cafeteria and was gone from view.
She looked down at the napkin and the phone number with his name next to it. She also became acutely aware of the emptiness, the void that was so familiar to her. For more than an hour, Scott had filled it with . . . well, life.
She shook her head, stuffed the napkin in the outside pocket of her purse, and mentally reviewed the last hour. They had talked mostly about her, and she knew next to nothing about him. He listened, asked questions at the appropriate places, and . . . and was pleasant company. The kind of company Jody missed from . . . before.
She made it to her class a few minutes late and put the whole thing out of her mind as she got into the lesson and lab experiments for the day. She loved teaching, and it allowed her to lose herself in it, the real world retreating behind conscious awareness.
Later that evening, the hustle and bustle of the day a whisper in the back of her mind, she relaxed with a small glass of wine. Not that she drank much, but a few ounces occasionally made relaxing an easier task.
She was about to pick up the novel she’d been reading when her phone rang. The ID said it was her advisor.
“Professor Sing,” Jody said. “I thought you were in Washington.”
“Good evening, Jody,” he replied. “That’s where I am. I’ve been meeting with the ARO, …”
“Sorry, Jody. I thought you knew. The Army Research Office sponsors some of our work,” Sing explained, “and they’d requested an update on our progress.”
“They should be happy, then,” Jody said. “The latest lines of research are promising.”
“Yes, they are, and they are, but …”
The man hesitated as Jody waited for him to continue.
“Look, I don’t want to alarm you, but our current research has significant military and defense implications,” Sing said. “The work you and your dad did before the accident, and your subsequent refinements, showed up on the NSA’s radar.”
“I don’t understand; that all sounds like good news.”
“Yes … and no. It also makes us a target for foreign agents. I’ve been informed that a couple of hostile governments are interested in the research. The University has already increased safeguards on the data, but we may be subjects of interest as well.”
“Subjects of interest?” Jody struggled to comprehend the implications of what Sing was saying. It sounded a bit sinister and possibly dangerous.
“Are we in danger?” she asked.
“Well, that’s hard to say,” Sing replied, “but you should be careful about strangers you meet.”
Sing kept talking, but Jody was no longer listening. Of course! How stupid had she been? Tears formed out of anger at how easily she’d been manipulated.
“Jody!” Sing raised voice had a measure of urgency to it. “Are you listening?”
“Yes, sorry, professor Sing,” Jody said, her voice bitter. “You want me to be careful of strangers showing unusual interest.”
“Yes, and I said ARO has arranged for a protection detail. They should be there today or tomorrow at the latest. Meanwhile, be careful.”
“I will,” Jody answered. “Thank you, professor Sing, and you take care as well.”
“OK, then,” Sing said. “See you on Monday.”
Jody disconnected the call and looked around the Townhouse. It had been nearly a year, and what little had been salvaged from the fire now cluttered her temporary lodgings. Repairs to her childhood home were almost complete, and for eleven months now, this had been her refuge. Now it didn’t feel safe. The world suddenly didn’t feel safe.
The doorbell ringing jolted Jody from her introspection. No one visited her in the evening. On alert, she grabbed her cane and her phone and moved closer to the door, waiting.
The doorbell rang again.
“Ms. Pierce? I’m Agent Lang. I know you’re there,” a voice said. “May I come in and talk?”
Jody set the chain and cracked the door. A middle-aged man stood on the landing, on the other side of the security screen door.
Jody glanced at the lock to the security screen door, confirming it was locked.
“Yes, that’s me,” she answered.
The man produced a flip wallet and showed her a badge.
“I’m Agent Lang, of the FBI. I’ve been instructed to transport you to a secure location.”
Jody examined the badge and the man. He seemed OK, and this fitted with what Professor Sing had said. Looking past the man, she saw a black sedan with the engine running and a woman behind the wheel.
“I was under the impression I was to remain here,” Jody said.
“Yes, but we understand you had contact with someone, and we must assume this location might be compromised,” the man said.
The man’s words, spoken calmly, shook Jody. Had she been in danger while with Scott? She hadn’t felt threatened but couldn’t shake the feeling that there had to be an ulterior motive for him to approach her and spend time with her. And yet, he had left in a hurry. Had Scott spotted someone? Obviously, someone had spotted him.
“Sorry,” Jody said. “What do I need to bring, and how long will I be gone?”
“We’ll get someone to come and get your things, but you might want to bring whatever you need for your work.”
“OK, fine. Give me a few minutes.”
Five minutes later, Jody handed her notebooks to the agent, locked the door, and accepted his arm for support as they made their way to the car. Lang opened the car’s rear passenger door and just as she was about to get in . . .
“Jody, step away from that man.”
Both she and Lang turned toward Scott fifteen yards away and coming toward them, his left hand slightly raised in front of him, his other hand held straight down his side, holding something Jody couldn’t identify it, but feared might be a gun.
Everything happened at once. Lang shoved her and the notebooks in the car as he drew a gun, the driver floored the accelerator, pinning Jody to the back seat, the closing door almost catching her foot as it slammed shut. Scott moved sideways as the car steered right at him and raised his right hand to join the left straight ahead of him, and then, gunfire . . . lots of it. She didn’t see what happened and lost track of how many shots were fired, but the windshield in front of the driver was pierced by two bullets, at least one of which hit the driver in the head, splattering blood on the side window, with some drops hitting Jody.
The car had traveled ten feet before it hit the tree to the side of where Scott had stood, and Jody was thrown violently against the back of the front seat as the front and side curtain airbags deployed.
Recovering, she saw Scott hurrying toward the car, and Lang nowhere in sight. When Scott opened the passenger door, gun in hand, Jody crawled away from him to the opposite side of the car.
Scott hesitated and then extended his left hand into the car, palm up.
“Trust me, Jody,” he said in a calm voice.
Another shot rang out, and Scott jerked sideways, dropping the gun, blood splatter from his shoulder staining the passenger door glass. Looking past Scott, Jody saw Lang. The man was wounded and could barely stand but shot once more before his gun locked open, empty. Jody took the opportunity to lunge forward and grab Scott’s gun.
Before Lang could swap in a fresh magazine, Scott tackled the man, and Lang’s gun went flying as both fell to the ground, grappling and trying to gain the advantage over the other.
Jody struggled out of the car as the two wounded men fought on the ground. Pointing the gun toward them, she yelled.
Both men stopped and looked at her. Lang rolled away from Scott and toward the empty gun.
“Jody!” Scott yelled. “Don’t let him get the gun.”
Jody swung the gun toward Lang.
“Don’t listen to him, Jody,” Lang said as he dragged his wounded leg and kept going for the gun. Unsure of what to do, Jody swung the gun back toward Scott.
“I’m a U. S. Marshall, Jody,” Scott said. “Whoever he told you he is, he’s lying. Trust me.”
Confused, Jody lowered the gun.
“He’s the one who’s lying, Jody,” Lang said as he kept moving, “keep him covered while I get my gun.”
Scott ignored Jody’s pistol pointed at him, and rose to move toward Lang.
By then, Jody could hear police sirens approaching, and Lang had reached his gun. As Lang fumbled to swap magazines, Scott, still ignoring Jody, tried to get to Lang, but too late. Lang slapped the magazine in place and racked the slide. He smiled and aimed the gun at Scott, who was still closing. One shot rang out.
“How did you know who to shoot?” Scott asked Jody as the EMT treated the wound in his arm.
“He smiled,” Jody replied.
“Remind me not to smile around you,” Scott replied.
“No, it was a cruel smile,” she clarified. “The police were on the way, and there was no need to, but he was going to shoot you and enjoy it.”
“Where did you learn to shoot?”
“My father … my father and I used to go to the range,” Jody said.
“Are you OK with what happened?”
Jody paused before answering. “I … is he going to survive?”
“Had your father taught you to double-tap, probably not,” Scott replied, looking to where they were loading Lang onto an ambulance. The dead woman was still in the car. “As it is, he should pull through.”
“Who are they?”
“Ex-military, now guns-for-hire. Twins,” Scott said. “Nasty pieces of work.”
“Yes, fraternal, but still nasty,” Scott clarified. “Look, you should get some counseling. Shooting someone, even non-fatally, is stressful and emotional. Trust me on that.”
“Trust you?” Jody asked. “You …”
“Excuse me, miss,” the EMT said, “but we have to load him up.”
Just then, another Marshall walked over to Jody, notebook in hand, and started asking questions. Distracted, she half answered as she watched the doors to the ambulance close and drive away.
“Sorry, just making sure he was OK.”
“Scott? He’s a great guy. Takes protection details very seriously.”
“He was assigned to me?”
“Yes, a few days ago, when we got a report from the NSA about foreign agents.”
“A few days ago, you say?”
“Yes, it was meant to be unobtrusive, but earlier today, he requested permission to approach you because he’d seen individuals he thought looked suspicious and out of place on campus.”
“I see,” Jody said.
She answered a few more questions, but her mind was on their earlier encounter. She had been Scott’s assignment. Yes; a great guy. Very good at his job.
“So, what happens now?” she asked once the man finished asking questions.
“Well, for at least a while, you’ll have round-the-clock protection. We’ll install an alarm system at the Townhouse and reinforce the entry points. Someone will come to pick you up in the morning and drop you off at night,” the man said.
“No, local police,” the man answered. “Scott will be out of action for a while.”
“Ah, yes, stupid of me; he was shot.”
“He should fully recover, but it’ll be a few months before he’ll be one hundred percent.”
It was another three hours before the street cleared, the neighbors retreated to their homes, and Jody was back in her Townhouse with a female police officer staying with her for the night. All that remained outside was a squad car parked on the opposite side of the street. It was almost dawn when she finally managed to fall asleep.
Three weeks later, she was sitting at the Student Union cafeteria when someone plopped a fresh coffee in front of her and sat across from her. Looking up, she met Scott’s smiling face looking back at her.
“What are you doing here?” she asked.
“Well, nice to see you too,” Scott replied.
“Sorry … are you alright? How’s the arm? What are you doing here?”
“Well, let’s see,” he said. “I’m doing fine. My arm still hurts, wearing a sling is annoying, and I’m here to learn about the problem with upscaling superconductors for quantum computers applications.”
Like before, her laugh was involuntary, and like before, she immediately let her laughter die off and pulled her hair forward.
“Seriously,” Scott said, “don’t do that.”
“The thing you do with the hair. Trust me; you’re fine, just as you are.”
Jody was momentarily angry. Who was he to preach to her about how she should behave? What did he know about how she felt? She was about to say something aggressively defensive but stopped, the bigger question looming.
“Seriously,” she asked, “what are you doing here?”
“You never called me.”
“Your assignment was over.”
“Is that what you thought? That my assignment was to have coffee with you?”
“Well, let’s see,” Scott said. “You’re an attractive and intelligent person, and I’m a handsome and intelligent person. It seems as if we have enough in common to see where this is going.”
“I don’t understand …”
“Hmm … I may have to rethink the intelligent part and just put this down to physical attraction.”
This time, Jody laughed without worrying about her face.
If you’ve already read the other two stories and are ready to vote, click HERE(Link) and you’ll be taken to the voting poll.
If you’ve not read the other two stories, they can be found at the following links:
Thomas’s Promise (Link)
The Trail (Link)
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