A thick layer of smog spread throughout the town, blanketing the venerable buildings and century-old townhouses. Ted left the West Inverness Office after work. He jogged on Cedar Street, a narrow cobblestone street that snaked along the Swan Brook. Sweat lines rushed down his forehead as he crossed the intersection and encountered a mass of bent heads with eyes focused on fingers dancing on tiny screens. He passed the row of brownstone townhouses and stopped by the Sweet Tooth Shop to buy a box of mouth-watering chocolate truffles.
Heart aching and craving, his mind played rehearsal scenarios for his proposal act. After six months of dating, he was ready to pop the question. He had invited Deb over for a Mexican-themed dinner and paint night. As he crossed off his checklist on his mind, he wondered which playlist he’d play. Instrumental folklore? Mariachi? Metal? He was drawing close to his place.
The cellphone rang. When his eyes sparkled at the call display, a jolt of adrenaline rushed through his veins. “Hey!”
“How’s Mr. Handsome?”
“Just completing tonight’s prep. I got you your favorite Chardonnay.”
“Ted?” she asked, cracking.
He heard her clearing her throat. “I hate to blow this again…”
Deb had to work overtime; cover a workmate who was ill. Ted squeezed the phone with his firm fingers. He couldn’t believe it was happening again. His heart was on the verge of bursting.
“How about tomorrow?”
Ted gasped. “I prepared us shepherd’s pie. I don’t—”
Her laughter tickled his ears. “I thought you were sharpening your Mexican cuisine skills,” she said.
“I added diced tomatoes, taco seasoning, corn muffin, cheese and olives,” he said, using a dry tone.
“I set up the table to paint your father’s craft. I got us a special dessert. What do you say?”
He stared at the bottle of wine and chocolate box he was holding with a dazed expression.
He leaped. “What?”
“Please be careful with the sail ship kit. It’s a rare gem. Grandma gave it to my father, and it means a lot to him. He’ll be thrilled after we fix it and paint it.”
“I’m sure he will.”
“Love you.” The call ended.
Ted gazed at the lonely, lifeless maple tree standing across the street in the park. He drew close to his townhouse. A crow perched on the gargoyle ornamented on the ledge of the building and cawed.
He entered his kitchen and glanced at the table—at the effort and sweat he had poured in. Charcoal plates and bowls and spotless wine glasses sat on the glossy oak table.
He opened the fridge, a whiff of taco seasoning, and melted cheese tingled his nostrils. His eyes shone at the shepherd’s pie he had prepared. His stomach began teasing his senses. He flexed his hand to the pie, then froze. What if she comes tomorrow? After getting the cold shoulder from Deb, he wondered if someone else was in the picture? He resisted temptation. Instead grabbed a can of beer to drink his worries.
In the living room, a fancy paint brush kit and sketching pencils spread beside the two-feet wide sail ship kit on the slanted table, which was handmade with pallet wood. He grabbed the sail ship model with care, carefully palmed underneath the hull, hugged it and placed it on the shelf which was mounted on the wall near the upholstered love seat. He sat and sipped a can of cold brew while heavy rock guitar riffs roared from his phone. Ted moved the phone on the right armrest of the loveseat, just below the tomes lying on the top shelf and Deb’s grandfather’s relic resting on the shelf underneath. He leaned back and crashed on the couch—head close to the right armrest, near the wall. The pillow was behind his head and stared up at the ceiling. He felt like a lost soul at sea getting carried to the horizon by the maddening waves; drifting away from Deb. Ted’s eyes battled the fatigue he wore. His scattered thoughts drowned into oblivion and plunged in the darkness.
Ted surged and woke up. His phone was buzzing.
He lunged his head forward to the table, but his phone wasn’t there. He recalled he had placed it on the right armrest of the couch. When he turned around, his limped hand stretched to the phone, and he knocked on it. The phone slipped into the gap between the couch’s armrest and the wall and then thumped onto the ground with a powerful slap. He howled at the thought of seeing his new phone with gashes on the screen. He sprang to the couch’s end, pinched the frame of the couch with his firm fingers, and pushed it. The couch barely moved a foot. Ted figured there was sufficient space to slide his hand into the hole. He leaned forward, flexed his left hand through the opening and down, and stuck his shoulder on the couch as he tried to reach for his phone. Ted waved his hand in the dust underneath the couch and seized a solid rectangular object. Relieved, he plucked it with a tight grasp and hauled his arm up as he pulled himself up to stand straight. He tried to push the loveseat back to its place, but he elbowed both shelves, which were at his height level. The top shelf jerked. The books slipped and slammed the shelf underneath, onto the picture frame and the relic from the 19th century. Eyes widened, he gazed down at the outcome and opened his mouth in awe. The sail ship model kit laid shattered on the ground. He rubbed his temple and forehead with his clammy hands.
The light was blinking on his phone. It was a message alert. He hoped it wasn’t Deb. He moved the phone in slow motion while imagining it was Deb and him telling her what had happened to her grandparents’ relic. After berating himself, he hesitated to check his phone. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and prepared himself to tell her. He woke the phone from standby mode and there was a text message with a picture. The world stopped turning. He squinted his eyes and examined the image. It was an image of himself while asleep in his bedroom at night. Brows raised, he didn’t recognize the phone number and the country code. Questions battered. Who the hell took the picture? Deb? She playing games? Why? As he stared at the picture and the debris on the ground, Ted didn’t have the guts to call Deb. His mind reeled with infinite scenarios of Deb throwing a fit. Wondering when the picture was taken, he swiped swiftly downward to check the details. It said yesterday at 11:58 PM. He recalled he had hopped in bed after eleven. Also, he knew Deb was at work yesterday till 2 AM.
To be continued…