Sara stared down at the piece of paper in her hands. The insignificance was astonishing when she considered how hard she’d worked for it. What struck her wasn’t that all her studies were over, or that she could now follow her dream of working with English language learners, it was that the registrar’s certified letter wasn’t even printed on high-quality paper. It was more like a receipt she’d get at some dry cleaners than proof that the last four years of attending classes, finishing assignments, passing exams, while holding two jobs, meant anything.
I’m done. It doesn’t matter what it looks like. I’m a college graduate.
The graduation ceremony would have made more of an impact than the letter she held, but she’d been…unavailable.
Memories of those frightening days tried to swarm her. Sweat dampened her palms, so she straightened her shoulders and smiled at the student behind the registrar’s counter.
Not thinking about that time.
“Thanks, this is great.” She tried for a bright smile, but her lips were so numb she wasn’t sure if she’d pulled it off.
The girl smiled back, though. She probably meant it, too. “It must be amazing to be done.” She leaned on the counter. “I have two more years. It seems like forever.”
“Enjoy it. This place rocks.” A safe place. If I hadn’t left here, I never would have gone to Wyoming, never would have taken a drug that changed everything. “I wish I had two more years,” she added.
“The big bad world, huh? Yeah, I guess going to school isn’t so hard, right?”
Hard doesn’t even begin to describe it. Sara kept her thoughts to herself as she folded the paper carefully and tucked it away in her backpack. “Right. Now to go sell back my books, huh? Got to pay for this thing somehow.” She waved the piece of paper and plastered on a smile again.
Stepping through the double doors and into the sunlight, she tried to slow her pounding pulse rate. The jitters had her in a stranglehold, but she’d been warned it wouldn’t be easy getting back to life after Wyoming. Sara held the breath and counted to seven, then released it slowly counting to three, then repeated it until she could see past the shimmering brightness that often came with the nerves. The freakiest part of her mini-panic attacks was that they could be triggered by anything. It was never the same thing. She’d suddenly feel a sharp jab in her chest followed by the explosion of adrenaline. Her therapist, Cheryl, had taught her the breathing exercise. It seemed to do the trick.
Cheryl suggested stability would slowly put the past behind her. Getting a teaching job would help. When Sara found work and made money, paid for her apartment, and had what she needed, the events in Wyoming would slowly fade.
First, she needed stability, and to achieve that, she had to close the door on a few other things.
A shout in the distance caught her attention. A couple of college girls were taking the old wooden bridge that spanned the falls. They seemed oddly out of place. The campus was quiet, deserted in a way that made the laughing, playfulness of the girls stand out. Maybe everyone was in class, or it was that time of day to study and grab a coffee. Whatever the reason, Sara was thankful. She didn’t want to run into anyone who might’ve kept her there answering too many questions.
When will I stand here again?
Not for a long time. Now, leaving, everything seemed so sharp and clear. The old brownstones were majestic. The enormous trees on either side provided comforting shade on hot summer days. She’d spent endless hours under them, studying for exams or reading. Everything, even the classrooms she’d spent so much time in along her left, held a special, safe spot in her heart. For the past four and a half years, all her focus had been on finishing her degree so she could begin a real life. Now that she held the paper to prove she’d managed it, an unexpected sadness struck her. The choked-up feeling tightened her throat, catching her by surprise as the beautiful scenery of the campus blurred.
“Crazy,” she muttered, brushing tears off her cheeks. I should be happy, not sad.
No more classes, no more tutoring students in English after school and dancing all night, only to repeat the same thing the next day. Her beloved Swiss Army backpack held not only her degree but a brand-new teaching license.
I can start building a normal life. I can have a family. One of those families I always see through the windows, sitting at their table, eating a meal together.
A husband, children, a dog, maybe a cat, a house with a yard and summer vacations with their kids arguing while she and her husband wondered why they’d ever left the driveway.
Smiling at the silly dream, she tossed her hair out of her eyes and started walking. Before she could get on with her new life, she had to end the old one.
It shouldn’t be too hard. Leaving things behind—or being left behind—was her specialty. She’d once dreamed of being a skater, like her friend, Paris. But that had proved impossible. Her mom had wanted her to have something different—so she’d taken Sara’s skates away and given her ballet slippers instead. But when Sara had hit her teenage years, she’d quit ballet and joined a contemporary dance company. Her mom had been horrified. But what about her hadn’t dismayed her prim and proper mom?
All those miserable memories clouded her thoughts as she walked across campus. She wondered what her mom would think of her now, but not enough to pick up a phone and call home. More likely than not, being a teacher, something so mundane, wouldn’t impress her any more than how much money she’d made dancing.
It didn’t matter. Trying to please her unhappy mother had fallen to the wayside years ago. They didn’t speak, and when they did, it was usually because someone had asked about her and her mom felt guilty not being able to answer even the most basic question.
Thinking about those times brought back memories of pain when she knew she should be focusing on the future. When she did that, and worked at her dreams, anything was possible. At least she hoped it was.
Now a job as a teacher was her goal, and dance would fade away like skating had. The ice still called like an ache in her chest, until it grew impossible to ignore. Then she would lace up and spin in the frigid air until she couldn’t breathe, but her heart felt right again each time. Now she had something else that did that—working with kids who didn’t speak English.
But skating had turned her from a shy, insecure child to a person with confidence. Dance had taught her what a woman could do with her body. Both had given her the strength to understand that nothing she did would ever change her mother’s misery, nor live up to some standard set by her.
So let it go.
Taking another deep breath, she willed herself to send those memories back where they belonged. The future has to be better, because the past sucks.
Her favorite motto brought a smile to her face. Yeah, eyes forward, and remember what you want.
* * * *
One hour later Sara sat, more nervous than she’d thought she’d be, trying to explain to her soon-to-be ex-employer why she wouldn’t be dancing for him any longer. It had seemed so simple when she’d practiced what she’d say, easy even. But face to face with Mr. Davis and his penetrating questions and she felt as if she’d walked onto the ice wearing her slipper socks.
“It’s not the dancing, Mr. Davis.” It was harder to explain to him than she’d thought it would be. Maybe that’s because I barely understand the need to move on. “It’s everything else.”
Mr. Davis was the owner and operator of the burlesque club, Sweet Shady’s Smile. She’d worked there three years to help pay for the cost of her tuition. Mr. Davis had given her a job without even seeing her dance. She’d been out on the ice, headphones on, her music filling her with the happiness she only found there. Right after she’d taken her skates off, Mr. Davis had walked up and made her an offer. She’d handed in her Applebee’s apron the next day and tried on her first risqué costume.
“I see.” He rested his large, tan hands on his desktop. The room was elegant, like the club. Everything was decorated like a 1920s joint. But in here, the dark, highly polished mahogany furnishings were rich with tones of red that matched the floor-to-ceiling bookcases. The shelves were lined with old leather-bound books that she itched to touch, but didn’t dare. Still, the room was soothing to the senses, all except the man behind the enormous desk.
He might wear elegant clothing, but he struck her as dangerous. It wasn’t merely his sharp eyes and narrow face with the line of white slashed along his chin and continued on to wrap around his neck—a scar that the girls here all talked about. It was…him. He oozed deadly dangerous.
“Well, I can’t lie. I had hoped to change your mind.”
She dropped her gaze, unable to tolerate the intensity in his light gray eyes. His hands caught her attention. They were so beat up, they were at odds with the elegant charcoal-gray thin turtleneck and black trousers he wore. His hands weren’t dirty—they were tough. His nails were cut short and orderly, but he couldn’t straighten one finger so it angled upward. His joints were big, the knuckles scarred with traces of white lines that also appeared like faint ridges of scar tissue on the backs of his hands.
“Is it a customer? Or is it someone who works here—?”
She startled, realizing she’d been staring. She lifted her attention to his face. His dark eyebrows were slashed downward, a clear indication he wasn’t pleased.
“No, it’s nothing like that. Everyone is great, Mr. Davis, but…” She shrugged and twisted the material of her shirtsleeves, unsure how much to say. After Wyoming, she’d taken an extended sick leave. Mr. Davis had given it to her himself—no questions asked.
But she couldn’t get into all that with him. She could barely talk to her therapist about it, and she wasn’t strictly honest with her, either. Cheryl had been willing to do Skype sessions, only because Sara had lied and told them she was still in Canada. So, yeah, no one knew that today was the first time since Wyoming she’d left her apartment. And there was no way she was explaining that to this man. He might wear sophistication as if he’d been born with a silver spoon in his mouth, but she knew danger when she saw it, and Mr. Davis was dangerous. He probably had no idea what it was like to be afraid, so scared he couldn’t leave his room for fear of what might be waiting outside the door.
“It’s time to move on.” New life. New job. New everything. Even me, I hope. “I’ve changed.”
Surprising her, Mr. Davis didn’t argue. She’d never spent much time with the man. He was too busy and more, too intense, for her to feel comfortable around. But he’d always been fair and he never hit on the girls—or allowed anyone else to, unless the girl was receptive to the attention. Over the past three years, she’d only spoken to him a handful of times. All had been over incidents in the club—fights mostly—that she’d witnessed.
“You have changed. I worried that someone had caused you harm, perhaps you were attacked, Ms. Stevens. Since you didn’t come to me, it is clearly not my business. But whatever the case is, I fear someone has hurt you, am I correct?”
She licked her lips, suddenly feeling that rushing need to vomit hit her again. There was no room to not answer him, so she avoided the question. “I really want to teach, you know?”
Mr. Davis didn’t answer for long enough that the room became uncomfortably silent. But since there wasn’t a chance she’d explain what had happened to her, she couldn’t say a word. The antique clock behind his desk ticked the seconds by. She even watched the narrow second hand move and could tell when the larger minute hand was tensing to click.
“Ah, I see, well, I have a suggestion for you. One I hope you’ll take.”
“Take a longer leave of absence. With your voice, and the way you dance, I’d offer you twice what you were making to stay on. But take some time, find a way to get through whatever happened to you this winter and move past it. Then give me a call on my private number.” He handed her a crisp white business card with his cell number scrawled in bold lines on the back. “If you need anything, anything at all, or you want to take my offer, call me, Ms. Stevens.”
Mr. Davis stood, ultra-polite, and as always, soft spoken. She got to her feet as well, already pocketing his number and knowing she wasn’t going to need it. There were rumors about him, of course. Who didn’t gossip about the boss? But if only half the whispers about him were true, she wasn’t about to see if the interest in his light gray eyes went beyond her dancing on his stage.
“Ms. Stevens, are you forgetting something?” He held out an envelope with her last pay check in cash.
“Oh, yes, sorry, I guess I’m more nervous than I thought.” She’d asked for her last pay check in cash. He hadn’t asked why, and she was glad she didn’t have to explain. Starting over meant more than a new address—cash would help, especially now.
“Take care of yourself, Ms. Stevens.”
There’s no one else who can, now is there? The truth of the thought brought the clarity she needed to walk away from Mr. Davis’ offer of help.