Eternity's Edge: Embrace

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Chapter 3

Crossman Estate Sales was situated in a nondescript gray brick building with black and white awning—a decidedly ugly building to be sure—but I had learned long ago not to judge a book by its cover.

A musical chime reminiscent of Tibetan bells announced my entry, and I was immediately transported back in time to all the eras that I had lived through. Just one side of the room revealed a whole host of interesting and expensive items, including a headhunter’s sword, a Pre-Columbian vessel and a genuine Roman glass vase enclosed in an ornate wooden cabinet. I was busy examining the contents of the store’s jewelry case when the proprietor came out from the back room.

“Morning. Can I help you with something, miss?”

I had to smile. Imagine calling me “miss” when I was almost eight times his age. Despite this, I put on my usual practiced smile to better appear the young mortal woman. “Hi. I was wondering if you could provide me with some more information regarding how you handle a person’s estate once they’ve passed—seems I’ve been charged with this little task and you come highly recommended. In fact, the person whose estate I’ll be handling specifically requested your company.” It wasn’t the exact truth, but I wanted to gauge the man’s reaction.

The man immediately brightened. “Well, sure I’d be glad to help. We understand that when a loved one passes that the task of liquidating their estate is an especially difficult task given an already trying situation. Some of the services we provide are cataloging all the belongings, setting fair market prices, prepping the home for those who wish to come by and purchase items, and anything not sold will be donated to various charities or resale shops—we’ll even sweep and mop up afterward so that the home is presentable if it is being placed on the market.”

I nodded, trying to absorb all of this. Just imagining my life without Wendell in it was hard enough. Seeing his worldly possessions bought and carted off by strangers would be even more difficult. “I appreciate that, but this person was actually wanting to put some items up for consignment—mainly jewelry, furniture and a vanity set from say the early 1900s.”

He nodded. “I see. Well, we’d have to appraise the items first in order to determine a price range or whether or not we consider them sellable. Any chance you have photographs of these items?”

I was about to reply that yes, I did happen to have photographs of the items in question on Wendell’s iPad which he had loaned me the night before, but at that moment a young man came from the back holding a pale blue plate in his hands.

“Hey, Dad I need your help in identifying the maker of this plate—it’s on the tip of my tongue but for the life of me I can’t think of the name.”

I glanced up at the interruption and took note of the plate in question. Without even meaning to, I spoke up. “It’s Wedgewood.” The two gaped at me as if I’d just grown a second head. Embarrassed, I tried to apologize. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt; it’s really none of my business.”

The older man waved away my concerns. “No need to apologize. Really, Andrew you should have known better.” The young man colored and ducked his head, but his father playfully punched his arm as if to indicate that he was only kidding.

The young man looked up after setting the plate down carefully on the counter. “All right, Wedgewood it is, Miss…?” His eyes met mine and I felt my breath catch. He was very handsome with dark features that hinted at a Latino heritage, and I could only guess that he must have gotten his looks from his mother given his surname. His brows rose quizzically. “Have we met before? You seem really familiar.”

“Um, not that I know of.” I too had a strange feeling of déjà vu, as if we had indeed met before. I was painfully aware that he was staring at me intently and I felt my own face color. I cleared my throat awkwardly and his father stepped in.

“I’m curious to know what else Miss, uh—”

“Armentani. Katrina.” I offered my hand and he shook it vigorously. He seemed slightly surprised at the strength of my grip and I had to remind myself to be careful and to not let my guard down.

“Roy Crossman. This is my son, Andrew.”

Andrew shook my hand. “Pleasure.” He smiled and held on to my hand just a little too long before letting go. He laughed nervously—clearly embarrassed—and I knew that I was flushing furiously. Luckily his father came to the rescue once again.

He set down a series of items on the counter before me, all of which I easily recognized. His eyes crinkled mischievously as he took in my questioning gaze. “Seeing as how Miss Armentani was so unexpectedly proficient when it concerns Wedgewood, I’m wondering what else she is proficient in.”

“Dad, really….”

“I love a challenge.”

His father laughed. “All right girlie, let’s see what you’ve got.”

I flicked my gaze to the item on the left then slowly scanned the rest just for effect. Without pausing I rattled off all the makers of the first three items: Majolica, Cartier, Tiffany. I indicated the last item on the right. “That one there is a fake. A fairly good one mind you, but see this?” I turned the vase over to expose its underside. “The maker’s mark should have two arrows crisscrossed at an angle, not one. That, and the color of the glaze is too bright given how old it is supposed to be.”

His father whistled appreciatively and Andrew beamed at me, apparently impressed. “Well, it’s settled then. You’re hired.”

I started. “I’m…wait, what? I’m hired? I don’t—”

Mr. Crossman pointed to the sign posted on the inside of the front door that said Help Wanted. “So, what do you say? Hourly rates are higher on weekends, you’d get to meet all kinds of interesting people—not to mention a few kooks—and there’s always the possibility of promotion.”

I really didn’t know what to say or do. I didn’t need the job seeing as how I had considerable assets tucked away in various banks—although you would never know it by the way I lived—but it would provide me with the opportunity to “get out more” as Wendell was so fond of saying. There were many nights in which I’d come home beaten, bloody and convinced that I just couldn’t persevere anymore and was ready to end it. My life had become one long series of nights spent hunting down and killing those of my kind who had become rogues, and there were times when I was at a loss to justify my actions. After all, was I not like them? Had I not killed to survive as well?

Wendell had taken me aside, cleaned me up and stitched my wounds when they were truly severe, and had listened to me cry and rave until I had exhausted myself. He would never say anything to interrupt me and when I finally grew quiet he would say: “But have you never known a moment of happiness during your lifetime?”

Of course I had, I would answer. What did that have to do with what I was currently going through?

“I agree that killing those who prey on the innocent is trying for you, but think of it this way: by removing them you are effectively ensuring that others will not become a victim of their bloodlust—you are giving those people the chance to live and experience life, and in essence experience happiness. By the same token you are also sparing their loved ones from despair and loss, the opposite of happiness. The happiness you have known during your lifetime is what drives you to persist in what you are doing, to fight for the happiness of others.”

Admittedly that had made a hell of a lot of sense.

“So what do you say?”

I snapped back to attention. “Huh?” So much for the eloquent connoisseur of antiquities I must have seemed seconds ago. Mr. Crossman had the good grace not to laugh outright at my blank stare and instead flashed me a winning smile that must have undoubtedly worked on Mrs. Crossman many a time.

“About the job? What do you say?”

“I….” My eyes flashed over to Andrew who stood off to his father’s left. He wore the strangest expression on his face, a mixture of expectancy and something else I couldn’t quite put my finger on. A faint shiver traced its way down my spine as we made eye contact and he hurriedly looked away, and once again I was struck by a pervasive sense of familiarity. I wasn’t sure what to make of these unexpected developments, but for some reason I found myself liking the two immensely and was curious enough to explore it further.

“I can start right away.”

Mr. Crossman slapped the counter with a beefy paw. “Hah! I knew that someone of your know-how couldn’t resist the idea of applying your talents to something like this. But,” he reached into the underside of the counter and withdrew a stack of forms. “Before we get to all the fun stuff, I do still need some standard information from you, things like date of birth, social security number. You know, the old background check and all.”

“Of course.” This was an old game to me, but one that still had to be played carefully. I had to reinvent myself every twenty to thirty years with all of the requisite information that this modern day and age required. I took out my driver’s license and handed it to Mr. Crossman. His eyes skittered over the information printed on there and he quirked an eyebrow.

“Twenty-three, huh? You look more like a teenager than a twenty-three year old.”

I smiled enigmatically. “I look young for my age.” Wasn’t that the understatement of the last three centuries?

“Let me get you a chair so you don’t have to stand at the counter while you fill all that out.” Andrew came out from around the counter and hefted a heavy and ornately-carved oak chair over to a roll top desk set underneath one of the windows.

“Thank you.” He held the chair out for me and when I sat down he adjusted it for me so that I was more comfortable. Unsure what to do and not at all used to this kind of treatment, I smiled awkwardly and set the stack of papers down on the desk to begin filling them out, but soon realized that I had no pen. I turned to Andrew who hovered nearby as if unsure of what else to do and indicated the pen tucked inside his shirt pocket. “May I?”

He seemed momentarily confused and then realization hit him. “Oh, sure.”

“Thanks.” I reached out to take the pen and his hand lightly grazed my own. I gasped as the sensation flashed through me like lightening, sizzling and warm. Andrew’s reaction was similar to my own and he hurriedly jerked his hand back, his face flaming with embarrassment.

From the back I heard his father calling to him to help him scan and photocopy my documentation and grateful for the distraction, Andrew hastily excused himself and left the room. Confused, I tried my best to push aside the nagging sense of familiarity and concentrated on fabricating my information so that it jived with the identification I had produced. By the time the two emerged from the back room some ten minutes later, I was signing my name with a flourish on the last page of the stack and rose to hand them in.

I slid the stack over to Mr. Crossman across the counter. “All done.”

He offered me a small smile before gathering them up along with the photocopies of my license and social security card and set them aside. He scrubbed absently at the side of his face. “Look, I know that this whole hiring thing happened kind of suddenly for you, and I don’t want you to feel like I strong-armed you into taking the job. Processing all your information will take some time, but we are really understaffed and could use all the help we can get so hence the rush job.”

I flashed him another enigmatic smile. “Not many people can strong-arm me into doing anything I don’t want to.”

His eyebrows quirked again. No doubt he was remembering how firm my initial handshake had been. “No, I don’t suppose so. In any event, I’d feel a lot better if you at least field tested the job before committing to anything—you know, try it on for size for a day or two. Mind you, there’s the whole issue with liability in case you get hurt or whatnot, but—”

I held up a hand. “Not to worry; I’m sure that it’s all standard procedure, but I assure you I won’t sue for damages on the off-chance I trip and fall.” I had excellent motor coordination and the likelihood that I would injure myself was slim to none, but I knew that as a business owner he had his own interests to look out for.

He seemed slightly relieved and he flipped absently through the stack of forms to ensure that they had all been properly filled out. “You’re not technically hired yet seeing as how the background check takes a while to run, but if it turns out that you don’t end up wanting the job after trying it out it’s just a matter of me shredding all these forms. No harm no foul.”

“Fair enough.” Truthfully I was already looking forward to doing something meaningful with my downtime when I wasn’t out hunting down others of my kind. I looked over at Andrew who had remained silent throughout the whole process and found that he was once again staring intently at me. He hurriedly glanced away when our eyes met and then busied himself with organizing the store’s business cards in their brass holder which was ultimately a useless endeavor. His elevated heart and respiration rate indicated that at the very least he was uneasy about something, but of what I couldn’t be sure.

I frowned, not sure what to think of this. Did he subconsciously sense that there was something unnatural about me, or was it something else? If it was something else, then what could it possibly be?

Mr. Crossman continued on with his sales pitch, completely unaware of the silent exchange between his son and I. “Tell you what: I have a few more things I have to settle over at the Everett estate, but Andrew here can show you the ropes—you’ll be in very capable hands.”

He winked at his son when he didn’t think I was looking and Andrew flushed a deep crimson. In fact we both did.

Andrew cleared his throat. “So, ah…Katrina, right? I guess we can start by driving over to one of the houses that we are in the process of, well, processing.” He ran his hand up through his hair and appeared at a loss of what to say next. I admit that his fumbling awkwardness was kind of adorable, not to mention endearingly innocent in a way. Again I was struck by that feeling of familiarity, as if we had indeed met before. Of course when you’ve lived as long as I have everyone at some point would undoubtedly remind you of someone else from your past. Chalking up the feeling as nothing more than some subconscious past memory, I chased the thought from my mind and focused my attention back to the present. Andrew apparently had given up on his attempt to keep the conversation going—not that I had been much help—and busied himself with gathering his keys up off the back counter.

“We can take my truck, that is if you don’t mind; you could take your vehicle too if you want, although…no. We haven’t officially put you on payroll yet, so we can’t reimburse you for gas yet.”

“Your truck sounds fine.”

Relieved, he held the door open for me before locking up the store and I followed him across the parking lot to where a dark blue double cab truck was parked under the shade cast by an ancient pecan tree. The front windshield had a huge crack running across the width of it and created a starburst pattern near the passenger side. I must have had a look on my face because Andrew felt the need to offer an explanation.

“Gravel truck. Slung a rock while pulling out of some farm road and hit me square on—lousy timing.”

“At least you weren’t hurt. The windshield can always be replaced whenever you’re…well, whenever.”

He laughed. “Yeah, I probably should have had it replaced a while back, but I dunno. I can still see out of my side and it kind of gives my truck—”

“Character?” I offered.

He grinned. “That’s a nice way of looking at it, I guess. If I were like most guys who are completely obsessed with their trucks I would have gotten it replaced within the hour, but like I said it doesn’t really bother me.”

He gallantly held the door open for me and I hesitated, not because of the height of the truck—which was considerable—but because of the mini avalanche of foam cups, burger bags, and water bottles that threatened to spill out into the parking lot.

Without even thinking I reached out and snagged the closest of the falling items with my right and pushed back the rest with my left hand, effectively keeping them contained.

Andrew appeared equal parts embarrassed at the mess spilling out of his truck and equal parts impressed at my reflexes. “Oh, hey let me….”

I waved away his protests. “No problem. I practically live out of my car too sometimes.” I managed to squish all the trash into a plastic takeout bag and deftly tied a knot in it and tossed it into the backseat, which was slightly less messy than the front.

“It’s not that, it’s just that I don’t eat like that all the time.” He gestured to where the mess had been moments before.

I shrugged. “Well even if you did, it’s not like it shows.”

He immediately turned a brilliant shade of red—which was considerable given the deep olive tone of his skin—and promptly avoided eye contact.

Great, I chided myself. I try to smooth over a moderately embarrassing situation and manage to alienate him all at the same time. Fantastic.

Seeing as how he was still standing there holding the door for me, I did the most logical thing and sprang up into the seat and began buckling myself in.

Emphasis on sprang.

The truck was one of those ridiculously large ones that required anyone of modest height to have to grab onto the inside door handle and hoist themselves in, often at the risk of spraining something or looking completely undignified. With my unnatural reflexes and exceptional motor coordination, the disparity between my diminutive height and the exaggerated height of the truck presented no challenge at all, and I swung up and into the seat with catlike ease. I saw the puzzled look on his face as he gently shut the door and walked around to the driver’s side, and I mentally slapped myself for being so careless. First the superfast reflexes with the trash and now the acrobatic-like leap up into the front seat. I was getting careless.

The motor roared to life and he backed out smoothly and onto the street. The drive over to the house in question was quiet for the first few minutes, and unnerved by the silence I decided to try to break the ice and ease some of the subconscious tension swirling around the cab. “So.” Andrew turned into a pretty tree-lined neighborhood that I had never been to before.

Stonehaven was a gated community where the houses were all made of identical ecru stone hewn out of the nearby hills. Oak trees were everywhere overhung with gray Spanish Moss, and while the landscaping was big on utilizing large boulders of the same stone in which the houses were constructed of along with an abundance of native plants like sage brush and Spanish Daggers—zero-scape I think it was called—the whole had a look of elegant rustic-ness that I found appealing.

“So,” I tried again. I had noticed that the lanyard dangling from Andrew’s rear view mirror bore the emblem of a prominent college in the state. “Where did you go to college?”

Andrew immediately brightened and any lingering sense of awkwardness instantly vanished as he began to speak in earnest about his college days, which as I discovered were not that far away in his past. “I mainly went to that college because it was my dad’s alma mater—not that I’d ever admit that to him—and I majored in business with a minor in history.”

I nodded. That made sense if you planned on one day running the family business, and as for the history minor…well, when said business dealt primarily with antiques and items of historical significance it was downright practical.

“Anyway,” he continued as he steered the truck uphill towards an impressive looking house with a massive cedar and wrought-iron door. “I was serious about my studies—though don’t get me wrong I did party on occasion with my friends even if it did nearly get me in trouble. You know how it goes.”

“Believe it or not I actually have no idea what you’re talking about. I never went to college.” I could feel his gaze lying heavily on me as he chose his next words carefully.

“Really? You just seemed—seem—so knowledgeable.”

I shrugged. “Experience. I’ve traveled a lot during my lifetime. I may not have much in the way of book knowledge, but I have enough experience and practical knowledge to last several lifetimes.” It wasn’t exactly a lie, but it was as close to the truth as I was willing to relate.

Andrew seemed to consider my words. “I guess that makes a lot of sense. I mean, there are people out there who are extremely smart when it comes to book knowledge, but in real life they’re a mess. No common sense at all. I guess the same can be said about people with real-world smarts, except in your case I’m sure you’d prove to be pretty exceptional when it came to book smarts too.”

I chuckled. “Thanks. People don’t usually refer to me as ‘exceptional’; for that matter, people don’t really associate with me at all.” I didn’t mean for my voice to have such a bitter tone to it, but it came out nonetheless.

“Really? How come?” He grimaced. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to pry. It’s not really any of my business anyway.” He steered the truck into the driveway of a house with the impressive-looking door and parked. The engine ticked slightly as it cooled and we both sat there in relative silence for a few moments.

“Look, if we’re going to be working together from now on, there’s a few things that you need to know about me,” I said finally to break the silence. I licked my dry lips before continuing. “Firstly, I’m not as unapproachable as I may seem. My past…well, let’s just say that there’s been some pretty traumatic stuff in it that has shaped the person that I am today. I tend to keep my thoughts and emotions to myself because I have trouble trusting people and rarely open up to anyone. I know it’s not fair to be on the offensive with everyone before I’ve even gotten to know them, but I’ve been like this for so long that I don’t know how to be anything else. It’s an old pattern and I often don’t bother expending the energy to turn it off so to speak.” I paused again and glanced up to find that Andrew was looking at me with the most curious sense of understanding in his dark eyes. If I had seen pity reflected there it might have pissed me off and made me throw up the old familiar walls again, but he looked like he knew, like he understood how I felt.

“But,” I continued while holding his gaze. “The fact that I’ve shared even this much with you in the short while that we’ve known each other is well, unprecedented. The only other person who knows this about me is my neighbor Wendell, and even then he is like a father to me.” I offered him a small but warm smile. “You must be pretty exceptional yourself.”

He smiled shyly but held my gaze. Impressive.

“I guess that’s why I’m so good at my job. In this business you have to be able to tow the line between business and personable. I mean, my family mainly makes a living liquidating the assets of people who have passed on and whose loved ones are either so overcome with grief or completely overwhelmed with all of the final expenses and other minutiae that they call us in to handle the arrangements. I know what it’s like to have your past hanging over you from time to time, and I also know what it’s like to have it rear up unexpectedly and threaten the present.” He paused and for just a brief moment I saw something akin to sadness marring his handsome features. “I appreciate your honesty with me and respect you completely. Believe me, I know how hard it is to open up to people, even those I’ve known for years, but if you ever want to talk—about anything—I’m here for you.” He made a face. “Wow, that sounded cheesy. Sort of like a bad Hallmark card.”

I laughed, surprised that it both sounded—and felt—genuine. “The best kind of Hallmark cards—or any cards for that matter—are the cheesy ones, especially because they make you smile and forget whatever else is going on in your life, if only for a moment.”

“Now you’re the one who sounds cheesy.”

I gave him a mock scandalized expression. “Hey! I was attempting to make light of an awkward conversation—not that you were helping much.”

“Cut me some slack here; it’s hard enough making conversation with someone you hardly know, much less a beautiful woman….” His words cut off abruptly and we both sat there staring at one another in what I can honestly characterize as one of the most uncomfortable situations in my life. Andrew looked positively mortified at his own admission and I…well, no telling what sort of expression my face wore.

I caught movement out of the corner of my eye. Someone was inside the house and had pulled back the curtains to peer out into the driveway. Undoubtedly they were wondering who we were and why neither one of us had exited the truck yet. I shifted my gaze back to Andrew who continued looking at me in that endearing way of his that despite my better judgment set my heart racing. He appeared on the verge of wanting to say something, almost as if he were gathering his courage.

I immediately went into shut-down mode.

If he was considering asking me out on a date the idea was out of the question. There was no way I could ever hope to forge a relationship with him or with anyone for that matter given who and what I was. Best to circumvent this before things progressed I decided, and opened my mouth to speak.

“Katrina, I was wondering if—”

“We should go inside.”

He blinked. “What?”

“I said, we should go inside. There’s someone looking out one of the windows.”

He reluctantly tore his gaze from me and looked in the direction I’d indicated. He sighed heavily and glanced at his watch. “Yeah, looks that way.” His voice held a slight trace of disappointment as he reached over and grabbed a large plastic binder off of the dashboard. The moment passed.

Damn, he had been about to ask me out.

I breathed a sigh of relief. That had been close, too close. In all honesty I was bitterly disappointed that I had to strike him down like that, but it was for the best I decided. Although if he felt that way about me so soon after meeting me, there was no telling how or to what extent those feelings of his would progress as we continued to spend long hours working with one another. God, when did my life get so complicated? I wondered as I climbed down—less gracefully and more human-like this time—from the truck as Andrew once again held the door for me like a gentleman. Oh, yeah, I know: around the time I became an immortal.

A woman with short pale blonde hair with gray streaks in it greeted us at the door and welcomed us inside the impressive looking house. A large, Greco-Roman looking mosaic done in shades of copper, gold, and champagne colored mirrored tiles graced the front foyer, and the house itself was done in complementary shades of mahogany, redwood and dark oak. The view from the front parlor windows was impressive and showed a sweeping panorama of the hills and shallow valleys that had graced the ride over here. To the left a natural pond was filled with ducks splashing happily in its watery depths, and a graceful white gazebo with a set of wrought-iron benches on it overlooked the pond. A fire pit encased in matching stone like the rest of the house spoke of many hours spent grilling out with friends and family, but now looked cold and sadly underused. The house was relatively clean given the fact that some of the rooms were partially bare, and the faint dusty ghosts where furniture had been remained on its immaculate, polished floors. Several large framed pieces of art featuring bold and outlandish flowers in rich tones of marigold, saffron and vermillion graced the walls and from where I stood, the kitchen off to the right made my own modest one back at my apartment look like a child’s play set.

The woman—Marianne—must have seen my wistful expression.

“Overwhelming isn’t it? Mother was always such a wonderful cook, but truthfully she could make do with almost nothing at her disposal.” She dabbed daintily at her eyes with a Kleenex. My own mother had been a fantastic cook and had passed on her recipes—which had been passed on to her from her mother—to me when I was still a child. “The rest of the family has already been through here and taken what they wanted. Anything left can be appraised and sold for what you think its worth. There are a few good pieces of art, those included.” She indicated the flowered paintings. “The back rooms have some relatively large pieces of furniture, there’s quite a few assorted odds and ends, and then there’s the pile that we have going in the spare bedroom. We’re not really sure what to do with it all—mostly its stacks of old letters, photographs, old clothing and hats from God-knows-when, and other items that may not sell. Honestly I’d just as soon toss it all in the garbage and be done with it. Mother was pretty sentimental and a pack rat by all intents and purposes and never threw anything away. You have your work cut out for you let me tell you.”

Andrew nodded sympathetically and gestured to me. “Katrina is in training and this will be her first official estate dealing. She has quite a good eye when it concerns collectibles and their value, and I’ll of course be on hand to supervise.”

The woman nodded, though it was clear that she had other places she’s rather be. She dabbed at her eyes again with the Kleenex. “I have some errands that I need to run in town, but you’re free to stay here for as long as you need. The spare key is on the kitchen counter, so just shut the front door on your way out. If you have any questions or need me for anything, you have my cell number.”

Andrew nodded. “Of course. We really are very sorry for your loss; I know that this can’t be easy, but I assure you that your parent’s possessions will be handled with the utmost care and respect, and we’ll find good homes for them.”

“Thank you.” She sniffed and crumpled the Kleenex up in her hand before gathering her purse up off the kitchen island and then headed out the front door.

Andrew cleared his throat. “Ready?”

“Absolutely.”

Andrew turned to go towards the spare room that Marianne had indicated and once again I felt the awkward silence descend around us. What exactly had I gotten myself into?

As it turns out, it was quite a mess. Literally.

The spare bedroom was indeed piled high with all sorts of odds and ends that only someone like myself could appreciate. Some of the piles were precariously balanced and seemed to defy gravity.

Andrew whistled appreciatively. “Shit.”

I laughed. This was the first time that I had heard the normally shy Andrew swear. “Marianne wasn’t kidding when she said that we had our work cut out for us.” I headed over to a stack of slim white boxes and gingerly slid the topmost one free. A brief glance inside revealed what were apparently family photographs, most likely late sixties to early seventies judging by the clothing the people wore. The second box revealed more photos of a later date, somewhere in the neighborhood of the mid-eighties. The next five boxes revealed similar contents and I set them off to the side with a heavy sigh.

Andrew glanced over at me from where he had been sorting through a stack of old newspapers. Most of them were yellowed with age and a few were little more than mildew-spotted tatters, but a small pile had been set aside. My eyes crawled across the headline of the top paper and I uttered my own whistle of approval. His face broke into a wide grin. “Told you this job had its perks. I’m guessing something like this,” he held up the newspaper in question which featured a headline proclaiming an end to the World War One in mint condition, “is gold to a serious collector.”

I smiled wistfully and ran my hand along the top of my stack of boxes. “Too bad these aren’t worth anything—they’re nothing but old family photographs.” I reconsidered. “Well, not that they’re nothing in the sense that they aren’t important—I’m sure they were to someone at some point—but I don’t think many people will be clambering to buy these. I mean, to think that the family wants nothing to do with them—that’s just shameful.”

A bitter tone had crept into my voice and Andrew seemed to pick up on it. He came over to where I sat cross-legged on the floor and knelt down beside me and then reached down and scooped up a handful of photos. He thumbed through them silently and I took the opportunity to look at him—really look at him—without fear of being noticed. He was handsome in a boyish way, but his features—especially when he was concentrating—had the tendency to make him appear older, more mature. He wasn’t overly tall by most standards—perhaps five foot ten—but was lean and had a slight athletic look to him that was detectable even under the neatly laundered polo shirt and jeans. He wore faded brown boots that appeared well-worn and were obviously a favorite of his, and his dark complexion was a mixture of his Latin heritage and time spent outdoors.

I shook my head. He was far too young and innocent, barely a baby compared to my nearly four centuries. What the hell was I doing here sneaking glances at him, alone, in a stranger’s house, or for that matter, what was I even doing accepting a job where I’d be working alongside him for hours at a time?

“—have a lot of sentimental value, but little else.”

I snapped back to attention. “What?”

Andrew appeared to not have noticed my earlier appraisal of him and I breathed a quiet sigh of relief. “I said, these photographs have a lot of sentimental value but aren’t worth much else to anyone. If the family doesn’t want them then they will have to be thrown out so that the house can be cleaned and put up on the market.”

I was aghast. “But that’s terrible! These are people here—people who lived and loved—they can’t just be thrown away like that.”

Andrew seemed sympathetic. “Unfortunately they can. I’ve seen it happen lots of times.”

I shook my head. My own family was long dead and I had nothing to remember them by, no mementos or even a hand-drawn portrait. What I would have given to have had such a tangible reminder that they had once lived.

My face must have betrayed my own inner turmoil because he was immediately concerned. “Katrina, are you all right?” He moved towards me and I made a dismissive gesture. He pulled back slightly, and not wanting to appear rude I folded my hands in my lap and stared down at them.

“It’s nothing. My family…they died a long time ago and I have nothing to remember them by except for what is in here.” I tapped my temple and risked a glance up at him. Once again I was struck by the sincerity in his gaze.

“What happened?” he asked quietly. I hesitated and he seemed to reconsider. “I’m sorry. Again, it’s none of my business.”

“No, it’s okay.” I scoffed and blinked back tears. I hadn’t spoken about my family to anyone—hell, I spent half the time burying my own feelings regarding them because they were too painful—but I felt that I owed Andrew an explanation. “I generally don’t talk about this part of my life—for obvious reasons—and it’s part of the reason why I don’t allow anyone to get too close to me.”

“You’re afraid of experiencing that hurt all over again if something were to happen to that person too.”

I blinked, surprised at his perceptiveness. “Yeah.”

He nodded, his face neutral. “I’m sorry you had to go through that, whatever it was.”

I swallowed thickly and nodded silently. In the silence that followed I could almost hear him turning over my words and considering their meaning. If he was as perceptive as I suspected, then he undoubtedly had picked up on the subtext: I don’t allow anyone to get too close to me so therefore dating me is out of the question.

“Well,” he said and then straightened up. “I think that the best thing to do is to go to that one special place that’s guaranteed to cheer up anyone no matter what’s bothering them.”

*************

‘That special place’ it turned out, was none other than Whataburger.

As we pulled into the parking lot and he shut the truck off I must have had a look of utter incredulity stamped on my face. “You’re joking.”

He seemed nonplussed at my blasé comment. “Works every time. Whenever I’m feeling down I come here, order my favorite burger, and all my troubles seem to just melt away.” He breathed deep as we entered, obviously savoring the scent of greasy French fries and industrial strength cleaner. “Like I said, this place is guaranteed to cheer up anyone.”

“Anyone except vegetarians or health nuts.” In all honesty the smell—minus the industrial strength cleaner—was not entirely unpleasant. I hadn’t eaten since the night before and my stomach rumbled traitorously.

He shrugged and approached the counter to order, clearly enjoying himself.

As we sat down at a table for two in the corner near the rear exit, he sighed happily as he unwrapped his prize: a double patty monstrosity replete with grilled onions, jalapenos, and barbecue sauce. My own burger was largely unimaginative, all the way but hold the mustard.

I eyed his burger as he brought it up to his mouth. “I can’t believe you’re going to eat that.”

He took a bite and quirked an eyebrow. “Hey, don’t knock it till you’ve tried it.” I think that’s what he said because he had a mouth full of burger as he talked.

At my dubious frown, he extended the burger towards me. “Go on, try it. If it really is as bad as you think it looks, then the next time we go out, lunch is on me.”

While not sure how to reply to the ‘next time we go out’ comment, I took the proffered burger and bit into it. A plethora of flavors hit my tongue and I closed my eyes. “Damn it.”

“What? Is it really that bad?” He took the burger back and reached to hand me a napkin, presumably to spit out the offensive morsel.

I finished chewing and swallowed, then started giggling. “That’s the best burger I’ve had in a long time.”

He beamed, pleased at himself. “See? Told you.” He took a plastic knife and started cutting his burger in half. I reached to stop him, but he waved me away. “We’ll share. You get half of mine and I get the other half of yours.”

We traded halves and I noticed that he kept the half that I had bitten. We ate the rest of our meal in relative silence until sated, then leaned back in our seats.

Andrew sighed happily. “Normally I prefer home-cooked to fast food, but you have to admit, that was pretty good.”

“That it was.”

“Not that I get much home-cooking except for when I’m visiting my parents. Normally Maureen takes care of that.”

“Maureen?” The name sounded vaguely familiar though I couldn’t figure out why.

“I usually go to Merle’s at least once a week. Maureen’s a waitress over there and she always treats me like I’m one of her own kids.”

I felt a chill creep its way down my spine. Merle’s. Maureen. No, surely this couldn’t be what it was starting to look like.

“Mondays are the best days—that’s when they have the Manager’s Special which is always excellent.”

I closed my eyes. Mondays. Today was Tuesday. Last night I had been at Merle’s and I was suspecting that Andrew had been there too.

“Were you there last night, er, yesterday?” I tried to appear casual but my pulse was racing.

“Um, yeah, actually I was. Strangest thing though,” he took a sip from his plastic cup. “I saved a woman from being mugged in the parking lot. Well, nearly saved her seeing as she had the good sense to fling hot coffee in the creep’s face. I meant to go back and tell Maureen that her coffee had been good for more than combating hangovers, but it was late and I decided to just head home.”

Andrew continued to talk about the merits of one of his favorite diners and how much he had enjoyed the day’s events, but I wasn’t really paying attention. My own thoughts were whirling: Andrew had been the man in the diner who had tried to help me after I was attacked; Andrew, who had nearly seen what I was and had now subsequently found himself firmly embroiled in the very situation that I had been trying to avoid all day.

What indeed had I gotten myself into by accepting this job, but more importantly, what exactly had I gotten Andrew involved in? I was suspecting that whatever it was, that it was more than just a coincidence.

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