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After two full nights of sleep, the swelling in his ankle went down. Dante’s vague misgivings about extreme and ongoing exhaustion faded. This, along with Merilee’s regular visits to his desk, convinced him an evening out with his friends and with her along would be just what the doctor ordered, or at least, what the doctor should have ordered. To the delight of all, he agreed to join them at the bar to enjoy the visiting band and share with them a few laughs with the up and coming comic.

The evening turned out to be as good as promised. The band was superb, the comedian’s set was outrageously funny, and the drinks kept flowing. Well lubricated although not drunk, Dante walked out of the club without stumbling. Not that he could have as Merilee, joining him, grabbed his arm and held on tight. “That ankle must still bother you, I’ll walk you home. You don’t live too far from me and it’s a beautiful evening.”

It might not have quite been an old-fashioned walk. The city surrounded them. The roar of busy streets and the bustling Friday night crowds on the sidewalk may have made it less than intimate, but to Dante’s mind, it couldn’t have been more pleasant. Before long, the two of them were talking and Dante’s inhibitions slipped away. He decided he liked this young woman. Not only was she beautiful with her reddish hair and those delightful tiny freckles on her nose, but she was also smart and charming.

It was disappointing to Dante when they arrived at the front of his building. The walk together seemed to be coming to an end too quickly. Swallowing hard, he turned to face her and said, “Well, here we are. Would you like to come in for a moment? I could make some fresh coffee.”

To his absolute delight, Merilee gave a slight nod of agreement. Entering the apartment, Dante realized it had been a few days since he had tidied. Clothes hung on chairs around the living room. He immediately collected everything lying about. “The kitchen is in there. The coffee is right beside the coffeemaker,” he pointed, his arms laden down with a week’s worth of his unlaundered things, “I’ll be right back to make it after I get rid of these.”

“I can make the coffee,” and Merilee walked past, not seeming to notice his arms were full, and stepped into the kitchen.

“No, no, I can make it,” said Dante.

“It’s Ok, Dante,” she said, “I’ve already found everything.”

Dante, carrying the load of clothing, walked into his room. He threw everything into the closet and closed the door and took off his shoes and put on his slippers. He picked up his slippers and sat down on the bed.

“Well,” said a woman, her tone bubbling with sarcasm, in a voice that was not Merilee’s, “Our hero has returned.”

“No,” groaned Dante.

Back in Dante’s apartment, Merilee had started the coffee. “This is a nice apartment, Dante. How long have you lived here?”

When there was no answer, she called out, “Dante, are you ok?”

She walked back through the living room, past the bathroom with its door slightly ajar and empty. She went into his bedroom. “Dante,” she called, “where are you?”

Again, there was no response. It was not a large apartment. He should have heard her wherever she was. She revisited the rooms several times until she finally convinced herself Dante was nowhere to be found. “Well, that sucks,” she snorted.

She waited around in case he had stepped out to get something or talk to someone and then momentarily return. He didn’t. Red faced with anger and confusion, she left the apartment and made her way home. He had walked out on her. Her opinion of the shy department manager changed in that moment. Boy, had she misjudged him. “What kind of prick would invite her to his apartment, then disappear like that?”

She would have strong words for him on Monday, if she spoke to him at all.

Meanwhile, Dante was busy immersed in a sword battle with Astrada. His tactic was to run backwards as fast as he could while trying to fend off the slap of her blade with the sword he somehow was carrying. He hadn’t forgotten about Merilee but didn’t have time to think too much about her at the moment.

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