Chuck: A Ghost's Story

By C.A. Cardoza All Rights Reserved ©

Humor / Fantasy

Chapter 4

Luckily, life in Provo remained largely unaffected by my questionable Vegas experiment…or so I thought. Gracie continued to wear her granny garb (though she was layering slightly less) and other than nursing a wicked hangover for a day or two, she seemed no worse for wear. At first, I was relieved to have things back to “normal,” until I remembered that normal is fucking boring!

I needed something different to do…anything to break the monotony…so I decided to finally make nice with Mama Rodge. I wandered around the townhouse until I spotted his dapper figure, staring out the window.

“Rooodge!” I sang pleasantly, strolling into the living room. “Whatya doin’?”

From his seat on the sofa, Rodge turned his shiny, bald head to glare at me, saying nothing.

“Oh, come on,” I teased, nudging him with my foot. “I know you hate me, but if we’re going to be metaphysically lashed together like this, we may as well try to be friendly! I propose a truce.”

Holding out my hand in a gesture of goodwill, I was disappointed (but not surprised) when Rodge turned away from it.

“So now you expect me to believe that you want to be pals, huh?” He replied. “Exactly how stupid do you think I am?”

I weighed my response to the question, and decided it best not to give an honest answer.

“I don’t think you’re stupid, Mama,” I replied, dropping to meet his level. “And I don’t blame you for being skeptical about my intentions. Let’s face it, they generally aren’t the best! Seriously though, tormenting you has gotten seriously boring and I hate being bored.”

“Well, I’m sorry to hear that you’re bored, Chuck,” Rodge sighed, “but it is not my job to entertain you.”

“I’m not asking you to!” I replied, becoming frustrated. “I just want to talk, that’s all. Don’t you? I mean, you can’t even talk to Gracie! You’ve got to be going crazy for conversation, sitting here, all alone.”

Rodge remained stubbornly silent, turning his gaze back toward the window.

“Come on, what do you say?” I cooed, leaning over to bump the man with my shoulder. “Little chit? Little chat? Don’t make me beg!”

“If I talk to you for a while,” Rodge replied, finally, “will you go the hell away and leave me in peace?”

Again, I thought it best to be dishonest.

“Sure,” I said, with a shrug. “Whatever you want, Mama.”

“If we are going to be…friends…that has to stop, immediately.”

“What, the lying?”

Rodge looked at me with an expression somewhere between disbelief and amusement.

“The nickname,” he replied.

“I’ve called people much worse,” I responded, “but if it bothers you, I shall retire Mama Rodge on the spot. Scouts honor!”

You were a Boy Scout?”

“Nah. I beat a few up, though.”

Rodge shook his head in disgust.

“What is wrong with you?” He asked, wrinkling his brow.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, you’ve got a serious chip on your shoulder! Who is it that you’re so mad at, Mommy? Daddy? Whoever it is, you need to clean out your closet, man. Deal with your issues, instead of taking them out on the rest of the world.”

“Thanks for the advice, Dr. Freud, but you have no idea what I’ve been through, so just butt out.”

Rodge could tell he had struck a nerve and smiled annoyingly.

“So the almighty Chuck is just as vulnerable to injury as the rest of us! Who would have guessed?”

“Screw you.”

Rodge chuckled and if I had a fist that still worked properly I would have punched him, abruptly ending our conversation. Instead I stood, to leave.

“You’re the one who wanted to talk,” Rodge reminded me, with a shrug. “If you didn’t want to talk about you, you probably should have specified that.”

“I didn’t think I had to,” I replied, crossing my arms. “Why would you want to talk about me? Don’t get me wrong, I did some pretty crazy shit in my short life! I could tell you some stories! But I thought guys like you always wanted to talk about fashion and Hollywood gossip and…”

“Wow, nice stereotyping there,” Rodge interrupted, frowning.

“Yeah, so? At the heart of every stereotype are a handful of universal truths.”

“Is that right?”

“Yep! I mean, look at you. How many straight guys did you know that spent as much time grooming as you did when you were alive?”

“Plenty, for your information. Taking pride in your appearance does not make you gay, it makes you a gentleman, and gentlemen come in all sexual orientations.”

“Not where I come from.”

Rodge regarded me thoughtfully for a moment and the scrutiny made me a bit uncomfortable.

“Where do you come from, anyway?” He asked, finally.

“The city,” I replied. “San Francisco, born and raised! Well, in a few places around the bay area, growing up. I bounced around, some.”

“Foster care?” Rodge guessed, surprising me.

“Yeah. Though, it was a little different back then. No matter where I was, I never seemed to fit in so well…surprise, surprise…so I didn’t make it in one place for very long.”

“Ah, the joys of childhood. We all have our scars, I guess.”

“Sure,” I replied sarcastically. “You’ve got ‘mama’s boy’ written all over you. I bet you were spoiled rotten.”

“Hardly,” Rodge said, with a laugh. “My mom died when I was six. Dad and I got along okay at first but…he didn’t really know how to handle a gay son, so we just sort of kept our distance from one another, as I got older.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

For once, I meant it. If it was one thing I understood all too well, it was how it felt to be an outsider in your own home.

“It was what it was,” Rodge replied, with a shrug. “But I had it easy compared to Gracie.”

“Why is that?” I asked, dropping down to my companion’s level again. “What happened to Gracie?”

Rodge evaluated my sudden interest, suspiciously.

“Why do you want to know?” He asked, protectively. “Need more fuel for your little con?”

I felt insulted by the accusation. I suppose I shouldn’t have, but I did.

“No! I was just curious.”

“Mmmhmm, sure.”

“Lookie here, buddy, I don’t need any intel from you or anybody else! If I want to run a con, all I have to do is pay attention, and my marks tell me all I need to know. I already know enough about Gracie to fill a filing cabinet the size of this room.”

“Like?”

“Anything and everything! I can tell you what she eats and when, what brand of shampoo she uses, the order in which she puts on her clothes in the morning and takes them off at night, the side of the bed she sleeps on, and the position she lays on it. I know that she has an arrangement of tiny moles on her left butt-cheek that looks like the Big Dipper and an ugly-ass scar on her neck from some sort of surgery, or something…”

“That scar is not from surgery,” Rodge interrupted.

“What, then?”

“Why are you asking me? I thought you knew everything about her!”

“Okay, maybe not everything…but enough.”

“You know nothing. Absolute, trivial nonsense. You have no idea who that woman is. You don’t deserve to know her.”

Ouch.

“Alright,” I admitted, “I don’t know her, but I want to. I really want to.”

Rodge hesitated before speaking, obviously weighing my intentions. Believing me sincere (which for once I was), he took a deep breath and told me all about his best friend.

“I met Gracie in the third grade. Her desk was next to mine, and when I found out that her mother was dead too, well, that’s the strange kind of thing that can bond children like super-glue. We were inseparable, from that point on. In class, on the playground, on the school bus…we went everywhere together. Gracie rode home with me every day after school, and we would play in the yard until sunset, when I would walk her the three blocks to her father’s house. We hated that walk. Not just because it meant saying goodbye, but also because we both knew what would happen to her, there.”

Rodge paused and swallowed hard, the memory obviously a painful one. I felt a rush of dread, suddenly not so sure that I wanted to hear the rest of his story. But I let him keep going.

“It was bad, Chuck,” he continued. “Really bad. I mean…he didn’t just abuse her…he’d have friends over and they would too. Sometimes, they’d even pay him to do it…right in front of Gracie! How sick is that?! When she got a little older, Gracie figured out how to escape through her bedroom window when her dad had company, and she’d come hide out at my house. Itty-bitty Gracie would climb right up the apple tree outside my window and tap on the glass. I’d let her in, and she’d sleep beside me all night. She told me once that those were the only nights she actually slept, and if you knew her back then, you’d believe it.

“Gracie has always been beautiful, but she looked so gaunt when we were kids that it was hard to see. My dad assumed she had some kind of disease, and since Gracie had sworn me to secrecy, I allowed him to. Looking back, I don’t know how in the hell she was left in that house, how none of the teachers or counselors or other parents could see what was happening to her. Or maybe they did, and just decided to stay out of it. People do that, you know. Sometimes, they don’t want to get involved.”

I nodded, remembering the day after my ninth birthday, when my Sunday school teacher had noticed a cigarette burn on the inside of my wrist. She slid the sleeve of my sweatshirt up my forearm to reveal three more like it, and shook her head in disgust.

“I made him angry again,” I’d explained, ashamed of the marks.

The young woman nodded and stroked my hair sympathetically, but nothing changed after that day…except that she would no longer look me in the eye.

“We ran away,” Rodge continued, bringing me back from my memories, into his. “When we were sixteen. Being both black and gay in the little town we grew up in made me an irresistible bully target, and Gracie…well…Gracie had to get the hell out of there. So away we went! Off to your town, San Francisco. Gracie got a hold of her father’s debit card and cleared out his bank account, and I had a small savings from mowing lawns over the summer, so we were actually able to afford a miniscule apartment in a questionable neighborhood. It was heaven!

“We both got jobs and pitched in to buy the fabulous piece of automotive luxury currently parked in Gracie’s driveway, and we were ridiculously happy. I could never bring myself to let go of that stupid Pinto…too many memories, ya know? Man, those were the good ol’ days! Safety for Gracie, acceptance for me, and freedom for both of us! I remember watching Gracie just blossom, back then. I mean, the way she overcame her upbringing and came into her own was truly inspiring. I don’t know if I could have done it. After what she went through…I probably would have committed suicide years before that point. Or, at the very least, be so hard and bitter that I could never find joy. But Gracie’s always been so much stronger, than me.”

Rodge gazed off for a moment, with a wistful smile, as he thought of the girl. He loved Gracie in a way no one had ever loved me. What would it have been like…to have a friend? A real friend? It would surely have made the shitty parts of life a lot less shitty…

“Gracie worked in one of the city’s hottest clothing stores for a few years,” Rodge continued, finally, “so she was able to use her discount to dress in the latest trends and strut around San Francisco like she owned it! It took a while, but eventually, she even began to date. Gracie broke heart after heart, (unintentionally of course), until she met Marcus Crowley...”

“Ah,” I interrupted. “So this Marcus Crowley I keep hearing about is an ex-boyfriend?”

Rodge nodded.

“Marcus was thirty-five to Gracie’s twenty-one. Tall, dark, and handsome, he swept in like Prince Charming and before I knew it, Gracie was in love for the first time. I wish I could say that I never liked the guy, but I did. He was intelligent and chivalrous and gave Gracie all of the romance and affection that she so deserved. I was truly happy for her, back then. I couldn’t have predicted the way things would turn out. I was just a kid myself, after all. I didn’t see it coming any more than Gracie did.

“When he moved her out of the city, to a little town in the valley, I should have known it was a bad sign…but I didn’t. When she started calling me less and less, cancelling plans with me more and more, I should have been worried…but I wasn’t. I just figured, hey, she’s in love! That’s what people in new relationships do. It wasn’t until she showed up on my fire escape one night, tapping on my window like she did when we were kids that I knew Gracie was in trouble.

“It was a classic case of domestic abuse. He wooed her so hard and fast it made her head spin, then gradually broke her spirit with tiny criticisms that grew into full-fledged insults and accusations. If she showed any skin above the ankle or below the collarbone, she was a ‘whore.’ If she burned a meal, she was ‘useless.’ Any mistake, any at all, and she was ‘too stupid to live.’ That monster obliterated her hard-won self-esteem to the point that when he finally started hitting her, she almost believed she deserved it. Almost.”

My jaw clenched with rage, but I said nothing.

“Deep down inside somewhere,” Rodge continued, “Gracie was still a fighter, a survivor, and that spark of strength in her would not be diminished. That night, on my fire escape, she told me that she was leaving Marcus, and asked if she could come home. Of course, I was ecstatic, until I realized she didn’t plan on staying with me that night. I begged her not to go back, but she insisted on facing her abuser. She wouldn’t run away, she said. Not this time.”

Rodge fell silent, and his expression told me that he did not want to finish his story. But I couldn’t leave it like that…I needed to know…

“What happened?” I asked, quietly.

Rodge sighed and let his head fall back against the top of the couch.

“He slit her throat and left her for dead.”

I felt the sharp stab of some nameless, aching emotion pierce my chest, and wondered if it was Gracie I was feeling for, or if it was Rodge. Hell, maybe it was for both of them.

“If I hadn’t followed her home,” Rodge continued, after a while, “she would have been as dead as we are. A part of her did die, I think. She hasn’t been the same since. I mean, her neck healed, but her spirit? That’s a different story. She moved to a different state and started over, but she’s still hiding from the world, convinced that he’ll find her someday…”

“Wait,” I interrupted, angrily, “you mean that twisted fuck isn’t in prison?!”

Rodge shook his head.

“Nope,” he replied, bitterly. “Disappeared right off the grid. No one could find him.”

My blood was boiling. I had to stand up and…move.

“Lousy, worthless, piece-of-shit cops!” I shouted, beginning to pace. “When I think of all the times I’ve been arrested, for some stupid, little misdemeanor or another…and they let this disgusting, pathetic excuse for a human being just…walk?! Well he won’t be walkin’ when I get a hold of him! No, he won’t be walkin’ ever again! I’ll break every fucking bone in his body! Mark my words, I’ll find a way! If he ever comes anywhere near my Gracie I’ll…”

Your Gracie?” Rodge interrupted, cocking his head.

“Yeah,” I replied, defensively. “So?”

“Sooo,” Rodge began, drawing his knees up to his chest, “I think your little con-game has officially backfired.”

I didn’t like his smug expression.

“What the hell are you talking about?” I barked.

“I’m talking about you, Chuck,” Rodge replied, smoothly. “Here you are, Mr. Tough Guy, who doesn’t care about anyone or anything. But you do care, don’t you? You care about someone a great deal.”

I opened my mouth to argue but, for once in my life, found myself at a loss for words.

“Don’t even try to deny it,” Rodge continued, observing my struggle.

“I’m not denying it.”

“Good. Then go do the right thing, and tell Gracie who you really are.”

My mouth fell open at the audacity of even suggesting such a thing.

“Hell no!” I spat, in response. “Why on earth would I do that?”

“What you’re doing is wrong,” he said.

“Oh, what you’re wearing is wrong,” I replied, flippantly. “And who are you to tell me how to behave? Just because you got the stairway to heaven when you croaked and I got the highway to Hell, it doesn’t make you some kind of moral authority, you know.”

I knew that I was being petulant, but I felt backed into a corner and didn’t like it.

“Gracie deserves the truth,” Rodge said, calmly ignoring my rant.

“What good did the truth ever do anyone?” I argued. “My lie is helping Gracie! I am helping Gracie! How would taking her ‘angel’ away be a good thing, huh?”

“Helping her?” Rodge laughed, in obvious disbelief. “By, what, getting her drunk in Las Vegas? Are you kidding me?! You’re not helping her, Chuck, you’re helping yourself. That’s all you ever do.”

I don’t know why his words bothered me so much. They were true, for the most part. Still, the accusation stung and I left the room without another word, vowing to prove to Rodge just how wrong he was. Just because Chuck Butkis was a selfish man, did not mean that he was incapable of a selfless act! I was going to help my Gracie, somehow. Even if it killed me…again.

I accompanied Gracie to work the next day with a renewed sense of purpose, keeping my eyes peeled for anything that might aid me in my quest to fix the damaged girl. Unfortunately, walking toward the front door of the day spa where Gracie worked I saw nothing of use. Scanning our surroundings, I found the same ol’ trash dumpster, same ol’ crack in the sidewalk with some random weed growing out of it, same ol’ bus stop with same ol’ homeless guy snoozin’ in it…

I heard Gracie suddenly gasp and turned back to find her staring in the direction of an orange and black Camaro, parked by the curb.

“Chuck!” She squealed. “Chuck, are you here?”

“Yep,” I answered, wondering what the hubbub was about.

“That’s his car, remember?” Gracie replied, excitedly. “The guy!”

“Huh? What guy?”

“THE guy! Remember, we passed him and you said he was my soulmate but that I’d missed him, and now here he is! Its destiny!”

I was dumbfounded. How had I forgotten that conversation? And why the hell had I said something so stupid, in the first place?

“Oh yes, of course,” I replied, causally. “But you know, I’ve been thinking that this might not be the ideal time for the two of you to…settle down. Better to keep your distance for now.”

Gracie looked devastated.

“Wait,” she sighed. “I don’t understand. Why wouldn’t it be time? I haven’t dated anyone since…you know. I just haven’t been able to really trust anyone. But if this guy is my soulmate, well, that means he’s safe, right?”

I bit my invisible lip. What a pickle.

“Yeeeah,” I replied, hesitantly. “Of course he’s safe, Chuck wouldn’t steer you wrong.”

“Then why…”

The human Ken doll in discussion walked out of the day spa and toward his Camaro, interrupting our argument, and Gracie looked around helplessly.

“Are you sure, Chuck?” She pleaded. “Are you sure I shouldn’t go talk to him?”

“Never been more sure of anything,” I responded happily, knowing I’d won. “Now is definitely not the time for you to run off and get married. You’ve got plenty of life to live, first.”

The disappointment in Gracie’s face was hard to look at, but it was for the best. After all, Camaro-guy could be a loser, a player, a moron, or worse! Yeah…he could be much worse…I had to stand between them to protect her. That’s all I was doing…protecting her. And protecting is helping right? Stick that in your pipe and smoke it, Rodge!

“We better get inside,” Gracie sighed, watching her soulmate drive away, for the second time. “I have a new client this morning, and I don’t want to make a bad impression by starting late.”

“New client, huh?” I asked, as we began walking. “What’s her name?”

His name,” Gracie corrected, “is Mason Davis. I guess he used to be Jeanine’s client but since she went on maternity leave he was passed on to me.”

“He’s a regular then,” I responded. “So he must not be a pervert or he would have been blacklisted by now, right? I mean, he shouldn’t give you any trouble…right?”

“Hopefully,” Gracie replied. “I haven’t heard any complaints about him, so unless Jeannine just wasn’t his type, he should be fine.”

Better be,” I muttered, under my breath.

“What, Chuck?”

“I said, ’better hurry! Don’t want to be late for Mr. Davis, do we?”

When Mason Davis walked out of the men’s locker room to meet Gracie in the hall, I disliked him instantly, though meeting him proved to be one of the best things that ever happened to her. A musclebound monster, yet far too good looking for an ordinary man, I lost an ounce of respect for my Gracie when her expression shifted instantly to happy surprise, at Mason’s appearance…but only an ounce. Women have hormones too, you know. Can’t blame the girl. Even so, a part of me wished he’d turn out to be a filthy pig, so Gracie would kick him to the curb. No such luck.

Mason was a “talker,” as the spa staff called it, meaning he liked to engage in conversation during his massages.

“God, you’re really good at this,” he complimented, as Gracie worked the knots from his astoundingly broad shoulders. “Jeanine was great, don’t get me wrong, but towards the end, her strength waned a bit. Not that it was her fault, in any way, shape, or form! I can’t believe how far into her pregnancy she kept working! My poor wife couldn’t even get off the couch without help, at that point in the process.”

“Oh, so you’re married?” Gracie asked, sounding a little too disappointed for my liking. “I didn’t see a ring.”

“Yeah, I took it off so it wouldn’t get all gunked up with massage cream,” he replied, cheerfully. “I don’t know why I never thought of that before today, but this kid in the locker room suggested it and I thought it made sense.”

I couldn’t help wondering if the ‘kid in the locker room’ actually took his wedding ring off to hit on his therapists, and the thought made me snort-laugh. The sound startled Gracie, and her head whipped around in my direction.

“Are you okay?” Mason asked, embarrassing Gracie, who blushed adorably.

“Yeah,” she replied. “I just thought I heard something. Sorry.”

“No worries. So what about you, Gracie? Married? Kids?”

“None of the above,” Gracie replied with a shrug.

“That’s a shame,” Mason said, genuinely. “Domestic life is the best. Trust me, when you find the right guy and settle down, you’ll wonder why the hell you waited so long to take the plunge. There’s nothing like coming home every night to a household full of people who love you, ya know?”

“Yeah,” Gracie lied. “Sure.”

If Mason hadn’t been face down at the moment, he would have seen the same stricken expression on Gracie’s face that I did. It was positively tragic, like those weeping angel statues you see in fancy cemeteries. The tragedy was compounded by the fact that Gracie did in fact have a household of people who loved her…she just couldn’t see us. It wasn’t fair. It just… wasn’t.

“Hey!” Mason exclaimed, sitting up to surprise Gracie and I both. “I have an idea!”

“I would love to hear it,” Gracie replied, her hand shielding her eyes, “but…the sheet…”

Mason looked down to realize he’d exposed himself and turned beet red as he pulled the sheet over his lap.

“Sorry,” he said, gritting his teeth. “I’m a tad…excitable.”

“I believe you,” Gracie replied, with a nervous chuckle.

“Anyway,” Mason said, apparently over his embarrassment, “my wife teaches a women’s self-defense course at the community center, and she found the neatest guy to play the ‘perp.’ You know, the bad guy that attacks the women so they can practice kicking his ass? His name is Omer. He’s an Israeli fellow, about 28/29 years old, and has these awesome, green eyes that the ladies go nuts over. You have to meet him!”

Gracie and I stared at the man, and though I knew she couldn’t see me, I swear we exchanged a glance, somehow. Mason Davis was a mad man.

“Wait a minute,” Gracie laughed, holding her hand up between them. “Are you trying to hook me up with your buddy?”

“Well, I wouldn’t call him a full-on buddy,” Mason said with a smile, “but a good acquaintance. What’s wrong with that?”

“Well, for one thing, you don’t know anything about me!”

Mason waved his hand in the air, sweeping away the statement.

“Oh, pish tosh,” he said. “I’m an energy person, Gracie, and though yours feels a bit…fragmented…I could tell the moment I laid eyes on you that you’re a warm person with a loving heart. You and Omer will be perfect for each other. I just know it!”

Gracie stared at Mason like the lunatic that he was.

“Humor me,” he continued, with a shrug. “Go to the class, meet the guy, that’s all I ask. Best case scenario, its true love. Worst case, you get to learn some badass, self-defense moves from a beautiful and talented instructor. And she knows her stuff too, believe me. You wanna talk MMA? I know guys twice Mavis’ size who won’t step in the cage with her! She’s beauty and the beast, all in one.”

Mason glowed with pride when he spoke of his wife, and his romanticism was beginning to rub off on my Gracie. I saw her expression soften and knew what she was about to say, before she said it.

“Alright,” she said, finally. “One class.”

I waited until Mason had skipped back to the men’s locker room, still jabbering on like a giddy school-girl, before I addressed the situation with Gracie. After all, she couldn’t have been serious about meeting this guy…could she?

“So,” I began, as she stripped the oily sheets and towels from her massage table, “Omer, huh?”

Gracie smiled and shrugged.

“Looks like it,” she replied. “I’ve never had anyone try to set me up before. It took me by surprise.”

“Oh,” I sighed, relieved. “So you’re not going then, right? I mean, you just agreed because you felt obligated but you won’t follow through.”

Gracie straightened her back and hugged the ball of dirty laundry to her chest, eyes darting around the ceiling, thoughtfully.

“No,” She finally said, nodding in decision. “I’m going to go.”

I couldn’t believe my ears!

“Why?!” I demanded, more forcefully than I meant to.

“Well… I just…figured…” Gracie replied, stammering at my tone. “You said that it wasn’t time to ‘settle down’ yet so I thought I should, you know, play the field a little.”

Play the field?! Who was this woman, and what had she done with my Gracie?

“I don’t know why,” she continued, “but ever since Vegas I’ve just felt more confident, I guess. I felt more like me, the real me, when we were there, than I have in a long, long time. Safe or no, I want to get back in the game again, Chuck. I want a life!”

Yeah, you and me both, sister.

“And you think dating random men is living?” I asked, with a roll of my invisible eyes, but trying to keep my tone neutral, this time.

Gracie shrugged and there was a twinkle in her eye that I’d never seen before. It was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen…and I hated it.

“It’s a start,” she said, putting down her load for a moment to pull her long hair back into a ponytail. “Besides, even if this guy turns out to be a toad, at least I’ll get some self-defense techniques out of it, right? That’s a good thing.”

I had never seen Gracie with her hair pulled back, and the style made the horrific scar on her neck more prominent. I was utterly defeated in my protests.

“Yes, Gracie,” I responded, begrudgingly. “Self-defense classes would be a very good thing for you.”

My gal positively beamed and I tried to be happy for her. I did, honestly! It didn’t work, of course, but I did try.

Picking up her laundry once again, Gracie exited the massage room and we passed into the hallway. I didn’t like the sudden spring in her step.

“I can’t believe it,” she said, more to herself than me. “I’m actually ready to date, again!”

Gracie’s announcement was directly followed by a loud “bang” and splashing sound, from the day-spa waiting room. Following my girl to investigate, we found young Joshua (the owner’s son), cleaning up a spilt pitcher of lemon-infused ice water that he’d apparently dropped.

“Uh oh,” Gracie said, grabbing a towel from her bundle to help mop up the floor.

“Yeah,” Joshua replied, blushing like a girl. “Leave it to me to trash the place!”

The kid said no more for a few minutes, simply scooping up handfuls of ice cubes off of the marble floor, but eventually grew some balls and spoke his mind.

“So,” he began, awkwardly, “you’re going to start dating again, huh?”

Gracie smiled sheepishly.

“Ah, I said that out loud, did I?”

“Yep.”

Gracie shook her head with a small laugh.

“I swear I don’t know whether I’m thinking or speaking anymore.”

“Well, I’m glad you said it, anyway.”

“Oh, don’t worry,” Gracie said, wiping the last of the water off of the floor. “I won’t be dating here.”

Joshua looked as though she’d kicked him in his newly dropped testicles.

“What do you mean?” He asked.

“At work, I mean,” Gracie replied, mistaking his pained expression for professional concern. “Dating clients is out of the question, and as for staff…well…let’s see…we have Bruno, who would rather date you than me, Andy, who’s married with three kids, and you…my boss. I think it’s safe to say that my professional and personal lives will never cross.”

“Wait,” Joshua said, sitting back on his heels and crossing his arms. “I’m not your boss, Gracie, Dad is. I just work here.”

Gracie was obviously confused.

“Aren’t you still the Spa Manager?” She asked.

“Well, yeah.”

“I’m pretty sure that makes you my boss.”

Joshua looked like he’d lost his mommy in the grocery store and couldn’t find the lady with the loud speaker to call for her. Ha-ha, poor kid.

“Okay,” he agreed, frowning. “I guess on paper I’m sort of your boss, but in real life it’s not like that with you and me. Right?”

“I know you don’t like to think of yourself as above any of us,” Gracie replied, oblivious, “and that’s what makes you such a great manager! I totally respect you, and just because we’re the same age doesn’t mean that I forget who you are, and that you are my superior and not just my peer.”

Gracie wrapped the soaking towel back into her bundle of sheets, standing to leave the room.

“But, Gracie,” Joshua replied, still kneeling, “we are peers.”

Gracie smiled, warmly.

“No we’re not,” she said. “But thank you, Joshua.”

With that, she turned and swept out of the room, leaving a devastated little man in her wake.

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