"This is your house," he said. But Allie knew it'd been a question.
"Yeah, I hate cleaning." That was her usual response when even her business partners poked fun at her small house. The more conservative ones would smile and say 'cozy.'
Small. For whom? The rich. It was the perfect four bedroom home for a family of the middle class. And they surrounded it by ten acres of land and beautiful purple and yellow gardens.
CJ didn't understand her answer. As a homeless man, houses had no size.
"Cleaning? I'm trying to spot the security. I thought someone like you might have bodyguards."
"God, no!" Allie jiggled her key chain, finding the key to the front door.
"Aren't you concerned that all you have is a front gate to protect you and your husband?" He panned his head around the area and scratched the back of his neck.
Allie took longer to open the door. The question made her eyebrows meet. Husband, what a strange word. Just mentioning it made her feel like she was cheating on Dean. The word husband implied some kind of love; love she could not — did not — want to give.
"I'm not married." She pushed the door opened, then a curtain of red and white balloons began falling on her.
"Surprise!" The lights switched on and a multitude of familiar faces crowded the living room. Their clapping and cheering overtook the house as someone popped open a bottle of champagne.
Everyone gathered around her. Some women hugged her and some men shook her hand. She recognized her high ranking employees, all of whom she cared about.
Wayne approached her as she was still by the door with CJ. He wrapped his arm around her lower back and brought his lips close to hers.
"What is this about?" Allie whispered into her boyfriend's mouth.
"This is the celebration of a new era, baby," Wayne took her lips, making CJ look the other way and take a step back.
Allie put her hands on Wayne's shoulders, but her muscles were tense. She tried not to breathe.
As the crowd cheered, she lowered her head with a grin.
"Thank you, all for being here," she spoke to them.
"Of course," said a tall blonde woman. "Wellington wouldn't have surpassed earnings expectations if it wasn't for you. The least we could do was throw you a party."
Allie nodded and rubbed the woman's arm.
From within the gathering, two sweet, although high-pitched voices yelled in excitement.
"Mom!" Identical twin boys with honey-colored hair held on to Allie's thighs.
At first, she was happy to see her two reasons to live, but in a second, she realized what that meant.
Since she was speechless, Wayne thought of giving himself some credit.
"I called Grandma personally and asked her to bring them back." He winked at her.
Allie swallowed as her stomach bounced.
"Kathy's here?" She glanced at a quiet CJ with the corners of her eyes.
"Roasted pork is ready." Kathy walked out of the kitchen, holding a big tray with a sizzling loin. She lifted her chin, trying to see Allie through the smoke. "Sorry I wasn't here to greet you but I didn't think the starving guests would forgive me if I let the pork burn."
The girl's pupils grew larger. Her lips turned pale.
"What's wrong, dear?" Kathy frowned.
Wayne put his hand on Allie's shoulder, also noticing his girlfriend's strange reaction.
Kathy moved closer, then gasped at the man standing behind his daughter-in-law. The middle-aged grandmother let the tray hit the floor and lifted her shaking hands toward the ghost. This was the second time she questioned reality. The first time was when he died.
"Baby Dean," her throat shut as her fingers felt his jaw.
CJ opened his arms and caught her unconscious.
"Kathy," Allie and Wayne went to her aid.
"Grandma?" Andrew looked for signs of life in his grandmother.
"She's gonna be okay." Allie turned to him and his brother.
"Ma'am?" CJ patted Kathy's cheek hastily. He slid both arms under her and lifted her up to his chest.
Andrew and Daniel frowned at the stranger who took their grandma away.
Murmuring and whispering filled the house.
"Are you sure we don't have to call an ambulance?" CJ stared at a sleeping Kathy on a bed.
"Like I said, she's fine. Thank you for catching her," replied Allie.
"Yeah, not a problem."
Wayne appeared in the room with a glass of water and set it down on the nightstand beside Kathy.
"I calmed everyone down. I told them she had a hot flash," he chuckled.
"Wayne," Allie dropped her shoulders and shook her head.
"I didn't know what else to say." Wayne finally addressed the presence that had been bothering him since the beginning. "Are you like a cousin or something?"
CJ bobbed his head as if Wayne caught him red-handed. He had been staring at Allie since Wayne walked inside.
"Clyde Jacobson," he extended his hand.
"Allie's boyfriend," Wayne gave him a handshake.
"Oh Wow, ya'll have the same name." CJ sniggered and waved his finger between Allie and 'Allie's boyfriend.'
Allie sighed and rolled her eyes at Wayne.
"This is Clyde Jacobson. He works for me."
Wayne stared at CJ up and down. He noticed a small hole in the bottom of his t-shirt and dirt on his boots.
"Are you a farmer?" His upper lip met the tip of his nose.
CJ lifted one eyebrow. "Nope. Much better. I'm the executive superintendent of custodial administration. Without me, Wellington Farms would be in big... big, big, big trouble."
Allie smiled with a frown.
"So a janitor," Wayne smacked his lips.
CJ bent his neck side to side, enjoying Wayne's annoyed reaction.
"Well CJ," continued Wayne. "It's such a pleasure to meet you. Now, could you give me and my girlfriend some privacy... please?"
Allie nodded at CJ and he left the room without protesting.
"What's the deal with this dude?" Wayne whispered as soon as he saw the door close.
The girl pushed her neck back. "He's my employee, and he has some personal issues, so I invited him to my home to talk. Not that I need to give you an explanation."
"Baby, you're such a wonderful woman," he caressed her arms, then held her hands. "Do you think you could send him home, though? I don't think a janitor would feel uncomfortable in these types of parties."
"Is that why Furaha and Gloria aren't here? Because they're not from the bourgeoisie?" She curled her fingers by her shoulders. "Let me remind you where I come from."
Before she could get any angrier, the mattress creaked and Kathy held her forehead.
"I'm okay," she told herself.
"Hey, don't get up." Allie put an extra pillow under her neck.
But Kathy gasped and jumped off the bed. She held her chest.
"Was I dreaming?"
Allie opened her mouth to reply, then remembered Wayne was there.
"Could you give us some privacy?"
Wayne glanced at Kathy, afraid she might have another one of her 'hot flashes.'
"Sure," he turned around, then back toward Allie. "Um, about what I said, I'm sorry. Maybe you can teach me not to be so insensitive."
The girl held his hand and pecked him on the lips.
"It's all right. Go be a good host for me," she smiled.
He nodded and left.
CJ watched the water swirl down the toilet, then wished he shrank and escaped with it.
“What the hell are you doing?” He whispered to himself.
He lifted the faucet, and soap came out of it. He looked at the big jacuzzi beside him.
“Damn, I could sleep right there.”
He smelled the fancy strawberry soap and felt the warm water running through his fingers.
“You don’t belong here, CJ." He shook his head. He opened a cabinet and hid a roll of toilet paper under his shirt, preparing to go back to his home under the freeway.
Then he froze.
The fainting lady had called him Dean. When the boss lady kissed him, she had also called him Dean.
CJ turned to the mirror and stared at his musty appearance.
“Allie, I saw something,” Kathy whispered and lifted her index finger. “That boy. I didn’t imagine it. I’m not crazy.”
“You’re not.” Allie scurried and met her face to face. “I couldn’t believe it when I saw him.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” The grandmother bit her fingernail and rested one hand on her hip. “Why didn’t he say anything?”
“I couldn’t tell you because I don’t know if it’s him. He even goes by a different name.”
Kathy raised her head with swollen eyes and began pacing.
“So he lost his memory.”
“No, we don’t know that, yet. We don’t know if it’s him.”
The nervous woman stopped and made eye contact with her daughter-in-law.
“I think a mother would recognize her son even if he was disfigured. That man is my son, and he’s alive.” She cheered at the last sentence.
“Kathy, please don’t get too excited.”
“I have to talk to him.” Kathy tried to leave the room, but Allie stood in front of her.
“No, no. Imagine the trauma it would cause you if that’s not him. Worse! Imagine the trauma it could cause him. Andrew and Daniel are downstairs. They’re gonna ask questions.”
“So what do we do? I can’t just do nothing,” Kathy scream-whispered.
“Okay, okay, let me think.” Allie brought her hands to her forehead. She swallowed and elaborated a plan. “For now, he doesn’t have a place to live, so I asked him to stay here and he accepted.”
“He’s homeless? My baby’s homeless?” Kathy gasped and covered her mouth.
“He was homeless. Not anymore. Don’t worry. I think I can do one of those secret DNA tests.”
“Yes, we could compare his blood to mine.”
“Well, maybe not his blood because that would require cutting him.”
Allie huffed and dropped her shoulders. “I’m not just gonna go up to him with a syringe and say ‘hey, can I have your blood?’”
“It’s okay. We’ll cut his hair while he sleeps or something.”
Kathy sighed and gave Allie a hug.
Wayne handed Allie a small plate of dumpling appetizers as her eyes scanned for CJ. Kathy tapped on her arm and discretely pointed at a corner of the living room. CJ was sitting alone by the fireplace.
“How are you feeling, Mrs. Freeman?” a couple approached her.
“I’m very well. Excuse me, I should thank the young man who helped me earlier." She began walking toward CJ.
Allie followed behind when she spotted Daniel’s bright red lips.
“Hey, what’s that?” She pointed at his lips.
Daniel crossed his hands behind his back.
"Um, Andrew stole your lipstick and then put it on me?”
Allie kneeled down and sniffed his face. She reached for his wrists and put his hands up.
“No, you’ve been eating Cheetos. Come on, we’ve talked about this a million times.”
“But they taste so good,” he put his hands in prayer.
“It’s not about the Cheetos. It’s about the constant lying and stealing food from the pantry.”
The boy threw his head back and dropped his hands to his sides.
"Allie?" Kathy was dragging CJ through the living room. "I've asked CJ to join us on Christmas Eve, if you don't mind."
"You did?" Allie stood up excitedly.
"You really don't have to do that." CJ scratched his neck.
"No, that's great. We'd love to have you there. I was going to invite you earlier."
Both women smiled at each other.
Wayne stood on the staircase and began tapping a glass of champagne with a knife.
"May I have your attention, please?"
All the guests turned to him. Except Andrew and Daniel, who rolled their eyes and darted past their mother's boyfriend upstairs.
"Adults will be adults," Daniel whispered into his brother's ear.
"Ladies and gentlemen, I'd like to tell you a short story," said Wayne. "Years ago, a young single mother took over the Wellington Family Farms, a steady business in Texas. She didn't understand much about it, but she knew what the land needed. So she installed an innovative irrigation system that allowed Wellington farms to become the number one producer and exporter of vegetables in the world. You know that woman as your benevolent boss and friend, but I see her as the love of my life."
Allie's face turned red from the awes' and woo's. He had never expressed his love for her in private and didn't imagine he felt so strongly about her.
"Allie March, could you join me under the spotlight?" said Wayne.
Allie glanced at Kathy, then at CJ, who gave her a closed smile.
Embarrassed, she met Wayne at the bottom of the stairs.
"She's your boss, but she's my princess," he kissed the top of her hand. "And now I want you to be my queen."
He got on one knee, making everyone gasp. Allie brushed her locks in front of her face. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small navy-colored box. He placed his left hand on top of the box.
Allie remembered the afternoon Dean proposed to her. It was the same day she told him about her pregnancy. The happiest day of her life had turned into tragedy when her vengeful ex-fiance, Grayson, hit him with his car.
"Stop," she whispered at Wayne. "I will not marry you."
"Allie, you were never my girlfriend. That title is insignificant to describe what you are to me. As soon as I mentioned the possibility of you being with someone else, I realized how atrocious I made it sound. What I was trying to say was that you deserve the best. And if you ever decide I’m not the one for you, then that’s all right as long as you’re happy. Because that’s what you do when you love somebody: you let them go, even though it hurts.”
Allie ran after the sunset until her house looked distant. The moon always arrived earlier during the Texas winter.
Her flats were slowing her down. She jerked them off her feet and felt the dirt through her toes. She wanted to go longer, but there was no point in that. None of that would bring him back.
Sitting under a tree, she looked up into the sky and got ready to shout. She closed her fists and opened her mouth as wide as she could, but there was no sound. Then she rested her elbows on her knees and wiped her face uncontrollably.
"That title is insignificant to describe what you are to me."
"Baby? What happened back there?" Wayne jogged toward the tree.
Allie swallowed her tears and stood up, dusting her dirt stained slacks.
"Wayne, I'm so sorry about everything. If I would have known you felt that way, I would've said something."
"Allie, I love you." He moved closer.
"No, please, don't say that." She made a distance between them.
"Look, I know you're afraid. I know that you've been through things and that you lost someone, but it's been years already and I want you to give me a chance."
"I can't do that."
"Why not?" He finally grabbed her shoulders.
"Because I don't wanna," she yelled and yanked her arms back.
A shadow developed under Wayne's eyes. He wanted to make her feel how much he loved her.
"I'm gonna show you I'm the only one for you, baby." He cupped her jaw and sucked on her lower lip.
"No," she covered his mouth, so he shoved her against the tree. "What are you doing?" She pushed him away and slapped him.
"Tonight, you'll forget him, Allie, I promise."
As she hurried back toward the house, he grabbed her from behind and began kissing her neck. The girl's heart raised with the realization that she couldn't escape from his grip. Suddenly, his left hand was inside her panties.
Her body was in shock, but it didn't stop her from elbowing the side of his body.
"What the fuck?" He growled, still not letting go of her.
A force made both of them crash onto the ground, freeing Allie at the same time.
The girl looked back at a scuffle. CJ lifted Wayne by the collar of his shirt and tackled him onto a large boulder. Wayne punched him in the stomach, but CJ regained control by landing a blow on his right eye.
"Stop! Stop!" Allie jostled between them.
"Goddamn janitor," Wayne held the side of his face. "You're getting sued for all you got."
"Jokes on you. I have nothing, you piece of shit," yelled CJ.
"Then you're going to jail, bitch."
"No, you're going to jail for sexual assault," Allie hammered her fists on Wayne's chest.
"What the hell?" Wayne grabbed her wrists.
"Hey, don't touch her," CJ pointed at him.
Allie buried her knee into Wayne's groin and pushed him.
"You and I are done. Wellington Farms will close all accounts with your firm. I don't ever wanna see you again."
"Allie, please," Wayne held his groin.
"Get out of my sight!" She screamed.
The man panted and gave the janitor a menacing look.