Cover Image by FranckReporter- Getty
THIS IS AN UNEDITED FIRST DRAFT to meet the requirements of the #7DayBook Challenge.
Gritting against the vibration in her teeth from sitting too close to the p.a. system, Joan watched as the speaker made jabbing motions with the fist not holding the wireless microphone.
“We have to punch up our life game if we want to punch failure in the face. We have to punch failure to achieve…”
Joan noted how bad his boxing form was as she zoned out until lunch. Pretending to take notes on her phone, she studied next week’s cases; a restaurant with a rat problem that spread e-coli to a dozen patrons, and an Uber-Eats driver with Hepatitis-C who infected three people. The second would be easy because the man admitted touching the food to hide that he ate part of it, and not taking his medication because he needed the money for his addiction. Paul stood up clapping, so Joan did too, then tried to have an authentic smile as they wandered out with the exuberant crowd.
The motivational speaker walked through the crowd acting like an annoying high school jock in midlife crisis. Bobbing and weaving in fake boxing moves, he laughed boisterously as he talked in the tones of a used car salesman. She appraised him; she could drop him with one block and one strike; she was a black belt after all. The carnival atmosphere annoyed her, but the adults around him were eating it up, including Paul.
This food is going to kill someone, she thought as she gathered a meager meal from the unappetizing spread.
The heavy stench of Cajun Spices and something else turned her stomach worse than the pans of undercooked omelets at breakfast. Sipping the off-red, orangish punch and nibbling on faux crab puffs from the seafood buffet, she wanted to vomit, but she needed to appease her hunger. She gave up after the second bite gagged her when she tried to chew the crusty dryness. Spitting it in the napkin, she decided she’d rather starve.
Was two days and three nights at an alleged resort worth the seminars for their tenth anniversary? No, no it wasn’t. I should have paid for the trip myself.
Her resentment swirled as she caught a glimpse of her boyfriend chatting happily with the ‘mentors’ over a piled plate of seafood. She wanted to belt him in his smug but happy, cheap-ass face. He viewed everything as profit potential that included money not spent on food for their ‘weekend getaway’. He was miserly and expected her to pay half of everything, despite the fact he made three times what she did.
Three point six times what I make, she thought resentfully, but he always expects four-stars minimum, especially when I am the one paying for it. Begrudgingly, she remembered last year’s anniversary trip to the Lake Tahoe Ski Resort he insisted on. The Financial Influencer he wanted to meet wasn’t there, so he moped inside or in the hot tub while she used the skiing lessons she bought for both of them.
He called it balance, everything equal between them from rent to meals to vacations. On alternating years, he expected her to pay for their holidays and yet, while she tried to frugally find the best deals for the best four and five-star getaways to someplace he wanted to go. He always chose these damned Influencer Conferences close to places she wanted to visit so he could say he did it for her while justifying spending money. She remembered the Miami fiasco as Paul laughed loudly at the head speaker’s joke. Trying not to glare, she glanced around and noticed the guy quietly sharing her table had a notepad covered in words and tally marks.
Noticing her attention on his notepad as she sipped and then choked on the too synthetic fruit drink, he introduced himself, “I’m Hades.”
“Hades? Like death?”
“Yes, and you are?”
Her reaction to his name didn’t seem to be an obstacle to his interest.
“Joan, like Of Arc?” His rich brown eyes swirled with amusement
She wheezed out a laugh, suddenly like she’d been gut-punched, and she coughed. The mango and strawberry alcoholic punch did nothing to sooth her suddenly dry throat. It burned and seemed to make it worse.
He reached into his bag and drew out a bottle of water, offering, “Drink this. The fruit punch is toxic.”
“Thank you.” Wheezing, she guzzled the drink. “The buffet isn’t much better. The crab puffs are to die for, literally.”
He laughed and she was struck by how Greek godlike his features were. She made herself glance at his notepad again.
“What are you doing?” She tried to divert her suddenly pounding heart to something else. She didn’t think she had ever met a more attractive man.
“Keeping track of the tag words and how many times they are used in rapid succession. It’s psychological manipulation trick.” He sighed as if disappointed.
She felt as much as heard his boredom. “Same,” she said.
His eyebrow went up in question, so she responded, “I am bored out of my mind too.”
“Then why are you here?”
“I’m here under duress. Honestly, I am about to break up with the boyfriend who brought me. He promised me a trip to the Appalachians, then when we got here, he woke me up and dragged me to this.” Looking down at the bottle, she resisted the urge to crush it. “Every other year… He knows I hate these things.”
“You need to separate yourself from him. For all you do for him, surely you are worthy of more than a free vacation and complimentary buffets,” he sneered the last phrase, “In exchange for investment capital.”
“Free?” Rage surged through her veins. “How much investment? No, don’t tell me. I will punch him in the face and then have to prosecute myself for assault and battery,” she raged through gritted teeth as she thought about how Paul bragged about paying for an inclusive package with meal vouchers. Her violent tone made Hades laugh and she found herself smiling at him.
“May I offer to post your bail bond?” Hades asked so gallantly that she giggled. Leaning closer, he implored, “Why are you still with him if he is so annoyingly cheap and treats you so poorly?”
“Stability. We went to law school together, got jobs in the same city, our lives together are… balanced.” She was beginning to hate the way her boyfriend referred to their decade long relationship. Balanced wasn’t happiness, balanced wasn’t love, balanced was boring monotony and routine but it was safe, and less lonely. Her parents’ marriage was balanced too. Joan licked her lips then sucked them in for a moment like the last word tasted bitter. His eyes followed her mouth’s movements.
Paul never paid attention to her lips; to keep from blushing, she inquired, “Why are you here?”
“A date arranged by my father that I didn’t want to keep.” He glanced around; his eyes rested for a moment on a group of overdressed, over-made-up women and she wondered who his date was.
He glanced at his watch, and she did too. It had the weirdest face she had ever seen but it was beautiful with gears and numbers over polished onyx. Almost as fascinating and handsome as the man wearing it. He reached in his leather messenger bag and offered a Luna protein bar, Salted Caramel and Almonds, her favorite flavor. “If you promise to not eat anything else from the buffet or drink that horrid punch, I promise to take you for a real meal later where we can get a nice double malted whiskey with our steak, asparagus wrapped in smoked provolone, and cheesecake?”
Her heart tried to punch a hole in her chest as he listed her favorite meal and looked at her with those smoldering eyes. “I… um.”
Paul was walking toward them over his shoulder.
“Too soon?” Hades grinned handsomely. “Call me when you feel ready for dinner with a friend.” He glanced around and shook his head, sighing as he revealed in a low voice, “Greed, gluttony, and envy never result in benefit. Today is not going to end well for any one here. I’m sorry.” He stood and handed her his card as she stared at him in confusion.
“Hey honey, isn’t this place great? I’m Paul,” greeting them, he possessively stepped between Joan and Hades. Her boyfriend held out his hand to Hades, who shook it as she absently stuck his business card in the credit card slot she never used on her phone case.
“Hades… Joan and I were just discussing the buffet and speaker. Are you enjoying the conference, Paul?” Hades asked amicably.
“Oh yes. It’s good to see my girlfriend networking outside the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office where she is one of their top case closers. Makes it worth every dollar I spent. I feel like these are my people.”
After his usual bragging on her, he looked away, motioning around as Hades glanced at Joan. Her urge to snarl at Paul for lying, faded to amusement as she glimpsed Hades rolled his eyes dramatically, and she coughed to cover her laugh. Hades caught her eyes and she nodded once in agreement, giving him a wink as she lifted the bottle of water. It was the best bottled water she ever tasted.
“What do you do for a living, Hades?” Paul said his name with an arrogant, judgmental tone.
“I’m the director of collections and acquisitions management for Grimm Acquisitions. You?” Hades made polite small talk as Joan peeled the wrapper of the Luna bar away and began eating it, savoring the flavors.
“I am with Scheister, Huxster, and Greedee. I am one of their top financial protection attorneys.” Paul pulled one of his gaudy, gold-foiled cards out. “If you need your assets secured or financial planning protected, give me a call. I’m always happy to help a friend.”
Hades took it politely, nodding. “Ahh, you’re a lawyer too, but not like A.D.A. Joan. You make a… balanced couple.”
Joan tried not to scowl at the word balanced, noticing Hades tipped his head at her, narrowing his eyes in amused jest, then he repeated a line from the speaker, “Life is too short not to punch our unhappiness in the face and take a jab at a better future. Friends help each other.”
Before either could respond, the guests were summoned, “If all our friends could return to the Motivational Endowment Area,” as the conference room was labeled, “We’ll be starting again soon.”
Paul started walking away from them, but Hades offered her his hand to rise like a gentleman in one of her historical romance novels.
“Thank you, and thanks again for the water and protein bar. You’ve saved my life,” she said softly to Hades as they moved with the crowd. “It’s my favorite flavor.”
“Mine too and you are very welcome, Joan. Yours is a life worth saving.”
The way he said her name made her want to shiver as she blushed. They walked quietly for a moment more, following Paul through the doorway, but when she looked over her shoulder, Hades was gone. Settling into her seat, she resisted the urge to look for him.
“Last two hours, I promise.” Paul burped quietly and shifted in his seat as his stomach gurgled. “Then we can explore the resort.”
She knew he meant inside the resort only; they didn’t share a love of the outdoors. When she didn’t answer, he leaned in and whispered, “Don’t be that way, Joan. You said you wanted to come to the Appalachians, and there was the Punch Your Way to Success seminar here, so we both win. We both get to spend our anniversary doing things we love with the person we love.”
She struggled not to gag at his breath as she muttered, trying not to sound resentful, “Thanks for bringing me to the Appalachians for our anniversary, Paul. I appreciate you leaving the city for me.” To avoid a fight later, she added, “I am happy you are enjoying the seminar.”
“You’re the best.” He started to kiss her, but she turned her head, so it landed on her cheek. Fishing in her shoulder bag, she offered him a Altoids Winter mint from a tin with an apology, “Sorry, but your breath smells like a bait bucket.”
“You never liked seafood,” he chuckled and accepted the mint, then turned back to the speaker with keen attention.
Joan tried not to think about the fact Paul never looked at her with such rapt attention and devotion. Silently, she raged internally at the discovery the retreat was free with investment because it meant he spent nothing on their tenth anniversary trip. The investment was something he would make back. The more she thought about it, she wondered how much he would make. He was being paid to take her on vacation and didn’t even have to search for restaurants locally, because all the meals were provided. That feeling of being just another part of his portfolio suddenly numbed her heart again and she wanted to go sit under a tree and weep. She could almost hear her CPA mother criticizing her for being overly emotional and expecting too much of that ‘ridiculous romance nonsense’ instead of practicality.
After the third time he belched, and then passed a rather loud fart, she noticed how pale he was and that he was sweating slightly.
Joan nudged him, whispering, “Do you want to go back to our room?”
He swallowed almost violently as he nodded. “I’m not… well.”
He waivered as he stood and she seized his arm, grateful for her often-mocked insistence on sitting on the end of a row and near an exit. As they slipped out the nearest door, she noticed others leaving. A woman in the lobby was vomiting violently into a large potted plant. After riding up in the elevator, instead of taking the stairs which was part of their daily fitness practice, Paul went wordlessly into the bathroom and locked her out. He hated being ill in front of anyone, including her, so she turned on the television to college basketball March Madness.
“Paul, do you want the U-Mass versus Perdue game or Florida-Alabama?”
“Crimson Tide,” he gagged out, then vomited noisily.
“Okay.” She left the channel on the Alabama Crimson Tide and turned up the volume for him. “There’s nausea medicine in the outer pocket of my makeup bag,” she announced loudly to him. Hearing him moving around, she then asked, “Do you want a ginger ale from the fridge?”
He didn’t answer but unlocked the door. She retrieved it and only opened the door enough to hold it inside. The stench of vomit, bad seafood, and diarrhea made her want to gag as she withdrew her hand and closed the door.
“Are you certain you don’t want me to call a doctor or take you to the E.R.?”
“Hell no,” he refused with a few more colorful expletives. “It’s just fucking bad shrimp and we’re out of network.”
He was so stubborn and hostile in his reply, she could only shake her head, as the lock clicked. She was half a decade past being hurt by his word tantrums about the cost of medical care, since the Noro-virus cruise. That was another of these Influencer conferences but on a boat thus trapping people like her who could not be taken in by rhetoric and false promises. The tickets were cheap because so many spent thousands on the event merchandise. He bought their materials on credit at a value of two months’ worth of his salary. In the end, everyone became sick except her and a handful of others.
The most frustrating part was she had been forced to cover their rent alone for six months on her much lower salary until he could pay off the debt for the materials and the medical treatment on the ship. The memory of those months made her wonder why she didn’t leave him then, he was always seeking validation and reinforcement, easy wealth and prestige, and it was only getting worse as they grew older.
Opening her laptop, she synced it to her phone to transfer her notes and sat at the small desk working and munching on a stale bag of trail mix from the complimentary snack basket.
Please comment on the chapters, it helps the algorithm. Thank you.