Her office was located on the far edge of Oxford, Ohio. Today, Meghan Harting would take her time getting there.
A quiet town about a half-hour from Cincinnati, Oxford was home to thousands of Miami University students, as well as a smattering of local residents who observed the migration of young adults to their hometown every autumn. As the community's largest source of revenue and employment, Miami had positioned itself as a force to be reckoned with. Plus, with a greater concentration on academics than a splashy athletic program, the university's football games provided an avenue for family entertainment that remained affordable.
A visitor to the town might imagine the significant slowdown the town must have experienced during the summer months. But Meghan had seen it firsthand. An Oxford native, Meghan had spent her entire life walking around campus with her dad. But these days, she found herself on site as a non-traditional, part-time student: part-time hours, part-time academic years, part-time class attendance. Since childhood, her casual attitude had surfaced much to her father's dismay, but he had grown to accept it as a distinct feature of her personality. Besides, with Travis Harting a professor at the institution, Meghan's tuition carried a hefty discount. And perhaps she would even locate a career path in the process.
Career direction was the least of Meghan's concerns at the moment, however. Today she wanted to stroll down the campus streets and fill her lungs with a dose of medicinal life. In the last few minutes, she had overcome a minor case of nausea stimulated by the strange odor that filled some of the aging buildings. She couldn't put her finger on the cause-ointment and cotton balls or something. She shivered at the thought of it. As the sun's cozy rays lathered her hair, Meghan watched green leaves rustle from the tickle of a warm breeze. Who could rush to work on such a May afternoon?
As Meghan wandered down a side street and past a series of classroom buildings, red brick and Ivy Leaguish, she noticed the roads had become less cluttered as students returned to their hometowns after final exams. An occasional car broke the calm as it weaved and honked its way off of university grounds, announcing its arrival to the outside world.
Homes fated to decades of student leasing lined Oxford's streets. Meghan rolled her eyes at a group of howling fraternity guys who sat on their porch steps with nothing better to do than to flash "8.5" signs in her direction to rate her appearance. Meghan figured they had probably just finished drinks and pizza from the night before. She supposed they had chosen to savor their final days of boyhood jests before a white-collar world forced them to swap pizza-stained T-shirts for coffee-stained neckties. Amused at the thought, she wondered how many years these cocky guys would remain juveniles.
She shot them a look of disdain and kept walking, eventually catching a university shuttle bus bound for the opposite side of town.
* * *
Meghan walked through the glass doors as if nothing was wrong. While her late arrival at the building wouldn't go unnoticed, she wouldn't sweat it. The Oxford Meadows apartment complex was her paycheck, not her lifestyle.
She almost collided with Bob, the office manager, who rounded a corner and rushed for the front door. A stack of paperwork beneath his arm, he glared at his watch from the corner of his eye.
"I was wondering when you'd get here," Bob sneered between pants of breath.
"My exam ran late."
"Oh, okay. I'll be back in a couple hours. Got a meeting offsite." And off ran Bob, a man on a mission and without a clue.
This job is a joke, mused Meghan.
With a glance to the corner of the office, she found the waterless fish bowl empty, which meant no one had deposited a late rent payment. No mundane data entry today.
Despite keeping watch for residents approaching the room, Taryn, the staff member on duty, had failed to notice Meghan's entrance. Engrossed in her task at hand, Taryn scissored her way through a stack of Summer is here! decorations that would soon don the office walls. Never a dull moment.
"Hey there," Meghan said. She tossed her book bag beneath her desk and transposed into the role of a leasing associate.
Taryn looked up, as if to downplay the fact that she had missed an office walk-in. "How'd the test go?"
"I think it went okay. Post-Civil War American history."
"Was the class any good?"
Meghan shrugged. "The instructor was pretty cool. An old hippie, so it was a blast hearing him talk about the sixties, especially since he lived it-well, 'smoked it' is probably more like it." She sat down and reached for a file folder from her inbox. "Only one more exam to go."
Taryn offered a half-interested nod and examined the pile of construction paper through her wire-rimmed glasses. Deciding on orange this time, she began another artistic assault. According to Bob, the decorations would foster a sense of homecoming when one arrives at Oxford Meadows. But Meghan knew half of the single-parent and college-aged residents would flip the bird to sentimental fuzziness as they parted with their monthly rent checks.
Opening the folder and flipping through its contents, Meghan grimaced. "I just processed this paperwork. What was Bob thinking when he gave this back to me?"
"He said there was supposed to be an extra charge for the damage to the door post."
"Why doesn't he put a note on this stuff? I can't read his frickin' mind."
Taryn laughed. "Are you in a bad mood or just being yourself? It gets hard to tell."
"I don't have patience with stupid people."
Meghan thumbed her way through a few opened envelopes that also sat in her inbox, then carried them to the computer, a shared resource among the staff. Shared because, after all, they needed to reserve funds for construction paper and such.
"Did you end up going out last night?" Meghan asked.
"Yeah, Chad and I caught a movie," Taryn replied. "We hadn't seen each other for a few days. Two paramedics are on vacation, so he and some others have taken turns covering those shifts."
Meghan started typing. She gave Taryn a half-glance over her shoulder and asked, "Did you notice a change after you got married? Did the romance come or go?"
"I don't know, it doesn't seem like much changed. I guess I'll know better in six years rather than six months. He's a sweetie, though." Suddenly interested, Taryn leaned forward. "Why? Are you and Brian thinking about taking the big step?"
Meghan typed faster. "Oh, we've talked about it in passing," she replied. "But nothing serious. He seems content with the way things are, so I don't push it."
"How long have you been together?"
"Eight years." The words sent a shock through Meghan. How had it been that long? She recalculated the years in her head but arrived at the same figure. By the time Taryn's next question arrived, Meghan had started counting Valentine's Days.
"What do you love best about him?" Taryn asked.
Meghan couldn't recall when she'd last considered it. The answer should have been simple, but with her guard down, she was left searching for an answer. She shuffled a few papers, searching for a nonexistent lease agreement to buy some time.
But in the end, Meghan could think of just one response.
"He's never cheated on me," she said.
"With all the college girls around here, that's a big accomplishment."
While relieved she'd concocted an answer, Meghan considered the answer deficient. Taryn's question continued to linger in her mind like a rash, a relentless nag, refusing to be ignored.
Interrupting her silent struggle, a pair of high school kids walked past the office, armed with beach towels and aiming for the back door. Although close in age, one of the teens towered almost a foot above the other.
"Pool's not open, guys," Meghan shouted across the room, hoping to catch them before they wasted extra steps.
Turning on their heels, the teenagers roamed into the office, the taller one scrunching his nose as he morphed from navigator to mouthpiece. "When does it open?" he asked, his face overlaid with an expression of perpetual boredom.
"Memorial Day weekend," Meghan answered. They couldn't be older than fifteen. And there was no way they were old enough to drive.
"Can we just go out there anyway?"
"It's dry concrete."
"I know." Definitely not older than fifteen.
"Well, what do you think you're gonna do with a concrete hole and no water?" Halting, Meghan leaned back in her chair. She inspected the shorter boy's avoidance of eye contact, then added, "Do you kids even live here?"
"My friend lives in number twenty-five," the taller teenager said.
Without breaking her gaze, Meghan pointed her red fingernail at the shorter kid, who drew on the carpet with his bare foot. "Is this your friend?"
The shorter kid looked up. Wide-eyed, he all but admitted his status as a trespasser, which appeared to add more guilt to his conscience.
"No," the taller one replied, adjusting his shell necklace. "My friend's at school."
Without a hint of hesitation, Meghan shot her finger in the direction of the front door. "This isn't a park. Get out."
The shorter boy, already out the office door, appeared relieved. The taller one scratched his cropped, red hair, then turned and followed, grumbling a muffled expletive on his way out. When a slamming of the front door sent echoes down the hall, Taryn stared at Meghan.
"What?" Meghan asked, not about to justify her firmness. "They weren't supposed to be here." Case closed.
Taryn crossed her legs and cocked her head, then grabbed a permanent marker and threatened the construction paper with a black decorative flair. Restoring their conversation, she asked, "What did you and Brian do last night?"
"We had dinner. He loves a Mexican restaurant around the corner, so I agree to go once a month." Meghan examined a freckle on her arm. While she felt like an amoeba under the microscope of Taryn's third degree, Meghan didn't mind. In fact, Taryn's questions had begun to pique her curiosity. Years had cycled and recycled, and she sensed a hollowness buried within. Suddenly the once-a-month Mexican dinner seemed to personify her relationship: going through the motions, then coming back for another round, where the only thing that changed was the color of her margarita. And lately those margaritas were frozen.
While Meghan had always considered herself fearless, she now found herself in a safe zone and wondered where the comfort had crept in.
"It ended up in a fight," Meghan muttered at last.
"It was a stupid little thing. His cell phone rang the whole time, and he refused to shut it off one hour for dinner. Apparently another department had worked into the evening on a project, and they needed his input on every detail. So he picked up the phone each time it rang. He does that all the time, and it drives me nuts because it's plain rude. Anyway, I got aggravated and told him to turn it off."
"He freaked out about that?"
"Well, it grew from there. We started getting into the whole career issue. He said he intends to become the top advertising executive in the industry, so it requires a lot of his time. Then he reminded me that, hey, we're not married, so it shouldn't be a big deal. I said something back, and the whole thing snowballed." Meghan squinted as her frustration resurfaced. Although she had put the scene to rest when she'd fallen asleep last night, now she found herself indulging its resurrection. Because Meghan's trust toward people had grown thin long ago, verbalizing her difficulties had become rare and overdue. Maybe Taryn could offer insight from a wife's perspective.
"Suffice to say," Meghan continued, "he wanted me to mind my own business, and that hurts after being involved for such a long time. Makes me feel like a hood ornament on his car."
Meghan and Taryn had only worked together for a few months, but conversations were frequent when a room was shared four days a week between the same two individuals. Meghan had revealed little about Brian, save a few details of a special event here and there. Taryn chewed a fingernail as if to decide whether to press forward. "Where did you two meet, anyway?" she asked.
"In Cincinnati, at this old Italian restaurant," Meghan replied. "A girl I worked with had gotten engaged, so a few of us went out to celebrate. Brian was sitting a few tables over at a dinner meeting." Meghan furled her eyebrows. "I remember thinking he didn't fit in with his group. He was dressed just like them, suit and tie, and had the same professional demeanor, but it didn't matter. Here were four guys old enough to be his father, and then there was Brian. He seemed to keep the conversation rolling, though.
"Anyway, his chair faced mine, and when I looked up at one point, we caught each other's eyes. Then he went back to his business conversation. A while later, I looked up again, and the same thing happened. He was cute, but I figured it was a chance encounter, nothing more.
"Eventually I stepped out into the lobby to make a phone call. Not even a minute passed before he walked through the door and said, 'Excuse me, but I couldn't help but meet you. I'm Brian Garrett.' Very polished, like he forgot to step out of executive mode. In fact, I had to giggle because he even shook my hand! Then he said he had to get back to his meeting and asked if he could take me to dinner sometime."
"Did you say yes?"
"Yeah, I decided it wouldn't hurt. What took me by surprise, though, was that he ended our conversation. He was confident-to the extreme, almost as if he had the whole thing planned and knew my answer ahead of time."
"And you said he's in advertising?"
"So basically, he closed the deal?"
"Kind of seems that way, huh!"
"And you kept seeing each other after that?"
"Just one date, then it went platonic. I didn't think we were compatible at all. He was wrapped up in a material world, and that never impressed me. But we got along well, and he was a good listener back then, so we became friends and talked almost every day. From time to time, he would bring up the idea of dating, but I always turned him down. That didn't deter him, because the way he sees it, 'no' is always negotiable. Finally, after five months as friends, I gave in and agreed to a second date." Meghan paused. "The truth is, before he came around, I hadn't been on a date in a long time."
Taking a seat near the computer, where Meghan had started to update invoice records, Taryn had lost interest in her construction paper. "So you stayed attached?"
Meghan shrugged. "Yeah, but it was tough. He's an overachiever. Work beckoned him constantly, so he would make dates with me, then postpone them, and I wasn't used to that." A hollow feeling settled into Meghan's gut. Or maybe it was flatness. Whatever it was, it felt eerie to her. It possessed a hint of familiarity, a long-present taunt, which she had never paused long enough to notice.
"So what kept you holding on to Brian?" Taryn asked.
Meghan thought for a moment. "I felt alone. He stood by me."
At the word alone, Taryn stopped asking questions. And Meghan didn't want to elaborate. For that matter, Meghan didn't know why she had chosen that particular word, but it had seemed suitable in an odd way.
Now in a daze, Meghan tried to refocus on her work. But reality had become cold pewter to her, hard and factual, like the account numbers in front of her eyes.
Excerpt Copyright 2012 John Herrick