Lily loved the jingle of car keys. She shook a set of them in her grip as she admired the fresh wax on her car, which glistened in the sunlight. A year ago, she had treated herself to a black Subaru Impreza, which contained a boxer engine, just like a Porsche. She could spend hours poring over the curves and horsepower of cars the way art enthusiasts might examine a Rembrandt. Gunning the engine of a nice car kindled in her a rush stronger than one caused by the first silky sip of espresso.
On her way up the wooden steps to her apartment that afternoon, she eyed her watch and discovered it was a little past five-thirty. Maybe she should eat that grilled chicken, the batch she had put in the fridge the other day, before it spoiled. Served cold on a homemade Caesar salad sounded like a dream.
When she reached the top of the stairs, she stopped in her tracks outside her apartment door. She thought she heard a—
Lily winced when the wooden plank creaked beneath her foot. She singled out her car key—the longest and sharpest on her key ring—and clenched it, aiming it straight in front of her. With her ear cocked toward the maroon door, she crept toward it with slow, cautious steps. Once she reached the door, she pressed her ear against its cool surface. As soon as she did, she startled at a sound that came from inside her home. An object hit the floor with a thud. One of Brooke’s coffee table books, maybe.
But Brooke was in Minneapolis on her business trip.
So who’s in my apartment right now?
Lily bit down on her lip. She felt rapid thumps of her heart as they vibrated against her rib cage. Perspiration broke out along her neck.
Careful not to make a sound, she slid her fingers around the doorknob and tried to turn it to the left.
How stupid of her. Of course the burglar didn’t want to be caught by surprise. She knew she should have bought one of those cheap burglar alarms for the door.
While Brooke would have called the police at this point, Lily had never fit the standard mold. Call it her foolish side, but she possessed a ferocious sense of independence.
According to recent rumors, a teenager had broken into cars in the parking lot to finance a drug habit. A neighbor in the next building suspected he’d targeted her car. On a couple of occasions, Lily had confronted punks like that at the shop after hours. Now, as she stood before her own front door, adrenaline surged through her veins. She was ready to kick this adolescent’s ass.
Gritting her teeth, she glanced around and noticed her neighbor’s son had left his baseball glove and aluminum bat outside the door.
If this punk thought he would get out of her apartment without a fight, reality was about to crack him straight in the balls.
Lily tiptoed to the neighbor’s doorstep, grabbed the bat, and tiptoed back to her own apartment. Although her hand shook, she steadied herself against the door frame, unlocked the door with the slightest possible click, then tucked her keys into her pocket.
Another thump on the other side of the door. It sounded like one of Brooke’s candles. No doubt about it: The intruder was in the living room.
Steeling herself, Lily sucked air into her lungs and pounced. With a twist of the doorknob, she burst into the living room and gripped the bat with both hands, high above her head.
“Get the hell out of my apartment!” Lily screamed.
Another scream—female—responded in a pitch even higher than Lily’s.
“Oh, shit!” A male voice, one notch above a mutter.
With the Venetian blinds shut and Lily’s eyes adjusting to the sudden lack of light, Lily caught sight of two silhouettes in a scramble. She reached for the light switch.
When the light came on, her sight landed on a man’s pale ass as it bucked from the sofa. A pair of boxer shorts and khaki pants, scrunched below the guy’s knees, rendered him immobile in his haste. He stumbled off the sofa and onto the floor in a desperate attempt to yank his boxers over his loins.
Lily shrieked. She jumped back and covered her eyes. By the time she removed her hand, Brooke had sat up. Her roommate’s plum-red face matched that of her boyfriend who, by this point, had managed to start buckling his belt. Brooke fastened the upper buttons on her top. Her skirt, one she wore to work often, had wrinkled in the heat of passion. Their perspiration had rendered the room humid. In horror, Lily sniffed the musky scent of spontaneous sex.
Lily dropped the bat, which punctuated the awkwardness of the moment with a muffled clunk. “Brooke, you said you were flying to Minneapolis this morning! What are you doing here?!”
“Geez, Lily! I got my days mixed up, that’s all. I leave tomorrow.”
Lily looked on as her roommate ran her hand through her hair, which was mussed in the back. It was obvious who had been on top and who hadn’t. Lily couldn’t determine who was more embarrassed, Brooke or Lily herself. But Brooke’s boyfriend, Jeremy, appeared the winner in the humiliation contest. The guy fidgeted, couldn’t seem to find a spot to rest his hands, and his eyes wandered the room before he glued them to the floor. At last, he settled one hand on his face, where he pretended to scratch an itch on his chin.
Brooke furrowed an eyebrow and shot an inquisitive look at Lily, as if Lily had gotten caught bumping uglies on the sofa. “I thought you’d be out for drinks with the guys after work.”
Lily waved it off. “I opened the store this morning, so I got off at two-thirty. Besides, I’ve had my fill of asses for one day.” As her mind returned to the sight of Jeremy’s backside, she cringed again. “No offense, Jeremy.”
“Yeah, none taken,” he replied, eyes still on the floor. “Maybe you two should invest in one of those write-on, wipe-off calendars. You know, stick it on your fridge. They have ‘em at the dollar store.”
Jeremy tied his shoes and nodded toward the door. “Look, I’m gonna head on out, Brooke. Gimme a call when you reach Minneapolis.”
Jeremy gave Lily a two-finger wave—he’d managed to lift his eyes to her chin level—and made a beeline for the door.
At this point, Lily couldn’t wait to gloss over the scenario into which she’d stumbled, so she returned the baseball bat to the neighbor’s doorstep. By the time she got back to her apartment, Brooke had pulled a mirror from her purse and started to pucker her lips, gauging how much lipstick remained on them.
The environment still felt tense. How was Lily supposed to know what she would interrupt when she arrived home? Brooke could have called her at work to warn her. Lily would have stayed away for another hour.
“Guess I ruined your before-dinner plans, huh?”
With a pop of her lips, Brooke tossed the mirror back into her purse. “No worries. He’ll get over it.” For a split second, her face divulged a hint of irritation about the interruption. But then Brooke handled it the way she handled other inconveniences in life: She shrugged it off. It’s over now. Time to move on.
How could Brooke approach sex with such a casual attitude?
Lily headed toward the refrigerator to retrieve her leftovers from the prior day. Brooke hurried behind her.
“Oh, I almost forgot! You won’t believe what I saw today,” Brooke exclaimed. “I found your twin!”
“What are you talking about?”
“I’m serious! Wait here.”
Brooke rounded the corner to her bedroom and returned with a magazine in hand, which she passed to Lily.
It was one of those pop-culture magazines that focused on fashion and movies while dabbling in tabloid territory. Lily flipped through the pages. She had always wondered where some of the photos for such magazines came from, particularly this issue’s aerial shot of a large tent that housed a celebrity wedding. Did photographers hide behind bushes and sneak into helicopters to catch these people in the most private or humiliating situations possible?
On one page, Lily pointed to a picture of an actress caught by surprise with her tongue sticking halfway out of her mouth. She waved it at Brooke. “You should frame this one.”
“Whatever.” Brooke grabbed the magazine, located her intended page near the end, and folded the magazine along its spine. “I was paging through magazines to get ideas on ad themes we could use for a client of mine. On the phone today, the client mentioned an ad on page 58 of this issue. Said she really likes it. So I turned to it—and this is what I saw.”
Lily examined the slick, glossy page, an advertisement for a brand of wine manufactured in Napa Valley. Instead of a photo, the ad featured a full-page replication of a painting. But the painting looked lifelike, as if the artist had taken a photograph and re-created it on canvas. In the scene, a man and woman—in their twenties, by Lily’s estimation—flirted at a nice restaurant. Manhattan, perhaps. A Saturday night on the town. The man wore a dark sport coat and a shirt with no tie, and had his arm around the waist of the woman, who wore a gorgeous red dress. The couple appeared rapt in each other’s eyes. Lily sensed a magnetic draw between them.
They looked as if the man had uttered a witty remark and now took delight in his date’s coy reaction. The woman leaned toward him, her body language inviting more of his attention. The couple held aloft glasses of white wine as they chatted. Mere afterthoughts, those glasses of wine. Yet apparently, the beverage had inspired this moment of romance.
Lily considered the man handsome with his firm jaw and wavy, brown hair. In fact, he had one of those faces which could, with one glance, render you at ease. She sensed instant comfort in his presence. He also had the sort of appearance that made you feel as if you had met him before.
And Brooke was right. The woman looked exactly like Lily. Her hair color, complexion, nuances in her face and fingers—Lily recognized them all.
Brook leaned over her shoulder. “See what I mean?”
“Yeah…” Stunned, Lily examined the woman closer but couldn’t find the words to speak. An honest-to-goodness lookalike! Yet somehow, that red dress and fancy environment had transformed her into a different person altogether. The change had escorted her into another world!
Even though this woman was a fictional character, Lily tried to imagine her background and what she did for a living. The superficial differences between Lily and this woman were obvious, but Lily knew something else must have come into play between a couple like this. What did this woman have that Lily didn’t? What would draw this particular man to this particular woman?
A hint of jealousy stabbed Lily’s heart, but she shoved the feeling aside.
Before she knew it, Lily pictured herself in the woman’s place—which wasn’t difficult, given the similarities.
She imagined the floral scent of that wine…
The brush of the red dress against her thighs…
His arm around her waist…
What am I doing?!
Lily snapped the magazine shut and tossed it on the dining room table.
Excerpt Copyright 2019 John Herrick