Stories

Thank God I'm Pretty


Mark worked at a small company, one where the boss shook his hand every morning and told him to do a good job and make everyone proud. Mark wasn't special, the boss did this with everybody. It was his thing, making the employees feel like they were family and not just cogs in a machine. Mark appreciated the small touch, even though he also felt it a little ridiculous. He certainly didn't feel like his coworkers were family and his boss certainly wasn't a father. The job wasn't even a career for him; it was simply a job, something to gain some experience with until he could find something better, something that suited him more.

One day, Mark was sitting at his desk when a young woman walked past. She was tall, for a girl, but thin and toned. She had very soft features, with delicate eyebrows and perfectly applied makeup. Her hair was long and red and reached the middle of her back and her eyes were a brilliant green. It didn't seem like she was there to work, as her dress was a rather showy yellow sundress and she wore flat, strappy sandals. For some reason he couldn't place, Mark couldn't take his eyes off her as she went walking past, without anyone stopping her, right into the boss's office.

Mark spent the next thirty minutes thinking about that woman and hoping that she'd pass by him again, both so he could get a better look at her and so he could say something to her. He ran through a dozen different things to say to her, but each one seemed shallow and mildly offensive. He'd never been too good with women, though he'd had a few girlfriends over the years. He wasn't a bad looking man, he supposed, but he wasn't really one women sought out either.

So when she came out of the office with his boss beside her, Mark froze. He certainly couldn't flirt with her when his boss was walking beside her. But if he didn't say anything now, he might never get a chance to do it again. They were almost at his desk when Mark purposefully knocked a cup of pens onto the floor in their way. He let out several soft minced oaths under his breath and turned to them, an apologetic look on his face.

“Here, let me help you,” the woman said, stooping down beside him. She had a deeper voice than her frame would have made him think, though it was still soft. He smiled at her as he knelt, scooping his pens and pencils back toward his cup. She smiled back, she had a wide smile, framed by lips that were a little on the thin side, but not unattractively so. Her nose was straight and firm, not the button type he normally went for, but it worked for her.

“Ah, Mark,” his boss said as the two of them started to stand. “Meet Sophia, my daughter.”

Crap, his daughter? Mark thought. So much for the flirting. He extended his hand to Sophia, and said, “Uh, hi. Nice to meet you.” He could feel the chagrin showing on his face, only to be doubled when she laid the bundle of pens and pencils in his hands.

“Nice to meet you, Mark,” she answer, her lips curling into an impish smile. She briefly quirked one eyebrow as he dumped the pens and pencils back into the cup.

“I didn't know you had a daughter,” Mark said to his boss.

His boss made a noise that was half a cough and half a grunt and for a moment an unfathomable look crossed his face. “Yes, well, when I'm here I focus on my work family.” He smiled at Mark, who realized it was one very much like his daughter's (or rather, hers was very much like his). “I wouldn't want to make it seem like I am thinking of the family I have at home every time I speak to you bunch, after all.”

Sophia laughed at his words and put her arms around his shoulders and hugged him so her cheek pressed against his. “Oh, daddy's just being polite.” She turned her face to look at Mark. “I'm a bit of the black sheep of the family.”

Mark's boss looked slightly uncomfortable with the situation he was in and Mark didn't feel too much better. His boss never talked about his own family, though he did have a framed 8 x 10 of his wife sitting on his desk. “Oh, I'm sure you're just messing with me,” Mark said in an attempt to diffuse the situation.

Sophia leaned her head back and smiled even wider. “Maybe I am, just a little,” she said, then let her father go, then gave him a light peck on the cheek which left traces of pink lipstick behind. “But it's time for me to go. I need to get changed for work.” She winked quickly at Mark, with the eye that was facing away from her father, then turned and strutted off.

When she was gone, her father pulled out a handkerchief and used it to wipe the makeup smudged on his face. He looked at Mark apologetically and said, “Sorry about that. It's rather tough having a... ah... daughter, like that.”

Mark shrugged his shoulders. “She seemed alright to me, sir,” he said and then, deciding to press his luck, added, “She said she was going to work? It's the middle of the day.”

“Oh, right. She works down at that used book store down on Pulaski. You know the one?”

Mark shook his head. “Never been,” he said quite truthfully.

“Well, they stay open until ten,” his boss told him as if it were an explanation. Of course, it was barely noon, so why she would be going to change now for work didn't make much sense to him. But then Mark thought about it and realized she was probably just trying to extricate herself from everything and get away.

“Well, back to work,” his boss told him and Mark plopped down into his chair, quite a bit less enthusiastic than he'd been a few minutes before. He tried to distract himself with his work, but only managed to slog through the day without much success.




A few days later, Mark stood outside the bookstore after work. It was already getting dark out and the weather had been cool the past several days and he didn't have a coat, but he still stood outside staring at it. Tucked in between two other much larger buildings, it would have been easily missed had he not been looking for it. From the outside, it seemed to consist solely of a glass door attached to a long corridor with nothing else inside. A simple sign read “Used Books” and had an arrow pointing down to the door, but nothing else.

Light poured out onto the sidewalk, illuminating the rapidly dusky evening. Finally, Mark took a deep breath and walked in. A bell on the door tinkled as he entered. It took several steps before he reached the proper store, which was somehow more cramped than the entryway itself. It was certainly wider, but bookshelves were packed tightly together, barely far enough apart for a man to walk straight down. Anyone much broader than Mark would be hard pressed to navigate them.

There was a simple wooden counter with a dusty cash register on top of it, but there was no cashier. Mark seemed to be the only customer, unless there was someone hidden inside the stacks deeper into the store. He stood at the counter for a moment, looking for a bell or some other device to summon assistance, but found nothing.

Feeling rather foolish simply standing there, he decided to examine some of the books. He turned and peered at the first shelf, scanning the titles with his finger hovering a few centimeters away. They all looked exceptionally old, though all remarkably well kept. Old leather with golden lettering told him the names of many books he'd heard of before (Uncle Tom's Cabin, the Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Moby-Dick) and many more he had not (The Deerslayer, Edison's Conquest of Mars, Miss Ravenel's Conversion from Secession to Loyalty). He didn't bother to pull any books off the shelf; he doubted he could afford them even if he were much interested in reading any.

“Can I help you?” a voice from behind him called. He turned and saw a slight man with close-cropped blonde hair and a thin beard standing beside the cashier's counter. He had rather unremarkable features, with low cheekbones, a weak, tapered chin, thin eyebrows, and a plain, straight nose.

Mark was disappointed to see him, but stepped away from the shelf and shook his head. “No, no,” he said. “Just looking.”

The man's blue eyes went briefly wide, but so quickly returned to normal that Mark wasn't quite sure he'd seen it. He smiled and nodded. “Alright then, let me know if you need anything.” His voice was rather helium-pitched, almost gratingly.

“Thanks,” Mark said and took a step to escape the man's sight. He squeezed in between two shelves and spent a brief moment pretending to examine the books while thinking to himself. Of course she won't be here, he thought to himself. She probably has tonight off. Or she worked the morning shift.

Even with those defeatist thoughts, he moved out of the shelves and down another row. He hoped somewhere, buried between these dense books, he'd discover her stooped down, fretting over a pile of books that she'd clumsily dropped. Naturally he would bend down to help her without saying anything, noticing a damsel in distress, then she'd turn and their eyes would meet and she would recognize him and they'd both laugh. Then a brief conversation, they'd place the books on the shelf together, he'd ask her out to coffee and she (having been charmed) would say yes.

Of course he did not find her at all, not after searching between a dozen pairs of shelves and pretending to examine thousands of books. As he came to the end of one of the rows, the man from the counter was standing there, waiting for him. “Is there anything in general you're interested in?” the man asked him, his arms crossed over his chest and a wide, coy smile on his lips.

Caught off guard by his presence, Mark could only stutter out a, “Um, oh, not really,” and try to turn aside and slip past him.

But the man was persistent and followed him into the next row. “Because if there's anything I can help you with,” the man said with a suggestive emphasis, “just let me know, alright?”

Mark didn't turn to look back at him and said, “Yeah, thanks,” over his shoulder. He walked to the end of the row, then pretended something had caught his eye and stooped to look at it. After a few moments of faux-examination he spared a glance to where the man had stood and saw him gone. Mark let out a brief sigh and straightened up.

Sophia wasn't here tonight, he decided, and he was only looking suspicious by continuing to hang about. Admitting to himself that he'd likely missed his chance to establish anything beyond a singular, chance meeting with her, he hastily made his way to the front of the shop, keeping his head down to avoid making eye contact with the man. He already assumed the man thought him some weirdo, perhaps some sort of criminal, and he couldn't risk that judgmentalism again by ever coming back here and running into him again instead of Sophia.

“Have a nice night,” the man said as Mark hastily rounded the corner toward the exit. Mark vaguely nodded his head toward him and pushed his way out the door.

It was already quite dark when he exited, most of the illumination coming from the book store itself. The night air had dropped temperature quite quickly and a chill sent shivers through him. He leaned against the wall beside the door and closed his eyes, taking in a deep breath and letting it slowly seep out of his nostrils.

What am I doing? he wondered. Was he really so nervous that he had screwed that up? He should have simply asked the man if Sophia was working and, when he received the obvious negative, asked when she might be in next. If the man had refused to tell him (and Mark was sure he would have, because he did not know Mark and for all he knew, Mark would not be someone Sophia would have wanted to see), Mark could have simply thanked him for his help and left. That would have at least made it so that if he came back around again, Mark wouldn't have seemed like a creep.

A sudden overwhelming shame shook Mark and he realized how foolish he was being. The man probably had given Mark no more than a second thought, assuming him a bibliophile with perhaps explicit tastes who had been unable to find something to pique his interest. Surely, Mark could walk right back into the store this instant and ask him about Sophia with no negative repercussions.

Yes, Mark thought, that is what I'm going to do.

He opened the door and nearly jumped out of his skin at the jingle of the bells before remembering they were there simply to inform the employee on duty that he had a customer. Mark wondered if he would find the place as empty as before, but once he exited the entryway he found the man standing there, watching the entrance as if in anticipation. His face broke out into a wide, self-satisfied smile when he saw Mark.

“Welcome back,” the man said. “Want to look at some more shelves?”

The teasing tone in the man's voice almost sent Mark fleeing back out the store, determined never to return, but he swallowed his knot of shame and stood fast. “Actually, I was wondering if Sophia was working tonight?” he asked, his voice starting off strong but trailing into a dull apologetic as he realized the answer was plainly obvious.

But the man simply smiled wider, his eyes half-closing, and slowly shook his head. “I had a feeling you weren't here for the books,” he said. “No, Sophia is off tonight. How did you know she works here?”

Mark was mildly thrown by the unusual question. Not “How do you know her?” or “Was she expecting you?” but “How did you know she works here?” Had Sophia mentioned him to the man so that he knew Mark might be stopping by? Had he made such an impression on her, positively or negatively, that she would describe him well enough for the man to identify him?

“Her father told me,” Mark answered truthfully, then added, “I work for him.”

The man didn't lose his mischievous smile, but nodded sagely. “And did he send you for her?” he asked with an intonation that made it seem he knew the answer was a negative.

“No,” Mark told him. “I just... wanted to talk to her.” He felt his words spill out lamely, clumsy like pouring jello from a bowl.

The man reached down below the counter and produced a pad of paper and a pencil. He set it down on the counter and pushed it toward Mark. “Leave your number, I'll make sure she gets it,” he told Mark.

“Really?” Mark asked, dubiously.

“Really,” the man said with a sincerity that was hard for Mark to doubt.

He scribbled his name and phone number on the paper and handed it back to the man, who ripped the sheet off and stuffed it into his pocket. “Tell her it's Mark from her father's office, we met the other day.” The man nodded slightly. “Please, make sure you tell her that,” Mark added, almost desperately. “She might not know who it is otherwise.”

The man chuckled and smiled at him and Mark swore his eyes almost twinkled as he said, “Don't worry. I'll make sure she knows.” He then extended his hand across the counter and said, “My name is Scott. Nice to meet you.”

Mark took his hand. It was surprisingly soft, his fingers delicate and well manicured. “Mark,” he said. “Likewise.”

Scott gave his hand a few light pumps, then let it go. “Just a bit of advice, Mark, next time don't be so nervous. You could have saved yourself some time by just asking for Sophia to begin with.”

Mark grimaced and shoved his hands into his pockets. “Yeah, I was just...” He trailed off without finishing his thought. “I should get going. Thanks again.”

With a mild nod, Scott said, “Of course. And don't worry, I'll give Sophia this number. I have a good feeling she'll call you, so do sit by your phone with bated breath.”

Unsure of whether the man was continuing to tease him, he mumbled, “Thanks,” and quickly stole out of the store.




Despite himself, Mark did sit by his phone and wait. He had a cellphone, of course, and could have simply kept it in his pocket at all times, but he didn't. He sat it on his kitchen table and stared at it. When he went to work the next day, he sat it on his desk and found it distracting him with anticipation the entire day. At home, he kept it on the small table next to his couch, constantly glancing over at it as if his eyes would hurry the call along.

By the end of the second day, he figured Sophia wasn't going to call him. Maybe Scott had never given her the number. But maybe he had and she just wasn't into him. He briefly considered the possibility of asking his boss about her, but realized he'd never muster up the gumption to do it. Instead, he sighed and assumed the worst and stuffed the phone into his pocket and tried to forget about it even though it darkly clouded his thoughts for the rest of the day.

But as he walked into his apartment on the third day, home from a long, tiring day of work and thankful for the approaching weekend, it started to ring. It so surprised him that he took several rings before he reacted. Snatching the phone up, he saw the number was one unknown, and he hit the answer button and held it up tentatively to his ear. “Hello?” he asked, more than a little nervous.

“Mark?” Sophia's voice asked. It sounded a little different over the phone, slightly deeper, but it was definitely her.

“Yes!” Mark nearly squeaked with excitement. He cleared his throat and took a breath and repeated. “Yes, Sophia, hi! Glad you could call me.”

“Yeah, sorry about not getting back to you sooner,” she said in a truly apologetic tone. “I was... uh... out of touch for a few days. I just got your message from Scott yesterday.” She paused just a moment and, with a sudden shift toward bashful curiosity in her tone, asked, “So... What did you want to talk to me about?”

He took another deep breath and started saying the line he'd rehearsed a hundred times in his head. “Well, I just... uh... You know,” he started, having already flubbed the line with the very first word out of his mouth. “I'd like to, you know, do something sometime. If... uh... you want to, um, do something.”

“Oh?” she said, her voice dropping an octave and making Mark blush, “What did you have in mind?”

Suddenly Mark realized he had no idea what he had in mind. Somehow he'd imagined the simple act of asking her out to be enough, that all things would automatically fall into place after that. “I don't...” he started, then caught himself. “How about dinner?”

“Sure.”

He broke into a huge grin and had to fight to not make himself sound struck goofy as he continued, “Great! When would be a good time for you?”

“Tonight,” she said pointedly. “Seven. Take me to Crush. You know where it is?”

“Yes,” he told her, though he didn't. “Should I pick you up or – ”

“No!” she cut in abruptly. “No, I'll meet you there. Be there exactly at seven, ok? Don't worry about reservations, I'll take care of them. See you then!” She immediately hung up the phone without giving Mark even the chance to say anything.

He let his goofy smile hang on his face for at least five minutes, phone still held to the side of his face as if he were frozen. Finally, he let the giddiness subside and went about getting ready. After a brief trip to Google, he had directions to Crush as well as an idea about how to dress.

He jumped into the shower, shaved and lightly cologned, then grabbed his best pair of jeans, a snappy belt, and a cream-colored dress shirt, slipped into his barely-used leather loafers, and finished off with a loose silver tie. His hair was short, so it needed very little combing, just enough to get everything moving in the same general direction.

Then he was out the door. It was only quarter to six, but he was anxious and didn't know exactly how long it would take him to get there. Google said a fifteen minute drive, but he knew traffic could be finicky and he had no idea where he would park.

Of course, he got there in fifteen minutes easy and it was in an upscale shopping center, so he had little problem finding a parking space. It was only six and he felt more than a bit silly. He sat quietly and listened to sports radio as he waited, listening to two hosts arguing over the merits of Flacco after a rough loss to the Jags the week before. Mark paid it little attention, instead constantly checking himself in his rear view mirror.

Finally, it was 6:55, so he stepped out of his car. Almost immediately, a sporty red car buzzed past him in the parking lot and came to a screeching halt several spots down. It pulled into a vacant spot and Sophia popped out before slamming the door shut with a loud bang. She wore a slim black dress with a modest cut that ended just above her knees, dark pantyhose, and black high heels. The dress gave her a very straight silhouette, with only slight curves at her hips and chest. She was less a coke bottle and more a milk carton.

But her face lit up with a generous smile as she spotted Mark, sending a small wave of butterflies through his stomach. She cantered over, waving an arm above her head as she did. She wore a purse slung over her shoulder on a thin strap.

Mark wasn't sure what to do as she approached. He put his hand out for her to shake, but she took it and pulled him forward into a brief, one-armed hug. “It's nice to see you again!” she said as she released him from the hug, though keeping her hand in his. She had very soft skin and her fingernails were short and neatly trimmed, though painted red.

She wore a fair amount of makeup, though it was close to her skin color and hard to notice in the dim light of the shopping center. “It's good to see you too,” he said, trying to fight the nerves out of his voice and only making them worse for the effort. “I was, ah... I was starting to think you weren't going to call me.”

With a hand daintily over her mouth, she giggled. “Hardly. I don't have many men tracking down where I work to ask me out.” She gave him a wink and started to pull him along by the hand toward the restaurant. “Plus you're kinda cute too.”

He couldn't help but blush and said, “Thank you.”

She giggled again. “Only kinda cute,” she repeated. “Don't go getting a big head.”

He opened the door for her and she slipped inside. “I won't,” he promised, then added, “You're very pretty. And you can go ahead and get a big head about that.”

She turned and smiled at him. “Oh, I already have a big head,” she told him, tracing a circle in the air around her face a few sizes larger than her actual head. “Just not about being pretty. I don't hear that too often.”

“Really?” Mark mused with a confused scrunch of his face. “I'm not just saying that. You are very pretty. Why would anyone think you weren't?”

She pursed her lips and gave him a look, then turned away toward the hostess and said, “Bennett, party of two.” The hostess checked and found the reservation, then led them to their table. It was a small, circular one with black, short-backed chairs. Mark pulled out a chair for Sophia and she gave him and approving glance before sitting down.

The hostess left them with two menus and disappeared. Mark opened it up and began glancing through it, though he kept looking over the top of it at Sophia, particularly her delicate, attractive face with its big eyes, almost impossibly-perfect eyebrows, and pink-painted lips. Eventually, she caught him looking and smiled back over her menu. “It's because of my figure,” she said to him.

“Hmm?” he asked, not quite understanding.

She set her menu down and ran a hand down the front of her dress. “I'm a bit like a board,” she said to him. “That's why people don't think I'm pretty. No curves.”

“That's not true,” Mark answered, almost a little annoyed at the imagined thought of someone telling her she wasn't pretty because she didn't look like a Hollywood starlet. “You have some curves. Besides, you've got a gorgeous face.”

She smiled again and raised her menu to hide the lower half of her face. “Well, thank you,” she said, almost coyly before dropping her eyes back to actually read the menu again. Mark went back to reading as well, though he already had a firm idea of what he wanted.

“Have you been here before?” he asked. She nodded and let out a murmured affirmation. “Do you have any recommendations.”

“The crabcakes, if you like seafood. From your accent, I can tell you're from around here, so I hope you like seafood.”

He laughed lightly, saying, “Pass the Old Bay, hon.” It drew a giggle from her as well. “Don't suppose they serve Natty Boh here?” he asked, looking up toward the bar and peering. Sophia giggled again and Mark was becoming quite enamored with it.

Soon after the waitress arrived, a young woman dressed very casually who didn't look much like a waitress, but asked for drink orders. Sophia ordered a Cosmopolitan, Mark ordered a salty dog. “Oh, a salty dog?” Sophia asked teasingly. “What's that?”

“Vodka and grapefruit juice, with a rim of salt,” he explained. Then he smiled and covered one eye with a hand and said, “Makes me think of a pirate. Arrr, matey.” He had expected her to giggle at him, but she simply gave him a bemused raised of the eyebrow and then looked back at her menu.

Mark had not been on many dates in his life, but he recognized the signs that Sophia was bored. She certainly had already decided on her order, especially since she'd been to the place before. Eager to regain her attention, he asked, “So, you work at a used bookstore?”

To his delight, she folded up the menu and sat it flat on the table. “I do,” she said. “I love old books. Everything about them; the way they smell, the texture of the pages under your fingers. They don't make paper like they used to. Everything today is cheap, mass marketed. It'll fall apart in a few dozen years, but I've seen books from the mid-1800s that look as good as the day they were printed.”

“What's the oldest book you've ever held?” he asked, folding his hands on the table and leaning forward slightly.

She didn't take more than a second to think before she answered, “A first edition of Paradise Lost. It was in good condition.” She paused a minute, then chuckled to herself. “There's a saying among book sellers that good condition is never good. This one had a cracked spine and the pages were foxed, but there wasn't any mildew or writing or any rips or tears... So all in all, it was gorgeous for something its age.” She sighed. “I would have loved to keep it,” she added wistfully. “Unfortunately, it's outside my price range.”

“Maybe someone wonderful will buy it for you one day,” Mark said, hoping to imply that, should things go well between them, he'd be the one buying it.

She gave him a disbelieving look and laughed, not the giggle, but a rather sharp chirp. “I doubt it. Not unless I meet someone very rich.”

Mark blushed and looked down at his hands. “Well, I bet you're worth it,” he said in half a mumble, feeling instantly foolish because he barely knew Sophia other than as a pretty face.

“That's sweet,” she said, completely sincere. Mark looked back up and saw her looking away, wistfully. She caught him looking and snapped back to a more cheerful disposition. “Sorry,” she said.

Mark shook his head and waved off her apology. “Don't worry. So, how long have you been working at the store?”

“Three years,” she told him. “It was the first job I got out of college.”

“Oh? Did you study library science?”

She quirked her head to the side and smiled slightly at him. “I'm surprised you know about that.” Catching the amused offense in his expression, she laughed her lovely giggle again and added, “Not that I think you're dumb. It's just that most people don't know library science is a thing. Most people just assume all librarians are dowdy myopic old ladies who somehow have always eternally been there.”

“That's not true,” Mark answered with a smile. “Some people think librarians are dowdy myopic hot ladies who just need some stud to bring out their wild side.”

That giggle again, this time covering her mouth. “I think that's more a fantasy than what anyone actually thinks,” she said between chuckles. “But no, I studied English. I want to be a writer.” She sighed a little again, but immediately continued. “But working with books is the next best thing, and it pays the bills until the day I get discovered.”

The waitress returned with their drinks and, seeing they had their menus in front of them, took their orders. Sophia ordered a spinach salad to start and a six ounce tenderloin for dinner; Mark ordered a bowl of tomato soup and took Sophia's recommendation (and what he'd originally planned on getting) of the crabcakes. She lightly teased him about that, but they quickly moved back to discussing her.

“A writer?” Mark asked. “What sort of things do you write?”

She grinned coyly at him. “Well, mostly steamy romance novels,” she said. “The kind they can't put on store shelves without a big warning label on them.” At his reaction she giggled again. “You sure do blush a lot.”

“It's the alcohol, I swear,” he said, lifting his previously untouched drink and taking a gulp of it.

“Mmhmm,” she said teasingly before taking a sip of her own drink. She set it back down and gently began to trace her finger around the rim. “So are you a big reader?”

“I read a little bit,” Mark said, not admitting that it was mostly fantasy sports and comedy articles on the internet. “So you really write romance novels?” he asked, trying to steer the conversation away from anything that might make her think less of him.

“Yeah.”

“Are you any good?” he asked in a playful tone he hoped made it sound as if he expected the answer to be yes.

“I think so,” she said. “I try not to write the same stuff everyone else is. I try to write – and I know this is going to sound crazy, but it's true – romance novels that even men could like. I have a bit of a... unique perspective on the whole situation, so I hope I can pull it off. Maybe you can critique me some time?”

“Oh, I don't know if you want me to critique it,” Mark said. “I'm not exactly all that good at that sort of thing. I thought the writing in Transformers 2 was perfectly fine.”

She giggled once again. “Well, maybe I'll take your recommendations with a grain of salt, then, but still... It's good to get different perspectives on things. After all, that movie made billions of dollars.”

“At least the explosions did,” Mark said, drawing another round of giggles from Sophia. “So how long have you been writing?”

She paused a moment and tapped her finger on her chin. “Well, I guess since I was just a little kid. I used to shut myself up in my bedroom, I had an old typewriter – ”

“A typewriter? So you like other old things beside books,” he said jokingly.

She smirked and dipped her fingers into her glass of water and flicked the droplets at him. “It was my dad's from work, before they switched over to computers. I used to lock myself in my room after school and just type away on it. All sorts of silly stories. Oh, some of them were so embarrassingly childish. Most of them were me hitting a game winning home run in the World Series, or scoring the winning touchdown in the Super Bowl – ”

“So you were a tomboy then?”

Her smile wavered for just a moment and it seemed to Mark she was horrified that she'd admitted to it, but it quickly passed so soon he wasn't quite sure. “You'd be half right,” she said, “but to my credit, I was wearing pink when I was doing it. And those were just when I was the youngest. When I got a little older, I started writing about being a princess, and having all sorts of dolls, and kissing boys and all those things. A lot about kissing boys, honestly. My mom always encouraged me, no matter what I wrote.” She paused briefly and looked at Mark closely, as if measuring him, then said, “Dad wasn't so supportive.”

“Didn't like his little girl writing about kissing boys?” he suggested.

Sophia smiled ruefully and nodded. “Yes, exactly. He wanted me to stay just the way I was. It took him a while, but eventually my mom convinced him that my creativity was more important than anything. He eventually came to her way of thinking, at least as far as the writing was concerned. He still gave the once over to any friends of mine who came into the house, made me leave my bedroom door open, and things like that.” She shook her head.

“Sounds like he was just overprotective,” he suggested. “A lot of dads are like that. My dad didn't let me bring any girls into my room until I was eighteen and even then I think he sat outside the door listening.”

Sophia let out her glorious giggle again. “Well, I guess we have something in common. But I mostly kept writing because of my mom. She loved to read everything I wrote, or at least did a good job acting like she did. She enrolled me in classes and even sent away things to magazines and books, though the only things that got published were in those scam books where they ask you to pay $100 for the book and then they'll put your child's work inside. I have more than one of those, filled with absolutely awful stories, but I didn't realize back then so I let them do it. I think mom realized what it was too, but she was more concerned with building my self-esteem than the money it cost.”

She took a sip of her Cosmo and seemed to shield her face for a moment. She set the glass down slowly and stared at the red liquid inside. “When mom died, that all stopped. Dad didn't really think like that. Money was important, after all, especially now that he had to raise my all by myself.”

Mark cringed a bit and suddenly realized why the only picture on his boss's desk was of his wife. “I'm sorry, I didn't know your mother had passed.”

With a dismissive wave, she said, “It was a long time ago. I think dad tried to get me to stop writing at least in part because it reminded him too much about her being alive and, for whatever reason, he wanted to forget that. I guess he figured it was better if the memories weren't there rather than be constantly reminded that she was gone. There were other reasons too, but that was one of them.”

He nodded his head seriously and took a slow drink to give himself a chance to think. He wasn't quite sure what to say to her about all this. She noticed his unease and put a hand to her chest. “Oh, I can't believe I'm telling you all this. And I haven't even had a lot to drink.” She lifted the Cosmo and finished it off.

Mark put on his most comforting smile and said, “Don't worry, I don't mind.”

She laughed again, the sharp chirp, but it wasn't aimed at him this time, but herself. “Oh, don't lie. You're thinking I'm some crazy girl with issues, just waiting to spill them out on the first nice guy who'll listen.”

“Well, maybe a little crazy,” Mark said jokingly.

She giggled again and said, “Well, thank God I'm pretty.” Mark laughed and she laughed some more and they didn't stop until the waitress came by to offer Sophia another drink.




Sophia had to take a taxi home from dinner, she'd had a few more Cosmopolitans through the night and apologized profusely for being a lightweight. Mark hadn't minded; she wasn't drunk by any means, but agreed she probably shouldn't drive. He'd offered to take her home, but she insisted he not. But she also said she'd really enjoyed the night and gave him a much more affectionate hug before they departed and enjoined him to call her the very next day.

Mark went to sleep as soon as he got home, though it was still relatively early for a Friday, so to more swiftly bring the next day to reality. He woke up at eight in the morning and realized that Sophia probably wouldn't have wanted a call this early. He showered, had breakfast, and sat down at his computer to check his five fantasy football leagues, make tweaks to them, chuckle at a few web comics, and update Facebook with “Had a nice date last night.”

When it rolled around to afternoon, Mark gave Sophia a call. The phone rang several times before finally being answered. “Hello?” asked a male voice, one that Mark found familiar but couldn't place.

“Oh, uh,” Mark stumbled, thrown by the speaker. “Is Sophia there?”

There was a long pause and Mark almost thought the call had dropped, or that perhaps she had one of those gag voice mail messages which only pretended someone was answering. “Oh. She hasn't woken up yet.”

“Oh,” Mark said with some hint of relief which was quickly overshadowed by the suspicious voice. “Who is this?”

The man on the other end laughed, more of a giggle than anything else. “Don't worry, I'm just Sophia's roommate. This is Mark?”

“Yeah,” he answered as he let out a sigh of relief.

“I'll tell her you called. She was in a pretty good mood when she came home last night,” the man told him, which gave him a swell of joy. “And it was only part because of the booze. She might not be up for a while, though.”

“I didn't think she had that much,” Mark said before he could stop himself.

The man let out a clipped, single-note laugh. “She didn't, really. She just sleeps in. Don't worry about her, she'll give you a call soon enough.” The man hung up before Mark could say anything.

The rest of the day passed and Sophia didn't call. As it crept towards midnight, she still hadn't called. Mark briefly fretted over it, but finally the exhaustion of the hours pouring on pulled him to sleep. He simply had to trust that she had her reasons for not calling and that they had nothing to do with him.

The next day passed similarly. He considered calling her, but didn't. Instead he spent the day alternately sulking and finding things to distract himself. He turned himself in early, not necessarily eager to go to work the next day, but also unwilling to stay up mentally torturing himself.

That night he was awoken by his phone ringing. He bolted up in bed and looked around blindly for it, finally seeking the light peeking out from its face-down edges. Through bleary eyes he glared at it, finding the call was coming from Sophia. He half-consciously answered, wondering if he weren't actually dreaming.

“Hello?” he mumbled into the phone.

“Mark?” Sophia's voice came. It was tinged with a mixture of fear, confusion, and pain that snapped Mark out of his fugue state.

“Sophia. What's wrong?” He turned and peered at his alarm clock. It was three in the morning.

“Nothing's wrong. I got your message.”

“That was two days ago,” he grumbled. “It's three in the morning. I wish you'd called me during the day...”

“Sorry,” she said. “I didn't realize the time. It's been... Sorry, I've just been so tied up. Everything's been in a tizzy. I'm sorry. It's the only time I had to call you. I'll call you some time later. Tomorrow, I hope, but if not, then don't worry. I'll call you when I can, hopefully when it's a better hour. Goodnight.”

Mark started to say, “Goodnight,” but she hung up before he could. He stared at the phone for a few moments, then slowly set it down. He laid in the bed, eyes shut, trying to get back to sleep. But he could only manage to ruminate on Sophia's unusual behavior.




The next day Mark slogged into work bleary-eyed and with a raging headache. He downed some Aspirin to try and fight it, but the battle was being lost. It was an utter rout. He simply sat at his desk, head down, for a good portion of the day, only looking up to work when someone walked by. Thankfully, he didn't have much to do.

Around noon, the door to his boss's office opened and out walked a man Mark hadn't noticed enter, followed by his boss. Mark didn't pay it much attention at first, even as the man and his boss walked closer. His boss wore a contented smile and was laughing and joking in a slight voice with the man. When the man laughed, a short giggle, is when Mark finally recognized him.

“Scott?” Mark asked out loud with meaning to do it.

Mark's boss and Scott both stopped and turned toward him. Scott made a goofy grin and the two of them walked over as Mark stood up too quickly, earning himself a brief bout of dizziness. Scott set a hand on his shoulder and steadied him.

“You feeling alright, Mark?” his boss asked, wearing mild concern.

Mark nodded and straightened himself out. “Yeah, I'm ok. I just have a migraine, is all.” He looked at Scott. “What are you doing here?”

Before Scott could answer, Mark's boss interjected. “Scott's my son, Mark. You met him the other day, remember?”

Mark nodded slightly. “Yeah, I did. I didn't know he was your son.” He gave Scott a questioning look. “Why didn't you tell me you were Sophia's brother?”

Mark's boss suddenly cringed, but Scott said, “I didn't think it was important.” When he spoke, Mark was struck by another realization.

“You were the one who answered the phone the other day,” he said. “When I called her.”

“Wait a minute, why are you calling her?” Mark's boss asked sharply.

Mark's jaw dropped, as in his headache-amplified confusion, he had barely considered the implications of revealing his romantic interest in Sophia to her father. Before he could say anything to attempt to extricate himself, Scott rolled his eyes and said, “Christ, dad. He went on a date with her.”

Never before had Mark seen his boss angry. He had seen what he had thought had been anger, when his boss would talk with someone in a very stern and pointed manner. But that was not the anger his boss showed now, with his face turning almost instantly red and a curvy vein appearing on his expansive forehead. “You... You stay away from her, understand.” He glared at Scott, then at Mark, then back at Scott, and stormed off.

Mouth agape, Mark simply sank back into his chair. Silence reigned for a moment, then Mark let his head drop and let out a moan, more from headache pain than anything else. Scott, apparently interpreting it as solely a sound of dismay, laid his hand on Mark's shoulder. “Hey, don't worry about it,” he said. “She doesn't listen to him much anyway. Never has.” He giggled to himself. “Neither have I, to be honest.”

Mark rubbed his temples and looked up at Scott. “You never answered my question,” he said, eyes half-shut.

Scott sighed and ran a hand over his short hair. “We share an apartment. The two of us are pretty close.” He gave Mark a limp smile. “Look, sorry I didn't tell you who I was earlier. I thought it would seem weird. You know, us working in the same book store and living together and all that.”

Mark shook his head, trying to clear the fog in it. “It's ok. So you like old books too?” he asked.

Scott let out the clipped laugh he shared with his sister. “Not really. Sophia's the one all into that. I just help out. It pays the bills, you know, while I'm between other stuff.” He grabbed an empty chair and slid it over to Mark's desk and sat down. “But look, the two of us talk and Sophia really likes you. She wouldn't stop talking about how funny and sweet you were. So don't let our father scare you out of going out with her again.”

“I like her a whole lot too,” Mark admitted. “But if your dad doesn't approve of me...”

Scott laughed again. “Oh, it's not you he doesn't approve of. Not specifically, at least. He doesn't like the thought of Sophia dating anyone. But don't worry about him.”

“He seemed pissed,” Mark said, in his mind already exaggerating the details of his boss's statement, adding in flecks of spittle and making his face impossibly red.

“Yeah, he did.” Scott shrugged. “So what? You like Sophia, she likes you. You're both adults, you're not doing anything wrong. He can't stop you. What's he going to do? Fire you? There's no way that'll happen. The potential lawsuit alone would have him out on his ass so fast he'll leave skid marks. So forget about it.”

“Thanks,” Mark said and breathed out a sigh. “I guess you're right, there's nothing he can do to stop us. But he can make things tough on me around here.”

Scott looked around the room, with its cramped cubicles and dreary-faced employees. “So what? Is this job worth that much to you?” Mark kept silent at that, but his expression told volumes. “I thought so. Just wait for Sophia to give you a call and don't worry about it.” A thought seemed to strike Scott suddenly and he leaned in conspiratorially. “And next time you see her, bring her a thorn-apple flower. She loves thorn-apple flowers.”

“Thorn-apple flowers?” Mark wondered. “I don't think I've ever heard of them.”

“Go down to Gordon Florists, they'll have them,” Scott said. “Just trust me on this one, ok?”

Mark nodded. “Alright, I will.” Scott patted him on the shoulder once and then stood up and left without another word. Mark sighed and leaned back in his chair, rubbing his face and wishing he didn't have the damn migraine.




Sophia called Mark that evening, almost as soon as he walked through the door of his apartment. She pushed him to get together that night. He briefly objected because of his raging headache, but the disappointment in her voice when he did caused him to change his mind. They made plans to meet at a cozy little bar she knew about, one that (thankfully for Mark) wasn't nearly as expensive as Crush, around seven.

Mark quickly changed out of his work clothes into a pair of jeans and a button-down casual shirt, then popped by a drugstore for some migraine medication and popped them down. He checked his watch and guessed he had enough time to swing by the florist Scott had recommended and bought a half-dozen of the thorn-apple flowers.

They were odd things, looking like the skirt of Morticia Adams or the webbed tentacles of some strange cuttlefish on thick star-shaped stems. They had a pale lilac color and were very fragrant, which managed to make Mark's headache even worse.

When he met Sophia, she took them uncertainly. After a moment she laughed and shook her head. “Scott put you up to this, didn't he?” she asked. Crestfallen, Mark admitted that was the case. She buried her nose in them and took a big wiff. “They're lovely, they really are. It's sweet you thought to get them.”

“But they're not your favorites?” he asked her.

She shook her head lightly. “Do you know anything about the language of flowers?” she asked. Mark admitted he did not. “Well, it's mostly gone and forgotten these days, except from people who like to study old thing.” She smiled at her own words. “But he's just teasing me, that's all.”

“Why didn't you tell me he was your brother?” Mark asked her.

She shrugged her shoulders and said, “It didn't seem like it was important.”

Mark sighed and walked behind her as she carried the flowers to her car. “Well, it did have me confused, when I called your phone and he picked up. I didn't know what to think.”

With a coquettish glance over her shoulder, she asked, “Jealous?”

Mark smiled and admitted, “Yeah, a little.”

She giggled and turned her back to him. “You thought I was shacking up with someone else even after going out with you?”

“Well, it was just one date,” Mark said. “It wasn't like we'd decided to be in a relationship or anything.”

“I didn't invite you back to my place. Why would you have thought I'd invite someone else?” she asked teasingly. At least Mark hoped it was teasingly.

“I'm used to girls doing that with me. If you couldn't tell, I'm not exactly popular with women.”

She giggled. “Well, I'm not exactly popular with men, if you couldn't tell. So I guess we're good for each other, that way.” They reached her car and she put the flowers inside. Once she finished, she turned back and grabbed Mark's hand. “But if you're so jealous, I'll make a promise as long as you will too. I won't go out with any other guys without letting you know about it first, ok?”

Mark grinned and gave her hand a light squeeze. “Ok. And I promise not to go out with any girls without telling you.”

She smiled softly and leaned into him, putting her arm around his waist as they walked. “It's a promise.” He put his arm around her shoulder and together they returned to the bar.




Over the next month, Mark and Sophia had several more dates. At least once a week, most times more than once. They went to the movies twice, had dinner together four times, saw a football game, and went shopping. The whole time they kept it quiet, avoiding mentioning anything to Mark's boss, though from the cold glances he received, Mark figured he had suspicions.

One night Mark had Sophia over to his apartment and made an effort at cooking for her, though he managed to burn the steak and accidentally knocked a bottle of wine over and spill it on her blouse. She didn't mind, though, she just laughed and borrowed one of his shirts while he soaked it in water. They fell asleep together on his couch, watching a movie, but when he woke up she was gone and had taken her blouse with her.

She didn't call for three days after that and when he phoned her, he only ever got Scott. He'd been angry that Scott had tricked him with the flowers, but Scott apologized and told Mark that Sophia had put the flowers in a vase and kept them alive for as long as she could manage. Scott had never seen her do that with flowers, so Mark timidly let his annoyance fade away.

“Sorry, friend,” Scott told him. “She's got her own kooky schedule.” Mark wondered why she never took her phone with her and Scott couldn't offer much of an answer. “Sometimes she does. She's just a bit scatterbrained, I guess. Don't worry, she'll call you back as soon as she can.”

“You're her brother,” Mark told him. “Was she always like this?”

Scott laughed. “Yeah, you could say that. No one's ever been able to get in touch with her when they wanted to, only when she wanted to. I'm the same, sort of, but not quite that bad. The two of us share a lot in common, even though I don't think she would want to admit it.”

“Sometimes I wonder how serious she is about us,” Mark sighed. This had not been the first time he'd had difficulty getting in touch with her.

“I don't think she's ever been this serious about someone,” Scott assured him.

Mark wasn't entirely convinced. “You know she hasn't ever let me pick her up from your apartment yet? Or take her home there? She's never kissed me either and we've been dating for a month now.” He ran a hand through his hair and shook his head and sighed.

There was a long moment of silence on the other end of the phone before Scott said, “You know, maybe you should just take charge of that.”

“What do you mean?” Mark asked glumly.

“Well, I can understand why she wouldn't want you to come over to the apartment.” There was another pause and Mark could imagine Scott looking around. “It's not exactly... in a proper state for a boyfriend to come over, if you catch my drift.”

“Not really,” Mark admitted, but Scott pressed on as if he hadn't said anything.

“But I mean with the kiss. Kiss her. Don't wait for her to kiss you. She's not really experienced with that sort of thing.”

“She's never kissed anyone before?” Mark wondered, now suddenly imparted with dread at the thought of having to be her first kiss and putting her off the experience forever.

But then Scott laughed and said, “No, no. She's kissed someone before. It's just had a tendency to not go as smoothly as she'd have hoped. So take charge, man. Make a move.”

Such a plan of action wasn't Mark's normal approach. But then again, he admitted to himself, his normal approach had not worked out too well so far. “I'll think about it,” Mark told Scott. “But thanks for the advice.”

“No problem,” Scott said. “I just want her to be happy. And you seem like you're doing a pretty good job at that.”

“Thanks,” Mark said again. “I gotta go. Have her call me as soon as she can.”

“No doubt,” Scott promised and then hung up.

It was another day before he heard from her and it was rather unexpected when he did. She was waiting at his apartment door when he got home from work. She threw an energetic hug around him and he gave her a surprised hug back. “What are you doing here?” he asked her.

“I just wanted to surprise you,” she said. She stooped down and lifted a brown grocery bag. “I brought some stuff. I want to cook you dinner.”

“Ok,” he said, a little flabbergasted. She immediately made a bee line for the kitchen and started working.

When he started to follow she shooed him out. “No no no! It's going to be a surprise! You go... I don't know, take a shower and watch TV or something until I'm ready!”

“Ok,” he said, even more flabbergasted. He went into the bathroom and, for the first time ever, felt a little strange as he stripped down. The idea of him being naked while she was in the apartment made him more than a little uncomfortable. Not that he would have minded her seeing him naked, it's just that he didn't want it to be like this. So... unromantic. Though he supposed if she was actually waiting for him to be showering and she snuck in as he had his eyes closed and suddenly he felt her soft hands running down his chest and...

He shook his head to clear the images and turned the hot water down to calm himself down. It definitely wasn't the time for that yet. Not even when they'd never kissed. Though tonight would be a perfect time to remedy that...

Once he finished his shower he put on a decent pair of jeans and a t-shirt, as Sophia hadn't been dressed up herself. He could smell the aromas of something floating from the kitchen and it made his stomach growl. Turning on the TV, he tried to put it out of his mind.

“It's ready,” Sophia called a while later. He leapt up out of the couch and nearly sprinted into the kitchen. Though Sophia had been dressed in a t-shirt and jeans herself, she had spared no expense in setting up the ambiance in the kitchen. The table had been set with a white cloth and two romantic candles. The dinner sat on plates, neatly arranged.

She smiled wide at him as he sat down. “It's salmon, with steamed spinach over wild rice, and a side of garlic bread.”

“It looks delicious,” Mark said, his mouth watering just from the sight of it. She sat down across from him and raised her glass of red wine. He lifted his own and said, “To you, the most perfect woman I've ever met.”

She blushed lightly and giggled and said, “To you, the most perfect man I've ever met.” They clinked the edges of their glasses together and ate while making quiet, inconspicuous small talk.

Three glasses of wine for each later, they had finished off dinner and were lounging on the couch, watching old sitcom reruns and not really paying attention to them. He had his arm around her shoulder and she snuggled against his chest. “This is nice,” she said drowsily, during a commercial break, her eyes half closed.

Mark took a deep breath and then let it out slowly, “Yes, it is. I love it.” He paused a moment and looked down at her. She'd opened her eyes and was staring up at him, a light blush brought on either by the wine or her expectation of his next words. He couldn't tell. “Sophia, I love you.”

“Oh,” she said softly. “Mark, I love you too.” He lowered his face to hers and kissed her on the lips. She kissed back almost immediately, her body shivering once as she put her arms around his neck. She pulled away from the kiss and moved to straddle his lap, then pushed in again and kissed him more deeply, mouth open, tongue pushing into his.

They kissed like this for several minutes. Mark let his hands settle on her slim hips and, as they continued kissing, slowly began to run them up her waist. She made no move to stop him as he moved his kisses from his mouth to the side of her neck. She arched her head back and he kissed her collarbone, his hands moving ever-so-slowly up.

When he slid a hand beneath her shirt, she sucked in a breath, but he didn't notice. He simply kissed her on the lips again and she kissed back harder than before. But his hand moved over her stomach and started to trace it's way up toward her chest.

Her entire body went tense against him, rigid. He pulled his lips away from her and looked in her big, green eyes, which were wide and filled with an almost-terror. He immediately took his hands off her and she gasped. “I'm sorry,” he said sheepishly. “I didn't – ”

But she jumped off his lap and threw her hands to her face. “No. No, I'm...” She choked out. She scurried over to the corner where she'd left her shoes and started to clumsily try to put them on. “I shouldn't have...” She was breathing heavily, her shoulders shaking in a choked back tears.

Mark stood in alarm and walked over to her. “Sophia, I'm sorry. I moved too fast, I shouldn't have – ” He put a hand on her shoulder and she violently slapped it away.

It didn't hurt, but he took a step back in shock. She turned and stared at him, shock and fear twisted over her face. “I'm sorry, Mark. I just...” She shook her head and a few tears squeezed from between her clamped shut eyelids, trickling down her cheeks to leave a streak of mascara behind. “I have to go. Please, this isn't about you at all. I just... I need time to think, is all.”

He tried to say something, but she grabbed her remaining shoe and ran out the door without putting it on. He followed after her, but she was already in the stairway down by the time he reached his own door.




The next day, Sophia called him as if nothing had happened. She suggested they go out to dinner at a nice restaurant that evening, to which Mark agreed. He didn't mention anything about the night before either. But she ended her call with “I love you” and he did the same and he figured it best if he wait for her to bring it up.

The dinner was no different than any other they had. She did most of the talking about books, the story she was working on, and things like that. He listened and made some comments when they were needed, and joked around a little to get her to giggle, which she did freely. When they finished they lingered in the parking lot, around her car, talking softly. She kissed him on the lips goodnight and then they went to their own homes for the night.

It was like that for the next few weeks. Mark got to talk to Scott only once and it was brief. “Did Sophia mention anything... weird to you about us?” he asked, trying to dance around the question.

“No, why? Did something happen?”

“Well...” Mark wondered if he should go on. But Scott had been valuable enough counsel that he decided to press forward. “I kissed her the other night.”

“Congratulations!” Scott said emphatically.

“No, it's not that. We were kissing and... Well, making out, I guess and I started to... Well, get a little too familiar, I guess? And she kinda freaked.”

There was silence. “Freaked? What do you mean?”

Mark sighed and said, “She jumped up and cried a little bit and left before I could really say anything. She said it wasn't about me, but...”

“Look,” Scott said with a long sigh. “Just take her word for it. If she wants to talk about it, she'll tell you when she's ready. Has she acted any different since then?”

“No,” Mark admitted.

“Then try not to worry about it. She'll get everything off her chest when she's ready. Ok?”

“Ok,” Mark answered with a sigh, despite not feeling ok at all.

Later in the week she came over to his apartment again and, after a while, she started kissing him. Things progressed slowly until they were making out again, but this time Mark kept his hands safely over her clothes. She seemed content for it to remain that way.




Sophia surprised Mark by inviting him to a family dinner at her father's place. The idea of it made Mark more than a little nervous, but he reluctantly accepted. As the day neared, he felt more and more nervous and the way his boss ignored him during work did nothing to ease his mind.

His worry was well founded. The dinner was awkward and filled with tension. They had steak and mashed potatoes with sweet corn. Sophia's father sat there in silence most of the dinner while Sophia and Mark made idle, safe chit-chat. Sophia tried to get her father involved, but he kept giving short, passive-aggressive answers.

“So, how's Mark as an employee?” she asked.

“He hasn't been fired yet,” her father said bitterly, alternating glares at Mark and his food.

“So who do you think will win the Super Bowl? Mark thinks the Giants will pull it off again.”

“Maybe.”

“You know, Mark's a big George Carlin fan, just like you.”

“Lots of people are George Carlin fans.”

After that, Sophia mostly gave up trying to warm her father up. She simply sat, head down, poking at her food with her fork and doing very little to eat it.

Unable to bear the silence, Mark finally spoke up, “You know, I thought this was a family dinner. Scott's not coming?”

Sophia's father snorted out a laugh, one that was so much like the one Scott and Sophia both used. It ran in the family, he supposed. “Oh, he's coming all right.”

“Daddy,” Sophia said softly with a plaintive stare.

Her father let out a harsh sigh and said, “No, he's not going to be in attendance tonight. Isn't that right, Sophia?”

Sophia let out a soft, frustrated sigh of her own. “No, I guess he won't.”

“Of course he won't,” her father said. “Not while you're here.”

“Dad!” Sophia snapped.

Mark couldn't help but interject. “What? Is there something going on between you and Scott?” Mark asked with a concerned look at Sophia.

“No,” she said quickly, but her father let out another harsh laugh.

“You mean you don't know?” he asked between laughs. “You must really be dumb or blind. Maybe both.”

Sophia slammed her hands down on the table as she stood up. “That's it!” she shouted. She leveled a withering glare at her father. “I can't believe you! I thought you'd finally accepted this, but you haven't. You're still a bitter, backward old man. I can't believe you've ever said you loved me, not when you treat me like this!”

Her father stood up too. “Treat you like this! This is how you treat yourself! Think of how it makes me feel! Think of how it makes me look to everyone else! I look like a failure as a parent and you look like a freakshow.”

Sophia clenched her fist and looked as if she were going to break something, but stopped short of knocking her plate off the table. “This was a mistake. Come on Mark, we're going.” She turned and grabbed Mark's arm and pulled him to his feet, toward the hallway.

“And think of what you're doing to him!” her father shouted after them. “You think he's going to appreciate this! He doesn't even know – ” She slammed the front door behind them and stormed toward her car. When she got there, she opened the passenger side door and got in, then slammed the door shut.

Stunned, Mark slowly drifted to the driver's side and got in. Sophia had her head in her hands and was crying heavily. Mark reached out to her and laid a hand on her shoulder. “It's alright,” he said softly to her. “Everything's going to be ok. I love you, you know. I won't let anything your dad says change that.”

She sniffled and said, “Thanks,” but kept crying. “I need you to drive me home. I can't drive like this and I don't want to stay here any longer.”

“Ok,” he said softly, even though he'd never driven her car before and still hadn't been to her apartment. He put her address into his phone's GPS and adjusted her seat and mirrors and pulled out.

She stopped crying halfway into the drive and he asked, “Do you want to talk about it?”

“Not right now.”

“Ok.”

Her apartment was in a bad neighborhood, one of those where a man was sleeping over a steam grate with a tattered blanket pulled over him. She had him park in a garage several blocks away and they walked through the bitter cold night. He put his arm around her and she sagged heavily against him. He squeezed her tight and that brought a little, thankful sob from her.

When they reached her building, she turned to him and said, “Well, I guess you'd better come up.”

“Are you sure you want me to?” he asked her.

“Yes, I do.”

They went up to the apartment. Despite the bad neighborhood, it wasn't a terrible place. It was a little cramped, with a small living room and attached kitchen holding a single couch, a small table, and an old boxy TV. The bedroom and bathroom were the only separate rooms. There was only one bedroom, Mark noticed.

Mark sat on the couch and Sophia started to make coffee. But before it finished, she came to the couch and sat on his lap and put her arms around his neck and rested her head on his chest. “You love me, Mark?”

“Yes,” he said softly, putting his hand on her head and running it through her hair. “You know I do. I love you so much.”

She kissed him deeply and only reluctantly pulled back. “I love you too,” she said. “I want to do so much more than just tell you that, though. I want to show you how much I love you, but...” She turned away from him.

“It's ok,” Mark said. “If you want want to. I can wait until you're ready.”

She bit her bottom lip and turned to him with a pained expression. “That's the thing. I do want to. I just...” She let out a long sigh and got off his lap. “Stay here,” she said and then retreated into the bedroom. A moment later she returned with a small box.

“You're wondering about my dad,” she said softly. “And wondering why I cried all those nights ago, the first time you kissed me.” Mark started to say something, but she held up a hand to quiet him. “Wait, let me talk. I've lied to you, Mark. We've lied to you. I'm so sorry about that, but if I'd told you from the beginning... Well, I don't know if you would have ever come to love me. I didn't know you would either way, but at least this way there was a chance. And I'm sorry if it hurts you. If you hate me and want to go, I'll understand. I won't like it, but I'll understand, because we lied to you so badly...”

Mark stood up and said, “What are you talking about?”

With pained eyes, she looked at him and then let out a long sigh that was almost a sob. She set the box down and reached up to her eye. With a swift slip of her finger, she slid something off her eyes. When she looked up, her once-greens were now blue, two contacts on the tips of her fingers. With her other hand she reached up and tugged on her hair. It lifted free of her head, revealing a close-cropped blonde.

She set the wig down on the table and took the box again, opening it up to reveal a fake beard. She didn't need to put it on. Mark sank slowly back into the chair. Seeing her now, he could tell. The illusion had been a good one. He stared at her, unable to say anything. After several excruciating minutes of silence, her face twisted into a mask of agony.

She asked, “Do you still love me?”


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