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The Carter family was having dinner.
Correction… Three members of the Carter family were having dinner.
Their dining room, like the rest of their house, was the epitome of muted elegance and luxury. Beige drapes that had been specially chosen by an interior designer, covered the large windows on one wall. The wall directly opposite the windows boasted an expensive painting that was the work of a well-known artist whose pieces sold for shocking prices. Crystal chandeliers hung low over the mahogany oval table that had been custom-made to match the six parson’s chairs that surrounded the table.
But that was where the elegance ended.
There was nothing elegant about the woman and two girls who sat hunched at the table, silently wolfing down their food like hostages who’d been denied sustenance for days. And there was certainly nothing elegant about the paper plates they were eating from just so they could avoid breaking any of the expensive plates locked in the cabinet adjacent to the table.
Eleven-year-old Marley Carter kept her eyes on her plate and her mouth moving. Even though her stomach was already aching and threatening indigestion, she just kept shoveling food in.
Eat fast. Eat fast. Eat fast before he gets here.
Her sister, thirteen-year-old Kennedy, who was seated beside her, was just as frantic with her eating. Her plastic spoon was abnormally heaped every time it went into her mouth, and one could tell that she was trying to finish eating before the fourth member of their family swept in.
Their mother, Cynthia, should’ve scolded them for eating too fast. But she was too busy staring at the clock. It was seven-thirty p.m. now, which meant that any minute now, he would stumble in.
Cynthia Carter was the antithesis of the common phrase ‘black don’t crack’. Her black was undeniably cracked. Though she was only thirty-eight-years-old, most people assumed that she was nearing her fifties. Perhaps it was because of the dead look in her brown eyes and her never-smiling mouth. Perhaps it was because of the exhaustion that emanated from her every word and action, like a sad smell. Perhaps it was because she was all skin and bones. Perhaps it was because she’d just let herself go. Her hair was always in worn-out cornrows, her lips always looked chapped, and her daily uniform was a tired, long-sleeved t-shirt and an ankle-length skirt.
Either way, anyone who saw Cynthia could tell that life had dealt her an awful hand.
Her eyes still on the clock and her voice sluggish, Cynthia asked, “Have you girls finished your homework?”
“Yes,” Kenny replied. Marley just nodded.
Cynthia’s dull gaze swept to her children. “You know your father will be very angry if you’re not done, right?”
“We know,” Kenny replied. Marley nodded again.
It wasn’t that Marley didn’t want to speak. It’s just that she couldn’t. Whenever she was anxious, which was all the time, speaking became impossible. No matter how hard she tried to talk, no sound emerged from her mouth. The counselor at school had called it selective mutism. Her father called it rebellion.
“I’m done.” Kenny turned to Marley. “What about you?”
Even though Marley still had some food on her plate, she nodded. There was no way she was staying at this table without Kenny. Kenny was her shield. The only person she trusted to protect her.
“Then let’s go.” Kenny stood.
Just as Marley was about to stand up, they heard the jangling of keys at the front door. In an instant, fear like an electric current swept through the room. The young girls froze as horror eclipsed their expressions. Cynthia’s eyes widened. Her breath escaped from her lips in a gasp, and she sat up straighter in her seat.
He was here.
The jangling outside persisted for a second before there was a sudden slam on the door. A slurred voice shouted, “Cynthia, open this door.”
He was drunk.
The panic quotient in the room multiplied tenfold.
Cynthia shot up from her seat so violently that the force of her movement sent the chair tumbling to the floor. Her panicked gaze on her daughters, she ordered, “Kenny, take your sister to your room. And lock the door.”
With no hesitation, Kenny grabbed Marley’s hand and forced her to her feet. The girls rushed from the dining room, through the living room, and down the hallway. They’d just reached their bedroom when the front door flew open. Kenny shoved Marley into the bedroom then locked the door behind them.
The girls’ room was as pretty as the rest of their house. It flaunted a ceiling speckled with stars that lit up when the lights were off and a huge mural of the sea on one wall. Two adjoined desks sat at one corner of the room and adjacent to them was a bookshelf neatly stacked with every book a preteen could ever want. The emerald green drapes that shielded the large windows were the perfect match to the white comforters over the twin beds and the green rug between the beds.
Most people assumed that the girls’ room was a reflection of how much their parents loved them. It wasn’t. It was a reflection of how eager their father was to maintain appearances. This room was just another way for him to keep fooling the world about who he really was.
To the world, Gary Carter was the perfect man, husband, father and provider. He was a man who had pulled himself up by his bootstraps from humble beginnings to become a prominent businessman and councilman. Whenever he was interviewed by the media, he made sure to emphasize how deeply he loved his wife and daughters, and how thankful he was for their support. Women who watched him on TV scolded their husbands for not being more like him.
But everybody knows, TV lies, and what you see isn’t always what you get.
“Where were you?” Gary’s voice was so loud that despite their locked door, the girls could hear him clearly. “Why didn’t you open the door?”
Cynthia said something, but her voice was so low that she wasn’t audible.
“You’re lying,” Gary roared. “You were on the phone again, weren’t you?”
Cynthia said something, and the next thing Marley heard was… Slap! The crack of his palm on their mother’s face.
Shaking like a leaf in the wind, Marley shuffled closer to Kenny, who was standing with her back against the door.
“It’s okay.” Kenny drew her into a hug. Rubbing Marley’s back, she soothed, “It’s okay.”
Outside their room, the shouting raged on.
“Who would you call? Are you asking me who you would call?” Gary yelled. “Is that how you talk to your husband? Do you think I’m a joke? This is why those brats of yours are rude too. They see how you speak to me and think that they can disrespect me too.” His attention suddenly moved on from Cynthia. “Where are those dumb rocks anyway? Kennedy! Marley!”
Oh God! He was coming for them. Marley’s shaking increased, and she began to whimper.
“It’s okay. It’s okay,” Kenny soothed, even as she trembled too.
“Kennedy! Marley!” he hollered their names. Cynthia said something which earned her another slap. “Shut up.”
Stomping footsteps moved from the living room down the hallway. “Kennedy! Marley! Get out here.”
Marley and Kennedy’s trembling intensified.
“Gary, please!” Cynthia must’ve been chasing after him because she was now audible. Her voice teary and shaky, she pleaded, “Please just leave the girls alone. They’re already asleep.”
“Kennedy! Marley!” He was now at their door. The doorknob rattled as if he was trying to open the door. “Open this door!”
“Gary, pl-” Cynthia’s words ended on a shrill scream then a thump as if she’d fallen.
“Open this door!” The rattling became more violent, as if he was trying to forcefully shove the door open. “Open this door!”
The girls didn’t open the door.
“Open this door!” His fist connected with the wood. Bang! Bang! Bang! He pounded on the door like a mad man.
The girls clung to each other.
“Kennedy! Marley!” Gary kicked the door. Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! His fists and feet mauled the door in concert. “Open this door now!”
Marley closed her eyes tight and tucked her face into her sister’s chest, hoping against hope that the floor would open right now and swallow them.
“I’m going to count to three,” he threatened. “If the door isn’t opened by then, I’ll-” He punctuated his words with another forceful kick.
But the girls still didn’t open the door. They knew better than to let him into their room when he was in this mood.
“One, two,” he counted down menacingly. “THREE!” A sudden crash and force shook the door as if he’d thrown his whole body into it. “OPEN THE DAMN DOOR!”
“Please, Gary.” Cynthia was weeping. “Please, just leave them alone. Just talk to me.”
“Talk to you about what?” he bellowed.
A second later, another slap echoed followed by their mother’s scream.
“It’s you, right? You’re the one who told them to lock the door, didn’t you?” His words were punctuated by blows and their mother’s screams. “You’re the one who told them to be rude to me in my own house. The house that I pay for while you lazy cows are just sitting around disrespecting me.”
Marley didn’t need to be able to see through walls to know what was going on out there. She’d witnessed this scene many times in her young life; Gary, drunk and enraged, pummeling their helpless mother to the floor. Some days when the girls weren’t fast enough, they caught his fists too. And some days when they were lucky, they escaped and let their mother bear the brunt of his rage.
Some people might ask; why didn’t their mother just leave? But it wasn’t that simple. Even at her age, Marley understood that leaving was easier said than done. Gary had isolated their mother from her family and made her get rid of all her friends. He refused to let her work, and made sure that she depended on him utterly and completely. Furthermore, Cynthia was always saying that she was doing it for them. Girls needed a father-figure in their life, she said.
Well, if Gary was the father-figure on offer, then Marley would’ve preferred having none.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” Cynthia pleaded between blows and screams. “I was wrong.”
“What? What are you sorry about?” Gary demanded. “What did you do wrong?”
“Whatever I did. I’m sor- ah!” Her moan rent the air. There was some scrambling then shuffling as if she was moving. Her voice moving down the hall, she cried, “Gary, please stop. The neighbors.”
“Neighbors?” He followed her down the hall. “Are you threatening me with them again? Come here?”
“Gary, no!” Cynthia’s words were punctuated by racing feet.
She was running.
He was chasing.
Soon, the usual sounds followed; glass shattering, something huge and heavy falling, more screaming, more shouting.
The girls waited for it to end. But it didn’t. It was endless.
“I’m done.” Kenny pushed Marley away from her and moved to their closet. The thirteen-year-old girl pulled out a hockey stick from the closet.
Marley’s panic multiplied, and she stammered, “Wh – wh – what will you do?”
Her voice as determined as the tight set of her lips and her firm grip on the hockey stick, Kenny said, “I’m going to stop him.”
“N- no.” Marley grabbed her older sister’s arm. “He’ll h-h-hurt you.”
“He won’t.” Her expression softening, Kenny urged, “You stay here, I’ll take care of it. Lock the door after I leave.”
Marley knew it was a bad idea to let her sister leave the room, but Kenny was as stubborn as she was strong. She easily shook off Marley’s grip then opened the door. Immediately, the screams, roaring and banging increased in volume.
“Lock the door after I leave,” Kenny commanded before exiting the room and closing the door behind her.
Her footsteps faded into the commotion. Instead of locking the door as instructed, Marley opened it a little.
“You, why didn’t you open the d-” Gary’s yell suddenly changed in tenor. It became more dangerous. “Is that a hockey stick? What are you going to do with that?”
“Let her go!” Kenny screamed back.
“Kenny, go back to your room,” Cynthia ordered between sniffles.
“Let her go!” Kenny repeated.
His voice cold, Gary asked, “Or what?”
“Or I’ll kill you.” Despite her threatening words, Kenny’s voice trembled.
Immediate silence settled in the house. But it was soon followed by laughter, then a malevolent, “You can certainly try.”
The next thing Marley heard was a rush of feet, struggling, then her sister’s pained scream. The sound of fists meeting flesh soon joined the scream.
Instinctively, Marley yanked the door fully open. Marley might’ve been the weakest of the bunch, but Kenny was everything to her. She couldn’t let her get hurt. Though she had no idea how to save her sister, she rushed out of the room and down the hallway.
The scene that met her was one that she would never forget.
Kenny was on the ground with her thin arms over her face to protect it. Gary was straddling her with his knees on either side of her body. Gary wasn’t a big man. In fact, he was much shorter than Cynthia. If it wasn’t for his huge gut and dad-bod, he’d be classified as a petit man. However, when compared to the emaciated girl that he’d trapped below him, he was practically a giant. His fists fell over and over again on Kenny’s arms and upper body in tune to her pained whimpers, as if making some kind of macabre music.
Cynthia, who’d been worked over properly, was currently spotting a bleeding nose, a busted lip and a torn t-shirt. However, that didn’t stop her from clinging to Gary’s other arm and begging him to stop. But her pleas fell on deaf ears. Gary kept on punching Kenny.
Marley saw red.
How dare he touch Kenny! The fear that had held Marley hostage just minutes ago evaporated like chaff in the wind. It was replaced by a rage so hot it seared her logic and caution. She raced to their father and grabbed a healthy fistful of his dreadlocks.
Get off her. She forcefully yanked him backwards.
“Ah!” Gary groaned in pain as he fell back. The only thing that kept him from hitting the floor was the elbow he put out in time to break his fall. “The hell!”
Still gripping his hair, Marley tried to get him completely off Kenny. But she was frail, and their father was a grown man. He turned slightly and threw a punch. His fist caught her right in the temple. Fireworks burst behind her eyes as excruciating pain shuttled through her head.
The last thing Marley heard was Kenny screaming her name before she passed out.
Marley had no idea how long she was out. It could’ve been a minute or an hour. There must’ve been a part of her that didn’t completely shut down because even though it was dark in her head, she could still hear screaming, pleading, yelling and punching. She could even feel herself being moved, as if someone was carrying her out of the living room. Then she was being brought back into the room again.
A loud crack suddenly rent the air. The world stopped for a second then someone fell and a piercing scream rent echoed in the room.
“Noooo.” It was Cynthia screaming.
Marley awakened seconds… maybe minutes… later to find herself in Kenny’s arms. At the girls’ feet was a pistol; the one their father was always threatening to murder them with. The pistol had been freshly fired. And Gary was on the floor with a bullet-sized hole in his chest.
“Oh my God. Oh my God! Oh My God!” Cynthia whimpered as she crawled closer to her husband. Her trembling fingers hovered over his face. “Gary. Gary. Gary.” Her terrified gaze shot to her daughters. “Call nine-one-one. Call nine-one-one now.”
Though just as shocked as everyone else, Kenny jumped into action. She rushed from the living room to go and get their mother’s phone.
But Marley just stood there. She was too shocked to move. Her gaze moved from the pistol at her feet to her father’s supine body. His eyes were closed and blood was now oozing from the hole in his chest to stain his white dress-shirt.
Did that mean he was dead?
Was he really dead?
Oh no! Marley’s eyes widened and her hands flew to cover her mouth. But beneath those hands, her lips crooked in a half-smile.
17 YEARS LATER
Meetings had never been Marley Carter’s thing.
They involved too many people in one place, too much talking, and worst of all, being asked too many questions. But her employer, About It, was all about meetings.
The people in this company loved them. Any opportunity to gather together, they grabbed with open hands and annoying enthusiasm. For them, it was a chance to escape the doldrums of their desk-jobs and snack away while chatting with each other.
Even the meeting room had been designed so that people were tempted to stay it longer. The space was gigantic as was the white, square table that dominated it. Colorful, comfortable seats surrounded the table. One wall was all floor-to-ceiling windows that looked out into the sky scrapers that filled Philadelphia’s skyline. Another wall was dominated by a large TV that constantly played videos created by the various teams in the company. At the corner of the room was a long table that was constantly stacked with snacks. It was no wonder that once teams stepped into this room, they were tempted to draw their meeting out infinitely.
About It Home, the team that Marley was currently assigned to, was especially fond of meetings. At least once every day, they found a reason to gather. Sometimes, they met even more than once. That, of course, didn’t count the number of times they left their desks to shoot videos for their channel.
What were the agendas of these meeting? Sometimes it was to brainstorm. Sometimes it was to update each other on the progress of their various projects. Sometimes, it was to get a scolding. Basically, things that could be easily done via email!
Even the meeting that was currently in progress was, in Marley’s opinion, an utter and complete waste of time. Xavier Shivers, their channel manager, didn’t need to call a meeting just to discuss the status of tomorrow’s planned videos. He could’ve just shot the concerned parties an email. But alas, here they were.
“Is the video on ‘how to create your own artwork’ done?” Xavier, a lanky, bespectacled, white man in his early thirties, asked Quinn Fisher, the presenter for their show ‘Smart DIY’.
“Yeah!” Quinn, a slender, petite, dark-skinned black woman in her twenties, nodded. “It’s done. Marley already sent you an email with the edited video for approval.”
Xavier turned surprised eyes turned to Marley. “You did?”
“Check your email,” Marley returned quietly. She wanted to add ‘which is something you should’ve done before calling this unnecessary meeting’, but couldn’t sound out the words.
“Oh, that’s great then.” Xavier turned to Dawn Johnson, their lead writer. “Is the blog post written?”
“Yes!” Dawn’s answer held more than a hint of irritation. The heavyset, light-skinned black woman with short hair and several piercings, scolded, “If you actually read your emails, you wouldn’t be asking me that.”
“Sorry, sorry,” Xavier apologized, but his blasé attitude as he flipped through the documents in front of him said that he wasn’t really. His focus turned to Vicky Mandel, the presenter for ‘Fix My House’. “You guys are done with the Olly Harrelson video, right?”
“Yes.” Vicky, a white, bottle-blonde in her late twenties, nodded.
Penn Mitchell, one of the crew’s cameramen, chimed in, “I sent Felix what we had for editing.”
“You sent it to me?” Felix Tan, the other editor in their team, asked. Anyone who saw Felix could tell that he was gay. His flamboyant fashion, exaggerated gestures and shrill voice pinged gay radars from miles away. He gave Penn a surprised look. “When did you send it to me?”
“Yesterday,” Penn, a slender, white, thirty-year-old-man, said. “I even told you that I’d sent it while we were having lunch.”
“No, you didn’t,” Felix protested.
Here they go again. Marley sighed on the inside. Penn and Felix were infamous for their acrimonious relationship. No one knew what was up with them, but the gossip mill around the office was betting on unfulfilled sexual tension. Yes, Penn was gay too, just not as in-your-face about it as Felix was.
“I sent it,” Penn insisted. “Eugene and Ivan were there when I did.”
Eugene Martinez, a tall, curly haired Latino with glasses, nodded. “I heard him tell you.”
“I heard him too,” Ivan Ellis, Vicky’s co-host, chimed in.
“Well, you heard wrong,” Felix retorted sassily. “Nobody told me anything.”
Penn started, “I tol-”
Vicky cut him off with, “Maybe you told Marley.”
The hell! Marley sat up straighter. Why were they trying to drag her into this mess when all she was doing was sitting quietly and minding her own business? Unfortunately, she wasn’t the most vocal person, so all she could do was wait and see how this played out.
“No,” Penn insisted, “I told Fel-”
“You must’ve told Marley,” Dawn jumped into the fray. Pointedly staring at Marley, she added, “Felix would’ve remembered if you told him.”
It was no surprise that Dawn and Vicky were trying to get Felix out of hot water. Those three were like bread, jam and peanut butter; inseparable. Everyone in the office called them the three witches behind their backs.
It was also no surprise that they were using Marley to save Felix. As the only other video editor on the team and a shy one at that, she was the perfect target.
“Yo, stop trying to throw Marley under the bus,” Eugene immediately came to Marley’s defense.
“I’m not,” Dawn returned. “I’m just saying that if Penn told someone, it would be Marley.”
Penn tried again. “Like I said, I told Fe-”
“Okay, okay, okay, kids. Let’s settle down.” Xavier chose that moment to intervene. “So what I’m getting here is that the video isn’t edited, right?”
Several sulky faces nodded.
“When is it scheduled for upload?” Xavier asked the team’s intern, Zion Phasuk.
Zion, a slender, black and Thai man in his early twenties with dyed platinum blond hair, said, “Tomorrow evening.”
“Okay, so we’ve still got time.” Xavier turned to Penn. “Send the files to Felix again.”
“No way,” Felix protested before Penn could answer. “I’m working on Amber Sienna’s ‘Open Door’ video.”
“Isn’t that scheduled to be uploaded next week?” Zion asked. “You have a lot of time to work on it and this one.”
“Uh-uh.” Felix shook his head. “It’s a large file. Send Olly’s video to Marley.”
Marley could’ve reminded the team that she was also working on another video that was due a day earlier than Felix’s. She could’ve scolded Felix for trying to pass his work to her just because he knew that given the deadline, it would require overtime tonight. But as usual, she couldn’t speak up and defend herself.
After lots of back and forth with Dawn and Vicky defending Felix, and the rest of the team trying to save Marley while she watched in horrified silence, the winners emerged. It was the witches. The video landed in Marley’s lap.
As the team exited the meeting room and walked out into the hallway, Felix sidled next to Marley to say, “I’m sorry, girl.”
Perhaps the apology would’ve seemed more sincere if he wasn’t smirking as he sashayed away to join his ‘sisters’, Dawn and Vicky.
“God, I hate them,” Eugene said as he patted Marley’s shoulder in consolation.
I hate them too, Marley thought. I wish they’d just disappear.
“You should’ve said no.” Zion came up behind them. “If you don’t stand up to them, they’ll keep treating you like their housekeeper and making you clean up their messes.”
I wish I could say no too, Marley thought.
“One of these days I’m going to send an anonymous email to HR about them,” Eugene threatened. A moment later, he offered, “Is there something I can do to help with the editing? I can free some time to help you.”
“Me too,” Zion chimed in. “My afternoon is free if you need help.”
Even though Marley appreciated their offers, she hated working in teams more than she hated doing overtime. So she shook her head. “No, I’m good. Thanks for offering though.”
“Hey, hey, hey,” Ivan rushed over to join their group. “Did you guys hear about our new Editor-In-Chief?”
“I thought Ben was supposed to take the job?” Quinn chimed in as she joined them too.
“Nah!” Penn jumped in too. “I heard they were looking for someone outside the organization.”
Soon everyone around Marley was wrapped up in the company’s latest gossip. Marley wished she could participate too. A couple of times, she even opened her mouth to ask a question or add something. But as usual her timidity overwhelmed her, and she found herself just walking silently beside her colleagues as they enthusiastically conversed.
It sucked to be her sometimes.
Correction, it sucked to be her a lot of times.
The team emerged into the main floor of the company.
About It was about fun and openness, and their headquarters reflected it. The main office was divided into two levels. Level one was a large, circular, open area that held workspaces for most of fifty-plus staff. Level two contained the executives’ glass-walled offices and was completely visible from the lower level. Any one of the execs could stand on the balcony of level two and have a panoramic view of everything that was going on in level one.
Marley settled at her desk, waiting for Penn to send her the video so she could start working on it. She’d just received a video when there was a sudden commotion. She looked up from her computer to find that everyone’s attention was on the upper floor. Three men had just emerged from one of the offices there.
The first man was their CEO and founder, Omar Powell. Omar was a handsome man by any standards. Though he was in his early forties, the chocolate-skinned, six-foot tall, bald man had quite a few admirers in the company. Walking on Omar’s left side was the company’s Managing Editor, Ben Thompson. Early fifties, overweight, graying hair, pale-skin… definitely not GQ cover material.
However, the man walking on Omar’s right side could have the whole magazine. He was hot… the kind of hot that got women and some men panting, sweating, and fanning themselves. Handsome was too tame a word to describe his facial features. It was better to call his looks arresting, as in, they held one hostage and never let go. Once you saw him, you couldn’t stop looking. His skin was naturally tanned to a delicious olive tone to match his dark as coal, wavy hair that licked at the collar of his white shirt.
Though he was wearing a suit like Omar and Ben, it was obvious that the man was working with a great body underneath. The light gray suit clung to his tall, athletic frame and broad shoulders perfectly and lovingly.
Instantly, he had everyone’s attention. Even Marley’s.
They watched him keenly as he, Omar and Ben took the stairs down to the main floor. Omar didn’t even need to draw attention to himself because everyone’s eyes were already on them. In fact, half of the staff members were already standing in anticipation of an introduction to the beautiful man.
“Guys, guys.” Omar clapped twice. “I have an announcement to make. We finally have an Editor-In-Chief. Everyone-” He gestured to the man on his right. “- this is Sebastian Levy, formerly of Avenue Z, now ours.”
An instant buzz swept the room.
“That’s Sebastian Levy?”
“Oh my God.”
“What’s he doing here?”
“He’s our new Caesar?”
“Why is he so hot, and is he single?”
They had all heard of Sebastian Levy. Though few had met the man behind the name, he was a legend in their field. He was the shadowy brain behind Avenue Z’s rise from being just a small-time click-bait site to their current position as one of About It’s toughest competitors.
“Yes, yes, you’re right.” Omar grinned proudly. “This is that Sebastian Levy. Sebastian say hi to my people.”
“Hi.” Sebastian waved. His voice was just as seductive as his looks. It was deep and melodic, the kind of voice one could imagine saying very dirty things in the middle of the night. “I can tell from your faces that you already know me and I don’t have to send you all my résumé.”
That earned him chuckles from everyone around.
“It’s great to be a part of About It.” Sebastian smiled, and Marley felt her heart stutter. Oh, what a beautiful smile he had. He added, “Omar here tells me that you’re an enthusiastic, results-driven team, and I’m really excited to get to know each one of you better and to work with you all. Since I’m a rookie at this thing-”
The laughter this time was even louder because a rookie was the last thing he was.
Grinning, Sebastian continued, “-I’m counting on you guys to help me out. Take care of me.”
Thunderous applause followed his last statement. Marley found herself clapping along with her colleagues. Maybe her claps weren’t quite as forceful and enthusiastic as everyone else’s, but she was right in there with them. Something about the man just made her want to smile and applaud.
Omar cut into the clapping, “As is usual, we’ll have a party to welcome our new exec member. Day? Tomorrow. It’s a Friday, so we can meet in the evening after work then party until the crack of dawn.”
Several people cheered enthusiastically. Those who didn’t cheer grinned like Christmas was on the way, which was technically true. Omar knew how to throw a party.
Omar continued, “Location? Callery’s because they’ve got the best alcohol and food. What do you have to bring? Nothing, especially not a plus one. I’m broke.”
Raucous laughter met that cheeky ending.
“Now get back to work, kids!” Omar ended the impromptu meeting with two claps.
As the three men left the main floor and headed back to level two, Marley couldn’t take her eyes off Sebastian. He was a dreamboat, the kind of man every woman wanted to attract the attention of. But even as she watched Sebastian, Marley knew that hers was just an empty, impossible fantasy.
A man like Sebastian Levy would never notice, much less be attracted to a woman like her. She was a mere cog in the big machine that was About It, and not even a beautiful one at that. Compared to her many attractive and boisterous coworkers, she was wallpaper. If Sebastian was anything like their previous Editor-In-Chief, he would never even know that she existed.
With a sigh, she turned back to her work.
Sebastian’s first day at work should’ve been a breeze. It was not.
Between introducing himself to the core members of About It and familiarizing himself with the company’s operations, he was swamped with work. By seven in the evening, most offices in the building had emptied, but he still wasn’t done.
“Damn!” He stretched and rolled his neck to ease some of the soreness and exhaustion, but it didn’t help. Maybe a cup of coffee would do the trick.
If it was any other time, he would’ve called his assistant and asked for the coffee, but she’d already signed off for the day. With a sigh, he stood and strolled to the door.
Given that all the executives apart from him had already left work, their floor was practically a graveyard. As Sebastian took the stairs down, he noted that the lower level was just as deserted. There was no person in sight and only a few lights dimly lit the large space. All the computers were off…
No, wait! Not all the computers were off. One of them still seemed to be in use. However, no one was seated behind the desk that held that computer. His first thought was that someone had forgotten to turn off their computer. However, after noting that the desk had its own light on and there was a denim jacket hanging on the swivel chair behind the desk, he changed his mind. Obviously, he wasn’t the only one working late.
It therefore came as no surprise when he walked to the break-room and found a woman there. She didn’t notice his entrance because she had her back turned to him and was wearing red headphones. So he got a chance to observe her.
At first glance, there was really nothing eye-catching about the woman. She was about five-four, not slender but not fat either, dark chocolate skin, and wearing a black t-shirt, black pants and black sneakers. Her hair was in neat box-braids that were tied in a ponytail.
However, the way she was dancing as she waited for her coffee to fill up caught Sebastian’s attention. There must have been some great music playing in those headphones of hers because she was swaying from side to side, clicking her fingers, and humming along to its beat. There was just something so joyous and rhythmic about her movements, that despite himself, he smiled.
He could’ve interrupted her, but he kind of liked watching her dance, so he stood at the door and let her dance on for awhile. However, when she stopped to get her now full cup of coffee, he moved forward and tapped her on the shoulder.
That was a mistake.
Startled by the sudden touch, she turned around abruptly, and some of the hot coffee in her cup came flying straight at him.
Fortunately, he had great reflexes. He stepped back quickly so that most of the spilled coffee landed on the floor between them. But some still ended up on his jacket. If he were wearing black, the stain wouldn’t have been so bad. However, his light-gray jacket absorbed the black liquid like a sponge.
“Oh no!” The woman exclaimed as her wide-eyed gaze swept from the ugly stain up to his face. It was obvious that she recognized him because her brown eyes widened even further and her lips parted in a soundless gasp.
The woman was pretty in an understated way. Nice eyes with long eyelashes, button nose, lush lips coated with a light sheen of gloss, pretty small white teeth that clashed perfectly with her dark skin.
Sebastian had seen more gorgeous, traffic-stopping women, even dated a few of them. This woman shouldn’t have been able to move him. But she did. For some strange reason, his heart jumped a little as he took her in. Instead of getting angry at her for ruining his very, very expensive suit, he found himself smiling and reassuring, “It’s okay.”
‘Huh?’ she mimed.
“It’s-” He stopped speaking when he realized that she was still wearing the headphones.
He moved to take the headphones off her ear. However, when he took a step forward, she backed away hastily like a skittish doe. It almost seemed as if she thought he was going to hit her or something. So instead, he pointed to her headphones and mimed, ‘Take them off.’
It took a while for her to get what he was saying, but when she did, she jerkily lowered them to her neck with her free hand. As she did so, she stuttered, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean- I didn’t mean to- I’m sorry-”
“It’s okay,” he cut her off.
“Your jacket-” Her eyes lowered to the stain again. “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.”
“It’s not your fault,” he reassured as he took off the jacket. “I shouldn’t have come up behind you and scared you like that.”
“Give- give it to me.” She set her cup on the counter behind her. “I’ll remove the stain.”
“No.” Sebastian now held the jacket in his hand. “I can get it dry-cleaned.”
“It will- it will dry up before then, and be- be harder to remove.” Avoiding his gaze, she moved forward and tugged the garment from his hold. “Just give me a second.”
His jacket in hand, she shuffled over to the sink at the corner of the room. As soon as she had the water running, she began to clean the garment. Curious to see how she was doing, Sebastian moved towards the sink. Though she didn’t look his way, her shoulders stiffened when she felt him coming her way. Instinctively, he could tell that she didn’t like him being too close, so he stopped a few steps away from her.
“Is it coming off,” he asked.
She nodded but kept her eyes on the garment.
He watched her for a second then asked, “You know who I am, right?”
This time she snuck a look at him then nodded. “Y- yes.”
“Great, so I don’t have to introduce myself.” He asked, “What about you? What’s your name?”
“Mar- Marley Carter,” she returned quietly even as she poured another dollop of liquid soap on the stained area of his coat.
“Marley Carter.” He smiled. “That’s a nice name.”
That got no response from her.
“So, Marley Carter,” he continued, “what do you do here at About It?”
“Video editor.” Her answer was short and precise.
Sebastian wasn’t offended by the curt answer. He was intrigued. Normally when introducing themselves to him, employees fawned, flirted or spoke way too much. They wanted to make an impression so that he would promote them, in certain cases date them, or at the very least not fire them. It was refreshing to find someone who wasn’t playing that game.
“Aah… video editor.” His back against the counter and his arms folded over his chest, he asked, “How do you like working here?”
Marley didn’t even look at him as she dispassionately answered, “It’s great.”
He laughed. “That was the most unenthusiastic ‘it’s great’ I’ve ever heard in my life.”
Immediately, she glanced at him. And in her eyes, he saw nervousness. “I’m- I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it that way. I really like working here.”
Her nervousness sparked an unexpected protectiveness in him. He rushed to say, “No, you don’t need to be sorry. I was just teasing you.”
“Oh, okay!” Clearly relieved, she turned her attention back to his jacket.
Sebastian watched her for a long while before saying, “Isn’t it really late for you to still be here?”
“I had- I had something to do.”
“It must be something really urgent if you’re working this late.”
“It is,” she returned but didn’t provide any more details.
“What kind of project?”
“Just a tour- a tour of Olly Harrelson’s house.”
“You got Olly Harrelson to show you around his place?” Sebastian was impressed. “He’s a very private person.”
An employee trying to boost their reputation with the boss would’ve immediately accepted the compliment then followed up with more of their achievements. But Marley only said, “It wasn’t- it wasn’t me who got him. I’m just editing the video.”
An immediate smile crooked Sebastian’s lips. She was definitely not your standard shark-like employee.
A sudden thought struck him. Frowning, he asked, “If the video is so urgent, why isn’t anyone else from your team here helping you edit it?”
She shrugged. “I work better alone.”
He couldn’t tell if she actually meant that or if she was covering for her teammates. However, before he could ask any more questions, she turned to him with his jacket in her hands.
“The stain is gone, but it’s- it’s still wet.” She pointed to the now clean spot on the jacket. “You’ll have to wait for it to dry before you put it on.”
“That’s no problem.” He took the garment from her. “Thank you for cleaning it.”
“I’m sorry again,” she apologized, then before he could say anything more, she swept past him.
Her exit was so abrupt that all he could do was silently watch her go. It was only when he was alone in the break-room that he realized she’d left without her coffee. With a half laugh, he grabbed two cups from the cupboard and set about pouring out coffee for both of them.
Since he couldn’t carry his jacket and both cups of coffee, he put on his jacket despite the huge wet spot. Marley was at her desk when he emerged from the break-room with their coffees. He was sure that she saw and heard him. However, she didn’t look away from her computer screen. It was only when he got really, really close to her desk that she looked up.
“You forgot your coffee,” he said as he closed in on her.
“I’m- I’m sorry!” She shot to her feet. “I didn’t mean to make you bring it to me.”
“I don’t mind.” He set her cup on her desk. “I didn’t know how many sugars you take or if you even take sugar so I just put in one. I hope that’s okay.”
“That’s okay. Th-thank you.” She added, “I’m sorry for making you go out of your way.”
Watching her, he noted, “You know, you apologize a lot.”
“Oh, I’m so-” She stopped speaking when she realized that she was doing it again.
“You don’t need to be sorry about anything. We were both in the wrong.” Smiling, he added, “Don’t work too late.”
She murmured, “Okay.”
With that, he headed to his office.
About an hour later, he was ready to go home. However, a peek over the balcony revealed that Marley was at her desk, still working away. If it were any other employee, it wouldn’t have mattered, and he would’ve left anyway. But something about Marley made him sit back down and wait.
* * * * *
IT TOOK MORE time than expected to finish the editing.
By the time Marley finished, it was almost nine p.m.. She was just about to send the file to Xavier when her phone rang. It was her sister, Kennedy.
As soon as Marley put the phone to her ear, the sounds of partying filtered through; loud music, people cackling raucously, glasses clinking. But no Kenny.
“Hello, hello!” Marley spoke into the phone. “Kenny, Kenny, Kenny.”
It took a few seconds but finally, Kenny answered, “Hey, mama. Where are you?”
Immediately, Marley could tell that her sister was tipsy. It was in the excessive cheerfulness in her tone and the way she called her ‘mama’. Kenny only called Marley ‘mama’ when there was alcohol in the system. Marley’s heart sunk as disappointment overwhelmed her.
Trying not to let her disappointment leak into her voice, Marley returned, “I’m still at work.”
“Whaaaat?” Anger tinged Kenny’s tone. “It’s nine. Why are you still there? Are those bastards making you do overtime again?”
“No, no, no one’s making me do overtime,” Marley immediately rushed to say. “I just needed to finish something.”
Kenny was so protective of her that she went berserk at anyone who dared to look at Marley wrong. If Kenny heard that Vicky and her gang had cornered Marley into doing overtime, there was every chance that she’d show up at About It tomorrow and tear them a new one.
“Well, finish it fast. I don’t want you staying out late.” Kenny added, “I left you dinner in the microwave.”
Marley protested, “You didn’t have to do that.”
Her sister reassured, “I had some time to kill before coming to the club.”
The club had always been a part of Kenny’s adult life. She’d started working there as a bartender when she was nineteen. Over the years, she’d worked her way up to being the chief promoter for that club and all its subsidiaries. With what she’d earned from that club, Kenny fed, clothed and educated Marley. That club had done a lot for them.
But Marley still detested it. Oh, she hated it with an unspeakable passion.
If wasn’t for that club, Kenny wouldn’t be a borderline alcoholic. Marley hated the alcoholic smell that clung to Kenny every time she came home from that darned place. She hated the unfocused look that glazed her sister’s eyes every morning when she stumbled home. It reminded her of their father. Yeah, Kenny wasn’t quite as belligerent as Gary when she was drunk, but Marley still hated to see her sister like that.
If it was up to her, she’d burn that club to the ground then take Kenny someplace where no alcohol existed. But it wasn’t up to her. No matter how much Marley hated Kenny’s flirtation with alcoholism, she couldn’t scold her sister for it.
Kenny had practically raised Marley. After their father had died and their mother had been incarcerated for it, the girls had been shuttled off to their paternal grandmother. Cece Carter was well-meaning. However, she was seventy by the time they got to her and dealing with health problems.
As the big sister, Kenny had taken on the role of Marley’s parent. She’d thrown her own chances at college just so she could make sure that Marley was well taken care of. When Marley was having her mental issues, Kenny was the only one who’d never thought of her as weird and gotten her help. Regardless of her faults, Kenny had always been the unyielding rock between the world’s troubles and Marley.
After all that, what right did Marley have to tell her what to do and what not to do?
“Make sure you eat, okay?” Kenny brought her back to reality. “I don’t want to find leftovers in the bin.”
“I only throw away the leftovers because you always serve me too much food.”
“That’s because you’re too skinny.” Kenny continued, “I’ll be home by six a.m., but just chain the door anyway. I’ll call you when I get there.”
“Okay, see you in the morning.”
“See you.” However, before they could end the call, Kenny came in with, “Oh, I forgot. On your way home, pick me up a bottle of wine.”
No way, Marley wanted to say, but she couldn’t bring herself to say the words. All she gave was a murmured, “Okay.”
“Good night.” Kenny hung up.
With a sad sigh, Marley turned back to her computer.
After shooting an email to Xavier with the attached video, she stood up, put on her coat and grabbed her purse from beneath her desk. A glance up at level two showed that Sebastian was still up there. For a second, she considered going up to apologize for the stained jacket again and to say goodnight, but her natural reticence sent her to the exit instead.
Out in the lobby, she gave the security guys a silent wave before heading out of the building. Instantly, ice cold air hit her. The breeze raising goosebumps on her arms had her pulling her coat tighter around her as she walked to the parking lot.
Though the street lights were on, there was something unsettling about the shadowy darkness and the eerie silence of the night. The few cars that were scattered around the parking lot only made Marley more scared because they sparked her admittedly crazy imagination. In her head, ghosts sat in those cars, silently watching her.
Her footsteps sounded abnormally loud as she walked past the line of cars and headed to her own. When she spotted the tail-end of her blue Volvo peeking out from behind a large truck, her pace quickened.
Her fingers shivering because of both cold and anxiousness, she fumbled around her purse for her keys. By the time she got to her door, she had her hands on the keys. However, when she yanked them out of her purse, her trembling fingers let them go and the keys clattered to the tarmac.
The fall of those keys must’ve been God working in mysterious ways.
Just as Marley bent to pick them up, she heard a rush of feet behind her and caught the shadowy flash of a human figure behind her through the car’s window. Before she could even process what she was seeing, the glint of a hammer raised then coming down followed. If she was standing, the hammer should’ve caught her right in the back of her head and smashed her brains into smithereens. But since she was in the process of stooping down, the weapon crashed into the window instead of hitting her.
The shatter of glass pierced the silent night. But it had nothing on the shrill scream that tore from Marley’s throat. Her dodging the hammer must have caught her attacker by surprise because he stumbled forward and slammed into Marley’s bent body from behind, bringing her to her knees.
Still screaming like a banshee, Marley shoved her body into her attacker’s. He staggered backwards, straight into the truck next to her car. His pained groan immediately followed, but Marley barely heard it. She was too busy screaming and scrambling to her feet.
Her intention was to run as far as she could. But the time it took her to rise was enough time for her attacker to recover. As she started to run, a hand grabbed her ponytail and yanked her back. Hard.
She wasn’t expecting that. She went flying backwards like a ragdoll as shards of pain seared through her scalp. In a second, she went from being on her feet to staring up at the starry sky as she fell. Her back hit the tarmac first, and pain like she’d never felt before eclipsed her senses and tore a fresh scream from her. That pain was enough to make her close her eyes for what felt like an eternity but was probably a second.
When she opened her eyes again, the sight that met her sent terror through her. Her attacker was standing over her. His description immediately registered in her brain. Dark hoodie covering his hair, black mask covering his mouth, black top and black pants to meld into the night. He was so covered up that she wasn’t even sure that he was a man.
However, all that didn’t matter now.
What mattered was the attacker’s eyes. They were filled with unfathomable malice. Hatred lit them up like a fire stoked in hell and bent on destruction. Meeting his eyes left Marley terrified beyond words. In that moment, she realized that she was about to take her last breath.
When the attacker bent over her, closed his fist around the neck of her t-shirt and raised his hammer again, she closed her eyes and prepared to die.
Sebastian was on his way to his car when he heard the first scream. Instinctively, he knew it was Marley’s because he’d just watched her leave the office. His feet started running even before his brain could process the action. Heart thumping like a rogue drum and footsteps thundering on the tarmac, he raced in the direction of the screams.
The sight that met him when he got there was as shocking as it was terrifying. Marley was on the ground between two cars. A man in dark clothes was hovering over her, one hand holding her by the collar and the other hand raising a hammer.
“HEY!” Sebastian yelled before that hammer could fall. “HEY!”
Startled, the assailant turned to look at Sebastian. Immediate surprise filled the man’s gaze, and he let go of Marley’s collar. The moment Sebastian moved towards him, the assailant hopped over Marley’s supine body and started to run.
Instinct guiding his feet, Sebastian chased the man. As he ran, he kept shouting, “HEY! HEY! HEY!”
The shouts were for the benefit of the security guards, and they worked. In seconds, two guards spilled out from the About It building. No questions were asked. Yelling at the assailant to stop, they too joined the chase. But it was in vain.
The assailant was fast… really, really fast. Sebastian was pretty fit and fast, but this guy was on another level. It almost felt like he was a bullet being chased by humans. Within seconds, Sebastian realized that he was wasting his energy. His time was better spent checking on Marley.
Leaving the security guys to chase the attacker, Sebastian turned around and headed back to the spot where he’d left Marley. She was still on the ground with her eyes closed.
“Marley,” he called, his breath rugged because of all the running. “Marley!”
But she didn’t open her eyes.
He got on one knee down beside her and touched her cheek. “Marley.”
As far as he could see there was no injury on her, but she might’ve hit her head or something. First, he checked her breathing. A sigh of relief escaped his lips when he confirmed that she was breathing fine. Still kneeling by her side, he reached into his pocket and took out his phone. In seconds, he had nine-one-one on the line.
“You have reached the Philadelphia emergency line,” a male operator picked up. “This is Martin Curry speaking. How may I help you?”
“Hi, Martin.” Despite the panic racing through him, Sebastian stayed calm. “Please send an ambulance here.”
“What’s going on?”
“One of my coworkers was attacked in a car park,” Sebastian explained. “She’s unconscious.”
“Are there any injuries?”
“None that I can see, but she’s not waking up.”
“Okay, give me your address.”
While Sebastian was rattling off the address, a security guard appeared between the two cars. He waited for Sebastian to finish his conversation with the dispatcher before starting with the questions.
“What happened?” the guard asked.
‘The guy you were chasing attacked her.” Without taking his eyes off Marley, Sebastian asked, “Did you catch him?”
“No.” The guard shook his head. “Too fast.”
Sebastian wasn’t even surprised. “But CCTV caught him, right?”
“Yeah, but I don’t know how much it will help,” the guard said. “The guy was wearing a mask.”
That was a damn shame because that guy needed to get caught. The way he’d wielded his hammer left the impression that he wasn’t just a garden-variety thief or rapist. He was a killer or at the very least on his way to being one. It was terrifying to think that someone that dangerous was hovering around About It.
It took about ten minutes for the ambulance to arrive. When it did, Sebastian rode in it with Marley.
THE E.R AT Thomas Booker Hospital was a hive of activity. A boy with an axe in his head being wheeled into a private room by several medics. A drunk man with a broken arm hollering for a doctor while his pregnant wife tried to shut him up. Two nuns and a priest by the counter demanding to know how another priest was doing after his heart-attack.
Sebastian felt like he’d entered the scene of a movie he’d seen many times. However, what caught his attention was the smell that permeated the place. Disinfectant mingled with sickness, desperation and medicine to create a stench that was stomach-churning. He hated that smell. It brought back memories of his past with hospitals, and made him want to walk right back out the door.
But still, he stayed because Marley needed him.
He settled in the waiting room with Marley’s purse while the doctors checked on her. Barely fifteen minutes into their arrival, a doctor came to explain the situation.
“It doesn’t look like she’s in critical condition,” the doctor said, “but since she hasn’t woken up, we’re a bit worried.”
Sebastian proposed, “Could it be a concussion?”
“Might be. Might not be. For now, we don’t know,” the doctor hedged. “We’ll wait an hour to see if she wakes up on her own. If she doesn’t, we’ll have to do a CT scan to check what’s going on. But it’s pretty expensive.”
‘That’s okay,” Sebastian reassured. “Our company will foot the bill.”
“You don’t have to sit out here while we wait for her to wake up.” The doctor offered, “You can sit with her.”
“Thank you.” Sebastian followed the doctor to the Observation Unit. The two men wound their way past several curtained cubicles before stopping at one. The doctor drew the curtain open to reveal Marley lying on a hospital bed.
If Sebastian didn’t know better, he would’ve thought that she was sleeping. She was so peaceful in her unconsciousness. Her pretty features were relaxed and her chest rose and fell evenly with every breath.
“You can let the nurses know if she wakes up by pressing that.” The doctor pointed to a red button at the head of the bed.
Sebastian nodded. “Will do.”
The doctor started to leave then remembered, “Are you her official guardian?”
“No, I’m just her boss.”
The doctor frowned. “Then we have to find her guardian because we’ll need their approval in case we’re doing a CT scan.”
“Let me see if I can reach them,” Sebastian offered, but that was easier said than done. Since this was his first day at About It, he didn’t have HR’s number on speed-dial. Worse, it was already ten which meant that getting people to pick up their phones took more time than it should have.
Omar’s phone was off. Ben’s phone rang several times but he didn’t pick up. Eventually, Sebastian was forced to call the security office to have them find the head of HR’s number for him. That took a while. When they found the head of HR, Nora Buckley, they had to wake her up. Getting her to shift from sleep-mode to work-mode took several more minutes.
Sebastian was still waiting for Nora to go through the company’s personnel files and find Marley’s next-of-kin when he heard groaning from the bed. His gaze immediately shifted to Marley. Though her eyes were closed, her lips were parted and a frown now marred her brow.
“Ugh!” she groaned again and her eyelashes fluttered.
“Marley!” Sebastian scooted closer to her bed. “Marley!”
The fluttering of her eyelashes became more fitful. Another groan emerged from her lips, and she shifted slightly in the bed. Then her eyes opened.
“Marley,” he called again. “Are you awake? Can you hear me?”
Her unfocused, hooded gaze followed his voice and found him. She studied him for a second or two before her lips parted again.
“Who-” Her voice emerged in a hoarse croak. She cleared her throat then tried again. “Who are you?”
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