PART THREE: Vici
Melissa maneuvered her cart into the cashier’s lane. Avery maneuvered himself behind her. There was a short line of people ahead of her, so there was still a chance to get that conversation in. But he was thinking of the clock in his head, and how every second sounded like a gunshot aimed at him, though each shot miraculously missed. Eventually he’d feel the final gunshot taking his opportunity for love away.
Avery Ward felt his heart beating faster as he carefully, though nonchalantly, eavesdropped on her conversation. His initial plan was to check for signals that she was wrapping up her call. But then, as the seconds continued, he found himself lost in the story she was telling. Although he couldn’t write any details down, he listened for key words that might’ve helped him figure out essential information about her prior to the conversation that he believed they could soon be having together, if only she’d hang up that dang phone. Prescreening her for life details was the best method he had for asking the right questions later. If he had the chance to ask them.
But, even as he listened to her, he realized he wasn’t learning enough.
“I know what you’re saying,” she said into her phone. “I had the same problem with my DVD player. I guess I’m not technology savvy, either. Someone told me I need a special kind of player for recording. I forget who. Huh? Yeah, I had my neighbor record it for me instead. He’s a bit of a geek, but he likes me. It’s sweet. What? No, that’s not gonna happen. Yuck.”
She laughed some more. Her voice chimed as she spoke: fuzzy as she delivered a line, ringing as she finished it. Her laugh was more like a giggle than a spontaneous burst of hilarity, but the breath exuding from her had the sincere whistle of deep amusement. It was like she was holding back an uproar, while unable to stop the dam from cracking.
“Oh, give me a break,” she continued. “He’s not my type. Huh? Yeah right. You’re impossible, Jenny. No, he didn’t record a love note on my videotape; at least I don’t think he did. I didn’t actually watch it yet. Did you? Really? How was it? Really? Jack and Karen did what? That’s outlandish. Do you feel like watching it again? I was thinking of watching it when I got home. Wanna come over?”
The lady in front of her paid the cashier and collected her bags from the counter. Melissa, meanwhile, fed her groceries to the turntable. One thing after another hit the conveyor belt—olive oil, peppers, gallon of milk, can of fish food—slowly making its way to the cashier’s hands. The speed of checkout increased to an uncomfortable level. Avery grumbled under his breath. She wasn’t going to give the cashier any attention, not even a kind hello. This call was priority. God knew why.
There wasn’t much time left to make his move. A roll of paper towels reached the cashier’s hands, then a box of cereal, then a bag of noodles, followed by a jar of tomato sauce—her shopping cart looked like the victim of a vacuum cleaner attack. If the tide didn’t shift in his favor soon, he would have to interrupt her call after all. There was just no way he could miss his second chance at talking to her, even at the risk of coming off like a privacy stealing jerk.
“I’m sure the car wash can wait,” Melissa continued. “Come on, it’ll be fun. I’ll make some pizza. Jenny, it’s the series finale. Come over, okay? I won’t take no for an answer. Uh huh, I got some chocolate fudge ice cream. You can’t resist, can you? Diet schmiet, you weigh less than I do. Come over. You know you gotta watch Harry Connick, Jr. again. Yeah, I thought so. You remember how to get to my apartment, right? Yeah, take Parker to Yates…uh huh…yeah; my street is Nochants Forward Avenue. Okay. Brickyard Sky Apartments. Yeah, I’m building 2025, apartment 311. Right, the five-story building. You’re coming, right? Oh, Jenny, hold a second, okay? I got another call.”
Avery Ward’s worst fear was coming true: One phone call became another. Melissa clicked a button on her cellphone before bringing the device back to her ear.
“Hello?” she said. “Oh hey, Erica, what’s up? What? Yeah, I was just talking to Jenny. She’s coming over to watch it with me. Yeah, I recorded it. You wanna come, too?”
Avery reached for the item divider and placed it behind Melissa’s two-liter Pepsi bottle. He figured if he was also going to check out, he might as well set his own stuff down. First, he placed his nonalcoholic wine onto the belt and watched it move uniformly behind her products. Next, he grabbed for his…for his…empty hand. He immediately checked his shopping cart to discover he had only one thing, which was crazy considering he had come here for two completely different things. At first, he thought it wise to go back and grab the items while he was still here, but he realized that if he left now, he would blow his chances with Melissa.
The solution couldn’t avoid a dilemma. One way or another, something was getting shafted. As the cashier scanned the last of Melissa’s items, Avery made up his mind: He resolved to return to the store some other time. Chet would just have to get over it.
Melissa barely took a breath as she removed her checkbook from her purse, going on and on about some other show she had recorded. It seemed trivial to Avery, but then, he wanted an excuse to hate it. It was, after all, ruining his day.
As Melissa set her pen to her check, she filled out the required fields, bringing the end of her transaction dangerously close. The cashier, meanwhile, displayed the green digital price in the register window, showing an amount higher than a hundred dollars. After finishing and tearing off the check, Melissa handed it to the cashier.
Once the bagboy finished bagging her items, a little too quickly, he loaded them into her metal cart and pushed it toward the exit.
Avery stared into nothing as his dream girl strolled out of the store with her cellphone attached to her ear. The bagboy followed her, taking the occasional glance at her legs as she moved in front of him. Avery wanted to strangle the kid.
He heard the scanner beep as the cashier slid his bottle of wine through the laser: It was almost as loud as the pop he had heard coming from under his chest. His vision faded as he listened to the bottle hitting the counter and sliding into a plastic bag. At least the transaction would go quickly. It was the one thing he had in his favor.
The automatic doors closed as Melissa exited through them. Even though he could still see her through the glass, the separation seemed unnatural. She was out there and he was in here. She was walking into the parking lot and he was still standing at the register, waiting for the cashier to ask for his money. Melissa was still on the phone and Avery still hadn’t gotten his chance to reconnect with her. He wanted to strangle the bagboy over his good fortune to walk so close to her and to be awash in the light of her awareness of him.
“That’ll be $5.75,” the cashier said, finally.
Avery glanced at the cashier to see a bored expression on her face. Perhaps, she hadn’t noticed how beautiful Melissa was, or how delightful one might feel standing close to her. Perhaps, she hadn’t absorbed the scent of her Evergreen Dream perfume, or the melody of her sweet ringing voice. Perhaps, she hadn’t even realized that Melissa was once standing there, or that he was sweating with anticipation for a chance to speak to her. After all, what did the cashier know? She was probably making minimum wage.
He didn’t care to abuse any more time in this line, so he quickly pulled out his leather wallet. It was something he had wanted to toss a number of times because it was a gift his ex-fiancée had given him for his birthday, but he had elected to keep it because it was a nice wallet. He opened it to find a ten-dollar bill in the fold—his last ten-dollar bill. Ah, cash, the foolproof method of payment, the one that could not be delayed or denied. Maybe good fortune was starting to take his side. Cash was fast.
“Here,” he said. “Keep the change.”
As he reached for the bag with his bottle of nonalcoholic wine, the cashier stopped him.
“Sir,” she said, “we’re not allowed to accept tips. I have to give you your change.”
He felt the tension rising in his neck. Melissa was almost out of sight. She had already passed several cars. The bagboy had already smiled twice. By his estimation he had maybe two minutes before she reached her car and the bagboy would have it loaded for her—two minutes until fate would utterly ruin his day, maybe even his life. He narrowed his eyes as he stared at the cashier.
“Well, then what’s the hold up?” he said, extending his hand.
The cashier pressed another button to open the register. The bills inside were in complete disarray: folded, wrinkled, and in their wrong compartments. She reached in to remove a five-dollar bill, but stopped and put it back.
“You wouldn’t by any chance have three quarters, would you?” she asked.
“If you give me three quarters, I can give you a five-dollar bill.”
Avery was ready to choke her.
“You’re kidding, right?”
“No. Your change right now is four twenty-five. If you give me three quarters, I can give you a five-dollar bill.”
He began reaching his hands toward her, but realized he was still holding his bag.
“Why don’t you just give me the four twenty-five?”
“I just thought it might be easier if—”
“What would be easier is if you just gave me my change so I can get out of here and get on with my day. Is that cool with you, Miss?”
The cashier backed down and reached into the change drawer. Avery took another glance to see that the bagboy, who was just within sight of the exit, had started unloading the groceries into the backseat of Melissa’s car. He also noticed that Melissa, who was also barely visible from this position, had finally hit the right button on her cellphone and placed the device into her purse.
Now was his last possible chance.
Avery said “screw it” under his breath and quickly bolted for the exit door, dropping the quarter that the cashier had managed to hand him on the way out, nearly running over an old lady. He heard the cashier yell that she still owed him four more dollars, but he tuned out the rest of her complaint. By his estimation, he had twenty seconds before the bagboy loaded the last of Melissa’s groceries, and thirty-five before she got into her car. He had maybe forty-five seconds before she pulled out of her parking spot and a minute and a half before she left the area. Since her car was about two hundred feet away from him, he guessed it would take him until the bagboy finished loading it to finally reach her. Just enough time.
Twenty seconds was all he needed—it had to be. By the time he saw her opening the driver’s side door, he would be there, holding his bottle of wine. Twenty seconds was more than enough time because nothing was going to stop him. It was his destiny. The adventure would pay off in fifteen…ten…
And then, he heard it: the one thing he had no desire to hear. It wasn’t the sound of her engine firing or the crash of his bottle hitting the pavement. No, something far worse shook up his eardrums.
His cellphone rang, again.
The entire world fell into slow motion. His heart pounded and his lungs burned as his limbs fought against air. Mellow drones of voices lost cohesion, stretching like a piece of audio taffy. The bagboy let the last bag drop into the backseat and countered with a gentle hydraulic push against the door. It closed softly, but emitted a thunderous roar, rocking the parking lot’s atmosphere. Avery nearly tripped over his feet from the deafening shake.
He could let it ring, oh how he could let it ring. But it was the double-tone. Nothing in his world could rightfully lead him to ignore the double-tone. It meant emergency.
He skidded to a stop, much to his irritation, and took his cellphone from his pocket. With the press of the TALK button, he swallowed his hopes with one final crack in his voice.
“Yeah, it’s Avery,” he said. “This better be good.”
“No, it’s terrible,” said Chet through the earphone. “Dexter’s gone off the deep end.”
“Jeez, what’s with him? Tell him I’ll be there in a few hours. I’ve got something else to take care of right now.”
“It’s not that simple. He’s got a gun now. He wants to shoot her.”
Avery cupped his hands to his knees as he knelt slightly to absorb the shock to his body. He knew this was something he should take seriously, but Melissa….
“Well, tell him not to,” he said. “I’m busy. Why’s he gotta be so selfish?”
“Ward, what’s gotten into you? She’s panicking. He’s panicking. Drop what you’re doing and get over there, now.”
“Why don’t you go over there? You are the head of the committee. And call me Avery!”
His last statement came out a little too loudly, and the bagboy took notice. Melissa didn’t.
“But, you’re the psychologist.”
Avery looked at Melissa to see her sitting in the driver’s seat. She closed the door and ignited the engine. She was on her own mission now. Avery couldn’t tell which appendage felt it, but he sensed his fingers clawing hard at his knee as the bag’s handles twisted around them.
“Something’s come up,” said Avery, “and if I don’t take care of it now, I won’t get a second chance.”
“What in God’s green earth is more important than Dexter’s or Gina’s life?”
The red lights of Melissa’s brakes flashed and the white lights of her reverse gear followed. It was now or never.
“I have to go. Gina would understand.”
Avery zapped the END button. Within seconds, he felt his lungs inflating and constricting as he ran the sprint of his life.
His out-of-control power dash nearly bowled him into the oncoming bagboy, but his quick agility kicked into autopilot at the last second and he shimmied around him.
After taking a few more strides and at least twenty more breaths, he found himself in line with the car as it backed from its spot.
He wasn’t quite sure what to say or do once he reached her—he didn’t exactly have time to plan this strategy—but something had to work. Knocking on her window offered one possibility, though a gesture like that might’ve scared her. The last thing he wanted was to freak her out, so he searched for another plan in the limited time he had left to think.
His final decision didn’t seem like the best choice, but it was the only thing he mustered out of an unclear line of pursuit. It required pain and humiliation, but was better than coming off as a parking lot creep. Unfortunately, the decision reflected nothing more than spontaneity, and the execution reflected nothing more than a sheer accident. The best he had was the illusion of success. But it could work; it had to work.
He collided with the front of her car, rolling off the hood and dropping to the ground on the other side. The risk hurt worse than he had thought it would. The impact sent him down hard to his knees, and he felt the impact shoot lightning through his body, not to mention it had knocked the wind out of him. But it didn’t matter. That had to do it. Now he had something to talk to her about. He’d make sure not to mention the word insurance when she’d step out of her vehicle and quickly take him in her arms and apologize for overlooking him and to comfort him over his newfound injuries.
When he stood and brushed off his body, however, he saw that she was still looking over her shoulder. How she could completely ignore impacting him, he didn’t know, but she kept driving backward, further and further away. When she finally turned forward, she gave him only a brief glance before straightening her wheel and shifting into drive. His heart fell to his feet. That’s when he noticed that she was now texting on her cellphone. She had no idea she had just a hit a man in the parking lot.
As he watched her pass, she barely gracing him with eye contact, he heard the sound of a stereo blaring through the thick glass of her windows. The whole car shook as it moved forward, pounding like a drum machine. She was a multitasker it seemed.
Avery Ward looked at the cellphone he had dropped when he rolled off the car hood. Next to it lay the remains of his shattered wine bottle and the glistening grape puddle flowing among shards of glass. Both were stilled in silence as the stereo faded away. He looked up to see the car turning a corner, disappearing behind a row of other parked cars.
His phone rang.
“Yeah, this is Avery,” he said, as he plucked it from the pavement and hit the TALK button.
Chet spoke softly through the device.
“Avery, I think we need to talk after you visit Dexter today. Stop by and bring your committee badge with you.”
Avery ignored him. His heart quivered as he thought about the moments he had lost with Melissa. She was finer than any statue in the supermarket, yet she had slipped through his grasp like a buttered chisel. It was an injustice to his future. She never gave him a chance.
Even his ex-fiancée, Allison, had given him a chance. She didn’t turn a blind eye to him to tend to a cellphone; she made herself available to enrapture him with her luscious smiles and girly hair twists from the beginning. The first time he had met her in the candy aisle, she groped his arm, stroked his hand and begged him to treat her with all sorts of sweets. It was an exciting thing for him, because most women didn’t give him that kind of attention. Later, when Allison gave him her phone number and kissed him goodbye at the checkout line, with bag of candy in hand, she exhilarated him. Then, the following week, when Allison convinced him to propose to her, she became the highlight of his life. After a lifetime of people trusting their hopes, dreams, and troubles to anyone else, Avery had finally seen that his time had come.
But, in the end, they all ran. Including Allison. It didn’t seem fair. Even Dexter’s girl would stick around, despite the gun he apparently held on her. Sure, she cheated on him, and would probably do it again. But at least she returned to him after all her misdeeds had fizzled out. Allison never returned. And now the latest love interest wouldn’t even give him a beginning. It looked as though the world had fallen apart for the fifth time.
He closed his cellphone and stuffed it into his pocket. This time he turned it off.
Avery didn’t bother going back to the fraternity house after he’d left the store. Instead, he went over to talk to Dexter in an attempt to calm him down and get Gina out of trouble. But even as he stepped out of his car into the driveway, he regretted it. An earsplitting pop erupted from inside Dexter’s residence, and the living room window exploded. A second pop came from right behind him. Then his heart sank. His front right tire was losing pressure at a pound per second.
Then he relaxed. He remembered that he had his cellphone with him. He could just call a tow truck to help him out.
The following week, Avery Ward stepped out of a cab to get a better look at the Brickyard Sky Apartments, a building complex he had heard Melissa talking about in the checkout line. It looked old, perhaps a product of 1920s architecture or older. Shrubs, palm trees and neon signs clashed with the earthenware brick, which he credited his opinion for the simple fact that, even though he was no design genius, he knew what looked good. It seemed to distort any sense of history. It was like introducing Elliot Ness to the eighties. It just didn’t seem right to him. And to think this was where Melissa had chosen to call home. His opinion of her was a little less than it had been. But not enough to turn back.
He handed a twenty-dollar bill to the cabby. It was the first time in years he had paid cab fare instead of gas for his own vehicle. The week before, Gina had seized Dexter’s gun and got so mad that she shot the air out of Avery’s car tires. Avery had been going everywhere by cab ever since.
It was an unusually cool evening for May, but it was welcome over the pounding heat of the last two months. It made the nervousness that steamed up his collar lighten in intensity. Even the soft-spoken birds chirped “hello” to him.
As he took a hesitant step toward the building, he looked at the stack of papers in his hands. He hoped he had printed enough to cover all the apartments. Even though 311 was the critical door, he had to make it seem like anyone was invited to his barbecue—or Chet’s, rather; he was no longer an official member of the committee. As long as Melissa got hers, he didn’t care who else attended.
He scanned the page once more to check that the info was correct. He needed to give her every opportunity to show.
AWESOME EPIC BARBECUE
Where: At Kappa Theta Beta Fraternity House
When: Memorial Day Weekend
Time: 5:00 Friday – TBD Monday
Why: Because it’s fun!
Who’s Invited: You are!
What to Bring: Food, beer, bikinis, sunglasses, whatever you want!
Who to Bring: Just come already!
Everything seemed to be in order. He just had to find the flier he had set aside special for her. The copy he had made for her was identical to the rest of the stack save for one caveat.
Prize: Mystery gift to anyone who can go the whole night without touching her cellphone.
The prize, of course, was a date with him. But he could tell her that after she won. He took another step toward the building, this time with more confidence.