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Stranger at My Door
by Joyce Wade

The day was cloudy; one of those overcast days that make you just want to stay inside.  I put some wood in the fireplace, turned on the log lighter, and watched it start to burn.  With a cup of hot cider and a book, I settled in my favorite chair for a cozy afternoon.  I pulled up my afghan and wrapped it around my shoulders.  That's when it happened.  The doorbell rang and I jumped.  I went to the door, assuming it was some sort of salesperson. I looked through the peephole to see who it was.

Maybe I had seen too many TV shows.  I thought of the warnings for women alone at home and the danger lurking just the other side of the screen door. The man standing on my porch was a middle-aged guy wearing work clothes.  As I opened the door, I reached up and discreetly locked the screen feeling the locked door would protect me.

"I see you need a little paint on the house trim," he said.  "I just finished the house around the corner from you and saw yours needed a little help.  Thought I'd stop by." 

"Well, I hadn't really thought much about it," I said.  "What do you think it would cost?"  I knew the house needed paint here and there, but I thought I'd wait until next spring.  

"I could do the job for a hundred-fifty plus the cost of the paint.  I could start tomorrow, if you want.  Got some color samples in my pick-up, want to take a look?"  He motioned toward his pickup, parked out front.

  As he turned, I noticed a small tattoo on the side of his neck. It was a heart.  He also was wearing an earring.  I wasn't sure if I liked men wearing earrings, it just depended on the overall look of the guy.  Take Tom Selleck, in my opinion he could wear hoops and he'd look great. 

"Well, I guess I could look at your samples," I said. 

"I'll go get ‘em.  Hold right there a minute."

Guess he's a Southerner, maybe even a Texan, I thought.  I waited at the door, watching him.  His plaid shirt was a little worse for wear, his jeans were faded.  His work boots had paint splotches on them.  He appeared slightly younger than his gray hair indicated, but heck, how could you tell the age of anyone these days?  After all, most people didn't believe I was fifty.  Didn't all women turn blonde at fifty?  When he came back to the porch with some sort of book in his hand, I felt slightly more trusting, and I opened the screen and invited him inside.  He stepped in the entryway, cleaning his shoes on the inside rug.

"Sorry, for my appearance, I just came from the job."

"Don't worry about it. Come on in, I was just enjoying the first fire of the season."  As he stepped passed me, his arm slightly brushed against mine.  I felt uncomfortable.  It had been a long time any man had touched me, even unintentionally.

"Feels great," he said.  "I got a chill out there today."

"Would you like a cup of hot cider?  I was just having one when you rang the doorbell."

"That sounds real good, if it's not too much trouble."

I left him on the couch while I fixed a cup of warm cider for this stranger.  The fire was burning in the fireplace and the sky was darkening with the threat of a storm.  I couldn’t help but think-what am I doing?  Am I crazy?  What happened to my good sense?  I quickly heated the cider in the microwave and sprinkled some cinnamon on top.  Walking into the living room, I had the feeling that this man looked like he belonged there.

"Here you are," I said.

"Thanks, haven’t had anything like this in a long time.  He sipped the hot cider.  "Tastes real good, thanks again."

            I caught myself stealing a look into his dark brown eyes.  His stare into my eyes went clear through me. What was I doing anyway?  I felt like a teen-ager as I picked up my cup and sipped slowly, looking again at him over the edge of my cup.  I felt there was definitely an attraction between the two of us.  Something definitely was attractive about him, but I wasn't sure quite what it was.

"Here's the samples, take a look.  I think one of these shades would be real good.  See what you think."

I couldn't see the samples very well from where I sat.  I stood up and when I stepped closer to see them somehow my foot caught on the throw rug in front of the couch.  Before I knew what happened I stumbled and tripped and caught myself falling in this stranger’s lap.

"I'm sorry," I stammered.  His big hands and arms wrapped around me, breaking my fall.  When I looked up, my face was very close to his.  The fire crackled.  Those dark eyes locked on mine, his mouth was very close.  Our lips met, first gently, then deep and passionate.  It had been a very long time since I had kissed anyone like that. Surprised, we held one another and looked long and hard at each other. I was scared to death and pulled away.

"What are you doing?"  I said, a sound of shock in my voice.

"We'll just have to see," my stranger replied.

Suddenly a flash of sanity hit me. I stood up.  "You’d better leave right now," I insisted.

“Sure, I’m really sorry that happened.  I don’t know what to say."  His voice was quiet and he seemed truly embarrassed. "I didn’t have any intention of that happening."

"Just leave.  Right now," I said.  My whole body trembled as I closed the door and locked it.  I couldn’t believe how vulnerable I felt.  I stood by the window with my hands over my mouth and watched him drive away in his blue pick up. After regaining my composure, I picked up my book from the coffee table.  Where was my bookmark?  I hadn’t been able to find my usual one, so I used an old business card to save my place.  An ugly thought raced through my head.  Did he pick it up when I went to the kitchen?  Oh my God, my name was on that card.  I felt sick to my stomach.  Just a couple hours ago, everything was calm. Now everything was topsy-turvy.  My head filled with weird, strange, and scary thoughts.  How could I have been so stupid, letting a stranger in my house?

I had errands yet to run, and couldn’t concentrate on reading anyway.  To convince myself he told the truth about painting the house around the corner, I turned left instead of right when I left my driveway.  I was familiar with the houses on the next street, seeing them regularly on my power walk.  Surely I could spot a fresh coat of paint.  I examined each house.  None looked different from what I remembered.  Maybe he painted the trim the same color?  Was I trying to make excuses?  Was I on the right street?  He did say around the corner, didn’t he?  Confused, I headed on to run my errands.  The sky was turning darker, and I rushed to the bank where I signed in and opened my safe deposit box.  I was in the habit of checking the contents about every two weeks.  You never knew these days, what could happen, even to a safe deposit box.  I decided to take home my good gold watch I had bought in Paris. 

Leaves were blowing across the road as I approached my street.  When I turned toward my house something caught my eye.  It was a blue pick-up and pulling out of my driveway.  It disappeared around the corner as I approached.  I quickly turned in, opened the door with the electric opener, and drove inside the garage. I quickly pushed the automatic door closure and felt safer when the door was down. My hands shook as I pulled the key out of the ignition.  I took a deep breath and put the key in the lock of the back door to the house.  Safe in my own home, the house felt good after the cold outside.  Although I didn’t have much appetite, I heated up some soup and made a sandwich while the TV news droned on.  It was the usual "crime report".  I wondered what happened to old-fashioned news?  Now we had to have the daily high-speed chase, live-as-you-watch, and the run down on robberies.  The big news was about a stalker on the west side of town.

I was almost in a trance staring at the TV when the phone rang.  I jumped a mile.  Could that be him?  I decided to let the answering machine take a message.

"Hello?  Please if you’re there, pick up the phone."

My heart was in my throat.  Oh God, should I pick up or let it go?  My hand slowly moved to the receiver.

"Hello," I said.  My voice trembled.

"Oh, hello!" he said.  He sounded enthused.  "I’m so glad you answered.  This is Johnny, the painter.  I really must see you and apologize for what happened.  Please, will you meet me for lunch tomorrow?"

"Why?  We don’t even know each other."

"That’s the point.  Just give me a chance.  Something happened today and I must see you to explain.  Please don’t disappoint me and say no."

He was practically begging.  I felt myself giving way, wondering what could I lose.  I’d have my own car.  I could leave if something happened. 

"All right.  Where?" 

"Do you know Tony’s Coffee Shop on Canal Street?" he said.

"Yes, I do."

"I’ll be there at twelve thirty," he said.  "Is that a good time for you?"

"I think so."  I had some doubt, but on the other hand, why not give it a try?  "I’ll be there."  Was I making another bad decision? 

"I came by your house, but you weren’t home.  Did you go to your front porch yet?"

"No, why?"    So that was his blue pick up truck I had seen pulling out of my drive.

"After we hang up, go take a look.  I’ll see you tomorrow."

"All right," I agreed.  I began to calm down.

What had he left?  I rushed to the front door and almost jerked it open to see what was there.  Lying on the mat was a single red rose and a small note under it.  I picked them both up.

'Please accept my deepest apologies, but no regrets, From Johnny,' the note said.  I lifted the deep red rose and breathed in its sweet smell, a fragrance hard to describe.  Closing the door behind me, I found my best bud vase, placed the rose in it, and set it on the dining table.  This is insane, I thought.  Then I rationalized, on the other hand, stranger things have happened. 

Later that evening I prepared a hot bubble bath to relax myself.  I brought the rose into the bath and let it’s sweet fragrance fill the room.  Slipping on a silk gown I hadn’t worn for a long, long time, I climbed into bed, pulled the comforter up, and took a deep breath.  As I thought about tomorrow, I drifted off to sleep.

            The night had been noisy, with wind blowing.  When I awoke the next morning I felt restless and anxious.  I pulled myself out of bed, went to the kitchen, and made a pot of coffee.  I stepped onto the porch and picked up the paper and the headline jumped right off the page at me: STALKER HUNTED BY POLICE.  Man wanted in west side of city, the story began.  That’s what I had heard on the TV news last night.  As I read, my heart beat faster. 'Three women report being stalked by a middle aged man, gray hair, usually seen wearing what is being described as outdoor type clothing.'  The description fit Johnny to a T.  But I lived on the north side of town, these incidents had occurred on the west side of town.  It was probably just a coincidence.  After all, this town had grown a lot in the years since I had moved here.  There were hundreds of men who could fit that description.

I began to think back on the last few years.  For almost twenty-five years I had a wonderful job in insurance.  I had risen to about as far as I could go when things began to change.  Many of the people I worked with very young.  My job duties changed and I felt like an elder employee.  My last review wasn’t as good as I expected.  That meant I didn’t get the raise on which I’d been expecting.  After that review, things were miserable.  I spent a lot of time thinking about what to do and finally, I turned in my resignation.  I had enough money to take care of myself, even though my retirement would be earlier than I had planned.

I left City Wide Insurance Company and began a new life.  To celebrate it, I took a trip to Europe. I spent a month bumming around and falling in love with London, Paris, and Rome.  That trip satisfied my fantasies, but it was time to return to the United States.  When I returned I made a drastic decision.  Wanting to make a fresh start for this time of my life, I decided to move to another state.  The small town of Oak Heights had been a good choice.  I hadn’t made any real close friends, but had many acquaintances and felt comfortable and safe in Oak Heights.

I glanced at the clock and couldn’t believe my eyes. Ten-thirty!  I had lost all track of time reading the paper, and thinking back over the last few years.  I had to start getting ready for this lunch date.  Lunch date, imagine.  I hadn’t done anything like this in years.  I was so nervous my stomach was churning.  What I had decided to wear the night before somehow didn’t look right today.  I finally settled on my good pink slacks and jacket.  Under it I wore a sheer pink blouse with my best camisole.  I unlocked my safe and took out my diamond and gold earrings.  They were the perfect touch with the gold watch I’d brought home from the safe deposit box.  I only wore them on special occasions.

            I left in plenty of time to find Tony’s Coffee Shop.  It had been a long time since I had been to Tony’s, however I remembered exactly how to get there.  As I drove I listened to the news on the radio.  The big story was still the stalker in the west side of town, however I felt safe in the car with the doors locked. I turned off Fifth Street then onto Canal Street.  Tony’s Coffee Shop was in a small shopping center and the parking lot was full.  As I drove around looking for a place to park, I looked for Johnny’s blue pick up.  I must be here first, I thought.  Finally, a parking space opened up right in front of the coffee shop.  I pulled in and shut off the engine.  I took out my mirror and checked my makeup.  Suddenly there was a tapping on my window and it startled me.

It was Johnny.  I rolled the window down.

"Hi!  Glad to see you made it."

"I looked around the parking lot for your blue pick up, but I didn’t see it," I said.

"That’s because I drove my car today.  It’s that black Chevy right over there," he said, pointing.  Somehow the car didn’t quite match Johnny.  I should have realized right then how little I knew about him.

"Well, come on, let’s go in and sit down," he said.

We walked into Tony’s.  It felt good to be walking by his side.  He was polite and dressed nicely.  He was wearing casual Chino pants, a white sport shirt, and a dark blue jacket.  I noticed he wasn’t wearing the earring.  I glanced around the cafe as we were being seated.  It was fairly crowded.  I supposed a lot of local people who worked nearby ate lunch at Tony’s.  Two nicely dressed men were to my right, in a booth, having coffee.  They wore dark blue suits.  I noticed they both had small gold lapel pins.  Maybe Elks or some organization like that, I thought.

I had my head down reading the menu when I became aware of someone standing beside our table.  Surprised, I looked up.  It was the two men in the dark blue suits.

"Please don’t make a scene," one said in a quiet voice.  He looked straight at me.  "Just get up and come with us quietly."

"What’s this all about?"  I asked.

"You are under arrest for embezzlement of City Wide Insurance Company.  Walk slowly with us out the door," he said.

I turned to Johnny.  He was standing. 

"I’m sorry," he said.  He reached in his jacket pocket and pulled out his billfold.  He flipped it open.  There it was.  A FBI badge shined in my eyes.

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