Authors: Sandra Miller
Tessa grinned demurely and nodded in agreement while handing him the basket of rolls, followed by the dish of softened butter and a fresh linen napkin. He accepted her offerings without noticing the irony of it.
“Secondly, I need you to take care of all the things around here that I don’t have time to do, like shopping and running errands.”
Again, she dutifully nodded.
“I expect you to care for the dogs but not entertain them. It’s not your responsibility. The mail will have to be collected and sorted every day. The post office is about ten miles away if you need to buy stamps or mail a package for me or yourself. I’ll probably have you make deposits for me, as well. The bank is in Amherst, you’ll pass it on your way to school.
Let’s see, is there anything else? Oh yeah, you probably know already that we don’t get cell phone reception out here, so use the home phone whenever you want. It doesn’t matter if it’s long distance. Give the number to your family so they can reach you. I rarely answer the phone when I’m home, I let the answering machine do that, so don’t be concerned about me answering one of your personal calls. Your set of keys is in the cabinet drawer by the pantry, not only to the house, but to the truck. Whenever you’re running errands I want you to use it. Don’t waste your own gas. Any questions?”
Before Tessa had the opportunity to speak, he added. “Oh, and one other thing, I’m serious about keeping the doors locked and setting the alarm system when you’re here alone. Before you retire for the night, I’ll show you how to turn it on and off and where the codes are located. The last thing I need is someone else to worry about.”
“And stop calling me sir, this is the 21
century,” he scolded. “My name is Seth.”
“Then call me Tessa.”
“Very well, Tessa. I guess we’re finished. I’ll leave the tax forms on the counter for you to fill out tomorrow.”
Standing to clear away the dishes, she asked, “What time should I set my alarm for? You know, so I can have your breakfast ready.”
“I don’t eat breakfast, and I can make my own coffee.”
“Alright,” was all she bothered to say as she walked to the sink with her hands
Remaining at the table while he checked his emails on his
iPad, Tessa was forced to work around him. He seemed oblivious to her until she placed the last glass in the dishwasher. Before turning it on, she asked, “Is this real crystal?”
“I have no idea, why?”
“Well, because if it is, it’s probably fragile and expensive. I don’t want to ruin it.”
“They were here when I moved in, so do what you want with it.”
If he didn’t care, why should she? So Tessa closed the door and turned it on before moving on to wiping down the counter tops. Even though her back was to him, she could sense that her work was being scrutinized. Trying to ignore him, she kept her head down and her eyes focused on the task at hand.
By the time she was finished, the flour on her tee shirt had turned into dough, and the strands of hair that had fallen from the loose bun on top of her head, clung to the perspiration at the sides of her face and back of her neck. She must have looked every bit the quintessential down-trodden hillbilly; barefoot and unkempt.
Why didn’t he go to bed? But just as she asked herself the question, he rose to his feet, and she inwardly sighed with relief. The reprieve was short-lived, however, and she rolled her eyes when he wordlessly beckoned for her to follow him into the pantry.
Just inside the door was the control panel for the alarm system. Stepping aside so she could get a better view of it, Mr. Richards/Seth gently guided her by the arm to stand in front of him. Reaching around her, he pushed a sequence of buttons that made the lights on the panel all turn green.
Standing at 5’1”, the top of her head barely reached his chest. It felt as if she was standing next to Goliath, only a better dressed and better smelling version. Great, that’s all she needed, another reason to feel substandard, considering the fact that she looked like a short-order cook in some greasy truck stop, and smelled like homeless person, a fact that he was now well aware of standing so close behind her.
“Do you think you can remember how to set it when you’re here alone,” he questioned, surprising her by the sudden gentleness in his voice, sounding as if he was talking down to a child.
“I think so,” she sighed, frustrated by the fact that she had no more of an idea how to set it than she had before he showed her. “I guess it’s a good time to tell you that I’m dyslexic, and ADD. No matter how many times you show me, I’m never going to remember.”
Tessa felt, more than heard, him chuckle behind her. “You’re telling me that you’re a dyslexic Lit major?”
“I taught myself how to read, and manage quite well, thank you,” she shot back, half laughing, half pissed, by the fact he found her learning disability so humorous. “But when it comes to numbers and keeping them in order, it’s useless. Trust me on this one.”
Now he was smiling, she could feel that too. “I believe you. But don’t worry about it. I have the codes written down. I keep them up here.”
Pulling down a laminated index card from the top shelf, Seth handed it to her. “Why don’t you hang on to this and put it somewhere within easy reach.”
“I won’t lose it, I promise,” she remarked, wondering if he had even heard her when she explained the difficulty she had with numbers.
“I guess I’d better say good night then,” he stammered, stepping out of the pantry so she could exit.
Before he had a chance to get too far, Tessa rushed forward to stop him.
“Mr. Richards,” she began. “I mean, Seth?”
He stopped and turned around to face her, but said nothing.
“Will you show me where the light switches are? I’ve been hanging out here in the kitchen since the sun went down because I was too scared to try and find my way through the house in the dark.”
At first Tessa wasn’t sure if he had heard her, the admission came out as little more than a whisper due to the shame of having to admit to the fact that she was a grown woman who still slept with the light on. She was about to repeat the request when he raised his hand unexpectedly to rub his
stubbled chin, causing Tessa to instinctively flinch; another bad habit she picked up from the past.
The look he gave let her know he had not missed her reaction, but he choose not to comment on it. “They’re on a motion sensor, Tessa. At night
, all you have to do is enter the room and they’ll turn on.”
Good grief, she really was nothing more than a backward country bumpkin. Covering her lips with her fingertips, she giggled. “You must think I’m so stupid.”
“Not entirely,” he frowned.
Being back on a campus again felt like being returned to her natural habitat. Tess had spent the past hour trying to find her advisor’s office, which turned out to be a tiny room in the attic of one of the oldest buildings at the university. There was something peculiarly calming about being surrounded by the sights and sounds of academia. Perhaps it was the fact that everyone was so preoccupied in their own thoughts of study and preparations for exams and papers that had to be written, that it created a certain degree of autonomy, and she relished in the thought of becoming invisible again. There was no one to watch and dissect her every move, question her about where she had been or where she was going, no one to control every move and decision she made.
Living as a captive in her own home for so long had left scars that they were only now; years later, beginning to fade with the passage of time. And like any wound, the pain eventually disappeared, leaving only the trauma of how it was inflicted to linger in one’s memory.
Until the children left home, Tessa had been so preoccupied with everyday struggles of a single parent that the memories of past abuses never had the chance to surface in her mind that was numb with physical exhaustion from dealing with a house full of teenage children, the stresses of two jobs, and the pressure of keeping up with homework. It was only when the deafening quiet of an empty home freed her mind to wander back, did the gravity of what she had survived during her marriage come down on her like an enormous weight threatening to destroy her.
Before coming to Amherst, she truly had spent the past year sitting by herself in an empty apartment staring at the stark white walls that served as a movie screen where the events of her past could be replayed—relived, in her mind’s eye. When she sunk so low into melancholy and shell shock that she was ignoring calls from her family, including her children, her oldest daughter gathered the troops and drove to Charlotte to see what was going on.
Doubting that even her children’s presence there could pull her back from the abyss of a broken heart and mind, she tried to mask her depression by putting on a cheerful face and protesting loudly that everything was fine. But the children saw right through it. They sat their mother down and surrounded her, holding each other’s
hands to gather strength, and told Tessa that if she didn’t pull herself together they were going to force her to come live with one of them.
“Mom, we can’t stand seeing you this way,” Rene had cried. “It’s like you’ve given up. And we’re not ready to lose you. We need you here to see us graduate, to fall in love and get married, we want to see you hold your grandchildren and sing to them like you always did for us. Please, try to be happy again. You have so many exciting things ahead of you. You’re still so young.”
It was at that moment, looking at the tears streaming down each of their faces, that Tessa found the will to fight through the lingering sadness of a past that held her bound to pain and regret.
The morning after they left, she looked at herself in the mirror and proclaimed it Independence Day. True, the man whose cruelty had left her emotionally scarred had moved on to create a happy life without even an ‘I’m sorry for what I did to you’, but no one said life was fair. Her youth had been stolen, but she could not allow him to rob her of a future, or her children’s futures. That promise to her children and herself, was what had brought her here to Massachusetts, and she was trying so hard not to ever look back again.
Dr. Henry Lewis was a quiet, unassuming man with the subtle eccentricity found in most people who dedicated themselves to the pursuit of higher learning. Their
meeting went well, and Tessa believed him when he told her he was there to assist her no matter what problem might arise in her quest for a doctorate. The fact that he seemed pleased that she was not the traditional starry-eyed grad student made her less self-conscious about her age.
The entire meeting took less than an hour, half the time it took to actually find his office. When it was over, Tessa had her schedule and list of required text books in hand. Grateful for the elderly advisor’s encouragement, she hugged him when it was time to leave. The professor simply smiled and patted her shoulder, obviously unaccustomed to students offering such heartfelt gratitude.
The trip to the bookstore quickly brought her back down to earth, unfortunately, as she stared dumbfounded at the receipt as she made her way back to the car. Seven hundred and fifty dollars! Even though she had the money to pay for them, she was still in shock, and unaware of the footsteps approaching her, or the fact that they had suddenly stopped as she walked passed.
Had someone called her name? Surely not. There were only a handful of people in New England who knew she even existed, so Tessa continued along the sidewalk fretting over the sudden dip in her bank account, and assuming she had been hearing things.
“Tessa Maguire, am I right?”
Okay, that wasn’t her imagination. Someone was addressing her with familiarity. Swinging around, Tessa faced the only person in sight; a young man who she recognized immediately to be Gregory Hayes; one of the teaching assistants during her undergraduate years. What a coincidence to run into him again so far from her alma mater.
“Mr. Hayes, I can’t believe it…”
An easy smile crossed his ruggedly handsome face as he took a step toward her. Memories of watching him during lectures entered her mind and made her blush. The insane physical attraction she felt for him was as indecent now as it had been years ago. But there was no denying the fact that she still found him to be gorgeous, even if saying it out loud could land her in jail on charges of being a pedophile.
Oh well, what could she do? Just because she was of a certain age didn’t mean she was comatose. Gregory Hayes was one of those fortunate people who were born visually pleasing. Every female in his class found it impossible to keep their eyes off him.
“Wow, I thought it was you. How are you,” he asked while extending his hand.
Timidly, Tessa placed her fingertips in his palm before removing them quickly.
“I’m good,” she smiled, probably a little bit too forced to seem genuine. “What are you doing here?”
“I was offered a tenured position here last year. What about you? Are you checking out the graduate program?”
“No, actually I’ve already been accepted. I’ll be a TA here in the fall.”
“That’s awesome,” he replied with enthusiasm.
“I think so, too.”
“That means we’ll be seeing a lot of each other.”
Tessa grinned, “Apparently.”
“Who’s you’re advisor?”
“Ah, he’s a great guy, you’ll like him.”
“I’m sure I will,” she agreed. “Well, it’s nice seeing you again.”
With a brow arched in amused askance, Gregory laughed at her less than tactful brush off. “Did I catch you on your way somewhere?”
With cheeks burning red hot, Tessa fidgeted and looked around to see if there was an audience to her public humiliation. “No, I just don’t want to waste your time. And to be honest, I’m still a little surprised that you even remember me.”
“Are you kidding? You’re one of my favorite students.”
“Thank you,” she said graciously as the perspiration began to trickle down her neck and between her breasts. “But you don’t have to say that. I realize how much time and effort it took on your part to teach me to write on the collegiate level. You were very gracious with your time and I appreciated it very much.”
“What are you talking about? I devoted more time to you because I recognized the talent you have.”
Feeling incredibly uneasy with his praise, Tessa glanced down at her feet where the toe ring that her son made her in shop class seven years prior, glistened warmly in the morning sun. The flip flops and worn jeans had seemed like a good idea when she was getting dressed earlier, now she worried that she looked like a middle aged woman who didn’t give a crap about her appearance anymore.
“That’s very sweet,” she mumbled self-consciously.
“It’s the truth…well, and the fact that you were the hottest girl in class didn’t hurt either. I can actually say that now.”
The absurdity of his statement caused her to laugh and toss him a look of doubt. “Yeah right—look, I don’t want to keep you. I better go.”
With regret clouding his gray eyes, Gregory stared openly, which she found to be unnerving. He was so beautiful standing there with his shaggy auburn hair blowing around his face. The darkness of his full beard emphasized his strong chin and very kissable looking lips. But the most attractive thing about him was his eyes. They always looked at her with such tenderness.
“Listen, why don’t we have coffee sometime?”
“Sure,” Tessa agreed politely, assuming the offer was more hypothetical than a serious invitation.
“What about now? I was on my way to the best café in town, why don’t you join me? When she hesitated before answering, he added, “Please, I hate to drink alone.”
Grinning, she glanced toward the two young girls approaching them. When they realized they were coming up behind Gregory, they whispered to each other and giggled.
“Good morning, Dr. Hayes,” the boldest of the two cooed flirtatiously.
“Good morning,” he greeted, appearing slightly uncomfortable.
“We’re looking forward to your class next semester,” the other girl chimed in.
After they passed, Tessa couldn’t help but to tease slightly. “You still have groupies, I see.”
Shaking his head, he dismissed her comment with a casual smile. “You ready?”
“Yes, but really, I can’t stay long. I have several errands to run for my employer.”
“I won’t hold you hostage, I promise.”
With a smile, Tessa relented and fell into step with Gregory as he tugged at her elbow to follow him.
“Here, let me carry those for you,” he offered, taking the heavy tote of books out of her hand, giving her no opportunity to refuse the offer.
“How very chivalrous.”
“I’m trying to impress you,” he admitted, as if he enjoyed the fact that he could make her gush as easily as he could his other female students half her age.
“If you really want to impress me, tell me your secret to keeping your students captivated during lectures.”
Astute enough to realize she did not handle compliments or come-ons very well, Gregory chuckled and made up a ridiculous reason for his success as a lecturer that went on until they reached the café several blocks away.
“Well since I don’t see myself getting my hands on enough Lithium to sedate the entire class, I guess I’m going to have to improvise,” Tessa laughed, as they seated themselves at a booth inside the, The Daily Grind.
“I’m just saying it works for me.”
“You’re extremely humble, Dr. Hayes.”
With a boyish grin so seductive that it threw her heart into arrhythmia, she forced her attention to the sights outside the window while waiting for her pulse to return to normal.
Leaning back against the seat and throwing an arm across its back, Gregory grinned. “So tell me what you’ve been doing since we last saw each other
With a shrug of disinterest in the subject of herself, Tessa began with a bored flatness, “I was a substitute teacher for about a year but couldn’t make ends meet, so I went to work for an insurance company down in Charlotte making decent money, but hated the job. So I started applying for grad schools and was finally accepted here.”
“What about writing?”
Tessa scoffed, unable to stifle her amusement.
“The whole, having to pay bills thing sort of gets in the way.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Don’t’ be. It was one of those silly pipe dreams people eventually grow out of.”
“Only people with no real talent, but you’re not one of those.”
Thankful for the interruption, Tessa focused on the waitress who had come to take their order and took advantage of the break in conversation that would allow the warmth in her cheeks to dissipate.