By Marisa Urgo
It had been six weeks since Megan and I broke up. Well, since she’d broken up with me.
I’d been rummaging through the drawer under the sink for at least two minutes, desperate to find my navy blue lighter with the white stripe. I tossed out pink pens and pizza menus until I found it, then held it steadily under the cigarette.
“Don’t smoke in my apartment.” She’d whipped her head toward me like the Exorcist chick, a magazine clutched between freshly manicured fingers. Her yoga pants and tight t-shirt were almost enough to convince me, but not quite. “I’m serious. Go outside.”
The highest temperature of the day had been thirty-five. “Come on. I’ll go by the window.”
“No. You can smoke in here when you pay rent,” she said.
I winced. A low blow. She’d known I’d just blown through the severance package from my layoff.
Megan plucked the cigarette from my lips and tossed it in the sink. “If you smoke in my apartment, then we’re done.”
“Done for the night, or forever? I don’t want to ruin the moment, but it’s an important question.” I heaved my bag over my shoulder.
Her hand was already on the doorknob. “Come back when you get civilized.”
I never came back. Or I’d never gotten civilized. Maybe both.
About three days, a hundred boxes of pizza and cans of beer later, I stood outside of her apartment. I could’ve easily climbed the front steps with a bouquet of roses. It had worked so well all the other times. Instead, I shuffled my weight between brown loafers and played with an unlit cigarette between my fingers. I hadn’t touched a box of Marlboros in forty days. I craved the familiar feeling. Apologies were tough. I needed to be cool and calm.
A yellow cab halted at the curb. The exhaust rising into the winter air mirrored my breath. The advertisement on the top was for a strip club. For a moment, I considered it, but banished the awful thought from my head. I wasn’t that pathetic. Yet.
A ball of fur tumbled from the cab. Long legs in black leggings stretched out and high heels clicked against the curb to reveal a woman in a coat that would make PETA furious. She stretched to full form, and even from ten feet away, I could tell she was near my height. And I’m 5”10.
“God, it’s cold out.” She tossed dark hair out of her face and marched toward me as if we’d been pre-school buddies. “Got a smoke?”
I blinked, incredulous. “Excuse me?”
“Did I stutter? I asked if you had another cigarette.”
The woman was familiar. Really familiar. The height didn’t jog my memory and nothing stood out about her shape. The chestnut curls seemed like something I’d seen before, the way they swept around her long neck.
“Do I know you from somewhere?” I handed her a single cigarette from the box in my jacket pocket.
I thought she’d ask me for a light, but she came prepared. She took it to her painted red lips and leaned against the wrought iron fence guarding Megan’s apartment. Her posture was relaxed, but refined, like a ballerina.
“Are you… an athlete?” I asked. The desire to place her was gnawing at me.
She narrowed her eyes. Dark, intense. “Why would you think I’m an athlete?”
It was like asking a chubby woman if she was pregnant. “I… well… you’re tall.”
“Oh, right. How could I forget? I’m a basketball star. Dribbling and … running and shit.”
Star. The word exploded a galaxy of information in my head.
“Elle.” I pointed toward her chest. “You’re Elle Macy.”
Of course it was. Those smoldering brown eyes like the dying flames of a fireplace couldn’t belong to anyone else besides the woman who graced the television screen, singing with a soul far beyond her thirty years.
“Yep.” She took a long drag. “What a detective, you are.”
“Actually, I am a detective.”
“No. I’m a chemical delivery driver. Was, rather.”
“Just as thrilling.” She looked older than thirty, but in a sensual way, as if the years were crafting her like a sandcastle, perfecting themselves. The beginning of lines curved under her eyes. She curled apple-red lips around the bummed cigarette. Truthfully, she didn’t look too different than the face on her CD cover, the same one that sat in our collection. Well. Megan’s collection, now.
“I’m James,” I said.
“James. Quite the original name.”
“Sorry we can’t all be Elle Macy.”
She shrugged one shoulder. “Guess not.”
Elle turned her head from me and exhaled. Smoke rose above, wafting toward Megan’s window. I wanted her to smell it. Maybe even be reminded of me and my poison.
At some point, Megan would emerge from those steps. Or she’d come home. The idea of her finding me talking to Elle Macy right outside her front door sparked a flame in me I didn’t know I had. I wanted her to find us. To see the wrinkle in Megan’s nose. To know revenge tasted like red lipstick.
“So what are you doing here?” I asked.
Elle quirked an eyebrow. “Smoking.”
“I know. But you got out of that cab. Where were you going?”
“Home. It’s a few blocks away.” She took another drag.
“Isn’t smoking bad for singing?”
“You’re a lot of fun to have around.” Elle flicked the cigarette ash and dropped it to the ground. She crushed the bud under her boot. “So, no more chemical driving? What does that mean, anyway?”
“It means you deliver important chemicals, like explosives or toxins, back and forth to their locations. Sounds cooler than it is. But yeah, no more. Got laid off. Then my girlfriend dumped me for having no money and laying around all day. So, yeah, things have been a blast.”
“Ah. Sounds like you needed that cigarette more than me.” Elle straightened her posture, and a certain softness blossomed on her face. Her lips came together and her eyebrows furrowed. The kind of genuineness people only project in the late evening hours. “I’m sorry to hear that, though.” Her voice was gentle, like the jazz she performed.
“Mhm. You know what they say. When life gives you chemicals, start a chemical fire, I guess.” Elle bounced away from the wall and took a few steps north. In the distance lay the entrance to Central Park, a mammoth compared to us both.
“Walk with me,” she said.
“You heard me.” She kept going, but shock firmly planted my feet as if roots had sprouted. I glanced upward, half hoping and half dreading to see Megan watching from the window. Nothing but the white curtains she’d picked out and I’d paid for seven months ago. The sour smell of the trash bags outside was getting to me.
“Are you coming?” Elle’s voice took on a sharp edge.
I squeezed my eyes shut and I hustled to catch up to Elle. We walked side by side through rows of identical buildings with flat faces and buldging fire escapes. Any gossip reporter in the country would’ve made a Faustian bargain to be in my place. The thought made me feel strangely empty.
“So, remind me again why you trust a total stranger to walk you home?” I asked.
“You’re not walking me home, you’re walking me to my bodyguard, who’s patiently waiting two blocks from here. If I’m not there in five minutes, he’s going to call every police officer in New York City. So if you’re a serial killer, it’s best to tell me upfront.”
I swore I saw a spark of fear ignite her face, but it was gone the minute she blinked.
“Murder was not on my to-do list for tonight,” I said.
“Good to know.”
“My turn for questions,” I said. “So, if you’re trusting some stranger you’ve never met, and your bodyguard is a few blocks away, might I ask why you got out of the cab?”
Elle matched my laugh, but hers seemed far more knowing. “If I tell you, you’ll think I’m full of myself.”
“Well, are you full of yourself?”
She tilted her head. “Most likely.”
“So why did you leave the cab?” I had imagined all the mystery and glamour of celebrities to be a fabrication of grocery store magazines. I never thought I’d be the type of person to hang on Elle’s every word like needle pulling through thread. But this was eerily tangible.
“They were playing my new song. I’ve heard it six thousand times by now. I’m so sick of it.” She snickered. “Besides, I like to walk.”
“Really? I prefer driving. I’m less…in my head than when I walk,” I said.
“No way. I space out when I walk. That’s why I need to. If I get trapped in my head, it’s…” She physically grasped for the word, her hands reaching.
“Yes,” she laughed. “Exactly.”
We arrived on 72nd street, a collection of Brownstones with identical lovely brown faces. I wasn’t sure which was Elle’s, and she didn’t identify it. A man, though he looked more like a boulder, took Elle under his meaty arm. One of those tough guys who was bald by choice and probably drove a motorcycle – not compensating for anything, of course. He squinted his eyes at me as if I were gum under his shoe.
“Tommy, you know how I said I was going to hire a new private driver?” Elle cooed. “I’ve found him.” She glanced at me. “He has a history of driving dangerous things around.”
* * *
We had an agreement. I’d follow the speed limit, she’d sit in the back (or front if she chose), and I’d get paid $40 an hour. About two months after our initial meeting, both of us were keeping our promises.
I exhaled and watched my breath swirl into the sky along with the exhaust fumes. In a minute or so, Elle would barrel through the stage door, sign a couple autographs and slip into my backseat. Heat on, check. Radio off, check. No crumbs or wrappers from the night before, check. The inside was sleek as the shining outside.
In the crowd, I swore I saw Megan. A flash of her, at least. I rolled the window down and poked my head out. I caught the woman’s eye – same platinum hair, but her cheekbones were far too sharp, her chin square and prominent. Not the soft, heart-shaped face Megan I knew. Besides, she didn’t care for concerts. Though I guess she didn’t care for me anymore, either. We hadn’t spoken since the argument. I rolled the window back up.
The stage door burst open. The security guard, who could’ve doubled as a linebacker, kept a mere three inches or so between him and Elle. I kept watch anyway. It was hard to tell it was her, with the puffy coat covering her petite frame and fur hood hiding her curly dark hair.
But perhaps that was the point. Tonight, Elle didn’t bother taking out her pen. She gave a half-hearted wave to the fans hardcore enough to wait after the concert. It seemed like there were less of them now than when I started, but what did I know. From five feet away, I could tell she had squeezed her eyes shut when they flashed the cameras at her back.
Odd. Usually I waited at least a half hour for her to sign, even in the rain or when the wind whipped by with a biting chill. Tonight, the air was mild, compared to the wicked winter we had.
I unlocked the doors. She slipped into the back.
“Hi, James.” She slumped in the back, hood still up and sunglasses on, even though it was nearing midnight. The side of her head met the window, and she tucked her legs underneath her, arms wrapped around them.
“Long night?” I asked.
“You could say that.”
I kept my focus on the road. Manhattan’s traffic was like piecing together a complicated puzzle. You needed intelligence, risk, boldness. I stayed in my lane, keeping a watchful eye ahead.
And so did Elle. I could practically feel her eyes flickering back and forth under those glasses, like she expected an eighteen wheeler to slam into us any second.
I slowed down from thirty-five to thirty. Still, Elle wrung her hands.
“Is everything okay?” I asked. The last thing I needed was to get fired. I’d already burned through my bank account during unemployment. Megan would’ve never let me hear the end of it. Not that I cared what she thought anymore.
Besides, driving Elle around was hell of a lot more fun than delivering plutonium and uranium.
“Oh, everything is fine. Really,” she said, just like any other person who ever tried to convince me they were okay, when in reality, they were on the precipice. She sat up, though the tightness hadn’t disappeared from her body.
“Am I going too fast?” At the red light, I turned to face her. Maybe it was only her hands vibrating, but it looked like her entire body was shaking.
“Huh? No, no.” Elle took the sunglasses off. Even from the front, I could tell her eyes were red-rimmed. “It’s not you.”
I wanted to ask if something was wrong, but I didn’t dare. She’d think I was prying.
We were five blocks away. I made the turn toward the row of brownstones with the utmost care.
“Can you turn the radio on?” she asked.
I did. It crinkled like aluminum foil until it stabilized to a clear jazz song. Elle liked to listen, but the rule was if her own song came on, I had to change the station. It had only happened twice.
We were safe with a throwback, a song Megan liked. I pictured her swaying to it in her living room, hips jutting from side to side. Temptation to switch the song flared inside me, but Elle let out a deep breath. Her relief was palpable.
“I read that book you told me about last weekend,” I said. “You were right, I wasn’t expecting that ending.”
“Oh. Yeah. It’s a good one.”
I squinted. This was not the same woman who raved about a mystery novel that kept her up until 2 am. This wasn’t much like Elle at all.
“The concert went well?” I asked.
“It was fine. You know. Fine.”
I glanced in the rear view mirror. “You sure nothing is wrong?”
“Mhm,” she mumbled. I wasn’t even sure she heard me.
She didn’t need to tell me, but I wondered if she would tell someone else; or really, if there was anyone else to tell. I brought her from home to the venues, then back again. Never an in between, never lunch or drinks or staying at a friend’s. Selfishly, I was glad. It was me and Elle and no one else.
But it did make me wonder if she left the cab that night not because she was escaping her own song, but because she was looking for something. Anything.
The song ended and the DJ’s voice sprang to life. “A good throwback, wouldn’t you say, Chet? Now for all you celebrities out there, watch your backs. Breaking news about singer Elle Macy.”
She lunged forward before my brain could even tell my finger to lift. She popped her head between the front seats like bread out of a toaster, but the seatbelt restrained her torso.
As I reached to change the station, the DJ said, “Elle was allegedly attacked last night in her Upper East Side apartment –”
I shut off the radio, but it was as if all sound had been sucked out of the car entirely. My heart beat wildly in my chest like an ape defending its mate.
“Elle,” I whispered. “Is that true? Are you okay?”
“Sort of. I’m okay.” She hadn’t moved, frozen beside me. The light from the streetlamps somehow made her paler. Freckles I’d never noticed before appeared on her nose. “I wasn’t attacked. That’s a pretty dramatic word, don’t you think? Attacked. Give me a break.” She waved her hand limply.
Her eyes met mine. I held her gaze, searching for truth.
“I’m fine. Really.”
She could sing with enough emotion to make you swoon while washing the dishes, but Elle Macy was a terrible liar.
“I wasn’t attacked.”
“Then what happened?”
Elle squeezed her eyes shut. “Someone… someone came in, okay? I was sleeping. I heard them, so I got up to see, and…”
At some point in the story, my hand had touched hers. I only realized when she squeezed it back.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered. Why was I so shit with words? “Did you get hurt?”
“No. I didn’t. Just… just drive. Please.”
I took my hand away.
I parked in front of her apartment. The purple curtains made the interior a dark mystery. The window seemed glued shut. Even the golden door knob looked tightly welded. From her file, I knew the installed security system was like having a personal guard. Her own moat around the castle, but somehow the creep built a boat.
“Are you sure you’re okay? No injuries?” I scanned her for any sign of bruises, but she was so tightly bundled in winter gear.
“No, no. Not hurt. Thank you, though.” She shrank back into the seat and unclipped her seatbelt. “And thanks for getting me home safely.”
I turned to face her, unclipping my own belt. “Elle, seriously. I’m worried.”
She jerked back. The flame in her brown eyes dwindled. It struck me that perhaps she thought I was to blame. Only a lucky few knew her address, where she tucked her head to sleep. Presumably alone. Always alone.
“You don’t need to worry about me.” Elle hopped out of the car. “Nice of you, though. Go home, get some rest. Go try to find a new girl. Someone who deserves you.”
I didn’t fall for the distraction of wondering what type of woman Elle thought I deserved, and no stinging memories of Megan plagued my mind. The only thing that mattered was right now; I had to know what the hell happened.
“I’m making sure you get in.” I wanted to add, “and text me that it’s okay.” The tightrope between driver and friend had been blurred and I wasn’t quite sure how to handle the footing.
Elle nodded and crept toward her apartment. Her lifted chin and straight shoulders were bravado. Her knees shook, noodles inside black leggings and boots. Three steps. Five more. On her stairs.
Then she came back to me.
“This sounds crazy.” She curled her fingers over the open window. Her knuckles were white. “I know you don’t know me very well, and I don’t know you very well, so this might be weird. But I’m a weird person, so what the hell. Could you walk me inside?”
I couldn’t fight the small smile. Elle scooted aside as I rolled up the window, shut the door, and locked the car.
“You only have to walk me into the foyer. Then I’m fine.” She turned the key and pushed the door open. She braced, as if expecting a punch to the face, but her home was quiet and still. The smell from the flowers outside became stronger, a pleasant surprise.
Not surprisingly, Elle’s townhouse beat the hell out of my dingy walkup. I led her inside, breezing past paintings worth more than my life and walls so white, it looked as if they’d been painted that morning.
We paused at the threshold of the living room, modern in a way that was too sparse for my liking. The only real sign of life was the glass coffee table, plagued with half-full mugs, and a few mantle photographs of Elle and another woman.
She must’ve caught me looking at them.
“My sister.” She placed her hand by her heart. “She lives in California.”
I wondered if 3,000 miles felt any less when you were rich and famous. Probably not.
She rocked on her heels. “Well. Thanks, James.”
“You’re welcome.” I slipped my hands into my pockets. “Since you asked something weird, can I ask something weird?”
Elle smirked, a glimmer of the sarcasm I was used to. “Yes.”
“Will you call if you don’t feel safe?” I asked.
“Well, I’ll call Tommy.”
Ah, how could I forget Tommy. Straight from Ireland with a permanent scowl, ever since I was hired, he promised to “knock my feckin’ teeth out” if I tried anything with “his lass.”
“Right. Yeah, do that.” I forced a grin to mask the strange disappointment growing like a weed in my brain. “Why isn’t he here?”
“He stayed last night. It’s okay. The police know who it was. He’s gone. I’m safe.”
I heard a catch in her throat.
“Well.” She placed her hand on my arm. “Night.”
There was so much I’d wanted to say, but the words spun in my throat like an endless tornado. I yearned to march inside and declare my spot, that I would be vigilant while she dreamed, but I’d slowly learned that the candle of all my desires got blown out. The moment passed, and there was nothing left to say.
“Night,” I whispered.
I headed out. Elle shut the door quietly behind me, not before looking twice in each direction.
A pit of fear exploded in my stomach that I’d wake up to an awful breaking news report the next morning. She had been kind. When the world spat in my face, Elle was there. And now I was walking away when she’d been shaken.
We spoke at the same time. “Elle—”
“Actually.” Her voice cut across the darkness. I had only taken three steps.
Elle stood on her welcome mat. Her arms were crossed from the bitter cold and her ankles crossed. Standing on the very last step on her stoop, I basked in the flowers’ perfume.
“I have a couch. It’s very comfortable. It could be yours this evening for the low, low price of keeping your hands to yourself, and on one more condition.”
I grinned. “Yes?”
“You give me a cigarette.”
I reached into my pocket and slipped her the first in the pack. I took one to my own lips. Together, we lit the flame. Inhale, exhale. Repeat.
About Marisa Urgo
Marisa Urgo is a New York native who has been published in several literary magazines including The Saturday Evening Post, Beyond Imagination, and FiftyWordStories.