by C. L. Shore
Enjoy this never before published mystery/suspense short story.
“Focus on your good qualities!” That phrase was my mother’s advice when I worried about my latest zit. She would sing a song about positives and negatives. I didn’t pay much attention to the lyrics; I was too focused on Lennon and McCartney at the time. Mom’s advice came back to me after I divorced my husband, Stan, for the second time, though. This story begins with my second divorce and my do-it-yourself makeover. The makeover’s theme: focus on the positive.
I was past 60 at my second divorce. I’d become a nurse at age 40, and earning the degree was the beginning of the end of my marriage. Guess Stan was threatened by a wife with a license and income. After two decades I realized I couldn’t change Stan. I left him the house, found a condo, and focused on my career. Took some extra classes, and started a small practice as a life coach in addition to my hospital work. See, I’m a psych nurse, and good at it.
Living with a crazy husband for years made me a natural at dealing with mental illness. I had colleagues that respected me and several groups of girlfriends. I was happy. My only frustrations concerned dealing with my ex.
Anytime I needed to deal with Stan, a dark cloud hung over me for days. We had one area of disagreement I considered torture: Stan kept all of the pictures of our oldest, Pam, from baby shots to high school graduation.
Traditional photos, no digital versions. Pam said she’d try to sneak them out of the house for me when the time was right, but I didn’t think her plan was fair to her. The issue was between Stan and me.
I hung out with my girlfriends now and then. Since I was happier, I think I looked better than I’d looked for years. I’d worked at improving my positives with makeup techniques and new clothes that flattered my coloring. I met Van, a nice guy who did investigative reporting for the newspaper and moonlighted as a private investigator. He always had interesting tales to tell, and he provided an attentive audience to my accounts of neurotics and psychopaths. We hung out with some of his friends; a physician, a judge, fellow reporters and a podiatrist, Dr. Joe Evans. When Joe found out I was a nurse, he suggested that I get my feet looked at. No charge for a consultation, he said.
Joe prescribed some inserts. My feet had never been painful, but the inserts did help my feet feel less tired at the end of the day. He wanted to see me a year later. So, I went in again after twelve months of insert use. Here’s where it gets interesting. I’d turned 65, and gone on Medicare. Joe said I should go ahead and have bunion surgery, since Medicare would pay for it. I said I’d think about it. I wouldn’t mind looking better in sandals. Another positive to consider.
Three of my girlfriends had had the surgery, two of the three said they wouldn’t recommend it. Painful, they said, and you have to stay off your feet for too long. I’d just taken up race walking, aiming for a half-marathon in a few months. I decided to let sleeping dogs lie.
Five weeks later, Van and I met with Joe and our physician friend for dinner. Joe asked me when I would be coming back for the surgery. I giggled and told him “Never.” He choked on his second martini at my reply. I thought, “Wow, he’s pretty sensitive.” I mean, he can’t expect everyone to do what he suggests, right?
Anyhow, I had another issue keeping my brain busy. Pam’s baby was going to be baptized in a few days, and both Stan and I would be at the ceremony. A happy occasion, but Stan’s appearance could ruin it for me. I tried to think of some angle I could use to get my hands on Pam’s baby pictures. Possibly the baptism would soften him up, but my expectations for success remained at low ebb.
Van had to go back to his office after dinner. Dr. Joe continued to look distressed, and Van asked him if he was okay. That’s one thing I love about Van, he’s always looking out for his friends. Dr. Joe nodded, although he’d left a lot of food on his plate. The three martini glasses surrounding it were empty, though. We said our goodbyes, and I headed home to hem my dress for the baptism. I settled in my favorite chair with the dress and my sewing basket, a reality show on TV to fill the silence.
I heard a timid knock at the door. Standing on tiptoe, I looked through the peephole’s distorting lens. My view was limited to some pinkish facial flesh and probably a corner of the wearer’s glasses. A tall male. Tall enough to be Stan. I sighed. Part of me wanted to tell him to take a hike, but I might as well face the music. Maybe if I was reasonable, I’d get the baby pictures back.
The minute I started to turn the knob, I felt Stan’s weight on the door forcing me backwards into the room. However, my visitor wasn’t Stan.
“Doctor Joe! What brings you here?” I could see sweat on his face and dark armpit stains on his pale blue shirt.
“Can I get you something to drink? Do you feel okay?”
He took a few steps in a circle. After facing me again he said, “I guess I could use something to drink.”
I went to the kitchen to get some lemonade. No more alcohol for you, buddy! My nurse brain kicked into gear. His sweatiness made me wonder if he was having a heart attack. However, he’d exerted himself to enter my condo and that didn’t seem to make him worse. His color was ruddy, not the gray-green I’d seen several cardiac patients wear. I walked back to the living room where he’d settled into my rocking chair near the door. He grabbed the glass I offered and gulped the drink clumsily, more than a few drops landing on his shirt.
“You look a little distraught, Joe.” I hoped he’d relax. I was still thinking heart attack, or angina at least. I tried to review the basics of CPR, wondering if the condo recreation area had a defibrillator. “You look like something’s bothering you.”
Joe set the lemonade down. “You’re right. You see, I was counting on you having that bunion surgery.”
Counting on me? Was his cash flow that tight?
I hoped I sounded matter-of-fact. “You seemed upset when I said I decided against it. But I don’t understand.”
Joe’s expression changed to something I couldn’t identify. Desperation? He took a deep breath and belched. “Your insurance has already paid for it.”
“How could my insurance…” My mind struggled to put the pattern together. My insurance. Medicare. My heart rate accelerated as the picture focused. Medicare fraud. Joe had billed for a procedure that he hadn’t performed. And evidently, he’d received the payment.
He looked at me with unblinking eyes. “Of course…if you go ahead with it…no harm done.”
No harm done! Was he kidding?
You know, sometimes you think the craziest things when you realize you’re in danger. I felt relief that I was wearing a white tee shirt because my increasing sweat wouldn’t be visible. I wondered if Joe was armed. He seemed to be carefully evaluating my expression. His position in my living room blocked my exit through the front door. My other option was the patio door to the back of the condo, which would require me to remove the lumber I used to block forced entry. My bathroom door had a lock, but the room had no window. Where was my cell phone? I wasn’t sure, possibly on the kitchen counter.
Another knock at the door, insistent this time. I jumped and let out a little yelp. “Come in!” I bellowed loud enough to be heard in the next block. Joe’s eyes got wider and he sat up straight as he turned toward the door. This time, it was Stan who lumbered through. I thought I heard something tumble to the floor behind him.
“Stan! I need your help. This guy is threatening me!”
Stan looked at my face to verify my emotion before glaring at Joe. “Get out!” The gravel in his voice would’ve earned him a part in a gangster movie. Stan was a tall guy, and since Joe was seated, and certainly drunk, there’s no way he could win if things got physical.
Joe spent two seconds looking from Stan’s face to mine, and then back again. He stood and scampered around a box dropped on the threshold and out the door. I moved to the window, saw him cross the parking lot, climb into the driver’s seat of his Lexus and drive away. I felt my muscles go limp. I turned and looked at Stan.
“What the heck was that all about?” he said.
Stan nodded. I didn’t trust myself to pour anything into my crystal glasses. Hmmm. They used to be our crystal glasses – Stan’s and mine. I found two plastic cups from a pizza place. I poured Stan about two inches of pinot grigio and double that amount for myself. Stan accepted wine in a plastic cup without blinking an eye. He sat in the rocker that Dr. Joe had vacated. He’d moved the box, which was actually a Nike shoebox, from the entryway to his lap. We chit-chatted a little. Conversation was awkward, but the wine helped. We talked about the upcoming baptism. Then he handed the shoebox to me. New shoes for my race walking? How did Stan know?
I removed the top. It took me a second before I recognized the contents. Photos stuffed in a row, with colored dividers. Pam’s baby pictures.
I had to admit that even Stan has one positive. But only one.
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