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The Chill of a Lifetime-Fiction by Robert Aguon Perez
HIJAX-Fiction by Liz McAdams
Marriage-Fiction by Doug Hawley
Secrets-Fiction by Carole Sojka
The Ten Ten-Fiction by A. F. Knott
Losing Eileen-Fiction by Marci McKim
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My Heart Will Always Be Yours-Fiction by Jon Park
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A Note for Alex Gildzen-Poem by Mark Young
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the only goodbye he deserved-Poem by J. J. Campbell
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A Song of Vengeance-Poem by Christopher Hivner
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Again the 11th Hour-Poem by Robert Halleck
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singles ad Westwood Magazine-Poem by Judith Partin-Nielsen
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Wanted-Poem by David Spicer
Whataya Say?-Poem by David Spicer
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Hail, Tiger!
Angel of Manslaughter
The Gazing Ball
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Calpurnia's Window
No Place Like Home
ALAT
Dark Tales from Gent's Pens

hsecrets.jpg
Art by Ann Marie Rhiel 2018

SECRETS


CAROLE SOJKA

 

I met her in class, a pretty girl, didn’t talk much.  I’m quiet, too. After a work day, I don’t have any energy left. Getting to class is all I can manage. Some nights she looks as tired as I feel, her hair pulled back in a haphazard clump, her makeup smeared, her features blurry with exhaustion.

          We find ourselves at the coffee machine one evening at the break. She’s swearing softly under her breath when I walk up. The cup meant to hold the gushing liquid has turned on its side, the hot coffee spilling onto the floor.

          “That was my last fifty cents, too,” she says. “I’ll fall asleep if I don’t get some caffeine.”

          “He does drone on, doesn’t he?” I say. “Here. I’ve got lots of change. I thought there’d be more computer work, not so much lecturing.”

          “Me, too. Thanks. I’ll pay you back next week.”

“Don’t worry about it.”

As we walk back to the classroom, she tells me she works as a telemarketer—the ones everyone hangs up on. No wonder she looks exhausted.

“I thought this class would get me out of that, but it doesn’t seem likely.” She grins ruefully.

After that we talk at the break, and I often walk her out to her dented old car. I always wait down the street to be sure she gets off okay. I don’t have any reason to hurry home. Good thing I wait, too, ‘cause one night the engine tries and tries but never turns over.

After that, I pick Linda up for class, but she never asks me in, never even lets me ring the bell. She always waits out front, even when it’s cold, even when I tell her she doesn’t need to. She can wait inside, and I can ring the bell.

“It’s okay,” she always says. “I don’t mind.”

I haven’t had a girlfriend since Nancy. Maybe a couple of years back. Nancy said I wanted to see her too much, but I didn’t understand that. If you like somebody, you want to be with them, right? That’s what I thought. I tried to get her to understand, but she got mad, said she’d call the cops, get a restraining order if I didn’t leave her alone. Can you believe that?

As we drive to class, Linda tells me complicated stories of things that she says have happened to her, stories about people she knows and about the people she talks with on the phone. The stories don’t end: like Scheherazade’s, they reach a climax as we get where we’re going. Later, when I ask her how the story ends, she always says, “I don’t remember. What story was that?” When I ask her if these stories are true, she laughs and says, “What do you think?”

When I take her home from class, she leaves me on the street before I even park, just jumps out of the car and disappears. One night I ask if she’s got the notes from a class I missed.  I hope she’ll ask me in, but she says, “Yeah, sure. Wait here. I’ll get ‘em for you.”

I tell her I can come up, but she says she’ll bring them down. She hops out of the car and is back in a minute with the notes. That was quick, I say, and she smiles.

I wonder why she never asks me in. Sometimes we stop for coffee after class, then in the middle of telling me about some asshole who yelled at her on the phone, she looks at her watch and says, “Come on. It’s late. Gotta go.” She just smiles when I ask if someone’s waiting for her.

I’m sure she’s hiding something. Maybe she’s married. Maybe she’s living with someone.  I think about her a lot. I think about kissing her, but she’s always gone so quick, I never get a chance.

I think maybe she’s got a secret life. I watch her in class, her expressions, her movements.  I ask her questions. When I ask her if someone is waiting up for her, she pretends she doesn’t hear me or she just smiles. Like quicksilver, she’s gone as soon as I reach out for her. Only the stories she tells remain, and they aren’t true. Are they?

I watch her in class. She doesn’t wear a ring. She seems nervous, plays with her hair, chews on a strand. Her nails are bitten to the quick. She gnaws on them while the teacher drones on.

I check out her notebook one day when she leaves it on the desk, but it tells me nothing. I drive past her house nights when we don’t have class. Sometimes I drive by during the day.

I check out the lobby of her apartment house. It’s dirty, the small white tiles on the floor grimy and broken. The door is never locked, and the mailboxes have no names on them. I look at her mail. Bills, catalogs, invitations to open credit cards.

One day I find myself inside, standing in the dark hallway. I breathe in the ghosts of long ago meals, the tang of urine, and the musky odor of damp wool. My heart beats in my ears, my mouth is dry. Suppose she’s home. Suppose she sees me.

A door opens, and I flinch. An elderly woman carrying a shopping bag walks down the hall. She eyes me curiously. I may be in the wrong building, I tell her. She waits for me to leave. I ask her if she knows Linda Kalpakian, if she lives in the building? Yes, upstairs, she says. Why you want to know? She’s applied for some insurance, I lie. I’m an investigator. Just checking a few things.

I don’t know her, she says.  I pretend I’m leaving, and follow her down the front stairs. When she’s gone, I go back inside, feeling like a burglar. I find Linda’s apartment and listen at the door. I hear a sound from inside. Is she there? Is someone else there? My blood pounds in my ears. I walk quickly down the stairs so she doesn’t see me. Why is she hiding her life from me?  What’s her secret?

I miss appointments at work, appointments with people considering buying life insurance. They call the office, wondering where I am. My boss calls me in, yells at me about missed appointments, the way I’ve failed to meet my quota. I promise to do better.

I ask Linda to go to dinner and a movie one night. She thanks me and says she can’t. Says she has to study.

“Study? Give me a break. I thought we were friends.”

“Okay,” she agrees. “Where you want to meet?”

I don’t want to meet her. I want to pick her up, see her life. Why won’t she let me in? We talk about the movie and about a book she’s reading. She tells me a story about someone she works with. When she tells me a story, it’s always about somebody else. She never tells me anything true about her life. That night I try to kiss her before she can jump out of the car, but all I reach is her ear. And then she’s gone.

I dream about her. One night I dream she lives in an apartment with black painted walls and red ceilings. Another time I dream her apartment is filled with weird little people, gnomes or dwarves. They twitter and chatter when she gets home from work.

I stay home from work to watch outside her apartment.  I watch her leave in the morning, then let myself in the building and watch her apartment door, listening to hear if anyone is there. No one ever comes out except her. Sometimes there are sounds from inside. Who’s in there? What’s she hiding?

I follow her to work and wait outside. She usually leaves for lunch alone. Sometimes she has lunch with another woman, blond, older than Linda. She leaves alone at night. Sometimes I see her say good night to someone inside as she leaves. Who is that? Is that the blond? Does she have other friends?

The class is over, so I only see her when we go to a movie or dinner. She won’t let me pick her up, and she won’t come to my apartment afterward. She doesn’t explain. She just says, “No, I can’t.”

I see my chance one night in the car. I lean over to kiss her while she talking. She doesn’t try to get away, just sits quietly, letting me kiss her, not kissing me back. She pushes my hand away from her breast. Then she asks, “Are you going to be a problem?”

“What d’ya mean, a problem?” I ask.

“You gonna push me to have sex with you?”

“No. I haven’t done that. Anyway, why not?”

“I don’t want to. I just want to be friends. If you’re gonna push me, I don’t want to see you anymore.”

“How come?” I ask.

“I don’t want to.  I don’t need to explain. Take me home now. I don’t want to see you anymore.”

I call her, tell her I’m sorry. I say I won’t try to kiss her. We’ll just be friends. Please, I beg. Just friends—that’s all.

“Okay,” she says. “No sex. You try anything again, and that’s it.”

At work I daydream about Linda’s life. Her secret life. I wonder how to get her to have sex with me. Even Nancy wasn’t so funny about sex, although she didn’t want it very often, even before she told me to leave her alone. Anyway, she was kind of fat and not very pretty. Linda’s pretty, but she’s weird. Why do I attract these weird women?

I miss appointments, then I don’t go in to work to do my reports. When I do go in, my boss asks me if I have a problem. No, I say. I’m fine. He says you got to come to work, got to go to those appointments, your numbers are bad. He says if I don’t do better he’s gonna have to let me go.

“I’ll do better.” I promise.

I mean to. The next day I leave work at lunch time to see some guy who called the office. The boss says he’s a hot prospect for insurance, like that’s supposed to make me care.  I can’t concentrate, though. My mind keeps wandering, daydreaming about who Linda is, why she keeps her life secret from me. I imagine her in bed, naked.  I’m too worked up to go see the boss’s referral.

Instead, I wait in my car in front of Linda’s work. My job seems unimportant, my life flat and dull. I want to know about Linda’s life.  I want to have sex with her, to see her naked, to have her open her arms to me. I touch myself, imagining Linda touching me. I close my eyes, jerking furiously until I feel the wetness. I look to see if anyone saw, but there’s no one around.

The day after I leave work at noon, my boss calls me in, asks me where I went. I say I had an errand, couldn’t get to see the referral.

“D’ja think about calling?” he asks.

“Yeah, but my cell wasn’t charged.”

“Well, since you can’t seem to make time for work, I guess we’ll fix it so you don’t have to. Clean out your desk. You’re fired.”

Everybody’s looking at me when I leave the boss’s office, trying not to stare. They know I’ve been fired.  I don’t care. I don’t care about anything except Linda.

Now I don’t have anything to do except watch her. I wait outside her apartment, then outside her work. Sometimes I go in the building and watch the door to her apartment. No one goes in or out. I don’t see any of her neighbors. Once I jerk off in the hallway outside her apartment, spurting onto her doorway. It makes me feel powerful.

Linda asks me about work. I lie, say everything’s fine. One night after a movie, she says, “I tried to call you at work. They say you’re not there anymore.”

“Oh, yeah. I got a new job.”

“How come you didn’t say anything?”

“Same kind of stupid job—selling life insurance. What’d you do last night?”

She smiles and doesn’t answer.

I’m afraid to ask her direct questions, afraid she’ll vanish if I push her. I’m always surprised when I reach her at work, as though she might have disappeared.

One day she leaves for work late and sees me outside her house in my car.

“What’re you doing here?” she asks. “Are you spying on me?”

“Not spying. I just want to know your secret.”

“My secret? I don’t have a secret.”

“Who’s inside your apartment? Why won’t you tell me anything about your life? Why won’t you ever tell me anything except made-up stories? What are you not telling me? I lost my job because I can’t think of anything except you, your life. What’s your secret?”

“What business is it of yours to know about my life? I have no secrets. Now get out of here.  I don’t want to see you again.”

“I don’t believe you. I’m in love with you. That’s why I want to know about your life.”

“There is no secret. Just leave me alone. You’re weird.”

I didn’t mean to hit her so hard. I don’t know why I hit her at all. I can’t explain to the police or the psychologist or anybody else. I didn’t mean to hurt her. I just wanted to get close to her, to know all about her. She said I was weird. She said she didn’t want to see me anymore, but she was the only thing I had. 

 

- END -

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Art by Ann Marie Rhiel 2018

Carole Sojka has had short stories published in an anthology from Red Coyote Press, in Storyteller magazine, and in Yellow Mama. She has also published three mystery novels, the latest of which is Psychic Damage.

Many years ago, Carole served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Africa and then worked for many years as a law office administrator in a public law office. She is now retired and writes, reads, and generally does as she likes.

In Association with Black Petals & Fossil Publications 2017