By Joe Owens
The first tickles of light filtered across the room, illuminating the unmoving form snuggled underneath four layers of covers. The room was warm—a good 73 degrees, the digital thermometer would verify. For the person still cocooned in the queen size bed, the combination of insulating blankets and warm electric heat was perfect. She could stay here all day were it not for such things as a job, bills, food, clothes and other necessary things. Even now, she was less than conscious; maybe just sound asleep was the better way to describe it. She always declared that her best sleep came in the moments before the startling alarm bridged the gap between her dreams and reality.
Emma Starnes erupted from the blankets, much like a volcano, when the shrill noise blasted from her clock radio to announce the beginning of another workday. She slapped at the device, wanting to melt back into the covers for another few minutes rest. Barely four full breaths later, Emma’s eyes flashed open just before she choked on a half-obscenity with the realization of what today was. The promotions would be made known this morning.
An Olympic gymnast would have been impressed with the move Emma completed to transition from the bed to the door of her bathroom. An uncharacteristically short twelve minute shower later, she was staring at her 26-year-old face in the mirror. Hanging on the left she had three pictures of other women her age she used as a reference to see how she was doing holding on to her youth.
Emma was a perfectionist in all things, including the fine lines she thought she could see etching their way into her face. She had stacks of magazines from every source of health and beauty stacked in the corner of her bed room with endless list of tips—do’s and don’ts—about skin care. It was an obsession she would not freely admit, but knew she could never deny. Was it really that bad? No, probably not, but four years at Graham Perkins High School made her so self-conscious about her looks that by the time she went to college she was forever changed. Her sorority sisters constantly commented that they had never seen her just “veg out.” It used to bother Emma, but by this point she accepted it as a new “normal.”
The doorman in her apartment building anxiously awaited her each morning, knowing how their conversation would go. He was easily old enough to be her father, but enjoyed the fantasy that she might one day stop and ask him to whisk her away from all of her troubles. She likely was not troubled, but the man wanted her to be so she would say the magic words to him. Emma, of course, had no clue what this fellow had created in his mind. To her, he was a harmless employee of her building there to serve a purpose. She respected him, thought he was nice enough, but had no idea of the attraction he had created in his mind between them. If she knew it might have caused her to feel uncomfortable, especially after the experience with her senior seminar professor.
Robert Gray had been a career member of the business college at the university Emma had attended. Regular treatments at his local salon kept his jet black hair looking as it had since he was 40-years-old. A family trait of not showing his age helped perpetuate the myth, allowing him to act as though he was much younger than reality. Emma was naïve, but enjoyed the attention of an older man who offered what she missed from her absentee father—a man that ran off just before her high school graduation, chasing some high school sweetheart he reconnected with on Facebook.
Gray was smooth, as smooth as any man Emma ever knew. He always gave her exactly what she needed emotionally, which caused her to assume he had different intentions than were true. She fell in love with the idea that he was her hero and passed on other suitors closer to her age. By the beginning of her third semester, another younger, more willing, young woman had grabbed Gray’s eye, and Emma was kicked to the curb. This experience wounded her so deep she swore it would be a long time before she tried again.
As Emma exited the elevator this morning, she saw Ken, her building’s door man straighten as he stood to greet her. Something about him created a twinge of remembrance at her experience with Robert Gray. Emma pivoted quickly, turning toward a side exit. The doorman stood dumbfounded, wondering what had just caused the young woman to change her routine.
Emma felt her breathing become shallower as she walked briskly toward the bus stop. She looked over her shoulder to see if Ken came out the front door, but did not slow as she continued toward her stop and the escape she suddenly felt she needed. Her eyes were wide, pupils dilated, making her look like some crazed animal. She was thankful no one nearby knew her and could know the effect of what had just “almost” happened. She closed her eyes as she settled into the bus seat, allowing the tension to escape her body while she worked to convince herself there was nothing going on after all. She made a mental note to apologize to Ken when she saw him next. Why did she allow Gray’s actions to shade every interaction she had? It had cost her at least three chances at happiness just this year.
Mark and Peter were co-workers of Emma. Sure, it was “frowned on by the establishment,” but she could easily have seen herself long-term with either of them. Then, there was Chad, the hunk in accounting. Who knew a brainy man could have abs and pecks like that? It was the main reason she made the habit of going to the gym each morning. His drive to compete in triathlons guaranteed she would get a good dose of his physique on a regular basis.
Emma knew she was flawed due to her experience, but she hoped someday she could find a kind, understanding soul who would want to help her work through this hesitation. Every one of her friends encouraged her to keep trying, though her mother dared to declare at every face-to-face session that Emma was “violating” her biological clock every day she continued without a husband with which to create an offspring. Emma quietly withstood the badgering, just as she had during the years at home. Her mother meant well, but did not understand her daughter’s way of living life.
The office was already buzzing before Emma arrived. Everyone greeted her with knowing looks, expecting her name to be one of those announced for advancement at the early morning meeting. Emma smiled in response, wanting them to be right. Her work was always credited as first rate so why shouldn’t she expect this? No doubt Cindy Kelly would. The “beauty queen,” as she was known throughout the staff, was willing to do whatever she could to climb the ladder, including standing on Emma’s shoulders.
“It’s time,” Herman Cale announced from the door of the large conference room. This two word statement triggered the orderly assembly of the 32-person staff in the room to await their boss, Jason Strandridge. He would have the document detailing his intentions for promotion. Emma tried to remain calm, but she could not. This would be the only promotion opportunity for the year and she had to be the one from her department to move up. It was Emma’s usual way to accept life as it came, but this time she wanted something specific and knew nothing less would suffice.
Standridge shuffled through the conference room door in his usual Brooks Brothers black silk suit. He was all business, not stopping to address anyone personally. Once at the head of the long table, he plopped the papers on the wood surface and looked at the eager faces before him.
“No need for pomp or circumstance!” Standridge barked. “These are my new assistants. Ben Durant and …”
Emma whispered her name as she closed her eyes.
Emma opened her eyes to see that all eyes were on her. It felt good to be the center of attention for the right reason. She accepted the polite applause even as she watched Cindy Kelly twist her face in anger. The words of Emma’s father about being true to herself echoed in her mind. She finally could admit she was a success. How good that admission finally felt.
© 2013 Joe Owens
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Joe Owens is the winner of The Magill Review’s first-ever short story contest with “Emma Overcoming.” He has enjoyed writing fiction for thirty years in all its forms, whether it be short stories or novel length projects. He recently finished a mystery novel titled “The Family Secrets” that he hopes will be picked up by a literary agent sometime this summer/fall. Owens is a husband of twenty years and father to an 18-year-old son and 15-year-old daughter. His hobbies include writing, gardening and mission work. Owens will be a future contributing writer for The Magill Review.