Broken Things | A Short Story

He worshiped her.

Most days, it seemed like she almost hated him but he didn’t care. He was addicted to the smell of her, the taste, the texture of her skin.

Other than delivery people, she was the only person he ever saw or interacted with. It had been that way for almost two years.

Every time she appeared on his porch, he knew what she wanted and he wanted to give it to her. Like a junkie, he didn’t say no because he didn’t have the strength of will.

The shakes were too bad the moment she was within touching distance. He needed his fix of human contact, just for a little while.

Each visit, she brushed past him without a word, walked to his bedroom, and took off her clothes. Reclining on his bed, she waited for him to crawl between her legs and deliver as much pleasure with his mouth as she could physically stand to receive.

He never undressed. They never had sex. They didn’t talk.

After he pulled every ounce of pleasure from her body that she was capable of experiencing, she took a nap. He laid beside her, fully dressed, and watched her sleep.

Eventually, she woke up, showered, dressed, and left with a, “Thanks. See ya,” tossed over her shoulder. Sometimes she came once a week. Other times, it might be a month before she knocked on his door.

She didn’t share her plans and he didn’t ask.

A week after he watched through the blinds as she drove away, there was another knock on his door. He opened it in confusion but didn’t speak.

He knew she was a relative of his addiction. She had the same petite figure, dark hair, and pale brown eyes.

Much like Penelope, she brushed past him without a word. Instead of walking to his bedroom, she walked to his kitchen. She carried a large grocery bag.

Without a word, she cooked him an omelet with sautéed vegetables and expensive cheese. Plating the food, she poured him a glass of orange juice. He sat when she pointed at the chair and she sat on the other side of his table and watched as he ate every bite.

It was the first fresh food he had in a very long time.

After washing the dishes and pans she dirtied, she led him to his bedroom. With a nudge, he laid down and she covered him with his blankets.

Taking a seat in the chair beside the bed, she leaned her head against the back and waited for him to fall asleep. He was surprised that he did.

It was the best sleep he had in a very long time. 

His eyes opened to late afternoon sunlight along the back of the house and he stared at her. She still sat in the chair, silent, watching him.

A gentle smile on her face, she took his hand and guided him in the direction of his bathroom.

Fifteen minutes later, he returned to his living room in fresh clothes. She sat on his coffee table and patted the couch in front of it.

Lowering slowly, he waited.

“No more,” she said softly. He blinked, not understanding. “I’m Penelope’s sister. I heard her talk about you to her friends. Last week, I followed her here.”

He didn’t know what to say. Someone knowing what he did for Penelope was like having a crack habit dragged into the light. He wasn’t sure how to react.

“You have anxiety, severe depression. You’re afraid of crowds.”  He tilted his head slightly, confused. “She’s the only friend you’ve had since your trauma. An odd series of circumstances brought her into your orbit and you’re reluctant to let her go despite her being a cruel and selfish person. I know you’re dependent on the very little she provides.”

She knew more about him than he could process.

Resting her forearms on her knees, she leaned inches from his face. “I’ll be your friend. My name is Quincy. It’s nice to meet you, Artemus.”

He swallowed hard. “Hello.”

“I’ll visit each week. I left freshly prepared meals in your refrigerator. You heat them in the oven. The instructions are on top.”

Struggling to find his voice, he asked, “Why?”

“I’m sorry for what happened to you. If my sister possessed a beating heart, I don’t believe you would still be hidden away in this house. I’ve forbidden her from returning.” His heart slammed against his sternum. “It will be okay, Artemus. I promise. Breathe, that’s it.”

“I don’t have anyone else.”

“You do now. I won’t use you. I won’t leave you hanging. If my sister comes here again to use a broken man as if he’s nothing more than a life-sized vibrator, I’ll cut her off without a cent.”

He started to shake and she placed her hand over his. “I…” He gulped air and started again. “She didn’t force me to do it.”

“Perhaps not physically.” Taking his hand between both of hers, she whispered, “There are many forms of abuse, many methods of torture. You’ve been cut off from human decency, human kindness, but I can help. It will be okay.”

“How do you know?”  She smiled and he could see her kindness, gentleness, and confidence.

“Because I’m very good at what I do.”

“What do you do?” he asked quietly.

“I fix broken things.”

It was the longest conversation he had in a very long time.

Quincy fulfilled her promise, every week for more than a year.

With each visit, he seemed to wake, shake off the fog a bit more. His medication lasted longer. He started experimenting with ways to manage the panic that sometimes seized him without mercy.

During one visit, she said, “It’s been three years today. I can tell by your shakes that you’ve been obsessing about it all day.”

“No, I…”

A cool palm rested along the side of his face. “Artemus. It’s understandable. It was a horrible event. You couldn’t have stopped it but you saved as many as you could. You’re a hero.”

“I’m a basket case. Useless.”

“Never.” Dragging her chair closer, she cupped his face in her hands. “You’re strong, capable. It’s not your fault. You weren’t the shooter.”

“I was trained. I should have…”

“What? Been on all three floors to save every person in the building? Taken him out sooner when you didn’t know he was killing people on the floors below you?”

“So many. So many dead.”

“Your girlfriend. From all accounts a wonderful person. Pregnant with your child.”

“Christi didn’t believe in marriage.” Blinking back tears, he tried to smile. “Her parents were hippies.”

“She was the second person shot on the first floor. Before anyone sounded an alarm. Before anyone could react. Before the security consultant installing cutting edge software on the fourth floor could have possibly heard the gunfire.”

“I heard the echo in the stairwell. He was entering the third floor.”

“If you hadn’t been there, he would have killed so many more, Artemus.” She inhaled. “I know the loss of life, of someone you loved, was brutal. I can’t imagine how it haunts you.”

“She was sitting at her desk. Her planner open. Her assistant beside her. Always so busy, so organized.” He met her eyes. “It happened so fast but she had time to see the girl die, to feel fear. In that split second, she would have been terrified. That’s what haunts me.”

She took his hand, gently stroking the back with her thumb. “He killed everyone on the first floor. Nine people. The women shot getting off the elevators blocked the doors, made them impossible to use. Two more killed in the stairwell to the second floor. Another four on that level but people were trying to get out. Running up trying to buy time, knowing he was using the stairs. One was killed on the third-floor landing. That would have been the shot you heard.”

“I knew the sound. People busted through the fourth-floor doorway. Screaming, crying. Some covered in blood. I pulled my weapon, descended to the level he was on. He took hostages in the executive office.”

“You covered several people as they ran for the exit. You tried to negotiate. At that moment, less than three minutes passed since he entered the building. He refused to negotiate. It was described as a perfect shot. Through glass and blinds. No room for error or the man he held in front of him would have died. Dead center of his forehead.” The movement of her thumb was hypnotic. “All twelve of those people lived. Forty-six employees on the upper floors lived.”

“I couldn’t save her.”

“You didn’t know she needed saving.”

“I should have saved her.”

“An impossible assumption that negates the facts. The facts are solid, confirmed by countless experts and law enforcement. The moment you perceived a threat, you acted. You saved lives. I’m sorry you couldn’t save everyone. I’m sorry you couldn’t save her. You never could have saved her, Artemus.”

“Why do you come here, Quincy?”

“You know why.” They stared at one another for a long time, quiet. Remembering. “Penelope was saved. The tourniquet you applied after the gunman was killed stopped her from bleeding out. You didn’t know your woman was in the building. She came in early.”

“I thought she was taking the morning off. She had a doctor’s appointment. The first visit to the obstetrician. I found out later it was rescheduled.”

“I’ve watched the footage of that day a hundred times. Taken by cell phones, security cameras, and news outlets. You saved my sister and many others, not knowing that your girlfriend and unborn child were dead in an office on the first floor.”

Patting his hand, she let him go. He missed the contact immediately.

“You withdrew to this house. Retreated into your security software. Put yourself on autopilot. Penelope talked about you before the shooting, about stealing you from the woman you were with. I told her she was an awful person. She found you after everything.”

Tilting his head, he whispered, “She saw an opportunity. I used her as well.”

“No. You didn’t.”

“Why do you come here, Quincy?” he asked again.

“I didn’t know she was coming here. I was livid when I found out.”

“Why?”

“So many times, I wanted to visit you. To thank you, to comfort you. I thought it would be invasive of your privacy, your grief.”

The silence drew out between them but their silences were never awkward.

“I attended all the funerals. I watched the footage. I interviewed dozens of survivors. I consulted on the documentary about that day as an expert in a rapidly growing field of mass murder. It wasn’t my first shooting. Unfortunately, it won’t be my last.”

“Why me? Why help me?”

“You were broken. I knew I could help.”

He tilted his head, frowning. “You’re lying. Why me?”

She swallowed hard, blinked rapidly several times. “I saw you once. Before it happened.” She shook her head. “Of all the people, before and after, you were the one most affected despite doing the most to bring it to an end.”

“Did we meet? Before the shooting?”

“I’m on the board of several charities. I work for a living but…my family’s money means I’m in a different world half the time. There was a woman, a friend of mine. You saved her. Kept her from being kidnapped. I was in the car behind hers.”

“Mala.”

“Yes.”  She folded her hands in her lap, gripping them tightly. “My mother was alive then, demanding and rigid. Since she was a child, Penelope went for shock but I did what was expected of me. It’s who I’ve always been.”

He considered her words. “I would have been unacceptable.”

“The exact opposite of who I was supposed to be interested in. Someone stronger would have fought it, made an introduction. Not me.”  Clearing her throat, she added, “When Mother died, I changed my life. I used my education, my resources, to help victims of violence and tragedy. I think…part of me did that because I hesitated the first time I saw you.”

“You were the friend she thought I should meet.”

“Perhaps. Life is filled with chaos and confusion and pain, Artemus. Bad things happen to good people. Evil triumphs when it shouldn’t. Despite that, the world is smaller than we imagine. Thousands of miles away from where you saved a friend, you saved my sister. As awful as she can be, I love her. You gave me two people yet lost your woman and your child. I couldn’t let you lose yourself.”

“The universe always balances itself out.  Perhaps not the way we think it should but it strives for balance.” It was something a man, a friend, told him a few weeks after the shooting.

“You needed another human. My sister didn’t qualify. I wanted you to remember.”

“Remember what?”

“Something to live for.”

Quincy had visited his home fifty-three times. She made him meals, reminded him to shower, and sat quietly when he wasn’t able to talk.  She touched him gently, encouraged him with looks and soft words, and never judged the way he recoiled after that horrific day. Every time she left him, he wondered if she’d return.

She always did.

Reaching out, he rested his hand over hers. She clasped her fingers so tightly the knuckles were white. Working his hand between them, he stroked his thumb over the skin on the back of her hand.  He heard the breath stutter from between her lips, a soft sound escaping.

“Thank you.” She nodded, her eyes bright with tears she didn’t allow to fall. “You’re very good at what you do…I don’t feel as broken.”

Leaning forward, he brushed his lips over hers. Then he stood up and kissed the top of her head.

“I thought we could make some pasta, Quincy. What do you think?”

Nodding, she wiped quickly at the tears that slipped over her cheeks. “That would be lovely.”

© Shayne McClendon

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