Authors: Minka Kent
“Smells amazing—what is it?” he asks, tugging his name badge off his teal scrub shirt when he walks through the back door.
“Shepherd’s pie,” I say. My grandmother was always big on comfort food. As a result, casseroles comprise three-fourths of the things I know how to make.
He flashes a smile that lights his face, softening his strong features. His deep-set crystalline eyes and square jaw can be harsh on him if his expression veers to the serious side, but when he’s in good spirits, I swear he can light an entire room with just one look.
“More than enough,” I say, which is my nonchalant invitation to dinner, not that he needs one at this point. He’s lived here for several
months now, moving in shortly after my attack, when living alone was becoming overwhelming in ways I never knew possible before.
“Let me grab a shower, and I’ll be back down.” He squeezes past me, his hands resting on my shoulders for a sliver of a second, and then he disappears, footsteps fading until they’re swallowed by the second level.
I check the timer on the oven before setting the table.
Despite the fact that our relationship—if you can call it that—is strictly platonic, sometimes it feels like playing house with him 1950s-style. I’m the stay-at-home wife. He’s the husband with an MD. We live on one of the prettiest tree-lined streets in town. We never discuss politics or religion—only the best parts of our days. All that’s missing are a couple of kids, some old-fashioned romance, and a border collie named Frisbee.
But whatever this is, I don’t mind. It makes me not feel like a freak. He helps me forget. He quells the loneliness if only for an hour or two of my day. Niall is a welcome distraction from the bizarre bubble that has become my life.
I take a seat at the table a few minutes later, a steaming dish of shepherd’s pie resting on one of my grandmother’s iron trivets. My stomach growls. I haven’t eaten a thing since before noon, but I wait for him out of politeness. A quick glance at the front door confirms the lock is engaged. It doesn’t matter how many times I check it during the day, I can never help second-guessing myself at the most random of moments.
With my elbows resting on the table and my chin in my hands, I stare out the lace-covered windows of the dining room at a sky that has long turned to dusk.
I’m lost in my own thoughts for I’m not sure how long when the flicker of the aged brass candelabra chandelier above steals my attention.
A sharp pop follows next, then darkness, and for a second I can’t breathe, as if the air is trapped in my paralyzed lungs.
My entire house is black, the only source of light filtered through the sheer panels that hang from the windows.
“Niall?” I call up the stairs, palms damp against the tops of my thighs. I don’t wait for him to reply before dashing to the kitchen and yanking my keys from the drawer. I’m sure it’s just a blown fuse or tripped breaker, but I refuse to lumber around a pitch-black house without taking a couple of safety precautions. One of the first things I did after leaving the hospital was order a handful of portable self-defense tools I could carry on my key chain—pepper spray, a personal alarm, brass knuckles, a miniature stun gun.
Next, I grab a few candles and a lighter from the cupboard beside the sink, placing them in the center of the dining room table before lighting the wicks. It isn’t much, but it’s better than stumbling around in a dark void.
Turning to carry the lighter back to the kitchen, I stop in my tracks when I nearly bump into Niall standing in the doorway. My heart lurches into my throat with such force it’s almost painful.
“Hey,” he says, voice soothing like balm. He places his hands over mine, his steady over mine trembling. “I didn’t mean to scare you.”
The earthy, antiseptic scent of tea tree oil bodywash emanates from his warm skin, and even in the dark, I can see his hair is damp, parted on the side, and combed through.
“I must’ve tripped a breaker when I was shaving,” he says. I exhale. I’m sure that’s all it was. This old house needs new electric, but whenever I think of the handful of strangers that’ll be working in my home for days, possibly weeks, I immediately change my mind. “You have a flashlight?”
Niall releases my hands and I squeeze past him, fishing around in a kitchen junk drawer until I produce a small black flashlight.
He takes it from me, heading to the basement door, his pace calm and patient.
“When was the last time anyone looked at your electrical panel? Might be time to have it replaced.” He clicks on the flashlight before heading downstairs.
I return to the dining room table, taking refuge in the dancing light of the candles until the chandelier above flickers back to life.
This happens sometimes—the tripped breakers—but this is the first time it’s happened at night, after the sun’s gone down.
Thank God Niall’s here. I’ve always hated that basement. The musty smells. The decades-old canned vegetables sitting on shelves. The iron furnace with its menacing facade. The way the house creaks and moans when the wind blows hard from the north and all the sounds are amplified down there.
“All good,” Niall says when he returns a couple of minutes later.
My cheeks flush with warmth. I know I overreacted. I know I got worked up for nothing. But once the body’s fight-or-flight response is engaged, there’s no shutting it off until the threat to safety has been removed—something I’ve learned during my recovery.
He takes a seat beside me at the table. “You didn’t have to wait for me.”
“Dig in,” I say with a small smile, ignoring his comment and wishing I could erase my overreaction from a few moments ago from both of our memories. I know our relationship is that of a landlord and tenant, but I’ve always treated him as a guest. A friend, really. I want him to know that I enjoy his company. I want him to feel welcome and at home.
his home after all.
“Starving,” he says as he heaps a portion onto his plate. “Barely had time to think today, let alone eat a proper lunch.”
I know Tuesdays are his busiest days. He’s said so in the past. They like to perform surgeries earlier in the week; that way if there are any complications or emergencies, they’re normally caught before the weekend rolls around and doctors have to be paged in.
“Sometimes I wonder how I survived before you came along,” he says with a small chuckle as he pushes the serving dish toward me. “What’d you do today?”
I hate when he asks me this. “Same old.”
He doesn’t pry. He knows. Before he moved in, we discussed my circumstances. I thought it would be best to answer any questions he might have before he so much as signed anything. It isn’t normal for a thirty-year-old woman to be living in a massive house all by herself, spending her days doing a whole lot of nothing but staring out windows and watching the comings and goings of the neighborhood like it’s her job.
Fortunately one of Niall’s best traits is his compassion, and he wholeheartedly understood my plight, even offering to make referrals and recommendations, as if he instantly wanted to be a part of my care and recovery.
In that regard, I consider myself lucky.
Niall and I exchange friendly glances as we chew. There’s an unspoken understanding I have with him that I’ve never had with anyone else, and while our friendship might be young and born of convenience, in a lot of ways I feel as though I’ve known him my entire life.
I wish he could have known me before—when I had a robust social life, a phone that never stopped chiming and buzzing morning, noon, and night, an enviable vacation schedule, a whole myriad of interesting things to talk about, and a perpetual smile on my face.
I’m convinced somewhere, deep down, that version of me is still in there. I’m still working on digging her out from beneath the pile of psychological rubble and emotional ash. I haven’t given up—it’s just taking longer than I expected.
We finish the rest of our dinner in mutual silence. He can’t tell me too much about his day due to patient confidentiality, so usually whenever we do talk, there’s a lot of generalizing, a lot of inside jokes between him and the other doctors that I politely laugh along at, but
tonight we enjoy the close of the day with full bellies, status quo contentment, and quietude.
Niall is finished first, and he carries his plate to the kitchen sink. A second later, I hear the water running, and by the time I join him with my dirty dishes, I see he’s filled half of the sink with warm, soapy water. His long arms are covered in rubber gloves, and he dunks a sponge under the bubbled surface before grabbing another plate.
“You don’t have to do that,” I say.
It’s the same old song and dance. Anytime I cook, he insists on cleaning, and I pretend like he doesn’t have to despite the fact that I’m beyond grateful.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” he says.
I watch the gifted hands that save lives scrub pots and pans and fork tines, the muscles of his strong shoulders flexing as he moves about.
A moment later, I grab a dry rag from a drawer and begin wiping down the clean dishes before putting them away.
We make a good team, Niall and I.
When we’re finished, he slips the gloves off and drapes them side by side next to the sink, nice and neat.
“Going to head up now,” he says, hands on his narrow hips. I glance at the clock on the microwave. It’s still early, but I bury my disappointment behind a pleasant mask. “I’ll be in my study if you need me.”
A couple of months ago, Niall asked if he could convert one of the spare bedrooms upstairs into a study, and I watched as he filled the room with a cognac leather chesterfield sofa, a bookcase filled with classics and medical textbooks, and a mahogany desk topped with one of those green banker’s lamps.
I’ve told him time and again that he’s more than welcome to join me in the back parlor for TV in the evenings, that he’s not obligated to remain solely on the second floor when he’s home, but he says this is how he unwinds after a long day: he retreats to his study, shuts the door, and does his own thing.
“Good night,” I tell him, watching him disappear from view.
Trekking to my room, I change into gray flannel pajama pants and a jersey-soft T-shirt before returning to the kitchen to make my nightly cup of chamomile lavender tea and take my three milligrams of melatonin.
Most nights, I have to chase sleep with a butterfly net. I can’t do the strong stuff—I’ve lost entire days with some of the prescription sleep medications, and the over-the-counter options always leave me groggy the next day. This combination is the only thing I’ve found that’s equal parts gentle and effective, and the majority of the time it keeps the night terrors at bay.
After carrying my teakettle to the sink, I position the top below the waterspout and twist the hot water knob, losing myself in a little reverie as I wait for it to fill. In my mind’s eye, I’m somewhere else. Saint Thomas, to be specific. Two years ago, my girlfriends and I did an eight-day trip filled with sun, sand, and bright little umbrella drinks in oversized cocktail glasses.
It’s funny. We were so close then, the four of us. But ever since the assault, they’ve faded from my life without so much as an explanation.
That seems to be a theme in my life . . . people leaving without explanation.
Before my friends, it was my mother. One day we were at the park, enjoying melting ice-cream cones. The next day she was dropping me off at my grandparents’ house with a promise to return.
She never did come back.
I remove my thoughts from the past and bring myself to the present, realizing my kettle is spilling over. I remove it from the stream before glancing up at the window above the faucet. I fully expect to be greeted with my own reflection, only there’s a tall figure standing behind me.
Shrieking, I drop the heavy kettle into the sink and jerk back. Two arms wrap around me, followed by a shushing in my ear.
“It’s just me,” Niall says.
His warmth envelops me for another moment longer before he lets me go.
I press a palm against my fluttering chest. “I didn’t hear you coming.”
“I’m so sorry.” His arms lift at his sides. “Guess I’m used to being a quiet walker at work. You okay?”
Lines spread across his forehead, and he places a hand on my shoulder. He feels awful for scaring me, I can tell.
“Yeah, yeah.” I nod before turning back to the pool of spilled water on my counter.
“Let me get that.” He moves quickly, wiping up the mess and taking the kettle to the stove. The man lives—literally lives—to take care of people. “You have a seat in the back parlor. I’ll bring you your tea in a minute.”
I let him do his thing because I don’t want to be one of those annoying, overly polite people. In the back parlor, I grab the TV remote and tune in to some evening news program, hoping to subtly show off my intellectual side even though I’d very much love to partake in some mindless housewives’ reality show right about now.
I’m all about mental escape these days.
A few minutes later, Niall is standing in the doorway of the back parlor, a rose-print china teacup resting on a saucer in his firm hands.
“And here you are.” He places it on the coffee table before me.
“You’re the best.” I gather my throw blanket and situate it over my legs. “You want to hang out for a bit? I’m just watching this special about climate change. Fascinating stuff.”
I’m lying, which I don’t normally make a habit of, but sometimes I crave his company. Anyone’s company, really. Loneliness has become a residual side effect since my attack. And occasionally desperation is a side effect of that loneliness.
“I’ve got an early morning,” he says, eyes crinkling as if he’s apologizing. And it’s true. Wednesdays he goes in at 6:00 AM, which means he has to be pulling out of here by 5:30 sharp. “Another time?”
I lean forward, retrieving the cup and saucer. “Of course.”
“Good night,” he says, lingering for a second. It’s dark in here, and the flicker of the TV paints shadows on his face, but I swear there’s an air of sadness in his eyes.