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The Ghost and Miss Demure
By Melanie Jackson
Dorchester PublishingCopyright © 2010 Melanie Jackson
All right reserved.
Chapter One"Oh, geez! I'm being haunted." Karo blinked several times and tried to refocus her eyes on the wet pavement that was whipping by at a good twenty miles over the advised speed limit. Her involuntary shuddering at her ex-boss's image had nearly shaken the Honda off the road and into a stand of fall-blooming hollyhocks that hadn't yet blossomed but whose buds were almost bursting off the stem with the promise of new color. Such happiness did not suit her mood.
"Post-traumatic stress disorder," she announced to the universe, though she suspected that the starry vastness was uncaring. Karo had been alone so much lately that she had taken to talking to herself. She had no one else; she was avoiding her family and being reluctantly shunned by her wage-slave peers. And deservedly so. Her hysterical catharsis at the faculty welcome dinner had been a summary example of professional hari-kari carried out in full view of the entire documents department. It had been momentarily satisfying, seeing F. Christian Merriweather fall on his chauvinistic butt, blinded with potato salad, but the public act of rage had left others with no choice but to quarantine her the moment word of it spread-and it had spread, with a speed that shamed a pandemic. She was now a leper, as welcome as flu or cold sores. To be seen with her was like being in contact with a highly contagious venereal disease, but far more damaging to one's career. Which was why she was on a waterlogged back road in the middle of a torrential storm trying to find some old plantation in Bumble-fart, Virginia: she was fleeing the consequences of her dramatic and extremely public resignation from the historical society and seeking asylum in a new world.
Until that Armageddonous day when she attacked her employer, Karo had considered it an interesting but irrelevant bit of trivia that the average working woman reached job burn-out somewhere in her late thirties, when, typically, she hit a glass ceiling in her career or her biological clock started chirping its insistent wake-up call. Irrelevant, because it didn't seem to have anything to do with her life. She was barely thirty and had no urge for children, though the notion of getting a dog had growing appeal: they were loyal and true and asked for no more than some pats and kibble. Of course, she had always realized that every human had a breaking point, a time of potential personal and professional midlife calamity when an emotional critical mass could be reached, but she'd had her zero hour scheduled for years in the future-say, around forty, when she would have the financial means of coping with it in some societally approved manner.
The traditional methods for dealing with breakdown varied with gender, of course. Men bought sports cars and took up with young bimbos; women had babies or went for face-lifts at spas in foreign countries. Given a choice, Karo planned to cross gender lines and go for the car. That seemed a better investment. But it wasn't cheap to go nuts, and it would have worked out better if she'd had a couple or ten years more to plan for her madness-or if she had a better credit rating.
Unfortunately, fate was ready to destroy her before her savings account was secure. Statistically, Karo was too young to go nova, so she wasn't prepared. She wasn't vested in her pension plan. She didn't have a stock portfolio. She hadn't even gotten around to planning for a maternity leave. As a part-time employee, she didn't have a health plan, so there was no option even of COBRA payments while she found another job. All she had was a liberal arts degree, and they didn't shell out big bucks for that in this economy.
But, her emotions hadn't cared about finances or statistics. They'd seen another person's name at the top of the magazine article, claiming all the research she had submitted to her supposed mentor and boss for evaluation, and made an intuitive but accurate leap of understanding that she had again been used-just like in college, when her professor had stolen her term paper and published it under his own name. Years of pent up frustrations were vented on her ex-boss in one ballistic explosion. She had been possessed by a demon, had spoken in tongues. She had actually resorted to violence, a thing anathema to her family. That was bad, of course, but it gave Karo some small comfort to think that, like the lucky victim of a classical bloodthirsty Valkyrie, she had gone out in a blaze of emotional and untenured glory.
Glory. Maybe its afterglow would keep her warm in the winters ahead when she couldn't afford utilities or rent, because jobs were going to be scarce. Even if the economy ever got back on its feet, from here on out she would be viewed as a loose cannon. Never mind that everyone knew F. Christian was a shit-heel who couldn't think his way out of a jar of slime; assistants were supposed to be like ministers' wives and suffer in devoted silence no matter how assholish their bosses-at least until they were tenured and could start being cruel to their interns, who would in turn suffer in silence.
Karo frowned direfully at the golden boughs whipping by the edge of the aging chariot carrying her to paradise or hell. It was going to need a new paint job. The '78 green Honda Civic was older and wiser than she, but it was beginning to show two-tone camouflage, changing from green to rust. She and the Honda had been going steady since her second year of high school, and it was symptomatic of what was wrong with her: an inability to let go of things, even when she should. Her few trade-ins never led to trade-ups. Because, at heart, she was a social coward, a good girl. She'd never had the guts to go for the gusto, though she was far smarter than most of the people for whom she worked.
Actually, though she would rather be tortured than admit it, Karo had always been vaguely displeased with being bright. In her experience, bright girls were lonely ones, and lonely girls got pestered by their mothers about dating and had bosses take advantage of their awkwardness with the opposite sex and their empty social calendars. They also drove cruddy cars. Of course, the only thing worse than being smart was pretending to be dumb. Such a ruse was exhausting, and she hadn't possessed the courage as a child to face her devoted and very bright parents, standing in the principal's office with a sheaf of astonishing placement tests in their hands, and deny that she was gifted. She hadn't said she didn't belong in that advanced placement class, which would make other children hate and mock her, and now it was too late. She was known for having a brain. Her parents had expectations.
But, why should she play dumb, damn it? What use was the woman's movement if she couldn't admit to having more than two thoughts to rub together and could actually balance her checkbook on the rare occasion when there was anything in her account? She just needed some guts to back up her IQ. Perhaps she'd join a support group for doormats with genius IQs. Maybe take a little assertiveness training.
"I'm turnin' over a new leaf, starting a fresh page. If it's dog eat dog out there, then I'm gonna be the head wiener." She started to make a snarling noise but stopped when she heard herself. It was a bit too convincing.
Of course, she still had a ways to go. In spite of her heroic beginning, Karo's brain had seized up as soon as she'd staggered up the stairs of the front porch of her tiny rental home. She still couldn't recall how she'd gotten there. Unaccustomed to participating in public brawls, she had reverted to her native jellyfish form and barely made it through her front door before collapsing in a shaking bundle of calico petticoats, the historically correct outfit the historical society insisted their female employees wear in public. Rage, Karo decided, took practice. So did handling prolonged stress. She would get better in time.
But she hadn't gotten better right away. Crisis levels rose in town for days as rumor of her action spread through the society rank and file. Tales of her transgressions expanded exponentially as they went, as did the assessed damage to F. Christian's bruised butt and ego. She hadn't just dumped potato salad on him; she had brained him with the bowl and concussed him. For half a day it had been rumored that F. Christian Junior was actually in a coma brought on by massive brain trauma, but he had fortunately come back from Boston before that bit of gossip made it into the local rag-sheet. Of course, the idiot liar then had to brag that he had slept with her. Karo had taken her vengeance by starting a rumor that F. Christian wet the bed. The story caught on. Too bad that making up the tale felt both too mean and not mean enough.
The phone had rung ceaselessly as her coworkers grew more avidly curious to hear the truth of the incident, until Karo had finally plugged in the answering machine her parents gave her for Christmas and begun screening calls. Her recorded message said that she was in Brazil and couldn't be reached by any means known to man. She'd also quit opening her door unless the visitor knew the secret knock: shave-and-haircut-six-bits. It was usually the delivery man from Forget-Me-Not Florist with another bouquet and some more witticisms about the wages of sin being pretty good. The only other human she saw was her friend, Diane, who kept her informed of the gossip in the tavern where she worked.
The floral tributes from her anonymous admirers got embarrassing, and they made her living room look like a funeral parlor-or, more horrible, a Hindu suttee, since the flower arrangements were divided equally between twenty-nine dollar Thinking-of-You bouquets and the more expensive funeral wreaths with the black satin RIP banner. Under cover of darkness, Karo had hauled all the offerings outside to the curb, hoping that some enterprising thief would steal them. But, no. No one wanted free flowers for Grandma's grave or a twenty-nine dollar arrangement of leather-leaf fern and sunny yellow carnations to take home to their wife or mother. Instead, Karo was cited for violating city landscape ordinances-something F. Christian had probably put his friends in city government up to when he heard about the funeral sprays. In a show of solidarity, one of the women in her office talked to her tour guide boyfriend, and suddenly tours from his company began running buses by her house and pointing her porch out as a landmark. She was touted as a modern-day David going up against an institutional Goliath.
A reporter from The Capitol heard the story and called for an interview. A local ambulance chaser left a message urging her to sue. Karo knew something had to be done, but she'd burst an emotional aneurism and couldn't get her brain working. She didn't want to be a poster child for the underpaid masses of Williamstown who detested the bigoted, sexist, soul-eating Merriweathers. All she wanted to do was eat chocolate sorbet and hide under the Saint Anthony's Thift Shop coffee table until it all went away.
She might have gone on cowering for weeks, but two things happened within days of one another. On Monday, she was served with an eviction notice. Want to see time fly? Karo had said to her friend, Becky. Don't have fun. Just get an eviction notice. And then something more terrifying flushed her from the hole where she'd been hiding. It was her mother's dreaded second Saturday of the month phone call reminding her that her parents were coming for a visit at the end of the week and were expecting a tour of her workplace, so she'd best be back from Brazil.
Their visit alone would have been enough to force her into action, but the voice of maternal concern, coming at the end of the fourth day of the worst week of Karo's life, reached ears even more attentive than usual. Karo actually heard her mother's hidden message through the flow of superfluous, maternal verbiage. Mother was saying that she had been "wasting her life on a poor paying career," and on men who wouldn't commit to any woman they couldn't dominate because they were afraid their penises weren't big enough. (Well, her mother hadn't said that last part, but Karo could read between the lines.) The real message was: Karo needed to make a change. Perhaps a new hairstyle and some fall clothes? Skirts were shorter this year.
Discounting the fashion advice, Karo had to admit that her mom was right. She needed a new Karo Follett, a new life. Especially after the fiasco in the faculty dining room. No matter how hard both she and her boss tried to smother the flames of gossip, she had to face facts. Her job was dead, even if no one had officially buried her. No amount of sackcloth and ashes would change it. Her days in historic Williamstown were over.
No, there was no defending what F. Christian had done, the rat fink, but no one in power was going to sympathize with her feelings. After all, Karo wasn't the publicly wronged party, the one with potato salad in her face. She was the ungrateful intern who hadn't been appreciative of her mentor's advice and guidance. It did no good to protest that she'd had her work stolen-again-that her track record as an ostrich was complete where F-F for "Fucking rodent"-Christian was concerned. The powers that be would not listen to her appeal, even had she cared to admit to such stupidity as handing over work for which she had no back-up copies because she thought she was talking to a potential boyfriend who was offering to edit her work and not her thieving boss who, it turns out, had a history of pulling stunts like this.
Resolved to change her life, Karo had spent the rest of her weekend networking by phone and considering her limited options. In spite of her underground popularity with the working grunts at the historical society, there seemed to be only three choices open to her: suicide, homicide of every employee the rank of department chair and above, or leaving town before she was run out on a rail by F. Christian Senior, or by his perverted younger brother who happened to be an attorney. Never slow to act-at least, not once circumstances forced her hand-Karo had a five minute telephone interview with a friend of a friend who knew some guy, and decided that she preferred the sound of working on a quasi-historical restoration project at the ass end of nowhere to learning how to spin dough at a pizza parlor.
She'd called her mother back with the news on a Monday afternoon, when she knew both parents would be having lunch at the Senior Center. She would have avoided all contact if she could, but she felt that she had to give them the new address in case an emergency-like Mom's long-threatened nervous breakdown-ever actually happened. She had frowned as she hung up the phone and finally admitted that it was an act of craven cowardice to hide behind an answering machine, but an outright confession to her parents that she was changing jobs again, after letting some man use her, also again, was beyond her that week. So what if her message had been deliberately vague about her reasons for vacating her old corner of Virginia? So what if she had recommended strongly that her parents delay their vacation for a few weeks while she settled into her new job? It wasn't like she had told any actual lies. Honor thy father and thy mother, the Bible said, but who would blame her for this one slightly cowardly action? Wasn't it self-defense, considering her extraordinary circumstances? And they would be happier not knowing the truth.
A disconcerting clatter from the back of the car intruded abruptly on Karo's brooding. Her left rear tire had flattened something large in the road. She checked her side-view mirror but the mud was too thick to be certain of what she was leaving behind. Whatever it was, it was long and tubular.
Damn! She should stop and pick it up. This was littering, and spare parts were so expensive, even for cars as old as hers. On the other hand, the car was still running and it might not stay that way if she took her foot off the gas, especially with the battery being as old as it was. And, there was nowhere to turn around. And it couldn't be anything important, like the transmission or engine, or the car wouldn't still be working. She'd check the muffler later. Her father was always warning her about that.
Excerpted from The Ghost and Miss Demure by Melanie Jackson Copyright © 2010 by Melanie Jackson. Excerpted by permission.
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