The Quiet Ones
Clara hated to see Michael bent over his desk, eating alone and working away. She imagined he was desperately lonely. The poor man was terribly awkward, shuffling down the hall, not making eye contact and getting flustered when someone greeted him with a cheery “Hello!”
He was the sort you just wanted to fix up, she’d told her mother.
“Don’t meddle in the man’s life,” her mother had said. “You can’t fix whatever is broken inside a person like that.”
Clara supposed her mother was right, but she could see so much potential there. Like a house with “good bones” or a fine piece of furniture that just needs new upholstery, Michael could be cleaned up and given more appeal; if he only took a bit of care about himself, everyone else would see what she saw.
Michael had lovely dark hair that was wavy and always just a bit too shaggy, and it made such a dramatic contrast to his pale skin and blue eyes! Clara thought he looked like a young Richard Burton or one of the glamorous Hollywood stars of the 1930s—a Clark Gable or a William Powell. All he needed was a good suit and a better haircut.
She wished she could find a way to get him out of his shell.
When the executive director was cleaning out his office, he enlisted Clara’s help.
“See all these knick-knacks? The picture frames and whatnot? See if anybody else wants them for their offices,” he said.
She found takers for almost everything, but there was still a multi-photo picture frame left at the end of the day. She picked it up and marched down the hall to Michael’s office.
He looked up when she knocked on the open door frame.
“Hiya,” Clara said.
Michael nodded and mumbled, “Hello.”
“Mr. Rhodes is having his office redone and he wanted me to distribute some of the things he’s clearing out,” she said and held up the picture frame. “Would you like this?”
Michael looked at the frame and frowned a bit, “What would I use it for?”
“Pictures, silly!” Clara said, and stepped into his office. “You haven’t got anything on your walls. Wouldn’t you like something nice to look at?”
“I’ll leave it here, then,” she said, and propped the frame against the wall.
“Okay,” he said and looked the frame for a moment, his brow still furrowed. “I don’t have a camera. I don’t take pictures.”
“Well, you could find some nice pictures on the internet and print them out,” she said.
“We’re not supposed to use the printers for personal things,” Michael said, looking back up at Clara.
“Oh, it’ll be okay just this once,” she said and winked at him.
Michael blushed. He made a vague gesture at the papers on his desk.
“Thank you,” he said. “But, I’ve got to get this done by the end of the day.”
Clara smiled at him.
“You can put pictures in it any time,” she said. “You don’t have to do it today.”
When Clara popped around on Friday morning to offer up pastries Mr. Rhodes had bought for the office, she noticed Michael had put pictures in the frames.
“Ooh, look at you dressing things up a bit in here,” she said and put the box of jam-filled doughnuts down on Michael’s desk.
She stepped closer to the picture frame to inspect what he’d put in the individual frames. Her eyes roamed over the images—a wolf peering through the trees, a decrepit castle, the Giant’s Causeway, a raven perched on crumbling wall, a black horse pulling a wagon with a coffin atop. She let out a little gasp.
“Cheery bunch of pictures,” she said and turned to look at him.
He gave her a sly, crooked smile, and Clara shivered. She’d never noticed how intense his gaze was since he usually looked at the floor or around the room when she spoke to him.
“They make me glad I’m here and not out there,” Michael said and crooked his thumb toward the window. His office overlooked a patch of woods that looked dark and forbidding even in the middle of the day.
“You don’t really think it’s as bad as all that, do you?” she said.
Michael laughed. His laugh was surprisingly rich and jolly sounding.
“From what the papers say, it’s worse,” he said.
Clara laughed. Again, their eyes met and she felt a throb run through her and it made her bold.
“Would you like to get a drink after work?” she asked.
The Silver Slipper was steamy and cramped. Michael had ordered them both pints and a packet of crisps for Clara.
“We don’t want you losing your head with the alcohol,” he said.
“Go on, you,” she said, but opened the bag. She was famished. She hadn’t eaten since breakfast what with Mr. Rhodes ordering her around all day.
The text alert on her phone beeped as she popped a crisp into her mouth. From her mother: Going to Evie’s tonight. Supper is in the fridge.
She quickly texted back: OK. Getting drinks with friends anyway.
Clara scooted closer to Michael and held up her phone to snap a picture just as he bent down to tie his laces.
“Sit up,” she said, “and smile!”
Michael looked up, puzzled.
Clara leaned her head on his shoulder and took another photo.
She looked at the screen and frowned.
“That’s odd,” she said. “You came out all blurry. In both shots.”
“Probably the humidity in here,” Michael said. He gently tapped his glass against hers and said, “Drink up. It’s the weekend!”
Clara picked up her glass and drank deeply.
Clara and Michael stayed at the Silver Slipper for another round and then she suggested they go dancing.
“I know I’m not really dressed for it, but it’d be a laugh, wouldn’t it?” she said, her cheeks beginning to flush with the slightest of buzzes.
Michael smiled and finished his pint.
“You can always take off your shoes like a country girl,” he said, standing. Michael held out his hand and Clara took it.
The club was dark and booming with music. Clara shimmied and turned on the dance floor in front of Michael who had gone back to looking stiff and awkward. They had had shots of some trendy fireball whiskey and her blood was humming with music and alcohol.
She backed into him and reached up behind her, pulling Michael’s head onto her shoulder, then pulling his arms around her waist. She grinded against him. Smiling, she pushed harder against him and then broke from his grasp.
Clara turned to face him and grabbed Michael’s hand. She pulled him away from the dance floor and led him back out into the dark night.
They made their way down the alley and Clara stopped and leaned against the building. She could feel the thump of the bass through the wall.
She turned her face up to his and pulled Michael to her.
He kissed her, softly at first, and then harder as she pulled at his hips.
Clara sighed when Michael nuzzled her neck. His whiskers raked at the thin skin on her neck.
“I don’t know if I can make it home,” she whispered, “you might just have to take care of me here.”
Michael’s hands roamed up her skirt. His touch was perfect—strong enough not to tickle, but not rough enough to hurt. Clara let her thighs go loose. She hoped they were far enough back in the alley’s shadows to go unnoticed. All she needed would be to get caught in such an uncompromising position. Mr. Rhodes would fire her. Her mother would disown her. But, Jesusgod, he knows what he is doing. She bit her lip and fell into him.
Michael’s hands worked magic and his lips traveled across hers again. Don’t let him stop. He did that lovely thing with his stubbly cheek against her neck again, only this time she felt the tiniest pinch against her throat, just as she felt the first wave of warm bliss go through her. Her legs were trembling and--Jesus what is he doing to me?!—her neck was starting to burn. Clara started to get dizzy.
“Oh, love, you have to stop,” she moaned. “I think I’m going to be sick.”
Michael’s head was pressed against hers. His arms enveloped her.
Clara’s eyes wandered up to the patch of sky above the alley. Dark clouds rolled across the moon. She felt very lightheaded, indeed.
“I need to sit,” Clara mumbled as she slid to the ground, falling out of Michael’s embrace.
The clouds broke and bright moonlight shown down on them. Clara’s vision was starting to swim. She felt wetness on her collar and saw blood at the corners of Michael’s mouth. She couldn’t scream. She was too weak.
“I didn’t meant to go so far,” he said, as he bent down and brushed a lock of hair over her ear. “It’s been so long since I’ve fed; I just lost control. You were a lovely girl, Clara.”
Michael kissed her forehead and straightened up.
Clara mutely watched him walk off, blending into the night, and thought about the scolding her mother had given her at breakfast.
Clara had been spreading butter on her toast and going on about Michael—telling her mother how she wondered what he did with his evenings, and that he seems like a smart, sweet man, but he’s so painfully shy. It’s just terrible.
“Watch the quiet ones,” her mother had said. “They’re nothing but trouble underneath.”
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