Mary groaned when her alarm clock woke her at three in the afternoon. She automatically hit the snooze button to silence the shrieking. She had tumbled into bed without brushing her teeth or washing her face at nine-thirty that morning after making sure Jared was sleeping comfortably.
The alarm clock buzzed again, and she fought the urge to roll over and go back to sleep. Her stomach growled, reminding her she needed sustenance more than sleep at this point. She forced herself out of bed and walked into the bathroom to take a hot shower. When she caught her reflection in the mirror, she gasped. A purple, fist-sized bruise grew where Jared’s punch met her jaw. Good thing she worked from home. No one would believe how she acquired a bruise like that.
The hot water eased her achy muscles. As she shampooed her hair, she hoped whatever Jared had wasn’t catching. She had never called in sick to work in the seven years she had been a DJ, and she didn’t intend to start.
When she was finished, Mary descended the staircase feeling much better except for the ache in her jaw. She hoped the ibuprofen she took would kick in quickly. She rounded the corner of the kitchen to hear Elvis crooning about burning love. Jared stood at the counter, expertly flipping pancakes on the electric griddle. His hair curled a bit at the nape of his neck, damp from his own shower. He was wearing a pair of well-worn jeans and a rugby shirt.
“You must be feeling better.” She leaned against the doorjamb as she watched him.
“Yes, I am.” Jared turned and grinned. “Breakfast for an afternoon snack?” He paused and studied her face. “Your face. I can’t believe I did that.”
She raised her eyebrows. “I can’t either.”
His face turned beet red. “I’m so sorry, Mary. I don’t know what I was thinking.”
“I know you didn’t mean it. You were having a nightmare.”
He turned back to the griddle and muttered under his breath, “I wish that nightmare would quit visiting me.”
She decided a change in subject would be best for both of them. “Smells good in here.”
Jared waved the spatula. “Woke up a while ago and checked my temperature. No fever. Must have overworked myself yesterday along with forgetting to take my allergy medicine. I feel fit as a fiddle now.”
“That’s amazing. I’ve never seen an adult recover from a fever so quickly.”
“My mother said I had the constitution of a horse, whatever that means. Except for the allergic reaction to cut grass, I’ve rarely been sick.”
“Not many people can say that. You’re lucky.”
Jared glanced down at his leg. “Maybe not so lucky, but please, sit down.”
Mary glanced at the kitchen table, which Jared had set for two with orange juice in petite glasses beside plates, forks, and napkins. He slid the last of the pancakes on a plate and carried it to the table.
“How did you know I would be coming down?”
“I heard you moving around and gambled that meant you were up and about. I figured cooking you breakfast was the least I could do.”
She sat down and breathed in the delicious aroma of hot pancakes. She couldn’t remember the last time someone had cooked her pancakes. Her mother never made them and Aunt Geraldine’s idea of breakfast was cold cereal every single day. As soon as she was old enough, she’d had to pour her own milk. She swallowed hard to dispel the lump in her throat. If she wasn’t careful, she would cry over the syrup.
Jared placed a plate of crisp bacon on the table and set a pot of tea beside it. “I’m not sure I made the tea right.”
Mary shook out her cloth napkin and placed it on her lap. “I’m sure it will be just fine.”
Over the meal, Jared steered the conversation to their shared childhood experiences. Mary suspected he did so deliberately to avoid talking about the nightmare or his leg injury, but she enjoyed remembering some of the happiest moments of her life. Jared had Mary in stitches laughing about some of their infamous escapades.
“I think my favorite was the time I dared picked the flowers from Mrs. Grant’s front garden.” He took a sip of juice.
“She caught you snipping her prized roses.”
“I don’t think I sat down for a week after my mother got through with me.”
Mary smiled. “It was the day before she hosted the garden club, so you can’t really blame her.”
Jared grinned back. “Mrs. Grant had the prettiest flowers on the block, and I wanted you to have them.”
“I only wish I could have enjoyed them, but your mom made you give the bouquet to Mars. Grant when you apologized.”
“You got even the next day, though.”
Mary groaned. “You had to bring that up. For the thousandth time, I didn’t realize you would come off the slide so fast!”
“What did you think would happen when you threw the egg on the metal slide when I was coming down?” Jared shook his fork at her.
“I don’t know. I thought it would be funny, I suppose.” She sobered as she recalled what came next. “But I had no idea you would fly off the slide and cut your head on the corner of the shed.”
Jared touched the scar on his forehead. “Don’t forget the tetanus shot because the shed was metal.”
Mary put her head in her hands. “I’m so sorry.”
“It all turned out for the good.” Jared put his fork down on his empty plate. “I was the coolest boy in third grade with my stitches.”
“I’m glad it wasn’t a total disaster.” Mary pushed her plate back. “I’ve eaten way too many pancakes.”
“I’m just glad you liked it. I’ve never cooked anything for a woman before.”
Mary burst out laughing again. “You’re such a tease, Jared.” She paused as his expression stayed sober. “Wait, you’re not kidding me? I would have thought someone like you would have had lots of girlfriends. In fact, I’m rather surprised you’re not married.”
Jared looked down at his plate. “I never had time for dating when I was younger, and when I did find someone, it didn’t work out.”
Mary could have kicked herself for dousing their jaunty mood with her careless words. The numerous times she had been the recipient of just such an exchange should have made her hold her tongue. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.”
“No, it’s okay. I was going to say the same thing to you.” He offered a half smile that brought her back thirty years.
Now it was her turn to blush. “About the same as you, I suppose.” She suddenly felt the need to offer more of an explanation. Something about his eyes made her feel she could trust him. She took a deep breath. “People make me nervous, that’s why I don’t go out much. I was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder in college and…,” she shrugged as her words trailed off.
“You stay away from people as much as possible.”
She nodded. “That’s about the sum of it. Church is okay because I’ve been attending for years. I’ve been in therapy, which has given me some coping mechanisms for when I do go out.”
He leaned forward, his hands laced together. “So my being here doesn’t make you nervous or anxious?”
She shook her head. “No, that’s the odd part. Seeing you in the yard last week threw me off, but once I knew it was you, most of the anxiety left me.”
“That’s good news then.”
Mary’s watch beeped. She glanced down, shocked to see it read three-fifty. Only ten minutes until her chat with David. She looked up to see Jared watching her.
“Got someplace to be?” He rose and started stacking their plates.
She stood and grabbed their glasses. “Yes, I’m afraid I have to eat and run.”
Mary froze, her mouth dropping open. He couldn’t know about David, could he? She wasn’t ready to share David with anyone. She turned to look at Jared, who was rinsing their plates at the sink.
“No, nothing like that.”
She carried the glasses to the sink and avoided Jared’s eyes. Her watch alarm beeped again, signaling she had five minutes to go. She walked briskly to the doorway, half turning to say over her shoulder, “Thanks for breakfast, and I’m glad you’re feeling better.”
She walked around the corner and broke into a run for the stairs, taking the steps two at a time. She burst into her office and saw the wall clock read four-fifty-eight. She was going to be late to her chat with David and she didn’t like that.
# # #
David: Mary, where r u?
He touched the enter key and sat back in his chair, raising his arms over his head to stretch his muscles. He needed to hit the treadmill tonight. He had been spending too much time in front of the keyboard and not enough time exercising his body. If he wasn’t careful, he would turn into one of those couch potatoes with flabby arms and a beer gut. He grabbed the energy drink from the desktop and took a swig. Last night, he had stayed up too late chatting with some friends in India and he was paying the price today.
He glanced at the computer screen, but Mary’s icon stayed dark. She wasn’t one to miss their daily chats, and he worried that something might have happened to her. He hoped not, otherwise there went weeks of careful cultivation down the drain.
Mary: Sorry. Woke up late and was thrown off my whole routine.
David smiled and cracked his knuckles. Show time.
Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction. Phantom Love is copyrighted and cannot be used in any form without permission from Sarah Hamaker.