The engine rumbled on my car. It was old, but it was mine. I'd saved up a lot of money waiting tables and doling out golf cart drinks to get this Civic, and I would be damned if he gave up before I made it to my first day of work.
The sun hadn't even hinted at coming up as I sat at the stop light. The sky still held the pinkish blush of predawn, as if Mother Nature wasn't quite ready to get up and greet the day.
Tampa had a lot of days like this, at least, that’s what it seemed like. I hadn’t been here long enough to know for sure.
White egrets strut thoughtfully through the tall grass behind a nearby bus bench. The early bird gets the worm, but given my close proximity to the donut shop, perhaps these birds were interested in something else.
I waited for the Civic to rumble again, but he didn't—Cal the car was being decent today.
"Thanks, Cal," I said, patting the dash like it was a puppy. "Somebody likes that good oil, and seeing Robbie."
That wasn't fair to the car.
I liked seeing Robbie too.
That red hair and those freckles. Okay, he was a damn cute mechanic. But he was also completely off limits.
And why is that?
I shook off that thought before it could begin to take root.
His girlfriend’s a cop. She’s tough, you are... not.
Still, a girl could imagine, couldn’t she?
Your imagination gets you into a lot of problems.
I sighed and flipped the sun-visor down to get a look at my face.
Mom had always said less was more when it came to makeup, but she hadn't had to swim upstream in corporate America.
'Just be yourself, Christine. They'll love you just the way I do.'
I frowned at my mascara and flipped the visor back up.
Damn it. When is this light going to change?
I glanced at the box of donuts in the passenger seat.
Two dozen glazed. Laying it on a little thick, aren't you?
I shook my head. No, I wasn't. This was my first real job. One that didn’t involve an apron, a mop, or include sweaty old men calling me ‘Hun’ or ‘Sugar.’ I wasn't about to screw it up.
Donuts will do that, huh?
Sadly no, donuts weren’t going to do that. There wasn't a box of donuts in the world big enough to hide my problems, but two dozen glazed didn't hurt.
"Just don't eat them yourself," I said, my Civic humming in response.
I contemplated tasting one when movement outside the window caught my attention. An elderly woman shuffled to a nearby bench. White hair sat curled on her narrow head, while a wide purse lay against her side.
"Please not today.” I turned all of my attention back to the light. "Just not today."
The woman's focus was on something in her purse.
I swallowed back the bile rising in my throat and gently lifted by foot off the brake. Cal drifted forward.
“Not today. Just not today…”
A quick glance back toward the bench prickled the hair on my arms. The old woman had sealed up her purse and turned her attention to Cal.
She's just a car person.
I dismissed that thought as soon as I had it. You'd need to be one hell of a car person to admire a late 2000s Civic with less than perfect paint. Something told me she wasn't that sort of car person, because no one was.
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath.
It hasn't happened in months. You take your medication.
Yes. The medication. I never missed a dose. Well, almost never. Sometimes I forgot, but those times were rare, and only when I was nervous, or worried, or had something big on my mind.
Like waking up early to buy donuts for co-workers you’ve never met at a job you’ve never been to, doing something you’ve never actually done before—professionally.
I never took my meds today.
A hot flash of panic rolled over me and for a few seconds my clothes felt two sizes too small.
I missed my medication.
It’s one day, Christine. You won’t turn crazy in one day.
"Crazy Christine, Crazy Christine." The high-pitched voices of High School girls sang their songs in my head.
No. You aren’t that person. You are Christine Sullivan. You write code and have a cat. You like to watch action movies and appreciate your mechanic’s butt.
You are not crazy.
Are you sure?
Without my medication they’d be there.
They were always there, always waiting. Like hungry wolves with bleeding black eyes, they prowled in the shadows, hunting me.
Memories of my childhood shrink, Dr. Adrian, came back to me. In my visions it was always the same, his bald head and thick mustache, and his pad, always his pad. I was a source of never-ending notes.
"Why do you think you see these things, Christine?"
I wanted to punch him in his smarmy face, but good girls don't punch people. A proper young lady respects her doctors.
I took a deep breath, then pushed the memory from my head. I didn’t need Dr. Adrian telling me I was crazy. I could do that all on my own.
No. I didn’t dare look at the bench, instead I focused all my attention on the stop light. The bright red bulb stared back, angry and insistent.
I may have pushed Adrian from my head, but for some reason he came back, and brought with him my angry teenage words.
"I don't know why. If I knew don't you think I'd make it stop? Do you think I like seeing them?"
My first psychiatrist made a few notes on his pad. In my memories, that pad was always far thicker than it had ever been in real life.
"Maybe, Christine, but maybe you just like the attention. Do you like the attention?"
My fingers white-knuckled the steering wheel and I closed my eyes. The painful memory refused to go away and instead played in all the more vivid detail.
"Do you think I like coming here?"
Adrian clicked his pen. "Do you, Christine?"
"Stop saying that!"
The shrink made more notes. "You don't like hearing your name? Why do you think that is?"
"Because that's what they say!"
I opened my eyes again and stared at the stop light, willing it to change, to do something, anything.
My heart pounded in my chest, the sharp underwire of a far too fancy bra digging into my skin.
"No!" I shouted, surprising myself in the process.
I hazarded a glance at the old woman and was immediately relieved to find her no longer on the bench.
See? You're fine. You're going to be fine today. This is a good job, a really good job, and you brought donuts. They're going to love you.
"We already do, Christine." Scorched hands, blackened like meat left of the grill for far too long, pressed against the glass. That same narrow face that only moments ago had been preoccupied with the contents of its purse, now bled black tar from sunken sockets.
"Christine... We have always loved you." A charred and worm-like tongue licked ash off the old woman's burning lips.
"No!" I slammed my foot on the accelerator and the light turned green. Cal shot through the intersection and kicked up gravel in the process. Startled egrets took flight, while the lid flipped up on the box of donuts in the passenger seat.
The sugary smell of glazed pastries did nothing to slow my pounding heart.
I found the old woman's black eyes in the rear-view mirror. Tar-like tears dripped down her cheeks. I couldn’t hear her words, but I didn’t need to, I could tell what she was saying purely from the movement of her cracked lips.