Friday, July 24, 2015

Fiction Friday - Contemporaries - Chapter One

            On a rainy Tuesday morning, Karen’s attitude took a turn for the worse. Normally an easy-going and relaxed person, she felt irritated at the unexpectedly heavy rainstorm and her lack of any rain gear. I should have gone back inside for my umbrella, but I could have sworn I had one in the car. Maybe I should have stopped at a drug store. She sat, listening to the rain beat steadily and heavily against her car’s windshield as she waited in the parking lot.
            Any of her friends would call her “thrifty” in a heartbeat. They loved her, but she hated to spend money on herself. Of course, her choice of parking lots matched this particular personality trait. Working as an administrative assistant, she didn’t feel like she could splurge on a closer parking spot or even a high-quality umbrella. Living with a roommate helped defray some of her normal living expenses, but she still scrimped and saved, with a vague hope of finding something better to do and spend her money on.
Because of this quirky personality trait, she parked a good seven blocks from her office building downtown. The long, wet walk was not something to look forward to. After debating spending the extra money just this once to park in a closer lot or parking garage, she took a deep breath and pushed open the door into the wet world outside.
            Spotting a fellow office worker who seemed slightly more prepared, Karen begged for some Southern hospitality. The kind stranger shared her oversize umbrella as they trudged through the slippery downtown streets. Halfway there, they parted ways, and Karen looked around, desperate for some shelter from the rain. Spotting a dark blue umbrella a few dozen yards ahead, she quickened her pace to catch up.
            “Hi, do you mind sharing your umbrella?” She noticed, as she spoke, that he seemed familiar. She thought he was a co-worker from a different department. She struggled through office party memories, trying to remember his name.
            The tall, somber-faced man smiled graciously, and shifted his briefcase and umbrella to accommodate her. His black hair, slightly damp from a brief encounter of his own with the rain, clung persistently to his forehead above thick, straight eyebrows. His dark brown eyes seemed to sparkle, despite the lack of sunshine.
            If she knew how she looked at the time, she would have expected him to laugh out loud. Her eyes were large and open, drawing attention to the smudged eye makeup she would repair in the restroom when she finally made it to her office. Her hair, usually full and stylish, hung in limp, stringy tendrils, highlighting high cheekbones, making her face seem almost too thin. Her cheeks were flushed from the exertion of walking so quickly and the cool raindrops.  
            After walking about a block together, Karen suddenly remembered his name. “Your name is Miles isn’t it? I think we’ve met before. You work in my office building, don’t you?”
            She didn’t need to make excuses for not knowing his full name. She had only begun to work in the office a few short months ago, and more than 45 people shared the two floors of the office building that her company rented. “Yes, I’m Miles Tanner. I would re-introduce myself properly, but I don’t think I can right now.” He shrugged his shoulders to show his hands were both fully occupied.
            “That’s perfectly alright.” Karen fiddled with her wristwatch and adjusted her purse on her shoulder. “I’m Karen Audersfelt; I’m an assistant in the tax department.”
            “I seem to remember seeing you upstairs. I’m good friends with Jason Threat. He works on the same floor as you, but a different department.”
            “Yes, that’s right.” Karen said. Only minimal conversation took place during the remainder of the short walk to their office building. In the elevator, at Miles’s floor, they did shake hands and Karen walked into work with wet hair and clothing to worry about in preparation for the day ahead.
            She gave little thought to that moment at the time, but would come to give it greater meaning and attention in the near future. The rest of that day passed like most other days. The clock dragged miserably for the few moments when there was little work to be done, but when the tasks and meetings became a rushed, hurried affair, it was all too quickly time to leave for the night and the piles on her desk were not any smaller, despite the late hour.
            Karen breathed in the clean air and smiled into the setting sun as she walked back to her car that night. Her hair had dried into smooth chestnut waves. Her eyes sparkled with the change in the weather after the storms had passed. She closed her eyes briefly in the magic of the twilight air.
            The rain had left behind a brilliantly clean sky as a backdrop for the tall buildings. Some of the buildings reflected the red-orange sunset with an almost blinding glow. She stood for a moment on the sidewalk near her parking lot, oblivious to the people and cars rushing to get places. She shrugged her shoulders as if brushing off the beige walls and gray cubicles of her office building. Then, carefully crossing the last busy intersection, she confidently opened her car door, started her engine and drove off. She never noticed Miles, standing on the sidewalk several hundred yards behind her, watching her.
            A few years passed in seemingly ordinary ways. Karen would often fall half-asleep watching television in the evening. She usually ate junk food and TV dinners, or sometimes cooked with her roommate. She played softball some evenings in the summer. She took a few guitar lessons and attended a knitting group at a local coffee house.
            She never stuck with one activity for long, and she began to dread the long, monotonous days at work. In college, business administration had seemed like the only logical field for her to major in, and the job had come swiftly after. Her high GPA had certainly helped, as well as better than average looks, and stellar recommendations.
She just wasn’t sure she was actually the right person for this type of job. Every time she walked into her boss’s window-filled office she was distracted by the vibrancy of the world outside. Every time she saw children playing outside she thought back to her own childhood, and wished for the freedom to feel the wind in her face. For every evening that she finished work without being able to remember accomplishing something interesting, unique, or significant, she wanted a job where she could see the results and actually create something.
            Of course, she was terrible when it came to mechanical work, painting, and even gardening, but she wished there was something she could do that would make her feel more complete. She continued on her chosen path, however, and time slipped past almost unnoticed. Her thoughts and actions matured. She made and lost casual friends, her tiny retirement account grew little by little, and she began to think seriously about making a big change. Unfortunately, Karen never seemed to find exactly what she was looking for to make her existence a little brighter. She went on dates, but talked herself out of pursuing anyone serious until she was happy being on her own.
            Though she often dreamed about real and imagined men that she might spend the rest of her life with, Karen had almost given up on her dreams after only six short years in the business world. She was vested in her retirement plan, she had decent insurance, and she worked short hours compared to some of her friends. Yet, something was missing, and she longed daily for some change.
            Change was about to find her.

Karen was watching the morning news on Tuesday to check the weather and traffic. Normally the morning news was much more upbeat than the nightly sensationalist news, so she actually had the sound turned on. The evening news was so depressing at times that she typically muted the television, if she bothered to watch at all. When the perky blond anchor’s voice turned sad, Karen’s eyes inadvertently swung from her coffee cup to the television screen for a brief glance to see what had happened.
            The face she saw on the screen looked familiar: the eyes a little sadder, a few more worry wrinkles, but the same straight eyebrows and stubborn lock of black hair. Miles, she thought to herself, I wonder what he did to get on the morning news.
            She let her thoughts be distracted for a moment, as she recalled the past 6 years. Although many faces came and went in the office building over the years, she still recognized his face. She recalled hearing snippets of conversation regarding promotions, vacations, and office romances concerning Miles. Yet, she couldn’t think of anything significant enough to put his face on the morning news.
            He seemed quiet whenever they happened across either other during the workweek. Their schedules had seemed to coincide at least once or twice a week. She would catch a glimpse of him in a hallway, elevator, or just outside the building. She rarely saw him where she parked anymore: his promotions had led him to the on-site parking garage, while she maintained her lonely lot on the outskirts of downtown. She recognized him now as a casual acquaintance, and often would smile at him when passing, or murmur a brief hello.
            All of these thoughts occurred nearly simultaneously to her recognition of the words rolling across the bottom of the screen and the reporter’s comments. “Prominent businessman found dead in south Charlotte home.” The news footage of yellow crime scene tape and a thin trail of blood across the welcome mat barely registered in Karen’s thoughts. She sat in stunned silence as the newscast abruptly switched over to the weather forecast.
            After a few more contemplative moments, she attempted to talk herself out of her concern for the man. He was just one more acquaintance gone from her life. No more or less significant to her daily routine than the mail carrier or taxi driver she happened to recognize from time to time. It would certainly be irrational to call in sick to work to mourn a person she never really knew. He was only slightly more personal in her life than a stranger would be.
She barely recognized the tears that were suddenly streaming down her cheeks. She mourned as if she had lost a parent or a loved one. The tears poured out and soaked several tissues before she managed to pull herself together. She tugged off her pink slippers, stepped into the professional black heels she hated to wear, and grabbed her bag for work.
            That particular day at work was uneventful. At times Karen slipped into a sort of haze and pictured Mile’s now tragically sad eyes. She thought over his life, and how vastly different it was from her own. From the news footage, Miles must have amassed a small fortune. His house was substantial, and in one of the better parts of town. The Lexus photographed in his driveway probably had higher monthly payments than her half of the rent.
            From what she knew, the company had promoted Miles to a sales role in the brokerage arm of the company about eighteen months ago. Previously, he had been a portfolio manager with an excellent track record. Apparently, his track record and people skills were more valuable in a client-facing role, and the company certainly seemed to be paying him well for the risk he had taken in changing roles.
            Karen had managed to do enough work by that afternoon that she did not think it was a performance issue when her manager called her into his office. Although her boss wasn’t the most pleasant person to deal with everyday, he was generally fair and much less emotional than the woman she had worked for previously. His job required a certain amount of stress, as he juggled his law degree and CPA certification and the variety of skills required by each throughout the day.
            Karen’s manager was only one of several lawyers and CPA’s in their particular branch of the company. The major tasks of the day generally included answering a barrage of questions from across the country regarding various tax or legal concerns. Karen really had no hope of promotion within this arm of the company, as she had no letters behind her name or widely recognized experience. Yet, she couldn’t think of any area of the company where she might fit in better or enjoy her daily tasks more.
            She slipped past the file room and a few potted plants and knocked gently on her boss’s half-open door before stepping in. “Scott, you wanted to see me?”
            “Yes, Karen. Please come in and close the door. Let me just finish up this e-mail quickly and then I need to speak with you for a few moments.” As he hit the send button, he turned to her with a look that truly concerned her. His face was often expressionless and even stern, but today he shot her a look of surprise and almost happiness, which quickly collapsed into his typical stern look. Unfortunately, the contrast caused more of a shock than a pleasure.
            “What’s wrong, Scott?” Karen asked in her most polite voice.
            He paused, choosing his words carefully. “Have you seen the news lately?”
            “I watched a few minutes of the news this morning. Why do you ask?”
            “This is difficult for me to tell you.” Scott paused again. “I’m not entirely sure if it’s good news or bad news for you.” He leaned back slightly in his chair. “Miles Tanner was an acquaintance of mine. I assume, from the appearance of the situation, that you were at least an acquaintance of his as well, if not something more?”
            “I suppose you could say that we were acquaintances. We spoke briefly in passing once or twice. I would probably say that we were contemporaries.”
            “I’d say that would be at least a minimum requirement.” A noise that could almost be considered a snort followed the unusual comment.
Karen was now thoroughly confused and concerned at her boss’s behavior. “A minimum requirement for what? Scott, am I in trouble for something? I saw that Miles had passed away on the news, but I really don’t know anything more about the situation than that.”
            “Well, you’re about to. Miles’ estate planning lawyer was one of my closest companions in law school. We remained good friends for many years, but he unfortunately passed away a few months ago from a sudden, massive stroke. Since he was operating a very small law firm, I have helped from time to time with some of the smaller cases. His partner is extremely ill equipped to deal with the amount of work left behind. When Miles’ name came up this morning, in connection with yours, I knew I had to take that case.”
            “My name came up?” Karen was incredulous now. “How in heaven’s name could I be involved in anything to do with Miles? As I said before, we were only…”
            “I know, I know.” Scott interrupted her. “I believe you. Let’s just say that Miles was a man with unusual interests and leave it at that.” He took a deep breath. “Miles named you personal representative of his estate. From what I have seen of the will so far, I believe he also left the majority of his estate to you.”
            “That’s not at all possible, Scott. I swear to you that we didn’t know each other. Wouldn’t he have informed me?”
            “Well,” Scott paused, letting his thoughts catch up with his words. “As I’m sure you’re aware, you can decline to serve as personal representative and the court can appoint a successor. Also, if you’re uncomfortable receiving a bequest, you could disclaim your interest in his estate. That would cause the mess of figuring out what would actually happen to the amount you disclaim, but at least his family wouldn’t come after you.”
            “He had family?” Karen’s innocent curiosity only highlighted her ignorance of the situation.
            “No wife or children, if that’s what you’re concerned about. Actually, I believe his parents are deceased as well, and he was an only child. However, I have often seen cousins, aunts and uncles, and relatives that are even more distant come out of the woodwork in cases like this. If you do accept the appointment, be prepared for anything.”
            “Would you accept the appointment?” Karen knew he wasn’t the right person to ask, but she had to get someone’s advice. “If you were in my shoes, what would you do?”
            Scott paused and then leaned forward in his chair. “I can’t tell you what to do in this situation. You’re young and inexperienced and it’s a big thing to do for someone you barely know.” He let out a small, impatient sigh. “However, I can tell you that if you become Miles’ executor, I’ll work by your side to get everything accomplished and help you through the rough spots of settling his estate.”
            “OK,” Karen said. All of her friends knew that she typically made speedy, but well thought out decisions and then followed them through to completion. “I think I will accept. How does that work?”
            Scott looked sternly at her, but then smiled again. “We’ll need to go to court briefly to sign some papers, but it won’t take too long. Does Friday work for you?”

            “Friday’s fine, what time?” Karen made a few notes on the pad of paper she had brought in with her. This meeting had not been what she thought. As Scott went over a few more details and things to keep in mind for Friday, Karen thought of Miles again. She didn’t know why he had entrusted her with his estate, but she had a strange feeling that her life might never be the same again.
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