|LOOK WHO’S STALKING
“Avery,” I said dramatically, closing the front door behind me and then leaning against it for emphasis. “I’m afraid we need to move.”
He didn’t stir from the couch, just uncrossed his legs and peered at me over the top of his
book. “Mrs. Warren again? Con, I TOLD you, you are not to open her front gate; that dog is NOT being mistreated, he’s gated in for his own safety—”
“No, no,” I cut him off, then added, hurt, “And I haven’t messed with Friskie in weeks.”
Sheesh. Elephants and Avery…they never forget. Avery smells considerably better though.
He lifted an eyebrow, Averyese for “Well, what is it then?”
“We don’t have to go too far,” I assured him. “Just a new address. Maybe move closer to the river.”
“Closer to the river,” he repeated.
“And we’ll need a new phone number. And a good, strong dog…maybe a pit bull. How does a pit bull sound?”
“It sounds vicious,” he said slowly. “And illegal in this neighborhood.”
“But we’re MOVING,” I pointed out.
He closed his eyes briefly (we were really going to have to get these headaches of his checked out!).
“Con…do you want to tell me what this is about?”
He’d folded the book facedown in his lap and was looking at me. Not yet Looking, but something close.
“Avery,” I told him urgently, folding my arms across my chest. “I’m being STALKED.”
“Well.” He didn’t look nearly concerned enough for my taste. “Take your coat off, come all the way inside and tell me about it.”
“Don’t you CARE?” I asked. “This is SERIOUS!”
“Take your coat off and come in here,” he repeated calmly, oblivious to my suffering. WHAT a monster.
I shrugged out of my jacket and tossed it over the railing. “Okay, so—”
“Hang it up, Con. Pretend you’re a civilized being,” he suggested.
Honestly, I could be chased in here by an armed battalion of axis powers and he’d STILL expect me to hang my coat up before telling him about it.
And probably invite the soldiers in and offer them a drink.
I hung my coat up with quick, frustrated movements. I was being STALKED here and Avery didn’t even care. Heartless! And in my own home!
I strode over to him and planted my feet directly in front of his. He raised his eyes to meet mine. “Yes?”
“I’m. Being. Stalked.” I repeated. “Harassed.”
“This GUY,” I began. “Oh, never mind,” I said in frustration. “You’re not going to listen to me anyway!” I swiveled on my heel and prepared to stalk off.
I made it at least two steps before his voice stopped me in my tracks.
It wasn’t particularly loud or even sharp, but nonetheless it was the Voice and there’s no ignoring the Voice.
It isn’t pretty.
Reluctantly I turned around. “What?”
I dragged my feet over to him, not really looking for a showdown, but not feeling much like apologizing either.
“SIT down,” he said firmly, patting the couch next to him. “And talk to me like a rational, polite adult.” He didn’t need to add “or else.”
I sat carefully, leaving as much space between us as I could.
Just in case.
“Now tell me what this is all about.”
I drew a deep breath. “This guy is harassing me.”
“Harassing you how?”
“Calling…and e-mailing…he won’t leave me alone, Avery!”
“How long has this been going on?”
“Almost two weeks,” I responded automatically, then gulped when his face darkened. “I mean…”
“When were you planning on telling me?”
“It’s been escalating,” I said quickly.
He stood up and held out a hand. “Come into the den, please. I want you to hear something.”
Confused, I took his hand and let him tow me into the den. He deposited me on the daybed and went to the desk, where he began fiddling with the answering machine.
“Someone left you an interesting message earlier,” he said, finger hovering over the PLAY button.
My stomach fluttered slightly as the message beeped and a much too familiar voice spoke through slight static.
“Hello…ah, I’m calling for Conrad. It’s Gary Jamison. I don’t mean to bug you at home, but I’ve tried to reach you through the department since last Tuesday and I left a bunch of messages, but…”
I fiddled with the cuffs of my shirt as the rest of the message played. I knew it had arrived today. I’d played the messages by remote from work this afternoon; I THOUGHT I’d erased this one, though…
“…so if you could call me as soon as possible, 919-555-3406. Thanks.”
I looked up.
“Does this Gary Jamison…does he have anything to do with your harasser?”
“He’s…um. He’s the one harassing me,” I said quietly.
“Ah.” He nodded. “Nine-one-nine exchange…what is that, Virginia?”
“North Carolina,” I muttered.
“He’s harassing you from below the Mason-Dixon line.”
“That was MY personal message!” I burst out, deciding mid-stream to switch tactics.
It sometimes works, right?
“Con, we share a bed and a bank account…sharing an answering machine seems logical to me. But that’s beside the point here. Stop trying to change the subject.”
It rarely works with Avery.
“I want to know what’s going on,” he said. “He says he’s been trying to contact you…what is he trying to contact you ABOUT? What does he want?”
“Most people make phone calls or send e-mails for a reason, Con.”
“Oh. He wants money,” I said.
“Yes. He…he’s trying to extort me, Avery! It’s extortion!”
“Slow down and start from the beginning,” he said, firmly enough to make me sit up a little straighter. “Straight answers and no more fooling around. Now, who is this person and how do you know him?”
“Gary Jamison,” I said quickly. “He’s ABD at Duke; he was up at the department doing research a few weeks ago and I…I met him then.”
“All right. And how has he threatened you?”
“He keeps calling and…and e-mailing….”
“What does he say when he calls and e-mails, Con?”
“You know, that I have to call him back and stuff and…and he wants money….”
“WHY is he asking you for money?” Avery asked calmly, hips propped on the desk.
This was the part of the story I’d wanted to avoid.
“I don’t know,” I said lamely.
“You don’t know,” Avery repeated.
“I…um….” I trailed off.
“All right,” he said, standing up and reaching over to take my wrist.
I tugged in his grip, uncertain, as he steered me to the one unobstructed corner of the room.
“I’ve had enough of this, kiddo. You can stand here until you feel more like talking. When you’re ready to tell me what’s going on, I’ll be here.” Infuriatingly, he sat down on the daybed, shook out his paper, and began to read.
“Turn around, Con,” he said sternly, eyes on the paper. “You’re in no immediate stalking danger as far as I can see – and we’ll be discussing that terminology at length later, by the way. Turn around.”
I sniffed, hard.
“Right now, Conrad.”
I turned around and stared miserably at the junction of two VERY boring pale gray walls.
This wasn’t what was supposed to happen! This whole situation had gotten WAY out of hand!
I leaned my head against the wall with a big SIGH and let my mind wander back a few weeks.
* * * * *
I’d been corresponding with Gary Jamison via e-mail for a month or so; his dissertation topic was of particular interest to me, plus he was funny and easy to talk to.
He came up to the university about two weeks ago to make use of some of our archives; we met up at the department, fell into conversation about the Freedmen’s Bureau and ending up talking for ages.
He was SO interesting to talk to, in fact, that I didn’t realize until five minutes to six that I needed to get my documentation to Professor Ditmars’ secretary before she left for the day.
At six pm.
A twenty-five minute walk.
I tried to tell this story to Gary, the only other person in the archives, but it came out something like “Ditmars—leaving—shit—ten-thousand-mile check-up—shit!”
I slowed down and took a breath. “I NEED to get this stuff across campus in…four and a half minutes. My car’s in the shop; I was going to walk and I should have left half an hour ago!” My eye caught the thick key chain slung casually on the table next to him. “I don’t suppose you could…”
He shook his head with dismay. “I’d drive you, but I need to finish making these copies before I hit the road and I’m running out of time…why don’t you take my car?” He held out the chain. “Can you drive stick?”
I could. Not particularly WELL, but that wasn’t what he’d asked, was it?
I nodded as confidently as I could and grabbed the keys from his hand as he yelled “Red Corolla, third from the curb!”
My heart pounded as I ran down the office stairs and out to the lot. I KNEW I wasn’t a great standard driver, but it wasn’t like I hadn’t done it before. I’d be careful. And try not to shift gears much.
I was wrenching the driver’s side door open when it occurred to me that maybe I shouldn’t be driving someone ELSE’S standard car…
No. I HAD to get across campus and I had three minutes and forty-eight seconds to do so—let’s hope the secretary was running late today—and it didn’t look like I was going to sprout wings anytime soon, despite fervent prayers in that direction.
The car it was.
I was arguing with the clutch when—
* * * * *
“Please don’t tell me you had a collision,” Avery said, interrupting the flow of the story. I was sitting across from him on the daybed, fiddling with a cuticle and beginning to wish I’d just stayed in the corner.
I shook my head. “No. I mean, not with another car.”
He nodded encouragingly. “Go on…”
“Well, I was so worried about shifting gears and everything…and in a borrowed car…I haven’t driven stick in a while,” I continued miserably. “I was careful not to crunch the gears and I was easy on the clutch and I made sure not to stall out…” I trailed off. Avery put a hand over mine and squeezed.
“…and I was so busy thinking about all that that I sliced the wheel while I was parallel parking,” I finished finally, feeling the flush spread from my face to my neck.
“I handled the stick perfectly otherwise!” I burst out.
“What happened then? Could you drive on it?”
“Yeah, it was damaged but drivable…I took it back to the department. Gary was nice about it,” I admitted. “He wasn’t thrilled, but I told him I’d pay for the damages. I mean, he was supposed to start driving back to Durham that night…”
“How did you leave it?”
“Stryker was giving me a ride to the dealership, and he was there by the time I got back so I had to take off right away…”
“So the money Gary’s asking for…”
“The damages. I guess.” I studied the pattern on the slipcover.
I looked up in surprise. “I don’t know.”
“You don’t know?”
“No, he didn’t tell me.”
“Did you ask?”
Avery shook his head. “Con…”
“It could be thousands!” I cried.
“Or it could be much less,” he said evenly. “A simple tire replacement would be relatively inexpensive. But you’re not going to know until you ask, are you. Why have you been avoiding his calls, Con?”
I shrugged. “He was bothering me.”
“From stalking to harassing to bothering. You’re downgrading him. Which is it?”
The plaid of the slipcover was swimming in front of my eyes. I blinked and a drop of moisture darkened the fabric.
“Conrad,” he said gently. “You’re not going to avoid this any longer. We’re going to deal with it. You don’t handle problems by ignoring them and demonizing someone trying to hold you to your word.”
“Maybe I shouldn’t have said I’d pay,” I mumbled. “I don’t know, I never signed anything.”
“Just an oral contract, right?”
“Those aren’t legally binding!”
“No, they’re not. What is it they say about oral contracts?”
“They’re only as good as the two people involved,” I responded automatically, then flushed as I realized the trap I’d walked into.
“That’s right. I’d like to think you ARE good for your word, Con.”
“I am!” I said defensively.
He didn’t say anything.
“He kept bothering me, Avery! He’s horrible!”
“I thought you said you liked him. That you planned to stay in touch, share some research.”
“I did like him. Then. But that was before he started harassing me!”
“All right, that’s enough,” he said firmly. “Let’s call a spade a spade, shall we? I do NOT like hearing you throw around those kinds of loaded terms, Conrad. But before we discuss that, did this Gary do anything harassing to you? Threatening?” He put up a hand. “I mean OTHER than requesting, repeatedly, money and contact you assured him he could have?”
I shook my head mutely.
“Con, I understand you were nervous about damaging his car and you wanted to forget about it. But you cannot forget about your responsibilities that easily! I don’t even want to think about you being the sort of person who walks away from his commitments and breaks his word.” He paused. “Do YOU want to be that sort of person?”
I shook my head again, brushing away another tear. I was starting to feel awful.
“I didn’t think so.”
“I’m sorry,” I said thickly. “I didn’t know what to do…I wanted to tell you, but…”
He sighed. “That’s another point up for discussion.”
The tears started to fall in earnest now. How could I be SO glad he knew and SO sorry he knew at the same time?
He put an arm around me. “It’s going to be all right. We’re going to fix it.”
My head snapped up in relief. “I was hoping you would say that!” I managed to get out through the tears, sniffling. “I know he’ll listen to you. So you’ll talk to him? Tell him to leave me alone?”
“Conrad,” he said severely. “Have you heard a word I’ve said?”
“Yes!” I said, hurt.
“This is YOUR responsibility, Con. Your commitment. I’m going to help you and we’ll fix it together, but that does not mean I call Gary FOR you…and certainly not to help you break your word!”
“But he’ll listen to you,” I whined.
“And your dad can beat up his dad?” Avery asked, lifting an eyebrow.
I shrugged. “I don’t know how big his dad is.”
Avery sighed. “No doubt you COULD sic your daddy on him if you wanted, darling, but this isn’t the playground and you’re not in kindergarten anymore.”
“Good.” He handed me the piece of paper where he’d written down Gary’s phone number. “Call him and let’s find out how much money we’re dealing with; then we’ll talk about how we’re going to handle this.”
“Go on, Con. I’m right here with you; nothing’s going to happen. Bless him, this Gary seems like a patient sort…a requirement,” he added grimly, “when dealing with you, my love.”
Insulted, I picked up the phone. My fingers hesitated over the numbers. I gulped. Avery stayed next to me, tightening the arm across my shoulders.
“Um…Gary?” My voice shook slightly. But Avery had said it would be all right. And HE never lied. “It’s Conr—oh. Hi.”
It was over in less than two minutes. I replaced the phone in the base with trembling fingers.
“A hundred for the new tire. No other damage,” I reported shakily.
He nodded. “Do you have his address?”
“I have his card…”
“I…I thought it would be more,” I said, feeling silly. “I mean…money’s tight and….”
“Con. Running away from this was NEVER the solution.”
“I know that,” I said quietly. I did! I hadn’t MEANT to run away from it!
I mean, if I don’t think about it, it’s not REALLY an issue, right?
“Conrad, just because you’re not thinking about something does NOT mean it’s no longer an issue. We’ve talked about this.”
“Why did you wait so long to tell me?” he asked.
I swallowed hard. “I thought I was handling it…and I was worried about, you know, driving his car…” I chanced a glance up at him through my lashes. “Are you mad at me about driving his car?”
“It’s a calculated risk, driving someone else’s car,” he said. “But you’re licensed and insured.”
“It was stick…”
“So is my car, and you’ve driven that.”
“You HATE when I drive your car! You said I’m a sucky stick driver!”
He smiled. “I don’t think I used those words exactly, Con, but even if you’re not the smoothest gear-shifter, you’re certainly adequate. I wouldn’t let you drive it at all if I thought you were unsafe.”
Now he tells me.
“So you’re not mad at me about that then?”
“I’m not mad at you about anything,” he said. “But we need to talk about a few things still, Con.”
“He was really nice about it on the phone,” I told Avery quietly. “He wasn’t mad either.”
“I should have called him back before,” I said, tears filling my eyes again. “I’m horrible, Avery.”
“NEITHER of you is horrible,” he said firmly and even through my distress I had to admire his grammatical precision. My man: never an ill-placed plural to his name. “You don’t have to demonize either one of you. And I was NOT happy to hear you throwing around words like ‘stalk’ and ‘harass’ completely out of context, Conrad.”
“I know it felt like he was pursuing you when you didn’t want to deal with the issue; however, that is entirely separate from someone threatening you in a dangerous or unwanted manner without reason or with insufficient reason. And did you ever tell him to leave you alone?”
“No,” I said, surprised. “I didn’t tell him anything. I didn’t respond at all.”
“Then how was he to know you considered his reasonable requests—for the fulfillment of a commitment YOU made!—to be unwanted harassment?”
My cheeks tingled. “I don’t know,” I mumbled.
“I guess he couldn’t have known,” I said, a little louder. “But I…I was trying to take the high road…you know, by not responding…”
“If you mean that, we’re going to have to have a long talk about just what the high road is, young man.”
I shrugged unhappily.
“I guess I should have responded,” I mumbled.
“Yes,” he nodded. “Was that fair, to shift the responsibility for the damages you caused onto his shoulders? And to deny any part of it?”
“No,” I whispered.
“You are NOT going to enter commitments and then abandon them, or give people your word and then break it. That kind of thing catches up with you, Conrad.”
I nodded miserably. When it came down to it, I agreed with him.
It was just harder to see when I was all tangled up in it.
“Are you going to spank me?” I asked, though I was already more or less certain of the answer.
“Yes,” he said immediately. “And yes.”
My head shot up.
“When should you have told me about this, Conrad?”
I glared at my shoes again. “Earlier,” I muttered.
“This happened nearly TWO weeks ago, Con.”
“I didn’t think it was a big deal!”
“You thought it was a big enough deal to push it out of your mind and decide you wanted nothing to do with it,” he said, almost sharply.
I rubbed at my eyes. “I’m sorry.”
He gentled his voice. “That’s one for how abysmally and irresponsibly you handled the damage situation, and one for keeping it from me when I could have helped you solve it efficiently.”
“Avery!” I wailed.
He pushed his fingers through my hair, settling his hand on the back of my neck. He squeezed firmly, reassuringly. “It’s all right. And it’s a good thing you decided to tell me yourself today—in however roundabout a manner—before I found out myself from the message. That’s the only thing keeping you from a third,” he added and I gulped, somewhere between relief and misery.
Things were SO much easier when Avery was involved.
They got done!
No one got mad at me and sent me e-mails and demanded money!
(Okay, well, demanded is a strong word.)
WHY couldn’t I remember this when it was timely?
“I thought I could handle it on my own,” I sniffled.
“You thought you could AVOID it on your own,” he corrected gently. “I have no doubt you can handle anything you put your mind to, darling. But you’re not going to run away from your problems. Avoidance never solved anything.”
He pointed to the floor by his feet. “Come on, Con. Let’s get moving.”
I sighed and did as he instructed. “I said I was sorry!” I protested half-heartedly, unbuttoning my cords with NO enthusiasm.
“Good. Keep that in mind,” he said heartlessly, lifting my hands off my zipper, kissing them, and dropping them to my sides. He whisked my pants to my knees with brutal efficiency and drew me down over his lap.
I snuffled into the daybed, resting my cheek on my folded arms. I HATE this, even when I know I deserve it.
Especially when I know I deserve it.
Avery rested a hand on my exposed rump, reminding me he was about to begin.
As if I could think about ANYTHING else!
I yelped when the first swat landed.
I swear, writing on blackboards all day makes the man FREAKISHLY strong. I was going to have to do something about those forearms.
He didn’t speak for several minutes, until my backside was inordinately warm and stinging and I was kicking a bit instinctively to lessen the discomfort…even if I knew kicking wouldn’t get me anywhere.
“Conrad, why are we doing this?” he asked then, pausing mid-assault and laying a hand on the heated skin.
That’s always the question.
(And I’ve learned the hard way that “Because you’re MEAN!” is not considered an appropriate answer.)
“I should have handled the, um…the car stuff better,” I said tearfully. “And because I didn’t…because I ignored Gary instead of paying for the tire.”
He rubbed gently for a moment. “What are you NOT to do with your problems?” he asked.
That one was hard.
His hand stopped rubbing and swatted firmly.
“Run away from them!” I yelped.
He made affirmative sounds above me, which were quickly drowned out by the far more unpleasant sounds of hand striking bare flesh.
I wasn’t going to have any skin LEFT if he kept this up! And this was only the first of two!
I sobbed until he finished, then I kept sobbing while he rubbed my back, letting me calm down.
“I’m sorry…” I whimpered as he eased me to my feet.
“I know.” He gave me a quick, hard hug, then briskly pulled up my short and slacks. His hands were gentle but I winced anyway. OW.
I tried to snuggle up against him again but he took my arm instead, leading me toward the desk. I looked questioningly at him, wiping tears off my face. He reached into the top drawer, drew out paper, an envelope, and a pen, then removed a stamp from the middle drawer along with a book of checks from our joint account.
He pulled the desk chair out with a flourish.
He had to be kidding.
“Write out the check,” he continued, “and then you can work on the note you’re enclosing with the money. We’ll drop it off later to be sure it gets out in the noon pickup.”
Okay, now he REALLY had to be kidding.
Leave the HOUSE?
Looking like THIS?
Well, technically I wasn’t sure what I looked like. The den wasn’t floor-to-ceiling mirrored or anything (thank GOD), but I had a pretty good idea: red-eyed, sniffling, miserable, and more penitent than my jailer seemed to notice.
“Sit, Con,” he said.
I sat very very gingerly. The chair had a thick cream-colored cushion but it might as well have been stuffed with steel pins for all it was comfortable. Fresh tears started in my eyes.
Apparently Avery didn’t even CARE.
I made out the check with a shaking hand, signed it, and set it aside. A tear dropped onto the surface of the desk.
“What am I supposed to write to him?” I asked miserably, glancing at the empty paper in front of me. I hurt and I didn’t want to sit and I certainly didn’t want to WRITE.
Avery sighed, took my arm and lifted me out of the chair.
Relief! My hands flew immediately to the injured part of my anatomy and I rubbed fiercely, then changed my mind. THAT hurt too. I stood clutching it and cried a little instead, feeling VERY sorry for myself.
Avery sat down at the desk and patted his knees. “Come here,” he said gently. I sniffed hard and sat down carefully.
His corduroy-covered thighs were technically a lot less soft than the cushion.
But somehow they felt MUCH better.
I leaned back against him and pressed my forehead into his neck. He bent his head, scruffing me with his five-o’clock-shadow, and kissed me quickly and with reassuring firmness. He put the pen back into my hand.
“Write,” he said, voice brooking NO argument.
So I did.
Maybe if my penmanship looked pretty enough, I wouldn’t get the second spanking.
Even I didn’t fall for that one.
I drew a long, shaky breath and buckled down to my task.
Twenty minutes later the letter was written, approved by His Majesty, and sealed along with the check in a neatly addressed and stamped envelope.
I hated to admit it but I DID feel slightly better seeing the envelope all ready to be mailed out like that. The lump in my chest for the last couple weeks—the lump named GARY’S CAR—felt somehow smaller and a LOT lighter.
Avery’s so GOOD at stuff like this! They should market his skills!
The pain in my hindquarters had long since mellowed into tenderness and heat. I wasn’t thrilled but I was far from in agony.
I was feeling MUCH more optimistic about the world in general when Avery kissed the top of my head and hoisted me off his lap.
“Almost there,” he said, ruffling my hair, then walking over to the daybed and sitting down on the edge.
I watched him quizzically.
He patted his thighs.
He didn’t SERIOUSLY think I was going to go for this, did he?
I’d paid my debts!
I should be a FREE man!
I met his eyes across the room. Blue, steady, and VERY sure.
Somehow I found myself at his knee, unbuttoning my pants for the second time that night and STILL not for anything fun.
I was already in tears by the time he turned me across his lap. He didn’t lecture this time, just proceeded to spank me thoroughly and with the brisk efficiency with which he did EVERYTHING.
Avery is nothing if not consistent.
On my already tender skin the spanking HURT and I spent a good half an hour after it was over curled up on the daybed with Avery, finishing up my crying into the soft green fabric of his shirt.
“You WILL tell me things in a timely manner,” he said finally, gently, tipping my chin up and kissing me. “I CAN help you, you know. But not if you keep things from me.”
“I know,” I said, sniffling. “I’m sorry. And I’m sorry about the car.”
“Accidents happen, darling. It’s how you handle things afterward that counts. And we took care of that.”
I nodded into his chest.
“Only one thing left to do.”
I pricked up my ears, wanting to make sure the one thing had NOTHING to do with whacking and would happen NOWHERE near my sore bottom.
Well…I supposed maybe later that evening I could be amenable to SOMETHING, but…
That was another story.
Avery gestured toward the desk and the envelope. “Let’s go hit the mailbox.”
“Avery!” I protested. “I look awful!”
“You look gorgeous,” he corrected me, kissing my nose. He tipped me off his lap and stood up. “Come on, you’ll feel much better when it’s mailed and you can put it out of your mind. Let’s go finish this.”
I sulked as he towed me to the hall and draped my coat over my shoulders. “Come on,” he said again. “If you’re very good, we can even stop for ice cream…”
I perked up slightly. Ice cream? “Really?”
“IF you’re good,” he teased, “and really…what are the odds of that?”
Insulted, I looked for something to hurl at him. He caught me before I could grab the nearest pillow and proceeded to kiss me with his typical thoroughness.
God bless consistency.
Who can stay mad at a man who kisses like that?
Certainly not I.
I yanked the front door open. “Race you to the car!”
|Author's note: When this story was first posted I received lots of interesting comments from folks who liked the story...but didn't like Con's behavior in it. I can't blame 'em. ;-) So I'd just like to state for the record: you're preaching to the choir, folks! I wholeheartedly agree. If you've got a comment about this, let me know. Or if you just liked it and want to say so, you can let me know that too. I'm reachable HERE.|