Tough Enough(10)

By: M. Leighton

“I know. And I will be. I mean, I am.”

“I won’t be satisfied until you can say that a little more convincingly. And with a smile.”

I nod, desperate to change the subject. “I’ll come get you for lunch.”

She claps enthusiastically. “Lunch! Yay!” And then she turns and blows out of my space just as quickly as she blew in.

• • •

I twist the knob and gently push open my front door. I peek around the wooden panel to make sure my cat has moved before I swing it wide enough to get through.

Dozer likes to sleep on the rug right under the mail slot while I’m gone. On several occasions, I’ve seen curious scratches and puncture marks in the envelopes of a few bills here and there. It makes me wonder if Dozer attacks the mail when it comes through the flap. I can only imagine that it would scare the crap out of me if I were sleeping when it landed on me.

I smile as my black-and-gray striped cat snakes his way over to my leg, weaving in and out in a figure eight pattern, rubbing his sides against me and purring loud enough to wake the dead.

“Hey, buddy, were you sleeping?”

I bend to scoop him up and he immediately head butts me. That’s been his greeting since the day I rescued him from a cat-eating dog gang that terrorized my neighborhood two years ago. I think he realizes he’d have been dead meat if I hadn’t intervened. He’s been my loyal companion ever since.

“You’re the only man I need in my life, aren’t you, Dozer?” I croon to him, aggravated that I’m still thinking about Kiefer Rogan.

Dozer jumps out of my arms, walks four feet and flops down on the carpet where he proceeds to groom himself. I stand on the rug, watching him, letting the peace and quiet and familiar smells of my home, of my life relax me.

I love my little house. It’s nothing special—a cute cottage that has yellow siding, a white wrought-iron fence around the yard and cheerful window planters that are blooming with pansies this year. It’s not a mansion, but it’s mine. My hiding place. My sanctuary. The one place that I can be myself, whatever mixed-up blend of Kathryn, Kat and Katie Rydale that is.

I moved here right after I got the job with the studio. I needed to disappear and the small town of Enchantment seemed the perfect place to do so. And, so far, it has been. And that’s the way I like it. I don’t go looking for trouble and I can only hope that it doesn’t hunt me down. I’ve had enough of it to last a lifetime already, and I’m only twenty-four.

Before I can stop them, flashes of flames and fists, of writhing and wreckage, of tears and emptiness spew through my mind like a spray of acid, burning where it touches. Relentlessly, I push those turbulent thoughts to the deepest part of my consciousness. I learned long ago that the less contact I have with them, the less they can hurt me. I learned that if I give them an inch, if I give them even a few seconds of thought, they take over. They incapacitate. They paralyze. They eat away at the carefully constructed person I’ve become, destroying the peace and security that I’ve worked so hard to achieve. And I can’t let that happen. Not again.

I busy myself with the routine tasks I perform each day when I get home from work. I find comfort in structure, in the predictable. I thrive on being ordinary and living an ordinary life. The spectacular can only end in devastation. The bigger the star, the brighter the shine, but the more epic the explosion and subsequent death. That’s something else I learned. The hard way. It’s better not to shine too bright. Or, sometimes, not to shine at all.

At a few minutes before ten, I’m already brushed and washed and lying in bed with one of Mona’s books. I refuse to consider why I picked up another of her silly romance stories tonight of all nights. I also refuse to consider why, when I hear a door slam outside, I think for just a fraction of a second that it might be Kiefer Rogan. And that a guy like him might actually be interested in a girl like me.

I ignore the niggle of disappointment and remind myself that I’m better off without men like that in my life—the kind who love beauty and glamour, the kind who gravitate toward the kind of girl that I used to be. That got me nothing but trouble and pain and regret, and I’ve got the scars to prove it. No, I’m better off by myself and I’ll do well to remember that.

Why, after all this time, I’d let a guy like Kiefer Rogan get under my skin is strange, yes, but I have to keep it in perspective. Not let him get inside my head with his killer smile and charming wink. Letting him in would be a disaster, plain and simple.

I snap the book shut with a definitive thud, glaring at the beautiful laughing couple on the cover. Life isn’t a romantic comedy. It’s more of a light Shakespearean tragedy. Or a cruel joke. At least that’s been my experience.