|by Robin Alexander
"Thank you for calling Intellix Communications. This is Amanda, how may I help you today?"
"Hi, Amanda, I need to cancel my phone service."
Amanda began the spiel she repeated what felt like a million times a day without reading from the prompt on her computer explaining how greatly Intellix valued its customers. And all the great advantages she would be missing out if she canceled her account.
"I have a cell phone, and I’m cutting back on expenses," the woman said curtly.
"May I have your name, phone number of the service you want to disconnect, and the last four digits of your Social Security number for security purposes?" Amanda asked, though the information was already on her screen.
The response was a loud sigh punctuated by a tiny growl of frustration. The customer rattled off the information, then went into a rant that Amanda knew well. "I’ve already given this information to your automated service. Furthermore, it took me ten minutes to set this account up online, but to cancel has been a royal pain. I’ve made over a dozen calls to cancel. Most of the time, I was put on eternal hold until I gave up. A couple of times, I held so long that I went to voice mail. I’m sure it will come as no surprise that no one returned my calls."
"Give me just a moment to pull up your account," Amanda said cheerfully. "While I’m waiting on your information, I’d like to remind you that if ever you have to call 911, Intellix provides emergency services with your home address in case you’re unable to complete the call. Cell phones are less reliable in situations such as these."
"I don’t mean to be rude," the woman began. "I know you have a job to do and you’re required to follow certain protocols. I worked in the customer care business for years. But I’ve made up my mind, and nothing you have to tell me is going to change that, so can we just move this along? I have somewhere I need to be."
"Yes, ma’am," Amanda said slightly less cheery. "While I’m waiting for the computer to process your request, please allow me to tell you about our customer appreciation plan offered to those who have a high credit rating with Intellix. Should you change your mind, we will offer three free months with a new contract, so if—"
"Amanda, nothing you have to offer is going to change my mind. If Intellix was so concerned about keeping my business, why have they waited until I decided to cancel my service to throw me a bone? You’re just baiting me along, and I don’t appreciate it."
"Ms. Simmons, please consider—"
"May I speak to a supervisor, please?"
"That won’t be necessary. I’ve already put in the request for the disconnect." Aggravated that she’d lost control of the conversation, Amanda rattled off the confirmation number for the cancellation so quickly that Ms. Simmons had her repeat it twice. "I understand your displeasure about the wait for the cancellation, but may I ask you—" Amanda jerked when the sound of the phone being slammed down resonated through her ears.
Intellix’s most awarded customer service expert, or CSE as they were called, exhaled loudly after her call with Natalie Simmons. She glanced over at the framed certificates that lined the wall of her cubicle. She held the record for customer "saves." It was rare that she couldn’t convince someone to hang on to their service, but she’d lost her edge with Natalie Simmons. She was tired and getting too old to run the roads into the wee hours of morning, then drag herself into work and perform to the standards she’d set for herself. That’s why Natalie Simmons gained control over her, she thought as she tapped a pen on her desk and stared at the information still on the screen.
Amanda had always been an unlucky name for her. The next day, she’d switch back to Carol. No one at Intellix ever gave his or her real name to give the impression that it was a much larger company than it actually was. That served her well. Completely anonymous, she had the upper hand and could gaze into someone’s personal life with the touch of a button. Who they talked to the most, who called them, and more importantly, where they lived.
Intellix provided her with some of the most intimate details of a person’s life. It was up to her to discover the rest. She’d been bored lately. No one interested her anymore—until today. Most were like putty in her hands bending to her will, but not Natalie Simmons. She was strong, knew what she wanted, someone who needed to be put in her place, a challenge to be embraced and relished. Finally, a worthy opponent had made her way into her clutches. It could be fun.
Ms. Simmons lived at 1937 Cutcher Street in Greenwell Springs, Louisiana, a suburb of Baton Rouge. Born October 4, 1978, she was two years older…could be interesting. Her attitude certainly was. CSE #223 jotted the information down. Maybe she’d get a second wind after her shift and have a look at Ms. Natalie Simmons.
"Well, you’re in early."
Natalie Simmons looked over at the counter as she walked into the bookstore. A puff of gray hair peeked out over the top of a pile of books. "I hope you’ve made coffee, Andrea. I’m out at the house."
"In the back. The chocolate is in the cabinet with the creamer."
"Want a cup?" Natalie asked as she wove through the crowded shelves of books.
"No, I’m peeing every thirty minutes as it is. Don’t get old, kid, it sucks."
Natalie smiled as she added a dash of chocolate syrup to her coffee. Andrea Thoreau, a chocolate lover and a diabetic, kept it on hand for her visits, though the temptation to indulge was often strong. Natalie had begged Andrea not to, but she’d only smiled and said, "If it makes your visits longer, then I’ll buy it by the case."
"New arrivals?" Natalie walked back up to the counter.
"Yes, more used crap to fill the shelves with that no one will buy. I have a ton of these old romances with heaving bosoms and hard male members already."
Natalie heard a gagging sound coming from behind the pile of tattered novels and laughed.
"Throw Dexter off the couch and have a seat. I’ll be over in a minute when my old brain sends the signal down to my feet." Andrea slowly climbed off her stool.
Dexter, an overweight orange tabby, lay sprawled out in the warm beams of the sun piercing through the large storefront window. He mewled his protest when Natalie pushed him off to the side. Disgruntled with having to share his favorite napping spot, he hopped down and sauntered off to finish the last of his breakfast.
Andrea moved at a snail’s pace with her cane. Her wiry gray hair stuck out at odd angles, but her clothes were neatly pressed as always and disguised her "Buddha belly," as she liked to call it. Andrea sank down onto the couch with a grunt. "This cool weather doesn’t make the old bones happy." She patted Natalie on the knee. "How’s it treating you?"
"I could barely walk this morning, but I think it has more to do with all the work I’ve been doing in the flowerbeds than the cool temps." Natalie stretched her legs out in front of her and slowly lifted them onto the scarred coffee table. "I’ll be finished once I put the mulch down."
"Hard work is good for the soul, or so they say," Andrea said with a smile. "You have some color in your face, must’ve done you good."
Natalie took a sip of her coffee, enjoying the way the hot liquid warmed her. "I’ve got a new neighbor. Someone finally rented the Bordelons’ place."
"’Bout time. A house that sits up empty falls to ruin." Andrea propped a leg up on the table and sank back into the couch. "Hope they’re better than that last bunch of hooligans. Clyde said he spent a fortune on the repairs after he gave ’em the boot."
"I’ve only seen one woman over there aside from the movers."
Andrea nudged Natalie with her elbow. "She cute?"
Natalie laughed. "Yeah, and more than likely straight as an arrow."
Andrea looked over at Natalie with a grin. "You might get lucky. Maybe you should bring her a house-warming gift."
"No," Natalie said as if the notion were ridiculous. "She’s nice looking, that’s all."
"And if she turns out not to be straight, do you think you might be willing to…?"
Natalie met Andrea’s gaze. "I think that one day I’d like to be in a relationship, but it’s too soon."
"Karen’s been gone for two years now. It’s not too soon."
"I bought that house and furnished it the way I wanted it. I only have one picture of her up in the bedroom. I may’ve erased the memory of her from my everyday life, but she’s still in my heart."
"She always will be." Andrea reached over and squeezed Natalie’s hand. "But you’re too young to live alone with just memories."
Memories are all I have left, Natalie thought. The bitterness of choices made by someone careless had begun to fade like the scars on her body, but on mornings like this, when fall began to make an appearance, she felt the anger gnaw at her soul. She’d spent Thanksgiving and Christmas fighting for her life two years earlier when a drunken driver who had a string of DUIs met them head-on on a crisp fall evening. She didn’t know what hit her until the day she awoke to a pain so severe she cried out for death to claim her as it had Karen.
First she learned of Karen’s death, then that she would have to endure a bout of physical therapy because of multiple fractures in her legs. Broken ribs made it agonizingly painful to breathe and cry, which she did every time she was remotely lucid. Karen was gone, and she was utterly alone with nothing but time to dwell on what her life would become.
"Let it go." Andrea gave her hand another squeeze. "Don’t go back there."
Andrea knew that Natalie was slipping mentally into the past. They’d talked about it so much that Andrea knew every detail, every feeling like she had experienced it herself. She had been the one bright light in Natalie’s life, her confidant, her sanctuary. Natalie let the warmth of her hand and the sound of her voice pull her back to the present.
"I want…I want a woman who wants me as bad as I want her. I want to be able to look in her eyes and see a passion, a desire that can’t be quenched." Natalie looked as surprised with her sudden outburst as Andrea did.
"Whew." Andrea fanned herself. "Don’t we all? Is that how Karen looked at you?"
"No." Natalie shook her head. "That’s how I looked at her. I wanted her, craved her every minute of the day. One touch was never enough for me. She ignited such a flame, I burned every time she walked into the room. It wasn’t the same for her, though." Natalie shook her head again, seeing Karen’s face in her mind. "I knew she loved me, but that was another way we were different. It hurt to realize that I didn’t stir in her what she did in me. Making love was something special, but undeniable passion was not something we both shared."
"You were a sports car, she was a minivan," Andrea surmised.
As always, Andrea made her laugh. "No, not like that. I guess I was just more expressive."
"Settle for nothing less than a Lamborghini next time around, sugar. And don’t lose heart. She will come blazing into your life and you’ll take that ride." Andrea grunted as her leg joined the other on the coffee table. "Now me, I’d settle for a jalopy. Something slow that spits and sputters the way I do."
Natalie saw Andrea as more of a work truck, though she would never admit it aloud. Dented and worn from years of hard use, but with an engine that was still powerful despite the wear. Andrea’s seventy-year-old body might’ve been failing, but what was within was still very strong and resilient.
"When I lost Barb, I thought no one would ever fill her shoes. Frankly, I didn’t want anyone taking her place. Years flew by while I locked myself away, and one day, I woke up old and alone." Andrea rubbed the back of Natalie’s hand with her thumb as she spoke. "You’re too young and beautiful to let that happen, and I won’t sit back and watch it."
"I’m gonna help you put those books away, then I’ll do some grocery shopping," Natalie said as she gently tugged her hand free. "And one night this week, I’m going to cook dinner. I expect you to accept my invitation when I call."
"Little shit," Andrea grumbled as she sat up. "Always changing the subject and making me work."
Natalie Simmons was easy on the eyes. Her raspy and commanding voice on the phone didn’t match the soft features. She wasn’t butch, but not quite femme, either, somewhere delectably in between. One of those women who could look stunning in a cocktail dress, then turn around and look equally hot in a baseball cap and sweats.
She was close—close enough to reach out and touch. Clean smelling. Thick shoulder-length dark brown hair with dazzling green eyes, thin, but not frail. Interesting, much more so than the last. She’d been the typical soccer mom—easily excitable. It was no challenge to unravel a drama queen. But this one, this one held promise.