A SHORT VISIT
by EJ Sinclair
© 2013 - EJ Sinclair
All Rights Reserved
Mark paused in thought as the others intently watched him. He massaged his temple with his thumb, attempting to ignore his headache as he contemplated the latest proposal he had been handed by his peers. After a few seconds he pursed his lips and shook his head.
"I'm sorry guys. This is just not going to work."
"Come on, Mark!" Larry said pushing away from the elliptical conference table as the others exhaled with him in frustration. Larry believed he and their other two partners had come up with a project plan that would please their most difficult associate. "With this plan we come in five figures under budget and we only extend the project by two weeks. Time-wise, this is as good as it gets - especially with such an unrealistic client. We were never going to hit that timeline anyway. And this way they are placated with cash." A cocky smile crept onto his face. "We may even get a nice bonus out of it."
Mark continued to shake his head defiantly. "Under-budget…on time…every time. That's our motto and I won't back down from that." Larry rolled his eyes as Mark continued. "I will not jeopardize our reputation because we were too quick to jump on a high-dollar project we weren't prepared to handle." Mark added a penetrating glance to his tirade. Larry and the others winced. They felt a lecture coming. "I asked you over and over if this was something we could do and you assured me it was. What were the words? 'In the bag' I believe is what you told me. Well, 'in the bag' is not a week from November 6th, 'in the bag' is November 6th. And we're not going to go forward until this project is guaranteed to be completed on or before November 6th."
Larry, Phillip, and Hugh knew the argument was over. Though they were a four-man project management firm - as well as friends - and were, in theory, equal, Mark had the degrees and the focus. He also had the starting funds. While the other three were partying and taking their time gaining undergrad degrees, Mark was breezing through UPenn and moving toward his MBA. At the time the group started Four-Star Management Mark was wrapping up his graduate degree at Wharton School of Business.
Hugh threw his hands up and asked, "So what now, Mark? We have three days to present to Tri-Light or they will go with another management firm."
"Let's break down our plan again and shave two weeks off our timeline." Mark answered, beginning to organize the folders and papers strewn across their conference table.
"Now?" Philip said, "We've been here since five this morning. Just because you don't like to take breaks…"
"Look, Mark…" Larry lifted his hand to interrupt Philip. "…we all need a break. We can meet back here in an hour or so and knock this out before the weekend. We'll stay all night if we have to. But right now we all need a break."
"You all do what you want. This needs to get done." Mark said, never looking up from the table.
Larry smiled. "No, Mark. You're going to take a break, too." Mark glanced up momentarily at Larry, still focused on the documents under his hand and ready to make fresh notations. He was obviously not as amused as Larry seemed to be. "It's Friday?" Larry continued, pausing to allow the words to sink into Mark's conscious.
Mark paused and closed his eyes tightly. His head was pounding. The realization washed over him like a tidal wave. For a moment, he thought of cancelling his 'appointment'. The moment passed quickly. Not going was not an option. Mark pounded the table with his fist in frustration, shot up from his chair, and stormed out of the conference room heading for his office.
Mark flung open his office door and moved quickly behind his desk. He began to organize his papers in preparation to leave. It was almost four o'clock and he didn't want to make himself any later than he already was.
The mental argument he was having with himself - about leaving when there was important work to be done - was interrupted by a soft voice.
"So…" Carol spoke slowly as she rested her petite frame in a sexy pose against Mark's doorframe. "Where are we going for lunch?" She wasn't exactly a seductress but Carol could turn a surprising head with her ubercuteness.
Mark, continuing to organize his desk, smiled without looking up as she continued. "I've always wanted to try that Italian Bistro on 42nd. I hear it's very romantic."
Carol began to saunter toward him. She eased the chair away from the front of his desk and rested her palms on the desktop. Mark couldn't help but look up at her. "So, what do you say?" she said wearing an alluring smile. "My treat." She added with a raised eyebrow.
Mark, himself smiling, turned his focus to Carol. He placed his palms on the desk and leaned forward until their faces were a few inches apart. "You know today is Friday." He said, sufficiently disarmed of the tension he felt only a few moments ago.
"Oh it is, isn't it?" she said, leaning a little closer and playfully stroking his chin with her finger. "Too bad. Could've been fun." And with that she rose from the desk and turned to walk away. "Well, maybe next week, huh?" she said without turning back toward him.
Mark's smile widened. He gazed at her as she cascaded away, her body swaying to an unheard rhythm as she moved around the corner and out of view. You'd think it would have gotten annoying, but the little game between he and Carol was swiftly becoming the highlight of his week. There was something about her that entranced him.
Carol was well aware that every Friday Mark took his aging great-aunt out for lunch. Though he never took a lunch break other than Friday afternoons he and Carol had gone out after work a couple of times. Although she was subtly turning up the heat she never went too far. Mark was overly ambitious and his six year old company was his baby. His heart. Carol understood and careful not to force too deep of a commitment.
That is what most attracted him to her. Mark didn't date much, but he felt the women he did date were overly demanding. Why couldn't they understand he was a career man? His business was his life. Carol was the only woman that gave him his space. Though he was beginning to wonder if he desired so much space between him and her.
Thoughts of Carol began to fade and his headache intensified as Mark made his way down the street to his aunt's home. The commute was normally about ten minutes but traffic had picked up considerably. It worsened until his car never accelerated past 15 miles per hour. His foot seemed to be on the brake more than the gas. The aggravation brought him back to the conference room and the Monday deadline starring at him and his partners. He arrived at his aunt's home a ball of raw nerves.
Mark parked his car and walked up to her house. He was fumbling with his keychain - searching for his copy of her front door key - when she relieved him of the chore.
"Hi, Aunt Gloria. Sorry I'm late." he said, shoving his keys back into his slacks. She just stood there smiling. "I got caught up at work again. This stupid account is…well…" he paused. "Um…may I come in? Please?" He asked as Gloria shook her head and chuckled. She moved back from the door way to allow him to go in. He smiled. His aunt was another woman adept at disarming him. Mark gave her a kiss on the cheek before entering.
He immediately scanned the living room as Gloria closed the door behind him. "Where is your jacket, Auntie? It's chilly outside. I don't want you to get sick."
"Sit down, baby." Gloria said in a soft voice as she patted the back of the couch.
Mark tried not to look annoyed. "Come on, Aunt Gloria, the doctor said you need to get out of the house and get some fresh air every day. And I really don't have a lot of time to…"
"Sit down, Mark." She repeated.
He paused and looked at his watch. "Auntie, I seriously don't have a lot of time today." He reached for his keys and walked backward toward the door. "We need to go now or I'm going to be late for…"
"Mark!" Gloria snapped, startling her grand nephew with a tone he hadn't heard since his high school days. "Sit down." she said, very firmly patting the back of the couch.
Mark slowly closed his eyes, attempting to wish away his headache. He then took a deep breath. He didn't want to get into a long conversation with his aunt - which was exactly what seemed to be on the horizon - but he also didn't want to upset her. He was worried about triggering an episode with her blood pressure.
Mark reluctantly removed his jacket and draped it over the back of the rocker sitting near the couch. He then, after another glance at his watch, eased down onto the sofa. He tried to mask his increased annoyance at the situation. He knew that if his aunt was in a talking mood the conversation could well run longer than the hour and a half he allotted for his break and he was not in the mood for more delays with his project.
"Do you need some aspirin?" Gloria asked.
"I'm fine, auntie. Thank you. I took some at work." He answered, half paying attention to the question and half wondering when he would be able to return to his work. He then asked, "How did you know I had a headache?"
"I can see it in your eyes." She answered. "Besides, baby, you always have headaches."
Gloria sat down next to Mark softly placing her hand on his knee. "Do you remember when you first came to live with me?" she asked.
Mark again closed his eyes to gather himself. He couldn't believe she wanted to take a stroll down memory lane. "Yes, ma'am." He answered. He figured if he could hurry the discussion along that he could get back to the office at a decent time. He loved his aunt but he needed to be at work.
"You were four years old. I thought I would die when your mother had that car accident. We were so close, she and I.", Gloria paused, tears beginning to ease into her eyes.
The sight of his aunt's sadness began to thaw Mark's cold demeanor. "Yeah, I don't remember much about her." he said with a somber expression.
Gloria smiled. "She was so sweet. A lot like you."
Mark looked up momentarily and smiled. "The guys at the office would say otherwise."
"Well, they don't really know my Markie, do they?" she said as he smiled bashfully. "I think you comforted me after your mother's death more than I comforted you. Everything good about your mother she passed down to you, Mark. Don't ever forget that."
Mark nodded. And then Gloria's smile faded. "I still feel bad about the way things happened between me and my sister, but…"
"You have nothing to feel bad about, Auntie. Grandma was a drunk and barely capable of taking care of herself, let alone a four year old." He pulled his great-aunt's hand from his knee and placed it in his other hand, clasping both around it. "You saved my life, Aunt Gloria. I don't know where I would be if it weren't for you."
He sat her hand down. Looking out the living room window he ran his fingers through his hair. "It's why I work so hard, Auntie. You gave up so much to take me in. I want to show you that it wasn't for nothing."
"Mark, you don't owe me anything." she said. "I got back much more than I ever gave up for you."
"But you were a lawyer. A great one. I mean, if mom hadn't…" Mark paused, and then stood up and turned toward Gloria. "You can't tell me you've never missed it, Auntie."
Gloria looked up at Mark. "I did. At first." Gloria grasped Mark's hand and gently pulled him back next to her on the couch. "When I first left my position with the firm to take a job as a paralegal so that I could take you in, I didn't take it well. I felt like I was better than my position. It was killing me that my fast track career was being halted. I had worked so hard and had so many great plans that would have to be put aside. I felt, in a sense, like my life was over."
Mark nodded in agreement as she continued. "But then a funny thing happened. One day I came home frustrated from work and the sitter had just left. And to top it off I had broken one of my heels and twisted my ankle. I was in no mood for anything but a quiet evening." A smile crept onto Gloria's face. "Unfortunately, there was a four year old at home that was anything but cooperative."
Mark smiled as Gloria went on. "You had gone into the kitchen when the sitter left. I didn't even know you could open the refrigerator. When you came back into the living room your hands…and face…and shirt and pants were covered with sour cream."
"Oh, no!" Mark said with a huge smile as Gloria laughed.
"Oh yes! I saw you and cringed. The last thing I wanted to do was clean sour cream off a four year old. I told you to come to me and, of course, you ran. I limped toward you and you ran between the couch and the coffee table. I kept calling for you but you kept laughing and circling the table. Normally I could catch you but with my freshly gimped leg I was out of luck."
"The louder I called to you the more you laughed and ran. But it was difficult to be angry with you."
"Why? I was being disobedient, right?"
"Well, sort of. You see, the louder I got with you, the bigger my smile got. I couldn't stop my own smiling and laughing." Mark smiled. "I finally caught up to you. And when I did, I just hugged you as we tickled one another. I ruined one of my best outfits that day." Gloria touched Mark's cheek. "And I have never regretted it. I was right. My life was over as I knew it. I realized that day it had never been complete until you came to live with me." They both smiled at one another and held back tears as she said, "I got back so much more than I ever gave up for you, Markie. I really did."
Mark unlocked his car door and entered it still softly smiling. Thinking about his aunt's story made him think about Carol. He worked so hard to keep his life bland so that he could grow Four Star. But what was it all for? Putting a potentially great relationship on hold? Rushing his time with his aunt - the one person that has always been there for him? He found himself sitting in his car facing a crushing deadline and, at the same time, reevaluating his priorities.
It was just after three o'clock. Mark slid the key into the ignition. He froze. The acute ache in his head was beginning to make him dizzy. He was trying to push through the agony so he could get back to work but he was in too much pain to drive. Carol, Aunt Gloria, Larry, on and on Mark's priorities swirled around in his mind. They seemed to be making him dizzier. He firmly cupped his forehead with his right hand, trying to steady himself. Slowly the pressure subsided until it seemed like he was floating. He couldn't feel a thing.
When Mark opened his eyes he saw a familiar but hazy silhouette. He squinted but that made his sight worse. He opened his eyes as wide as possible and then blinked a few times. Attempting to re-focus on the silhouette - without squinting - he waited patiently as his vision slowly cleared.
There was no mistaking the voice. "We'll never get to that Italian Bistro with you in here."
Mark smiled. And then he paused. The familiar sweet-smelling perfume of his office co-worker mingled with a very sterile smell he had not experienced in quite some time. His momentary shift in attention returned. "Carol?" he asked.
"You almost sound glad to see me."
Mark's vision cleared just enough to see her smile…along with the tears staining her cheeks. He looked puzzled. "What's wrong? Are you ok?" He asked.
She chuckled sarcastically. "I am now." She answered, nudging his upper arm. His eyes followed the path of her hand and he did a double-take at the metal pole next to his head. His eyes followed the pole up to where the saline solution hung. He then followed the tube from the bag down to its final destination in his arm. He recoiled.
Carol quickly placed right hand on his chest "Calm down, Mark. I'll get the nurse." She hurriedly reached for the hospital room call button, careful not to allow her purse to fly off her left shoulder and into his face.
A few seconds later the nurse arrived. "Hi there. Welcome back." The young red-head smiled as she approached Mark's bedside. Carol eased back and stood slightly behind the nurse to give her some room. Mark's heart was racing as he barely registered her words. His anxiety was palpable. The nurse looked back at Carol. "Maybe you should stand over on the other side of the bed so he can see you." Carol nodded and quickly moved into place next to Mark.
Carol eased her hand under Marks' hand. "Where…um, what's going on?" he asked her, still attempting to clear his head.
"You're in the hospital." She said.
"Huh? How…have I been out for long?" he said. "Wasn't I at my aunt's house?"
"She found you in your car unconscious." Carol said.
"Aunt Gloria? Where is she? Is she ok?" he asked.
Carol answered, "We finally convinced her to take a nap in an empty room here in the hospital. She wouldn't leave your bedside until she knew you were ok. She left right after you were brought in here to recover from the procedure."
"Procedure?" Mark asked.
The nurse took over. "When your aunt found you, you had lost consciousness. There was pressure on your brain from a swollen blood vessel that needed to be relieved. Fortunately you arrived before it burst or it could have been much worse."
Mark's head was spinning. "So, how long was I unconscious?"
"Maybe five or six hours?" the nurse said. "You were very fortunate, Mr. Thompson. Try and get some rest." She said, patting his arm before turning to leave.
"What caused the… I mean, why did I have a…" Mark was still very groggy from the medication.
The nurse turned back around, smiling compassionately. She moved back over to the side of Mark's bed and leaned forward slightly, resting on the plastic support on the bed. "We can't be sure what caused your condition. But your high blood pressure didn't help. And from what your loved ones have told me, you lead a very stressful lifestyle. If you don't slow down this won't be the only health problem you'll have. Get some rest, Mr. Thompson."
Mark looked very somber, remembering the last images flashing in his mind before he lost consciousness. Carol, his aunt, his friends… It occurred to him that in such a situation work was the last thing on his mind.
"Mark!" Larry said - very loudly - as he stood just outside the open room door. He startled Mark, Carol, and the nurse. Larry rushed to Mark's bedside. "Carol called me and told me what happened. Are you alright?"
"Yeah, I think so." Mark nodded. His head was continuing to clear.
"Look," Larry said, "the other guys are still at work. We think we've figured out how to get the project done in time. They wanted to be here but we didn't want to stop working until…" Larry paused as he watched Mark, with a big smile on his face, reach for the phone.
"Hi Philip. It's Mark."
"Mark?" Philip answered. "You're awake? I thought you were… Are you…"
"Yes, I'm fine." Mark said. "Do you still have the proposal you all gave me this morning? The one that comes in $10,000 under budget?"
"Umm…yes. I have it right here."
"Good. Could you bring it and Hugh to the hospital."
"Uh…Sure." Philip said. "Do you need anything else? We've been working on a proposal that is more along the lines of what you wanted."
"Yes." Mark answered. Look in the back of the second drawer on the right side of my desk. I have a pack of unopened playing cards you could bring me."
Larry and Carol looked at one another with the same confused expression.
"Sure. I can do that." Philip said chuckling at the oddity of the request.
"Do you think Hugh and Larry can give us more competition than they did in college when we used to embarrass them playing spades, or do we need to see if some of these doctors and nurses will play us?" There was a pause, and then laughter on the other end. Larry playfully punched Mark in the arm. Carol, witnessing a side of Mark she had rarely seen, began wondering what else these college buddies got into besides card games.
"Man, we're on our way!" Philip said, still laughing.
"Cool." Mark said. He hung up the phone and turned his attention to Larry. "We'll just go with your proposal from this morning."
"Huh? What did they do to you in here?" Larry asked.
Mark chuckled for a few seconds. He then exhaled. "I don't want to die."
"What?" Larry said.
"According to the nurse, I need to slow down." Mark continued. "So…this is me slowing down."
Larry nodded. "That sounds good. No matter how much of a jerk you can be, I can't imagine you not being here to boss us around." He smiled.
Mark shot him a sarcastic glance. "Well, not to be a jerk or anything, but could you get out of my room so I can talk to Carol alone?"
Larry smiled and nodded his head, "I'll let you know when the cards get here." As he turned around to leave Larry looked back over his shoulder, still smiling. "Jerk."
Mark laughed. As Larry closed the door, Carol moved closer to Mark's bed. "So, you want to talk to me?" she asked, unsuccessfully attempting to suppress a grin.
"How long have you been waiting here?" he asked.
Her smile slowly faded. "I called your aunt a little after four when you hadn't come back to the office. That was when she found you. I met her here." Carol looked very sad. She began to stroke his hair. "I was so worried about you, Mark. I thought…"
"Can you do me a favor?" Mark said, interrupting Carol. He pulled her hand from his head and into his hands. "I'm not the best at this whole 'slowing down' thing. I think I need someone to help me."
"Help you how, Mr. Thompson?" She asked with her 1000 watt smile.
He laughed. He absolutely loved her playfulness. "I don't know. I'm the one who needs help."
She nodded. "I'm sure we can figure out something."
"Why did no one tell me you were up?" Mark heard his aunt's voice. He looked toward the door and into her glassy eyes.
"Aunt Gloria. They told me you needed some rest."
She moved slowly toward his bedside. "I need to see my baby."
Mark smiled. He then turned to Gloria. "Thanks for being here. You need to go and get some rest, yourself." He lifted her hand to his lips and gently kissed it.
"I'll come by tomorrow…to make sure you're still taking it slow." She raised an eyebrow.
"I'll be looking forward to it." He answered. She smiled and then turned to leave. She always seemed to him to be more floating on clouds than walking. And, of course, he could watch her walk all day.
He gazed quietly as her frame grew smaller and smaller in the distant hospital hallway. His thoughts of her were interrupted by his aunt clearing her throat.
His eyes grew big. "Sorry, auntie." He said, thoroughly embarrassed.
"It's about time." She said, smiling. He laughed bashfully. "So have you decided to stop trying to conquer the world, or do I have to move you back in with me?"
His expression grew serious. "I could have died, Auntie. I though this business was a stamp of approval. Like it validated who I was and why I was here on earth. But today…"
Gloria pulled up a chair and sat next to Mark's bed. "You were fortunate. It took me losing your mother and taking you in to wake up. I realized I was too ambitious for my own good. God delights in putting people in our lives that help us see the bigger picture. You were that person for me, Markie." She paused and then smiled, looking toward the door. "And I believe Carol might be that person for you."
He smiled. "You think so?"
"No one's ever made you smile like she does. Not even me." She said as they both chuckled. "I can see in your eyes how she makes you feel inside. Stop pushing her away." He nodded.
Gloria stood up and kissed her nephew on the forehead. "Now that I know you are fine, I'm going to go home and get some rest. You do the same and I'll see you tomorrow, Markie."
"Thank you, Auntie." He said. She turned and smiled as she walked out the door. As the door came to, Mark exhaled heavily; pleasantly confused by the thought that the day that nearly saw him die might just have been the best day of his life. Carol, Aunt Gloria, the guys, work… Mark was excited at his newfound perspective and hopeful that it wouldn't fade with time. Excited thoughts of his newly elevated relationship with Carol were making it difficult for him to sleep. Which was a good thing…
"Hey." Larry peaked his head into the room to make sure Mark was awake. "Are you still alive in here or do we need to find Phillip another partner for spades?"
Mark laughed so hard his head fell back into his pillow. "Shut up and come in here before I beat you with my IV stand."
Larry smiled big as he entered Marks' hospital room. Their other two friends filed in behind him. Phillip tossed Mark his unopened pack of playing cards. He quickly unwrapped them as his friends gathered around his bed for their first game of spades in quite awhile.
More From EJ Sinclair:
Solemn Vow August 6, 2013 Release
Bitter Mourning July 16, 2013 Release