Twenty years ago, Ted took the easy way out and never looked back. Now that the past has caught up to him, is there an easy way out again?

The Easy Way 

Even after all these years, Ted still misses Manhattan sometimes. Skyscrapers keeping the streets in shadow even on the sunniest days. Bodegas tucked in between the hip new restaurant and the neighborhood’s most popular gym. Taxis weaving a perilous path through traffic. One moment breathing in the delicious burnt sugar aroma coming from an Italian bakery and the next catching a whiff of rotting garbage collecting in an alley dumpster. Dinner parties where he pretended to like his host. Here in the Florida Keys, all the sights and sounds and smells are different. Just a few hotels are more than two or three stories tall. The salty sea breeze carries the fresh ocean smell, only occasionally interrupted by a tantalizing fish fry fragrance from somewhere. Way more walkers than cars. And there’s no pretending. But that’s the point of living here -- it’s so much unlike his old life. Who could possibly imagine he would settle here, much less be happy here?

He takes another swig from his beer and rests his heels on the porch railing. His legs are tanned to the bronze shade the tourists strive to achieve as quickly as possible, his bare feet permanently roughed up from walking the beach every day. From his front porch, he admires the sparkling blue water and blindingly white sand. He idly wonders what this kind of view and beachfront access in the Hamptons is going for these days. He’s pretty sure it’s many times what he pays here, especially after the all-cash discount his landlord gives him. He makes a mental note to check real estate listings, just for fun, next time he’s online.

Since he doesn’t keep a computer in the cottage, Ted occasionally wanders down to the internet café in town or to the library to use one if there’s something specific he needs to look up. Sometimes, though, his searches take a detour, and he browses through Michelle’s Facebook page or his old company’s website. His wife remarried after five years and had another baby, a daughter, something she wasn’t willing to do when they were married. Now that girl is ready for high school, and Michelle’s social media is full of bragging about all the exclusive private schools she’s gotten into. Ted’s son keeps his Instagram and Twitter private, but he knows the kid graduated from Princeton and then NYU School of Law. He could go anywhere he wanted. Ted left him plenty of money.

As for his former employer, it took a while to get the New York office back on its feet, after losing so many employees all at once. But within a year, they opened new office space in midtown, brought a new region head in from Chicago, and started over as if nothing had ever happened. 

There are still days when Ted feels a little guilty, especially about Lauren. After all, she saved his life that Tuesday morning, being so beautiful and seductive and available, with her sleepy brown eyes and her dark hair spreading over the pillow and her throaty invitation tempting him to be late for work, just this once. Michelle thought he had pulled an all-nighter at the office, and he could always blame traffic if anyone asked why he was rolling in at nine o’clock instead of 8:30. So why not stay at Lauren’s apartment for an extra half hour? 

Before the guilt can overtake him, Ted moves back to the here and now, where he’s happy. Living in a two-room bungalow, doing odd jobs for cash, spending his days in the sun. No high pressure career. No social climbing. No worrying about investments or market crashes or recessions. No unhappy marriage. No bratty kid. He left it all behind without ever looking back. Nobody misses him, and nobody wonders where he is. Nobody cares if he drinks a beer in the middle of the afternoon. In fact, the one person whose opinion matters to him now would open her own beer and join him without a second thought.

Thinking of Mariana makes him smile. She’ll be over later, bringing some fish or pasta or whatever else is left from that night’s dinner special. Sometimes the chef badly miscalculates what the tourists are in the mood for, and Mariana reaps the benefits. To Ted, it’s free and that makes it delicious. She always grabs a few extra beers to add to her bag, and they eat and drink, then she spends the night. If they talk at all, it’s about what happened today or what they might do tomorrow. Never about anything further in the past than last week.

Mariana couldn’t be more different from Michelle. One who wouldn’t be caught dead wearing anything without a designer label, and one who never gets any more dressed up than her waitressing uniform. One blond and blue-eyed, wearing perfect make-up that takes an hour to apply, disguising any imperfections. The other with dark, exotic Cuban beauty, occasionally taking a moment to smear a little lipstick on her luscious mouth, but otherwise showing the world her naked face. Michelle impossibly thin except for the breast implants, and Mariana naturally curvy and comfortable. Ted remembers there was a time when Michelle liked sex as much as Mariana does. If she’d stayed that way, maybe he wouldn’t have needed Lauren. 

What to do until Mariana brings him his dinner? He could join the other surfers riding the waves or he could take a walk on the beach. Maybe he should try to find Jake, see if he needs a little extra help today, make a bit of cash to get through the rest of the week. He drains the last of the beer from the bottle and gets up to go put on his sandals.

Hours later, after spending the afternoon helping his buddy tune up the engine on some snowbird’s fancy power boat, an extra thirty bucks in his pocket, Ted makes his way back to the cottage. He likes to walk home through the dunes, where the salt grass hides him, and he can feel like he’s alone on the beach. Plenty of time for a shower to get rid of the diesel smell clinging to his skin and his long curly hair, maybe even have another beer before Mariana comes over. As he gets closer to his cottage, however, he looks up to see her sitting on his front porch, a bottle already open. But after another few steps, he stops cold. Blond hair. Huge sunglasses pushed to the top of her head. A blue flowered sundress designed to look casual but probably costing more than his annual rent. A hard stare taking in, but definitely not enjoying, the gorgeous view.

It’s not Mariana. It’s Michelle.

With a jolt, Ted realizes how she must have found him. It was about a year ago. Walking past the kitschy gift kiosks along the beach, he glanced up to see someone he knew walking toward him. The guy lived in his building in Manhattan. Jim Something. Ted didn’t immediately recognize the woman with Jim, thinking he probably got remarried, too. Getting closer, he realized it was, in fact, Jim’s wife, but after a facelift. She and Michelle had been friends, or what passed for friends in their social circle. Still, he couldn’t recall her name.

What he did remember about this particular friend was her love of gossip. She was the one who always reveled in sharing the most salacious details of whatever secret had been recently revealed. When the couple living in their building’s penthouse split up, she was the one who told Michelle their nanny was pregnant. When another guy they knew went broke, she was the one who learned it wasn’t one bad investment, like everyone thought, but a serious gambling addiction. And Michelle had an annoying and childish way of playing “I-know-something-you-don’t-know” whenever she got that kind of detail.

Since Ted was now tanned and much thinner, wearing his hair longer and letting his curls go wild, his initial panic subsided quickly. He was confident that the couple wouldn’t recognize him behind his sunglasses, especially after so many years. But then Jim’s wife (Nancy? Yeah, Nancy.) looked right at him and frowned. Ducking his head, Ted hurried past, but then stopped, pretending to browse through a rack of bawdy postcards. He heard Nancy say, “Wow, that guy looked a lot like Michelle’s first husband.”

Jim glanced back over his shoulder and asked, “The one who died on 9/11?” 

“I mean, I know it’s not actually him, but I did get a kind of a chill just then. Like seeing a ghost.”

Jim chuckled and put his arm around his wife’s shoulders. “Nah, that guy’s too young. And can you imagine Edward dressing that way? Like, ever?”

After that, Ted made a point of avoiding crowds of tourists. Even though most of his New York acquaintances visited Miami or Boca Raton, if they came to Florida at all, it didn’t hurt to be careful. It would be crazy to get caught after all this time. Nancy might say something, but who would believe her? Ted was pretty sure his secret was safe.

That is, until he sees his former wife, his widow, sitting on his front porch, and Ted faces the moment he’s been thinking about for twenty years, ever since the cab driver said, “Hey, man, something’s going on,” and Ted looked up from his Blackberry, where he was checking his appointments for the day. Seeing the flames and the black smoke over the skyline and watching the wave of panicked people coming towards them, Ted realized what an opportunity he suddenly had. The large leather briefcase he carried was full of client files that included their Swiss bank account numbers. He knew from experience that most of them wouldn’t notice if a few thousand dollars disappeared here and there, as long as he didn’t get greedy, and that would be all he’d need. He laid the groundwork for just such an escape years ago, in case the SEC ever got a little too nosy. Thinking quickly as he blended in with the frightened crowds, he launched his plan for getting himself out of New York City and disappearing.

Standing a few hundred yards from his cottage, Ted tries to think that quickly again. Since Michelle hasn’t seen him yet, he considers just walking away. His new friends here would cover for him, without even realizing that’s what they were doing. He could just go to the restaurant and tell Mariana they’d be sleeping at her place for a few days, and she wouldn’t even ask why. He could just stay hidden.

Then Ted begins to wonder why she’s here. What could Michelle possibly want from him now? She has his money. She has a new husband, and she still has the life he let her become accustomed to. If she plans to out him, it will create almost as much trouble for her as it will for him. He starts to feel more curious than nervous. He decides she no longer has any power over him, so why not talk to her?

When she turns and sees him approaching, her expression doesn’t change. She just nods a couple of times and says, “So it’s true. I always wondered.”

Bounding up the two porch steps, Ted stops long enough to nod towards the bottle she holds. “Want another beer? Because I feel like I need one.”

They sit side by side in silence for a while. Ted studies the changes twenty years have made in Michelle’s face. She’s still beautiful, still looks much younger than he does, still knows exactly how to hide her flaws. Yet there are a few new worry lines around her eyes, and some new wrinkles appear in her neck when she clenches her jaw. 

Finally, Michelle sighs and says, “Lots of wives got calls. The first plane hit below your floor and all those guys figured out pretty quickly what was going to happen, that there was no way out. They wanted their families to know they loved them.”

She continues to gaze out at the water, speaking very calmly and matter-of-factly, no hint of accusation or malice in her voice. “For a while, I let myself believe you had been in the elevator or something. That that was why you didn’t call.”

Then she lets out a short, derisive chuckle, and goes on. “I definitely got a lot of sympathy. I did the whole grieving widow thing. I took our son to therapy, so he’d stop having nightmares. I even comforted your parents. I went on as if you were dead. But there was always the tiniest bit of doubt. That nagging ‘what if?’”

Ted decides not to interrupt or comment. Say nothing. Acknowledge nothing. Admit nothing. Find out what she wants. She’ll get there eventually.

Pausing to take another drink of her beer, Michelle sits up a little straighter in her chair and finally turns to look at Ted. “And then Lauren showed up.”

Well, that’s something he didn’t count on. He managed to keep Lauren a secret from his wife. Lauren knew about Michelle, knew he had a son, knew he had no plans to end his marriage. She always said she preferred that kind of no-strings-attached relationship. She didn’t expect commitment; he shouldn’t either. Why would she decide to meet his wife? Maybe her grief was greater than he anticipated.

He isn’t facing Michelle now, but he can tell she’s watching him carefully as she tells the rest of her story. “She said you were with her that morning. She saw you get in a cab around twenty after eight. I know downtown traffic can be unpredictable, but you don’t have to be a genius to figure out that you probably weren’t even in the building yet.

“She didn’t want to believe that, of course. She insisted you would never leave her. Couldn’t imagine how I could believe it. I guess she didn’t know you as well as I did.”

Ted doesn’t respond. He knew at the time that it was a selfish, lousy, all around shitty thing to do, that a lot of people would get hurt. But he did it anyway. Over the years, he rationalized that everybody was ultimately better off. Especially him.

He waits for Michelle to say more, to tell him why she’s come after all this time. But she just keeps staring at his face. Finally, his curiosity boiling over, he looks her straight in the eye and asks, “Why are you here now?”

She takes a deep breath and says, “Well, for a lot of reasons, actually. Like I said. I always wondered. Especially after what your girlfriend told me. And then there was the fact that they never found any remains that could be positively identified as yours. There was just no way to know for sure. But then I talked to Jim and Nancy.”

Ted grunts and nods at this affirmation of his own suspicions as Michelle goes on. “They weren’t going to say anything. You know, no reason to open old wounds and all that. But it was a few days after the anniversary and maybe Nancy’d had a little too much wine. She thought I’d find it interesting. I did, just not for the reason she thought.”

“So you just wanted to confirm that you were right all this time?” Ted asks. He thinks, but does not add, that’s just like you, always needing to be right. One more thing that made it easy to leave. To his surprise, Michelle shakes her head.

“No, that’s not the only reason. Now that I know you’re alive, there’s something I need. Money.”

Ted nearly chokes on his beer. He lurches forward in his chair, coughing and laughing. “Are you kidding? Look around you! Look how I live. What makes you think I have any money?”

“Again, you forget how well I know you,” Michelle answers, impatience creeping into her voice. “You want to look like you have nothing. But you didn’t set all this up without a safety net, without something to fall back on. I’m pretty sure you can get your hands on some serious funds when you want them.”

“OK, just back up a second here. How could you need money? There were life insurance policies, the trust fund, the condo, all those assets. You got all of that. And don’t you have a wealthy new husband to take care of you? Did you burn through everything I left you?”

Her eyes narrow as she takes in a deep breath. “Still such a know-it-all. Still thinking you can just brush me off. Well, here’s the part you don’t know: how much of that money I had to give your girlfriend to make her go away.”

Ted starts to laugh again, thinking what an idiot she is. That is, until Michelle says, “But now she’s back. It turns out your other kid thinks he’s entitled to a bigger share of the inheritance.”

That’s how Ted ends up retrieving those client files from their hiding place under a loose floorboard between his bed and nightstand. He kept them in case of emergency, but he always thought the emergency would be a major health issue or something like that. Certainly not blackmail.

Initially, he tries to convince Michelle that she has nothing on him. He reminds her that it will be just as humiliating, difficult, and expensive for her as it is for him. That their son didn’t deserve to be dragged through the mud. Maybe Ted would like to meet his other kid. She shoots down his arguments with a familiar, maddening efficiency.

“It might be embarrassing for me, but I’m not the one who did anything illegal. When they figure out where you got the money to start over, you’ll go to jail. 

"See, some guys from your old firm showed up after a few months, all friendly and sympathetic. ‘So sorry for your loss. If there’s anything we can do. Yada, yada.’ But what they really wanted was to know if you’d left any files at home. Did I mind if they looked through your desk for anything that might be ‘firm property’? When I said I’d already cleaned out your home office, they got suspicious real fast. What did I find? What did I do with your stuff? Did any of it belong to them? Why was I in such a hurry to get rid of it?

“By the time they left, they were pretty irritated. Making a few veiled threats about how I shouldn’t try to use any of the information you might’ve left behind. And again, I may not be the sharpest tool in the shed, but even I could tell that something was fishy. And then when it started to look like maybe you weren’t actually dead, I wondered if those guys were worried about some funds going missing, if they thought I took them. It all makes sense now.”

She pauses again, waiting for Ted to look at her. When he does, her eyes narrow. “And there’s one more reason I know you want this all to stay secret, no matter what. It’s just easier. And you always take the easy way out. Don’t you?”

Grudgingly, Ted admits that he’s impressed. Michelle put a lot of the pieces together on her own, and she’s using what she knows to her advantage. Also, she did her homework. She brought a laptop that can’t be traced. Set up an offshore account that only she can access. Covered her tracks almost as well as he did.

He listens to her demands and silently weighs his options. He had been so careful all this time. Adopted this new identity. Made no mistakes. Resisted the urge to contact his son or his parents or even Lauren. Disappeared off the radar. Tossed everything away and started over. Never talked about his past with his new friends here. What Ted loved most about this new life was its ease, its freedom from stress, the way he never had to worry about tomorrow. If he gives Michelle what she wants, maybe she’ll just go away, and things can go on as they were. 

If only that was the most likely scenario. If only it would be that easy.

There was a much better chance that she’d keep coming back for more, unable to resist turning the screws. Now, he’ll be forever looking over his shoulder, wondering when she might return. Wondering when she might let something slip, even without meaning to. Wondering if she could resist sharing this information with Nancy. And Michelle just might be petty enough to tell Lauren that she was wrong, that he did leave her, that he didn’t want to meet his child. No, Michelle would never be able to keep this secret hidden. 

He could disappear again, now that he knows how. Does he want to go through it all a second time? Where would he go? He might have to leave the country this time if he wants to find an existence as free and easy as this one. He could do it; it will just be harder this time around. 

As Ted accesses his old clients’ accounts and moves money into Michelle’s, watching it add up gives him an unexpected thrill. He didn’t realize how much he missed this adrenaline rush, the high of getting away with it, the fun of sticking it to those guys who always thought they were smarter than he was. The amounts he takes from each account are too small for a billionaire to notice, but even small amounts from a lot of big accounts start to add up quickly. Michelle will have the tidy sum she wants. Maybe he could dip in, too, just a little, for his own needs. If he has some cash, disappearing again is a lot easier. 

Slowly, another option occurs to him, and a new plan begins to take shape. A way to get back what he’s been missing without even knowing it. A way to make sure the important things don’t change. A way to finally get closure. He can have it all. 

It’s so easy and obvious he wonders why Michelle hasn’t considered this possibility, planned for this scenario the way she did everything else. She keeps saying she knows him so well, but he’s changed more than she realizes. Or maybe she just let herself get too arrogant.

While Ted makes the last few deposits into her secret account, he casually asks, “What does your husband think about this little trip to Nowhere, Florida? What did you tell him?”

As he expected, Michelle scoffs. “I didn’t tell him anything. He thinks I’m on a yoga retreat. Off the grid, no cell or Wi-Fi. He works so much, he hardly even notices whether I’m there or not.”

“What about your daughter? Doesn’t she miss you?”

Michelle rolls her eyes. “As long as her platinum card gets accepted, she doesn’t know I’m alive.”

“That’s too bad,” Ted mutters, as he begins typing in some new commands. He can’t help grinning just a little as he creates a new password for himself: Elena071281. Mariana’s middle name and her birthday. No need to write it down anywhere. His memory hasn’t failed him. He still remembers how to do this. Even after twenty years.

“Are you almost done? What’s taking so long?” Michelle is getting impatient.

“Yep, just give me one more minute. I’m finishing up.”

Ted resets the screen and turns the laptop around to face her. As he starts to explain how to access the funds, she cuts him off. “I already know,” she says, waving her hand dismissively. “You don’t have to tell me.”

With a shrug, Ted replies, “OK, if you’re sure.” He watches her log off and close the computer. “So when do you head back?”

"Tomorrow,” she says. Their eyes meet, and for a moment, Ted catches a glimpse of the Michelle he fell in love with so long ago. Sweet and trusting. He suggests dinner, for old times’ sake. Now that she has what she wants, Michelle’s guard is down, and she agrees. He was so sure she would that he already made a reservation. The place is close to the marina where Jake keeps his boat. It will seem like a spur-of-the-moment idea when Ted offers to take her on a moonlight cruise. After they share a bottle of wine over dinner, she will be just tipsy enough to make it easy. She was right about one thing: that’s just how Ted has always liked things.

And then he will never have to disappear again.


Submitted: September 23, 2022

© Copyright 2023 Susan E Pick. All rights reserved.

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Christina Lilly

Congratulations on being a runner-up in the short story competition! I enjoyed your story. Ted was an interesting character in that he seemed likable enough at first but ended up being such a bad person.

Mon, November 14th, 2022 2:15pm

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