Circling the Inferno

In Issue 58 by Joan Drescher Cooper

Circling the Inferno
Photo by Dieter K on Unsplash

Limbo

Sometimes on the train in the morning, Melanie thought about failing to get off at her stop for work. She’d lean her head back on the tweedy headrest and close her eyes. If this was a real train instead of commuter light rail, she’d muse, perhaps she would stay on the train all the way to the next town. She’d just have to pay for the extra few stops, but she could do that from the change in her pocket. She’d walk around the new town, find a simpler job, and rent a little apartment. She would embrace a bare routine of toast for breakfast, work in a blasé office with no real decisions to be made, take a walk around the park before going home, and then enjoy a quiet dinner and bed. She would find a drab man to hold hands with and then marry so that there would be someone warm in the bed at night. In her imagined new life, there were no evolving dramas, unpredictable tyrants, or quivering nerves. Her life would be placid—boring maybe.

A quiet voice in her head often chided, Accept my will.

Despite rebellious urges, Melanie lumbered off at the correct stop and trundled her heavy briefcase through the crowded platform and across the tracks to the street. She marched briskly down the next side street and ducked into the bakery two blocks away for a few pastries he might desire with midmorning coffee paid for from the change in her pocket. She then climbed the two flights of stairs to begin her required nine hours. That nine-hour span would be the beginning, but not necessarily the end of her day, for the man was a tyrant, and there were decisions to be made, and very little time for walks or dinner or reflection. Every now and then, a very loud voice in her head shouted for her to drop the bakery bag on his desk with her office keys and badge while he was on the phone and to leave. She had left him no fewer than eight separate times, but she always found herself lured back to their perpetually warm, quiet office that overlooked a postage-stamp of a park.

Anger

So, one May afternoon, a scattering of birds shrilling with excitement on the lawn across from Melanie’s slightly, opened office window distracted her. Her eyes flicked over the contract she was changing for the fifth time before settlement. She was loath to print it again and have another phone call force changes. Negotiation was the heart of business and property acquisitions. Sometimes she printed the contract three and four times in wherever they met the clients, so she had to deal with copy machines outside her familiarity. It was a tedious bother.

She had rolled her eyes when he asked her an hour ago to change and print the lengthy document. “No insolence!” he’d bellowed. “You are going to roll your eyes out of a job.” He’d been grouchy all morning and had thrown away his morning pastry with some disparaging remark about its bitter taste. Her brain slipped into a slow burning anger; she hoped the bitter bile of its taste might choke him.

The birds outside were squabbling over crumbs children had tossed as they pecked at their small claim on the spring green real estate. In a flash they were scattering in a confused flock from the ground and the single thought, oh, they were robins, flashed just before she realized that the startling noise had been the window in the next room slamming shut followed by a curse. She blinked back to the screen and wasn’t surprised that the contract was nothing but blurry lines and color. She stood, crossed to her window, pulled it shut and automatically locked it. The park and the children with their mothers or fathers were removed by a thick wall of dirty glass. All the colors outside suddenly faded. Melanie crossed back to her desk aware of the great moody heaviness pervading their few rooms.

The bellowing began and made her jump even though it was the same harsh baritone call that had been beckoning her into his office for five years. She rounded that anniversary last June and realized with a look back to the park that it would be six years soon. That was a long time to let trickle by you, she thought as she picked up the newest version of the contract on the printer tray, slid it into a folder, and grabbed the rest of the contracts that they’d discussed that morning.

Pencil tucked behind her ear and a red pen for corrections in her fist, she crossed to his door and turned the knob. She shivered as she automatically felt for heat. She imagined an inferno inside his office all ablaze with charred rock and red magma with water evaporating into mist as she turned the knob. She never knew what type of devil he’d be when she opened the door. You just had to be ready for the devil he gave you on any given day. Her thoughts were often loud and rebellious.

On the May afternoon that might change her life, he reminded her of Lucifer once again. She’d read Milton as a high school senior and hadn’t enjoyed the pained humanity of it. Only the music of the words had struck her at seventeen. But a professor in college had unlocked the passages concerning the yearning, wounded archangel whose fall split the world in two. Lucifer was beautiful and persuasive but bitter all the way through. Her boss didn’t look the part of any typecast devil, but Melanie understood it was just a charade. Luke was not the stereotypical devil with dark hair, red eyes, and a forked tail, but the character was still the same.

The beguiling Lucifer was the sort of devil she worked with for two straight hours on that May afternoon before appointments at three. He tested her, teased her, and kept her attention on minutia to distract her from the larger torture of wasting her life. His eyes fell on her portions of the summaries, the descriptive sections of text and sliced with cruel precision. The entire time a little voice wheedled in her brain and fried her attention to crisps with fraud, deception, fraud again because she knew what the contracts intended. This particular contract was fraught with deceit. When the client signed this treacherous document, it would deliver her devil a long-sought advancement. Melanie understood that the contract must seem spotless to the client who would be bound by the agreement, likely, for the rest of his life. Melanie scanned the duplicitous contract and thought that a life term was an awfully long one.

Melanie was inevitably lured around the desk to stand beside him to examine some miniscule turn of phrase just so she might feel the heat emanating from his ire over details. In a moment, there would be the usual rush to change and print everything, the shuffling of documents into his briefcase, and then the run to the parking garage and his dark car.

She glanced out the window before she left his side and found that the robins had returned. He said, “Stop opening the windows. I’ll bet the electric bill was ridiculous for April. Do you really like it so cold in here?” That day she shifted her attention back to him and was startled at the green of his eyes and their focus on her chest. She swayed as the world tilted, and she felt the rush of heat from his hand on the small of her back. He’d slid his palm under her jacket as she’d let the world right itself. His palm was hot with only the fabric of the blouse between them. “Melanie, do you feel faint?” She shook her head as he stood to bring his other arm around her and ease her to sit on the edge of his desk. His mouth was pulled into a little frown, but a bit of a smile was nearly breaking from it.

Melanie gave an odd answer. “It feels good on my skin—not like the stale air in this building. When they’re open, I can hear the park.” She could rest her forehead on his chest if she just leaned forward an inch. She closed her eyes as his mouth met hers. That was his habit. Lure her to stand next to him, caution or berate her in some way to distract her, and then touch her just once. The rest was all capitulation, the taste of his mouth, the pressure of his hands on her tense spine. It never went further than kissing and touching with clothing between them because her devil, Luke Metzler, was in total control of himself. Fondling your assistant and turning her insides into compliant jelly was just one of his duties. It kept Melanie with him. He was efficient like that.

The phone on the desk beside her began to trill as Melanie’s eyes fled out the window and blinked uncomprehending at the concrete lot across from their building’s back edge where their office suite faced. Where was the park she’d just seen the robins leave from in such a hurry? The world pitched again, as Luke lifted the receiver and spoke to the caller while holding her tight against him. He rumbled with a laugh and let her go after one more lingering touch. Melanie fled the office with her snatch of folders to right after he ended the caress of her breasts without unbuttoning anything but simply wrenching everything aside. The phone would always ring and break up his advances. They had never been engrossed in this study of each other for more than three minutes before some distraction stopped them.

Melanie straightened her bra that day and shoved her blouse back into the waistband of her skirt with the thought that if they ever did remove their clothes, she’d throw the damned phone right out the window. She imagined it smashing to the ground and frowned over the absence of the park once again.

What was happening to her? He induced vertigo in an otherwise level-headed woman! He was all temptation because he was handsome and charismatic. He teased her with little experiences of skin to skin. She cautioned herself that he was a terrible man to use her like that. Melanie smiled slightly; the job was so boring with its endless, little tragedies over detail that she might just stay on the train one morning and get lost.

That slow anger with her wasted life, the robins in the park, and his small smile over her habitual seduction snapped finally during the meeting later that day with the fractious, yet gullible client. Melanie finished the corrections, mastered the baffling copier at the bank where they were meeting, and said nothing for the first hour because she could not unclench her teeth. When the client, an older man with the nervous habit of smoothing a hand over his mostly bald head, tried to balk over some odd point for the tenth time, Melanie leaned forward and placed her hand over his. Her movement was so quick, it seemed violent.

Luke’s eyebrows rose so high they disappeared into his hair. The client’s secretary cleared her throat in caution, but Melanie whispered, “Just sign please. The rest is all semantics. There are no secrets or hidden agendas. Mr. Metzler is so very careful with these contracts. I’ve reread all your stipulations, and there isn’t anything in it with which you haven’t previously agreed.” Her voice was mellow and feather-light, chiding like the voice of conscience. Her eyes shriveled his worries to cobwebs instantly. She kept her eyes steady though she could have easily directed him toward seeing all his foolish errors. As with all of Luke’s tricky contracts, she’d felt the twinges of guilt over her conscious collusion; with her hand on the old man’s, she pictured herself tossing him into the abyss.

The client did not have hot hands like Luke. The poor man was so nervous that his hand felt clammy with onion paper for skin. Melanie let a smile relax her tight jaw. She let his hand go, and he picked up the pen and read through the contract in confused silence before signing it. As she gathered the contract and made all the necessary copies, she heard the old man ask, “Your assistant. What is her name? What a nice touch to have her hold my hand, Metzler!”

Luke gave a little bluster of embarrassed rumbling over her name and excused her forwardness during the last of the negotiations. “Sorry if she overstepped a bit. Melanie is feeling a bit under the weather. Thank you for being so kind about her outburst.” She felt his eyes skitter in her direction and touch the place where her back narrowed, the place where he’d touched her hours ago. Melanie took a gulp of a breath and steadied herself because she understood that she might not get off at her usual stop the next morning. Chances were good that she could ride back and forth the whole day, if he finally fired her like he threatened every few months.

She didn’t give him the chance to fire her. He had scheduled a brief meeting with the bank president, and usually, she would use the laptop to catch up on correspondence and email while she waited. She’d perch at the little table in the suite of offices, sip on a coffee that the president’s assistant brought her, and get a good work session in while he was distracted. They usually returned to the office by five, worked just past six and sometimes caught a quick dinner that was always on him to celebrate the settling of some complicated agreement. He rarely took the clients out after the agreement was signed. Dinners were spent convincing them to come to the table. Melanie was never invited to those dinners; in fact, she had been trained not to speak to clients during the contract talks without his approval.

After touching the old man and breaking some unspoken pact between them about negotiating contracts, Melanie felt nervous. Luke was irritated to the point of firing her, she thought. She’d read the disapproval on his shocked face when she dared to speak to the old man. She felt her palms grow damp and wondered if the reprimand would finally include the removal of clothing. The man is a devil, her inner voice chided. He might just use her little transgression as an excuse.

The meeting with the bank president took longer than expected, so Melanie finished her work, turned off the computer, and stowed it back in its case. She walked to the window and looked out on the city. In May, the dusk does not begin until six and lasts another hour. The shadows of the buildings made it look darker. Down the street a few blocks, she remembered that there was an old shrine to a saint where her mother used to take her. They would light candles and kneel until Melanie’s knees burned.

It was in the basement shop of that shrine that she’d first seen Luke’s face in a prayer card. It was an odd one of warning. “Lucifer falls into the pit of hell” was the caption for a scene of true tragic beauty. A beautiful man, bare-chested with muscles straining against the forces of light, tumbled down from a precipice with heavenly creatures watching. The man’s face was anguished, but so beautiful, it transfixed her. Her mother had pried it out of her fingers and had given her a card with the archangel Gabriel holding his trumpet. “This is your patron, honey. That’s why we named you Gabriella.” Her mother had beamed at her. “Melanie for my mother and Gabriella for protection.”

Melanie had been young at that time but old enough to know that shoplifting from a shrine was very bad. It was probably one of those damning corporal sins because she did it willfully. It didn’t matter to Melanie that her soul was in jeopardy just like reaching out and soothing the old man at the table today. She had treasured the card with Lucifer depicted as a beautiful man twisted in sorrow as he fell headfirst into hell. It might have fueled her love of faces and pushed her further into art history. That card was a secret treasure until an evening during high school when a brief, violent storm ruined nearly everything in her room because of a hole in the roof that had not been fixed. The roof had leaked for years, but after her father died, nothing changed in the house until she left for college. And that had been the only change for the next four years: she was gone, and her room was vacant.

Melanie tried to peer down the street to see if the old shrine was still there and bumped her head on the glass. She giggled and glanced at her watch. It was five-thirty, and she was liable to be fired or seduced if she stayed. Having the overwhelming desire to buy another of those cards, she smiled at her foolishness. It was unlikely they would still have such a card after twenty years or more. With that smile on her face, Melanie approached the office assistant with the briefcase and her jacket draped over her arm. “Excuse me, could you check to see if the St. Jude’s Shrine is open this evening? I haven’t been there in years.” The woman looked shocked like Luke had just an hour ago, but she nodded and typed in a quick search.

“There is a service at seven, so I’d guess it’s open. You’re Catholic? So am I. I never think of it being just down the street, you know?” The older woman grew rosy as she talked.

Melanie smiled at her and nodded. She came around the desk and into the woman’s space as their eyes locked. Melanie handed her the briefcase and stepped back. She asked, “Could you see that Mr. Metzler gets this? I think I’m done for the day.” There was a flame lick of anger over her wasted life in her voice. She continued a bit more forcefully, “In fact, I think I’m done for good with the position. I quit. Could you tell him that for me?” Melanie didn’t wait for the woman to nod in agreement. She didn’t even wait for the elevator but pranced down all five flights with a huge grin on her face. Escaping to the shrine was far better than riding the light rail into Glen Burnie and back.

There is a routine when you enter a shrine of the Catholic kind. That was the presupposition in Melanie’s brain because she had been taught it was so. She told herself that she would call her mother this evening and tell her about the visit and that she’d quit her job. She might even tell her mother that Luke Metzler looked like Lucifer and acted the part. She dipped her right index finger in the holy water and crossed herself in a hurry. She was half afraid it might sizzle as her finger dipped into the molten, cold liquid.

Her abdomen ached with regret, and Melanie felt the urge to sink into a pew on the right side of the beautiful sanctuary, but she fought it feeling the looming expiration of this visit. She walked up the center aisle and genuflected then veered off to the right where she remembered the side passage to the stairs. The marble-lined hallway was still there which led to the spiral stairs of darker, gray marble with a handrail of wrought iron with twisted posts.

What a beautiful old building, she thought and remembered studying Baltimore’s architecture one semester at the institute. She blushed and hesitated on the stairs. She had been an art history major who had wasted an inordinate amount of scholarship funds and time studying something she would never find useful as a legal assistant. She had taken the job just to make enough money to go back for her master’s degree and then she had become distracted by paying for the repairs to her mother’s house. Then her mother’s car had needed major work, there had been an expensive operation on her mother’s hip and now physical therapy. Melanie often thought of Dante’s levels of the eternal inferno and shook her head because all her trials were on earth.

She’d truly been distracted by working for the meanest fiend of a man bound to earth for all eternity in the guise of a corporate property attorney. Luke had been a seasoned devil well before she applied for the job and barely got it because she had no secretarial skills and not one iota of legal knowledge. But her grades were good, she was quiet and diligent, and he deemed her worthy of training. What he thought was that I was worthy of keeping for his own amusement.

Melanie shook away the shiver as she imagined his discomfort when he listened to her message and picked up her briefcase to haul the heavy thing back to his car. Everything was in its place, so he’d have no problem making sense of the files. She did everything in the office specifically to please him. He might be grouchy and call to make sure she stayed away and fail to send her last paycheck. He was due to make partner and would need a real legal secretary soon. She shrugged. She had dodged a messy end and felt nothing but relief.

She finished the stairs and crossed the oval vestibule to the large shop that she pictured perched just beneath the sanctuary upstairs. She smiled at the elderly attendant, fingered a few of the holy medals thinking of her mother’s penchant for pinning them beneath her blouses over her heart, and moved deliberately to the holy cards.

She was rapt as she perused the faces of the saints. She fingered Gabriel and picked him up to read the prayer scribed on the back. He had smooth peach-tinged skin, blond hair that fell in waves past his shoulders which were broad and muscled like a young man of twenty. It was a nice card with gold-embossed edges. She selected St. Brigit next for her mother, read the little martyr’s prayer and felt heaviness in her heart. St. Brigit looked back at her with sad, blue eyes that questioned Melanie’s decisions. There were no depictions of Lucifer. She bit her lip wondering who the artist might have been and thought it was remarkable that she’d never tried to look it up. She took a card for St. Jude because it was expected, and one odd one of St. Luke with a flame of fire over his head just for the even feeling of four.

Melanie approached the elderly man at the counter and said on a whim, “I wonder. There used to be a card with Lucifer falling into hell, just like Milton described in Paradise Lost. I saw it here as a child. Would you know that work? I don’t suppose they offer cards like that anymore?” The old man narrowed his eyes. He checked her face for humor but found an earnest honesty that made him raise his bushy brows at her. He shook his head.

The man tilted his head and opened his eyes to see her clearly. Behind wire rims, his eyes were a light green with laugh lines gouging into his hairline. Melanie shrugged. “Well, then.” She blushed at making conversation with the man. “I’d like to purchase these today and to pay for the one I shoplifted of Lucifer when I was six. Could I do that?” She was aware that other people had entered the shop and were milling around the large room. One woman was murmuring to a friend about the price of the rosaries. Her voice had dropped to a cajoling, warm voice like she’d used on the client that day. Whose voice was that? Melanie suddenly felt a fraud; she had used that honeyed tone to hurry the old man into signing the bit of tripe disguised as a contract. Weren’t they all thieves in some aspect, these property lawyers?

A deeper rumble in her ear brought her up short. Luke asked, “Making amends today, Melanie?” There was the devil’s voice and slowly, his hot hand pressed again at her back. She nodded, and the old man rang her up for five cards instead of four with a slow grin at the man standing behind her. She noticed in rare, clearer vision that the old man was rather tall, not only green-eyed but wearing his grayed hair short like a much younger man. He wore a dark suit of some fabric that shimmered when he moved which made it seem oily and silky at the same time. He looked familiar and a bit too friendly.

Melanie gave the attendant the money with trembling hands and slipped the five from her change into the donation box. The attendant’s eyes danced over her blushed cheeks. He said, “Found that version of Lucifer fascinating didn’t you, miss?” She nodded and glanced toward Luke’s shoulder; she could feel his breath on her cheek. The attendant said, “The devil takes many forms. Some of them are quite beguiling.” Luke was examining the choices she’d made from the array of saints and angels.

Her voice was more ironic than she usually allowed. “Yes. In that card, he looked just like this man to me.” She swallowed and felt Luke’s hand jump. She tossed her head toward him where he stood behind her and shivered slightly. She locked eyes with the attendant who had also snapped to attention at her sharp, bald comparison. The old man’s eyes reminded her of Luke’s light color.

The man’s face cracked into a wide smile, and his memory kicked into gear as if it had been oiled. “I have it. We stopped offering such violent images years ago. You were six?” He gave her a slow look that questioned her age.

Melanie nodded. “Or five. It was sometime after my father started cancer treatments. We’d take him to the hospital, walk here to pray for him, eat at the market, and go back to pick him up. Once a week for two years.” She squinted. “I was five or six. He stopped treatments the week of my seventh birthday.” She gulped because she hadn’t pictured her father in years, but Melanie could remember every detail of the face and beautiful chest of Lucifer plunging into hell.

They walked together to the array of thick books on the far side of the shop. The old man opened a display copy of Cathedrals of Europe and Great Britain and leafed through it until he found Italy. He said, “It’s in here somewhere, I think. I have customers waiting.” He hesitated while he considered Melanie and Luke as they stood so closely together. “I pray you share great happiness.” He gave a little bow after the odd blessing and hurried back to the counter.

Melanie hadn’t looked up to Luke yet, so she resisted eye contact. She carefully lifted every page and glanced at each. There were angels, saints, and demons on nearly every page. Somewhere in the middle of Italy, there was a full-page rendition of Melanie’s Lucifer that was in a fresco in some odd spot in northern Italy. The artist was unknown. Melanie held it close to her face and examined the bare chest of the man and his sharp, angled cheeks. Lucifer was a much younger man than the one circling her waist with one arm. His breath was in her hair, and she could feel the furnace of his heart beating at her back. Perhaps when she’d started working for him, he had been that young and angry. No, she thought, that is sheer misery on Lucifer’s face, not anger. She swiveled in his hold and looked up from the page to check his eyes and saw that misery. It pierced her and made her mouth open in surprise.

“You would leave me just like that?” Luke asked as lips brushed her cheek. “How many times have you tried to leave me?” He was uncaring about their presence in the shrine store, his likeness on the page, or the gasps of other shoppers. He took the book and placed it gently on top of the other boxed copies.

Turning her patiently, he examined her face with the same look of misery as Lucifer falling into hell. His fingers traced her face like a blind man and touched her lips. “I apologize for kissing you this morning. I promise to stop if you want.” But his mouth came down and delivered a deep kiss that melted her and shocked the old ladies fingering the rosaries. “Oh my!” she heard one whisper. “In a church!” The old man behind the counter chuckled, “Youngsters!”

Melanie reached up to his face and touched him which broke the kiss. Her eyes moved from examining his lips, cheeks, and eyes overhung by dark brows to glance back at the painting in the book. “You’ve changed.” Her voice was breathy and a bit drugged. The devil was a persuasive beast. The kisses promised the skin-to-skin touch that she craved.

Luke smiled and let her go, so he could pick up a boxed edition of the book. “Nice of you to notice, Melanie. Come on, we’ll light a few candles and say a few prayers before I take you home.”

Melanie choked over his brash humor and her reaction to his nervy kiss. “Don’t suppose so much, Mr. Metzler. I still think you are a devil.” She walked with him over to the counter and let him buy her the expensive book. He picked up a holy metal of the archangel Michael and placed it on top of the box.

When both the attendant and Melanie looked up to him, Luke grinned and explained, “My dad always carries one around in his wallet.” He pulled out a collection of change from his pants pocket and held out his hand. “I, on the other hand, have affection for Gabriel. He’s an old friend. Suits my role of delivering messages to resistant recipients.” He cocked an eyebrow at Melanie. “When you spoke to the client today, I nearly fell out of my chair. I think he might have agreed to do anything—move mountains or jump over tall buildings.” He looked at the old man and grinned. “She can charm the socks off the biggest, meanest grouch. It’s a talent she doesn’t use all that frequently.” Melanie gave a little rumble of disagreement but smiled. He was sure laying it on thick to keep her as his assistant.

They left the shop and climbed back up the stairs to visit the grotto of the actual shrine. Melanie prayed the words written around the grotto because she found herself incapable of thought. He was staring unflinching at the saint’s face and lowered his eyes only after she’d begun a Hail Mary in desperation for something to train her mind away from the clash that might erupt the moment they left the place. Don’t be cruel to me, a little pleading voice prayed right over the old prayer to the blessed mother in her brain. Love me, the voice spoke so clearly, Melanie shivered. She glanced at Luke, her archangel of tough decisions, relentless measures, and stern condescension. His head was slightly bowed, and tears trickled from his closed eyes. His face was a mask of misery again.

Melanie dared to unclasp her hands and reach across the small space to place her hand on the small of his back and press. The praying voice was his, she thought with sudden clarity. He opened his eyes and looked at her blinking as if trying to wake. He nodded, and they got up to rejoin the rush of the city that was now shrouded in full twilight.

He steered her right into Lexington Market just across a narrow alley. She paid for crab cakes, potato salad, and coleslaw while he bought coffee and a package of chocolate-topped cookies from a bakery famous for them. They had never eaten in the market before, and the noise engulfed them. They sat together on one end of a wide table hip-to-hip because the place was so busy. The family with whom they shared the table bickered over French fries and shared tastes of differently flavored milk shakes. Luke offered the cookies to them after he and Melanie had taken one each. He smiled watching the little tray empty as if scavenger seagulls had descended. Before they entered the market, he had leaned down to whisper to Melanie, “Let’s eat here. If we go back to the car now, we might not eat until tomorrow.” His arm never left her waist until they parted to stand in line.

Once they were in the car, Melanie deflated a bit because he could be charming in public, but Luke’s private person was generally stern and judgmental. She was waiting for the explosion of wrath from her defection to the shrine. The contract they’d landed today had probably earned him a sizable commission along with his generous hourly rate. She swallowed and hoped he shelved all that annoyance with her for another day. She supposed she wasn’t fired if he had come after her. She was surprised that he was Catholic after all and not some secret pagan who drank the blood of virgins.

Melanie pulled the holy cards out of her purse and examined them as he maneuvered out of the parking garage and paid the fee from the cash that he kept in the glove box with all the receipts. St. Luke’s prayer was nondescript for the doctor saint who had penned one Gospel. She sometimes enjoyed his version more than John whom she found a romantic. She touched the saint’s face and wondered what he’d looked like.

They pulled up in front of her building in just ten minutes, and Melanie hesitated. “I’m sorry if I worried you today. I know I overstepped my bounds with the client.” She glanced away to her windows on the second floor. She asked, “Do you want to come up or should we call it a day?” Melanie was surprised at her own boldness after praying so hard less than an hour ago.

Luke had that miserable, shocked look on his face again. He reached for her hand and took the card from her. “I am no saint, Melanie, but I am not some devil either. Is that really how you think of me?”

Melanie nodded before she could stop herself. He sighed because it eased his descent into another pit of hopelessness. He let her hand go and shook his head. “Well, you are just going to have to think of me differently from now on, aren’t you?” Melanie stared at him without any words. He was insulted to the core by her suppositions. Please don’t be cruel to me. Love me. The voice in the prayer whispered through her mind. “I’ll see you tomorrow, my love?” his voice had a little catchy roughness that she’d never heard before, probably because she wasn’t listening for it.

Melanie nodded and climbed out of his car. She took her package from the shrine but purposely left the briefcase with all evidence of her from the office in his backseat. She reserved the right to miss her stop the next morning because, likely, she would.

Melanie arrived on time the next morning and scowled at the mess on her desk. She placed the bag from the bakery on the sideboard, prepared his carafe of coffee, and slid the Danish out of the bag onto a China plate with yellow flowers just like his coffee cup. Her breath caught in her throat. Why would a man like Luke Metzler have dainty China like that in his cupboard? It had the stamp of a female all over it. He called from the next room, “Melanie? Bring another cup and saucer, please. We have some work to start immediately.” She frowned and glanced at her desk again. A large bouquet of flowers crowded her files and laptop.

She carried in the tray to find him grinning at her frown. “There are flowers on my desk.” She looked at him and wanted to check for horns and a tail just in case they’d erupted overnight from his exposure to religion yesterday.

“Yes, yellow roses are from me,” he said, swallowing his smile to attempt looking grim, but it was impossible. She placed the tray on a small credenza, poured him a cup and brought it over to him with a suspicious look. She hated to give him the satisfaction of rushing to the flowers to check the card.

“Yellow roses?” He’d bought her flowers before in shocking profusions of color from the florist near his home.

He nodded. “Yes, for our anniversary. Six years next week.” He sipped the coffee and touched the plate with the Danish. “You walked into the office downstairs looking for something just to finance your master’s degree, didn’t you? You’d have been happy with a receptionist position or even something in the mailroom. I saw you, and my heart just stopped. I seriously thought I was having a heart attack, Melanie. I was twenty-eight years old, working hard to earn partner like my dad did by thirty. I had just moved into this office from a tiny cubicle. Every year you stayed, I thought it was like our anniversary, Mel.”

Melanie sat down in the chair she usually perched on and took notes while she studied him. She had a series of sketches of him at home though she was no real artist.

She sighed and looked toward the desk in the outer office. If he wasn’t the devil incarnate, she had fashioned lullabies to lure herself into a dream world all these years. Hadn’t he been exacting and mean to her? Hadn’t he bullied everyone in his path to get what he wanted?

More than once during her first two years, she had toyed with the idea of turning him in for larceny to the State’s Attorney or reporting him for fraudulent business practices to the bar association. She’d usually take a day off, mull it over on long walks, and wind up back in the office to save him from utter ruin.

She narrowed her eyes and tried to find Lucifer again. There was a thirty-four-year-old attorney in his place who was begging her to be kind to him. Melanie rejected the entire argument. The prayer voice yesterday had begged, Melanie, stop being so mean. She gulped. She rose from the chair and returned to her desk, picked up her laptop, turned it on, and returned to her seat in his office.

He watched her open the envelope as her computer booted up for the day. She mumbled something like, “I apologize for yesterday, Luke.”

Then she read his card, Please don’t leave me. I love you, my angel. Luke. His hand was heavy enough that it told he labored over it. She swallowed.

Luke took on the look of a thunderstorm. He tapped the pen he’d been using on his blotter.

Luke nodded. “Do you remember that reception during your first year here? You wore a blue gown that matched your eyes and made me weak in the knees.” He drew a little circle and said, “I was a bit too obvious, I guess.” He grinned.

She shook her head. She said, “I thought you were playing with me like always. Really.” She blew out a breath. “Well, let’s get to work. You have a meeting with the partners at eleven.”

Later, waiting for Luke to return to the office, she mulled over that kiss in the shrine. Everything before he kissed her in the shop was black and white but mostly gray. That’s how she’d have painted it. This morning she had been standing and waiting for the stop before their office building and hadn’t even considered staying on the train.

At the sound of loud men’s voices, she looked up to find Luke and his father approaching. Luke Metzler was easily the most beautiful man she had ever met. She blinked in startled surprise when his father announced that Luke had been named partner at the board meeting. Luke was a bit red-faced.

After they were alone, he knelt before her and kissed her seeking hands. “You simply must stop opening all the windows the moment I’m distracted. The place is practically wide open to the street so anyone might see.” He grinned at her and looked far more handsome than her falling Lucifer. She loosened his tie, unbuttoned his dress shirt, and ran a hand beneath his white undershirt. The body was nearly the same sinewy perfection that she’d studied and wanted to touch. He was warm and trembling as she studied him. “I love you,” he uttered with a kiss.

A bit later, he whispered, “Making me wait was so mean, Mel. Especially if you’d decided to have me when you were six years old.” She looked up into his green eyes and found a glint of knowledge. She sat up as she noticed the steam rising from his back.

She crossed to open the window, shocked to realize that the park was gone again. A broken, asphalt parking lot resided where her flock of robins had rushed at crumbs thrown by children yesterday. It should be rush hour, but not a soul walked the street. Melanie had found her quiet, little spot in hell.

Behind her, he rose and placed his poker-hot palm on the small of her back. Luke crooned, “The little park makes you feel easier, doesn’t it?” She trembled as he stroked her body with his other hand. Skin-to-skin, she remembered desiring.

When she opened her eyes, the park was restored, the mothers watched their children, and birds pecked at breadcrumbs. A crabapple burst into heavy pink blooms as she watched. He said, “I love you, Melanie. I tried to let you go, but I knew you would return. Wait at Saint Jude’s for me. Promise, my love?” She closed her eyes. Her own devil branded her with his love.

Limbo Again

"Wake up, Mel. I’ll take you home.” His voice was impatient, but his hand was clamped onto her shoulder, so she didn’t slump forward and strike her head. She shivered and blinked to open her eyes to a damp, cool place. She looked up to check Luke’s eyes for the glint of red fire she’d seen last. His eyes were back to the hard green, but he looked worried.

He sank down beside her. Melanie raised a hand and touched his face, as she swiveled toward him. He was not unusually hot like she’d experienced moments ago. He cringed. They were in the National Shrine for St. Jude. They were sitting together off to the side of the main church with other worshippers. People sat or kneeled, one or two to a pew. The thick scent of incense tickled her nose. She leaned a little forward to catch Luke’s normal scent of soap, coffee, and man. There wasn’t even a touch of brimstone.

Her eyes flashed back to his face to look for Lucifer. Gone again. Do you love me? The prayer voice was back, and it was his. Melanie said, “Yes, Luke. I love you. I apologize for being so mean.” She ran a finger over his lips, as his eyes widened and looked a little wild.

Luke shook his head. “Melanie, that was very sweet of you. I enjoy working with you, but,” his eyes fled to her hands, “love is such a big step, you know. I do like you, but . . .” He let a deep sigh escape. “My mother warned me that you were growing too close. Perhaps you ought to ask for a transfer.”

Melanie blinked slowly trying to remember this thread of her life. In this one he must be a kind, efficient man whom she worked for and nursed a deep crush on in the way of secretaries and their bosses. Melanie could have taken back her words of love. She stood up with him beside her. She was crushed by the thick incensed air, the moisture of marble, old carpet, and the quiver of candles. She asked, “Could we go down to the bookstore? I want a holy card for my mother.”

Gluttony

Melanie jumped when she heard the window in the next room slam shut with a curse. She gritted her teeth but refused to run to her window to close it. The sound of the traffic outside was irritating. The little plot of grass next to this side of the building had just been transformed from a makeshift park for mothers and their children during the day and teens in the early evening. Her little park was now a parking lot for the high-rise across the street. No more happy voices, mothers calling for their little ones, the straggly crabapple tree in the center or the sounds of birds. She was aware of the pigeons nesting in windowsills nearby. Sometimes she listened to the remnants of conversations bleeding from the exiting office workers when she worked past their five-thirty dismissal. She often labored beyond seven in the evening for the workaholic in the next room.

She tried to focus on the long summary attached to the contract beside her computer on the desk. Any other attorney might have sent her home with it, but her boss expected everything to stay in their office locked in a file cabinet for safety. He was meticulous with the wording of each line of the intricate agreements the partners sent him. The office was kept spare of decoration and failed to attain the shabby, lived-in look like the other offices adopted. Melanie spent a good deal of time filing and cleaning to keep the litter of paper to a minimum.

Her intercom buzzed a few moments later, and she asked, “Sir?” Melanie smoothed back her hair and pressed her palm over her creased skirt from a morning of desk work. She crossed to his door and felt the odd warmth at his doorknob. Easing the door open, Melanie slipped inside his dimly lit office and took one look in his direction. She imagined that she smelled the incense of a church service in the room. The thought of Lucifer thrilled her in an echo of childhood fascination.

Mr. Metzler was no devil, but he was hugely obese and just a bit disgusting. In the sauna heat of the office, his face glistened with sweat. She wondered why he closed the window to the cool outside air. They need to fix the old boilers in this building, she grouched caustically to herself.

He reached for the folder and glanced at the contract. She looked at the neat pile of files he’d processed, the bulge of his stomach over the belt that was hidden, and the silk tie with the loosened knot, slightly slanted askew. The grey cast of his skin blended into the dull light, the glistening sweat darkened his collar, and slicked his greasy hair. Luke’s six foot-two frame was padded with over three hundred pounds. Failing to earn a partnership two years ago had wrecked him.

She gave the credenza a side glance and noticed that not one of the pastries waited for her to discard it. Her eyes fled to the window as she thought of the little bakery just a few blocks away that was just steps from her bus stop every morning. The proximity of the bakery was the reason for this sweets habit of his. Angelina’s Patisserie was one of those postage stamp storefronts in what used to be a rowhouse that had taken up two or three units next to it as business grew. Her patronage was so commonplace that they knew her order. Mr. Metzler never complained; it seemed he could eat all the pastries she could pile on the cake plate every day.

He made a little, huffing noise. “Melanie, this will do. The client will probably find some odd point to change at the meeting tomorrow. I wanted to warn you. . .” his voice dropped off as he mopped a brow. Their eyes met and locked. Melanie had a sudden intuition of disaster and saw a glimpse of the real man under all that sweaty flesh. She tamped down the old rush of concern over his health.

She shook her head. “I won’t speak up tomorrow.” She blushed at her bald inadequacy.

He stood up slowly. His health was deteriorating in such alarming leaps. He glanced out the window and gestured for her to come over and look out the window at something.

She caught the scent of his illness. Her stomach heaved, but Melanie gulped in a breath and held it. Her eyes followed his hand, and she stiffened into a frightened squint. The park bloomed in green regalia with little children released from strollers and a spreading crabapple bursting into bloom. He took her hand and squeezed it before lifting it to his warm cheek. He said, “I expect you to handle the contract, Melanie. You could conjure a settlement with this client as easily as you just transformed that square of asphalt into a paradise.” He lifted her hand to his mouth and kissed it gently.

Melanie closed her eyes and willed herself to the shrine. She wanted to be standing with him in the entrance to the sacristy in an ivory dress ready to commit herself for life. He would give her away to God in atonement for every evil unleashed on the planet. She opened her eyes and looked on amazed because the parking lot had returned. She felt dizzy; had God refused her sacrifice?

Mr. Metzler had pulled her into his arms. She blinked awake as his mouth touched hers and lifted after a tasting kiss. He groaned into her neck, “I am so hungry for you, Melanie.” With that admission, he pressed her into his enveloping girth and devoured her completely.

Frozen Lake of Tears

Melanie Harrison settled herself into a pew on the far side of the sanctuary after saying her prayers in the shrine, lighting her candles, dousing her forehead, breast, and shoulders with holy water, and visiting the shop in the basement. The old man whom she thought of as her friend when she had such moments of clarity had asked her where her devil of a boyfriend was that day. She blushed and assured him he wasn’t coming to get her this time. She had not left the accustomed message with a secretary, scribbled a note on a slip of paper, or written her message in a blooming crabapple.

She had handled the final contract meeting on her own with the head partner’s blessing. Charlie Eben had summoned her to his office on the fifth floor after Mr. Metzler failed to arrive that morning. Charlie had reviewed the contract with her, raised an eyebrow at the message in Luke’s hand to let her handle it, and offered her a transfer to his office as second assistant. Mr. Metzler would not be returning to his office at the firm, Eben told her. Charlie told her to pack up any of the files from Metzler’s office and to bring them upstairs with her. She had stood in the window of his office imagining the crabapple tree with tears in her eyes. She called his apartment and his parents’ home looking for any news of him. She had cried in earnest after his mother refused to speak to Melanie beyond the terse statement, “The matter is private, Miss Harrison. He is extremely ill.”

Melanie leaned forward onto the kneeler and clasped her hands. As a second thought, she slipped a hand into her pocket and withdrew the medal of St. Michael that Luke favored. She prayed an odd prayer, Guide him through the gates of heaven. He has paid his time in purgatory; he has dipped his wings into the frozen lake of tears; release him please. I love him. No, that was selfish. She corrected herself—it doesn’t matter if I love him, please help him. Release his soul and take mine to the next level of hell.

A moment later, the benediction service began, and Melanie allowed herself to sink into the beauty of prayer, reflection, and release of sinful tension. The painful worry over Luke Metzler was such an old prayer that she repeated it without thinking. She prayed for her father, her mother, the Metzler’s, and old Mr. Eben who had been so unexpectedly kind to her that day. She opened her eyes when someone took her hand expecting Luke in some other tortured form and found her old friend from the souvenir store. She smiled at him and squeezed his hand. He winked at her and raised her hand to his lips.

Melanie shivered all over but returned to the service. The old man continued to clasp her hand in his in a gentle way. During the Lord’s Prayer, he laced his fingers with hers and tugged as it ended, but she kept her eyes closed. The Eucharistic exposition and benediction began, but she did not dare gaze on the altar with sinner’s eyes. It became clear that she had absorbed all of Luke’s transgressions as she acted as his buffer for six long years of trials and adjustments. She had descended into the ninth circle of misery with an alarming alacrity.

More tears filled her eyes, and her heart beat rapidly as she imagined herself in the freefall of the painting. Some unseen hand bore her back up and filled her with euphoric lightness. Her Archangel Gabriel would not allow the complete fall, would he? Protect me, her heart begged.

“Melanie, my love.” His voice was that deep rumble of trouble from earlier in this dream of a life. Most of the congregation had melted away to the shrine grottos for further intentions or out to the street and home. She was in no hurry to walk down to the train and return to her empty apartment. Melanie leaned back in the pew with her eyes closed, rapt in the euphoria of the old man’s hand in hers and the light-headed effect of forgiveness. She was floating along in the sense of peace and resisted all intrusion. He said, “I am offering you a future, Melanie. Open your eyes.”

Melanie smiled and resisted because she could not understand the difference anymore between the dream and real life. All she knew for certain was that she sat in St. Jude’s Shrine after a prayer service that was probably the beginning of a novena and that this was the first time that Luke hadn’t come for her. A break in the cycle had occurred, and she was not sure what to make of it. She wondered about the little park with the children and the crabapple, questioning her senses because it was unlikely that any of it truly existed.

She wondered if Luke Metzler had ever been a real person or just a manifestation of her twisted desires from childhood. Her father had died when she was so young. She had been immersed in a fascination with antiquities even then as she wandered the art museums with relatives who did not know what to do with a grieving child. She had turned to the Church and to various art houses because she found solace in the old faces. They soothed her fractious spirit; They ease her mind, one of the aunts had insisted. That aunt suddenly seemed an awful lot like Luke’s mother. The fingers clutching at her fingers tightened suddenly. Puzzle pieces were clicking into place.

Melanie opened her eyes a full half an hour after he grasped them. He held her slim fingers in the intertwined lover’s clasp. He was trying to be gentle. He had woken to himself that morning in the old apartment and had cursed himself for losing all hope. He ran all the way to the Basilica and then on to St. Jude’s praying that she’d still be there. She was holding his hand, but she was so far away.

Yesterday, he had dreamed her wish to marry Christ in that old shrine and seal herself from him for all time. He nearly died worrying over her martyrdom for his salvation. The doctors had warned him about a heart attack last night. They thought it was stress; he knew it was the possibility of rejection by Melanie. She had no idea that he loved God the Father to the point of lunacy. But she loved him. Luke’s human heart ached because she had been tested so many times, and still, her love was steadfast.

She was blinking her eyes to clear the tears that traced paths down her cheeks. She glanced over to him and frowned. She could not focus. There was a large, dark man seated beside her holding her hand and caressing one of her palms with a forefinger. Just his touch sent little tremors through her body. Her eyes filled with tears because she was overwhelmed with unaccustomed tenderness.

She had sought warmth, strength, and security. He offered none. She desired constancy on a tilting planet of unease, and he had only made her feel the precipitous fall they were both plunging through together. She wanted to hide, and he revealed himself to bareness. She leaned her face to rest on the cloth of his woolen jacket and felt comforted by the sturdy bulk of him. He was still there.

He said, “Melanie, could you take me home? Could you take care of me?” She nodded assuming he was the old man. Blinking again, her eyes cleared. She looked over at him and found the face of her Luke Metzler, jaded with experience, health ruined or not, his temperament patient or irritable. He was a man before he was any devil or spirit of moral turpitude.

She leaned forward to kneel and brought him with her into a prayer. Thank you for loving me all the days of my life. Thank you for this man you have leant me to love and to cherish. I accept your will without question.

About the Author

Joan Drescher Cooper

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Writer and teacher, Joan Drescher Cooper published Birds Like Me, a poetry collection with Finishing Line Press in 2019. Her poetry, book reviews, and fiction have appeared in The Delmarva Review, River Babble, Doorknobs & Body Paint, Sand Dune Anthology and The Bay to Ocean Anthology. Joan published the Lilac Hill fiction trilogy with Salt Water Media. More at joandcooper.com and Twitter @BirdsLikeMe1.