Replaced by an Easy Spirit
By Helen Hanson
While Pam waited for her friend at the sushi house, she spied into the fish tank and examined a jawfish. His mouth formed a circle as he spit rocks her direction. Pam didn’t blame him. She wouldn’t want to live in a glass house either.
Melody broke the restaurant’s threshold with a smile that reflected the dazzling rock perched on her finger. Pam’s heart lurched. Melody had been dating Rick only a few months.
Melody’s arm stiffened like a waking cat’s to let light dance upon the bauble. “Isn’t it beautiful?”
A two-carat rock with smaller stones that could fly solo. Gorgeous. So was Melody, even without the ring. “It’s stunning. Congratulations.” Pam hugged her dearest friend. “When?”
“Saturday.” Melody pushed away. “I couldn’t wait to tell you.”
But she had waited. Since the era-of-Rick, they didn’t spend time together. Too busy with the new boyfriend for the old best friend. A tired refrain. Pam thought their friendship was immune to the relationship virus.
Guilt panged. Did her life alone automatically translate to a pathetic case of jealousy? Before Rick, they played tennis every weekend. Pam struggled to free the words. “I’m so happy for you.” She wanted to be.
The greeter escorted them to a booth. Melody’s black hair swished behind her as she scooted in.
Pam forced an encouraging smile. “Details.”
“Rick took me to Chanson d’Amour for our three-month anniversary dinner.”
Pam wanted to say that anniversaries counted years but decided it sounded petty.
“He ordered a bottle of Dom Pérignon with escargot and–”
“You don’t like snails. That’s the one squiggly thing you won’t eat.”
Melody’s face flickered. “Rick says it’s an acquired taste.”
Rick was an acquired taste. Not that he’d given Pam a chance. He didn’t seem interested in knowing her better. Self-pity burrowed. “Sorry, go on–”
A waiter brought them tea. “Are you ready to order?”
Savory scents from the grill reassured her. “I’m easy,” Pam said. “You ready?”
“Yes.” Melody browsed the menu. “I want an order of uni, hamachi, and some miso, please.” Melody laid down her menu.
“I’ll have the chicken teriyaki.”
“No sense of adventure.”
Pam said, “Not when it comes to raw fish.”
Melody looked relaxed. “I haven’t had sashimi in ages.”
“You own custom mother-of-pearl chopsticks.”
She dropped a shoulder. “Rick doesn’t like sushi.”
What about acquiring tastes? That was snide. Snide never helped. “French restaurant. Flashy ring. Spill, girlfriend.”
Melody’s smile reignited. “Violinists serenaded us, while we sipped champagne.” She drifted briefly, as if remembering. “It was perfect. Like out of a movie.”
“What does Rick do again?”
“He’s an orthopedist with a good practice.”
No kidding. “Go on.”
“Then he announced to the whole place–” Melody’s voice broke. “–that I was the most beautiful woman he’s ever seen.”
“It was so romantic.” She fanned her mouth.
Or odd. Melody was beautiful, but Rick announcing it to a group of strangers seemed over some kind of top. “What did you do?”
“I was too excited to speak. People gathered around our table, and then I recognized his mother.”
Pam thought she misheard. “He invited his mother?”
“His whole family was there! He knelt down on one knee and asked me to marry him!”
“Wow.” A stupid utterance, but it was all Pam had.
Melody positioned her manicured hand for maximum glinting. “He slipped this on my finger.”
She’d worked two jobs to put herself through interior design school. Running an upstart company kept her continually behind the money curve. Her ring finger enjoyed greater equity than her fledgling business.
“Was your family there?”
“The restaurant wasn’t big. Rick wanted his family to meet me.” Her voice trailed. “Mom and Dad were excited, later.”
“Wow.” Pam needed to work harder on this conversation. But even if she wasn’t first-tier with Rick, she was prime bridesmaid material. He must have doctor friends. Meeting a sexy podiatrist could be fun, if that wasn’t an oxymoron.
“This weekend.” Melody’s sensuous features looked pinched. “We’re getting married in Bora Bora!”
“Wow.” Pam gave up the search for real words.
“He rented a bungalow overlooking a blue lagoon. His family is flying out for the wedding, but we’re staying two weeks!” Her feet drummed the floor. “I can’t believe it!”
Reality crept through Pam like barium before an x-ray. “This weekend?”
Melody caught her disappointment. “I wanted to have you as my maid of honor.” She covered Pam’s hand with her own. “I’m sorry, but Rick already made the reservations. I couldn’t have planned anything more spectacular.”
“What about your parents? Your dad? Shouldn’t he walk you down the aisle? Or the sand? Don’t you want them by your side?”
Melody’s lip quivered. “Of course I do.” She snatched the teapot and splashed some into her cup. “Rick went to a lot of trouble–”
“Trouble? This is your family. They should be there.”
Her face stilled and then conveyed what she would never say aloud: You’re just jealous.
“Your miso, ma’am,” said the waiter.
Pam’s cup clattered on the table. It wobbled to a stop without spilling.
The waiter slipped the bowl in front of Melody along with the tiny plates of sashimi.
“Your teriyaki, ma’am. Will there be anything else?”
Their silence sent the waiter away.
Melody recovered first. “So what’s new with you?” She held the soup bowl to her bowed lips.
Pam nudged some rice with her fork. Why shouldn’t she be jealous? Prince Rick—the diamond buying, champagne guzzling, snail slurping, orthopedic wonder—whisks Melody off to paradise for a Grimm fairytale wedding, while she got a job in a seedy part of town. But if Melody could make an effort, so could Pam. “I got a promotion.”
A little too much effort. “It’s a great opportunity, but the office is in a run-down area.”
“Oh dear.” Melody turned serious. “You need a GPS to find your way off an escalator.”
“True,” Pam said. “A little mean. But true.”
They both giggled.
Melody toasted the air with her tea. “Are you still dating Sam?”
“You mean the Sam I caught kissing his next-door neighbor?”
“Ouch.” She bit into a yellow blob of fish.
“No.” And there was nothing on the horizon. Pam had flirted with a guy across the hall, but that slinky redhead held his attention. Jealous. She had a confirmed case of jealous. She stabbed her chicken. “How’s interior designing?”
Melody clamped another fishy roll with her chopsticks. “Actually, I may sell the company.”
Melody cocked her head. “With Rick’s practice, I won’t have to work. That’s never been an option before.”
“No one can call you lazy.”
She waved off the comment. “I’ve worked since I was twelve. It’s part of who I am.”
“A part you want to change.”
“A part I can change. Since when do you love working so much?”
“Since I bought my condo and decided to keep my credit intact.” Pam refilled her cup.
Even Melody’s laugh was pretty. It had a lyrical quality that buoyed Pam’s sinking mood. It was the first time today she’d heard it. “I’ve missed you, girlfriend. I hope you’re happy.”
The smile leached from Melody’s face. “What do you mean ‘hope’?”
“As in, ‘I hope you’re happy.’ What do you think I mean?”
She put down her chopsticks. “You said it like you doubt it.”
“I haven’t seen you in months.” Pam’s breathing stammered. “How would I even know?”
“You’re mad because I’ve been busy?”
“What do you want from me?” She glanced around the room and lowered her voice. “I don’t hear from you for three months. Then you tell me you’re getting married to a man I barely know.” She threw her napkin on the table. “A man you barely know.”
“I know everything I need to.”
“He’s your soul mate.” Pam pulled back. “Whatever. But you’ve only known him three months.”
“Rick is kind, attentive, thoughtful, and he buys me sweet gifts–like a panda clock radio for my bedroom. He treats me like a queen.” Melody’s voice stiffened with her spine. “I expected you to understand.”
“After twenty years as my doubles partner, map reader, and best friend, you think jealousy is enough to undermine my sincerity? I’m jealous. I admit it. He’s rich, successful, and consumes all your time. I’ve offered to meet you for dinner, drinks, or to get your tires rotated, but you always have an excuse. Or he does.” Pam thought she’d pushed it too far. “I’m concerned. Three months is so short.”
“He’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”
“You’re enjoying the queen thing. I get it. As your friend who loves you, I happen to think you deserve it, but leave me out of the equation. What does your family think about him?”
Melody blinked. “They think he’s perfect.”
“Great. What does he think about your family?”
Her father owned a Mexican restaurant and most of the large, loud, loving bunch worked there. Melody was the first one to earn a college degree.
“He admires their work ethic.”
“Does he like the restaurant?” It would have been a great place to propose.
“Mexican food upsets his stomach.”
Another taste acquisition successfully avoided by Rick. But Melody did deserve the queen thing. She’d give a kidney to someone she loved and bone marrow to someone she didn’t. If the man made her happy, made her feel like royalty, wanted to sweep her off her exhausted feet, then let her enjoy it.
“BFF, girlfriend.” Pam put up her fist for a bump. “I’m always here for you.”
“Same here.” Melody’s return fist bump was weak but rebooted the prickly discussion.
“You want to walk the mall?”
“What time is it?” Melody reached for her phone.
The ringtone caused them both to jump.
She checked the display. “Can you get our bill? I need to take this.” She walked toward the main entrance, but her voice carried back to Pam. “Hi, honey. I’m with a client right now. What’s up? I planned to wear my blue dress.” Melody closed her phone and stared at a bamboo plant on the floor. “Okay. Yes, I’ll wear the red dress. I love you, too.”
Pam signaled the waiter, and he brought the bill to the table before Melody returned. They laid down enough cash to cover lunch and a generous tip.
Pam looped her arm through Melody’s as they sauntered into the mall. “I’d still be lost in Kansas City if you hadn’t navigated me back to safety.”
“Both times.” The twinkle returned to Melody’s eye. “You worry me, though. You need some protection if you’re going to work in a rough neighborhood.”
“You mean a gun?”
“For you?” Melody squinted. “Hardly. Maybe an alarm to buy some time. Let’s check the mall directory.” She swung Pam by the arm. Melody took the lead. She always had. Maybe that’s what bothered Pam about Rick. And Melody lied to him about being with a client. Pam was no threat to Rick. He barely knew her.
The mall directory listed a store called Serious Security. It seemed just the place. Wasn’t everyone looking for some of that?
As they walked, memories crowded every shadow of the mall. Skating with boys in center ice. Cool first job in a hip boutique. Hair coloring gone dreadfully awry in the punk salon now replaced by an Easy Spirit shoe store.
They hiked the stairs to the second level and found Serious Security near a golf shop. Electronic devices filled cases, lined walls, and announced their entry to a young man with a soul patch on his chin. He called out, “Be right with you.”
Melody stopped to look at a can of shaving cream. “Check it out. You can hide your valuables in here.”
“In shaving cream?”
“It’s fake. The bottom unscrews, so you can stash your jewels and hide it in your medicine cabinet.”
Melody picked up a box. “Ooh, here. You can use this to look back into a house with a peephole. Kinda creepy.”
Pam struggled to keep a straight face. “It depends.”
“On whether you are the peeper or the peepee.”
Melody collapsed onto the counter. “That is so not a word.”
A blue box with a magnifying glass on the cover caught their attention. They said in unison, “Eeeeewww!”
“You found the semen detection kit. We get that reaction a lot.” A male voice said from behind them.
“That’s disgusting,” said Melody as she turned.
“Agreed.” He tugged an ear. “Unfortunately, it sells. How may I help you ladies?
Pam said, “My new job is in a rough neighborhood. I generally work late. What do you suggest?”
“Personal security.” He led them to a section near the door. “Whatever you choose, it should give you a sense of control. Pepper spray?”
“I’d spray myself,” Pam said.
The women shook their heads. Melody answered, “Electrocuted.”
“We have sirens to scare off villains.”
“Let me see those.”
The clerk showed Pam several models. She chose one that emitted a high-decibel screech but was small enough for her keyring.
She followed the clerk to the register to pay for her bit of security. Melody stared at the wall behind the counter, her face draining to white.
Pam put a hand on her shoulder. “Are you all right?”
Melody ignored Pam and turned to the clerk. Her throat bobbled as she asked, “What does that clock radio do?” With a quivering finger, she pointed to a clock radio fashioned like a panda.
“Plays music. Wakes you up.” He laughed, mostly to himself. “And it holds a hi-res, motion-activated digital video camera. With a sixteen-gig memory card, you can record up to thirty-eight hours of video.”
Melody turned away.
The clerk scanned Pam’s alarm and put it in a small bag. “That will be eleven-fourteen.”
Pam handed him a twenty and said, “What about you, Mel? Do you need anything?”
Melody looked back at the display, her eyes glistening. “What about the air purifier? What does it do?”
“Purifies the air and records both sound and video.”
She squeezed Pam’s hand. “And the picture frame?”
“Frame and a camera. They put cameras in everything these days.”
Pam didn’t think the clerk heard Melody gasp. But Pam knew what it meant. She said, “My boss thought a competitor might have given him something with a spy camera. How do you find them?”
The clerk brought out a flashlight from under the glass counter. “Shine this on the right speaker of the radio. Do you see a red reflection?”
Pam found the tiny eye returning her gaze. “Yeah.”
“That’s the camera lens.”
“How much is this thing?”
“A hundred and twenty-nine.”
“What do you think, Mel? Do you think my boss would want me to check the office?”
Melody cleared her throat. “I’m sure of it.” Her lips flattened into a stiff line before she strode away.
“Thanks for all your help,” Pam said to the clerk. “I’ll take the detector thing.”
After paying for the item, she left the store and found Melody leaning against a wall. “I’m so sorry, Mel.”
“Don’t be. Some things actually make sense now.” Melody straightened up and wiped an eye. “I need to check all the gifts he’s given me and call my attorney.” She removed the diamond ring from her finger. “That bastard!”
Pam hugged her.
Melody’s chin quivered, and she said, “At least I’m free this weekend. You up for some tennis?”
Note from Helen Hanson:
I wrote this story when helping a friend out of an abusive relationship. Yes, she did finally dump his sorry ass, but the unnecessary toll was paid over too long a time. The common thread between this story and my novels is the use of relevant technology by my characters. Hackers, CIA agents, even a young waitress.
If you’re so inclined, drop me a line: Helen@HelenHanson.com. I love to hear from readers.
All the best,