Saturday, February 12, 2022

The Magic Number

I was requested again this year to write a romantic short story and read it as part of the program for my church's annual tea for ladies. Some of the women who missed the tea want to read the story, so I've copied it here:

The Magic Number

Dave scanned the message that appeared on his cell phone.
Hi, I’m Julia Barnett, a friend of Megan’s, and she asked me to invite you to a party in her honor. It will be at my home this Friday, 7 p.m. No gifts. Can you come? The Fort Worth address followed.
Puzzled, he clicked the sound off to avoid interrupting his business conference again. He’d answer it later. Funny. He thought his sister and brother-in-law had already left on their anniversary cruise in Europe.
After the construction contract had been agreed upon and hands shaken, both parties went to an exceptionally fine restaurant to celebrate. It wasn’t until later, in his hotel room, that he read the message again.
Absolutely sure Megan’s cell phone would be turned off as an economy measure, he called her anyway and got a taped answer. Well, maybe the party was after she and Sam returned, but he thought that was next week.
When this business trip came up, Dave had tried to make plans to see them, but it wouldn’t work out. He didn’t come back to Fort Worth often, though it still felt like home. Maybe with this new business plaza contract, he’d be here enough to make contact with his old high school buddies.
With that warm, fuzzy thought he zapped back a quick text:  Thanks for the invitation. See you Friday. Then he tossed his cell on the tapestry bedspread and headed for a steaming shower.

Three days passed in a flurry of activity. He only thought of the party invitation at night, when he collapsed on Hilton’s deeply tufted mattress. Every daylight hour passed in controlled confusion of puzzling over the architectural schemes to give the builder exactly what he wanted.
On Friday, he asked the client’s secretary to have flowers sent to the hostess’ home in his name, and he made sure to break away early enough to arrive on time. But Megan still didn’t answer her home phone or her cell. Maybe they were sleeping off the intercontinental flight.
Arriving at the Westover Hills address, he found a tasteful home. Large, but not a mansion like some of its neighbors. He touched the bell and an attractive woman in her sixties opened the door wide. The smile on her face froze. He didn’t recognize her, and she obviously didn’t know him.
She extended her hand. “Good evening. I’m Julia Barnett.”
“Dave Copeland, Megan’s brother.”
“Oh.” He could see wheels turning in her head. She stepped away and turned to the guests chatting in the living room, allowing him to enter. “Megan? Your brother, Dave Copeland?”
A colorfully-dressed woman broke from her conversation with a smile still on her lips, but curiosity on her brow. “I don’t have a ... Excuse me. Who?”
She and a burly gentleman with a scowl approached Dave. They did not offer their hands.
This wasn’t Megan. Not his sister Megan, anyway.
The man broadened his chest and took a square stance. “What is your business here?”
Thoroughly confounded, Dave searched for words. “I was invited to Megan’s ... ” He reached for his phone, and the man slipped a hand under his own left arm as if to a gun holster there.
“Just my phone. Sorry. I’ll show you the text.” Slowly and avoiding jerky motions, he extracted his cell phone. The fellow’s shoulder relaxed, and he repositioned whatever he had almost drawn out. Dave was sure it was a gun.
Displaying the invitation text message, Dave showed it first to him and Megan and then to the hostess. A crowd gathered, and his phone was passed to several people.
“Oh. You sent the flowers?” Julia indicated an arrangement on the coffee table. “I wondered who ...” Her face flushed three shades of red.
“Didn’t they have my name on the card? It was supposed to be signed.”
“Well, yes, but we didn’t know who Dave Copeland was. That is the message I sent, but—”
He looked toward the breathy voice.
“Dave, is that you?”
Definitely not his sister. Trisha March, his girlfriend from Arlington Heights High School, stepped from the circle of guests. Younger than the other guests, as he was, and the most beautiful woman in the room. Her hair, still silky, light brown, came below her ears but not loosely to her shoulders as when he had last seen her.
The night her father poked him in the chest and told him never to come to their home again.
“Dave Copeland. It’s so good to see you again. What brings you here?”
He took his cell phone from a man and handed it to her. He couldn’t speak anyway.
“I think there’s been a miraculous mistake,” she responded after reading the text. A smile of wonder lifted her eyes. “This is the retirement party for Megan Warner, my boss.” She indicated the Megan whose brother he was definitely not. “You got this message and thought it was for your sister, Megan?”
“Right. I tried to call her several times, but she and Sam had gone on a cruise for their twenty-fifth anniversary. I thought— Look, folks, I’m sorry. I’ll just make a U-turn. Y’all get back to your party.” Feeling his face burn, he reached for his phone. “’Scuze me, Trisha. Sorry about this.”
“Oh, you can’t leave. I haven’t seen you for some twenty-six years. Please stay.”
The hostess broke out of her trance. “Indeed. You must stay for dinner. The caterer is about to serve the most magnificent dinner, and I have a place for you.” She took him by the arm and the room breathed again. She led him to the bar, followed by Trisha. “What can I get you?”
Every sort of liquor and wine stood at attention waiting for his order. “Coke?”
The other Megan’s escort filled a glass with ice and poured his drink. “Hi, I’m Bill Warner, Megan’s husband. And Fort Worth Police. Sorry about that.” He nodded toward the place where they’d stood before.
Trisha came to Dave’s other side. “Bill, would you pour me a Diet Coke, please? I need to get reacquainted with my old boyfriend.”
She placed her hand on the sleeve of his sport coat, and it warmed him down to his tingling feet. The next moment his fledgling hopes crashed to the ground. That hand bore wedding rings.
She accepted her Coke and took a sip. “Have you moved back to Fort Worth? You haven’t come to any of the class reunions.”
“I have an apartment in Cincinnati, but I fly around a lot since my wife passed.”
Trisha’s expression clouded, and she murmured the sort of thing people say.
 “Our sons are in college, so I’m free to leave when I need to,” he continued. By peripheral vision, he noticed the hostess, Julia, switching place cards at the dining table with a dozen seatings. He still felt the polite thing to do would be to leave.
But Trisha looked up at him and her eyes were still as green as ever. He couldn’t leave yet.
“How many sons do you have?”
He chuckled. “Two. They’re twins, and they were always a houseful. How about you?”
“One of each. They’re still in high school.” She backed away from the bar, drawing him out of the traffic. “And yes, they’re a houseful. Especially dealing with their father’s sudden death.”
“I’m sorry. But I see you’re still wearing rings.”
“Well, I still have the children. And it was only a couple of years ago. I wasn’t ready to appear available yet.”
Julia Barnett invited them to the dining room, and she had indeed put his place card next to Trisha’s. As much as he wanted to corner her with a thousand questions about her life since high school, they both engaged in conversation with the other guests. Everyone was too polite to ask how or why he came to the party. Or perhaps they thought he was Trisha’s date. He hoped that could be arranged in the future.

* * *

Trisha again relived the night her father sent Dave away, shouting that he was never to call or see her again. His father was a drunkard who didn’t provide well for his wife and children. Rumors of violence traveled through school, too. Dad said everyone knew drinking problems passed through the genes or rearing or something. He didn’t want her stuck with a loser.
Since Dave declined the fine wine at the dinner, she did, too. Was he an alcoholic on the wagon? How could she ask without sounding like it was the most important question of the century, which it was to her?
Eventually the caterer’s waiter came around with the wines again, and showed off the label to Dave.
“No, thank you. But I’ll have some more water when it’s convenient,” he said.
She took the chance and asked. “You’re not accepting the wine?”
“Never touch the stuff. I saw what it did to my father and the effect on the family. I never had any interest in trying alcohol. But please go ahead and enjoy it. Don’t refrain on my behalf.”
“It isn’t important. Never has been to me. I’m okay with the Diet Coke.”
Inwardly, she sighed her relief. She’d never known him to lie about anything, ever. She could hardly believe her good fortune in finding Dave again. She watched his interaction with the others and admired his well-developed social graces. The lean, gangly teenager had become a man. A gentleman. And an architect with a master’s degree. Would he find her interesting after so many years and total separation? She hadn’t exactly been “rode hard and put up wet.” The extra time put on her hair and the slimming royal blue dress she wore tonight gave her confidence.
“So you work for this company, and this is a retirement celebration?” Dave interrupted her musings. “What do you do?”
“Human resources, with a specialty in data management. But I do a lot of person-to-person consulting as well. Megan has been my boss as long as I’ve been with the company. We all regret losing her, but she deserves a good retirement.”
They swapped a few facts, like how he had remained in the Methodist church and reared his sons under that umbrella. She was still in the same one where they’d attended youth group together.
Rather than become grounded and calmed as light conversation continued, she developed an inner quiver. The boy of her girlish dreams had become a handsome, polished professional. Parts of her she’d thought died with her husband stirred and stretched as if from a long sleep.
After the dinner of cordon bleu came a rich chocolate confection. Then coffee and liqueurs were served in the living room. Dave and Trisha sat together on the sofa. Soon the guests began to thank Julia, cover Megan with good wishes, and slip into the night. Trisha didn’t want the party to end.
You can’t let him go. He can’t just leave again. Please, God, make him ask for my number, my e-mail, anything.
Only Megan and her husband, Julia and Doug Barnett, Trisha and Dave remained in the living room. “I should go.” She tried not to look and sound as reluctant as she felt.
“Oh, but first I have to explain.” Julia came to where they were sitting, bringing her cell phone and a list of names and scribbled notes. “Here’s the message I sent from my phone, the invitation I sent you, Dave. I made a mistake in one number when I intended to send it to Alice. You didn’t meet her. She’s recovering from surgery and couldn’t come. But you see the number on my list?” She held it out for him to inspect. “There’s only one number different. You still have the 817 area code?”
“I got this phone in Fort Worth, and have kept the same number ever since. I never had a reason to change. Since you mentioned Megan in the message, I assumed the party was for my sister and her husband’s anniversary. I should have checked.”
Trisha looked up, noting that he hadn’t lost the dimple she loved so much. “I’m glad you didn’t. We wouldn’t have met if it hadn’t been for this marvelous mistake.”
“I don’t know, Trisha.” His eyes connected with hers for a long moment. “I have a feeling God would have worked it out somehow.”

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