When the man comes in, Kara is on her hands and knees lifting a corner of the carpet to peek at the scratched hardwood floor beneath. Every Friday, Mr. Faraday and Mrs. Hutch go out for lunch, and Kara listens to the radio and wanders around the house, searching for traces of the families who lived there before it was an office. So far, she’s found light pencil marks on a doorframe and blue crayon scribbles under a peeling piece of wallpaper.
She stands and straightens her skirt, sliding her feet back into her shoes. The man is around her age, mid-twenties, maybe older. He’d be good-looking in different clothes. Big brown eyes, narrow face, dark hair curling at the ends. He reminds Kara of the grocery lists she sometimes forgets in her pockets, small pieces of paper that go through the wash. Still legible but irrevocably worn.
“You practice law here?” he asks. He takes a step forward and is too close for a first meeting. He is lover-close, fistfight-close. She steps back.
“Well, I don’t,” she says, voice pitched high. “But, yes, there are lawyers here. How can we help you?”
“I need to talk to someone about law,” he says, his eyes focused on her eyes.
“Law?” she echoes. “Criminal law, or property—”
“Law as a concept. Law and justice. I’m exploring themes of law and justice in my work.”
He’s fiddling with something in his left hand. He seems mad or high. Kara’s Irish grandmother would have said touched, as in spirited away by fairies.
“I don’t think we can help you,” Kara says, wishing he’d asked about something simple, like a job or the hourly rate. “We don’t deal with conceptual law. We do things like prenuptial agreements. Our law is very specific.”
“That’s irrelevant,” he says. His disapproving look makes her feel like she’s done something wrong. She remembers the paper shipment that arrived last month. She’d joked with the deliveryman. “It looks like rain,” she’d said. “I’m going hiking later.”
“You shut your mouth,” he’d snapped. And she had. She’s not sure why she obeys commands from men she doesn’t know.
“So you do prenups…” the man prompts her, glancing around the small office.
Maybe he’ll kill her. It’s a fleeting thought but it makes her glance at the exit. Could she beat him to the door?
Kara wishes she were more like Mrs. Hutch: short and broad-shouldered with a harsh demeanor easily slid on, like a coat. Kara’s too meek. “Get out!” she wants to yell. “You’re not supposed to be here!” The urge to be polite is stronger than fear. It’s the result of always raising her hand in class, constant pleases and thank yous, secretarial jobs based on fetching things and agreeable expressions. She worries she’ll never find the right combination of words to force him to the door. They’ll stand in the entrance of Faraday and Hutch forever. Perhaps they’ll fall in love, get married. He’s almost good-looking.
“I really don’t think we’re the people to help you,” she says, moving closer to her desk. “But if you leave your contact information, an email, or a phone number, someone can get back to you, schedule an appointment…”
“Why would I do that? I know nothing about your services,” he says, face red. He’s clenching and unclenching his hands. Kara’s smile widens, an inappropriate but instinctual response to aggression.
“Tell me about law,” he says. “Tell me everything you know.”
There’s a letter opener on her desk. The handle is jade and it is shaped like a sword. Mr. Faraday received it as a Christmas gift from one of his clients and he loaned it to Kara when her plastic letter opener snapped. She extends her hand, her fingers just touching the blade. She feels a bit better, doing this. She’s taking some sort of action.
“I don’t know much, I just type and file,” she says. “We do personal injury, commercial, wills…”
“Wills,” he says, resting his hands on her desk. “Wills interest me.”
His fingernails are red around the edges. Kara pictures Tom’s hands; he also bit his nails until they bled. They met in a university sociology class; she’d liked and envied the way he answered questions confidently. In Tom’s presence, Kara found herself nodding to everything he said, a mindless movement like the Chihuahua bobble-head on her father’s car dashboard. On the fourth date he’d parked his car outside her apartment building and asked if he could kiss her. She said yes. Later, she found it strange that he’d asked for the kiss but the rest was not negotiated—her shirt unbuttoned, bra unhooked, his teeth brushing her earlobe. She would have preferred to know exactly what she’d agreed to from the start. She was relieved when a fire truck drove by, sirens blaring, and he paused and glanced at his watch.
“I didn’t know it was so late,” he said as she fumbled with her buttons. “To be continued. I had a great time.”
She smiled but it was a small smile without teeth. She unplugged her phone from the wall for a week so she wouldn’t know if he called or not.
“What can you tell me?” the stranger says. He drums his fingers on her desk and the sound irritates her.
“I can’t talk about wills right now.” She gestures to her desk with the hand not on the letter opener, indicating stacks of paperwork. “I’m very busy. But if you make an appointment—”
He slams his fists on the desk. Perhaps it’s the noise that does it, the sound triggering something in her, like a flick of a finger felling a line of dominoes. Something in her is startled into response. She grabs the letter opener and swipes at his hand. He stares at her, cradling his bleeding left hand with the right.
“Are you crazy?” he hisses.
“Kara, we’re back.” She hears Mrs. Hutch’s raspy voice from behind her. “We bought you a hot chocolate.”
Mrs. Hutch turns the corner and stops at the sight of the injured man.
“What is going on?”
“He attacked me,” Kara whispers. She hugs her arms to her chest. “I screamed and screamed…”
The man shakes his head, his eyes wide. “She’s crazy. She’s crazy,” he says, backing towards the exit.
“Carl, call the police,” Mrs. Hutch calls to Mr. Faraday. The hot chocolate shakes in her hand, sloshing onto the floor. “Stay where you are, young man!”
But he’s out the door, slamming it behind him.
Kara slumps in her chair and Mrs. Hutch forces her to drink the hot chocolate left in the cup. “Sugar is good after a shock,” she says. Mr. Faraday stands by Kara’s desk, fiddling with his tie.
A light-haired female officer arrives and writes up a report. Mrs. Hutch is by Kara’s side, one hand on her shoulder. Mrs. Hutch describes the man, leaving out his thick eyelashes and golden-brown eyes.
“High as a kite,” Mrs. Hutch says.
“So he came in, started asking odd questions,” the officer says, making notes. “He grew aggravated and grabbed you. That’s when you reacted defensively with the small letter opener?”
“Did you ask him to leave?”
An odd thought about evil enters Kara’s mind. Evil has to be invited in. Perhaps exits are just as important as entrances. On this point she won’t lie.
“Not in so many words. He started to get mad before I could.”
“This is a pretty clear case of preemptive self-defense. We’ll look for the man you described. It’s very unlikely you’ll be arrested. He might press charges though.”
“Then we’ll press charges,” Mrs. Hutch says. “Trespassing, uttering threats, criminal harassment…”
“I doubt it will come to that,” the officer gives Kara a sympathetic smile. “I’m sure you’ll never see this man again.”
At dinners, at parties, friends implore Kara to talk about the time she stabbed the crazy guy. Her girlfriends share similar experiences of assaults, threats. Lucy tells a story about having her ass grabbed at a nightclub and screaming at the guy who did it. “I wanted to hit him. My hands were shaking. I didn’t know what to do. I just left.” Allison had her purse snatched. “I didn’t sleep for days, I felt so unsafe.” They admire Kara for doing something; swift action has changed her in their eyes. And Kara tells the tale so often it feels like the truth.
Whenever the phone rings, she takes a long breath before answering, fearing it will be the police saying he’s come forward. But he never does. Even if he did, her version of the story would stick. The same thing that usually makes her weak, victim, prey is also a cover for the strange, defensive part of her that drew blood.
Years later, she sees him on the city bus. She recognizes him right away, though his hair is short and he’s wearing slacks and a crisp white shirt. As he walks by, she’s certain he’ll notice her. He’ll freeze and edge away like he did before, as if she’s rabid. Instead he passes without a glance.
Her thin blouse moves slightly, betraying the fast beat of her heart. He’s seated on her right side, a blur in her peripheral vision.
She wants to go over to him. She presses her palms against her legs to keep from doing it. She wants him to look at her with kindness, or if not that, neutral blankness. She wants to replace the memory of the whites of his eyes, his open mouth, with something more benign. She wants to say something like, “I’m sorry, it was an accident,” though it wasn’t. It would be easy to walk towards him, teetering on her heels and deliver an apology. But it would be just as easy, easier, to turn and bare her teeth.
Erin Pienaar lives in London, Ontario, where she completed her M.A. in English Literature. Her work has appeared in Black Heart Magazine and is forthcoming in The Danforth Review.