“Sophia,” the intercom buzzed with my boss’s voice. “Are the reports ready?”
“Yes, Uncle. I’ll bring them right over,” I answered, already up from my seat.
I grabbed the financial statements I had prepared from the desk and headed to Mr. Saunders’s office.
After a slight knock on a door, I pushed the handle and walked in, a well-practiced move I’d been repeating for more than two years.
Sparing a quick glance at the 60-year-old sitting behind the grand mahogany desk, I approached him with the documents he’d asked for.
I’d spent the last few days summarizing daily reports into a monthly one per his request, as I did every couple of weeks.
“Here you go, Uncle.” I offered him folders, only then noticing Mr. Saunders’s frown. “Is everything all right?”
Rare were the occasions when I saw him frown, and it got me worried about whether he was okay.
I’d gotten to know Mr. Saunders pretty well since I started working at his restaurant, so naturally, seeing him distressed made me concerned.
I got a job here three years ago as a mere waitress, but as a diligent worker, I was soon promoted to a hostess, then not long after to a manager. When the secretary quit her position, Mr. Saunders offered it to me.
During these last couple of years, I’d worked closely with him, learning the precious skills needed to run an elite restaurant.
As time went by, my obligations multiplied, and I’d ended up carrying most of the weight of his business on my back.
I didn’t mind it, though; the salary I earned was stimulating, and my relationship with Mr. Saunders was more family-like than business-related.
’'d met his wife and grandkids, and they seemed as fond of me as I was of them.
“I’ve been thinking,” he said, rising from his leather chair and walking around the desk.
“Sofia, you know how much I appreciate the hard work you’ve been putting into running this joint. You are a valuable asset, and I want to reward you for the effort.”
When he started his little speech, a current of fear that he was firing me surged through my body, making me shudder.
But even though he declared his intentions, the ominous presentiment dug a deeper pit in my stomach.
Something is wrong! my instincts yelled at me, but I chose to ignore them.
For God’s sake, this was the man that treated me like his own daughter and had insisted I call him ‘Uncle’ until I felt comfortable enough to do so.
“In that order, I have a business proposition for you,” he declared, stepping toward me as I unconsciously took one back.
I didn’t like the wicked blast in his eyes. I didn’t like it at all!
As a cold fist of fear clenched around my heart as I realized my instincts were right! Something was definitely wrong.
My heart started beating frantically inside my chest, the potency of those pounds threatening to break my ribcage from the inside.
My brain screamed at me to run as fast as I could from this place, but my legs refused to move as if they were glued to the floor, no matter how hard I tried to will them to do their part and save me.
Fear that I hadn’t felt in years, fear for my dignity and life, overtook my body, crippling my ability to react on time and escape the fat hand that gripped my forearm, squeezing it.
“I can give you enough money so that you and that pathetic sister of yours don’t have to worry about it ever again!” he spat, pulling me toward him.
His hot breath fanned my face, making the alarms in my head go haywire.
He was too close! Too close! I have to get away!
I yanked my hand from his grip, but my struggle was in vain. He was much stronger than me, weighing at least triple what I did.
“I want to give this restaurant to you as a gift. You’ve proven to be worthy of it. You just have to do one little thing for me.”
His disgusting voice thinned into a whisper before he launched himself at me, aiming for my lips.
A scream escaped me as I managed to move my head to the side just in time to miss his slimy tongue, which landed on my jaw instead, not stopping there but following an invisible line down my neck, leaving a wet trail.
All of my defense mechanisms activated at the same time, and I began screaming even louder, kicking my legs with full force, hitting with my hands anywhere and everywhere.
I prayed silently to whatever being ruled this universe to help me, to save me, because if I didn’t get out of here unharmed—
“I knew you were a feral cat! But I will tame you,” my boss’s frantic voice cut through my eardrums, sending me into another fear-induced frenzy of tossing and kicking.
“Oh, would you calm the fuck down! You will enjoy it, I promise!”
Fuck you! I wanted to yell, but the words never left my lips.
Then a miracle happened, and Mr. Saunders hollered in pain. His grip on me lessened, and I used that chance to run away from him like all the demons from hell were chasing me.
As I stormed out of his office, his grunts and cries followed me, but there was no time to ponder. I had to leave that damned hole immediately.
I grabbed my purse, forgetting the jacket on the hanger, and ran toward the exit as fast as I could, not failing to notice the accusatory and mocking looks my ex-coworkers shot my way.
Bastards! All of them! They must’ve heard my screams for help, but not one of them came to my rescue.
Once out on the street, I let my deprived lungs get much-needed air, gasping like a fish out of water.
Fear forced my lead-like legs to march quickly down the street, ignoring the pain my three-inch heels caused my feet.
I didn’t want the pain to disappear. I welcomed it. Because that pain meant I was alive, I survived, and I wasn’t dreaming or hallucinating what had happened.
A thousand different questions swirled in my head. After all these years, why now? How did I not see it coming? How did I miss the signs? Were there any?
What would have happened if I hadn’t defended myself? Realizing how excessive that question was, I gagged in the middle of the street, sick from the images that flooded my mind.
If I didn’t defend myself, he would’ve…
I didn’t stop until I came to the bus station, turning to look behind me and checking if he was following me a dozen times.
The crowd helped me feel somewhat protected, but I had to get home as soon as possible; I needed to be inside those familiar walls that offered safety.
A touch on my shoulder startled me, and I jumped back, afraid he had caught up with me.
“Are you all right, miss?” The frail, thin voice of an elderly woman brought me back to reality and forced my lips into a not-so-convincing smile, but I couldn’t speak.
“Can I call someone for you?” she offered, and I only shook my head in negation before my bus pulled up to the stop, and I rushed inside.
Making sure there were no passengers nearby, I found a seat in the far back. I needed to be alone. I didn’t want to be looked at; I didn’t want to be judged; I didn’t want to be scrutinized like I was the one to blame.
Lost in despair and fear that still clenched my heart with all its might, I almost missed the bus station near my building.
As I climbed the stairs to the fourth floor, the reality of what had happened settled in, and I broke down into bitter tears that stung my eyes, clinging to the stair railing for support.
A yelp escaped me, and I rushed to cover my mouth with my hand, muffling the sounds no neighbor should hear.
I couldn’t break down! I couldn’t! I could never afford such a luxury. There were far more important things I had to think about, and my demise had to be far down that list.
Besides, what had happened earlier was not the worst I’d lived through.
I’d faced dangerous and heart-wrenching things in the past that had taught me an important lesson: how to suppress painful memories and act as if nothing happened, and pretend everything was just fine.
Mustering all the strength I had in me, I got up from the stairs and took a few deep breaths to help compose myself before I continued my way up to my haven.
Ellie’s classes should be over by 4, and I had to get myself together before she returned. She could never know what had happened. She mustn’t worry.
She had to focus on her studies… something I’d never had a chance to do. And I would make everything right for us. I would find a new job soon, and we’d be fine. Everything would be fine.
Thinking about—or more accurately, trying to not think about anything, I only noticed the front door was unlocked after I got inside and closed it behind me.
At that moment, I froze. Oh, God! We’re being robbed!
What should I do? Call the police?
Yes. I should definitely do that.
I was ready to run when I heard a sniffle. Wait! What? Since when do robbers sniffle?
Stopping in my tracks, I noticed a familiar keychain hanging from the lock, and I recognized it immediately. I’d bought it for Ellie when we came to Washington, DC.
What was she doing here? Wasn’t she supposed to be in her class? But then I heard another sniffle, and I hurried inside, only to be completely taken aback by the sight in my living room.
There, on the couch, sat my baby sister, crying like there was no tomorrow.
She was holding an orange dispenser in her hands I recognized immediately as the painkillers I was prescribed a couple of months ago when I sprained my ankle. I took only a few and forgot about them.
A bottle of cheap vodka was on the coffee table before her.
My heart shattered into a million pieces. Despair. My soul lost itself in the vastness of desperation, frantically seeking a way out for the spark of light. Because my Ellie wanted to…
She didn’t notice me coming in until I sat beside her. Only then did she flinch and drop the pills on the floor.
“What— Why are you here so early?” Her breath hitched as her eyes darted from me to the door, completely bewildered.
I didn’t answer. Instead, I took her hands gently and pulled them into mine, cradling them.
“Why, Ellie?” I wasn’t sure she’d heard me from how faintly my voice came out, but recognition blazed in her eyes, confirming she understood what I was asking.
“After everything we’ve been through, after everything we survived…what can be so bad that it makes you want to d—” I couldn’t even say it aloud.
Instead of reassuring her, my words only made her sob harder. “You know that whatever it is, we’ll fix it. We’ll find a way together like we always do.”
I pulled her into my embrace and offered her what she needed: a shoulder to cry on.
We held each other until Ellie’s sobs calmed down and her breathing became stable. Mine, though, would need an eternity to return to normal.
“Ellie, love. Please tell me what’s wrong so we can make it right.” My overly confident voice hid the wreckage of my soul.
Ellie removed herself from my embrace and cast her eyes downward.
“It’s bad, sis. I messed everything up.” She sniffled, struggling to say aloud the thoughts that must’ve been fighting in her head.
“I’m pregnant,” Ellie whispered, and all I saw was black.
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