Shay Sheridan - Reality
It was him! He'd cut his hair, and he looked like he'd just shaved -- like five minutes ago -- and those clothes -- was he trying to blend into the population? Where had he gotten them? Where had he been?
Why hadn't he come for her?
He looked puzzled for a moment, but then the train screeched to a stop in front of him and he turned away towards the first car. Virginia was momentarily swept up by the crowd as it surged forward. She found herself swimming upstream against a tide of commuters, and -- Oh, NO! -- he was moving away from her. With a desperate shove she forced herself away from the train, pushing through the people, moving slowly but purposefully to the first car, and he was waiting for the doors to open and she reached out and grabbed at his coat–
He turned sharply, blinking, as her hand closed on his sleeve. He looked at her hand, then her face, then ran his eyes over her appraisingly, but made no effort to greet her. She grabbed hold of both his arms. "I was looking for you but I didn't know where you were, and I began to think, I gave up--" She paused, panting with the exertion of reaching him, of finding him.
He studied her with familiar hazel-green eyes. "Um, do I know you?"
The husky voice was his. But, but, why was he saying this? "What do you mean?" She couldn't stop the panic in her voice. "I know it's you-- "
The train doors slid open, revealing a sardine-tin of people. He looked at the door, took a step, but she held him back. "Hey -- Miss -- come on!" He sounded irritated and started to peel her hand off his arm.
"Wolf! I know it's you! You are Wolf, aren't you? Tell me! TELL ME!" She tightened her grip.
He looked over his shoulder desperately at the subway car, watching as a last hardy soul crammed in among the sweaty commuters. When he turned back to Virginia, he sighed deeply, releasing his frustration. "Yeah, okay, I'm Mike Wolf."
"Mike--" Virginia drew in a breath.
The doors were closing. Missing the train was a done deal and he relaxed a bit. "But I don't remember where we met, Miss...?"
"Stop it! It's not funny!"
"I'm sorry, I don't know what you--"
"It's me! Virginia! "
"Nice to meet you, Virginia, weird to meet you this way, but--"
"Why are you doing this?" In her frustration she began to cry, still hanging on to his sleeve.
He looked around, uncomfortable with her outburst, starting to be a little alarmed. People were still swarming onto the platform, jostling them, staring at the strange scene as it unfolded, looking away as they caught Virginia's eye. The train started to pull out and the sound was annoyingly loud so he moved towards the wall, Virginia still in tow. "Look. I really don't know you. I'm sure I'd remember." He spoke to her in a placating tone, as if he thought she were crazy, or a stalker, someone to be careful not to upset.
"Wolf, please!" Virginia started to hyperventilate, gulping for air but not getting enough into her lungs. The platform spun crazily around her. She still clung to his arm. And then he was holding her arm, looking at her with extreme alarm, saying something she couldn't hear because of the growing static in her ears. There were so many people, and so little air, and why wouldn't he recognize her, didn't he love her anymore, and he was–
"--you sit down." Virginia felt herself supported under the arms, half dragged and half carried to a bench and plopped down. "--your head between your knees," he was saying, and she dropped her head down until the blood started returning to her brain. Finally she lifted her eyes, still breathing shallowly, but feeling better. He was squatting in front of her, a very worried expression on his face. Virginia took in a long, deep breath. It was him; it had to be! Eyes, hair color, jaw, even the deep crease between his eyebrows. He was Wolf.
But Wolf never wore a suit, or a tie, or carried a cell phone. And this Wolf did, and he was using it now, tapping in numbers. "I'll get an ambulance."
"No!" She shook her head. "No. I'm okay. I'm all right. Please, no ambulance."
"Is there someone you'd like me to call...a special car?"
"No! No one. No one." She dropped her face into her hands." I know you think I'm crazy. Like from a loony bin. I know it looks that way. I just... I'm not, I don't know. I just thought..."
"You thought I was someone you know. Someone you know really well. I get that. The name thing, though, you know, that's a little odd..." He looked at her kindly, she thought, a little smile on his face. Wolf's face.
"My--" She'd started to say "mate." It sounded insane that way. "My fiance."
She looked up at that. He'd said it just the way –
She laughed, a bitter, unfunny laugh at herself, at her delusions, at the cosmic impossibility of the situation. "Sorry. I'm sorry."
"That's okay." There was a little silence. "I'm guessing it ended badly?"
She didn't know how to answer, so she let his question lie there. He straightened up, and one of his knees made a popping sound. "Yowch." He bent over and rubbed it. "That'll teach me to shoot hoops with an ex-NBA guard."
This was really impossible. This guy looked exactly like Wolf, down to his grin and the crinkles at the corners of his eyes, but he was clearly someone else, someone from the Tenth –no -- from New York. Another train was coming into the station. He looked at it, longingly, she thought. "Go," she said. "I'm sorry I bothered you."
He was kind enough to look conflicted. "Well, if you're sure you're okay."
"Oh, yes. Sure. Fine." She fished around in her pocket and came up with a crumpled Kleenex, blew her nose and stood up. Her knees were oddly weak and she wobbled.
He steadied her. "You're not okay."
"I am. I have to get to work."
He looked into her eyes searchingly and it made her want to faint, being so close to him. He smelled faintly of cologne. "Listen, let me put you in a cab." He still held her arm. She started to protest, but he raised a hand to shush her. "Hey, my mother would smack me if I left a damsel in distress fainting on a subway platform. I don't have to rush back to my office. Let me take you up to the street and make sure you find a cab."
"And don't go to work. You're too upset." The train was leaving but he wasn't paying any attention to it. He hooked an arm around her shoulders and steered them back towards the turnstile. "Let me be a hero today, okay?"
She nodded, her mouth too dry for speech.
There weren't any empty cabs to be found, though he made a valiant effort to hail one. Virginia stood on the sidewalk, leaning against a mailbox, as he lurched about in the street, waving and whistling. Out here, in the sunlight, Virginia felt herself almost afraid to look at him, he reminded her so of her Wolf. He moved with the same combination of grace and flamboyance, and she could hear him muttering under his breath when a car honked at him, or a cab refused to stop, just as she imagined Wolf might have done, though what he was saying was a great deal more pungent than "Cripes."
She revisited the oddness of the situation again and again. How was this possible? What was real? The question scared her, made her doubt her own eyes, her sanity. The whole situation terrified her, and she realized that a great part of her wanted to retreat, run away while his back was turned. This just wasn't right. He wasn't Wolf. He was. He wasn't. He–
He was grinning at her delightedly, with the joy of a hunter bringing down his prey, holding the cab door open, and as if mesmerized she walked over and got in. "Where's home?"
"Um. No, I have to go to work. The park near Columbus Circle -- Grill on the Park."
He made a face. "Sure?"
"I have to."
"Thanks, thanks a lot, Mr. Umm...I'm sorry I was so weird back there."
"Oh, please. You call that weird? You should meet my family." He laughed softly and she managed a smile. Then he stopped, cocked his head at her and seemed to come to a decision. "You know what? Shove over. You can drop me off. Hate to waste a good cab. Besides, that was the last fare on my Metrocard and I don't like standing in line."
Numbly she obliged. He slid into the seat next to her and the cab took off. They rode in silence for a few blocks.
'So...his name was Wolf, too, huh. Your fiance."
"Uh-huh." She felt very nervous.
"With or without an 'e' on the end? Two 'o's?' I'm asking because I'm hoping he's not a cousin or something."
"Wolf was his first name."
"Really. Huh." He considered this for a minute. "That's...different. Well, whoever he was, he must've been a real jerk."
She swallowed. "No. No. He was nice. He just...wasn't who I thought he was."
"Ah. Yeah, I've heard that before. My girlfriend. I didn't turn out to be the person she thought I'd be either."
Virginia felt strangely as if the wind had been knocked out of her. "Your girlfriend."
"Ex-girlfriend, I should say. Thought I should've joined her saving the world, one person at a time. She's in Central America doing something worthwhile."
He smiled ruefully. "Selling the world one company at a time. See?" He reached in his pocket and handed her a card.
"You're a stock broker?"
"From a long line of stock brokers. Not a compassionate bone in our bodies."
She smiled at him. "I know that's not true."
He inclined his head in a little bow. "What about you?"
Virginia looked away. "Oh...I'm just a waitress. At the Grill. Where I'm going."
"Hey, a noble profession. The world's gotta eat!"
"I suppose so."
"I'm starving. Missed lunch for that doctor's appointment. Stupid knee." He looked at his watch. "If I didn't have to go back--" He looked at her briefly, then looked away. "But I have to. Too bad. I'm ravenous!"
Virginia snorted, then covered her mouth in embarrassment. The way he'd said it!
They turned onto 59th Street and he leaned over the seat. "Drop me at Sixth Avenue, okay? The lady's going to Columbus Circle." He pulled out his wallet and handed the driver a twenty. "Just keep the change when you get there, driver." He smiled at Virginia and dropped his voice. "Don't let him charge you twice."
"Oh, no, you don't have to pay! I feel terrible, you shouldn't..."
He waved away her objections. "Please. Broker, remember? I'll just do a little insider trading and get the money back."
"Kidding. I was kidding."
She flushed. "I -- I know that. It's just...you are...very nice."
He made a wry face. "Tell my ex-girlfriend, okay?" The cab pulled over to the curb. "Take care of yourself." He stepped out of the cab and was gone.
Virginia stared out the window at his back as he disappeared down Sixth Avenue. She felt stunned, as though she'd been caught up in a tremendous whirlwind and then dropped gently into the land of Oz. Reality wasn't what she'd thought it would be. She lay her head back on the seat and closed her eyes. What had happened was still out of her grasp but she felt better than she had in months. She felt excited. Whoever he was, whatever reality was, she couldn't let him go. She shouldn't let him go. She should get out now and follow him–
Wait, wait. The edge of something was pressing into her palm. A business card. She still had his card! She held it as if it were a holy relic. "Michael Wolf," she read softly, "Senior Account Manager, Thurson/Wolf & Rauthursdottir."
The lobby of 1251 Avenue of the Americas was a sterile box of marble and chrome, with ugly metal sculptures at each end that shouted "Art by committee!" No one really looked at the sculptures; everyone was too busy filing into the appropriate elevator, and launching themselves skywards to work.
Virginia looked at the business directory, then found the elevators to floors 30-40. She pressed 38. The elevator doors slid together noiselessly and she was propelled upwards. Calm down, she said to herself. You are not a stalker. You waited till the morning to come here. You went to work like a reasonable human being. And now you're here to – what? In fact, she didn't really know. She'd have to improvise.
At 38 she stepped out into a hallway leading to glass doors, with "Thurson/Wolf & Rauthursdottir, Members NYSE" etched in large roman letters. Inside was a reception area, the carpet a magnificent oriental, the lighting subdued, and, except for one mirrored wall, the art, walls and furniture a palette of soft beiges and tans. The fabrics served to muffle sound almost completely she wondered if sensory deprivation chambers felt like this.
"May I help you?" A woman with a lilting voice sat behind a glass desk, protecting the door to the inner offices. She, too, was clad in beige, which made an attractive counterpoint to her very dark auburn hair and exotically slanted grey eyes. Virginia looked at her and thought, she's as much a decoration as that painting on the wall.
Aloud, she said, "I'd like to see Mr. Wolf."
The receptionist flashed perfect teeth at her "And which Mr. Wolf would you like to see?"
"Oh. I didn't know there were....Mr. Michael Wolf."
"Do you have an appointment?"
Oh. She should have realized -- "No. I don't. I just--"
The receptionist shook her lovely head as she glanced through a daily calendar. "I'm afraid Mr. Wolf is very tightly scheduled today. Perhaps someone else?"
"No...I just wanted to see him... To thank him for--" She shrugged. "This is kinda silly--" The receptionist said nothing, just continued to smile blandly at her. The smile was beginning to wear on Virginia's nerves. "Really, it would just take a moment."
"I'm sorry. Would you care to make an appointment?"
Clearly she wasn't going to get anywhere with this guardian at the gates.
"Could I wait?" More bland smiling and head-shaking. Okay, receptionist-guard dog, you win. "Maybe I'll just leave a note?" That would be okay, Virginia thought. That way I can let him know I was here, and then get out with my dignity intact. Grimly she chastised herself, even as the pretty Gorgon handed her pen and paper. What had happened to her famed nerve, her bravery? The kind of stuff that got her through Dragon Mountain? Well, I guess I never had it, really, because it never happened. I never went to Dragon Mountain. I never did any of it, just made it up. Wishful thinking. She started scribbling a quick note of thanks.
"Hey." He was standing in the office doorway.
"Hi." Now that they were face to face, she had nothing to say.
He stepped into the reception area. "We meet again. Come to buy some Microsoft?"
He was so damn charming. He was so, well, Wolf. "No, 'fraid not."
"Just as well. It's down three points and counting."
"No, I, uh, I just wanted to say thank you for not having me hauled out to Bellevue yesterday. I was really obnoxious, I know, and you were so, so nice."
He rolled his eyes and moved in to whisper -- loudly -- to her. "Sshh. Don't tell them I'm nice. I'm supposed to be a shark! Nice is a bad image around here."
"Sorry. Don't want to get you in trouble."
"No trouble. Hey, want to come back to my office?" The receptionist interrupted. "Mike, you have an appointment in fifteen minutes."
"You know where to find me, Veronica. So...follow me -- it's 'Virginia,' right?"
His office had a sweeping view looking down Sixth Avenue. Virginia looked out the window, marveling at the view, at the enormity of the space. "It is nice, isn't it," he said, reading her mind.
"You must be very good at what you do."
He shrugged. "Yeah, and I'm also good at being the great-grandson of the founder."
Virginia looked up as Mike pointed (and when, exactly, had she stopped thinking of him as Wolf and started thinking of him as Mike?) He was gesturing at a large portrait on the wall over the leather sofa. The man pictured had a shock of white hair, a long thin nose that was the twin of Mike's, and piercing green eyes that followed her around the room. "Your great-grandfather? He looks...terrifying."
"So they tell me. Benjamin Bryson Wolf. Unfortunately I didn't know old 'B.B.'"
They called him 'B.B.?'"
"Yup." There was a wicked gleam in his eye.
Virginia got it. "Let me guess. As in 'Big Bad--'"
"Wolf, yes. You're very quick! That's how he was known. Hilarious, huh?"
Virginia smiled an inward smile. "You have no idea." She walked around the office, examining everything. "So he was a founder. And your grandfather?"
Mike nodded, gesturing to the couch, and waiting until Virginia was seated before sitting himself. "Yeah. A family thing. My great-grandfather, Grandpa, me.."
"What about your father?"
Mike's smile faded a bit. "No, not my dad. He was the black sheep of the family."
Sheep! Wolves! She fought for control of her face. "He didn't want to go into the business?"
"No...he and my grandfather had a big falling out. Grandpa didn't like the woman Dad wanted to marry. My mother. Didn't think she was the right sort, or something." His face had clouded and there was a hint of bitterness in his voice. Virginia realized she'd trespassed into a family drama.
"Oh. That must've been terrible when you were growing up."
"Not great. Not great at all." He shook off his emotion and turned to her. "What about you? Are you from a long line of waiters?" He must have realized how that seemed, for he quickly corrected himself. "Sorry, that sounded rude, like I was being condescending or something, which I didn't mean to do. I don't at all think there's anything wrong with being a waiter, I mean, it's not inherently less important than what I do, really, it's very important, and now I'm babbling, please stop me--"
Virginia leaned back, mouth agape. She was experiencing an almost palpable sense of deja vu, intensified by the sudden wild look in his eye that preceded both of them dissolving into laughter. Oh, God, it felt wonderful to laugh!
They settled down into a comfortable silence. Mike looked at her intently for a moment, then turned to check his watch. Well, that must be my cue. "I should go, I guess, I just wanted to thank you again for yesterday--" She stood up to go.
Mike jumped to his feet. "No, I don't want -- listen, you want to have lunch?"
"Don't you have an appointment? The receptionist said--"
He smirked at her. 'Nah, that's just a little code Veronica uses in case I want to end a meeting. Gives me an out up front." He looked at her with a slightly embarrassed expression. "Pretty crappy behavior, huh? I bet I'm making a great impression."
"You're doing okay so far." Hah! Better than you know.
"Great! I know a terrific Italian place. I hope you're hungry, I am."
"Again?" She thought back to their conversation in the cab. Ravenous, indeed.
"Always. I have an enormous appetite...for everything." He looked at her pointedly and a little shiver of pleasure ran through her. They started to walk down the hall towards the reception area.
The mellifluous voice belonged to a tall woman with upswept honey-colored hair and eyes the color of glacial ice. She was dressed in a deep red "power" suit that showcased her magnificent curves despite the severity of the cut. One long leg peeked through a slash in the skirt. Virginia felt invisible next to her, in the pale blue sweater and skirt she'd agonized over choosing this morning.
She glanced over at Mike. The gleam in his eye implied panting and tongue-lolling. Hmm. Real, imaginary, men were evidently all the same. "Um, hi, Regina." Cool, confident Mike was clearly non-plussed.
Regina bestowed a honeyed smile on him that did not include Virginia. "Didn't see you all day today, Michael. Been busy with something special?"
"No, nothing special. You know, the usual." That made Virginia feel very special.
"Thought we'd get together, talk about Hardwood Paper over lunch."
Mike looked like Hardwood was very much on his mind, and the wood was getting very hard, indeed. "Well, Regina, we could, sure-" He blinked and belatedly remembered Virginia standing at his side. "Oh, I forgot -" no kidding! Virginia thought. "Let me introduce Virginia...um--"
"Virginia Lewis, this is Regina Rauthursdottir. Reggie's also a broker; a brilliant one, if I may say so." He grinned at the honey-haired woman, and Virginia wondered that he didn't bow before her.
"You may say so." Regina flashed movie star teeth. "And, Miss Lewis, are you investing with TWR?" Her tone was ripe with disbelief.
Bitch. "No, actually I'm a friend of Mike's." Where had THAT come from? She hoped he wouldn't contradict her.
"Really?" Regina looked incredulous. "How nice. You must be new friends. Michael and I have known each other for ages. Haven't we. Michael?"
"Mmm- yes." Oh, stop drooling!
"Grew up together, really. Our great-grandparents were the founders, you know." She linked her arm territorially in his.
Virginia smiled back, hoping she didn't look too strained. 'I guessed that from your name. It's...very unusual. And long, I might add. What is it, Czech, Norwegian?" Nazi war criminal??
The other woman smiled tightly. "Icelandic, actually."
"They're very progressive, the Icelandic. They understand the importance of women in society. My family name, for example-- 'Rauthursdottir.' It means Rauthur's daughter. They don't just glorify their sons."
Virginia Tonysdottir couldn't think of anything to say in response.
Mike snapped the silence. "Actually, Regina, we'll have to talk later. Virginia and I are going to lunch."
The blond didn't miss a beat. "Luigi's?" At Mike's nod, she smiled down her perfect nose as Virginia. "That's my favorite place. Michael and I love the cannelloni. Well, don't let me hold you up. Have a nice lunch."
Virginia felt deflated. So this was his standard lunch place with the women he knew. Oh, well. It had all been a little too good to be true.
"Goodbye. Oh, Michael..." His name practically oozed out of her mouth. "Don't forget we have a meeting with Benedict at two." Virginia glanced at a clock on the wall. 12:30. So much for a long lunch getting to know each other. "Nice meeting you, Virginia." The blond turned and undulated down the hall on high red heels.
"Shall we go?" Mike's attention was back on Virginia, now that the Ice Queen was gone.
Despite her reduced expectations, lunch turned out to be wonderful. Mike was funny, witty, entertaining, but he also had the endearing ability to listen, really listen. She found herself opening up about her father, her mother's desertion, how rough her life had been, yet she didn't feel the familiar defenses that usually made her talk about herself in self-deprecating ways. She realized with surprise that he was the first man she'd ever been able to talk to this way, right off the bat. Even with Wolf, there'd been days, weeks of –
She made herself stop thinking about Wolf. What was the point? Why dwell on a fantasy, when she had the real thing right in front of her?
Mike was speaking to her, in a low voice, and she snapped out of her reverie. He was saying to her, he was asking –
"How about dinner? Tonight."
"Tonight?" She was caught off guard, and he misinterpreted her response.
"Well, unless you're working, or it's too short notice, or --"
"No. No, I'm free, I'm--sure. I'd love to." This was really happening! He obviously liked her, no matter what twitching that Regina caused him to do.
He looked relieved. "Great! Wow. Terrific. How about eight?"
"I'll pick you up."
She gave him her address, and felt her heart race with an excitement she thought she'd never feel again. Mike was wonderful, smart, clever and handsome, just like Wolf, but he was also confident, non-neurotic, and completely, totally human. He was comfortable in her world--hell, he was even employed! And obviously he liked her. He seemed smitten. She felt safe with him. She felt attractive and desirable. She felt –
A little niggling, nagging thought chided her that somehow, some way, she was being unfaithful. But how could that be? Maybe Wolf had been a premonition of Mike. Maybe "Twilight Zone" forces were at work. Maybe she only dreamed him up from a conk on the head, but the bottom line was he didn't exist and never really had. No point at all, she reasoned, in feeling guilty over a storybook hero who wasn't real.
She let her mind come back to Mike, who was so very, very real. She smiled. Reality could be good after all. Maybe even better than fantasy.