Cassiopeia, The End.

Despite Jupiter’s promise, none of us had any intention of staying in the area. A few days after the confrontation, Laura vacated her La Jolla condominium. She settled on a ranch in Billings, Montana, which provided plenty of space for my dog, Jack Russell, who would stay with his new friend until it was time to collect him. I was sure he didn’t mind. Spall also found a place near Laura but spent most of his evenings enjoying her dinners and keeping his customary watchful eye over her.  

As for Cassiopeia and me, we joined Laura in Billings but only for our wedding in the local courthouse and a few weeks afterward. We planned on embracing the nomadic lifestyle with my severance pay from The Jupiter Alliance before deciding on where we would settle down, likely close to Laura.

Speaking of The Jupiter Alliance: Hannah Jupiter, along with the Board of Directors, forced Zachary Jupiter out of the company as the CEO and removed anyone on the senior staff with loyalties to him. His whereabouts were known: in their home, eternally watched and monitored. I also learned, unsurprisingly, that most of the 28th floor had been removed from the company. The last piece of information I learned, one that would stay with me for a long time, was that Hannah Jupiter had created a victims’ fund for everyone adversely impacted by the anti-fraternization policy. Its name: the Ballard and Marnie Keene Trust. 

*

On our wedding day, she wore a crown of wildflowers. The train of her flowing white gown (“Grecian style,” my new mother-in-law had informed me with a smile) was also covered in flowers as Spall walked her down the aisle. As our eyes met, as she advanced toward me, my heart was seconds from bursting. Moments after Spall handed her to me and before the court official began the vows, Cassiopeia leaned over. “I love you,” she whispered in my ear. I repeated the words back to her, stopping myself from saying them more than once. We had a lifetime for me to utter those words and I intended on taking that long to utter them.

Our vows finished, the bride kissed, I reached out to caress her cheek, slightly in awe that we were now husband and wife. Unlike my recurring dream, however, my fingers met no stars on her skin. And yet, when Cassiopeia pulled me toward her in a long, beautiful embrace, I maintain, I profess, that I saw galaxies.  

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Thanks for hanging in with Cassiopeia and Elliott and the rest for this story. I enjoyed writing it, as I mentioned in the beginning, if only for the chance to throw in some Greek myth-inspired allegory and a bit of suspense along the way. Did you catch the references?

It was a pleasure to share with you. Onwards…to the next tale I choose to share.

Bon Thursday.

Cassiopeia, Part 11.

Cassiopeia quickly approached our group, her eyes clouded in confusion and alarm as she observed her mother pointing at her father. “What is this?” she asked when she reached me. “Elliott, why didn’t you tell me you were coming here? The house was empty. I thought he had taken all of you. I—” Her voice trailed off. I had an idea what she had come to Jupiter’s office to do but refused to give it any further thought. We were all desperate right now, all willing to do anything to save the people we loved.

I drew her toward me, softly kissing her on the forehead. “I had to do something. I had to.”

“He will kill you,” she whispered.

“The jury is still out on that,” I replied softly, smiling at her.

“I hate to interrupt you lovebirds but everyone in this room now has a target on their back,” Jupiter boomed.

We both looked up. I saw something flash in Jupiter’s eyes, something imperceptible, as he rested his attention on his daughter. It quickly disappeared and was replaced by his usual cold glower. “Glad you could stop by, my dear,” he said to Cassiopeia. “Your mother is presently blackmailing me. She claims I’ll never see you again if I don’t remove my policies and let you all go. Ineffectual. I knew where you were when you removed your microphone and disappeared. I knew where all of you were. But I waited because you always come to your senses. You always do the right thing. It’s sad that I’ll have to lose you, that all these other people will lose their lives, too.”

“My God, Zachary, you’re a monster,” Laura said.

Cassiopeia approached the platform toward her father, her features now covered in rage. I gently pulled her back. If anything was going to happen to any of us, she would be my side, next to me. “This has gone on too long,” I said. “Spall, please.”

Nodding, Spall pushed open the door to the private entrance.

She seemed to glide into the room.

Tall, stately, brimming with authority. This time, I saw an emotion on his face that was undeniable and likely the first time any of us had witnessed said emotion when it came to Zachary Jupiter: fear.  

Hannah Jupiter held up her hand when Jupiter opened his mouth to speak. “First, call off Waylon.” She had a commanding voice of her own, not a roar, but no less powerful with its deep, husky tone.

We watched her husband acquiesce without hesitation, pressing the button the phone again and dismissing the enforcer. Had he ever done anything without hesitation, I wondered, other than destroying the lives of the people that worked for him?

“You’ve been having innocent people hurt for engaging in less damaging behavior than you,” Hannah Jupiter said. “I suspected as much for some time, but when Timothy reached out to me, I confirmed things for myself. I have people that work for me, too.”

I watched Jupiter squirm. The man squirmed.

“Rebuking you for bringing other women into our lives affected only you and I,” Hannah continued. “Learning that you were punishing other people for your sins was revolting. The anti-fraternization policy is over.”  

Her words rang in my ears, throughout the office, and seemed to echo within every corner. I looked at Cassiopeia, whose eyes were trained on Hannah.  

“You will right these wrongs, Zachary. Start now. Say what needs to be said.”

“Hannah—”

“Zachary, if I have to ask again, I will release all of this information to the press to your lasting ruination. Say what needs to be said.”

Jupiter glared at me, Spall, Laura, and lastly, Cassiopeia. “None of you will be harmed.” He seemed to be speaking directly, and only, to his daughter. “You’re all free to go.”

Hannah rested her eyes on Cassiopeia. “I heard everything outside the private entrance. He’s your father.” It wasn’t a question. It didn’t need to be.

Cassiopeia nodded.

“I was told the business needed to grow,” Hannah said, looking back at Jupiter. “That having children wasn’t in the cards for us. And there you are.”

“There are more of us,” Cassiopeia replied. “Many right here on this floor.”

Hannah’s head turned sharply toward Jupiter.

He didn’t look at her.

We left them like this.

Cassiopeia, Part 7.

I stood abruptly, certain that one of Crew Cut’s biceps alone could kill all of us and not caring in the least.

“It’s ok, El. He’s on our side,” Cassiopeia said.

“How? He warned me about you. He told me not to trust you.” I quickly relayed what happened at the dog park.

“I told him to tell you all those things,” Cassiopeia said after I was finished.

I gaped at her. “What? Why?”

“After that day in the restaurant I had to protect you somehow. If you were told to stay away from me and you did, perhaps they would think you didn’t have feelings for me, after all. Maybe they would leave you alone.”

“For the record, he did everything I told him to do. He stayed away,” Crew Cut pointed out to Cassiopeia as he approached the dining area. “But you still came after him.”  

“I panicked when I didn’t see him at the morning meeting. I thought they had taken him,” she said.

“Hate to interrupt, but who are you?” I asked Crew Cut. “How do you know that I ‘did everything’ you told me to do?” 

Crew Cut offered his hand to me. Reluctantly, I shook it.  “Timothy Spall. I was once an enforcer on Jupiter’s team. I went rogue, as it were. Harming people for dating each other just wasn’t my thing.” He then walked over to Laura and pecked her on the cheek. “Hi, Miss Laura.”

“Hi, sweetheart. Have you eaten?” she asked him.

“Yes, but I can always eat again.”

“There’s lasagna in the oven.”

I looked from one person to the other, jarred by the seemingly normal turn in conversation when far more pressing topics hung in the air. “You were saying, Spall?” I asked impatiently.

He turned from the oven and glanced at me. “Oh, right. I knew you did everything I told you to do because you’re not stupid. I could tell. But I also tapped into the security mainframe in the building the next day. I could see you in your office, not answering the door when she knocked. You were determined. You took days off. You listened to me. Simple as that.” He then resumed with making his plate.

Nothing about this entire situation was simple, but I sat back down, resigned. 

“When he was on the team, Timothy could tell that the work I was doing for Jupiter was ruining me,” Cassiopeia said, sliding her hand into mine.

“Because it was ruining me too,” Spall added, sitting down at the table with a heaping plate of lasagna. “I could see her falling apart because I was falling apart. We struck up a friendship. Keep in mind that agents aren’t friends. But we were. Anyway, when she received this new assignment and then told me about you, I knew she couldn’t do it. She liked you immediately.”

“Were either of you concerned about trust when you became friends, that one person could rat the other out?” I asked, curious.

Spall shook his head. “She is the most genuine person I know. I knew I could trust her, especially when I went off the grid a year ago and the team was hunting me down.”

“That day at the dog park: was I being watched?”

“One operative was watching you. When you called your dog over, he left. He wouldn’t gain anything from watching you and your pet.”

I mulled over another question. “But weren’t you concerned that they would see you?”

“Taking care of myself has never been a problem,” Spall replied before digging into his food.

I left the matter alone.

*

Later, while Laura and Spall quietly conversed in the dining area, Cassiopeia and I stood outside on the balcony. A mild breeze wandered around us; the evening was luminous, courtesy of the stars above our heads and the bright lights within the complex.

“What are you thinking about?” she asked me.

“If they’ve been watching me outside the office, they’ve been following us all day. From Palm Springs to here at your mother’s house. I’m just—aren’t you worried that they’ll burst in here, guns blazing?” I asked.

Cassiopeia shook her head. “No. I called them off before I arrived at your house. I made up something about taking care of you myself. Don’t worry.”

“I can’t help it,” I said. I was riddled with worry. “And I have to ask: how can your mother live right in town when your father can just get to her?”

“Spall wasn’t wrong earlier. He would never harm her.”

But imminent disaster still loomed around us. What was the end game to all of this? Cassiopeia had chosen me over everything: her job, her father, the punishments that would surely come. Where were we going now? What would happen next?

“You’re still worried,” Cassiopeia said, reading me as she was prone to do. She looked up at me, the moonlight around us radiating in her eyes.

Rather than elaborate, I placed my arm around her and told her I was fine. We stood like this for a while, my thoughts mounting despite being the comfort of being right where I wanted to be.

Cassiopeia, Part 6.

I canceled my reservation with the resort, and we returned to the road. Driving back to my house was out of the question; the agents monitoring her microphone would have traced the area as her last location and would likely have the place swarmed. Instead, she asked me to drive to La Jolla. During the drive, Cassiopeia talked about everything: the high-tech surveillance inside the office, how most of the agents had never seen Zachary Jupiter face-to-face and only dealt with his cavalcade of right-hand men and women. Except her, of course. She had more access to him than anyone.

“Do the other agents know he’s your father?” I asked.

“No, but a few of them know that I’ve been inside the inner sanctum on the 28th floor. His private office. Which means the popular rumor among the ranks is that I’m one of Jupiter’s girlfriends.” I listened to her softly laugh at the silly rumor and eventually joined her.

Around 3 that afternoon, we pulled up to the gate of the La Jolla Sun Condominiums. I keyed in in the code that Cassiopeia gave me, after which she directed me toward the fourth building from the entrance. Before entering the building, we took Jack Russell for a walk around the complex.

“Who lives here?” I asked her.

She smiled at me. “My mother.”

*

“Mom, this is Elliot Percy,” Cassiopeia explained when her mother opened the front door. “Elliot, meet Laura Benson, my mother.”

“Please, come in,” Laura replied after shaking my hand. She was tall and graceful like her daughter; not one wrinkle marked her dark brown skin. She looked more like her older sister than Cassiopeia’s mother.

We entered a spacious, bright living room. I immediately noticed the photos on the walls. They were photos of Cassiopeia throughout various stages of her life; from the curly-haired girl in elementary school with the shy smile, to the grinning young woman standing in front of the Arc de Triomphe, her arms wide open, to the confident, strong woman standing before me today. My heart swelled. I couldn’t really comprehend how seeing like her this, normal and happy throughout her life, infused me. Laura caught my eye and regarded me knowingly, her eyes gleaming. The women in this family certainly knew how to read me. She then guided us toward the dining area, where we sat.

“I’ve heard a lot about you, Elliott. It’s nice to finally meet you in person,” Laura said.

She’d heard a lot about me?

“Oh, my daughter talks about you all the time,” Laura continued, as if she’d heard my silent question. “Would your friend over there like a treat? I dog-sit for some of my neighbors here and there, so I have plenty.”

My dog’s ears perked at the sound of “treat.” Minutes later, after I gave him plenty of treats to fill his belly, Jack Russell padded away towards the corner and occupied himself with chewing on a dog bone.

“So, what happened? What did your father do?” Laura asked matter-of-factly when I returned to the dining area.

“Nothing yet. I destroyed my microphone, so I’m sure the alarm has been sounded,” Cassiopeia said.

“He won’t harm her,” Laura said, looking at me. “But he will do everything to make her miserable. He refuses to let her go. As if he doesn’t have a roomful of children with other women.” Disgust crossed her youthful face. “I’ll never understand that Zachary Jupiter. Why he chooses to control my child is beyond me.”

“Because he loves you the most, Miss Laura. Pretty obvious to me.”

I turned around at the sound of this new voice. (Jack Russell was too busy with his bone to notice.)

Crew Cut leaned against the front door.

Cassiopeia, Part 5.

After exiting the car, we began walking the trail adjacent to the resort. Jack Russell took the lead.

“I was the product of one of his many affairs,” Cassiopeia said, shoving her hands into her pockets. “We rarely discussed him, Mom and me. I knew I had a father but that was all I knew. For years, Jupiter would just randomly show up at our house. There was never an explanation as to who he was; my mother would fix him a plate and we would just all eat dinner together. It was so strange. He would ask me a million questions about school, my teachers, what I liked to do for fun. I was eight years old when I asked my mother who he was. That’s when she told me everything. He was her biggest mistake, but I was the gift in that mistake, according to her.”

I remembered the Google search from a few days and not being able to find an Alfred Benson on the web. “Was there ever an Alfred Benson?” I asked.

She shook her head. “It was easier for me to invent a kind, benevolent man as my father. Not the man I currently know.”

“And yet,” I said, remembering that day in the break room and the reverence in her voice, “you admire him, don’t you?”

Cassiopeia nodded after a moment. “He’s a self-made man. He started from nothing. And now, he—not just his companies—he is a conglomerate. A part of me finds that incredible.”

“That story, about your name and—”
“All true. He chose my name for all the reasons I shared with you.”

A fierce and unapologetic love for his child, I recalled her saying.

“I wanted to please him in every way. I attended the same colleges he graduated from. I studied what he studied. He was everything to me. When he asked me to join the corps, I did.”

“The corps?”

“It’s what we call the agents that my father employs. It’s all true, that there are agents who exist to enforce his rules. But some of us operate a bit differently. Some of us are absorbed into the company as employees. We become your friends, your confidants, maybe even your crush. When we learn about relationships or even admissions of feelings, that’s when the other part of our team takes over.”

I recalled Crew Cut’s words. When you make admissions, they come after you. An image of Ballard Keene crossed my mind. The memories of that afternoon came flashing back to me: Ballard declaring his intentions to marry Marnie and quit the company, Ballard detailing his lofty goals to speak to Jupiter himself. I had long recognized the bit of hope in our conjecture and theories after the two had vanished, a hope that we would be proven wrong and learn that the two had simply chosen to disappear. Now, however, I needed to know. Inhaling deeply, I steeled myself for the question that needed to be asked. “What happened to Ballard Keene and Marnie Anderson?”

She was silent for some time. I watched as she visibly struggled with my question and my heart sank with each passing minute. Hadn’t Crew Cut also mentioned that if I wanted to live, I would stay away from Cassiopeia? There was only one alternative to living. And Ballard and Marnie had refused to stay away from each other.

“Cassi. Please.”

“Just know that I wasn’t part of—I didn’t hurt them.” She turned to me. “My father ordered me to, and I said no. They were so young and in love and didn’t deserve what he wanted to do to them. So, I took my punishment.” She paused, then, noticeably reliving the memories of whatever pain that punishment had involved. “But I didn’t touch them, Elliott. Please believe me. Believe me.”

Someone had hurt them, however; someone had done what she had refused to do, what she knew would happen to them. The reality of all those things felt like successive punches in the gut.  

*

I now walked ahead of them on the trail, weighed down by my thoughts. Cassiopeia deliberately lagged, accompanied by Jack Russell, undoubtedly aware that I needed space.

How could I consolidate my feelings for this woman with the knowledge that she had actively hurt people? The question remained there, growing as I walked, each word mounting with each step I took. I couldn’t find the answer. I just couldn’t find it.

Arms encircled around me.  I squeezed her hands and then turned around, placing my hands on both sides of her face. “I don’t know what to think right now,” I told her, searching her brown eyes.

“I worshiped him in the beginning, Elliott. But it wasn’t enough. I was also troubled and disturbed by what we were doing. When I said no to the Ballard and Marnie plan, I experienced a rage from him that I still can’t describe. He declared war on me. So, I bizarrely thought switching to the other team, not being an enforcer, would help somehow, at least to ease my conscience and to stop his punishments.” An abundance of emotions flashed across her face: anger, sadness. But I also saw resolve. “That day in the Thai restaurant, I could have easily led you to say the words, to admit that you wanted me. That was my assignment. I had been threatened with seeing it through. He was listening to us that day. He was likely watching. But looking at you that day, looking at you as me, not the woman I was pretending to be—I couldn’t. And I wouldn’t.”

Nothing to say?

I—         

It’s ok. We’ll talk about it later. Let’s discuss that collaboration project they mentioned at the morning meeting.

She had purposely kept me from speaking further.

“Nothing happens to you under my watch, not by me or anyone else, Elliott.” 

Gently, I kissed her. I had found my answer.

Cassiopeia, Part 4.

I stopped short. My dog barked at her. Cassiopeia simply patted the side of her leg twice and Jack Russell ran over, licking her hands while she enthusiastically petted him. What a guard dog.

“What are you doing here?” I asked, remaining where I stood.

She studied me before glancing at the duffel bag in my hand. “Are you going somewhere?”

Instead of replying, I whistled for Jack Russell, noting how reluctantly he left her side to come back to me.

“Why haven’t I heard from you?” Cassiopeia asked.

“Shouldn’t you be at work?”

“Shouldn’t you?” she countered.

I headed toward my car, which was parked against the curb a few feet away from her. “Look,” I said, opening the passenger door and urging my dog inside, “I need to get going. I’ll talk to you later.” Which, of course, I had no intention of doing.

Before I realized it, Cassiopeia was standing before me, peering into my eyes, her breath on my face, so, so close. I gazed at her and felt every ounce of my bravado falling to pieces.  I muttered something unintelligible, probably “God” or “help.” I wasn’t sure. She then pointed toward her collar. I looked at the collar and shook my head, confused as to what I was looking for.

“Closer,” she mouthed.

Leaning even closer—the movement caused the side of my head to brush against her earlobe and yes, my heartbeat was now fully out of commission—I examined her collar once again. A tiny, nearly microscopic gold pin. It was affixed to the fabric on her collar. I looked back at her.

“Pull,” she mouthed and then pointed at herself.

I obeyed and placed the pin in the palm of her hand. She carefully set it on the ground and then crushed it with her foot, rendering the pin into a shimmering pile of gold pieces.

“It was a microphone,” Cassiopeia said. With that, she got into in the passenger side of my car. My dog situated himself on her lap and lovingly gazed up at her. Traitor.

*

The two-hour trip to Palm Springs was silent as far as she and I were concerned. Cassiopeia was far more interested in entertaining Jack Russell than saying anything to me. Eventually, I pulled into the parking lot of the Pebble Brook Hotel and Golf Resort. Moments later, the car’s engine now off, we sat in silence.

“Let’s get a few things out of the way first,” she finally said. “I liked you from the moment I met you. You’re funny, smart, a great listener, and I like your face.”

A smile tugged at my lips. I remained stoic, however, looking straight ahead of me and not at her. That would change, however.

“Can you please look at me, Elliott?”

The question and the sincere way in which she asked me: I knew that staying away from her would never work. (Adding to the fact that she was already sitting in my car.) I belonged to her. I had belonged to Cassiopeia Benson from the moment we met, even if that wasn’t her real name. I turned to face her. “Always,” I said. “I will always look at you.”

Cassiopeia gazed at me for a long while, not speaking. She then moved closer toward me. “Thank you, ” she said. “Zachary Jupiter is my father.”

Cassiopeia, Part 3.

Later that afternoon, I sat on a bench in the dog park and dazedly watched my Golden Retriever, Jack Russell, playing and running about with some of the other dogs. Thoughts piled high in my mind, all stemming from lunch from earlier that day.

  • Cassiopeia is aware of how you feel about her.
    • How did she know?
    • Did you exhibit some sort of behavior that was out of the ordinary?
      • After all, you’re careful. You don’t stare; you keep things casual.
      • She said I was transparent. How?
  • What happens next?

It went on and on like this; attempting to organize my thoughts like a college research paper, attempting to understand the whole situation. And, of course, there was the $64,000 question:

  • Does she feel the same way about me?

“That your Retriever over there?”

Instinctively, I looked up to see if something had happened to my dog. On the contrary, Jack Russell continued to run around with abandon. “It is, yeah,” I replied to the guy who now sat next to me on the bench. I glanced at him. Crew cut; steely expression; shaped like ten bodybuilders. He didn’t look familiar; most of us who frequented the park had come to know each other well. He crossed his arms over his massive chest and watched the dogs, remaining silent, as if he hadn’t just spoken to me moments ago and/or hadn’t heard my reply.

“Don’t look at me again,” he then said, his voice lowered. “Call your dog over. Look distracted and look down; you’re not talking to me.”

Something told me not to question it. I didn’t. Quickly, I acquiesced and called Jack Russell over, who bounded into my arms. I busied myself with petting and playing with him.

“You can’t trust her,” Crew Cut then murmured.

At the sound of “her”, an alarming knowledge quickly settled over me. Cassiopeia.

“She’s not who you think she is,” he continued.

Oh God.

“It’s obvious that you have feelings for her. If you want to live, fight those feelings and get rid of them. Don’t go near her. Keep to yourself. You get my drift.”

I nodded faintly, my chest twisting itself into painful, unceasing knots.

“She will notice the shift in your behavior, by the way. And she won’t allow it. She was trained to be unrelenting, to force you to admit things. When you make admissions, they come after you. Resist.”

With that, Crew Cut was done with me. I watched peripherally as he surveyed the park for a few moments before he stood up and disappeared down the sidewalk. Now numb, I remained in the park long after the sun had set.

*

The next day, she came to my office door minutes after our daily staff meeting ended, a meeting I had joined virtually.

The knock on my closed door—a door I didn’t typically close—seemed to reverberate throughout the room. I remained still in my chair, both willing her to disappear and wanting, so badly, to see her.

“El?” I heard her call from outside the door.

I didn’t move. I wasn’t breathing, either.

“Elliott, are you in there?” she called again.

Just go, I silently implored her. Moments passed. Cassiopeia knocked again. After a long while, I ventured that she had walked away. For now. Quickly, I accessed my personal iPad and Googled Cassiopeia Benson.

Most of the results dealt with stories about her mythical namesake and the ensuing constellation. Nothing about a living person with that name. I then wondered: was Cassiopeia even her real name? After the conversation with Crew Cut, I presumed that Cassiopeia was working for Zachary Jupiter’s team of hoods; perhaps she had been planted among us to determine who was going against the policy. I shook my head. The entire matter was ludicrous when one considered it: enacting violence on employees that simply chose to become romantically involved with each other. I even laughed despite everything. Insane. I then searched for Professor Alfred Benson, “Cassiopeia’s” deceased father. No viable results.

She had lied to me from the beginning, I thought. The story about her name, the extraordinary way she told it, the person she had quickly become to me: all lies.

CB: Where are you?

I gazed at the Instant Message that had just popped up on my work computer, the letters swimming before my eyes.

CB: I didn’t see you at the meeting. Are you okay? Are you here?

I turned off my monitor and sent a text message to my manager indicating that I was placing a request for a personal holiday for the rest of the day and for the remainder of the week. As soon as he replied that he would approve it, I left the office.

*

I decided to head to Palm Springs for my days off. I needed distractions: golf, relaxation, anything. I needed to clear my head. The next morning, after hastily throwing a few things into a bag, I guided Jack Russell outside, ignoring the incessant voice in the back of my mind that demanded that I stop and think. Why I had so quickly believed the words of a stranger with a crew cut? the voice insisted. Why was it acceptable that the woman I thought so highly of would be involved in nefarious behavior?

She was waiting for me on the sidewalk.  

Cassiopeia, Part 2.

Unsurprisingly, I wasn’t the only guy smitten with Cassiopeia.

“You two met Cassi Benson yet?” Richard Nelson inquired one morning in the breakroom. Other than Richard and me, Danny Gator also stood by the counter, waiting for his coffee to finish brewing in the machine.

I drank my coffee and remained silent. I wanted to hear what they had to say, for one thing, and my instant fury at hearing her name exit Richard’s mouth was best left unexpressed, at least in the office.  

“I met her after the all-hands meeting last week. Smart as a whip. And,” Danny said, grinning, “utterly gorgeous.”  

“Gorgeous isn’t even the word,” Richard replied, shaking his head. “I wanted to take her to dinner in Rome or something. She messed with my mind the moment I met her.”

Well, he was right about that.

“What are your thoughts, El?” Richard then asked me.

I shrugged. “I don’t have any thoughts.”

“Come on. Haven’t you met her?”

“Yeah, he’s met her. I saw them talking at the all-hands meeting,” Danny said.

“So, what do you think about her?” Richard pressed.

“She’s great.” My own words burned my tongue. Great was such a meaningless word. Cassiopeia didn’t deserve that word, even if using it was my attempt to get out this inane conversation.

“I wonder if she’s married,” Danny then said.

“Married like you are to your wife, Rick? And you, too, Danny?” I asked them.

They laughed nervously and in unison, gazing at me with wide, exposed eyes.

“We were Just…just thinking out loud, man,” Richard stammered.

I took my leave, leaving Richard and Danny with their coffee and their excuses.

*

Of course, none of it mattered. There would never be a declaration to Cassiopeia about how I felt or an admission that my work day now consisted of the moments we saw each other versus everything else. There would be no declarations at all, not from me or from Richard and Danny’s respective imaginations. The Jupiter Alliance had a strict non-fraternization policy; workplace romances were completely prohibited. Four years ago, after our founder and CEO, Zachary Jupiter, had been caught in yet another dalliance with one of his subordinates, his wife—who had discovered this dalliance during an impromptu visit to the office—had threatened a very public shaming and brutal divorce if his behavior didn’t change. This resulted in Jupiter establishing a no dating/fraternizing policy top to bottom, from the executive staff to the cleaning crew. Soon, rumors began to crop up that Jupiter was utilizing ruthless tactics to ensure that his employees upheld the policy; some of these tactics included the employment of faceless enforcers who stopped at nothing on his behalf. Of course, no one had any proof.

Then came Ballard Keene and Marnie Anderson.  

Two years ago, it became quickly evident that something was going on between Ballard and Marnie. The way Ballard looked at Marnie when she passed by his desk. The way she invented reasons to stop by his desk. (Ballard was a junior accountant and Marnie was a paralegal; crossing business paths would be rare, at best.) Almost immediately, we started warning them. If we could see what was happening between them, so could everyone else, including the boss and his rumored enforcers. Our warnings went unheeded. One day at lunch, Ballard announced that he would seek approval from Zachary Jupiter himself to marry Marnie. “I’ll volunteer to quit,” he told us. “That way, it won’t make a difference.”

A few weeks later, Ballard and Marnie’s workspaces were empty. Calls and text messages to their phones went unanswered. Some of us visited their respective apartments and were informed that neither of those names were on the list of residents. It was as if the two had never existed. 

That was the part of the story none of us could still digest: the cold dread of knowing, deep down, that Ballard and Marnie no longer existed.

*

That mid-morning, an Instant Message appeared on my monitor.

CB: Japanese or Thai today?

I smiled.

EP: Your choice.

CB: Let’s go with Thai.

EP: I concur. There’s a new place downtown we can try.

CB: Sounds good. Just us this time?

I read her message repeatedly on my monitor, each word burning into my brain.

She wanted it to be just us?

Was something happening?

Had she noticed that I always surrounded us with people when we were together for fear of being noticed and subsequently accused of fraternization and receiving some sort of insidious, Ballard/Marnie-type of reprisal?  

EP: Sure, just us this time.

*

Being alone with Cassiopeia Benson wasn’t advisable if you were in love with her and/or feared being seen by potentially murderous agents. Ten minutes into our lunch at Thai Garden, I found myself doing whatever I could to distract myself and pretend as if everything was fine; constantly drinking my water, fidgeting, looking elsewhere. It was ridiculous, and she knew it.  

“What’s going on with you?” she asked, frowning at me.

I drank my water yet again, draining the glass and wishing it was whiskey. “What do you mean?”

“Elliott, come on. Be straight with me.”

I wasn’t ready to tell her the part that involved my feelings. Rather, I told her the other part, about Zachary Jupiter and Ballard and Marnie. She listened intently.

“I don’t even know what to say,” she said when I was finished. “I was aware of the policy; they stressed it repeatedly when I onboarded. To be honest, I thought it was preposterous. However, that story…” Her voice trailed off.

“It’s a lot to take in, I know.”

“So, you’re nervous because you think if you’re seen with me—”

“We’re colleagues and we have a right to enjoy lunch together,” I said firmly, sounding more determined than how I felt. This was the reason I had given myself before accepting her earlier lunch offer. “But who knows how these guys—if they’re real—interpret these things?”

“I see. That’s why we’re always in a group.” She repeatedly twirled her Singapore noodles around on her fork, not eating, just twirling.

For a moment, I was reminded of my recurring dream and the stars that twirled around on her skin. Quickly, I cleared away the image. “Are you all right?” I asked. “It’s a pretty heavy subject for lunch on a Tuesday, I know—”

“I thought you preferred groups when we’re together because of how you feel about me.”

I swallowed thickly. “How I feel about you?”

The intense expression on her face slightly softened as she nodded. “Yes, Elliott. I’m not blind, you know.”

I wanted to reach for her. I wanted to pull her towards me. I wanted to tell her.

“You’re a bit less transparent than you think,” she said, chuckling softly.

There was no more water to drink and I was suddenly too weak to signal a server.

“Nothing to say?” she asked me lightly.

“I–“

“It’s okay. We’ll talk about it later. Let’s discuss that collaboration project they mentioned at the morning meeting.”

I did more listening than talking, although I wasn’t sure I could speak even if I tried.

The Hanging Tree, The End

Sitting deep in the woods, within a slight clearing, was the oak tree. Its trunk was massive and burly, with branches strong enough to bear the weight of the African American men, women, and children who met their final moments at its feet. Some of the white children, some of whom had been present during some of the lynchings, began to refer to it as the Hanging Tree. After Myron’s final hanging in 1961, someone had anonymously tied a  rope around the base of the trunk, its fibers painted red…  

On this particular warm morning in 2014, however, a gathering of teenagers, led by their American  History teacher, her mother, and a few of her friends and colleagues, approached the clearing. Bringing up the rear  were camera crews and reporters from an assortment of local news stations. When this assembly arrived at the tree,  the students formed a circle around it, each grabbing the hand of the person next to them.  

“That’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,” Rebecca Harper whispered in her  daughter’s ear as the students formed their circle and held hands.  

“Truly,” Alice replied, both stunned by her students’ gesture and overcome with  emotion.  

Standing next to her, Henry Cooper slipped his hand into hers. Alice glanced down at their joined hands. History was one thing, yes, and the future was another.

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

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The Hanging Tree, Part 5

Alice slipped on a pair of sunglasses when she walked outside the next morning due to  the glare of the sun, but primarily to cover her swollen eyes. Following her short, succinct meeting with the superintendent, the desire to both scream and give up had culminated in a weeping session in the ladies’ room. (She drily noted that the time spent sobbing in the bathroom stall had been longer than the meeting itself.) As she walked toward the parking lot, her mind raced, sadness and confusion swelling in her chest. However, rage was quickly surpassing those other emotions. By the time Alice reached her car and discovered Henry Cooper standing next to it, she wanted to shatter somebody’s windshield with her fists. Perhaps the superintendent’s. Surprised that he was there, she nevertheless held up her hand. “I can’t talk to you right now,”  she said.  

“What happened in there?” Henry asked.  

“I’m surrounded by inept, idiotic fools who care more about public relations than education. That’s what happened in there.”  

Hot, angry tears quickly then pulsated behind her eyes. It was her lot in life to react to anger with tears. As the tears descended past her sunglasses, down her face, and onto her blouse, Henry approached her and placed his arm around her shoulders.  

“You planned this,” Alice said, wiping her face. “To be here and to be the hero.”  

“I just wanted to support you. This actual moment, however, with my arm around you, might be icing on the cake. Although I would prefer that you weren’t crying.”   

“Did you really turn down Atlanta because of me?” Alice asked.  

Henry nodded. “I didn’t like the idea of not being in the same building as you.” 

“You should know that it’s highly likely that I’ll be fired, so being in the same building as me may not matter.”

“Yes.”

“I’m taking the kids to the tree.”  

“I know.”  

“I might go to another school in another city, another state.”  

“I know that, too. But Alice, I can only hope that if there’s a chance that you leave, it won’t be goodbye.” 

Alice took off her sunglasses and looked up at him. “I mean it, Henry. I need to really know you first.” 

“I want you to know me, remember?”  

There was no harm to simply getting to know him, was there? she reasoned. Admittedly,  the fact that he was even there at the superintendent’s office spoke volumes. Slowly, she placed her head on his shoulder.