There’s Got to Be a Morning After

Toby woke, per usual, sometime after 5AM. He swung his legs out of bed but sat a moment before rising. He didn’t need to look to the other side. It was empty. He glanced back anyway. It was not how he pictured this morning would begin. He took another moment to gather his thoughts before deciding to just get on with it by starting the day as he starts every day, with a trip to the bathroom, putting on his robe and slippers, and then to the kitchen for coffee.

As he passed the open guestroom door, he couldn’t help but glance in there as well. The bed was still made. She didn’t stay the night there, either. But he knew that.

As the coffee brewed, he watched the carafe fill to the point he knew was enough to fill a cup, which he did. He replaced the carafe to let the brewing finish, added his teaspoon of sugar and a bit of milk to his mug, and took the first sip of the morning. There is something calming but uplifting about the first drink of morning coffee. If his day did not begin with this small ritual, nothing would be right from there on out.

Depending on the day, Toby would either sit in his chair in the living room and watch the morning news, or shower, shave, and dress. This being a Sunday, he typically watched the news first. But this morning, he walked through the living room, past his chair and TV to the window, and drew back the drapes.

Ellen’s VW camper was still in the driveway.

Toby froze, staring intently at the vehicle while his mind raced. He now realized he never heard her VW’s engine start up last night. He assumed Elen left, headed back to Colorado, putting the whole thing behind her, and leaving Toby to his miserable self. Their evening ended so awkwardly; so awfully, Toby winced at the recollection.

But, now, what to do? Do I go out there, he wondered, cup of coffee in hand with a, Good morning, did you sleep well? He looked at the clock: 5:54AM. He might wake her from a deep sleep. More awkwardness. He should just wait.

A small bit of hope renewed, he thought she would certainly come to the house to at least say goodbye, giving both of them the chance to at least end things cordially. Then again, she might just go, without a word. There he’d be, hearing her drive away. The thought brought him down again. But, then again, why else would she stay?

Just in case, Toby decided to unlock the door. Better yet, leave it open. Let her know he was awake and….yeah. That’s the plan. He would sit in the living room and watch the news, as he does every weekend morning, but with the door ajar, and wait. He put down his coffee and made his way to the door, a little too quickly, he noted. No need to run, he admonished himself.

As he reached for the deadbolt, he had another thought: Robe and slippers were, perhaps, too casual, probably bordering on the too familiar, especially given last night. Shower, shave and dress first. Better plan.

Toby headed for his bathroom. He quickly stripped, turned on the water and stepped in the shower. Just as he finished lathering up, another thought flashed by that he couldn’t hear a knock at the door or doorbell ringing while he was in the shower. Fuck! He quickly rinsed, shut off the shower, and yanked his towel off the rack with such force, it nearly pulled off of the wall. He frantically debated his next steps. Jesus! Do I dress now, or go open the door and then dress?

The unmistakable sound of a VW engine turning over reverberated through the house.

No longer concerned about being too eager, Toby hurriedly wrapped the towel around his waist and ran down the hall. As he fumbled with the front door’s deadbolt and the handle, he heard Ellen’s camper drop into gear

“Stop! Ellen?!” he shouted as he flung open the door, way too urgently and definitely too loudly. “Ellen!? Hey! Wait!”

He could tell from the look on her face that the sight of him in his driveway clutching the now fallen bath towel—which he hoped to goddamned hell at least covered all the essentials in front—was not what she expected to see. As he stood there, feeling every bit the idiot, and hoping he hadn’t also attracted the attention of his neighbors, Toby began to chuckle. How else could the morning after such a terrible night play out?

Ellen’s expression change to a soft, bemused smile. She cut the engine, and as she stepped out of the van, Toby wrestled his towel back around his waist as discreetly as he could manage.

“Can I…” he ventured, with an apologetic shrug, “…offer you a cup of coffee? Before you go?”

Ellen shyly approached him; her smile still spread across her face.  “Yes. I’d like that. Very much.”

Toby gestured her to take the lead. As she walked past him, she said, “Sorry, but I remember you said you are an early riser, so I thought, hey, by 6 o’clock, Toby’d be up, and it would be OK if I, knocked, or whatever.”

Ellen wandered into the middle of the living room and turned around. She gave him a big shrug with her arms held up. “Standing there, I … I thought, maybe, I don’t know, that, whatever, maybe, it was all too much and you were blowing me off, or too pissed off about last …”

Toby stopped her with a dismissive wave. “I was the shower.”

“I can see that. Now, of course. Totally didn’t even occur to me.”

The silence that followed was surprisingly reassuring to them both. The sting of the previous night began to fade.

“God, I feel so stupid!”, Ellen blurted. “Just … I’m so sorry! I mean, thinking I should just take off. I’m so…”

“No, please!” Toby interrupted. “The thing is, I assumed you had already taken off. So, anyway, then I saw you didn’t, and I thought, Christ man, be a gentleman and get dressed! An then, after I got in the shower, I thought, oh, shit! What if she knocks, or rings the bell? I won’t hear it, and just as I got out, I heard your van…”

They both laughed.

“So,” Toby continued, “I’m going to just…” he gestured down the hall to his bedroom, “but, please,” Toby gestured again, this time toward the kitchen, “help yourself to coffee. There’s milk in the fridge and sugar’s there on the counter. I’m going to just get dressed…”

As Toby started to go, Ellen called after him. “Toby? I’m so sorry. Seriously, I…”

“Ellen, it’s OK. Really. I’m glad I caught you! Just, hold that thought a moment. I’ll be right back.”

“Of course. Take your time!”

As Toby reached his bedroom he called out, “Ellen, I say we call a ‘mulligan’.”

Ellen smiled. “Yes! Agreed. Let’s.”

C U Then

I read and re-read this week’s and last week’s prompts all together and an idea started to take shape. Only, once I set to writing, none of the prompts showed up. I guess it was a mood all six created together that inspired me.


Chris Morriston sat in his car, head in his hands. A gentle knock on the passenger side window jerked him back into the present.

“Just checking…” the older man standing outside his car began, with a wave. Chris quickly looked him over and decided to turn the ignition to roll down the window.

“…you OK, there?”

Chris nodded. “Sorry. Just…rough day.”

“OK, well, s’long as you’re OK. I’m just coming in to work. Got the night shift at check-in,” the man pointed to his name badge, “Roger. So, if you need anything, dial zero, OK? What room you in?”

Chris understood the man was just helping his employer out by making sure Chris was not some guy using the parking lot to sleep it off, or whatever was best done somewhere other than hotel property.

“Yeah, thanks, um…My name’s Chris. Christopher. Morriston. I’m in 408.”

Roger the clerk gave him a thumbs up and walked away.

**********]

As Chris slid the keycard into the reader for Room 408, he gave the door a gentle knock. “Hello?” he called out. The lights were on, but the room was quiet. Chris’s pulse shot up with the sudden hope that maybe she had split while he was sitting in his car, trying to sort things out. He walked in, slowly, and called out again.

Mandy was face down in the first bed. The lower half of her body was uncovered, exposing lacy purple underwear that rode up one cheek. Chris stared, longer than he should; out of surprise, or the terror of sudden attraction, he could not tell which. He grabbed the edge of the blanket and yanked it over her legs, not caring if it woke her. She did not budge. His pulse raced again. He checked for signs of breathing. A muffled, gentle snore emanated from the corner of her open mouth. Relieved, Chris sighed. Death would have been one complication too many.

He walked over to her bag and opened the top, looking for anything that might further explain things. He was not worried about a weapon. She would have used it from the first if she had something on her. He lifted out a wallet and looked through it. Three dollars, four credit cards, a gym, grocery, and Starbucks card, a few coins, a receipt for LED bulbs and plumbing pipe from an ACE Hardware, and her license: Amanda Anne Andersen from Bend, Oregon. At least that checked out.

He looked at the ACE receipt again. Dated two years prior. He unfolded it and discovered his office phone number and his name scrolled on the back. He flipped it over again. Apple Valley. California? Minnesota? No phone, just a web address. There were at least a couple Apple Valleys in the country. The receipt might not have been hers. Whomever gave her his contact info might be the original owner.

Chris put all the contents of the wallet back and peered one last time into the purse before returning the wallet. Another pair of underwear, plain white cotton, and a pill bottle poking out of the fold of the bag’s lining: Ambien. She must have planned on at least one overnight somewhere, Chris thought. No wonder she was sleeping like the dead. Curious she wasn’t concerned about staying somewhat alert, he mused. He wondered at the difference between the underwear she was wearing and the plain cotton pair. Did she think a seduction might be necessary? If so, why? That didn’t make sense. Maybe not his seduction, but someone else?

Chris glanced at the hotel room door and then looked back at Mandy. He could just leave. Not that that would solve anything.  She’d just come looking for him again. No, he’d just have to see the damn thing through, though to what end, he was not at all sure. It was all too much, and too out of sync.

He walked to the far side of the other bed and sat, his back turned to the room. He stared out the window for what must have been the better part of a couple of hours, trying to grab hold of his thoughts as they flashed through his continued fits of anxiety. He had little to go on, and, at the moment, no way to check out any of it. Situations like these, you make a choice with only a hope in hell it’s not the wrong one.

His cell phone’s screen turned on every 20 or so minutes. He did not need to see who was trying to reach him. Only his wife Bella would be calling. Obviously, his text of several hours before did not do the trick.

He thought about Roger the night clerk and decided to head down to the lobby.

*************]

Roger the night clerk waved when he saw Chris. “Everything better now, sir?”

Chris shrugged. “ ‘bout the same, I guess.”

Roger bobbed his head in an understanding nod. “The restaurant’s open 24/7. Late night menu until six, then breakfast. The bar’s closed, of course, but you can still get a beer. They keep the Olympics’ channel on all night. You can catch up with whatever you missed so far.”

“Olympics?” Chris asked with a raised brow. “They got a channel?”

“Yup. Go figure. A channel for everything, these days, I suppose. That opening ceremony was something, huh? Oh, and, today’s paper’ll be here in about an hour.”

Roger the night clerk genuinely belonged in the hospitality industry, Chris thought with an inward smile. “Thanks. I’ll head in.”

He took a seat in a booth around the corner with his back to the entrance. That way, if Mandy did come looking for him, he had the advantage of seeing her first and ducking for cover. Since the thought that she might have taken off popped in his brain, he could not stop wishing she would. Maybe if he stayed away, she might freak out when she woke, give up in a panic, and just get gone.

A young waiter brought a single sheet menu. Chris quickly perused the late-night offerings and ordered barbeque pork sliders, whatever was on tap, and a shot.

“I am so sorry, sir,” the young man said in a curious lilt that made Chris wonder what sort of affectation the young man was trying to emulate, “but the bar is closed. No spirits after one A.M. So, just the brew OK?”

Chris nodded, handing back the menu. As the young man walked away, Chris found himself watching him go. Force of habit, he tried consoling himself, but truth was, since Mandy showed up, he had been on high alert; “show mode”, as he called it. Everyone was a potential threat or suspect, even the unassuming types, like friendly Roger the night clerk and the young waiter.

His phone lit up again. This time a hard-edged angst knotted his gut. He had never given Bella any reason to fear for his safety, nor question him when he said he would be away for a while but could not discuss why. While the job may put him at some risk from time to time, it was not as though he was actually an operative. That stuff was a young, single man’s game, and the older he got, the less interested he was in taking those sorts of gigs, anyway. These days, he was what they call in the movies, for lack of a more accurate title, an analyst.

He desperately wanted to answer Bella’s call, reassure her he was safe and that all would be OK. She knew well enough not to press for details, but his unannounced disappearance would be the red flag she always feared. He knew Bella would have long since contacted his boss. Fortunately, all Chris was required to say when he abruptly left the office earlier that day was that he had to see to a situation and that he’d report back in a few days. Bella knowing his boss knew Chris was away could go some distance with her, but, not answering any of her calls was counteracting that fail-safe. And, Chris knew absolutely nothing he could say in this moment would reassure her.

Nevertheless, he waited for the call to end before sending her another text: I’m ok but can’t talk. I’m safe. Shit went down today. Will have to see this thru 1st before calling. Promise to call as soon as it’s ok. I.LOVE.YOU. Hang tight sweets. Breathe. Home in a few.

Seconds later a text came in. Thinking it was Bella’s reply, Chris was surprised to see a coded message from his boss: Just fyi all set for Fri. C U then

“Ah, shit,” Chris muttered.