As is so often the case, Charlie Goodwin had no idea that this was the day that would change the rest of his life.
Convinced that he had made the right decision when he asked to be transferred, he felt good about how his first week had started. After eighteen months with the small regional chain, he was happy to have made manager at the popular coffee shop. He had quickly assimilated into the new environment and had begun to feel comfortable. Customer traffic was steady, and he had already gotten acquainted with a few of the regulars.
Charlie had transferred to this location from out of state because of necessity. With no wife or children, it had been an easy choice. However, this city was more than three times the size of where he had previously worked and that would take some getting used to.
He jerked his head to one side in a futile attempt to brush back a shock of red hair that had fallen over his forehead and checked his watch. It was nine-fifteen. After nine, there was a definite drop off from the morning rush and a different clientele began to stop by. This included everyone from students to older folks that were retired. The slower foot traffic gave him the chance to catch up on some of his daily responsibilities that he had to set aside during their peak hours of six to nine.
He glanced over at Donna and Janine, the two staff he would be depending on each morning. They were both conscientious and hard working. He was fortunate to have them on the early morning shift with him. But just then his favorite employee, Zachery, came through the door from the kitchen area ready to bus the tables and sweep the floor. Just the sight of him made Charlie smile. Zach was twenty-four and had been employed at the coffee shop for two years. He clearly loved his job. His enjoyment was contagious and helped to create the kind of positive atmosphere that Charlie wanted for their business. Because Zach had Down syndrome it had been a five-year struggle to find a job, but Charlie was glad that the company he worked for frequently hired individuals with all types of intellectual and physical challenges.
As Zach walked past Charlie he said with great conviction, “It is going to rain.” And Charlie knew that meant it would indeed rain. In just a short time, Charlie had learned that Zachery Anderson loved weather like no one he’d ever met. Zach tracked everything from temperatures to storms and enjoyed reporting on them with great detail. Charlie snuck a quick peek out the front window and could see that the morning sky had become overcast.
As Zach started to wipe down the tables, he said to anyone who cared to know. “The rain will be here by ten o’clock.”
Charlie smiled at him. “Thanks for the update.”
The next forty minutes went by quickly, as customers came and went. The drive-thru window was particularly busy. Then just before ten o’clock, Zach stuck his head into the room and proudly announced, “It is sprinkling!”
Charlie looked out the window and saw that, just as his new friend had predicted, it was starting to rain. In his experience, you never knew if this would be good or bad for business. Sometimes people didn’t want to deal with the inclement weather and they decided against coming in, while other times it seemed they sought refuge from the rain in small coffee shops.
He had his back to the front door when he heard it open. Charlie turned around to greet the customer and was surprised by the person who’d walked in.
She was slender with short auburn hair. He guessed her to be in her late thirties, roughly the same age as him. But what caught his eye was the cane she was using in her left hand. As she took her sunglasses off, he smiled at her. She did not smile back. As she slowly made her way to the counter he couldn’t help but notice a definite weakness on her left side. Her limp caused her to seem off-balance, but the cane appeared to make the necessary adjustment to keep her somewhat steady. He assumed she would have great difficulty walking without it. As she got closer he saw a significant scar on the right side of her face along the hairline indicating a serious surgical procedure sometime in the past.
As she stepped up to the counter, her unbuttoned jacket opened slightly revealing the words, “There’s No Reason To Stare!” printed in bright red on her black t-shirt. Instantly Charlie realized that was exactly what he had been doing, and he could feel himself blushing. He smiled at the customer and did his best to recover. “Good morning. What could I get for you?”
She was painfully aware that the new manager had been watching her every step, but she was tired because she hadn’t slept well, so she didn’t feel like making an issue out of something she endured every time she went out in public. Instead, she just placed her order. “A medium caramel macchiato with extra sugar.”
“Is that for here or to go?”
The woman used the index finger of her right hand and pointed straight at the floor.
“Coming right up.”
She found his cheerfulness slightly annoying.
Donna started to make the drink, as Janine called out to Charlie that she was having a computer issue at the drive-thru window. He smiled at the customer and said, “Excuse me.”
The woman looked at him and didn’t say anything. She just made a waving motion with her hand for him to go.
By the time Charlie had fixed the software problem, the woman’s coffee was ready. He set the drink on the counter and rang it up. “That will be…”
She interrupted him. “$5.73. I’ve done this before.”
Zachery walked in with his phone in his hand and said, “We are about to get a real downpour.” Looking up from the radar on his screen, he saw the woman at the counter. His face lit up as he waved to her. She smiled back and nodded.
Charlie turned back to the customer just as she reached for her coffee. Without thinking he innocently asked, “Would you like for me to carry that for you?”
She looked at him incredulously, “I do not need your help.”
“Well, I just thought you might….”
She cut him off. “Don’t worry, I won’t spill a drop on your floor.”
She turned and carefully started to make her way to the table, but she stopped and turned, “Zachery, am I going to make a mess?”
Zach smiled. “No ma’am!”
She turned and walked to a corner table in the back.
Charlie turned to Zach. “You know her?”
“Of course I do. She comes in here a couple of times a week. Her name is Rita.” And then he whispered, “If I were you, I would try not to make her mad.”
Charlie nodded in agreement. “Yes. I think that’s good advice.”
He discreetly watched as Rita made her way to the last table in the corner and sat down – without spilling a drop. Then she reached into her pocket with her right hand and pulled out a pen and a small notebook. She took a quick sip of her coffee and began to write.
At that moment there was a large clap of thunder and the heavens opened up. As the first wave of rain hit, Zach beamed. “I told you!”
Over the course of the next several months, a routine was firmly established. Twice a week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, Rita came into the coffee shop, always wearing sunglasses, refused to make small talk, although Charlie never stopped trying, ordered the same drink, sat at the same table if possible and wrote in her notebook. She always acknowledged Zach, but otherwise, she was silent. Charlie never saw her speak to another customer.
This mysterious woman soon became a fixation for Charlie. He pumped Zach for all the information he could, but there wasn’t much to tell. Zach had told him that Rita’s last name was Wallace. Charlie wondered how he found that out since she rarely spoke. Zach told him that she always came in alone. He had never seen her with anyone. And he said she had been coming in like clockwork for about a year. Charlie had noticed that her left hand had a significant tremble and that she didn’t wear a wedding ring. He also realized that he had never seen her with a cell phone. Typically, people were on their phones constantly as they sat at their tables.
He wasn’t sure why, but Charlie felt drawn to her. Although she projected a world-weary sense of hostility, designed, he assumed, to keep people at a distance, it seemed to him that she was vulnerable to the point that she had withdrawn from life. But, although she remained emotionally detached, there was something about her that touched him in a way he couldn’t explain. All he knew for sure was that he had never felt this way before about a person. He certainly found her physically attractive in her own way, but it was the pain she was trying to hide that drew him to her.
As the weeks went by, their interaction continued to be strained. Charlie kept hoping there would be more, but clearly, she did not feel the same way. But then one Tuesday, Rita didn’t come in. Usually, she showed up around ten, but she never walked through the door. Charlie arrived at work each morning at four, so he usually left around one or one-thirty each afternoon. The fact that she had not stopped by concerned him. He waited as long as he could just to see if she would show up, but he had a pressing obligation that he had to meet, so he headed out.
The next morning the first thing he wanted to know was whether or not Rita had ever come in. Charlie was surprised at how disappointed he felt when he learned that she never appeared. As the day wore on, his disappointment turned into worry that something might have happened to her. She did, after all, have some significant physical challenges, and he couldn’t help but wonder what the surgical scar meant regarding brain surgery.
Finally, Thursday morning arrived and Charlie realized he was incessantly watching the clock. At ten, except for two customers, the shop was empty. His worry began to turn into genuine concern until it dawned on him that he was being ridiculous. He didn’t even know this person, and she certainly had no concern for him. Why should he care whether or not she ever came in again?
But he did care. That was why he was so relieved when he saw her walk through the door.
He tried not to show any reaction, but inside he was thrilled to see her. With great effort, he smiled pleasantly without giving away his true feelings. He glanced over at Zach, who smiled unreservedly at Charlie and wiggled his eyebrows up and down. As Rita slowly started making her way to the counter, she reached up and removed her sunglasses. The shock of her appearance momentarily stunned Charlie. Her right eye was swollen completely shut. The eye socket and top of her cheek was a grotesque combination of purple and green, the result of severe bruising. She looked as if she had been struck in the face by a baseball bat.
Charlie gasped and blurted out, “Oh my God! What happened? Are you okay?”
Rita’s shoulders slumped as the two customers across the room spun around to see what was going on. She turned and glared back at them causing them both to look away.
Rita looked back at Charlie. “I’m fine. Can I just have my coffee?”
Zach walked over to her. The expression on his face made it obvious he had never seen an injury like this before. “Are you really okay, ma’am? Your face is scary looking.”
Rita smiled as best she could. “I’m fine Zachery, I promise. But thank you for asking.”
She looked back at Charlie and, with resignation in her voice, she gave in to the strain of exhaustion that was her frequent companion in life. “I’m really tired today, okay? Could you please bring my coffee to my table just this once?”
“Yes, of course.” He watched as she made her way to the back table. She looked unsteady and far weaker than she ever had before. Seeing her like this troubled Charlie in a way that surprised him. At that moment he realized that despite her constant rejection of him, he had developed deep feelings for her. When her drink was ready he carried it over to her table and sat down across from her.
Rita looked up at him and without conviction said, “I didn’t invite you to sit down.”
Charlie made a face. “I’m the manager. I get to sit where I want.”
Several moments of uncomfortable silence followed and then Charlie said, “I missed you on Tuesday.” He quickly corrected himself. “We missed you. Me and Zach.”
Rita showed no reaction.
Charlie looked at her swollen face and shook his head “I was worried about you. I was concerned. And it looks like I good reason to be.”
Charlie decided to make one last attempt to connect with her. If that didn’t work, he would leave her in peace and try to start thinking of her as just another customer. “Look, I know that you find me irritating and God knows what else.” He struggled to find the right words. “But for some reason, in some way, you are important to me.”
For the first time since they had met, her expression softened.
“I worry about you falling. I worry about your health and how you are feeling. I don’t know if you live alone or with someone, but if you do live alone, something could happen.”
She looked evenly at him and said, “Do you live alone?”
“Then something could happen to you.”
“Yeah, of course. I know that. But you’re the one sitting here injured. What happened to your face? To your eye?”
Sarcastically Rita said, “It doesn’t really matter.”
Charlie didn’t understand. “How can you say that?”
Rita took a slow breath and softly said, “It doesn’t matter because I have no vision in that eye anyway.”
Charlie decided to go for broke. “Okay. Is your vision issue the result of an accident or something else?”
Rita shifted in her chair. “I don’t want to talk about this with you. I have to wear special sunglasses to protect what vision I have left. That’s the end of it.”
“But I just want to know……”
“I don’t care what you want to know!” The people in the room turned and looked at them. She paused for a moment and lowered her voice. “This is my life, and it is no one else’s business – and that includes you.” She rubbed her hands together as she tried to control her emotions. “Look, I have seizures. Yes, I live alone and sometimes the seizures are very bad. Every once in awhile I fall. That’s what happened Monday night. When I lost my balance, I fell and hit the side of my face on the corner of a table……The thing is, I don’t like being vulnerable and nothing can make you feel more vulnerable than knowing you could have a seizure at any moment.”
She stared at Charlie. “So now you know.” She paused for a moment and then firmly said, “Please stop asking questions or I will find another place where I can drink a cup of coffee in peace and quiet.”
Charlie looked at Rita in a way that made it clear to her that she had gone too far with her bluntness. Without saying a word, he stood up and walked away.
For the next few weeks, Charlie waited on Rita just as he would any customer. No more, no less. It quickly became apparent to her that he had given up trying to connect with her in a personal way. She had gotten what she wanted, but she felt miserable. She realized that she’d managed to hurt the one person in the world who had been considerate and thoughtful to her. The reward for his kindness had been a verbal slap in the face.
They kept their distance from each other, and everyone, especially Zach, could feel the tension.
On a Thursday morning, there was an unusually large crowd. When Rita looked in the door she started to turn around and leave, but she reconsidered. She had come this far, she might as well stay. After getting her coffee she discovered that the only table available was in the middle of the room. She had no choice but to sit there. She could feel the eyes of a middle-aged couple a table away watching her every move. Rita was used to being stared at and whispered about, but they didn’t even try to hide the fact that they thought she was beneath them.
However, Rita was tired and she felt uncomfortable being in such a large crowd. That, coupled with the fact that she felt worse each day that she had hurt Charlie, made her decide that it was not worth the effort to acknowledge their behavior.
She got out her pen and notebook, but before she could start writing, Zach walked into the room carrying a large metal tray of cinnamon rolls for the display case. Just as he was passing Rita’s table, he lost his grip on the tray and with a loud crash, a dozen freshly baked cinnamon rolls hit the floor. Rita watched as Zach’s shoulders slumped. He felt awful for dropping them, and he was embarrassed in front of the crowd.
Charlie heard the noise and came running in. When he saw the mess his first concern was for Zach. He went to him and patted him on the back. “Hey, don’t worry about it. Accidents happen all the time. Let me grab a broom, and we’ll clean it up.”
As Charlie headed towards the back to get the broom and a dustpan, Rita clearly heard the middle-aged man at the next table say, “That’s how ‘those people’ keep their jobs. Everyone makes excuses for them. They waste their time cleaning up the messes of someone who shouldn’t even be working.”
Charlie heard it too. He stopped in his tracks and turned around, scarcely able to believe the ignorance of the man.
Rita looked up at Zach and saw the pain register on his face when he heard what the customer said.
The woman sharing the table with the gentleman agreed. “They just hire ‘the handicapped’ because they’re pathetic, and they feel sorry for them. It doesn’t matter that his kind is incompetent and can’t learn.”
The man added, “One thing’s for sure, there’s no way they should be working in public.”
The woman shook her head. “My God, I bet he doesn’t know a thing about sanitation. I don’t think I’ll come back here again.”
From five feet away a loud piercing female voice yelled, “I guarantee you will never be in here again!” Rita had listened to all she could stand.
At this point, the entire room fell silent, as every customer watched the unfolding confrontation.
Rita grabbed her cane and moved toward the couple’s table. In a voice loud enough for everyone in the room to hear, she said, “You two make me sick. Do you know how hard it is for a person with a disability to even get a job, in large part because of the rampant stupidity of people like you? Zachery is an excellent employee. Every one of us is thankful he’s here. This place would not be the same without him.”
The woman started to respond, but Rita stopped her. “Shut up, I’m talking now. Do you judge everyone you meet with your own narrow-minded bias? What do you see when you look at me? A poor miserable woman with a cane, a hand that trembles and scars on her face? Should I not go out in public too? You are both disgusting. Get out of here and don’t ever come back.”
Realizing she was not going to win the argument with this hideous person, the female customer turned to Charlie. “You’re the manager, how can you let her talk to me that way?!”
Charlie was unmoved by the question. “She’s right and you’re wrong.”
The woman’s face grew red with anger. “I want you to know that I have never received such treatment in a public place. You are going to hear from our lawyer about this!”
Charlie slowly walked to their table. Rita was about to reply but Charlie reached out and touched her on the arm. “You can’t sue me just because someone told you the truth.” Then he calmly said, “Please leave this establishment. I am refusing to serve you now or anytime in the future. If you do not leave immediately, I will call the authorities and have you removed.”
The man said threateningly, “I’m going to make sure that you get so much bad publicity over this that it will cost you your miserable little job!”
Charlie smiled and said, “I don’t care.” He turned and looked at Zach. “My friend is far more important to me than this job.”
Rita stepped forward and shouted, “You heard him. Now get out of here!”
They watched as the couple gathered their jackets and headed out the door.
Zach leaned over to Charlie and said, “I told you to never make her mad.”
As the door closed behind the couple, the other customers broke out in spontaneous applause.
After the noise died down, Zach turned to Rita and said, “Thank you, ma’am.”
Rita gently replied, “No, no, no. Please do not thank me, Zachery. You are an equal human being just like me, and we deserve to be treated with respect.”
Charlie and Zach quickly cleaned up the mess and then they both disappeared into the kitchen.
Over the next few minutes, various people got up to leave. As they walked out, most of them looked over at Rita and smiled or waved. She was uncomfortable with the attention, but she knew she had brought it on herself. Apparently, it turns out all you’ve got to do is get mad and start yelling, and people think you’re a hero. She never realized it was so easy.
A short time later, Charlie came back in and cautiously walked to her table. It had been a long time since they had spoken more than a few words to each other, and it seemed as if he was afraid to approach her. Softly he said, “Rita, I’m sorry this ugly incident happened. The way that couple treated you and Zach is inexcusable. I care about both of you, and I apologize that you were treated that way.” He turned and headed back to the kitchen.
But Rita just couldn’t let him walk away. “Charlie, please come back.” He was surprised by her request, but he stepped back over to her table. “I’m the one who owes you an apology. Ever since you became the manager here, you have gone out of your way to treat me better than anyone has in years. But it was difficult for me to believe that it was for real. Over time I have become very distrustful and suspicious of people. That made it difficult for me to truly appreciate someone who was decent and kind. I hope you can understand that.”
Without looking at her Charlie nodded and said, “I understand.” Then he walked away – and Rita sadly let him go.
Over the next month, Rita debated whether or not to keep going to the coffee shop. She knew she was responsible for the awkwardness between them, but the thought of not seeing Charlie anymore was upsetting. She didn’t want to admit it to herself, but she had developed deep feelings for him. But then suddenly, without warning, it was his turn to disappear.
He was gone for two weeks.
An assistant manager replaced him, and every time Rita came in, he looked at her with the usual sense of pity that she despised.
Eventually, on a Tuesday morning, which according to Zach was partly cloudy with a slight breeze out of the southwest and a 20% chance of rain in the afternoon, she looked through the door and saw Charlie at the cash register.
Rita walked in and slowly made her way to the counter as she took off her sunglasses.
When Charlie looked up, she was surprised by how tired he looked.
“Good morning.” He said gamely. “Would you like your usual?”
She nodded yes and stood silently while her drink was made. During that time Charlie went back and forth into the kitchen several times finally coming back to the register when her coffee was ready. As she handed him her money she finally gave in to the curiosity that had been building over the last fourteen days. “So, where have you been?”
Charlie stared at her, thinking that she had a lot of nerve to expect him to answer personal questions when she refused to do the same. Reluctantly, he said, “It was a family situation.”
Rita looked around the room at the other customers and then asked, “Is everything okay?”
Charlie said, “It has been resolved.” Then he abruptly turned and left the room.
After getting her coffee and sitting down at the corner table, Rita got out her notebook. She had just begun to write in it when Zach walked by.
Rita stopped him. “Zachery, what’s wrong with Charlie?”
Zach answered as honestly as he could. “He is sad.”
“His older brother died.”
His answer caught her by surprise. “Is that where he has been?”
“Yes. He died a week ago, but it took a long time.”
Rita pressed him. “What do you mean?”
“Well……” Zach was not sure about the words to use to describe it. “What is it called when you have something wrong with your head, and you get lost easy and you forget the people you love?”
“Yes! That is the word.” He looked around and then whispered, “Charlie told me that his brother drank too much alcohol and couldn’t stop, and it made him sick.”
“He was an alcoholic.”
“Yes, yes. Charlie said he drank too much for years and the doctors thought that is why he got that disease. Anyway, Charlie moved here six months ago so he could take care of him. His brother lived in one of those special places where they keep people safe who don’t know what is going on. Each day Charlie left here and went straight to see his brother. He would stay with him until he had to go home and go to bed. Then he got up early and came to work. It’s been really bad the last month or so. The only time he seemed happy was when you came in.”
Zach’s last words hit Rita hard. She thought about how harsh and rude she had been to Charlie, all in an effort to keep her distance. She appreciated that he was trying to be nice to her, but she was afraid it was because he felt sorry for her. She had been so focused on herself, she didn’t stop to think that he could be living through his own form of hell.
“Thank you, Zachery. I appreciate you talking with me.”
Zach started to walk away, but he stopped and turned back. “Ma’am, do you like Charlie as much as he likes you?”
The question caught her off guard. Rita played with her coffee cup and took her time before replying. “It is complicated. Obviously, Charlie is a good person. And it is flattering that he likes me – but he doesn’t really know me.” She tried to choose her words carefully. “There are many issues in my life that I wouldn’t want to burden anyone else with. Does that make sense to you?”
Zach nodded but then said, “With everything he went through with his brother, I think Charlie already knows what it’s like to deal with burdens. He said that his brother was the last of his family. Now he has no one left. Maybe Charlie is the one person who could help you with your life.”
Rita sighed. She could not help but be impressed with the wisdom of her young friend.
Zach continued. “I know it’s none of my business, but I think you two would be good together. As a couple I mean. Maybe someday you could give Charlie a chance to get to know about your life. You might be surprised by him. But first, you’ve got to give him that chance.”
Zach turned and walked away, leaving Rita with a lot to think about.
Two months later Rita and Charlie had slowly and painfully found a way to be pleasant in each other’s company. Rita had developed a limited level of trust in Charlie that she had not been able to achieve with anyone else. She was now convinced that he was actually interested in her as a person and did not think of her as just someone who needed to be taken care of. And Charlie realized that Rita had some unspoken feelings for him but that for some mysterious reason she was a deeply hurt and fragile person, and it was going to take time and patience to ever develop any semblance of a relationship.
As it turned out, however, Charlie did not have to wait that long for their relationship to change dramatically.
It was a nondescript Tuesday morning that, according to Zach, was warm and humid with a three-alarm allergy alert due specifically to mold, pollen, and ragweed. The coffee shop only had one other customer besides Rita who sat ignoring her coffee while writing in her notebook at a steady pace. She had seemed despondent and preoccupied when she came in, shrouded in sadness.
By this time, Charlie had learned that it was unwise to press Rita about what she was thinking. So, even though it concerned him to see her so troubled, he knew it was best to leave her alone. However, he could not help being frustrated by the fact that he scarcely knew any more about her than the day they met. He desperately wanted to know what caused Rita to feel lost, but he would have to wait until she was willing to open up to him.
With the crowd being so light, Charlie thought it would be a good time to order some inventory. As he headed into the kitchen, he smiled at Zach who was cleaning the counter. Charlie had just gotten his tablet and opened up the program he needed when he heard a strange sound from the dining area. It was almost like a shriek, but before he could react, Zach yelled at the top of his lungs, “Charlie!! Charlie come here!”
Charlie dropped the tablet on a table and ran into the dining room. He saw Zach pointing at Rita. She had slumped to her right and appeared to be rigid. Charlie rushed to her as she fell from her chair. He managed to catch her just before her head hit the floor. He lowered her down and tried to make her comfortable. He quickly looked at his watch so he could mark the time.
Because Charlie was not familiar with how long Rita’s seizures lasted he didn’t want to take any chances. Janine had the day off and Donna was out of sight working the drive-thru. He turned to Zach and calmly said, “Call 911. Tell them a woman is having a seizure. They will want to know our address. Please make the call now.” Although Zach had never been so scared, he didn’t hesitate. He grabbed the phone and pressed the numbers.
Then Charlie turned to the other customer and saw that he had a light jacket laying on the table. “Sir, please let me have your jacket to put under her head for protection.”
The gentleman jumped up, “Of course.” He handed it to Charlie who gently placed it under Rita’s head. Then Charlie asked the man to move all the chairs away from her. Very carefully Charlie rolled Rita onto her right side. He wanted to make sure that she didn’t choke on saliva or blood in case she had bitten her lips or tongue.
Rita continued to shake. Her eyes were glassy and not fixed on anything. Charlie leaned down close to her. “Rita, Rita can you hear me?” There was no response.
The initial tonic phase of the grand mal seizure passed into the clonic phase, and Rita began to shake violently. Charlie monitored her breathing and gently held her without restraining her movements. He took just a moment to glance over at Zach who was still talking to the 911 operator. The young man had tears streaming down his face. Charlie called out as confidently as he could, “Zach, it’s going to be all right. Rita will be okay.” Then he glanced down at his watch. The seizure had lasted more than two minutes.
She continued to seize for another full minute and then slowly her violent shaking began to ease up, and she started making gasping sounds as saliva streamed out of her mouth. Her eyes began to try to focus, and although disoriented and confused she struggled to look around. Finally, off in the distance, a siren could be heard, and within ninety seconds the EMT’s arrived.
Charlie gave them all the information he could about the seizure, and as they monitored Rita’s vital signs she began to gain some awareness. It took a minute or so before she was able to speak. The first words out of her mouth were said in a weak voice, “Oh no. Not here.”
That started a barrage of questions from the EMT’s. Everything from what day of the week it was to the name of the President of the United States. After several minutes they felt she was strong enough to move.
When Rita saw the gurney, she said, “Hold on. No emergency room.”
Charlie thought she still wasn’t lucid. “Rita you’ve just had a significant seizure. You need to go get checked out.”
Still feeling disoriented, Rita said haltingly, “Charlie, open my notebook. At the back, there’s a pocket.” She paused to get her breath. “Reach in the pocket and pull out the document.”
Charlie did as she asked. But when he opened her notebook he was surprised to find just one word written over and over again. Her handwriting was almost impossible to read, but he thought it was a person’s name that started with the letter S. He tried to show no reaction as he turned to the back cover and found the paper.
Rita said, “Give it to them.”
The two EMT’s quickly read the page. It was a legal document written by an attorney that clearly stated that his client, Rita Wallace, was refusing to be transported to any type of medical facility for treatment, and, furthermore, anyone who had assisted her up to this point was absolved of any further obligation to treat her after a seizure. The two EMT’s stepped aside and talked it over. Convinced that she was now in the recovery phase they decided, against their better judgment, that they should honor her wishes. They assisted Rita into a chair, gathered up their equipment and left, along with the customer who had witnessed the disturbing scene. With great effort, Rita slowly picked up a napkin and struggled to wipe her mouth and chin. She was clearly exhausted.
Charlie did not understand. “Rita, why would you refuse to go get checked out?”
Instead of answering him, she asked, “Who called 911?”
Charlie said, “Zach did. He saw the seizure start, and he called me in here. But why wouldn’t you go to the hospital?”
Wearily, she said, “I know you mean well – but this is my decision, and I need you to respect it.”
Charlie started to protest, but she ignored him. Breathing heavily, she said, “Zachery, please come here.”
Zach was still visibly upset and reluctant to go near her.
“Zachery, please come over here. It’s all over with now.”
Hesitating with each step, he slowly made his way over to Rita. When he got to her side, she reached up and pulled him down, hugging him as tightly as she could. After a full ten seconds, she let him go. “Thank you for helping me. You stayed calm and did everything just right. I know you were scared, but you were still brave. I’m so glad that you are my friend.”
Zach seemed doubtful. “Are you really okay, ma’am?”
“Yes, I am, thanks to you and Charlie. I just need to go back to my apartment and rest for a while.”
Charlie looked at the woman sitting in front of him. She was disheveled, with dark circles under her eyes and saliva clinging to her chin. But even in that physical condition, she still seemed beautiful to him. It was at that moment, he realized he had fallen in love with her.
As gently as he could, he asked, “Are you sure I can’t run you to the emergency room?”
Rita answered in a way that surprised him. “Charlie, you have no idea how many seizures I’ve had just since we met. This is my life. I deal with it all the time because I have no choice.” She paused and took a couple of deep breaths. “If you will just call and get me a cab that is all I need.”
“But I’ve got a car. I’d be happy to take you home, and I can make sure you’re safe and comfortable.”
Rita knew she was too tired to argue much longer. As nicely as she could, she said. “No thanks, I will use a cab.”
Charlie countered, “Well, can I stop by and visit you?”
“No. Absolutely not.”
“Can I at least have your phone number so I can call and see how you’re doing?”
Rita shook her head no, and with great effort, she said, “Here’s what is going to happen. I’m going to take a cab home, and go to bed and rest. By Thursday morning this will be a distant memory. I’m going to come in here at ten o’clock and you are going to serve me my coffee……and then you and I are going to sit down at my table and have a heart to heart talk.” She closed her eyes in an attempt to gather what strength she had left. “I think I’m ready to answer all of your questions.”
Charlie was so stunned that she was finally going to confide in him that he did not know how to respond, but before he could think of what to say, Rita offered, “I always use AAA Taxi.”
Charlie simply nodded.
The cab was called.
It was the longest forty-eight hours of Charlie’s life. He felt like he had been through the wringer with this woman. From her iciness when they first met, to the morning, several months ago, when he first began to have feelings for her, all the way up to the moment he was kneeling on the floor holding her, it had been an intense emotional ride.
Thursday morning crawled by at a glacial pace. Once nine o’clock arrived, the crowd thinned and Charlie tried to stay busy in an unsuccessful attempt to make the minutes go by faster.
Zach watched his boss’s agony with amusement. After Charlie’s untiring efforts all day Wednesday to convince him that Rita was okay, Zach now believed that she would come walking through the door with her cane and her notebook and things would be like they were before.
He felt lucky to have both of them in his life, and Zach secretly wished that they would be boyfriend and girlfriend forever. That would make him happier than anything he could think of.
The minutes ticked by and finally, the large clock that hung on the wall behind Rita’s table read ten o’clock……then ten-fifteen…… and eventually ten-thirty. Charlie could feel the tension building. She had never been this late before.
“Where is she?” Zach asked. “She said she would be here.”
Charlie tried to be reassuring. “I know. Let’s just give her a little more time.” But in his mind, he had already decided that if she did not show up by eleven he was going to call the cab company, tell them it was an emergency and see if he could get the address she was taken to on Tuesday morning.
As they continued to wait, a few customers drifted in, but all of their orders were to go. When the clock struck eleven, Zach hung his head and softly said, “She’s not coming.”
Charlie pulled out his phone and whispered to Janine to watch the counter for him. He walked to the kitchen to make the call so that Zach wouldn’t hear. As he looked up the number for the cab company he suddenly heard his young friend cry out, “SHE’S HERE!!”
Charlie stood motionless for a moment. A huge sense of relief washed over him even as he began to feel apprehensive about what Rita was going to tell him. He walked into the dining area, and there she was.
Charlie smiled, “You’re late.”
Rita cocked her head and said, “So you can tell time. Big deal. Stop showing off.”
Zach slowly walked over to her. It seemed as if he was almost afraid to talk to her. He looked her over from head to toe. “I was so scared for you. I was afraid we would lose you.”
Rita fought the emotion that was beginning to build inside her and wondered how she had ever managed to get involved with these two men. She looked at Zach and warmly said, “I told you I would come back. And now I’m waiting.”
Zach was confused. “Waiting for what?”
“I’m waiting for the weather report.”
He broke into a wide grin. “Oh, yes! It’s going to be partly sunny with a slight breeze out of the southwest at 10 miles per hour. And there is a 40% chance of rain showers later this evening.”
“Thank you.” She patted Zach on the back. “I’m going to ask you to please excuse me and Charlie. We are going to sit down and talk.” She turned, and with her uneven gait, headed to her table. Still grinning, Zach looked over at Charlie and gave him a thumbs up.
Charlie winked at him and said, “Stop flirting with her and get back to work.” As he watched Zach head for the kitchen he didn’t think he had ever seen him so happy.
Charlie went to her table and pulled out a chair directly across from her.
Rita shook her head. “Do you honestly believe I came here just to talk to you? What kind of place is this? I want my coffee.”
Charlie cringed. She was not going to make this easy. He turned to go to the counter, but Donna called out, “I’ll bring it to you.”
He sat down in the chair he had pulled out.
“When you hadn’t arrived by ten-thirty, I thought you had changed your mind.”
“That’s why I was late. I kept changing my mind.”
“So why did you finally decide to come back? What was the reason?”
Charlie could feel himself blushing.
Rita liked the fact that she had embarrassed him. Now she would surprise him. “We have known each other for six months, three weeks and two days. We met on Tuesday, August 16th.”
Charlie was stunned. She was absolutely right. They had met on his second day at work. In amazement, he said, “I remember the instant you walked in the door for the first time, but I never for a moment thought that meeting me made any kind of impression on you.”
“That is one of your charms. You’re very self-effacing. But with all that red hair, you’re a hard person not to notice.”
“Look who’s talking.”
Rita leaned her head back and laughed out loud. It was something he had never seen her do before, and that was unfortunate because she had a wonderful warm laugh.
Still chuckling, she reached in her pocket and pulled out her notebook.
Hesitating for only a second he said, “Can I ask why you carry that?”
“This morning you can ask me about anything. That will be the test. If you are still interested after I tell you my story than you are either crazy or the sweetest man on earth. My money is on the latter.”
“Okay. So why do you carry the notebook instead of a phone?”
Donna walked over with her coffee. She smiled at Rita and said, “This one is on the house, I don’t care what Charlie says. It’s just good to see you again.”
“Thank you, Donna.”
Rita turned and looked at the man she was about to confide her deepest secrets to. “I don’t carry a phone because there has not been anyone I wanted to talk to – until now. And the reason I carry the notebook is so I can write down everything I’m supposed to do during the course of a day.”
She could tell from Charlie’s expression that he was confused.
“I live with a form of short-term memory loss. It’s really bad on some days and not so bad on others. The problem is, it seems to be worse when I’m tired and that happens a lot. For example, I can clearly remember meeting you for the first time, but I’m not sure what I ate for breakfast this morning. That’s why I write down the things I need to do, as well as the things I’ve done. I know it sounds strange, but it keeps me from going to the cleaners two times in the same morning. It’s just one of the issues I have to deal with as a result of my injury.”
She took a sip of her coffee. “Now can I ask you a question?”
“How did you know exactly what to do for a person having a seizure?”
Charlie sighed. “As my brother descended into alcoholism, he began to experience seizure activity. Ironically, each time he would attempt to stop drinking, the seizures would increase. But I’m guessing in your case they are also the result of your injury.”
“That’s right.” Rita shook her head. “You know, I actually had one doctor tell me that I was lucky that I have seizures in modern times because hundreds of years ago they would have believed I was possessed……yeah, I feel lucky all right.”
Charlie smiled, “Is your letter from the attorney really legally binding?”
Rita winked. “I doubt it. But it always scares them off.”
Charlie laughed and then asked, “Do you know what the first thing I liked about you was?”
“I have no idea.”
“It was the way you treated Zach.”
“All I did was treat him like a person.”
“You treated him with dignity.”
“Okay, I will admit I treated him better than I did you.”
There was a long pause as she took another sip of coffee. “Donna makes a better caramel macchiato than you do.”
“You’re just saying that because it was free.”
Although Charlie wanted to get past the small talk so he could finally hear her story, he didn’t want to force things. He quickly decided to give her one last opportunity to back out. “Listen, if you would rather not talk today, I understand. There is nothing you could tell me that would make me feel any differently about you anyway.”
“I appreciate your thoughtfulness, but it’s time to have this conversation.” Rita took a deep breath. “So, what would you like to know first?”
Charlie realized that after months of waiting, she was actually ready to open up to him. “Let’s start with your injury. Please tell me about it.”
“Okay.” She put her head down and slowly said, “All of the challenges I live with are the result of a traumatic brain injury that occurred fifteen years ago. It has been a long struggle to get to the point where I am now, physically and intellectually. If you think I’m bad now, you should’ve seen me ten or twelve years ago. Mentally I was a wreck.”
She looked up at Charlie expecting to see the usual look of pity that most people gave her, but she was surprised by his reaction. He had a tender look of understanding and, more importantly, acceptance. The moment she saw that look, she decided to tell him everything; even the part that she never spoke about. It wasn’t going to be easy, but if they were really going to have an honest relationship she believed he had the right to know.
“How did the accident happen?”
“First of all, it wasn’t an accident. What happened was carefully planned.”
He gave her a puzzled look.
“One morning, I went into a large building because I had some kind of business to take care of. It’s funny, but I can no longer remember exactly why I was there.” In a dispassionate voice, she went on. “Anyway, I had only been inside for about five minutes when suddenly it seemed like the entire world exploded. The sound was like nothing you have ever experienced. It was absolutely deafening, and you could feel the shock wave in your chest. Instantly I was hurled about fifteen feet, head first, into what turned out to be a concrete wall.”
Charlie was stunned. He had played out many different scenarios in his mind to explain her disability, but he had never considered something like this.
“Because of my massive head wound, from that moment on, I can only recall fleeting moments. I remember the pungent smell of smoke and I kept hearing things falling and crashing. I know I looked down at my legs, but I didn’t realize that I was only seeing with one eye. I had worn a pair of shorts that morning and my legs were embedded with shards of glass. I was bleeding badly. But the thing I will never forget is the screams of the other victims. They were pleading for help. Many were trapped and others were injured so severely that they were in agony.”
Charlie shook his head. “I never imagined such a thing.”
“How could you? I lived through it, and the entire thing seems surreal.” She paused for a moment and played with the cover of her notebook. “It turns out it was an explosive. Someone believed that ruining the lives of others would somehow make their life better.”
Charlie reached across the table and took hold of her hand. They watched as the last two customers walked out together. They were now alone in the dining area.
“A lot of people were killed and many more were seriously injured like me.”
“You were fortunate to have survived.”
For the first time, Rita lost the struggle to control her emotions as her eyes turned red. “You would think that – but in reality, I didn’t believe I was fortunate at all. For years I wished every single day that I had died in that explosion.”
“I know it has been hard but……” He stopped as tears began to roll down her cheeks.
With her voice beginning to shake, she said, “You don’t understand.” She paused for several seconds. “Oh my God, this is even more painful than I thought it would be.”
“Okay, let’s stop. You’ve explained how you were hurt.” He could literally see the emotional pain that racked her body.
“No. I have to tell you.” Charlie quickly slid into the chair next to her.
As she softly cried, Rita clasped her hands together and held them to her mouth for a moment, and then she said, “I was not alone on that terrible day.”
“What?” He could feel his heart breaking as he reached out and put his arms around her.
Rita looked at him as her breathing turned into sobs. “Oh God, Charlie.” She took a breath and gasped, “Charlie, I had my little daughter with me.” She buried her face in his shoulder and he held her as tightly as he could.
For the next few minutes she cried, and he held her. Slowly they rocked back and forth as he stroked her hair.
He only looked up when Donna quietly came out of the kitchen. He watched her walk to the front door and lock it. Then she flipped over the sign that read SORRY WE’RE CLOSED. Without looking at them she slipped back into the kitchen. Charlie knew she would keep Zach with her.
Slowly Rita was able to regain her composure. Charlie took both of her hands in his and said, “I am so sorry I put you through this.”
“You don’t need to apologize. It was my decision to tell you.” She reached into her pocket and pulled out some tissues. “I knew I would need these. That is the first time I have told someone about my daughter in years.”
Charlie hesitated to ask his next question, but Rita genuinely seemed to want to talk about everything, so he cautiously asked, “Was your daughter’s name, Sophie?”
The shock of his question made the color drain from Rita’s face. She stared at him in disbelief. As she wiped her eyes she asked, “How could you possibly know that?”
“The other day, you asked me to get the document out of the pocket of your notebook. I wasn’t trying to be nosey, I was too focused on your welfare, but I saw her name written over and over again on page after page.”
Rita put her head down.
Charlie said, “I was never going to mention it, but when you said you had a daughter, it was obvious.”
Struggling not to cry again, Rita said, “Tuesday was my daughter’s birthday. She would have been seventeen.” She choked back more tears. “I guess that was why I was writing her name, but to be honest, I didn’t even realize I was doing it.” She breathed heavily, “I was going to leave here and visit her grave, but then I had the seizure.”
They sat silently for a time and then in almost a whisper she said, “I was holding Sophie’s hand when the blast happened. I don’t know how long I laid there after I struck that wall, but I never saw my daughter again. I kept screaming out her name, but she never answered. When the first responders got to our area, I pleaded with them to find her until I lost consciousness.”
She looked away and then, with heartbreak in every word, she said, “I didn’t even get to go to my daughter’s funeral.” Her eyes became glazed with grief. “My coma lasted for twenty-nine days. When I came out of it, I found out that Sophie was dead. She was killed instantly.” Rita stopped as her voice began to fail her.
Charlie leaned in and lightly kissed her on the forehead. She instantly felt a sense of relief.
“Of course my family didn’t know if I would live or die, but they videotaped Sophie’s funeral in the hope that I would one day be able to watch it.”
At this point, she felt emotionally drained, but she had to keep going. “Charlie, have you ever seen a casket for a two-year-old child?”
Charlie shook his head.
“I had never seen one either.” She hesitated and then in a voice filled with maternal love she said, “My baby is spending eternity in a tiny pink casket only forty inches long.”
Rita wiped her eyes again. “Thankfully, I took lots of video of her, and I watch it constantly because if I don’t, I have trouble remembering the sound of her voice. I’m so afraid she will slip away from me again, and I can’t let that happen. That’s the only way I can go on living. I’ve got a responsibility to keep her alive – at least in me.”
Charlie closed his eyes for a few moments. He was feeling the effects of all the emotion too.
“I also took a lot of photos.” She took a deep breath and then said, “Would you like to see a picture of my daughter?”
“I would love to.”
Rita pulled a small pocketbook from her jacket. She opened it and stared at the photo for a moment before handing it to Charlie.
When he looked down at the beautiful child everything suddenly made sense. The picture showed a tiny blond-haired girl with Down syndrome smiling for the camera.
Rita cleared her throat and said, “The first time I came in here and met Zachery it was so painful, but after a while, it was actually comforting to see him. He is such a sweet person.”
After all, she had told him, Charlie was at a loss for words.
With her voice quivering, Rita said, “Sophie is buried just two miles from here. Her grave is in a part of the cemetery called Baby Land. I can’t imagine a sadder place on earth. Each time I visit, I see other parents, just like me, who are distraught, with their lives broken.”
With complete honesty, Charlie said, “I can’t imagine what that is like.”
“The problem is, I should be buried in that cemetery too. It was not right for me to live and for her to die. I have to try and survive every day with that guilt.”
Charlie put his arm around her. “You have nothing to feel guilty about. You had absolutely no control over the situation.”
Charlie looked at the woman who had walked into his life and turned it upside down. “Rita, I just don’t have the words to express how sorry I am for everything you’ve been through.”
She looked at him intently. “All I ask is that you don’t treat me any differently than you did before you heard all of this. I am beyond caring what other people think about me – but for some reason, that I don’t fully understand, I care deeply about what you think of me.”
Charlie hugged her. “Hearing your story doesn’t change anything.” Now it was his turn to be honest with her. “Rita, I love you.”
She took his face in her hands and said, “There is no reason on earth why you should love me – but I’m so thankful that you do.” Rita looked into the eyes of the man who had, with his compassion and kindness, broken down her resistance and said, “I love you too.”
Charlie could wait no longer. Gently he kissed her, and at that moment they both felt a connection they knew was real and life-changing.
Rita put her head on his shoulder, and they sat quietly for a minute or so. Suddenly Charlie pulled back and said, “Let’s get out of here.”
“Don’t you have to work?”
“They can cover for me.”
“Where do you want to go?”
“Not far……just two miles from here.”
Rita didn’t think she’d heard him correctly.
Charlie squeezed her hand. “Would it be too painful to visit Sophie’s grave?”
Tears filled her eyes again. Rita could hardly believe that she’d been fortunate enough to meet someone as caring as Charlie. “I don’t think this is the way you start a normal relationship.”
“I certainly never expected any kind of relationship with you to be normal.” He smiled in the way that she had grown to adore. “Normal is boring, and you are definitely not boring.”
She leaned into him and rested her forehead against his. They sat and held each other until the silence was suddenly shattered by Zach bursting into the room.
He was smiling so big that his eyes crinkled. “I told you! I told both of you that you were perfect for each other!”
Donna called out from the kitchen. “I’m sorry. I just couldn’t hold him back any longer.”
Charlie laughed as Rita motioned to him. “Zachery, please sit down with us.”
Happily, he dropped into a chair.
Rita smiled at her friend. “So why do you think Charlie and I are perfect for each other?”
Zach said, “Well, even though you didn’t always get along when you were together it was better than when you were apart……But the main reason I think you are perfect together is because you need each other.”
Once again Rita was surprised by him. She thought to herself that of the three of them, Zachery was possibly the wisest. He had been able to see what she could not.
Charlie looked at his coworker. “Thank you for believing in us – even when we didn’t.”
“It was easy. You are my friends.”
Rita patted his hand. “Yes, we are.”
Charlie got up and stepped away for a moment to ask Donna to lock up for him. When he returned, he looked down at Rita and gently asked, “Are you ready?”
Rita sighed. She never thought she would take someone else to her daughter’s grave, but she was so happy that Charlie loved her for who she was, that it made her want to share Sophie’s life and death with him.
She took hold of her cane and slowly stood up. “Eighteen months ago when I walked into this little coffee shop for the first time, I could not have imagined how it would end up changing my life.”
Zach said, “It’s a magical place.”
Rita smiled and said, “I think it’s the people who make it magical.”
Then she took hold of Charlie’s hand, and the couple slowly made their way out the door to go visit the past, believing that their destination would allow them to start building a future filled with hope.