She was walking alone in the dark, her light blue stilettos clicking insistently on the sidewalk. Her floral cocktail dress was damp from the foggy night air, and she pulled her sleek white coat more tightly across her chest. She shuddered and looked around, shrinking away from the shadowy buildings before taking off on a run to the door of her apartment building. She had been holding in her tears for hours now, and once she shut the door behind her and slipped her coat off she let the river run.
She was alone, so it didn’t really matter. It didn’t matter if the tears ran down her face, dragging streaks of makeup along their path. It didn’t matter if she sobbed aloud. It didn’t matter that she threw herself against the wall and shriveled down into a ball of shaking misery.
She laid there on the floor and cried until she realized she was no longer alone.
The door creaked open slowly, and then footsteps crept closer until there was a shadow standing over her. She looked up and cried out, while her neighbor flinched and then dropped down onto his knees in front of where she was laying.
“I’m so sorry.” His eyes melted when he saw her face. “I heard crying and a crash and I thought someone was hurting you. You’re bleeding.”
She reached up to her forehead and cringed when she saw the blood that came away on her fingertips. “I’ll be okay.” She started to stand up, then fell back against the wall and sunk down.
The neighbor stood up. “I’m going to get my first aid kit. Please don’t go anywhere.”
She grimaced. “I couldn’t if I wanted to. I’ll be here.”
“I’m sorry,” he whispered to her with a sympathetic smile. “I’ll be right back.”
He came back a few minutes later with a little white box and turned on the lights before he knelt down in front of her again. She looked at him and saw that while most people would consider him plain, she found that he had a quality about him that made him seem warm and easygoing. He had rich brown eyes, brown wavy hair pulled back into a ponytail, and broad shoulders. His face was clean cut with sharp lines giving way to soft dimples and smiling eyes. She liked that.
He worked quietly, using gentle hands to clean the copious amounts of blood from her face. “This is going to hurt,” he warned.
She didn’t flinch when the alcohol touched her open cut, but her wide-open eyes welled up while she watched him bend over her.
“How did you get into my apartment?” She asked him.
“You left the door cracked open. I hope you don’t mind.”
She laughed bitterly. “No, I don’t mind. I guess I needed you, anyways.”
He sat back and started tidying up his first aid kit. “May I ask what happened? And here, let me get you a glass of water.”
“Well, I don’t know. I have—sorry, had a boyfriend, but he left a party tonight with some blonde woman and a bottle of champagne. I knew it was a bad idea to date him, but I’ve just been so lonely—“ she dropped her face into her hands and sobbed quietly. After a few moments she wiped her eyes and looked back up. “I’m sorry. I just hate blondes.”
“Hmm.” He looked pointedly at her pretty blonde hair and smiled. “But you’re blonde.”
“Well yes, yes I am. And I hate myself more than anyone else. Why else would I throw my face at a wall?”
“You make a good point.”
They sat in silence for several minutes. It was dark outside the third story window, but street lamps flowed luminously below, and a few dim stars were visible in the sky. A lone cricket chirped enthusiastically from somewhere behind the refrigerator.
He broke the silence first. “But why do you hate yourself?”
She sighed, and took a sip of the water he handed her. “I guess because I’m pathetic and I don’t respect myself. And I absolutely hate people I can’t respect.”
“I don’t think you’re pathetic.”
“But you don’t know me.”
“True, but I know a little bit about you.”
Her eyes widened slightly. “How? What do you know about me?”
“...it’ll sound creepy.” He looked embarrassed.
“My awful boyfriend just left me behind at a party for another woman, and I had to walk 10 blocks to get home in heels because nobody there was sober and I can’t stand Taxi drivers. I’m pretty sure that I am beyond being surprised anymore.” She crossed her arms across her chest. “So try me.”
“If you insist.” He sat back on his heels and cleared his throat. “Well, I know you like to sing in the mornings while you cook breakfast, and I know you must be a good cook because I can usually smell your food, and it’s heavenly. I also know that whatever job you have wears you out because you walk up the hall much slower than you walk down it. And sometimes I can hear you crying late at night, and I always wish there was some way I could help you.”
She blinked three times. “That is...somewhat surprising. You must be very quiet because I never hear you moving around. I’m sorry.”
“Why are you sorry?”
“You must be so annoyed by all the noise I make.”
“On the contrary, I enjoy listening to you while you belt out Demi Lovato.”
She buried her pink cheeks in her hands. “I will never sing again.”
“That would be a tragedy. I like your voice.”
She blushed harder but looked up to smile at him. “Thank you.”
They sat quietly for a few more minutes, and then he sighed and stood up. “It’s midnight, so I should probably let you get some sleep. Do you think you can stand up without keeling over?” He offered her his hand while she slowly stood up.
“Yes, I think so.” She kicked off her shoes. “That should help. Thank you so much, Mr. ...I’m afraid I don’t know your name.”
“Richard. Richard Carlisle. And you are?”
“Anna Grey. It’s nice to meet you. Thank you so much for...everything.”
“It was my pleasure. I guess I’ll see you around?”
“I guess so. Goodnight.”
“Goodnight.” He shut the door gently behind him, and Anna stood still and listened to the gentle thud of his footsteps going down the hallway.
She sighed as she heard his door close, and walked slowly back to her bathroom. She braced herself against the porcelain edge of the sink and took a long, hard look at herself. Her wavy blond hair was frizzy and somewhat matted from laying against the wall, with streaks of black mascara tangled in its tips. Her sea green eyes were framed with wide circles of black paint, with teardrops fading below the edges, and her rose-colored lipstick was fading and smeared. She sighed and started to methodically wipe all of the makeup off her face, giving way to creamy skin and reddish brown freckles around her nose and cheeks.
Once she was in her messy bun and sweats she collapsed on top of her bed and reached absentmindedly to the empty space where her cat used to curl up in a ball of fluff and purrs. She sighed again when she remembered that Cinnamon was gone, and stared up at the patch of moonlight on her ceiling until she fell asleep. Her last conscious thought before drifting off was “Finally, a man who isn’t a horrible person.”
Meanwhile, Richard changed into his basketball shorts and and sunk down into his leather armchair, flicking on the TV before staring absently out the window. His view was very bland, sporting only a dim street lamp and a stray cat. But he stared at that solitary blob of light for three hours straight while a documentary about red pandas droned on in the background. His last conscious thought before falling asleep was “I hope she’ll sing in the morning.”
Anna woke up at 8:30 and yawned. She winced slightly and touched her forehead with tender fingers. “I thought that was a dream,” she mumbled. She rolled out of bed and pulled her hair into a messy bun before walking to the kitchen in bare feet. She gathered her coat, clutch, and shoes from the night before and put them away in her closet before rolling up her sleeves and pulling ingredients out of the pantry. She danced around the granite island with her bowl of muffin batter and broke into a song.
Once her muffins were done baking and her eggs and bacon were cooked to a perfection, she made up two plates, and then ran to her room to get dressed.
Anna held a plate of food in one hand, and knocked timidly with her other. She bit her lip nervously, and was just about to walk away when the door swung open.
Richard’s eyes lit up and sparkled when he saw her standing there, looking so pretty in her white sneakers, faded overalls, and floral tee. Her hair was piled on top of her head, showing off her freckles and naturally beautiful smile. She was blushing.
“Here,” she offered him the plate. “It’s a thank you for last night, and a peace offering for all the singing.”
He tucked a curly strand of hair behind his ear and took the offered plate. “You didn’t have to.”
“But I wanted to.” She smiled. “You can just set the plate out in the hall when you’re done.”
“Thank you.” He stepped back into his apartment and shut the door while her footsteps went back down the hall.
Anna sat down at her table and ate alone. She smiled a little to herself, and hummed a tune while enjoying her warm muffin. After she finished eating she washed her dishes and wiped down the counter, then put a few muffins in a bag and took off down the hall. On her way out she met Richard, who was just stepping out with a clean plate in his hands.
“Oh, hi. I was just going to bring you your plate. Where are you off to?”
“Hey. I was just going to walk over to that alley down the street where that homeless guys sleeps, and give him these muffins while they’re still warm. And this coffee.” She held up a styrofoam cup and smiled.
“Would you mind if I tag along?”
“Not at all, but let me take that plate inside first. I assume you’d rather not carry it with you.”
He laughed. “You assume correctly. Let me hold that coffee for you.”
“Thanks.” After she re-locked the door to her apartment they walked down the hallway in step.
Richard stuffed his hands into the pockets of his Levi’s and smiled over at Anna. She smiled back shyly.
“So...” he opened the door for her, and shivered slightly while the wind played with the corners of his flannel shirt and the laces on his lumberjack boots.
“...so?” Anna grinned.
“Well, so, do you bring him food pretty often?”
“I try to at least every other day. I don’t always make it out here before work, though. Sometimes I bring him dinner, but it’s not exactly safe out here when it’s dark, so I try not to do that too often.”
“That’s probably very wise. I could go with you, though, if that would make you more comfortable.”
“Sure, that would be nice.”
After they delivered their goods they turned back towards the apartment building, walking slowly. The sun was shining brightly, birds were singing overhead, and the air had a spring-like smell about it. People were slowly starting to appear at windows and on the sidewalks, yawning sleepily and strolling easily. Weekends always had a slow start, but that was half the charm of the bustling city. Once everyone was awake there would be no more peace and quiet, just the cheerful, constant hum of voices, the insistent honk of car horns, and the rush of the trolly.
Anna paused at her doorway. “What do you do?”
Richard leaned against the wall and smiled over at her. “What do you mean?”
“For work. What do you do for work?”
“Ah. I’m a Research Analyst. Boring stuff, really, and I don’t fit in at the office because I don’t look like a Ken doll. Thankfully I can work from home 3 out of 5 days, and I have the weekend to myself. I’m more interested in nature and science, and enjoy watching documentaries about animals and stuff. Wow, I sound like a hardcore nerd, don’t I?”
“Just a little bit.” She grinned. “You sound smart, though. Which is slightly intimidating.”
“Ha.” He laughed. “So what do you do?”
“I work at Sandler Incorporated, and I absolutely hate it. I don’t like wearing a suit coat and heels, I don’t like the people that work there, and I don’t like what the business has become. It’s so impersonal.”
“Isn’t it a family business? It’s a pretty big deal.”
“Yes, it is.” Anna looked down at her shoes and bit her lip. “But the Sandler family fell apart and it’s become purgatory for the remaining daughter.”
“Yeah, I feel sorry for her. All that money must be such a pain for her to deal with.”
“Life isn’t about money, Richard.” She snapped, and her green eyes flashed red while her neck stiffened. “I—I think she must be lonely. After all, her parents and older sister died pretty unexpectedly three years ago, and I hear that her cat died last week, too. She doesn’t have any friends. And, like me, her boyfriend is not a good man.”
“Maybe you should be friends with her.” His smile softened. “It sounds like you need each other.”
“Perhaps you’re right.” She nodded thoughtfully. “I don’t respect her, and I kind of hate her, but I suppose I could learn to like her, if I tried. I’m sure her quirks might actually be lovable.”
“That’s the spirit! Eventually I’m going to ask you how your friendship is coming along.”
“Sounds good.” She smiled, a mischievous twinkle in her eye.
“Oh, nothing. I’ll see you later, Richard.”
“Have a good day, Anna.”
They each went in to their respective apartments and shut their doors. Anna leaned on her counter, biting her lip thoughtfully. She sighed. “I suppose I need to learn to love myself.” She nodded. She walked back into her room and pulled out her old journal. After she had flipped to an open page she began to write, making lists of the things she hated about herself. After she had written a few pages, she stopped to think. “Now I should find a positive quality for every negative one...” her voice trailed off while she began to write again. She wrote on, and didn’t stop until her stomach growled, reminding her that lunchtime had passed an hour or two before.
A few months passed by, and Anna had spent time journaling every day. She had a spring in her step on her way to AND from work every day, and used her lunch breaks to get to know her coworkers better instead of eating in her office alone. She even brought one of the secretaries home one afternoon and spent time with her, watching Hallmark movies and chatting comfortably. Anna and Richard brought the homeless man dinner several nights, and even took a few walks around the city together. Richard liked Anna’s quick wit, and she appreciated his easy laughter, so they made a good pair.
Another Saturday morning rolled around, and Anna decided to have a baking day. She ran down the street to the grocery store and bought a load of baking supplies, then settled into the kitchen with her sleeves rolled up and her hair pinned back. She sang cheerfully while she baked, making a happy mess all over the counters. After a few minutes, there was a knock on the door.
When she opened it, she saw Richard standing there. He looked sleepy and bashful, with his hair in a ponytail and a wrinkled tee pulled over his black denim pants.
“Uh-oh.” Anna smiled apologetically while wiping flour off of her hands. There was a halo of floury frizz around her forehead, and one powdery white freckle on her nose. “I’ve been too loud, haven’t I? I’m so sorry. I hope I didn’t wake you up.”
“No, I was already awake. But you sounded so happy in here that I thought maybe I’d come over and see if I could join you.”
“Oh, I’d like that. Come on in. Have you ever baked before?”
He looked around and grinned at the mess. “Yes, I used to bake with my mother all the time. It smells so good in here.”
“There’s an apron hanging next to the fridge if you want one. Don’t mind the flowers on it; they’re blue so it shouldn’t hurt your manliness too much.”
Richard laughed and tied the fluttering ribbon strings around his waist. “How do I look?” He struck a pose and simpered dramatically.
“Absolutely stunning. You should consider becoming an apron model for Better Homes and Gardens.”
“Huh.” He grunted. “I think I just might. What do you want me to do?”
“Can you separate yolks from whites for me? I need five yolks for one cake, and the whites for another. Bowls are in that second cabinet to your right.”
“Yep, that’s it.” Anna began sifting sugar into a large bowl of flour, and then poured milk in and began stirring.
“Here those yolks are. You want me to pour them in?”
“Yes please. And then can you find the vanilla? It should be in the door of the fridge.”
“No problem. So, have you made friends with Ms. Sandler yet?”
Anna smiled to herself and poured vanilla into her mixing bowl. “Sort of. I guess she’s an alright person. A little odd, but nice. I’ve made other friends at work, too. The people there are actually pretty great.”
“That’s good!” Richard leaned on the counter and beamed down at her. “I had a feeling you’d like them if you got to know them. All people are likable in some way if we give them a chance.”
“You’re right, and I’m glad you challenged me to make friends.” She twinkled mischievously at him while putting batter into the pan he held out.
“What? What does that look mean?”
“Nothing. I was just thinking I should show you a picture of the Sandler family.”
“Why, do you have one here?”
“Oh yes, I do.”
“That’s odd. But yes, I’d like to see it.”
Anna put her cake pan in the oven and set a timer before disappearing into her bedroom. She walked back with a wooden picture frame in her hands. Richard reached out for it, and she handed it over with a quiet smile. “That’s Robert, Sandra, and their two daughters: Amy Ray and Anna Grey.”
“Oh... Oh!” Richard blushed. “But—wait, so you’re Anna Sandler?”
“The one and only.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“Don’t be. You had no way of knowing.”
“I know, but I feel like, I don’t know. Did I say anything rude about you?”
Anna laughed out loud. “Not that I recall. I think you just pitied me for all my money.”
“Don’t sweat it, Richard. You opened my eyes to the fact that I’m more than The Rich Ms. Sandler. I’ve hated myself for so long, and because of that I pushed people away. But you inspired me to take a step back and examine myself, and for once I saw an Image-Bearer instead of a mess, and I’ve never felt so much peace and joy in my life before. I’m thankful to you for that.”
He reached out to give her shoulder a gentle squeeze. “I’ve seen the change in you, and I’m glad if the Lord used my words to help bring about that change.”
Anna nodded and patted his hand. “Now would you like to help with another cake?”
“Absolutely. What’s the occasion?”
“A few of my coworkers are coming over for dinner tonight, and I thought it would be nice to have cake for desert. I’m making chicken salad for dinner with grapes and a green salad on the side, then cake with strawberries, and sparkling grape juice. Would you like to come? I’d love to have you. It’ll be pretty chill, with just five or six people besides myself. No activities planned.”
He paused his violent beating of the egg whites just long enough to look up and smile. “Sounds like an offer I can’t resist. What time?”
“They’re supposed to arrive here around 5:00.”
“Do I have to wear a suit?”
“No, I told them to dress casual. I’ll be wearing a maxi dress and flats if that helps.”
“Awesome. I can help with dinner if you want, too.”
“I would appreciate that. Here, I’ll take those whites. They look perfect. Can you start on this icing recipe? Everything you need is sitting right next to that red mixing bowl.”
They continued baking until noon, then sat down in the living room with grilled cheese sandwiches and lemonade.
“Do you have any friends? Sorry, that came out weird.” Anna blushed, and Richard laughed.
“You’re fine. No, not really. I mean I have one really close friend, but he lives in Texas, and I haven’t seen him since I moved here a year ago. I guess I haven’t really tried to make any friends here. At first I thought this job would be temporary, but then I got promoted and things evened out for me. Besides, I kind of like it here.”
“That’s good. But maybe YOU should be making friends with your coworkers now. Or with mine.” She winked. “Maybe you’ll become best friends with them tonight.”
“Oh yeah, I can really see that happening. But, Anna, would you say that we’re friends?”
“Oh yes.” She didn’t hesitate. “You’re probably my closest friend right now.”
“Good. I’m glad. I consider you my closest friend, too.”
They smiled at each other and then settled into comfortable silence while they finished eating.
After they had cleaned up their plates, they got to work icing the cakes and slicing strawberries for the layers.
“Does this look good?” Richard gestured towards the layer he was sprinkling berry slices over.
“Perfect! Can you help me add the top layer? It’s hard to keep it from being crooked without an extra pair of hands and eyes.
“Sure. There, that looks amazing!”
“Thanks! We just need to add the top layer of icing and then I’ll work my magic and make the top pretty.”
After a few minutes Anna stepped back and tilted her head to get a better look. “Does that look good?”
“I think so. Sweet and simple. You really do have a magic touch, Anna.”
“Thanks!” She smiled. Now I need to clean up the powdered sugar and get to work on the chicken salad. Oh my gargoyles, it’s 4:00.”
“Oh boy. Here, I’ll wipe the counters for you.”
“Thanks.” Anna set the cakes aside and started pulling spices and cans of chicken out of the pantry. “Would you mind working on the salad? The lettuce leaves need to be torn up and the carrots need to be grated.”
Richard threw her a thumbs up and started looking around for a salad bowl.
In half an hour they had everything set out and ready. “Wow, that went fast.” Anna sank into a kitchen chair with a happy sigh. “Thank you so much for sticking around all day.”
“Hey, I enjoyed it. But I should probably get cleaned up now.”
“Oh yeah, I need to shower.” She dashed over to her bedroom door. “I’ll see you in half an hour!”
Anna took a 10 minute shower and used the rest of the time to dry her hair and put on a little bit of makeup. She had just slipped into her maxi dress with the blue stripes and pale yellow flowers when she heard a knock at the door. She shuffled into her blue flats and ran across the living room. “Coming!”
She opened the door to Richard, and caught her breath. “I’m so glad you’re the first one here. Come in.”
“You look nice,” he said. His eyes were warm and his hair was still damp, hanging in dewy curls around his neck. His usual plaid shirt was tucked in, and he had traded in his boots.
“So do you.” Anna grinned. “Dress shoes and slacks? I thought you hated dressing up!”
“I hate dressing up for work. This is different. Besides, I felt like my old boots wouldn’t fit in with business casual.”
“I suppose you’re right, but between you and me I think your boots are cool.”
“That’s good to know.”
There was another knock at the door, and before long the rest of the guests had arrived.
Anna milled around for the rest of the evening, taking time to get to know the people who worked for and with her. There was Jeff who worked in marketing and his wife, Cassy, who lived in the apartment building next door with their three small children. Then there was Amanda, who was creative and talented and worked in advertising. Todd, also from marketing, was the fun one, with easy jokes and infectious laughter. Then there were Betty, Angela, Marcos, Philip, and Andrea who all had easygoing, fun personalities and made the evening more enjoyable.
Richard bonded with Marcos over their mutual admiration of red pandas, and soon were sitting in a corner together discussing the pros and cons of zoo living conditions. Anna beamed over at them from where she sat with Andrea and Todd.
Andrea nudged her in the shoulder. “Your neighbor seems pretty great.”
“Oh, he is.”
“How long have you known him?”
“A little over three months, I think.” She took a sip of her drink and smiled.
“You like him, don’t you?”
“Oh, no, not like that. I like him as a friend. He’s been great.”
“I mean it!”
“Yeah, well, I meant that when I first said it about this guy, too.” Andrea reached over and patted Todd’s hand.
“Oh, you two! That makes me so happy. When did y’all become official?”
“Thanks.” Todd smiled. “We just filed with HR on Wednesday.”
“That’s awesome. You guys are perfect for each other.”
Andrea laughed. “We think so.”
They talked for several minutes, and before long it was late and everyone was getting ready to leave. They trickled out in ones and pairs until Anna and Richard were left with an empty apartment and dirty dishes.
They stood side by side in the kitchen. Richard was washing and Anna was drying with a hand towel and putting the dishes away. She sighed.
“Absolutely.” She she stretched onto her toes to put the salad bowl away.
“Let me get that.” Richard dried his hands quickly and took the bowl from her, setting it easily in its place.
They settled into easy silence, just enjoying each other’s quiet presence, and the peace of the moment. There was soft music playing from the living room, and that solitary cricket was chirping rhythmically from underneath the refrigerator.
Richard broke the silence first. “I really like your employees.”
“I’m glad you do. I don’t really think of them as employees, either. They’re more like coworkers, and friends.”
“That’s really great. I’m glad you like them.”
“Me too.” She smiled up at him.
“Well,” he rubbed the back of his neck with a soapy hand. “We’re really good friends. But I was wondering; what if maybe we think about being more than friends?”
Anna’s eyes widened and she shook her head while smiling. “Maybe.”
Bus rides to Central Park. Day trips to hiking trails and peanut-butter-and-jelly picnics with blueberry lemonade. Long walks under the city lights at night. Outings to the zoo and a nearby atrium. These were all activities that Richard and Anna enjoyed together over a period of nearly six months, talking, laughing, and peering into each other’s hearts and souls.
One chilly night in January they indulged in one of their favorite pastimes, which was stargazing from the roof of their apartment complex. Anna was carrying a tray with mugs of hot chocolate and plates of fresh brownies and popcorn, and Richard had a pile of pillows and blankets to soften the swinging love-seat they liked to curl up on. After they had settled down and begun to sip their cocoa, they turned their eyes to the sky, quietly pointing out the constellations they found.
“Look, it’s Orion.” Anna reached up to trace its outline with her fingertips. “And there’s a shooting star, too. Oh,” she caught her breath, “it’s so beautiful. I’ll never stop being surprised by shooting stars.”
Richard smiled over at her, his eyes crinkling in their warm, familiar way. “And I’ll never stop being surprised by you, Anna. You’re so beautiful.”
She blushed, and turned to meet his eyes with her own contented smile. “Thank you, Richard. But your hair is prettier than mine.” She reached over to touch his curls while he laughed.
“I can’t argue with that.” He winked. ”But seriously, Anna, you’re stunning. I love everything about you; the way your eyes sparkle while you’re watching little kids play in the park, the way moonlight touches your hair and turns it into spun gold. I love the way your hands look when you’re bringing food to the homeless man across the street.” He paused to take a deep breath, but Anna was looking into his eyes, not saying a word through her slow tears. He took her hand in his own and began talking again. “I love the way you hug me after a long day at work, and I love the way you make me want to hold your hand and walk everywhere with you, or just sit still and breathe together. I love how you spur me on to be a better man, and I don’t ever want to go through life without the knowledge that everything I do is for you. I feel like these three words are so inadequate, but Anna, I love you. I love you.” He stood up and knelt in front of her, still holding onto her fingers with one hand. He slowly pulled a ring out of his back pocket and cleared his throat. “I know we haven’t known each other for very long, but you are my whole life already. Will you marry me?”
Anna gasped and laughed through her tears. “Yes! Yes, I’ll marry you. I love you so much, Richard.” She threw her arms around his neck, and they laughed and cried together before he slipped the ring onto her finger, and she sweetly kissed him for the first time.
They sat back down side-by-side with their fingers nestled together while their hearts beat in time. “Richard?”
“Can we get married next month? I’ve always wanted a Valentines Day wedding.”
His eyes twinkled down at her, and he knew that if he became any happier his heart would burst and overflow. He shook his head, smiling broadly. “Maybe.”
I did some minor editing, and added an ending. Let me know how you like it!