The Counselor

(1,000 words)

The Counselor

Susan retracted the keys from the ignition, stuffed them into the front pocket of her tote, and slipped a three-ply mask off the rearview mirror. She stretched the elastic loops over her ears and checked her appearance. Nose and mouth covered. 

She hadn’t done the commute in months and felt lukewarm about returning to the office. Ahmad had been let go shortly after the pandemic began. No new litigation; no need for a newly minted attorney. Now, he stayed home with Bailey. He was supposed to be job-hunting but was dragging his feet. He was getting too complacent and distant being unemployed—running daily, lifting weights in the spare bedroom, playing Bailey’s doggy daddy, compulsively shopping at the pet store every other day—making her the breadwinner. She never wanted to be solely responsible for their income. He needed to do something. Be something. Without him working, how was she going to have a baby? If he kept buying all those pricey dog toys, how could they ever afford one?

She exited and locked the Jetta, then headed to the elevator. She nudged the up-arrow button with her elbow. A new sign had been posted. “Four passengers at a time.” While she waited, she glanced around the parking garage. Eight cars total parked on Level 4. No crowds would be swarming the elevator today. 

She turned around when she heard a familiar ding. The elevator doors slid open, revealing one passenger. A man, about 40, in a nicely tailored suit, who was yanking an N95 down over his face. His hair had been freshly cut, and a face covering couldn’t mask his graying temples. He clutched a silver flask.

“Good morning,” Susan said because she felt she had to. Future client?

“Is it?” he asked.

Not the response she expected. “What?”

“Is it a good morning? You look troubled.”

Rude! How could he tell whether she looked troubled, elated, sad—whatever? A stupid mask obscured half her face. She eyed his flask. I’m not the one hitting the sauce at quarter-to-nine in the morning, bucko, Susan thought. 

He raised the hip flask and offered it to her. “Want a belt?” 

“No!” she said quickly, then remembered her manners. “Thank you.” 

It was a pandemic, for god’s sakes. No drinking from anything that someone else’s mouth had touched. It’s always the normal-looking guys you had to be wary of, she reminded herself. 

“I don’t usually imbibe this early,” he offered. “This whole COVID-19 situation has been super stressful.”

“You can say that again,” Susan muttered, pushing the button for the 45th floor. 

 “Sure you don’t want a belt?”

“Look, mister, you said yourself we are in the midst of a global pandemic, and you’re offering me a hit off something that touched your lips? Don’t even—” 

She retreated to the corner of the elevator. She parked her briefcase between them and folded her arms. 

The elevator whirred to a lumbering start, and the stranger fell silent.

She felt guilty for having snapped at him. The pandemic had taxed everyone’s sanity. “What do you do here?” Susan asked.

“Who me?” 

No, the invisible man beside you, she wanted to say, regretting having restarted the conversation.

“I’m a counselor,” he said politely. “Mind if I take a swig?”

“Whatever.” 

“Since you’re thinking of leaving your husband, and he’s been contemplating suicide,” he said, gently licking his lips. “I just thought you might want to take the edge off, Susan.”

“Who are you, pal?” She scrounged in her purse for the pepper spray and pointed it at him. “Some crazy stalker? How the hell do you know my name? What I’m thinking? What my husband’s thinking? Not one step closer.” 

“I’m not going to hurt you. You’re hurting enough,” the Counselor said. “Ahmad is overwrought about losing his job. He knows you want to start a family.”

He knows my husband’s name? My most personal thoughts? 

She was being punk’d. First day back at the office and someone was messing with her. Probably Riley from Paralegal. 

“Was it Riley?” she asked. “Did he put you up to this?”

“Look, I don’t know any Riley. Just trying to help.” He sighed. “Can you push 57?” 

The Infinity Building only had 56 floors, right? She’d been gone since March but could’ve sworn the city’s newest tower topped out at 56 stories. She searched the elevator panel. Lo and behold, a button for a 57th floor. 

Had Ahmad really considered killing himself? As soon as she reached her desk, she’d call him and assure him they’d get through this. Just like they worked through the other seemingly insurmountable challenges together. Her parents never wanted her to marry Ahmad. They abhorred the prospect of a Black son-in-law or mixed-race grandbabies. 

Ahmad was smart and ambitious. Maybe the disruption to their pre-pandemic lives and his firing had left him distraught. She’d reach out to him, apologize for lashing out at breakfast, and tell him she loved him and believed in him.

Finally, the doors clanged open. She scuttled out of the elevator as fast as spike heels would allow, abandoning the belt-swilling counselor. While nearing the entrance to the suite, she heard the elevator hum to life, ascending to some mystical 57th floor, presumably.

“Hello, Jeannie,” Susan said. “Nice to see you.”

“You, too,” Jeannie held up a finger and spoke into her headset. “Law offices of Riger and Biddle. Mr. Riley? He no longer works here.”

Riley’d been let go? If he wasn’t punking her, then who was that know-it-all elevator guy? She raced back down the hall and depressed the button with her elbow. The shiny doors eased open. He’d disappeared, leaving the hip flask and its contents on the floor. 

She peered inside, scanning the button panel. Seven rows of buttons, each ending in an even number, were all lit up simultaneously. 

The very last illuminated button on the panel was marked for the 56th floor. Floor 57? Nowhere to be seen.

  

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