Chocolate and Chai
Lois Cloarec Hart
The first paragraphs of this story were drawn verbatim from my wife, Day’s recent, early morning flight of whimsy. As always, she inspires me even when she’s not conscious of doing so. She, and my dear friend, California Kathy have, for so many years, proofed, polished, and improved my short stories and novels. My deepest thanks to both for the wonderful work they do year in, and year out.
If you’d like to comment on my story, I’d enjoy hearing from you at email@example.com
* * *
Essie stretched and beat her heels in rapid rhythm against the mattress.
Avis rolled over and embraced her wife, and Essie snuggled against her. Avis revelled in the feel of soft skin, as she smoothed a hand over Essie’s sleep-tousled curls. “That was an energetic start to your day. Just like the Energizer bunny.”
“Definitely a bunny, but not the Energizer bunny. I think he’s hyped up on caffeine.”
“There’s caffeine in carrots and lettuce? That’s news to me.” Avis loved the whimsical exchanges that so often started their days, and at the same time served a serious purpose. They would frequently end up appearing in Essie’s hugely popular series of award-winning children’s books.
“Ramsay doesn’t eat carrots or lettuce. He much prefers chocolate and chai tea.”
“Ramsay? What happened to Rhonda and all her friends?”
Essie rolled her head on Avis’ shoulder and looked up at her. “It’s Ramsay’s turn, love. He’s quite put out that Rhonda has gotten so much attention. He maintains that she’s not the only hero in the bunny world.”
“Does he know how profitable Rhonda has been for you?” Avis teased.
“He doesn’t care about that, A. He has a story to tell, and he’s insistent that it’s time it be told.”
“Okay. So chocolate and chai, it is. And how exactly did Ramsay get addicted to caffeine?”
“It happened gradually, as these things often do. The little girl he lived with would have tea parties, but although she would hold a cup to his lips, she never actually gave him a drink, and the chocolate cookies she put on his plate ended up in her own belly. But they smelled wonderful, so Ramsay always wondered how they would taste.”
Avis glanced at the bedside clock. She had ten more minutes before she absolutely had to be up to make it to work on time. “That must have been frustrating for poor Ramsay.”
“It was. Immensely. So one day he decided to strike out on his own to find a way to sample such things for himself.”
Essie’s voice had taken on a faraway quality. It was a crucial part of her wife’s work, but Avis was reluctant to let go of the very pleasant here-and-now. “Ramsay is a very nice name. How did it come about?”
“Ramsay is a noble rabbit, with an illustrious lineage. He’s actually Ramsay the Seventeenth, though he finds it pompous to mention that in casual conversation.”
“Is he an Egyptian bunny?”
And with that, Avis knew she’d lost Essie to her inner world. She kissed the top of her wife’s head and eased out of their bed. She had no doubt that she would hear all about Ramsay and his adventures when she got home that night. For now it was time to switch her focus to the prosaic world of medical supplies.
She shivered in the cool air and pulled on her robe. “Don’t forget, I’ll be a bit late tonight, sweetie. We’re having our official welcome party for the new manager.”
Essie eyed Avis sympathetically. “Matt the Prat? Why the party? You don’t even like him.”
Avis sighed heavily. “I don’t think anyone does, but unlike a certain best-selling children’s author, I have to play the game.”
“I play games all the time. Rhonda and I had a rousing round of poker just yesterday.”
Avis laughed. “Did the furry little mammal win again?”
“She did, but I think she was cheating.”
Avis knelt at the side of the bed and smoothed the laugh wrinkles around Essie’s sparkling eyes. “Well, just don’t bet the family farm, okay? We’ve only had the mortgage paid off for two months. I’d hate to lose our home to some conniving bunny.”
“She and I play for cookies. Our home is safe.”
“Of course it is.” Avis kissed Essie and scrambled to her feet. “Gotta go. I’ll see you later.”
At the door to the en suite, Avis glanced back. Essie was staring into space, chewing her lower lip.
Avis grinned and reached for the taps to run the water. She had no doubt that Essie was lost in Ramsay’s world already.
* * *
Avis pulled into Jackie’s driveway. It was her turn to drive carpool, and as usual, her best friend was not outside. Before she could honk the horn, Jackie burst out of the front door, her coat wide open and her purse flapping on one arm.
Jackie jumped into the front seat. “Sorry! Bert turned off the alarm when he went to work and I slept in. I didn’t even have time to shower.”
“Oh, great. Tell me you at least had time to apply deodorant.”
Jackie shot Avis an indignant look. “What do you take me for?”
“A perpetually late, always endearing, loyal and loving best friend.”
Jackie grinned and buckled her seat belt. “Good answer. You’re forgiven. And yes, I used soap, water, toothpaste, and deodorant. I haven’t forgotten we have the party tonight.”
Avis groaned. “I wish I could forget.”
“Toad Face still giving you a hard time?”
“He’s only been here for two weeks, and already I’m seriously considering retirement. He keeps coming up behind me when I’m working and giving me neck massages, even though I’ve repeatedly told him to stop. It’s revolting. What on earth was head office thinking when they promoted that idiot?”
“They were thinking: better our problem than theirs…damn it. Anyway, you’re lucky. You can afford to retire anytime you want, thanks to Essie, Rhonda, and the gang, but Bert and I have two more kids to put through college.”
“I just don’t know what I’d do if I retired. Essie will write until someone pries the pencil from her cold, dead hand, but I’m only fifty-seven. What would I do to fill my time?”
“Well, if you could tear Essie away from the bunnies, you could travel.”
“Oh, trust me, the bunnies come along when we travel. Where Essie goes, they go.”
Jackie laughed and popped open the glove compartment. “Anything to eat in here? I didn’t have time for breakfast.” She seized one of the granola bars that Avis kept there for her. “You are a queen, A.”
Avis gave Jackie time to bolt down most of the bar before raising her chief concern. “Do you think I should go to HR about Matt?”
Jackie stopped chewing and swallowed hard. “Geez, I don’t know. I know he’s a damned pain in the ass, but are you sure you want to officially report his behaviour?”
“I wouldn’t, if it weren’t becoming increasingly clear that he is trying to take our office relationship to a whole different, utterly unacceptable level.”
Jackie looked Avis up and down. “If you looked more like me and less like a silver-haired Sandra Bullock, it wouldn’t be a problem.”
Avis snorted. “For heaven’s sake, be realistic.”
“Okay, so I was indulging in a little hyperbole, but you look damn good for a middle-aged woman. Sometimes you make me wonder how I’d have looked if I hadn’t given birth to three rugrats.”
Avis laughed and shook her head. “I look exactly like my mother did after four kids, so I actually don’t think that has anything to do with it.”
“So you’re saying it’s all in the genes, and there’s nothing I can do about this?” Jackie patted her belly with a wry grin.
“Would you give up any of your boys for a smaller waistline?”
“In a heartbeat, some days, but no, not really. Anyway, doesn’t Toad Face know that you’re married?”
“He does, but he strikes me as the sort to dismiss ours as not being a real marriage.”
“Oh, you mean unlike what he had with his three ex-wives? So you think he’s what…viewing you as some kind of challenge to his manhood? You’re some kind of trophy, like those godawful big game hunting pictures on his walls?”
“That’s a very good comparison. His office is Exhibit A that the man is the living embodiment of stunted adolescence.”
“No kidding. His trophy photos scream narcissist, not to mention ‘small weenie syndrome.’” Jackie shot Avis a worried look. “Maybe you should go to HR. He could do some real damage. Not to you and Essie, of course, but if he starts taking your rejections personally—and he seems like exactly the sort to do so—he could really mess with your career.”
Avis sighed. “Ergo the ‘considering retirement’ part.”
“But you can’t leave. Who would I share lunch with? Who would put up with me in carpool? Who would laugh at all the inside office jokes? Please don’t let him drive you away. I know you love your job.”
“I do, but Jackie, yesterday he had me backed into a corner, talking about how he and I should go for a drink after work some day. And I mean a literal corner in the copy room.”
“Ugh. What did you do?”
“I told him my wife expects me home after work, and then I pushed past him. The look in his eyes was so…so…disturbing. And the fact that I couldn’t get by without brushing against him made me want to have a shower.”
“Have you told Essie about him?”
“She calls him Matt the Prat, so yes. She’s offered to sic her bunnies on him, but I told her it hadn’t come to that yet.”
“That wife of yours.” Jackie chuckled fondly. “If Matt the Prat knows what’s good for him, he won’t mess with Essie.”
“Yes, all five feet of her, buttressed by her bunny army.”
They laughed, and then Jackie sobered. “What if I promise to not leave you alone with him…ever? I’ll come get you when it’s time to have lunch, and pick you up at your desk at the end of the day.”
“That’s not very practical, my friend. We both have meetings to attend and sales pitches to make outside of the office. There’s no way you could act as my deflector shield all the time.”
“Maybe not, but you know everyone else would help so you are never left alone with him. Everyone loves you and loathes him. I’ll just put a quiet word on the grapevine.”
“Might work—at least long enough for him to get bored and turn his attentions elsewhere. Thanks, Jackie. I don’t know what I’d do without you.”
Jackie grinned and grabbed a second granola bar. “I don’t either. Besides, you can’t retire. I’d starve to death.”
“There is that.”
* * *
Jackie’s plan worked. Any time Matt emerged from his office, Jackie or one of their colleagues would pop up at Avis’ cubicle for a consultation about an important work matter. If Matt paused at Avis’ doorway, whoever was running interference would look up and address him while Avis kept her head down. At midday, Jackie and three of their friends came to collect Avis for lunch.
At the end of the day, a time when Avis was particularly vulnerable since her cubicle was only two down from Matt’s office, Ron from HR came to talk to her. He pulled a chair up and handed Avis a sheaf of forms.
“Jackie filled me in on what’s been going on. If you decide to lodge a formal complaint, it will bolster your case if you’ve kept a log of every questionable interaction. These forms will show you what you need to be aware of. To be frank, I’m not surprised. A buddy of mine works HR at the southeast branch, so I know that Matt’s already on thin ice. He’s been formally reprimanded about his behaviour, twice, but he’s obviously in solid with someone in head office. Rather than dealing with the problem head-on, they sent him to harassment-awareness and anger management courses and keep shifting him between branches. Given that even his sugar daddy can’t protect him if he screws up again, I thought he might straighten up and fly right, but apparently he’s hard-wired to be a dick.”
Avis nodded wearily. “I get that feeling. Look, I know our company has a non-discrimination policy, but—”
Ron shook his head. “No buts. If his behaviour leaves us open to a discrimination lawsuit, it doesn’t matter if it’s based on sexual harassment, racism, or homophobia. If you want me to call him in, I will. But if I don’t have something solid to back up a verbal warning, I won’t have the standing to take this higher. It will only infuriate him, and—”
“And maybe make things even worse. I get that.
“I’m sorry, Avis. My hands are tied as far as pursuing the formal processes until you’re ready to take the first step, but might I suggest something on the down-low? If you happen to turn on your phone when he’s heading your way and get an audio or video recording of questionable behaviour, it would go a long ways to resolving this situation.”
“Under the circumstances, are you going to the party?”
“I don’t want to.”
“I understand, but from what Jackie told me, your friends are doing a good job of running interference.”
“They can’t really do that for long. They have their own work to attend to.”
“I know, but it occurs to me that with an open bar and your cellphone at the ready, you might get the evidence you need this very evening.”
Avis raised an eyebrow. “Why, Ron, I didn’t know you had such a devious side.”
Ron laughed and tilted an imaginary fedora down over one eye. “You ain’t seen nothing yet, kid. Seriously, Avis, men like him make my job a lot more difficult. If we can nip this in the bud, I’ll sleep much more soundly.”
“Then I shall endeavour to be your undercover agent.”
“Great. See you at the party.”
Ron was no sooner gone than Jackie popped her head around the door jamb. “Ready to go?”
Avis stood up and shut down her computer. “As ready as I’ll ever be.”
“Excellent. Grab your coat. Becky and Delilah are waiting for us.”
“Where’s Tanya?” Avis asked.
“Her daughter has something going on at school, so she’s excused.”
“I think everyone’s envious, but let’s focus on the free food and drink, and forget why we’re there, okay?”
* * *
The ground floor conference room had been transformed into Party Central, and it proved impossible to forget why they were there. Matt made a long-winded speech about his illustrious career and his intentions to use his expertise to improve their office, and invited everyone to join him in a toast. Self-aggrandizing formalities completed, he began to make the rounds. He stopped to talk to everyone, and insisted that they drink with him.
Avis and Jackie managed to avoid Matt by keeping their distance, even though it meant being constantly on the move, but it was just a matter of time before their luck ran out.
Matt was huddled with one of his middle managers, until they broke their formation with raucous laughter. Immediately Matt made a beeline for Avis.
“Stick with me,” Avis whispered to Jackie.
“Like white on rice,” Jackie muttered, as she stepped forward and offered her hand to Matt.
Matt stopped and stared, then awkwardly shook it. It was clear that Jackie had thrown Matt off his game plan.
“Congratulations, Matt. I’m sure you’re going to find our branch a wonderful place to work.”
“Yes, congratulations,” Avis said. She would keep conversation to a minimum, but there were pleasantries to observe.
“Uh, thanks. Look, Avis, I wanted to ask—”
“Have you tried the crab puffs?” Jackie asked as she took Matt’s arm and tried to steer him toward the food table. “They are divine.”
He broke free. “I’m allergic to seafood.”
The middle manager Matt had been huddled with swept in. “Jackie! Just the woman I’ve been wanting to talk to…” He herded her a short distance away.
Jackie shot Avis a questioning look, but she shook her head. It was up to her and she might as well get it over with.
“What are you drinking, Avis? I’ll get you another.” Matt signalled the waiter.
“Water. I’m fine, thank you.”
“Water? Absolutely not. Let me at least get you some wine. Red or white, what’s your preference?”
“Water is my preference, thank you.”
“Nonsense. White wine for the lady,” Matt said to the waiter. “And I’ll have another scotch and soda. Light on the soda.”
Avis’ nostrils flared. She had twenty-five years of sobriety under her belt, and this idiot wasn’t going to change that. But she’d been to many social affairs where she simply held a glass, so when the waiter returned, she accepted the wine. People rarely took notice of whether you actually drank, as long as you had something in your hand. Matt was no different.
From across the room, Ron caught Avis’ eye, raised his phone to his ear, then put it back in his pocket. Avis caught the hint. She took out her cellphone. “Would you excuse me for just a second? I forgot to tell my wife that I’d be a bit late tonight.” She sent a rapid text, then turned on the camera and dropped the phone back into the side pocket of her purse. It wouldn’t pick up video, but the audio should be clear.
An expression of annoyance flashed over Matt’s face, then faded and was replaced by faux worry. “So, Avis, I’ve been looking at the sales figures for your department and I have some concerns.”
Given that her figures were the highest in the office, Avis smiled. “Do you now?”
“I do. I have some ideas about how to generate improved numbers for the second quarter, and I’d like to go over those.”
“I’d be happy to have that discussion Monday morning.”
“Of course, of course. But perhaps you could spare some time to talk shop this evening. It wouldn’t take long. We can go up to my office, and I’ll give you some ideas to mull over during the weekend. That way you’d be prepared for our Monday meeting.”
Avis barely stopped herself from shaking her head in disgust. Good God. Does this crap really work for him? “Sorry, Matt. My wife is waiting for me. We have plans for the weekend.”
Matt frowned. “That hardly seems very career-minded of you. I know you’ve been with the company for a number of years—”
“Don’t you think it’s more important to humour your boss than your wife?”
Matt’s businesslike veneer had slipped, and Avis suspected that he’d overestimated his capacity for scotch and soda.
“No, not at all. Essie and I have been together thirty-three years. I’ve found both work and home life function best when I maintain a balance between them. I don’t believe in twenty hour workdays that never stop, not even on weekends. Research has shown that the most effective companies are those which limit off-hour electronic communication with employees so they can spend uninterrupted time with their families. I’d be happy to e-mail you copies of those studies, if you like.”
Matt bristled. “That’s bullshit. I expect absolute dedication from my subordinates, and if you can’t give me that, then we need to have serious words about your continued employment with this firm.”
Avis quashed the response that initially rose to her lips and kept her tone neutral. “I would be happy to have this conversation with you at the office—Monday through Friday, between eight and five.”
“Does your partner work?”
Matt’s words were slurred, and Avis wondered whether it was time to put an end to their conversation. But so far he’d not clearly crossed any lines that would help Ron with a harassment claim.
Suddenly Jackie spun away from the middle manager and quickly crossed the few feet between them. “Avis’ wife is Esther Edwards, the author of the Rhonda Rabbit children’s series.”
“Rhonda Rabbit.” Matt’s brow crinkled, and then his eyes widened. “Jesus! You mean that liberal crap about sharing and caring, and let’s all join hands and dance over the rainbow? I forbade my wives to bring any of those books or toys into our homes. No way were my kids going to be brainwashed with that bullshit.”
Avis hastily set her glass down and clamped a hand over Jackie’s mouth. “Essie does try to teach suitable life lessons along with her storytelling. You’ll have to excuse us. My friend has an appointment, and I’m her ride.” She hustled a protesting Jackie away. When they got to the cloakroom, Avis released her iron grip on Jackie’s arm.
“You should’ve let me give him ‘what for’, A. What an ass!”
“That ass is our boss, and as you told me this morning, you need this job. Essie doesn’t need defending. You know that. You can’t let him get to you, okay?”
Jackie jerked her coat off the hanger. “I’m not promising anything. Actually, I am. If he pushes me too far, I’m going to pop him a good one in the nose before I quit. I won’t have any problem finding it. It practically glows red.”
“I noticed. C’mon. We’ve got better places to be. Essie and Bert are waiting for us.”
* * *
When Avis entered their house and hung up her coat, soft music was emanating from Essie’s workroom. The pall that had settled over Avis lifted. Whatever happened during the day, this was what she got to come home to, and that made everything else bearable.
Avis tapped lightly on the closed workroom door. If Essie didn’t answer, Avis would leave her be, knowing her wife was lost in her creative world and would emerge when she was ready.
“Come in, love. We’re just having tea. There’s a place set for you.”
Avis entered, but stopped short. Instead of Rhonda or one of her forest friends sitting across the small tea table from Essie, there sat a large cinnamon-brown rabbit, wearing a pleated linen wrap-around skirt, a colourful blue and yellow striped headdress from which his long ears protruded, and a beaten gold and turquoise necklace that covered much of his furry chest. There was kohl around his dark, gentle eyes, and he raised his teacup to Avis in greeting.
“Um, hello. Ramsay, I presume?”
Essie rose from the table to kiss Avis. “A, I want you to meet Ramsay the Seventeenth. He has been working with me all day, telling me the most wonderful stories.”
Ramsay rose gracefully and sketched a deep bow. “Enchanted to meet you, Madam. Miss Essie has told me so much about you.”
Ramsay was almost as tall as Essie, quite different from the diminutive Rhonda. But Avis hadn’t spent decades living in Essie’s world without having mastered aplomb. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Ramsay. I look forward to reading all about your adventures.”
Ramsay beamed. “I am in the hands of a brilliant scribe. I hold great confidence that my story shall soon be recorded for the ages.”
Avis nodded. “No doubt.” She drew Essie close. “Have you had dinner, sweetie?”
Essie wrapped her arms around Avis’ neck. “Ramsay and I shared the leftover Thai a while ago, but there’s more if you’re hungry.”
“I am. Jackie and I fled the party before we could eat.”
“Fled? Sounds like there’s a story in that.” Essie glanced back at Ramsay. “I think I’m going to call it a day. Make yourself comfortable and we’ll pick up in the morning, okay?”
Ramsay nodded, and his headdress bobbed with the motion. “Fear not, fair lady. I am accustomed to making do.”
Essie crossed to her easel and swiftly sketched a bed and slippers. “There you go. Anything else you might need for the night?”
“Another plate of these wonderful cookies would be splendid.”
Essie drew a second plate of cookies on the table and then added steam wafting off Ramsay’s full cup of tea, which was already drawn on the large pad of paper. “There you go. That should hold you.”
“Thank you. That’s perfectly lovely. Have an enchanting evening.”
Essie left without a backward glance, but Avis took a moment to marvel at the twin bed which now stood next to the wall, large bunny slippers tucked neatly beneath, with the scent of spicy tea and chocolate cookies filling the air.
There had been a time when her inability to understand or accept Essie’s magic had driven her to alcoholism, but she’d long ago made her peace with the unexplainable. It was either that or leave the woman she loved, and that was unthinkable. Now she simply enjoyed Essie’s creative process. She couldn’t resist a quick glance through a stack of discarded pictures. They depicted Ramsay’s evolution from a Pharaonic-appearing bunny with a crown, staff, and leopard skin over his shoulder to the slightly more demure version currently munching cookies behind her. She liked the final result. As with all of Essie’s work, he was elegant, mystical, but approachably cute and child-appealing.
“Nice meeting you, Ramsay.”
“And you, Madam. I trust I shall have the pleasure of your company at some future date?”
“I’m sure.” Avis waved and left the room, but not before closing the door firmly behind her. They had learned from experience that Essie’s creations wouldn’t open a door, but if an exit were available, they would roam freely about the house or yard.
Rhonda had once nearly given a plumber a heart attack when she leaned over his shoulder to see what he was working on under the kitchen sink. Essie had shooed Rhonda back to the workroom, then fanned the prostrate plumber back to consciousness. She soothed his frazzled sensibilities by apologizing, along with the explanation that what he’d seen had just been her niece, who’d come to show off her bunny costume for a school play.
The plumber had finished his work in rapid order, thrust his invoice at Essie, then without waiting for payment, hurried out of the house to his van and disappeared amid the smoke and smell of burning rubber.
Since that incident, they’d been extra vigilant about shutting the door when Essie had finished work for the day.
Avis joined Essie in the kitchen. The microwave was already whirring, heating the plate of food within. Essie poured a cup of tea and pushed it in front of Avis. “So, what happened?”
Avis sipped her tea, sighed, and filled Essie in on the day. “Jackie told me something disturbing on the way home. She said that when she looked back as I hustled her out of the room, Matt was so livid that she thought he was going to have a stroke right then and there. I’m afraid there’s a real possibility that I might be called on the carpet on Monday and fired.”
“They can’t do that. You’re their best sales rep. Besides, don’t they have to show cause?”
“Supposedly. But I’ve worked in the corporate world long enough to know that if they want to get rid of someone, they’ll find a reason. My sales may be tops, but that also means they’re paying me the most in bonuses. If head office brought Matt in to trim the bottom line, you know that usually means the top earners are the first to go.”
“That doesn’t make sense. Why fire your best people? Doesn’t that hurt the company’s long-term interests?”
“You’d think so, but sometimes the bean counters don’t care. All they want is something that looks proactive that they can show to stockholders. Plus, they probably figure they’re sending a message to those lower on the salary scale that no one’s job is safe. Somehow they think that they’ll get more productivity out of employees who are fearful for their jobs.”
“What a Darwinian system. I wouldn’t have lasted a month in your world.”
Avis smiled and took Essie’s hand. “I’m glad you never had to.”
“It was thanks to you, and I know it. Don’t think I’ve ever forgotten who carried us until Rhonda hit it big.”
“And who is going to carry us right into a fine retirement? We’re a partnership, Essie.”
“Which means if this Toad-Face gets too much for you, don’t you worry. Rhonda, Ramsay, and I would be delighted to have you retire and keep us company.”
“I appreciate that, but I’m just not ready, you know?”
Essie nodded. “I’m just saying that when you are, you needn’t worry about putting food on the table.”
Avis grinned. “I know. You can always draw us a pot of stew and a plate of biscuits and we’ll be good to go.”
That was true. Anything Essie drew inside the four walls of her workroom actually took shape and became real. If it was food and drink, it was consumable. If it was clothing, it was wearable. If it was money, it was spendable, though they’d decided that was an avenue too fraught with danger to pursue. They didn’t want to be asked questions they couldn’t answer. No one outside of the two of them was privy to Essie’s ability to make magic, and that was the way they intended to keep it.
“So what happens now?” Essie asked.
“Now I enjoy my supper, an evening with my wife, and tomorrow I do some much needed yard work. Monday will come whether or not I worry about it.”
“How very philosophical of you.”
Avis smiled. “Thanks. So about Ramsay? What kind of stories has he been telling you?” Avis tried to focus on Essie, who began the back story of her newest creation, excitement clear in her voice. But Monday and what it might bring lingered in the back of her mind, and she was unable to push it aside completely.
* * *
Early the next morning, bathed in cold, crisp sunshine, Avis wielded her rake, collecting pine needles, cones, and dead leaves that had accumulated over the winter months. It was early still for spring cleaning, they were barely beyond Valentine’s Day, but she’d been inspired by a small tulip tree in their neighbourhood which was already in full bloom. The calendar might not reflect it, but spring felt as if it was just around the corner.
Essie had offered to help, but it was clear she was aching to return to Ramsay, so Avis sent her off to her workroom with a kiss and a laugh. “Go. Work. I’m just going to putter around the yard for a few hours, then make us some lunch. Chicken salad sandwiches okay?”
“Sure. Want me to draw them?”
Avis shook her head. “No, I’ll do it the old-fashioned way. I’ll call you when lunch is ready.”
She filled three large bags with yard detritus before she paused for a break. Avis glanced through the French doors that opened from their large deck into Essie’s workroom. If it was warmer, she’d serve lunch on the deck, as she so often did in the summertime, but the temperature wasn’t quite there yet.
Essie was in animated conversation with Ramsay, though all Avis could see of him was one paw waving in the air.
Avis smiled as Essie held up a hand in the universal “wait” signal, and then jotted something on her pad of paper. It was obvious that the creative process was well underway. Avis watched for a long moment, enjoying the sight of her wife doing what she loved best, then returned to raking. If Essie got a lot of work done today, maybe she’d be open to taking a drive on Sunday.
She was musing over potential destinations when the sound of their gate unlatching caught her attention. Avis looked up. She expected to see one of their neighbours. Since they’d lived in the same house for three decades, they knew almost everyone, and frequently swapped baked goods with Pearl, the lady next door. Avis smiled in anticipation, hoping it was one of Pearl’s delicious strudels.
Matt stepped into the yard. He wore the same clothes he’d had on the previous day and they, and he, were much the worse for wear. His eyes were bloodshot, he was unshaven, his tie hung loose, and his suit jacket was stained with what looked like tomato sauce.
As he shambled closer, Avis wrinkled her nose at the stench of booze rolling off him. She clutched her rake tightly and wondered whether she should retreat into the house. “Matt. What are you doing here?”
“You left the party early. We had unfinished business.”
“I told you we could discuss things on Monday morning. It’s highly inappropriate for you to come to my home.”
He sneered. “You’re lecturing me? Don’t you get it? I’m the boss.”
Avis wished she had her phone with her, but it was inside. Whatever Matt said, no matter how obnoxious or actionable, it would be her word against his.
“When I tell an employee that we need to have a discussion, that is not a request, it’s an order. What part of that isn’t clear to you?”
Avis backed away but Matt pursued, one foot carefully placed in front of the other. It felt as if he was stalking her, and Avis had had enough. No job was worth this. “You’re drunk. Please leave—now.”
Matt grinned, but there was no humour in it. “Or what?”
“Or I will call the police and report an intruder on my property.”
“Do that, and you can kiss your job good-bye.”
Anger flaring, Avis advanced a step toward him. “Or perhaps you can kiss your career good-bye. I know about your history, and you’ve stepped way over the line this time. Now get the hell out of my yard.”
“You’re threatening me? You bitch!” Matt seized Avis’ arm, and she tried to wrench free.
“Hey, what’s going on out here?”
Avis glanced back over her shoulder. The French doors were open and Essie was hurrying down the deck steps to the yard, waving her cellphone in the air.
“Let go of her, right now! I’m calling the cops!”
When Matt squeezed harder and twisted Avis’ arm, she cried out in pain.
Essie ran toward them.
Avis opened her mouth to tell her wife to call for help, but before she could get the words out, a brown blur streaked out of the workroom, vaulted the deck railing, and bounded toward them.
Matt’s jaw dropped, but he didn’t let go of Avis’ arm. He started to retreat, dragging Avis with him, but before he got more than two steps, Ramsay leapt into the air and smashed his hind feet into Matt’s chest like a kung fu master.
Matt flew across the yard and hit the tall wooden fence with a bang. He sagged to the ground with a loud groan, then his eyes closed and he went limp.
Ramsay followed, and stood over him, glowering, one foot raised in the air ready to deliver another blow, if needed.
“Ramsay!” Essie said sharply. “That’s enough. We’re both fine. Please return to the workroom.”
“Are you sure, Madam? I would be happy to render him into crushed camel meat.” Ramsay cast a speculative glance at the abandoned rake lying on the ground. “If you wish to make it a fairer fight, we could arm the knave with an Assaya, though I am a master of Tahtib and it would serve him naught.”
“I’m sure, but thank you.” Essie crossed to Ramsay’s side and laid a calming hand on his back. “That was so brave of you. We’re grateful for your help, but we’ll take it from here.”
Ramsay inclined his head in a dignified nod. “As you wish, Madam, but I remain at your service should you require me. In my day, depraved scum such as this would have been thrown to the desert dogs at feeding time.”
“I know.” Essie tossed her cellphone to Avis and then gently urged Ramsay in the direction of the house.
Avis dialed 911, gave the operator the details of her emergency, and assuring him the situation was under control before she hung up.
Essie rushed back to her side and wrapped an arm around her waist. “Are you okay?”
Avis pushed up her sleeve to reveal a bruise. “I’ll be okay. At least he didn’t break anything.”
“I should’ve let Ramsay break his head.”
Avis smoothed her sleeve down and draped her arm around Essie’s shoulder. “That would’ve been impossible to explain.”
They stood silently for a moment, keeping a close eye on Matt, who was just beginning to stir. “What was Ramsay talking about? Assaya? Tahtib?”
“Oh, Tahtib is an ancient form of Egyptian martial arts and the Assaya is a long stick that is used. I was doing some research earlier during our discussion of what powers he’d have. Ramsay likes the idea of being a martial expert.”
“He did have some amazing moves.”
“He did, didn’t he? He’s going to be a superhero bunny.”
The sound of a siren brought their conversation to a halt.
In short order, two armed officers ran into the backyard. Avis shot a quick glance at the house. The French doors were open, but thankfully there was no sign of Ramsay.
Avis and Essie explained the situation to one officer, while the other crossed to Matt’s side.
Avis pulled up her sleeve to show the officer the clear imprint of finger bruises.
“He attacked me, and my wife ran out of the house to come to my defense. I kicked him as hard as I could.” She held up one foot to display her metal-toed work boots. “He hit the fence solidly, and I guess it knocked him out. We called 911 and kept our distance in case he came to.”
“Do you know him?” the officer asked, making notes.
“Yes. His name is Matt Garton. He’s my new boss, and he was quite aggressive at our office party last night. From the looks of it, he may have been partying all night and decided to resume our dispute this morning. I can give you the names and phones numbers of witnesses who can corroborate his behaviour.”
The officer handed over his notebook and Avis wrote down Jackie’s and Ron’s names and numbers. She tapped the pen on Ron’s name as she handed the pad back. “Mr. Ash is in Human Resources at our company. He can confirm that Matt has a record of harassment, and also that I was preparing to file a similar complaint.”
“I’m telling you, it was a giant fucking rabbit!”
Avis, Essie, and the officer turned to look at Matt, who was in the iron grasp of the second policeman.
“Yeah, right. Stow it, buddy. You’ve had a little too much to drink. We’re going to take you someplace to sleep it off.”
“I know what I saw. He looked like an Egyptian.”
The first officer stifled a chuckle as his partner rolled his eyes. “Uh-huh. A giant Egyptian rabbit. Suuuuurrre.”
As the second officer marched the prisoner forward, Matt lunged at Avis, but was yanked back by the officer.
“Hey! You pull something like again and my Taser’s coming out.”
“Tell him! Tell him!” Froth had gathered at the corners of Matt’s mouth, and his eyes were wild. “Tell him about the killer rabbit. You saw it. Hell, you probably sicced him on me.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. It was just you and me until Essie came out.” Avis shook her head and met the officer’s gaze over his notebook. Judging by the tightness in his jaw and contempt in his eyes, Matt was not going to get a sympathetic ear en route to the station.
Matt started to thrash in the other officer’s grip. “He came from in there. Look inside those doors! He’s there. I know he is.”
“The giant Egyptian rabbit?”
“Yes. I swear it’s the truth. Just go check. Please, I’m begging you.”
The notetaking officer heaved a sigh. “Do you mind if I have a look inside, just to shut him up?”
Avis stiffened, but Essie smiled. “Not at all. You’re most welcome to look around. It’s just my workroom.”
Essie led the officer across the yard, up the stairs to the deck, and into her workroom, while Avis held her breath. After a few minutes, they returned. The officer had two of Essie’s books in his hand.
“My daughters love your books, Ma’am. They will be thrilled to have signed copies. They’re going to think that I’m the best dad in the world.”
Essie patted the officer’s arm. “Well, isn’t that just so sweet. I love to meet fans. You bring your girls by some day, and I’ll show them where the magic happens. I just ask that you call ahead, because sometimes I’m so deep in writing and drawing that I wouldn’t hear you knocking.”
“I can vouch for that,” Avis managed to say.
The officer shook Essie’s hand and waved the books at his partner. “This is the author of the Rhonda Rabbit books. She’s working on a new series with an Egyptian bunny. That’s probably where this doofus got his hallucination. Take him to the car, I’ll be with you in a minute.”
Matt was still protesting loudly as he was steered away.
“Thanks again for the books, Ma’am. It was a pleasure to meet you and see your workroom. I can hardly wait to get off shift to give these to my girls.” He turned to Avis. “Could you read this over and fill in your contact information, please. You’ll be informed as to any action that will be taken against Mr. Garton, but in the meantime, I suggest that you contact your company sooner rather than later. You’ll want to get your version of events into the record first.”
“Excellent advice, thank you.” Avis scanned the brief report, supplied the required information, and handed it back.
The officer nodded and took his leave. When he went around the corner of the house, Avis turned to Essie.
“How on earth— Where did you hide Ramsay?”
“Ramsay hid himself.”
“How did he know to— Where does a five foot tall Egyptian rabbit even hide himself?”
Essie smiled. “Come with me.” She escorted Avis to the workroom and then stepped aside to let Avis enter first.
Avis scanned the bright, colourful surroundings. There was no sign of a five foot bunny.
“Ramsay, could you come out now, please?”
One of the bunny slippers jumped, flipped over, then exploded into the air as Ramsay materialized beneath it.
“What the—?” Avis stared at the slipper, now dangling from one of Ramsay’s long ears.
“I told you—Ramsay is going to be the first superhero of his species.”
Ramsay plucked the slipper off his ear and tossed it beside its mate. “Quite true, Madam. Miss Essie and I were just discussing that this very morning, and we’d decided that the ability to shrink to the size of a thimble would undoubtedly come in very handy.”
“So you heard the officer and Essie coming, and—”
“Concealed myself. Quite so, Madam. Though if you wish me to administer another pummelling to the miscreant that invaded our home, I shall be happy to do so. You have merely to say the word.”
Avis shook her head. “No…no, we’ll let the authorities take it from here, but thanks.” She turned to Essie, who was smiling up at her. “How did you—”
“Don’t question the magic, love.” She leaned up and kissed Avis tenderly. “Now, you’d better call Ron immediately. You don’t want Matt the Prat’s tale to be the first Ron hears of this.”
“No, of course not. Though his explanation might be enough to get old Matt sent to rehab for quite a while.” Avis started for the door, then turned back with a smile. “Oh, and I think Ramsay definitely has earned an extra helping of chai and chocolate cookies.”
Avis called Ron and detailed what had occurred in her yard.
“Oh my God! He did what? He attacked you?”
“He bruised me. Fortunately the officers arrived in time to stop him from doing any further damage.”
“That’s it. Sugar daddy or not, he’s a walking liability. I’m going to make a few phone calls and get our ducks in a row. I don’t suppose you got a recording of this, did you?”
“Sorry, no. I’ll send you what I have from last night, but I certainly wasn’t expecting him when I was raking my yard. There will be the police report, of course.”
“Of course. Makes you wonder what he had in mind, since he couldn’t have known you’d be outside.”
Avis shivered at the thought of Matt getting into the house, then reminded herself that he wouldn’t have gotten any further inside than he had outside. Not with Ramsay the Wonder Bunny around. “There is one other thing, Ron. I don’t know if Matt was still drunk—he certainly smelled and acted like it—but he told the arresting officer that a giant Egyptian rabbit had attacked him. We think he must’ve overheard me talking about Essie’s newest book and somehow mixed that into his delirium, but I thought I should give you a heads up.”
Ron groaned. “This just keeps getting better. All right. You leave it with me and forget all about it. Enjoy the rest of your weekend.”
“Too late. Talk to you on Monday.”
* * *
By the time Avis and her carpool arrived at the office on Monday, Matt’s office had been cleared out. His photos of big game hunting were gone, and the desk was devoid of any personalizing touches. The entire office gossiped about Matt’s departure until Ron showed up and called them together.
“Okay, everyone, gather round. No doubt the rumours have been flying, so I want to brief you on what has happened. Yesterday Matt Garton took a medical leave of absence and voluntarily entered a three month, company sponsored rehabilitation program. When he has completed that, he’ll be reassigned elsewhere. Erica Conrad will be filling in until a new manager is appointed. That’s all I can tell you. I won’t be taking questions at this time.”
Ron stopped next to Avis on his way out. “Can I have five minutes with you?”
Avis nodded and followed Ron into Matt’s former office.
“I want you to know what actually happened, but this is for your ears only. It seems that Garton had a complete breakdown, and he agreed to rehab when head office laid down the law. Hopefully he’ll come out of the program a changed man, but I’m not overly optimistic. In any case, he’ll be demoted and have a lengthy probationary period if he wishes to remain with the company in any capacity. He’s also being reassigned out of area, so you won’t have to concern yourself about him any longer.”
“Thanks for letting me know, Ron.”
Avis returned to her office and sat at her desk, relieved that she no longer had to worry about impromptu, unwanted neck massages or any other overt attentions.
She opened up her e-mail and smiled at seeing Essie’s name pop up. When she clicked on the e-mail, a dozen dancing Ramsays darted about the screen. She laughed as she read the message:
Just wanted to let you know that we’ve always got your back.
Lots of love, E, R &R.
PS. Meatloaf okay for dinner?
One of the dancing bunnies stopped in the middle of the screen, and Avis could’ve sworn he was looking right at her with an inquisitive tilt to his ears. She touched the screen and whispered, “Tell her meatloaf is fine.”
When the bunny bounded off to rejoin his dance troupe, she smiled. She was indeed a most fortunate woman. The love in their marriage was unsurpassable. From meatloaf to magic, Essie had it all…especially Avis’ heart.