Secret – Chapter One

I

Trey gave up. It always happened around this time—close to two-thirty a.m.—when he finally surrendered altogether. After staring at the ceiling for about an hour or so, he’d decide that it was better to get up, turn on the laptop or television, accepting the reality that yet again, he could not bring his mind to the state of quiet necessary to sleep.

But these days, at least he knew he wasn’t alone in the struggle. Now, as he reached over and flipped on the lamp next to his bed, he wondered whether Shayla would already be in the kitchen, nursing her mug of chamomile tea.

As soon as he got to the foot of the stairs, the dim illumination from the kitchen was visible. She never turned on the overhead light, just the one above the range that produced a dull, yellow glow bright enough for you to see, but not so jarring that it guaranteed many more hours of unwelcome wakefulness.

“I heard you coming,” she said as he sat. She nodded, indicating a second mug on his customary side of the kitchen table.

Trey grinned at her and shook his head. “So you’re chasing demons again tonight, huh?”

Shayla looked up, her smile quizzical.

“Something my Dad used to say,” Trey explained. “He was Louisiana Creole. They enjoy talking about spirits. My father used to say that when I was up late, ‘Boy, you still chasin’ demons?’”

Shayla laughed. “I’m sure that puts a kid right back to sleep. References to demons, I mean.”

Her braids were pulled high atop her head in a loosely fastened ponytail, and a couple escaped and were trailing down her back. She looked exhausted. As always, it was on the tip of his tongue to ask why she couldn’t sleep. But he never did. Something about her signaled that she didn’t welcome those kinds of questions and would resist answering them. It had been that way ever since she’d moved in.

“What’s this?” he asked taking a sip from the mug. “Another of your foolproof natural sleep remedies?”

“Oh, laugh if you want,” she said. “But I remember you falling asleep at the kitchen counter when I gave you the valerian tea that time.”

“Is that what this is?” He looked into the mug. “I just don’t like the idea of something putting me to sleep. I like my sleep the old-fashioned way.”

“Yeah?” Shayla asked, tilting her head to one side. “So how’s that working out for you?”

“Good point,” Trey said, gulping more of the tea.

“So I was sitting here thinking, and I have an idea,” Shayla said. “It’s going to sound crazy, but hear me out . . .”

“Okay?”

“What if we just didn’t try to sleep?”

“What d’you mean?”

“Instead of getting showered, getting into bed, and laying there in the dark only to find ourselves wide awake three hours later, what if we just skipped the going to bed part?”

“What do you mean ‘skip’ it?” Trey asked, confused.

“Just don’t do it.”

“And did what instead?”

Shayla shrugged. “I don’t know. We could go Midnight Bowling, or . . .”

“Get a job doing the overnight shift at 7-Eleven?”

Shayla shook her head. “Work with me here, Trey.”

“Okay, go on . . .”

“So I read somewhere that when you have insomnia, you have to just succumb to it. Don’t fight it; just do what your body wants to do. And evidently our bodies do not want to sleep. So I say we find something else to do.”

“Actually that doesn’t sound so crazy. I used to get on the computer and do some work . . .”

“Something like that,” Shayla said. “But that’s actually not the kind of thing you should do. You already can’t get your mind to rest so the last thing you need is stuff that will make you think even more. We need mindless activity.”

“Okay. I got you. Like bowling,” Trey nodded. “Let’s do it.”

Shayla smiled and reached across the table, and Trey took her hand so they could shake on it. Her fingers were warm from holding her mug, her palm soft.

“So is that what you have?” he asked, careful not to look directly at her. “Insomnia?”

He felt rather than saw the millisecond she froze. No matter the subject, if it was even vaguely personal, her reaction was the same. Retreat, withdrawal or silence.

“No,” she said after a moment, shrugging. “I’m like you. Up chasing demons.”

Trey looked at her, wondering whether she was using his own words just to distance him from her yet again, or whether she was having a rare moment of openness. To hide his frustration, he took another sip of the bitter tea and allowed her to disappear once again into silence.

It had been four months now. Four months of this odd routine. Living their lives under the same roof, but in most other respects, going their separate ways. Lately though, things were different. They had coffee together more often than not in the morning, were running into each other every now and again, eating dinner at the same time and making Costco runs. And then there were these nights—that they never discussed in the cold light of day—when they met in the kitchen, sat and talked about any and everything until one or the other of them finally heard the siren song of sleep and went to answer it. Four months of these nights now; at least twice a week sitting across from this table, and Shayla had shared almost nothing about herself.

And she didn’t look like she was prepared to start now. Instead she stood and headed for the refrigerator, putting some distance between them. Again.

 

  ∞

 

“Trust me, you know her.”

“No I don’t,” Trey said, glancing at his watch. He was already running late, and there was only one person in the world he would humor this way when he had so much to do.

“I’m positive you do, Trey. From the gym? Shayla. You know Shayla . . . about five-foot five, braids, pretty eyes . . .”

He sighed. “It doesn’t matter if I remember her or not. What matters is that you think she’s the right person.”

“Not the right person,” Tessa said. “The perfect person. And at the moment, the only person since I forgot to put the ad on Craigslist.”

Trey looked over his sister’s attire and wished for the hundredth time that she didn’t always dress like she was on her way to a motocross rally. Ripped camouflage pants and a long-sleeved t-shirt topped by a denim jacket—that’s what she considered appropriate to meet him for lunch in a swanky K Street restaurant. But then again, his baby sister had never been one to care what people thought of her.

The only reason she got away with crap like this was because he let her. He couldn’t help himself. No matter what she looked like, no matter what crazy stunts she pulled, all he saw when he looked at her was a skinny little girl in a black dress, her hair in poorly-executed pigtails. Poorly-executed because Trey had done them himself.

“As long as she can pay her rent. On time. Doesn’t have loud parties . . .”

“Because you never do,” Tessa snorted.

“Well, I can keep my friends in check. I’m not trying to have a bunch of strangers tearing up the damn house.”

“Yeah, yeah. Anyway, she’ll be here in a couple minutes. If you don’t remember her, please at least act like you do. She told me she’s talked to you a couple times working out.”

Trey nodded. “Pretend I know her. Got it.”

The only reason Tessa was handling this in the first place was that he’d been so busy lately. Busy, and in denial. When his sister told him she was planning to move out of the five-bedroom colonial they’d lived in all their lives, he hadn’t believed her. Tessa was always making plans, and more often than not, she never followed through on them.

But this time, damned if she didn’t do it—went and found herself a small apartment off Dupont Circle, a trendy, if expensive neighborhood in town, close to all of the places she and her friends liked to hang out. Trey thought it was an extravagance for someone whose only gainful employment was bartending and the occasional catering gig, but she was twenty-two now, and the money in her trust was hers to squander at will. One year. He would give her one year of this foolishness before he lowered the hammer on her again and insisted she focus on a career.

“Here she is right now,” Tessa said sitting up in her seat. She shot Trey one last warning look and waved toward the door.

The young woman who smiled and waved back did look vaguely familiar and as she got closer, Trey smiled and stood to greet her.

“Trent,” she said taking his hand. “Hi.”

“You can call me Trey,” he said. “Good to see you again, Shayla.”

He pulled out her chair for her and as she sat, Trey took the opportunity to look once more at the time. 12:16. He had to be someplace at 12:30; a meeting that he couldn’t miss, so this would have to be quick. Trey took his own seat and gave Shayla a distracted smile.

“So my sister tells me you’re looking for a place,” he said.

“Yes. The lease I have right now is about to end, and the owner has other plans for the space, so I’m actually on a pretty short timeline,” Shayla said.

Now that he was looking right at her, Trey realized he did remember her. At the gym she tended to keep her head down, her braids providing a curtain that obscured her face. She was friendly enough, but for the most part, she didn’t talk to too many people, just worked her routine, moving from one strength or resistance machine to the next. If he’d spoken to her—and he still couldn’t remember ever having done so—it was probably very brief, asking her if he could work in a few reps or something like that.

She was probably somewhere around his age or a little younger, maybe twenty-seven or so, and had a mocha latte complexion, an attractive if unremarkable face unembellished with make-up. She was slightly overweight, or looked like she was but he couldn’t tell for sure because she dressed like his sister, in unflattering, baggy, man-repelling clothing. The one thing about her that could make her memorable was that she had wide, expressive eyes.

Like Bambi, Trey thought. He took a sip of his water to mask his smile.

“So our timeline is pretty aggressive as well,” Tessa was saying. “I’m moving out this weekend.”

“Well, I’m in my last month,” Shayla said. “So I could move in anytime . . .”

“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” Trey said. “Why don’t you come by sometime this week to see the house, and . . .”

“She did already,” Tessa said impatiently. “Don’t you ever listen to me? She came by when you were on your trip. I told you this, remember?”

“No, I don’t. But if you’ve seen the place,” Trey turned to Shayla again. “Maybe you can look over our lease and get back to me with any questions. I’ll need your references, stuff like that . . .”

Tessa shook her head. “Trey’s an attorney. Did I mention that?” She looked at Shayla. “Probably not. I wouldn’t have wanted to scare you off.”

“Anyway ladies, I have an appointment, so lunch is on me, and Shayla, I’ll give Tessa that lease and tenant questionnaire.”

He stood and buttoned his suit, but not before taking out his credit card and tossing it to his sister across the table.

“Only lunch, Tessa,” he warned as he left the table. “I mean it.”

His sister shot his a sly grin, as though she hadn’t quite decided yet whether to heed his warning.

It only took Trey ten minutes to get to Juries Hotel, a few blocks away from his sister’s new place. He already knew the room number so went directly up, adjusting his tie while in the elevator and circling his neck, a gesture he made whenever he was tense. And to say that this encounter as likely to be tense was probably an understatement.

Opening the door, the sight that greeted him was one that would stop most men in their tracks. Alicia Banfield was naked as a jaybird and reclining on the bed, her honey-blonde hair fanning out on the pillow next to her. She had long, tan legs, toned from a lifetime of tennis, soccer and other pursuits of wealthy young athletic women who attend Ivy League colleges.

Alicia had graduated from Dartmouth just that spring and was back in Washington DC to “figure it all out”, so she had more than ample time to work on that perfect tan. And to screw associates from her father’s law firm.

Trey shut the door behind him after glancing quickly out into the hall to make sure no one had glimpsed either him, or the immodest young woman, legs open, on the bed.

“Took you long enough,” Alicia said giving him a smile he had no doubt was intended to be seductive.

She blinked her pale blue eyes at him, and he could tell she’d had a couple drinks. Already.

“I need to talk to you, Alicia,” Trey said taking a seat in one of the armchairs near the window. “You might want to get dressed.”

He knew from experience that dumping a woman while she was naked only pissed her off more; heightening her humiliation, making her more apt to do something crazy, like throw something at his head, or later look for his car to exact a little street justice involving a key, or some acid.

Alicia sat up, crossing her legs, which only gave Trey a more tantalizing view of the honey-colored tuft of hair at the apex of her thighs. In spite of himself he felt a tightening in his pants, and considered for a moment whether it might not be worth it to get just one more . . .

“Is this the ‘kiss-off’ speech?” Alicia asked, looking amused.

Trey hesitated.

Just because she seemed casual about it right now didn’t mean she was. Sometimes, the whole ‘I-completely-understand’ act was just a wind up to crazy behavior of epic proportions.

“I wouldn’t call it that, Alicia. But you and I both know this couldn’t go on indefinitely.”

“Indefinitely, no,” she said. “But I was hoping for the rest of the summer.”

She was standing now, and reaching for a pair of white linen shorts she had draped nearby. Standing, she was even more magnificent. Shapely hips, pert ass and breasts that only a twenty-two year old could have. He’d loved having sex with her, that was for sure. But even so, could not imagine continuing. Not when there were more important things at stake.

“I’ll be doing a lot more work with your father on this Chasen case,” Trey said. “It’s starting to feel like . . .”

“Don’t tell me you’re getting an attack of conscience,” Alicia said as she stepped into her shorts. “My father is a royal asshole, Trey. And believe me, when the time comes, you shouldn’t expect the kind of loyalty from him that you’re displaying right now.”

Trey sat up. “What does that mean?”

“You’re up for partner soon, right?” Alicia asked casually. She was reaching for a pale yellow polo-shirt now, and shrugging it over her head.

“Yeah? And? What have you heard?”

“Trey, you’re his golden boy today, but that doesn’t mean he won’t scrape you off like something unpleasant on the bottom of his shoe if you ever mess up.”

Trey’s eyes narrowed. “Did he say something that makes you think he believes I’m messing up?”

Alicia turned to look at him evenly. “Sorry, pretty boy. That’s insider information and only available to men I’m fucking.”

Trey ignored the familiar rush of anger he felt at being called ‘pretty boy’—which she knew he hated—and stood, advancing toward her until he was just inches away. Alicia looked up at him, biting her lower lip, laughter in her eyes.

“I could cut you a one-time only special though,” she said.

“What’s that?”

“The best goodbye-lay of my life in exchange for anything my father may have said about your prospects at Banfield, Baker and Russo.”

That was a deal too good to pass up. Either way you looked at it, he was on the winning end. Trey shoved her back onto the bed and began working on his belt.

 

   ∞

 

By the time he got back to the office, Trey was loose and spent. The only thing he would be good for this afternoon was reading and editing some work a couple of the summer associates had done for him. Alicia had worked him over pretty good, only to tell him when they were done that as far as she knew, his partnership was assured, just as long as nothing ‘untoward’ happened. That was the word she used—untoward.

Thanks for nothing.

What he’d been hoping for was something he didn’t know. As the only Black guy at his level in the firm, Trey was constantly on the look-out for indications that he was about to be screwed. He didn’t let it rule his life, but he’d seen far too many friends from law school at other firms get within inches of seizing the brass ring after years of busting their ass, only to have partnership denied on the basis on some vague expectation having not been met. He was not about to let that happen to him.

That was one of the main reasons he’d decided to stop messing around with Alicia. Screwing around with one of the partner’s daughters was probably not the best path to career success. But when she came on to him at the firm anniversary dinner that spring, he’d just instinctively done what he always did when presented with a beautiful and willing woman—he gave her what she was begging for.

The first time had been that night, right there at the firm dinner, in one of the executive bathrooms for which he happened to have a key. Alicia had hiked up her dress and gripped the sink with both hands while he drove into her from behind. The sight of their reflection in the mirror, and her face contorting in pleasure while her father was only a hundred feet or so away had made it one of the more exciting sexual encounters Trey had ever had.

But at the end of the day, it was reckless, and dumb, an indulgence that he could ill-afford; so when Alicia had suggested coming by to see him the following week, he’d instead gotten the room at Juries. They alternated paying for it, renting the room at least one afternoon per week for the past three months, always the same room, never the same sexual experience.

Alicia Banfield was a straight-up freak, and he loved it, but lately after they’d gotten done with some wild-ass sex, she had begun to do things that concerned him. She wanted to cuddle, and more than once had run her fingers through his dark curly hair, looking at him with soft eyes, like she was starting to catch feelings or something. What had been a convenient sexual outlet was beginning to look and feel like something very different, at least on her end. And he couldn’t have that.

He’d started working more closely with her father, which made him begin to feel a little uncomfortable with the arrangement. Griffin Banfield seemed to see him as a protégé, and if he learned that Trey was messing around with his daughter, would either flip out that she was screwing the “Black kid from work” or he would assume that Trey was actually dating her and begin inviting him over for Sunday dinner, or something. And Trey had no interest in “dating”. Especially not his boss’ crazy sex-fiend of a daughter. Not even for the sake of career success.

The phone on his desk buzzed just as he shed his suit jacket and sat, and Trey picked it up. It was his direct line, so he suspected he knew who it might be.

“Mission accomplished?” the voice on the other end of the line asked.

“Mission accomplished,” Trey confirmed.

“With no drama?” The voice was skeptical.

“No drama.”

“No broken glass, no screaming, no crying?”

“Nope.”

There was a pause.

“You fucked her, didn’t you?”

“Damn, Darren, I keep telling you not to say crap like that on this line! Hold on.” Trey got up and went to shut his office door, returning to pick up the receiver once again.

“D, we’ll talk about this when we meet up later, but in answer to your question, yes. But it was only . . .”

“Man, I told you not to do that. It weakens the core message.”

Trey laughed.

If there was anyone who understood the art of ending a relationship, it would be his boy Darren. Darren had been one of his best friends since college, one of their group of three, thick as thieves until the third in their group, Clint Taylor had been killed in Afghanistan. Clint’s death eighteen months earlier had brought Darren and Trey even closer, but also given Trey a new sense of focus about his life. His little affair with Alicia had been a distraction from that focus; another in a long list of reasons he’d had to end it.

For Darren though, Clint’s death had the opposite effect. Now he seemed determined to live his life like there was no tomorrow.  As a detective on the Metro Police Department, he met his fair share of women—other cops, lawyers, damsels in distress. Darren didn’t discriminate; he was willing to bed them all. And when he was done with them, he made sure the termination of the relationship was clear and unambiguous.

“Now instead of having her think about what a shame it is the relationship’s over, you’ve got her wondering whether there’s hope you’ll want to keep hittin’ that,” Darren said. “You need to do the follow-up phone call.”

“The follow-up phone call?” Trey asked.

“Yeah. Now instead of getting to walk away and not look back, you got to call her and make sure she understands that in spite of the sex, you’re done.”

“You scare me sometimes, man,” Trey said dryly. “The way you’ve elevated this to an art form . . .”

“I should write a book, right? Would make me a very, very rich man.”

Trey laughed. “Look, I have to go. Some of us have real work to do. I’ll see you later at the spot.”

“Real work?” Darren laughed. “Man, until you stand over a dead body with twenty-seven stab wounds and no suspects, you have no clue what real work is.”

Trey paused. He knew that the grim realities of Darren’s work haunted him. And he had no idea how to address that. But everyone had their demons. He certainly had his share.

“I’ll buy you a drink later and you can tell me all about it,” he said finally.

“Three drinks,” Darren said before hanging up.

Almost as soon as he replaced the receiver, the line rang again. Sighing, Trey picked it up. Looked like he wasn’t going to get much done today.

“I know what you were trying to do,” Tessa said without greeting.

“What was I trying to do?” Trey asked, his voice weary.

“Intimidate her. With all that talk about references and forms and all that crap.”

“I wasn’t trying to intimidate her, Tess. You know how hard it is to legally get rid of a tenant once they’ve moved in?”

“But I’m vouching for her.”

“How? Why? Because she works out at the same gym as us? C’mon, you know better than that.”

“Anyway, you don’t need to worry about it. I got her to fill out a stupid form and give references and all that crap you were talking about,” she interrupted. “I told her she could move in next week if everything checks out.”

“I never gave you the forms, so how . . .”

“We went over to Staples after lunch and found some standard ones and I had her fill them out over coffee.”

“You must be really motivated to move out,” Trey said.

“You have to let me go, Trey,” Tessa said after a moment. “It’s time. And you know it might be time for you to find a new place as well.”

“Look, let’s not go into that right now. Okay, so she filled out the forms. Give them to me tonight and I’ll do all the background checks. I have to go . . .”

“Trey . . .”

“Later. We’ll talk later.”

He hung up before his sister could delve deeper into old and uncomfortable subjects. He knew she wanted him to sell the house but Trey would not even begin to consider it. It was all they had left of their parents that was tangible, and he couldn’t imagine having strangers take it over, re-decorate it, and make it into something it wasn’t.

It was easier for Tessa, because she’d been only eleven when they died, but he was eighteen and remembered them much more vividly than she did:  their mother’s smile and the sound of their father’s voice. So many of Trey’s memories were rooted in that house, in that place. If he moved, he wasn’t sure he would remember them as well and the idea of that, of forgetting, only filled him with pain.

He took a deep breath. Tessa’s moving out; moving on with her life only underscored his inability to do the same. She thought he should move downtown into some swanky condo, befitting his bachelor lifestyle, away from the quiet Largo neighborhood where they’d been raised. But he couldn’t imagine it, couldn’t even consider it. Not yet.

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