The stroller brigade ruined Celine’s afternoon walk with her dog Champ again. The Arboretum was her place, always had been, long before Greg had entered her life. Their office tryst was barely a relationship, lasting a total of four dull months. That had not stopped Greg from moving into her neighborhood after it ended. For a time, he had haunted her every step, so desperate to continue their connection. He was quick to justify the move by claiming he needed to be closer to the office given their long hours. Long hours they often spent together. If Greg could only let go, Celine would have happily continued their professional relationship. Greg was a knowledgeable corporate lawyer. Celine appreciated having a trusted colleague to bounce off ideas. Unfortunately, it was clear he was still interested in a physical relationship, and she grew weary of rejecting his advances. Celine took another job to increase the space between them. It was an inconvenience but, in the end, she realized change was long overdue. The move also introduced her to Asher Morel, a very attractive and wealthy tech entrepreneur engaged with her firm. An interesting prospect, but one where she would need to tread carefully given her newly hired status.
Celine broke all contact with Greg when she signed on with a new firm. She refused his calls, texts and over-the-top overtures. Once, he had appeared her doorstep at 12:01 a.m. on her birthday with a dozen red roses, just so that he would be the first to wish her a happy day. The sight of Greg was unwelcomed. There was gentleman upstairs, Devin, and he had just wished her a very Happy Birthday indeed! There was no way Greg could have known about Devin, Celine herself had only started seeing him, but his unannounced visit left a bad taste in her mouth. It was arrogant and exceedingly presumptuous. When she refused to invite him in, Celine noted the embarrassing realization dawn on his face. She hated him for the searing awkwardness she felt in her own home. This was her sanctuary.
Thankfully, Greg came to realize theirs was not a relationship fated to continue and disappeared from her life. His absence was of no consequence, and she rather hoped he moved to a new neighborhood. These hopes were dashed when she ran into him late one afternoon months later. She had stopped into her favorite coffee house after her afternoon walk with Champ. They exchanged a few polite, if stiff, pleasantries. Given their history Celine should not have been surprised at his distant attitude but part of her was, nonetheless. He had been so infatuated with her. Was she so easily forgotten? It was then she noticed the wedding ring. Greg noted the direction of her gaze and sheepishly admitted that he had recently gotten married to a woman named Emily.
Was it his surprising unavailability that motivated her that late afternoon? Or was it simple vanity? She was self-aware enough to admit his marital status made him something of a challenge. Could he resist her? She had to know. Celine pursued his attentions with vigor. Within the hour, she was writhing under him with a carnal ferocity she had never once associated with him previously.
Greg felt horrible when it was over, wracked with guilt at his infidelity only three months into his marriage. Celine was disgusted. She made no demands, and she had no real plans to see him again. She could not understand why Greg refused to see the afternoon for what it was – a highly enjoyable romp through a few stolen hours. Plenty of men cheated on their wives. Greg was unremarkable in so many ways. This little infidelity was no exception.
Greg lingered in her living room as he pulled on his jacket. He tried to speak to Celine about his feelings, but she turned deaf to his pleas. The only reasonable course of action was to ask him to leave. It was a small mercy. She had no use for a weak, needy man. He took this news with some resistance, and the sight of this more passionate side aroused Celine. She taunted him and laughed as he threw vile insults in her face. She turned to lead him to the door.
Enraged, Greg grabbed her and forced her to turn and face him. She slapped him hard. He flushed in anger, and she kissed him on the mouth. They fell onto the floor and tore off each clothes with abandon. This second, unexpected, coupling came a with a strong physicality that Celine enjoyed immensely. It was quick though and thankfully she was spared of having to ask him to leave a second time. When it was over, Greg dressed in silence and let himself out. Celine never saw him again.
His new wife Emily, however, seemed to pop up everywhere – be it a local boutique, the gym or a trendy salon. Did she know about Celine and Greg? Was she surveilling the competition? It was hard to say. Emily never acknowledged Celine’s presence beyond a slight nod that was customary and appropriate between people who lived in the same area and had frequented the same establishments. Celine considered reaching out to Greg to complain about her new shadow. Her only pause was the uncertainty around what she would say. Was Emily truly following her or were her frequent appearances mere coincidences? Before Celine managed to settle that debate with herself Emily’s omnipresence began to fade. One day, she was gone.
“You are a creature of habit Celine,” Reggie said from behind the counter.
Celine smiled at the barista as she sipped her Espresso, her usual order on those afternoons she and Champ went to the Arboretum. Their walks were like clockwork – always the same time, always same place. Celine prided herself on discipline and consistency. It was how she managed her demanding career while maintaining her sanity. Some things in her life had to be constant. These little self-imposed anchors allowed her freedom in her personal affairs, where things tended to be much more turbulent.
It was late autumn then, and the air was beginning to grow colder. The café was unusually busy that evening. Above the jostling and shouting, Celine detected a faint whiff of cologne, a familiar scent. She glanced around the café seeking a friendly face, but this was a crowd of strangers. There was a concert in the music hall across the street and a large group of twenty somethings crowded around the bistro tables and jammed into the window seats. There was barely space to move.
She pushed her way through the crowd to where Champ was tethered outside. Autumn was a riot of color, a last burst of brightness before the death and decay of winter. Champ was happiest at the Arboretum and the park offered a lot of Instagram worthy moments. Champ – hashtag “Adopt Don’t Shop”, hashtag “PittieNation” – attracted a lot of attention and even more dates for Celine. Her carefully crafted Instagram photos showed a powerful Pitbull in his element along with his adoring and extremely attractive owner. She found Simon through Instagram, Joel too. Asher, her new favorite, she met in the office. Theirs was a relationship that had not progressed past a few lunch dates. Celine was not attached to Asher’s case but knew involvement with him would be frowned upon. Juggling three men at once was a challenge but Celine was no fool. She knew each of the men had their own lives and doubted she was their only partner. Celine had no desire to prod on that point and, thus far, they had no desire to share. She was saving exclusivity for Asher.
Champ bounded through the entrance gates with characteristic enthusiasm. Celine jogged to catch up to his long lead and found herself engulfed in a cluster of baby strollers and shrieking mothers. Celine quickly extricated herself along with her excited dog, apologizing with what she hoped was the right level of concern. As she navigated through the group, Champ jerked her abruptly and she found herself face to face with Emily. Emily winced at Celine’s appearance. Celine too was surprised to see her. After going weeks with no contact, the sudden intimacy was a shock. Emily gave Celine her usual nod of recognition before leaning into a stroller to quiet an infant. Celine peeked curiously into the carriage and spied an angry red face and little clenched fists. It never occurred to her that Emily could be pregnant. In all honesty, she never really thought of Emily or Greg at all.
As Celine moved away, she distinctly heard murmuring among the crowd of women. She glanced behind her to find the group considering her. Frank judgement was written all over their faces. One of the women leaned to another and muttered a comment under her breath. Though Celine could not hear what was said the intention was clear. Celine was not one of their kind. She should be viewed with disgust, contempt.
Emily was an exception in this sea of hostile faces, she just looked uncomfortable. She gazed at both Champ and Celine with wary suspicion. Though in truth a love bug, Champ had the appearance of a predator. She supposed she did too. Celine preferred form fitting outfits, where her curves and toned muscles were out on display. She took pains to always be well groomed, regardless of the occasion and Celine knew she looked good even when walking the dog. She smiled slyly at the ladies and strutted away. She heard a wolf whistle from somewhere beyond the crowd and knew it was for her.
Bravado aside, Celine was glad to be away from the group of mothers. Groups of women always troubled Celine, ever since she hit puberty. Men had always liked Celine, whether she sought their attention or not. She found it ironic that women generally chose to view her with suspicion, when it was their partner with whom they should be concerned. Regardless, Celine was often viewed as the threat. Even now, she could feel their judgement and she preferred to disassociate from that negative energy.
Though not their usual route, Celine opted to walk one of the more secluded trails. Champ was so happy. With very few people around, Celine was able to let him off leash to chase squirrels, though he was not good at catching them. These city squirrels were a wary and wily bunch. The second they saw a dog pounce the were off into the trees, chattering excitedly at each other.
The wooded trails were also a delight for Celine. A soft gravel path wound its way through sun dappled, urban forest. One could almost forget the city was just over a gentle, tree covered rise. Deep within the cocoon of plump foliage the steady hum of traffic was muffled to dull white noise. Plenty of wildlife skittered about while screeching hawks swooped overhead. It was peaceful, and full of plenty new Instagram worthy spots. Perhaps if she were very lucky, she could attract some celebrity attention. She knew of several that were ardent Pitbull supporters. A celebrity tryst was on Celine’s bucket list. A juvenile goal but a fun fantasy, something to liven up her days as she waited for a relationship with Asher to materialize.
Celine paused to admire a picture worthy spot when she caught a whiff of an unusual scent. She turned, expecting to find a person rounding the corner but she was alone. Even Champ had scampered off for the moment. Her nostrils flared and she felt her heart quicken. Cologne, she was smelling cologne. But from where? She quickly scanned around her, realizing with some dismay that there were many hiding spots off this trial. That boulder over there could conceal at least three people. The bushes in the meadow were large and clumped together in groups. Large oak trees dotted the landscape, any manner of creature could hide among the shadows. She was quite alone in this spot.
Champ burst from amongst the bushes with something in his mouth. Celine shrieked when she spied a limp creature between his jaws. The smell of cologne was instantly forgotten.
Champ cocked his head and looked at her curiously.
“Drop it!” she said sternly.
Celine reached down but was spared of having to grab the dead thing. Champ opened his mouth and a dead bird tumbled onto the ground. Celine peered at it, it looked like it had been dead for some time. Celine shivered and realized her senses were on high alert. She was not sure why, but something felt wrong. She noticed the sun was starting to set over the trees. Shadows were growing long, and they seemed to be reaching for her. She grabbed Champs leash and tugged him along.
“Come on Champ, it’s time to go.”
Celine and Champ’s visits to the Arboretum continued their regular schedule. The odd incident with the dead bird did little to dampen Celine’s love for the place and throughout the fall and into the winter they traversed all manner of trails. Emily and her gang of Mom’s still frequented the park, but Celine had mastered all the wooded trails. She did not need to cross their path unless that was her intention.
New Year’s Eve came with a surprising activity. Celine needed to escape the cold of the city, so she accepted an invitation from Joel to visit his townhouse in Miami. Here, he introduced her to an “optional only” partner swapping club. He asked her for permission, and she was game of course. They had never talked about such a thing but instinctively Joel sensed her adventurous side and presented her an opportunity to indulge.
That evening was a unique, drug fueled experiment in fantasy. She met many masked participants, and lost track of Joel soon after they arrived. The anonymity of it all was a strong aphrodisiac. Her chosen partners could be anyone, from anywhere. Part of the excitement was to make up back stories for these mysterious encounters. These were her private thoughts of course. This type of event did not call for emotional intimacy, only the physical.
Her most memorable experience was with a voluptuous and eager to please blond woman. Celine had never had a female partner before, but the night was ripe for experimentation. Celine allowed herself to be seduced. Simon, who had been absent over the past few weeks, happened to call in the middle of a deeply passionate act. She decided to torture him by turning on her phone camera and allowing him a sneak peek. She and her partner laughed with they heard his exclaim of shock. They left the video running for about two minutes and then abruptly disconnected. From there, the evening got hazy. Celine gave herself over to sensual pleasure. When Joel finally came to collect Celine in the early hours of the morning, she had ten missed calls and over twenty text messages from Simon. Such an unexpected way to ring in the new year!
Celine was greeted with blessed silence when she returned home following her Miami escape. Champ was spending the weekend with his dog walker. He would not be home until tomorrow evening. Her bed beckoned, and she slept for over twelve hours.
Pulling her robe tighter, Celine wandered over to her kitchen. She was wide awake and decided to make some coffee and get a start on the day. A buzz from her phone alerted her to an incoming message. She pulled the phone to her, expecting to see a message from Joel or perhaps Simon but she was not prepared for what greeted her. Hundreds of alerts and instant messages were coming in from her Instagram account.
A sound like a door slamming startled Celine awake. She sat bolt upright in bed and strained to hear any sounds coming from within her apartment. It was three o’clock in the morning and everything around her was dead quiet. She grabbed a robe and silently moved into the large open space that housed her kitchen and living room. Moonlight was pouring in through the windows, the entire apartment was bathed in silver light. Nothing in her apartment seemed amiss. She took a quick peek in her bathroom and office, all was well.
A buzzing from her desk alerted Celine to an in coming message. She grabbed her phone and scrolled through her alerts. Oddly, they were direct messages coming from Instagram. Celine opened profile page and gasped in horror. Her page had been hacked. All her photos were gone, and were replaced by a series of five images. In the first, she was standing on a dais in angelic garb surrounded by a crowed of begging men. The second showed her orally pleasuring a hairy, beefy man wearing a leather mask. In the third picture she was sandwiched between two men, both of whom were entering her body in different places. The fourth picture showed her in a passionate embrace with a woman. The fifth picture was the most distressing. She was splayed out on the floor of a dungeon as a werewolf-like creature ravaged her entrails, blood dripping from his teeth. The series images were clearly photoshopped, with the same picture of her face inserted in each photo. The hacker was telling a story. One that did not paint her in a very flattering light.
Celine quickly read through through the DMs, all of which were telling her she had been hacked and to shut down her account. With shaking fingers Celine deleted her Instagram page. She then sent a text message to Simon. Who else could have done such a horrid thing?
“I did not appreciate your little joke. Never contact me again.”
February was still cold, but Celine and Champ regularly visited the Arboretum three times a week. The cool air forced Celine to move quickly through their walk and often found herself invigorated once they were done. She needed to feel good. Work had been overwhelming since the start of the new year. She barely had time to see Joel and Asher was as aloof as always. His increasing presence in her office made her want him more, though he seemed to enjoy keeping her at arms’ length. At times, it seemed as though he was toying with her. Well, two could play that game. She hung a very large picture of she and Joel in Miami on her wall. Joel was devilishly good looking, and the photo of them together oozed with sex appeal. Asher had no reason to visit her office. In fact, it would be odd for him to do so. But he had to pass her office on the way to his lawyer’s conference room and the glass walls offered an unobstructed view of the attractive couple in all their sun kissed, scantily clad glory. Her assistant Louise noted the picture with a puzzled frown.
“Who is that?” she asked.
“No one you need to know.”
“I’ve just never seen you hang anything personal in here before.”
“New Year, new resolutions.”
“It’s a little risqué don’t you think?”
Celine looked at the picture and shrugged. “We’re at the beach.”
“Well, I have something for you. This arrived at reception about an hour ago.”
“What is it?”
“How should I know? Maybe it’s a Valentine’s gift from your beach dude.”
Louise left the package on Celine’s desk and walked out. Celine pushed the package aside and dove into her day. Asher happened to be in the office, but Celine had a client emergency and could not spare any time to connect with him. She barely looked up each time he passed her office that afternoon. At around five her assistant came back in with a cup of espresso and a stack of papers. Celine acknowledged her with careless wave of her hand, head still bent over a real estate contract. Around her she could hear sounds of the office staff closing shop for the day. Many of the lawyers kept odd hours and Celine was one of the few generally who arrived late in the morning and stayed late in the day.
Celine’s head began to throb around nine o’clock. She pushed back in her chair and ran her fingers through her hair. The package at the corner of her desk caught her eye, long forgotten in the rush of the day. Celine did quick check of her phone confirmed that she had no message from Joel or, thankfully, Simon. She was still angry at the prank he had pulled with her Instagram account. Maybe her video had been insensitive, but she thought he would get a thrill of seeing her in such a titillating position. Granted, she did not Simon know very well so she supposed he could have been insulted. Either way, she had no desire to hear from him again. If he was that uptight, together they were not a good fit.
The package was professionally wrapped with thick, expensive paper. There was no return address or card attached. She would check with Louise in the morning. Perhaps she had already removed the card or remembered the delivery service. Another possible explanation was the package was from Joel. The wrapping, though clearly high quality, had a touch of gothic debauchery. The pattern was vaguely familiar and evoked a certain sultry night in Miami. He was full of surprises.
A delicious smile played upon Celine’s lips as she tore into the package. She pulled the tissue paper wrapped object out of the box and put it onto to her desk. Carefully, she cut through the ribbon holding the tissue paper together. The paper fell away and pooled around the object in a red haze.
Celine frowned, not quite sure what she was seeing. When she grasped the object, the form became evident. She was holding the torso of a woman, captured in a clear synthetic substance, like acrylic or lucite. Housed within the torso was a single red rose that had been split down the middle. The petals were spread open like starburst in the chest cavity. The effect was a little unsettling – dissected, deconstructed. Did it have some special meaning?
Celine shuddered and shoved the bust to the side of the desk. She thought about sending a text to Joel but was at a loss of what to say. This gift was unique, and likely custom ordered. Was he proud of this gift? Should she be appreciative? Celine realized that for all their sexual intimacy, she really did not know Joel any more than she knew Simon. Could the gift have been from Simon? It was certainly possible if he were trying to get her attention.
Rather than sending either of them a text she decided the best course of action was to ignore the gift. She rewrapped the bust in the tissue paper and discarded it the cafeteria trash. Immediately, she felt relief. Asher was the man she really wanted; everything else was just a distraction.
Spring came and went. Joel never mentioned the Valentine’s gift and his communications became less frequent over time. Celine had a gone on a few additional dates with Asher, but their relationship still had not passed the friendly, flirty acquaintance stage. Each encounter left her feeling increasingly vulnerable, questioning herself and her desirability. No man had ever resisted her for this long.
“Are you married?” Celine asked one afternoon.
“Would I be here if I was?”
“Of course not.”
“Would you like to have dinner at my place sometime?”
He enjoyed toying with her, Celine realized. After months of knowing each other, he was still playing games. After one particularly tantalizing but unfruitful date, Celine was so frustrated that she stopped into a bar and took home the first man who struck her fancy. Later that same night she night she received a cryptic text from Asher.
“I know who you are, what you need.”
Celine frowned into her phone, unsure of the correct response. She opted for directness and simplicity. The time for games had passed. “Meaning?”
“I see you. Always.”
They had been walking for over three miles and Celine was finally getting tired. Her mind had been racing all week. It began with the loss of a high value client. Her dismissal came with very little explanation beyond a nonspecific comment of having received some concerning feedback about her from a business acquaintance. The partners at her firm were not pleased with this development and were starting to take more of an interest in her other clients. The had even asked about her interactions with Asher. How well did she know him? Had he sought her advice on anything? Celine kept her answers honest but vague. The increased scrutiny seemed unnecessarily intrusive.
Her personal life was also in tatters. Simon and Joel were out of the picture. Devin continued to visit by occasionally, but she had no real interest in him. Asher was not returning her messages and had not been in the office for weeks. She was beginning to think that perhaps has was married; or at the very least had been instructed to stay away from her. The final blow to her peace of mind were her new neighbors. They were a young couple in the hospitality industry who loved to entertain, frequently and with gusto. Neither she nor Champ had gotten much sleep lately.
Despite the long walk Champ was full of energy. Celine tired of being yanked along so she let him off the leash. It was late in the afternoon, and they were alone on a secluded trail deep within the Arboretum. There was no one around to be bothered by Champ’s freewheeling antics. He thundered after a pack of squirrels and disappeared into the woods.
Celine was edgy, she could feel her heart beating erratically. Her espresso addiction was certainly not helping her nerves. She turned a corner and heard a slight rustle in the bushes. Celine could not readily identify the source of the rustling. Instead, she thought she spied a pair of dark shoes peeking out from under large clump of foliage. Before she could investigate further, Champ rushed out from behind her in a mad dash after a little rabbit. Celine laughed a little, still feeling on edge. When she turned back toward the foliage the shoes were gone. Had they ever been there? She rubbed her temples. Shadows were growing in the late afternoon and exhaustion was getting the best of her.
She turned and slowly began walking in the direction that Champ had disappeared. She felt a sudden and overwhelming urge to be home, safely tucked in her bed. The thought of her sanctuary brought tears to her eyes. It was a place she so loved, a space she fought hard to carve in this uncompromising city. She was feeling so out of sorts, her emotions so heightened, and she did not understand why. Her subconscious was screaming for her attention, but nothing could penetrate her mental exhaustion. Behind her a twig snapped and a strong sense of cologne filled her nostrils. Her head snapped up as fear flooded her body. Then everything went black.
Champ stopped short in front of the trail head. He looked back at her and whined.
“Don’t worry boy,” Emily said. She crouched so that she was eye level with the dog and rubbed his face gently between both hands. “We are not going in there.”
Champ licked her face and wagged his tail, his momentary discomfort forgotten. Emily laughed as she stood and cleaned her face with a baby wipe. Oliver remained blissfully asleep in his carriage. As she and Champ started walking again, Priya fell into step next to Emily.
“It was good of you to take him.”
“Greg was worried that he would be put down if no one offered to foster him. His breed isn’t exactly popular. Greg thought Champ deserved a safe home.”
“Are you going to keep him?”
“For now. Unless Celine wants him back. She may eventually, he did save her life.”
A shudder passed through both women.
The news had been shocking. Celine was found brutally stabbed and left for dead in the Arboretum. The attack was bold, happening in the early evening while there was still light in the sky and plenty of people milling about. Still, Celine had favored the more secluded trails and somewhere within the thicket of trees she had met her assailant. Champ had been found alone with a bloody scrap of Celine’s shirt in his mouth. An older couple recognized the dog and led rangers to the trail where they last saw Celine. With Champ’s help they found her wedged between a stand of trees and high fence that separated the park from the roadway. Her clothes were torn from multiple wounds, but she was still breathing.
“Who was the guy they caught?”
“Someone named Asher Morel. Greg said he met Celine through her law firm. Fixated on her apparently. Had been following her for months.”
“Understandable, I guess. She was very alluring.” Priya paused. “When will she be back home?”
“I’m not sure. She has a long recovery ahead of her. After she came out of the coma her firm sent her to a rehabilitation center in California. They are supposed to be the best at healing physical and mental trauma.”
“Well, I hope she fully recovers. What happened to her was just awful.”
Emily nodded in silence. The two women walked for a few minutes, enjoying the warm sun and light evening breeze. The smell of lilacs filled the air.
“Hey, you want to hear something funny?” Emily said. “Dave Bautista reached out to us via Instagram. He read about Champ and wants to set up a doggie playdate the next time he’s in New York.”