REVAMPED AS OF APRIL 2014
Author's Note, April 2014 (Please Read)
Hello again readers!
It's been a long time. When I first started writing this story in 2004, I was about 14 years old, trying to write a relationship between a 27-year-old and a man in his 30's reeling from a divorce. As such, I looked back after a while and realized that even though I received such positive feedback on the story, I had written it at a time that I didn't know anything about the life experiences and emotions I was writing about.
I'm now 24 going on 25 - about the age that Carmen is in the story - and have decided to come back and retool "Just Over Your Shoulder" to more accurately reflect what the characters would be going through.
The story will remain mostly the same, save for a couple of changes that I will allow you to discover for yourselves. I'm in the process of revamping and rewriting the chapters, so please look at the first line in each chapter, where it will read in bold that it has been revamped.
If there are any old readers still around, I hope you'll come and enjoy experiencing the same story in a new way. I have the original version in all it's glory saved on my computer, and I might one day post the old version somewhere for nostalgia's sake.
In the meantime, sit tight and enjoy the new version of "Just Over Your Shoulder" - same storyline, but with the knowledge I have now that I'm "old". Once the revamps are up, the final chapters will be uploaded as well - and isn't the ending the most important part?
Cheers! Read on!
Carmen Anderson lived on her own, thank you very much. While she was never one to flaunt a sob story, growing up without parents seemed to do things to you that you didn't intend. She had been orphaned at the tender age of seven, and had spent the rest of her childhood living in an orphanage- -no, sorry, a group home. They didn't call them orphanages anymore. She'd gotten her hand slapped for telling kids at the home that they were in an orphanage because their parents didn't want them anymore.
Whatever the case, she was a grown woman of twenty-seven. She had spent her early twenties wasting money on a therapist who insisted that she was traumatized, for the sheer fact that she didn't remember her parents. In Carmen's mind, however, the case was simply that remembering her parents never seemed a necessity. Now, she realized that if she had gotten along well enough without the memories, they weren't worst wasting money on a therapist over. Past was past.
And what was both heartening and terrifying was the fact that you would never know she had already lived through such things. If you came across her on the street, she seemed rather pleasant. Busy, sure, but always pleasant. She was a career woman, and a proud one at that. She prided herself on the fact that her life consisted of very little socializing, and a great deal of work. Indeed, her only friends were friends from work. Among her closest friends was a certain Robert Wallace - they had gone to college together, started up a successful New York lifestyle magazine together, and had hired some of their old classmates as a gesture of good faith.
Carmen teased Rob at times because she could - she teased him relentlessly that perhaps the reason he till hadn't found a girl to settle down with was that everyone doubted his sexual orientation, being the co-founder of a lifestyle magazine. He would always retort that just because Carmen thought she was married to her career didn't mean she had settled down.
That always seemed to shut her up.
But life had been good. Busy, but good. Business had suddenly started booming - and not through luck, but through a great deal more blood, sweat, and tears than one would expect in working for a magazine that, in all honesty, hocked gossip relentlessly. At the young age of twenty-seven, she had built up a considerable nest egg, and was genuinely burnt out.
That's why it thrilled her so much that her real estate agent had just found her a remote home in the seemingly middle-of-nowhere town of Tashmore Lake, up in the hills, where she could go about her occasional hermit-like ways as much as she pleased. Carmen, by her own calculation, had saved up enough to buy at least a year or two of sabbatical, with full faith in Robert Wallace to manage the magazine and hold down the fort until she finally felt less frazzled.
It was only on the drive up to Tashmore Lake that Carmen realized something: she didn't know how not to work. She pulled up to the large cabin that was now, for all intents and purposes, all hers, and felt a sense of apprehension. She didn't know what the hell she was doing. The house was quite close to what she had pictured. Large, roomy, a lot of windows, and a wonderful view - in short, nothing like the office.
Her first day there was spent moving things in, all by herself, then driving the moving van back into town. She had her car dropped off there, and drove it back up. Needless to say, by the time everything was finished, she was exhausted, and dropped down for the count on her rug in front of the fireplace for the night.
She woke the next morning and, as she ought to have expected, felt the urge to do something. Anything. Suddenly, the idea of being on an extended vacation seemed like more than she was prepared to take. Carmen changed into sweats and running shoes, opting to go out for an exploratory run and hopefully exhaust herself into enough of a stupor to hibernate until she figured out what exactly to do with all of this newfound free time.
She went outside for a walk, and found herself taking random turns, just to see where they led. Of course, when one sets out exploring a new place without any agenda in mind, they tend to lose their way a bit. She ignored the fact until she found herself walking in large figure eights for nearly two hours.
It was then that she noticed, through the trees, another house. Under normal circumstances, she would have reminded herself that approaching random cabins in the woods was the way people got themselves killed in all the movies - but she was a city girl, surrounded by so many trees that she felt like she was trapped in an optical illusion. She made her way to the only house there, resolving to knock, ask for directions, and be done with it.
A man with brown eyes, brown-blonde hair, and a neatly trimmed mustache answered the door.
Carmen didn't know a thing of it, but she had just stumbled onto the doorstep of the town pariah. Mort Rainey, they always said in town, was the poster boy for a disturbed writer, and since he was disturbed enough to begin with, no one cared to disturb him. Even the town Sheriff, who had for a good while been dead set on pinning Mr. Rainey for a series of unsolved murders, had pushed those priorities aside and simply avoided him altogether.
"Can I help you?" he asked questioningly, his expression suspicious.
"Hi neighbor," Carmen chuckled, crossing her arms over herself self-consciously. "I'm Carmen. I - am having a slight dilemma. See, I just moved into the only other house for miles, which should make it easy to find. Except, I have no idea what direction it's in."
"The only other house in the area? Due west." Mort said casually. "I've seen it. Carmen, was it? Is there a surname- -"
"Anderson," she said shortly. "But just Carmen's fine. I - I don't dig the formalities."
"Ah," Mort nodded. "Noted. Well, rather than risk you wandering off, I can take you back, show you the backroads so you don't lose your way again."
"Really?" Carmen asked. It was a bit strange, honestly, that he seemed so eager to help, but maybe he just rarely had company. It didn't seem like much of a stretch of the imagination. "That'd be great."
Carmen waited on the porch as Mort went inside to grab the keys to his car, and ou of an old habit, he first wen to open her door for her. She flashed him a lopsided grin and clambered in - he smirked a little at the fact that she had to do a small hop to boost herself into his very normal-sized SUV. She was, he realized, rather petite. She was probably terrified of being eaten by bear or something in the wood.
He brushed off his observations, realizing that he was starting to stare, and got into the car - but no sooner had they gotten off the driveway to his property, the clouds that had been threatening in the sky all morning finally gave way to a torrent of rain that sloshed against the windshield faster than the old wipers could handle. Mort groaned and pulled the car to a careful stop.
"Storms are a little bit more than Old Boss can handle."
"You named your SUV old boss?" Carmen asked, smirking and raising an eyebrow. "Sounds like a hunting dog's name. But - I don't mind. Not like anyone's waiting up for me anyway."
Good job, she thought to herself, immediately diverting her gaze and looking out of the passenger side window, away from Mort. You just told a complete stranger that you live alone in a cabin in the woods, get lost easily - you have 'slasher movie victim' written all over you.
Mort, on the other hand, was frankly a little intrigued by the younger woman. She was pretty, without a doubt. Even if Mort Rainey had a crippling distrust of the fairer sex, he could admit that much. Carmen was pretty, and Mort had been unattached for literally a few years at this point. Would it really be that bad if -
"It sucks," Carmen said aloud. Mort flinched. Had she read his mind? His hands clenched on the steering wheel nervously.
"Excuse me?" he said uncomfortably.
"The weather," she said, and Mort let out a sigh of relief at the realization that she was just trying to start up conversation again. "Sucks, doesn't it?"
"Yeah," he chuckled uneasily. "Especially when you're up here alone. It gets... pretty crappy."
Especially when you're up here alone? Mort mentally wanted to slap himself. You're flirting with her. Is this really the time?
"I'm not used to all this - nature," she admitted, chuckled consciously. "I'm a little bit of a city mouse. Lived in the Five Boroughs since I was seven."
"New Yorker. Go figure," he chuckled. "Takes a special brand of city mouse to get shaken by a few trees."
"I think Tashmore Lake counts as more than just a few trees. If I didn't know any better, I'd think you were making fun of me," she smirked, drumming her fingers on the armrest on the door. "But I think I'm probably from the city. Like, really from the city." She paused when she realized that out of context, her statement was indeed fairly unusual, and as expected, Mort had turned to her, raising an eyebrow questioningly. "Fun fact," she began, slightly embarrassed by her ramblings. "I - am a little bit like Princess Anastasia. I have no idea where I was born or where I came from before New York. Childhood trauma, amnesia, dissociative fugue. Lots of interesting terms have been thrown around in my lifetime."
"You're surprisingly open about this," he said, raising an eyebrow. "Are you just making this up? Because I'M the writer in this car. Making up stories is my job."
"You're a - oh!" she said, her eyes widening slightly in realization. "You're a writer! Mort Rainey," she said, nodding in recognition. "I - would love to say I've read your work, but I haven't exactly had a great deal of leisure time on my hands."
Mort thought for a moment that maybe he should have been offended, but it was refreshing to have someone in Tashmore Lake blissfully ignorant of his colorful past. So pleased was he at this, in fact, that he did not think to keep himself from staring at her until she cleared her throat and gave a small half-smile. "The rain's stopping," she said simply.
"Right," he said, shaking his head briskly and starting the car up again. "I'm - I'm sure you want to get home." He made his way down the unpaved roads, pointing out the small signs and landmarks along the way until finally he pulled up in front of Carmen's cabin, which looked fairly similar to his own. She stepped out and muttered the obligatory thanks and suggestion that she would see him around until, unexpectedly, she peered back in the car.
"You know, the sky is still looking pretty inky," she said casually. "I'd hate for there to be another downpour that gets you stuck out on the road alone for my account. You want to come inside until the cloud cover passes?"
"Sure," he muttered before his mind could even think of answering otherwise - and she smiled. Just that fact was enough to make Mort feel almost rattled, because it had been so long that he'd been able to hold a conversation with a woman that ended with them smiling at him - not laughing at him, not smirking, but actually smiling. He got out of the car, tucking his keys into his back pocket and following her inside. He let out a small chuckle as he followed her inside, noticing that a bulk of Carmen's things were still in boxes. While she seemed nice enough - happy enough - this wasn't the home of someone who had their life completely together, and something about that, Mort had to admit, was refreshing.
"Well, here it is," she laughed, "It's not much, but it's home for the foreseeable future. Can I get you anything to eat?"
Real food? Mort thought. Been a while since I've had any, seeing as I can't cook for shit. "Sure," He replied. "Anything you got."
"Famous last words," Carmen chuckled. "Right now, the menu consists of frozen pizza, and Chinese takeout, but I can promise a fresh pot of coffee. I'd love to blame it on the fact that I just moved, but I'm a creature of convenience. Work always made it tough to learn to cook."
"Oh. Where do you work?" he asked politely, in hopes of maintaining some sense of normalcy in this conversation despite the fact that he was used to only conversing with himself.
"Nowhere for the moment. Mental health vacation. But, have you heard of A-List magazine? Sort of my baby," she chuckled. "Except, you don't take a break from babies, and I most definitely needed a break."
"Ah. So that magazine is your handiwork," Mort chuckled. "I seem to recall some of your staff writers being really antsy for interviews. Very persistent - I always refused," he replied matter-of-factly.
"Well, I hire go-getters. I appreciate that up-and-at-am spirit. But I never sent anyone to harass you," she laughed.
"You seem trustworthy enough, so I'll take your word for it," Mort smirked. "Coffee and Chinese takeout sounds like a feast."
"Coming right up," she chuckled, shaking her head, gesturing for him to have a seat on the couch while she retreated to the kitchen. As she opened her refrigerator and pulled out its lone contents, however, the phone in her pocket rang, and she groaned slightly when she saw Rob's voice on the caller ID.
"Please say you're just calling because you missed me and not because you're cutting my vacation short already."
However, from the clearly frustrated tone of Rob Wallace's voice, it was clear that his new appointment to the head of A-List Magazine was not all smooth sailing. "Thank God you answer your phone," he snapped. "I was worried you left me a wrong number to try and throw me off the scent -"
"Nope, I gave you the right number, obviously," she said matter-of-factly. "I also gave you specific directions not to bother me with anything about the magazine unless something was burning to the ground, but I'm guessing you skipped that part of the memo."
"Consider this a courtesy call, because I have no idea how to run this business without you, and I give it a month before it's up in smoke," Rob said. Carmen cringed at the zooming sound that indicated that he was calling while driving. "Mel Carter is riding my ass asking what next month's feature is, and her little friends are constantly shooting down every idea I throw out there."
"That's your problem now."
"It's your problem because if you want a job to come back to, then you're going to need to help me out a little."
Carmen groaned, holding the phone a little away from her face and making a shrill, exasperated noise before propping the phone on her shoulder and moving to start up a pot of coffee. "Rob. You've been running it with me for almost five years, and you're trying to tell me you learned absolutely nothing?" she asked in annoyance. "I told you, I need this vacation. I need to get away from the bullshit for a little while -"
"Well, if you don't give me a hand with the bullshit, it's going to be about a hundred more people in New York out of jobs, and a shit ton of freelance artists and photographers losing their biggest client."
Carmen sneered at the phone, exhaling sharply through her nostrils. That was the problem with Robert Wallace: he knew her too well. He knew how to appeal to her sense of duty and responsibility. He knew exactly how to get her to do things, knowing that she took her obligations seriously. Fine.
But she was going to get something out of it. Finally meeting someone new - someone who she wasn't meeting just for work - planted the idea in Carmen's head that it was time for her to stop talking about work, and to get acquainted with her story. Her real story. "Fine. I'll be available - as a consultant, over the phone," Carmen conceded. "But in exchange, I want you to get some information for me. I'll sign all the necessary waivers, permissions, whatever. But I want you to do the legwork."
"What?" Rob asked. "I mean, sure - sure, I'll do it. Of course I will. But what do you need information on?"
"Me," Carmen said simply. "I think this mental health vacation is high time for me to... tie up loose ends. Fill in a few blanks."
There was a brief silence - Rob knew that Carmen had, for a very long time, been adamant about not bothering with learning about her past. It had always been a touchy subject. Even Anderson was a surname she had just taken from her first foster family, which hadn't even lasted long. Rob knew about this. This was big.
"Deal," he said simply, his voice now taking on a much softer tone than earlier. Above all else, Carmen was probably his closest friend, and despite the fact that they were very similar - they placed work above all else, all the time - he knew how to value the friendship of the one girl he had been through hell with. They'd been young and broke together, lived off of Ramen and instant coffee together. And despite the fact that he relied on her to do a lot of things, when push came to shove, he would never turn her down when she asked for help. "I'll do my best to bail out of this mess on my own, but - don't change your number. You'll probably be hearing from me a lot."
"Oh well," Carmen chuckled, swiping a hand over her forehead tiredly. "I don't think I'd ever get used to you not being around to give me the occasional migraine, Wallace. Bye."
Carmen hung up her phone, turning it off and placing it on the kitchen counter. Robert Wallace, despite his occasional tendency to bite off more than he could chew, was a good guy and a good friend. But this evening, she honestly just wanted to be normal. She finally managed to pull out the leftovers from the microwave, balancing it on the crook of her arm and carrying two mugs of coffee in her hands as she made her way back to the living room.
"So. Looks like you've been put on a working vacation - that's very impressive by the way. I'll be sure to let the circus know next time they're in town," he joked, nodding towards the dishes she was carrying into the living room. Carmen laughed, shrugging after she placed everything down on the coffee table. "You weren't joking when you said that you were an all work and no play kind of girl."
Mort couldn't help but feel strangely peaceful when he talked to this girl - not just calm. He felt calm often, honestly, because he had made a habit of not dealing with anyone at all. But talking to Carmen while they waited for the storm outside to die down, with her asking about his books which she'd never yet had a chance to read, and him asking about how she had gotten into magazines when she'd wanted initially, he found out, to be a newscaster - Mort felt a strange sense of calm in his mind, as though he'd met someone who would give him some kind of peace.
You're nuts, Mort thought to himself as he was driving back home a couple of hours later. You talk to a woman for the first time in months, and you automatically assume she's - some kind of magical unicorn sent to fix all of your problems. You're nuts, Mort Rainey. Nuts.
The next day, with the sky much brighter and clearer, Carmen looked at the napkin on her coffee table on which Mort had scribbled his phone number - in case, he added, she happened to get lost again. Surely, she thought to herself, that meant that he wanted her to call. She could call, couldn't she? It wouldn't seem over-eager. He knew that she didn't know anyone else in the area, and what woman in her right mind actually wanted to be alone in a cabin in the woods more than she needed to be?
She decided she was going to call. She picked the phone up. She put it down again.
What if he did think that she was a little too interested and over-eager? What if he thought she was a complete stalker. Carmen groaned. She wasn't used to making social calls - she was used to calling at appointed times, discussing deadlines, and hanging up before any small talk could be made. She huffed and picked up the phone, dialing the number this time and planning in her head how to sound casual.
And the instant Mort Rainey picked up the phone, she forgot her intention completely.
"Hi. It's me. From yesterday," she said quickly, clearing her throat. "I was just - I was just calling to say hi."
Calling to say hi? Carmen grimaced, looking upward in exasperation at her own awkwardness. You sound like you're fifteen. Please don't be this awkward.
"Listen," she said, finally settling on being calm and normal, and not at all anxious about pursuing some kind of a social life in her time away from work. "I know you're probably busy with your work and everything, so feel free to say 'no, never in a million years', but I was wondering if you wanted to come over for some coffee."
"Right now?" Mort asked, and Carmen felt a little smile settle on her lips. Maybe he was the perfect person to practice her social skills on - it seemed that he was just as unaccustomed to social calls as she was, and that realization made Carmen feel slightly less conscious about herself.
"Yeah, sure. Right now," she said brightly. "I mean, I don't really have any plans except for pulling my things out of boxes."
Little did Carmen know, this was a big deal to Mort as well. Not only did people in town actively avoid him, he actively avoided them - but Carmen coming around was a little bit of a shock to his system. Not an unwelcome one, but a shock nonetheless. She was younger, and she certainly hadn't been through the same types of things that Mort had, but it was refreshing. And maybe... maybe it was an indication that it was finally time to start having a life again.
"I'll be right over."
Mort hung up the phone, and immediately, Carmen hurried upstairs and used her car keys to cut open a box of her clothes, changing out of her pajamas and into a clean pair of jeans and a plaid shirt which she wore open over a white tanktop. She smoothed her hair out as she looked in the mirror and let out a breath - this looked fine, she told herself. She looked casual. Like she wasn't trying too hard.
And finally, it hit her. She was attracted to this guy. This was how it felt to meet someone new and actually have the jitters. The realization caused her to freeze in front of the mirror and groan slightly. She couldn't wallow in it for long, however, as there was a knock on the door. She smiled a little at the realization that he had hurried over.
This could be something, she decided. This definitely could be something.