No Fallback Plan
It was a signal number two.
Ha, are you kidding me?
Michael hugged his raincoat closer to his cold and shivering body. How long had he been walking in this rain? About...three, five hours. Ten kilometers. And all that time he was thinking of how stupid things were right then, how stupid he was for letting it get this far.
He looked up. He felt nothing more than a shadow in the storm, some blurry image your mind would play on you if you looked out of your cozy window. Maybe sipping hot cocoa in a comfortable armchair, you'd just glimpse him one moment and shift your sight somewhere else. He was in that position, just a few fleeting moments ago. In a wonderfully large house with a beautiful woman with whom he thought he would spend eternity.
His shoes were soaked, and so were his tired feet. His knees shook when he moved them, darn, were they painful. His whole body ached. The signs of a bad cold were starting to show. He sneezed, even. Michael, why are you doing this to yourself? he thought to himself, willing his feet to stop moving. But they did. Painstakingly. Walk, walk. Keep walking. As if that would take back the words he said, erase whatever happened between him and his only true love.
No, Grace. Grace the shy girl from three floors below him, attractive despite her quiet attitude. She was perfect that way, never too assertive, never too strong, soft-spoken, as always, but firm. She knew what she wanted. She seldom fought for it, but she had this smile that beat the sun at shining when Michael approached her, subtly helped her. And that's how he won her heart, and that's how she won his.
No, money. How he counted money, felt insatiable bursts of greed when he touched each crisp bill he had in his wallet, each tiny check that, when encashed, meant millions of neat bills. Money, riches, status, material things. Shallow things, but things that meant happiness! His happiness! He loved money more than anything! He was a businessman born to make and spend money! Money!
Money... Grace... Where were they now?
"Michael, Michael," she called, in that gentle tone he so loved of her. He opened his eyes and turned to his right. She had just awoken. She wore this thin, red nightgown he bought for her last Christmas. She looked perfect in it, her perfect form accented by the folds and colors of the fabric. Everything about her was beautiful. He took her hands, kissed them, and closed his eyes.
"Michael!" she called playfully, leaning in to kiss his eyes. "Wake up, we have work today."
He smiled. He looked at her, and she was smiling too. That trademark smile of hers. He sat up and pulled her into a tight embrace. "I love you," he said in her ear. He felt her laughing. "Why are you laughing?" She laughed again. "I love you, Grace. I'm not kidding."
Her emerald eyes met his hazel ones, and she kissed him. "I know," she told him, pulling back. "I just like it when you tell me."
She finally got up and went to the bathroom. For some reason, he was left dazed by what she said. I just like it when you tell me. Why? Didn't he tell her enough? Was she hiding something from him? Did she think he wasn't as serious about her as he often claimed? He shook his head. Of course those weren't true. He did love her. Better yet, he was Michael. The Michael Perry. The CEO of his company. The man everyone wanted to become. The man every woman wanted to have. And his little Grace doubted that? Hmph, no, that's stupid. She loved him too.
Or did she?
Maybe what she loved about him was not the Michael everyone else saw, but the Michael only she had. The Michael he let her see.
He was a gentleman only to her, the first woman he held a door open to in a fine restaurant. He dressed down when he went out with her, and behaved childlike, vulnerable, around her. She found his childhood strangely amusing, despite those memories including being orphaned at ten, even food theft at some point. He was a silent child, left in a boarding school under the care of nuns, where he learned the harsh ways of the world on his own with children as detached and alone as he was. He grew from this closed, shelled creature to the hardworking, people-person he was today.
Maybe that's why she understood his mood swings, his frustrations. She loved him, not pitied him the way other girls always did. She held him at just the right moments, avoided him when he needed to be by himself. She never judged him when he told her about the darkest thoughts he had. She never told him off for the sometimes wrong or mean things he might have done. One look, one simple look—and he realized she was right. No words spoken, no feelings hurt.
Ha, now beat that. He was proud of her, very proud. Though, he was often left doubting whether she was as proud as him.
Come five in the afternoon, the workplace was as good as a grave. No people were left; they didn't want to be left with Mr. Megalomaniac—er, Mr. Perry.
"Honey," a female voice called. He looked up at its sweetness. Only one woman in the world could call his attention like that. Grace came in, her work attire gone, replaced by an elegant pink dress that reached her knees. "How's my CEO doing at this late hour?"
He noted the rise in her tone at the word 'hour'. "Hey baby," he answered, rising from his desk. He took her in his arms and covered her face and neck in kisses. No words, just agreements. "I love you," he blurted out. Hey wait, why wasn't this the right moment? He pulled back and stood two feet from her. He admired her soft-spoken beauty and closed his laptop. Gathered his things. He stopped in his tracks—she was still standing there, relishing the longed-for advance.
But why wasn't this right? Something was off. But no, forget it. Tonight would be memorable, as were all his nights with her.
"Let's go. What do you want to do tonight? Dinner? A movie?" he said, embracing her from behind. He kissed her left ear, then her right. She gave a little squirm and wriggled from his grasp. What, why?
She looked at him, her face suddenly sober. "I feel like staying home. Something romantic." She waited for a moment if he would respond, ask her anything in the least. Change his look. Wonder. But when he didn't, she led the way out and hailed a cab by herself.
Dinner was spent in silence, the only sounds being the low crackling from the fireplace. The room wasn't too big, containing just a dining table, chairs for ten people, a fireplace, and the space left by the baby grand piano before it was given away to charity. But it wasn't too small either. There was this distance between them, a film that seemed to increase thickness the more they stayed quiet.
He stole glances at her. She kept her face, lit dimly by the fire, low and half-hidden by her shoulder-length hair. The shadows danced in her face, in her small hands. When he couldn't scale the current wall she built, he asked, "Grace? What's the matter?"
She smiled, an empty smile, and said nothing.
"Is there something you want to tell me?" He played with his fork, poking holes at the mound of mashed potatoes on his plate. He glanced at her again. "Gracie, please. I don't know what to do. Something's not right, and you have to let me know what it is."
Once again, she smiled. "Why don't you tell me? It's been so long I've been wondering when you'll ask."
"What do you mean?"
Grace dabbed her face with a napkin and pushed her plate forward. "If you don't know, then neither do I." She stood up, cleared her part of the table and left him more confused than he had ever been in his life.
No, he can't wait. He went after her, into the kitchen, where she was washing fiddling with a wine glass. "Do you want a drink? I'll get you some," he offered, reaching into one of the cupboards to fetch a bottle of his well-preserved wine. "Baby, let's talk about this." He knew they always resolved things with a simple conversation. He knew her well enough because he just did, for the two years they loved each other. He poured each of them a glass. "Gracie?"
She accepted his offering, made to take a sip, but paused there. "Why?"
"What do you mean 'why'?"
"Grace, I want us to talk."
"I want to fix whatever's going on right now."
"Because I love you—"
He couldn't answer. By the time he regained composure, Grace had set her untouched wine in the sink. "Grace, I don't know what to say."
"Then don't say anything," she answered, no hint of anger in her voice. No hint of anything at all. An empty statement. She turned her back to him and walked in that direction. He grabbed her arm and made her face him. He was about to speak, but she did the talking.
"Michael, I love you! That's why! But all you seem to care about is your business, your precious money! And I feel like I only come second, or third, or fifth in your list of most important things! I want to be your first priority, I want to be yours forever. I can't take what we're doing anymore."
"But I love you too!"
"Yes, you love me 'too'. Next to your riches."
"I want to be alone. Please."
"You don't even have any plans to marry me, don't you?"
With that, she took her arm back and went quietly up to their room.
So that was it. She wanted a marriage, a long-lasting bond. But what she didn't realize was how costly things were. This time it wasn't only the money. What about the time? The commitment? Family comes first, not work, when it came to these things. And with that commitment came the additional mouths he'd eventually bring into the world and have to feed.
No, Grace, a wedding isn't what we need right now, he thought to himself, trying to justify the argument. But in the end, something about him felt guilty that he couldn't give her the only thing she really asked of him all this time.
Suddenly, he heard a loud thud against something like grass. Wait, it was grass. It came from the lawn. Thuds that loud, he wondered, what could they be? He went outside to inspect the noise. Two suitcases? He looked up for the source. Their bedroom window? And there was Grace, throwing out the third heavy suitcase. Soon enough, she was rushing out the front door to pick them up, to leave him.
If he was going to do anything, now was the time for it.
"Those are pretty expensive, first-class suitcases you got there," he said. He wanted to bang his head on the concrete for it. She slapped him.
For the first time, there was rage in her eyes. "Michael Perry," she breathed. She sought his eyes for some sense of awakening. She didn't find it. "That was a reminder that money is not the only thing in the world. There's me. There's yourself. And there are seven billion other people who are in more need of your charity."
Then she stood on tiptoe, kissed him for a long time, and whispered, "And that...is a promise. I love you, and when you finally understand what I'm trying to tell you, I will come back to you. I swear."
"But I do understand!" cried Michael, rooted to his spot as she walked away. "Grace? But why are you leaving?"
Despite the late hour, he made to chase after her. He called her name over and over, but she never turned back. Suddenly the sky was tainted orange, and dark clouds lingered overhead. A long streak of lightning cut the sky in half. Thunder followed.
It was a storm.
The rain made it harder to see, harder for him to catch up. But Grace seemed to have no trouble. She walked forward, her pace steady and her gaze straight ahead. This is ridiculous, he finally thought. He stopped, resumed the pursuit, and stopped again. If the world could see him, they would laugh. He made up his mind. He loved her, she loved him—but it wasn't enough. Fine. Then he'd let her. Maybe he'd come to see she was right all along, one way or another. Or maybe she'd change her mind and admit she was wrong to want impossible things. Seriously.
You don't even have any plans to marry me, don't you?
Behind the sidewalks, houses rested in total stillness. A few lamplights dimly lit the road they trudged on. But it was midnight. The few ones left on were probably children's who were afraid of the dark. Stupid children.
"Grace!" he yelled. By now she was so far he could barely see her outline clearly. Not in this weather, at least. "Grace!"
As expected, she never turned.
He waited. Maybe this was really it. It was over. Give up. He was the one who would turn home empty-handed. Go home now. He spun around and prepared to trace his steps.
Two lights illuminated the street. In a split-second, there was another blast of thunder, several honks, and a loud, female shriek.
Everything else was a blur. He was suddenly holding her in his arms while she gasped and sputtered for air, blood coming out of her mouth and ears, her eyes out of focus. "Grace!" he remembered saying. No, he had never pleaded in his entire life, except now. "Grace, please don't leave me!" A man stood beside them, offering to call 911 right away. He had briefly nodded, and returned his look to Grace. She was unconscious.
Suddenly, they were in a hospital, outside an emergency room, if he recalled right. A man in white laid a firm hand on his shoulder. He was saying things Michael didn't understand. "We couldn't do anything. It's too late."
"What do you mean it's too late? You want my money? Here, take it! Take it!" He emptied his pockets, threw the bills he had spent years counting tirelessly in the doctor's curt face. "Just save her! Please!"
The doctor only shook his head and squeezed his shoulder. "I'm sorry, sir. There's nothing we can do anymore. She's gone."
It was a signal number two.
More like four, really. At some point in his walk, he thought she was walking ahead of him. He might call her name again, and she just might answer this time. He would apologize, they would carry on life the way it was, or make it better. He might even propose, if that's what she really wanted.
Then his mirage would end. He was alone in the middle of the night, her blood in his hands and her body in the morgue. She was gone.
He couldn't stop walking anymore, because to walk was the last thing she did in her life, walk away from his neglect. If only to remember her, he would walk down this road for the rest of his miserable life. Three, five hours. Ten kilometers. And all this time he was thinking how stupid and selfish he'd been to her. Thinking how insignificant he seemed compared to the great lives that surrounded him, to the great life that he let slip because of his self-centeredness. He was nothing more than a broken man, a mere blur within the sheets of rain. He was nothing.
So what was the point of walking anyway? God, take me! he begged desperately, realizing it had been too long since he had last prayed. He didn't even have the right to be loved by God, the God he reluctantly believed in. Now the God that eased her beautiful soul's pain.
God, take me, please.
He knelt down on the pavement, his whole body resisting further movement. He bowed his head in humble acceptance. He let himself fall on his face, down the slope, into a speeding vehicle he didn't care to recognize.
He was brought to the hospital ten minutes into his bleeding, partly because there were barely any people due to that late hour and the storm, and partly because the few people who did pass by knew who he was—and thought the world was a much better place without him.
He stayed in an ICU for a long time. Some days were good, and some days weren't. Strapped to a bed, of course, and waking up for only five minutes at a time, he couldn't tell the difference. With no identification, and no family to claim him, he was simple called "The Man". On the good days, the rainy days, "The Quiet Man"; he didn't speak at all when it rained, the memory of that fateful night that cost him his beloved—what was her name?—playing on repeat in his mind. On the bad days, he was dubbed name "The Nameless Man" or "The Yelling Man", for crying and screaming until his voice gave out, "Who am I?" not as a metaphor. His brain damage was far too great to be repaired by any medical or surgical means. And he screamed until he lost his voice, maybe hoping he'd lose his mind too...God knows Grace took it with her when she left.
So one rainy night, his memory intact, he attempted his only escape, and succeeded. The ropes were loose, the door unlocked. He was lucky. No one saw him creep into the storage rooms and retrieve his clothes. No one saw him run out into the streets once again to resume his endless walk. He felt sick at the thought he'd never stop, but it was for Grace, right? The Grace that changed a million lives by being her quiet self, the Grace that never demanded for anything but love, the Grace who left quietly without disturbing anyone. Except him. He vowed that night, amid sneezes and bursts of convulsion, that he would change a million lives too. That is, if he could change himself first, by walking. One life at a time. Simply. Quietly. The way Grace had done in her short stay. How such an angel should have to meet a tragic death because of one man! Yes, he vowed, a million lives. A million lives. A million lives... Walk... Walk... Walk...
A/N: Michael's story doesn't end here. Will he get up and move on? Will he save his million? How will life fare for Michael? Find out, in "One Life at a Time".