Work uniform buttoned to the brim, perspiring, and ready to swoon, Phoebe Watkins couldn’t take her eyes off of him.
She wanted to choke him.
“…If you’re having problems cooperating with Alyssa, I’d be more than happy to help. If you would just speak up and tell me. But your tardiness is unacceptable.”
Stanley’s biceps were larger than his head. His head was a rock, held by a sturdy, symmetrical pedestal of a neck. Buzzcut, completely symmetrical. Yes, Stanley was tidy in every way—which was probably why his personality was as dull as a smooth stone.
The formal figure gestured at her while he talked, as if she were still listening. They were in the postal lobby, an employee lounge/office in the USPS headquarters. Dense, windowless and lit by dim orange light the room set the mood exquisitely. Phoebe alone with her boss. Such a sensual scene, but he’d never see it. Three years ago when she first got the job (and moved to godforsaken Philly!) she saw his bodybuilder bod and asked him to take her out for a drink. Stanley’s response: ‘Sorry mam, but alcohol is no good for the brain.’ Which, okay. Ripped guy was a health nut. She could work around that. So when she accosted him a second time, tipsy, demanding to go to his house and he replied ‘I’m just not that interested in a relationship’ she nearly flipped out! Then Stanley gave her a strike for drinking on the job.
“Alright Ms. Watkins.” Stanley said. “It’s 4:45. Alyssa is covering the houses you missed this morning. Be on time tomorrow.” Brown hair, blue eyes and balsa wood colored skin. Where would she find a combination like that again?
Phoebe shook her head still gripping her sudsy toothbrush. No time to reminisce over the sexy stubborn boss. It was 6 something AM. Gotta clock in before 7 something. She grabbed a floss pick and worked magic on her teeth.
* * *
Several swift minutes later Phoebe was fully dressed. Her USPS employee uniform was packed in a black leather book bag. She was at the dressing mirror beside her bed admiring the outfit she wore. Skinny jeans—‘comfortable-tight,’ nicely exaggerating her derrière—a white silk dress lined with bright green stripes and a dark green fleece jacket. Who says you can’t be in style at 45? She felt like a million bucks!
Slowly, she felt doubt creep in. She gently brushed her hand across her face, over her jagged dimples which protruded like tectonic plates. Over her round nose that was sturdy when left alone but a hollow bone when moved. Her hand ended at her eyelashes, which were longer than a normal woman’s eyelashes. Darker too, which was a chore when she wanted to decorate them. Despite her outfit looking fresh Phoebe couldn’t look past her skin. Smooth, copper colored, free of erosion. Beautiful. Yet after all these years she was just not accustomed to it. She could drown in that sea of unfamiliarity if she focused too hard.
“One last glance,” Phoebe said to herself, wary of time. A last glance at her 5’10 tallness, teal eyes and brunette straight hair. Someday she’d have a man picking apart these details for her.
“Time to go.” She said.
She searched her dresser for a charm to match her outfit. A bracelet would do. Most of what she had was silver, though she didn’t get to wash the brown spots off of everything. Phoebe took pleasure in the fact that most of her selection she shoplifted. Getting away with theft was catharsis for her miserable life.
Phoebe picked up a thick bracelet with a green gem in the middle. She snagged this prize after she bought some cheap earrings. ‘Buy one get one flee.’ She smiled. She put on the bracelet, tied on her black hijab, snatched her book bag and ran outside to catch the Septa bus. As fun as stealing was, she did feel remorse. Penny would never shoplift. Or have to wash her jewelry.
* * *
“Watch out! The Muslim Brotherhood has arrived!”
Phoebe let out a sigh. She got to work on time, clocking in at 7 something on the dot. Unfortunately her getup didn’t garner any attention from men during her commute. Maybe it was the hijab—religious devotion doesn’t exactly scream sexy. Though she was not well versed in the faith, she needed the hijab. It was saving her life.
The words were said by Alyssa. She leaned against the mailboxes of the postal lobby, arms crossed. Grinning. Alyssa Ettel was 47 and racist. She’d scowl at any brown person within fifteen feet of her. To avoid them, she requested her delivery route be moved to Roxborough. She was 5’6 and chubby with dirty blonde hair that was actually dirty. So dirty that it looked like she got done working the field in front of a trailer park, accruing soil and twigs amid frazzled strands of hair. Unlike Phoebe she was born in Philly; she was accustomed to the city’s filth. She would often rave about how she was going to the pub after work, or that she’d prefer to have cheap booze than work with Phoebe. It was ironic how uncivilized she was, considering her middle-class upbringing. Meanwhile Phoebe showered twice a day, cleaned her home several days in a week and was dirt poor. Alyssa didn’t know this about Phoebe, but tortured her regardless. Stanley only let her behavior pass because of her tremendous pride. He respected pride, even if it was foolish pride.
“White trash, good to see ya.” Phoebe said. “D’you pawn off that baby so you could continue your abortion streak?”
“No, I kept her. Decided she had worth unlike you. Don’t think I don’t notice you staring at Stanley’s ass. He’s never going to notice you.”
Phoebe knew she shouldn’t act aggressive since Alyssa was reactive. But—
“How’s your mom been ‘Lyssa? Bet she can’t get enough of you. Cooped up in her home cause’ you don’t know how to SAVE. All that money spent on private school and you decided ‘uh, no thanks college.’ You’d rather kick it with your man. Except, he didn’t want you after that abortion failed. Six years as a mailwoman. She must be so proud!”
As sudden as she said it a force knocked Phoebe backwards. Her vision rushed from wall-to-ceiling. She landed hard on her back, her wrists slammed like stones against the hardwood floor. The same hardwood floor that had black scuff marks from unclean boots tramping on it day in and day out. If she put two fingers there it would be tough to lift them, and once they came off there’d be a stickiness on them similar to dried syrup. Phoebe looked at her wrist. The green gem on her bracelet had cracked. Above her stood Alyssa who grabbed her hijab amid the fall.
“Prissy bitch.” Alyssa said. “Stuck up like a rich girl but deceptive like the brown person you are. My life is none of your business.”
Her back was vibrating with pain. Her wrists felt stiff. She was definitely sore from the fall, but it got her adrenaline pumping. Summoning a strength she didn’t know she had Phoebe got off the ground and ran up in Alyssa’s face. Alyssa didn’t flinch but she didn’t care. She had her against the wall. Attacking her ribs would be so easy. Fingers balled into fists, Phoebe reveled in her newfound power. Energy was coursing through her veins. She stared intently at Alyssa, waiting to see fear form on her face. Alyssa hadn’t so much as blinked. The two stood motionless for a while as Phoebe reflected on her actions. Was this a good idea? Could I even hurt her? Phoebe’s tight fists loosened. She couldn’t move, her legs refused to. She felt vicious claws clenching her insides.
While Alyssa was short and chubby she had the strength of a lumberjack. As much as she wanted to give Alyssa a black eye, Phoebe was not a fighter. She could picture events playing out, Alyssa lifting her and slamming her on her knee, breaking her back in two. Phoebe was paralyzed by the thought.
Alyssa began to laugh and walked around Phoebe who was still frozen in place.
“Nice move, Watkins.” Alyssa said laughing.
A rage came over her. I’ll show you some moves, Phoebe thought. She turned and smacked Alyssa back and forth several times in succession. Each smack echoed swiftly making the rhythm of a rapid fire metronome. Of course, this was in her head. Alyssa could break her back in two.
“Gotta go. Some of us have work to do.”
The door slammed shut. Alyssa dropped Phoebe’s hijab on the floor on her way out. Phoebe slumped against the nearest wall. She felt weak. Her arms swung loosely by her sides. Defeat. What a way to start a morning.
* * *
Time to get to work. Phoebe changed into her work uniform and stuffed her book bag into a locker. She wore USPS standard wear, much less glamorous than her previous outfit. It was a light blue button up shirt that felt coarse like sandpaper. The company logo, a crude drawing of an eagle, was pinned at the top left corner. She wore navy blue khakis. Her black hijab was tied on as well. Disgruntled from her encounter with Alyssa, she had thrown her cracked green gem bracelet in a trash can.
“Stupid bitch.” She grumbled. “One of these days you’re gonna get yours.” To Phoebe, the worst part was that she almost had her. During that encounter Alyssa was only two feet away. Maybe Phoebe’s job was already on the line, maybe punching her annoying coworker in the stomach would have gotten her fired. But she would have stood up for herself. Phoebe almost had her, but in the end she didn’t.
* * *
8 AM. Gray light beamed through the blindfolds. A wavy, ladder pattern formed on the hardwood floor. Cardboard smell merged with plumes of deodorizer. In the living-room’s corners were large unopened boxes. The walls were pure white. Besides the couch and boxes and TV the room was completely empty. Not a single particle of dust floated in the air. It was exactly the same as when she first moved here. Three years ago.
She was sprawled on the couch, head cocked back, arms out on the pillows. On the TV Mike Jerrick and Alex Holley carried out their usual banter on the morning news show Good Day Philadelphia. Defeated, the natural thing to do was to combine her two allotted break times so she could stay home for half an hour.
Phoebe never wanted to live here. Philly, where every block held litter and where someone else’s garbage always made its way into her can. Where graffiti covered every home, corner store, street sign and fire hydrant in sight. She never fully unpacked, holding out hope the hitmen hunting her down would stop or that her soulmate would introduce himself and whisk her away to a better life. He was taking his time.
There were only a few things that held her interest while she awaited him. Jewelry, dressing herself up, and cleaning. The city was such a mess, it was only natural she formed a new habit to combat it. After every meal she swept. After dinner she mopped. Every Saturday she vacuumed the corners for any crumbs that escaped her dinner plate. She also made an effort to wash the walls but that was a task she hated. Anything that involved wall cleaning was grunt work. She was used to people doing that for her. Why shouldn’t they? Phoebe was a catch.
She wanted some booze. Drink her misery away. But it was 8 AM, she wouldn’t be able to deliver to a single house if she were tipsy. There was an episode of Single Parents that came on the other night. The Christmas episode. Poppy was by herself because her son was spending the holiday with his dad. She planned on being alone the whole day, wallowing in sadness, when Douglas and his daughters came over and invited her to a holiday party. Reluctantly, she joined and ended up having the best Christmas of her life. And, Poppy discovered she was crushing hard on Douglas. It was not Christmas anymore in Philadelphia. Phoebe watched the front door through the corner of her eye, awaiting someone to knock and invite her to their life.
* * *
She woke up from a nap. Drowsily, she got up and turned off the TV. She plopped back on the couch and stared into space. There was a pain in her chest. With every beat her heart pumped a little too hard. Connected veins were being tugged. Her chest felt hollow. The bones there were crumbling back, squeezing her lungs so she could breath only a pint of air. There was no one there to help her. No one to explain this ache she felt. She’d been running from this feeling for three long years but she knew she couldn’t hide from it forever. She was lonely.
Perhaps she knew loneliness more than anybody, even the poor, in this city, because she was not from this city. She knew loneliness more than Penny, that was for sure. Loneliness was a concept Penny had not known even existed.
Penny, the blonde haired beauty of San Francisco. She had a small nose. Soft cheeks. Always showed a blissful smile. She was also rich, Phoebe could never forget that. Money buys happiness and she had a lot of it. Her father was a retired marine and her mother was rich, so Penny was rich. As in living in a tall hillside mansion with a wall of glass on one side to view the ocean. It was a diamond compared to Phoebe’s shack of an apartment, which was clean but small since it was a rowhome. In her beautiful home she had butlers that did all the cleaning for her, something Phoebe envied greatly. That beautiful home on a hill must’ve made Penny happy. That and the parties her friends invited her to. Phoebe couldn’t remember the last time her friends invited her to an outing. With all her wealth Penny was never alone.
Usually she slept around with different men but in her college years Penny had a boyfriend. Richer than her, he made her happy. It’s tragic that her carefree attitude is what got him killed. His rich father wanted revenge and has been after her ever since. He sicked some guns-for-hire have been after her, and they’d been on her trail for nearly two decades.
So, she had to hide away. Go underground. Dye her blonde hair brunette, tan her skin, get facial surgery and fake being Muslim. And ditch her wealth since the hitmen could track her with it. Her final step was changing her name. Penny became Phoebe.
Which was a damn shame because Phoebe missed her name more than anything. Penelope Walker. A pristine flower. Now she was Phoebe Watkins. Watt-kins. What, was she an electrical engineer? And her soft white skin, now clay brown. Not necessarily abhorrent. Beach tanning was a nice change in style. But having to tan 24/7, never to see her milky skin again? It was quite frustrating.
Eyes closed, she let out a sigh. It’s been twenty years since she’s been hiding away. Her money, gone. Her family, probably thought she was dead. Just because a little carelessness, because a single life lost, her old life was now unattainable. No one in Philly was clean or friendly, no man wanted to date her—and suddenly her phone was ringing.
It was Stanley. What time was it? 8:45, crap. She should be on the road already.
Stanley intoned, dragging the ‘n’ in her last name, “Ms. Watkins. I see you’ve clocked in on time. How are your deliveries going?”
“Fine. They’re going fine.”
“Are you sure? I’m not hearing confidence in your voice…”
“I’m about to, about to, ah—”
“…Where’s your enthusiasm? You need to be more full of life, Watkins.”
“Have I ever told you the story of how I came to this city?”
“Yes, boss, you’ve told me several times.”
“I came to Philadelphia on my hind legs. Crawling, a mere ten year old with no parents around,” Stanley said. There was no stopping him once he got started. “You may not know this, but my little brother is paralyzed.”
Phoebe knew this because Stanley told her this story several times.
“Half paralyzed. His poor little legs can’t do anything. I had to hitchhike from Atlantic City, a dour place where the rich are poor and the poor are poor, all the way to Philadelphia to make opportunity. I was sad. Tired. Destitute. Uneducated. But I still made something out of myself and got my brother the care he needed. I have been postmaster of this city for 25 years. And you know what? I’m happy with my life.”
She rolled her eyes.
“If I can do that, Watkins, then you can be happy with your life. Get some energy. Make friends with Alyssa. Live your life!”
“Got it boss.”
“Alright. Don’t miss any homes on your route.” He clicked the call finished.
It wouldn’t be long before he realized Phoebe lied about starting her shift. She made her way out the front door and got in the mail truck. Off she sped to start her delivery.
* * *
Her route was in North Philly, close to home but not within walking distance. On either side of the street were row houses. Three floored and narrow, they were rectangles turned on the small side to create pillars. Each was colored some variation of tan, light or dark, with a red or brown brick stairway. There were a few men loitering on either side of the sidewalk, wearing wrinkled t-shirts with logos that had faded from age. These men weren’t unfamiliar. If she had been here earlier, they’d be calling ‘loosies, loosies’ to kids on their way to school. Cigarettes, used and loosed from a pack and sold to pedestrians for a dollar or two. The disgust on Phoebe’s face was palpable. They did not try to sell her one today.
Beyond the alley she was delivering in was a distant and large factory. She’d been near it once. All sides were blocked off by an orange fence—that didn’t stop hoodlums from smashing most of the windows and graffiting gang signs on the walls. There were many sites like this in the city. Apparently Philadelphia was a metropolis of manual labor in the 1900s. But with most of its inhabitants being broke, the factories were shut down. The city itself was too broke to pay for the demolition of these factories.
The delivery truck was parked two blocks away. On foot, Phoebe speed walked from house to house. She darted up a set of steps, slid the mail in the envelope slot, rushed down the steps and moved to the next house. In the process her calves began to burn. The muscles tightened like binded strings. They grew hotter with each step. Working was bad enough, but physical exertion would normally leave Phoebe fuming for days.
Somehow, though, she was not upset. In fact a smirk had formed on her face. She felt amused by the prospect of starting work late without her boss knowing. If she was able to make her delivery quota, that would mean she could start work late every day without getting caught! Stanley would be none the wiser.
Pacing to the next house, Phoebe stopped at the sight of a cat sleeping on the top step. Its fur was soft and glistening like a shiny pillow. The cat was white with patches of light brown. Not a trace of dirt covered it. Phoebe lunged and hugged it in awe. It was adorable! She had always loved animals, and now one was hers.
“Maybe I’ll make a friend in this city after all,” she said, snuggling the cat. Its eyes were drooping, annoyed at being woken up.
“You’ve been through a lot. It takes effort to keep clean fur likes yours clean in this trashy city.”
Phoebe hummed into its ear, then had an epiphany.
“Yes, I can see it now. Your hard life. You probably went by a delicate name, like my old one. You were a Cynthia. A beautiful flower with the entire garden under your control. Your last owner was a navy veteran. A general, just like my father in the Marines. I can see it in your lime green eyes. Cynthia, you were a loyal cat, watching the property while your owner was away. But when he never returned and the food ran out you were forced to wander Philly’s putrid streets for…5, 5 long years. I can see your tiredness in your eyes. We’ve both been waiting a long, long time.”
Phoebe lifted Cynthia above her head. Her fingers nearly slipped, Cynthia was gaunt despite her large fur, but she held onto her. They maintained eye contact, Phoebe making a duck face. Cynthia let out a tired meow.
“But we’ll get our victory. We’ll get what we deserve.”
Cynthia placed her head in the space between Phoebe’s neck and shoulder, purring gently. Then she bit her.
“Ow! What the hell?” She pried the little devil off of her and looked at it. What she didn’t notice until now was Cynthia’s foaming mouth. She threw the cat to the sidewalk and it landed perfectly on its feet. It growled at her and scurried away.
“Rabies…” She said. “The filth in this city is contagious.”
* * *
Only two houses left for this street. After that, Phoebe could hop in the van and drive to her next destination. It would be as if she had been on time the whole time. She’d take care of the rabies bite later so Stanley wouldn’t find out she was slacking off.
She ran up the stairway of the second to last house. When she got to the top she swung open the screen door. Now to get those letters. She opened her mailbag and began digging. Everything was jumbled together. She felt bent envelopes, pens and a wooden clipboard. A hot scowl grew on her face.
Suddenly the front door opened. Phoebe shot her head up. In the doorway was a middle aged woman with lemon blonde hair in a tight ponytail. Wrinkles lined her cheeks, which would have stood out if not for her eyepatch on her right eye. Her other eye was hazel. The woman wore a Philadelphia police uniform.
“Well good morning,” the officer said.
Phoebe looked back to her satchel, still searching for the mail.
“Your letter’s comin’ right up…” Phoebe replied, disinterested.
The officer continued to smile.
“That’s a nice headscarf you have. How long’ve you been practicing?”
“My whole life,” Phoebe said. “It’s called a hijab.” Her heartbeat quickened.
“Ah. My apologies. You don’t look like the experienced type. Something in your eyes.”
“Yeah well, you look like yours need to be checked.”
The officer leaned back chuckling. It was in this motion that Phoebe noticed her muscular arms. Makes sense, considering she was a cop. She must’ve gone after dangerous people.
“So. How long have you been on the run?”
Phoebe pulled out a stack of mail, disproportionate, with many different names and addresses. She delivered to this woman’s house multiple times. It’s been her route for three years. But for some reason, she couldn’t remember her name. Her fingers trembled against the stack.
“What do you mean?” Phoebe asked.
“You know. From your dead ex’s father. You haven’t dated in twenty years. Post-adulthood your sex life has been quite uninteresting.”
Phoebe didn’t reply.
“Penelope, there’s a way out.” The officer backed into her house, giving Phoebe a view of the living-room. It was tidy, with a glossy wooden floor and an elephant gray memory foam couch. Not a single particle of dust was in the air. Protruding from behind the couch was a rocket launcher that leaned against the wall. How could a home HERE be so spotless?
A mix of emotions played through Phoebe’s mind. Fear and hope.
“How do you know that name?” She asked. Very few people knew about Penelope. Some engineering from her past is what got her a new life and records to prove it.
“I know the identity of every person in this city. You are Penelope Walker.”
“Why do you have a rocket launcher?” She pointed at the hulking weapon. It was thick, like a giant tube plucked out the sewers.
“Oh this? It’s a trophy really. Just something I show to my clients so they know I get the job done.” The woman pressed her finger on her eyepatch. “For my clients, I always get the job done.”
It was impossible for Phoebe to hide the bewilderment on her face. She had a feeling she knew what this woman was. Such an ominous aura. It only came off of people who’ve seen danger. But she had to ask to be sure.
“Just who the hell are you? What are you?”
“I’m Veronica. Mercenary. Your father was a marine, but more importantly he was rich. I know how much you hate this place. How you’d do anything to get your old life back. Your money and your power.”
Veronica held out her hand.
“I can help you get it back. I can kill the men who are after you. For a decent pay.”
She felt as if she could faint. A door was opening for her. The chance to finally get what she deserved. But would she be caught by the men who were after her? Would Veronica double cross her and steal her wealth? Phoebe already missed her opportunity to fight back Alyssa. So what would she do now?
Take the hand or leave it. The choice was within arm’s reach.