Literary Yard

Search for meaning

By Stephen Tillman

“Not here!” Julie exclaimed as Mark held open the door of the restaurant. “It’s too fancy and too expensive. I’m not dressed for a place like this. You said it would be casual.”

“Don’t you worry your pretty little head about the expense,” Mark said, causing Julie to bristle at the implication she was a flighty airhead. “Trust me, I can afford it, and you look fine.”

“Please Mark,” Julie begged. She pointed across the street. “Look. There’s a diner on the corner. I doubt we’ll need a reservation. Let’s eat there. I’ll feel more comfortable.”

“Don’t be silly,” Mark said, taking Julie by the arm and pulling her into the restaurant. “That’s no place for a man to take his best girl on Valentine’s Day.”

Not wanting to make a scene, Julie reluctantly entered the establishment. Mark gave their coats to a hatcheck girl. The maitre d’ wrinkled his nose as if he’d smelled something foul when he looked at Julie’s outfit—jeans, a tee-shirt, and sneakers. She blushed in embarrassment. He asked if they had a reservation, clearly hoping they didn’t, and sighed when Mark showed the confirmed reservation message on his phone. He led them to a table for two just outside the kitchen. It was well away from the other tables. A blast of hot air hit them every time someone entered or left the kitchen.

“You saw the way he looked at me, Mark,” Julie said. “This table sucks. They don’t want us here. It’s not too late. Let’s go to the diner.”

“We’d have gotten a better table if you’d worn a dress,” Mark said heatedly. He swept his arm around. “Every other woman in the place is dressed up.”

“That’s it!” Julie said, loud enough to be heard at the tables closest to them. Heads turned. She jumped up. “You said casual. This is casual. I’m out of here!”

“Julie, I’m sorry,” Mark apologized, grasping her arm before she could walk away. “I meant casual dress-up, but I didn’t say that. Sit down. Please.”

Feeling a little embarrassed by her outburst, and not wanting to cause more of a scene, Julie retook her seat. She picked up the menu and flinched. Oh my God, she thought. Thirty dollars for a shrimp cocktail. A hundred dollars for a Delmonico steak. Mark can’t afford this place. I earn almost $100,000 a year as a dental hygienist and I wouldn’t want to pay these prices. As an appliance salesman in a cut-rate store he doesn’t make as much as I do.

The sommelier came to their table. Mark ordered champagne. Julie closed her eyes and shook her head. A server came next. Mark insisted he order for both of them, which once again set her teeth on edge, but she made up her mind to endure the evening. He ordered a Caesar salad for each of them, steak for himself, and salmon for her. She didn’t particularly care for salmon, but didn’t want to start another argument. Everything was a la carte.

During dinner he prattled on about the plans he had. She contributed a word or a phrase whenever he expected something from her, but otherwise said little.

As a busboy cleared the remnants of their meals, Mark reached across the table, took her hands, and said, “Julie, you mean the world to me. I want you in my life until the end of time.”

“We only met three weeks ago,” she protested. “You’re jumping the gun.”

“When I first saw you, I knew you were the one. I could see in your eyes that you felt the same. We’re compatible in every way. Our love will be eternal.”

“We’ve barely kissed,” Julie said, pulling her hands away. “Mark, this won’t work.”

“What do you mean? We’re made for each other.”

“Last night I was with some girlfriends. You texted me twenty-seven times. I counted. If I didn’t respond immediately you sent one frantic text after another, wanting to know who I was with and what I was doing. I can’t be smothered like that.”

“I was worried about you. New York is a dangerous city.”

“I’m twenty-six years old. I’ve lived here my entire life. I know what’s what. You want to control me completely. I won’t have it. No matter what you think, you’re not my soul mate. I don’t think we should see each other any more.”

“You’re dumping me?” Mark exclaimed. He abruptly rose to his feet and threw his napkin at her, missing badly. “On Valentine’s Day? You goddamned bitch! After everything I tried to do for you, taking you to one of the best restaurants in the city. Do you have any idea how hard it was to get a reservation?” He stomped out.

The server came over and handed the check to her, saying, “I assume you will not be having dessert.”

The bill came to over $250. With the tip it would be more. She handed him her credit card, thinking, It’ll be a while longer before I can get those Jimmy Choo’s I’ve been saving for. Maybe it’s worth it if it gets rid of him.


Sophie’s howl followed by a man’s scream brought Julie from a sound sleep to instant alertness. In the ambient light from the window she could make out a man wearing a ski mask. Sophie was perched on his shoulder digging her claws into his face and neck, drawing blood. Half the mask was ripped off. She could clearly see the man was Mark. He managed to get hold of Sophie and threw her against the wall. When she hit the floor she landed on her feet and darted from the room.

Julie tried to use Sophie’s diversion to get away, but she was only able to take two steps before Mark grasped her right arm. She swung her left hand trying to hit his head, but he ducked, and her fist glanced off his shoulder, causing no damage. He retaliated by slapping her twice and banging her head against the wall, momentarily stunning her.

While she was dazed he dragged her to the kitchen, handcuffed her hands behind her back, and handcuffed each leg to the base of the chair. When she started to yell he put a hand over her mouth, took out a switchblade, held it to her throat, and said, “Scream and I’ll cut out your tongue. Understand?” She nodded. He whipped off the shredded ski mask and threw it on the floor.

“How did you get in?” Julie demanded.

“I made a wax impression of your keys last Saturday.”

“So you were planning to break in!”

“No, I wanted to be able to come to your aid if you needed it.”

“If I needed help I’d call 9-1-1, not you!”

 “I should’ve known a rich bitch like you would consider herself too good for the likes of me.”

“I’m not rich,” she stated.

“Oh yeah? Living in a six-room apartment on Central Park West? Baloney!”

“It’s a condo. I inherited it from my parents when they were killed in a car crash. They bought it thirty years ago.”

“There must’ve been some money too.”

“My brother got the money, I got the apartment. It’s what we both wanted.”

“Jumping Jehoshaphat!” Mark exclaimed, throwing his hands in the air. “If we married we could’ve sold this place for a million bucks and used the cash to start the business I was telling you about. Then we’d both be rich. But no, a repressed virgin like you can’t think that way. Well, by the time I leave here you won’t be a virgin anymore, and your face will be so ugly nobody will want to do it with you.”

She didn’t think telling him she hadn’t been a virgin since she was seventeen would win her any points. Instead she said, “We were never going to get married, Mark. I don’t love you. In no time we’d make each other miserable. We’re better off going our separate ways. Don’t you realize that?”

“You’ll be begging me to marry you before we’re done,” Mark said, using his knife to scratch a line down her cheek.

At that moment Sophie, who’d been perched on top of the refrigerator, launched herself on Mark’s head, with her hind paws on the back of his neck and her front paws on his cheeks. All four legs moved frantically with claws out. Mark’s high pitch scream pierced the air. Julie hoped a neighbor would hear it and call the police. Sophie jumped to the floor and ran out of the kitchen.

“I’ll take care of you later,” Marked yelled, chasing after Sophie. “First I have to kill that cat! I hate cats!”

Julie looked down at the handcuffs on her ankles. They were children’s plastic toys. She humped the chair over to the kitchen table, stood, and picked up a sheaf of papers. The papers were held together by a heavy paperclip. She removed the clip, straightened it with fingers made strong by years of scraping plaque off teeth, and even without being able to see behind her back, had little trouble picking the lock on the handcuffs. She quickly freed her right leg and was just about to start on her left, when Mark came back into the kitchen via the dining room door.

Julie ran for the hallway door, dragging the chair behind her. Mark grabbed the chair. With Mark pulling one way and Julie the other way, the cheap plastic broke, sending both of them sprawling. Julie scrambled to her feet and ran, with Mark close behind. She headed toward the study.

At the door of the study Mark grabbed the thin, cotton tee she slept in—along with boxer shorts—and tugged. The shirt ripped from her right armpit down. He was left holding a piece of cloth.

As soon as the cloth ripped away Julie fell. Mark dove at her with his knife out, stabbing her right arm as she rolled away from him. She jumped to her feet, ran behind the desk chair, which was on wheels, and pushed it at him. He yelled in pain as it hit him on the knee, but now she was trapped behind the desk. He advanced on her, laughing maniacally. Julie grabbed a letter opener from the desk and held it in front of her.

“That thing doesn’t scare me,” Mark growled as he ran at her.

Julie slid toward him feet first as if she were trying to steal second base. She hit him in the ankles and sent him flying over her. As he passed overhead she thrust the letter opener upward, catching him in the chest. He landed hard on his abdomen. The force of his fall caused the opener to penetrate deeper, right into his heart.

Julie got to her feet and stared at his lifeless body. With shaking hands she picked up the desk phone and dropped it. On the third try she was able to punch 9-1-1.

“9-1-1, what is your emergency?” a voice asked.

“M-Mark b-broke into my apartment and t-tried t-to r-rape and k-kill me,” she stammered.

“I have an address from caller-id,” the voice said and recited it. Julie verified it was correct.

Just as she hung up there came a pounding on the front door. Someone yelled, “Police, open up!” That was quick, she thought as she hurried to the door.

Two uniformed officers entered. One of them said, “That’s a nasty cut. Get a towel or something to stop the bleeding. Tell us what happened. Then we’ll take you to the ER.”

Julie returned with a towel wrapped around her arm. She gave a quick rundown of the events. There was another knock on the door. One of the cops opened it to a man in his sixties, wearing a bathrobe, and carrying a leather satchel.

“Dr. Kleinman!” Julie exclaimed. “Maybe you can fix my arm and I won’t have to go to the hospital.”

“That’s why I brought my doctor equipment,” Kleinman said, holding up the satchel. As he worked on Julie he explained that he lived in the other apartment on this floor. He’d called 9-1-1 because he heard a commotion from this apartment.

“I also called 9-1-1,” a confused Julie said. “Mark was trying to rape and kill me.”

Just then another knock came. Two cops in plain clothes, one black and one white, entered. The black man said, “I’m Detective Wesley and this is Detective Huffman. We’re here because of a call about a rape and murder.”

Julie noted Wesley was in his late forties and could be described as grizzled. Huffman was around thirty, about six feet tall, and well-built. She told them where they could find Mark’s body. Wesley heard the report from the patrolmen, dismissed them, left Huffman to stay with Julie, and went to examine the body.

Kleinman completed putting three stitches in Julie’s arm, told Huffman he’d been Julie’s doctor since she was a little girl, and packed up his bag. He told her to come to his office or apartment to get the stitches removed. Julie thanked him and escorted him to the front door with Huffman trailing.

Wesley returned to the living room. “No need for EMT’s,” he said. “Guy’s had it. Call the meat wagon and forensics. Might be a while before they get here. Been a busy night. You’ll have to handle this on your own. Seems pretty cut and dried. She still has a half a handcuff on her ankle. I have to provide backup on a shooting.”

Wesley left. Huffman asked Julie to once again describe the confrontation with Mark. She started to and then began to cry. He led her to the couch and sat next to her with his arm around her while she cried herself out.

“That’s a normal reaction for people who’ve been through a traumatic event,” he said while she wiped her eyes. “The adrenaline rush wears off. Now tell me about it.”

Just then Sophie sauntered into the room, jumped onto Julie’s lap, moved over to Huffman, and butted her head against him while purring like a miniature jackhammer.

“You little slut,” a smiling Julie said. The cat preened and rubbed against Huffman as he stroked her. “I thought Mark killed you. Do you like cats, Detective?”

“Oh yeah. Growing up we always had…”

Huffman was staring at her chest. She looked down and saw that when Sophie jumped from her lap to Huffman’s the cat moved the shirt Mark had ripped exposing her right breast. Her first reaction was to cover herself, but then she decided not to.

“You might as well look. It’s the only part of me that’s still attractive. My hair is a mess, my eyes are red from crying, my face is scratched and blotchy, my arms and legs are bruised and bloody. I’m a fright!”

“Don’t sell yourself short,” Huffman said. “I found you to be incredibly sexy the first time I laid eyes on you. Now that your… most appealing part is showing it’s all I can do to maintain professionalism.”

A little voice in Julie’s head said, This one’s a keeper. Don’t let him get away. You want the man to make the first move, but he just said he’s not going to. Even Sophie likes him, and she doesn’t like many people.

“Are you married, Detective?” Julie blurted.


“Do you have a steady girlfriend?”

“Not at the moment.”

“Want one?”

“Are you applying for the position?” Huffman asked with a grin.

“Yes. Is the vetting process very extensive?”

“It is indeed,” Huffman said with a solemn look on his face. “You passed stage one when I first saw you. You passed stage two because you didn’t freak out when I saw your boob. Stage three is having a cat. FYI, a dog would’ve also worked.”

  “Now for the final stage.” He picked up Sophie and placed her on the floor, much to the cat’s displeasure. Then he slid Julie onto his lap and kissed her. As their tongues met she thought, In spite of everything, this has to be the best Valentine surprise ever.


Stephen Tillman is a professor of Mathematics at Wilkes University. He holds a Ph.D. in mathematics from Brown University. An avid reader of mysteries and science fiction, he has published several stories in both genres. His novels, Leopard’s Daughter and Leopard’s Revenge have been published by Azure Spider Publications. 

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