Junk Shop Girl

A Tellisford Novel – Book 1

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Kiki Keller wasn’t always a sleek, urban graphic artist.

Teenaged Kittie, as she was known then, was awkward and wildly in love with the town bad-boy, Stephen Tellisford, who destroyed her romantic dreams, her reputation, and her life. Shamed and bullied by her classmates, Kittie fled to art school in Atlanta and tried to put what happened in that small southern town behind her. But her beloved grandfather’s death summons her back home and to the antique store, locally known as the “Junk Shop”, where she played and dreamed in as a child.  

Russell Tellisford wasn’t always a smooth, small-town developer. 

Growing up, Russell only wanted to escape from his abusive, drug-addicted father and his brother, Stephen, who idolized their father. As a boy, that escape was to the town junk shop, where a young girl named Kittie made fantastical worlds out of cardboard, sequins, and glitter. Later, escape was college and a fast-paced life in Washington, DC. After his father’s death and his job in DC collapses, Russell is called back to the family home he despised, a pile of debt, and a brother struggling with addiction. Russell, desperate and angry, transforms his family’s crumbling mansion into a resort. Now he’s aiming to renovate the town’s historic square, which, for decades, had been trashed by the sprawling junk shop.

With Kiki as the store’s new owner, he might get some traction on this project—and with her.  But the open, trusting little girl he remembered has changed. The closer he tries to get to her, the more walls she erects between them.  And he doesn’t know why… 

Junk Shop Girl – Excerpt

Chapter One

 “I’m late. I’m so effing late,” Kiki muttered like a profane white rabbit. She hurried along as fast as was gracefully possible in four-inch heels over the pavers of the Atlanta Botanical Garden. She missed her warm, comfy yoga pants and fuzzy socks she had left abandoned in a puddle on her bathroom floor. Instead of spending a low-energy, low-risk evening cuddled with her warm laptop in bed, eating popcorn from the microwavable bag and binge-watching anime, she was attending an awkward evening of real, person-to-person networking. All stiff smiles, saying where she worked and then making small talk about the weather because that’s what she was left with as she wasn’t a sports fan unless commenting about the hotness of soccer players on the big screen at a bar counted.

Ahead of her, red, orange, and yellow tulips, planted in color-coordinated lines, bordered the path. Their vivid hues visually popped against the gloaming jewel tones striping the skyline. The midtown skyscrapers rose in harsh vertical lines above organic curves formed by the treetops. White-gold lights created hazy haloes along the building tops.

A picture of color and symmetry.

She reached to pull her camera from her red Japanese schoolgirl-style backpack and capture the moment, but then remembered she had left her backpack and camera at home. All she had was a useless clutch that held the basics: car keys, lipstick, phone, ID, credit card, business card, and two twenty-dollar bills—because her grandpa always said it was dangerous to go around without cash.

She cursed again and hurried on to the main garden where Atlanta’s elite gathered for the sponsor-only exhibit preview—men in understated gray and black, young women in Spanx-enabled black dresses and heels, older women in loose, gauzy floral gowns. Diamonds and gold flashed from their ears, necks, and wrists. They chatted politely among members of their corporate tribes, sipping wine from glasses that gleamed in the footlights.   

Kiki didn’t belong here. She wasn’t a CEO sponsor, nor was she a trophy wife or the golden child of a local powerbroker. She barely had three hundred dollars remaining in the bank each month after paying the crazy rent on her apartment and taking care of bills and student loans. And, of course, she had to eat.  Every other week it seemed she was siphoning from last year’s bonus, which she had put into savings and vowed she wouldn’t touch. Of course, she kept changing the terms of that vow—just a hundred dollars for concert tickets or for a killer deal on a weekend trip to New York City and then, for real, she would save the rest like a super responsible adult, she would assure herself.

The only reason she was invited to tonight’s event was that she helped design the marketing material for the garden through the year, including the luminous green banner rising over everyone’s heads. “Alight in the Garden. The works of Daiki Sato” it read in a clean, delicate san serif font that she finally settled on after trying fifty others. Vivid red, gold, and blue flowers and tiny incandescent butterflies, grasshoppers, and dragonflies that she had illustrated dotted the canvas.

She paused for a moment, transfixed by her own work.

I did that. I made that.

It filled her with a sweet glow that nothing else in her puny life—not wine, not Chinese dumplings, not sex—could. It was her little creation, her artsy baby in the world.

The sweet high didn’t last long before someone bumped into her and muttered accusatorially “Ummm, excuse me” with unspoken “bitch” tagged on at the end.

“Sorry,” Kiki murmured and moved along in the current of rich folks. She spied her friend and fellow inmate at Portman Media, Inc., Terence, loitering along the edge of the crowd by the Japanese garden entrance, and automatically she smiled.

Terence was the essence of cool, sporting a gray hat and argyle sweater vest as he sipped from a martini containing a speared fat, green olive stuffed with a flaming red pimiento. He didn’t quite pull off the sophisticated, world-weary look because his ebony face retained the sweet, boyish quality that gave Kiki the courage all those years ago to introduce herself. “Hi, I’m Kiki Keller,” she had said, trying out her new artist name for the first time in public.

They had sat beside each other in the metal folding chairs at art school orientation, both nervous and searching. The name Kiki had felt heavy on her tongue—thick and gooey. Terence had to have seen she was an imposter, a fraud. A small-town girl desperate to belong to the city. But he had simply looked on at her in earnest. There had been no meanness in his eyes like the people back home, who knew the joke about her. He’d simply said, “Cool. I’m Terence Grady.” He’d held out his hand, and she’d latched on.

For the next three years, they were comrades, stuck together in the art school foxhole, enduring years of all-nighters and harsh teacher critiques. Now both twenty-six, they worked for the same company—wiser, more urbane than those first days—but sometimes feeling just as lost. They simply hid it better.

“How late am I?” she asked when she reached his side. “And, by the way, you are completely hot tonight. Yum.”

“I’m always hot, girl,” Terence responded. “Which is good, ‘cause you missed the part when the Atlanta mayor gave you an award for the graphic designer of the year. I had to go up there and be all thankful and teary-eyed for you, saying how you were too lazy to get here on time.”

“You could have totally accepted that fat award for yourself. Thank you so very, very much for saving my ass.”  She pressed her hands together like she was praying her gratitude to him. Several weeks ago, she had frantically called Terence after being slammed with three projects on short deadlines. He had offered to help her out with some of the copy for tonight’s shindig. 

“Girl, I owed you for staying up all night last month to help me redo that web interface in time for that healthcare company product launch?” He waved his hand. “And you ain’t missed anything. They just opened the bar so everyone could get happy while we wait for dark and then they’ll turn on the lights. All dramatic-like.”

“Have you seen Heather? We’re supposed to meet up.”

“Naw, I ain’t seen that wild lady.”

“Your martini looks spectacular. I need one. Badly. I’ve been working on that insane corporate rebranding project from hell last weekend and all this week. The evil overlords—I mean, clients—keep sending everything back, wanting more changes.” She mimicked her project contact’s saccharine voice, “We love it. Just. Love. It. But could you … but could you … but could you …” She waved her finger. “One more ‘but could you’ and I’m going to lose it.  Like ‘I’m on the five o’clock news being hauled away in the cop car’ kind of lose it.”

 “Well, baby doll, you look good anyway. Check out the heels! And your hair! Did you brush it or something? Mmm-mmm, you are begging for bad, sexy trouble tonight.”

“What’s that?” She flashed him a wicked smile and rubbed one freshly shaved leg against his.

“You better stop that, girl,” he warned. “You’re messing with my signals. My pheromones are covering a quarter-mile radius of male goodness around here. I’m going to meet the love of my life. I put my intention in the universe. Don’t be screwing with the universe.”

Kiki laughed, breaking up the tension in her muscles from being hunched in front of her dual monitors for the last ten hours. At three fifty-five, she had persuaded herself to back out of the evening, even though she had already given her extra event pass to her friend Heather Marshall and said she would meet her there. Kiki was mentally composing a massive, groveling apology to Heather, when, at four o’clock, Kiki’s boss had called from Los Angeles where he was out schmoozing. He asked—in a breezy, casual California way—how the rebranding project was coming along. Oh, and to tell him later how the botanical garden event went down tonight. He tossed about the word “annual bonus” a few times as if a mere afterthought.

 “Of course, I’m going.” Kiki had smiled into the phone, trying to sound pleasant as she beat the armrest with her fist. After months and months of sixty-hour plus work weeks, the dangling annual bonus carrot was losing its charm. 

But unemployment and massive student loans weren’t exactly charming either.

Then her boss went on to say she was one of the best employees, that her work was loved and praised by clients. He knew her too well. She would stand on the street corner holding a sign that read, “Will create graphics for love and praise.”

So, she had stumbled for the shower and mowed down her overgrown legs and armpits. She was almost out the door when her phone sounded—deep, guttural omms of meditation to remind her to be mindful. It didn’t work. The word “Grandpa” flashed on the screen.

No. No. Not now.

Everything involving her grandfather brought guilt. It had become a Pavlovian-like response now. The poor man was lonely and wallowing in his cluttered home. He only wanted someone to talk to. And, after all, she had canceled her trip home to see him for the third Sunday in a row. She loved her grandpa with all her being. He had taken her in and raised her when her mom abandoned her, but dear lord, he would keep her on the phone for hours going on and on about trivial stuff happening in her hometown of Tellisford. “Them Vidalia onions are four for a dollar at the store.”, “The lake’s real high.”, “They’re finally putting in a stoplight at the intersection by the Walmart.” It took every ounce of control she had not to scream, “I don’t care. I don’t. I hate Tellisford.” A big tornado could come churning through, ripping out every building in that crappy town, and she couldn’t care less. And he didn’t understand her life in Atlanta. He never came to the city, only read the Atlanta newspaper, which made him think murders happened on every block. If she mentioned something about going somewhere or who she had seen, he would say, “I don’t know why you wanna live there with them crazy folks.” She could never tell him why she had to flee nine years ago or why coming to visit him, even for a few hours on a Sunday, felt like setting her insides on fire. She never told him or anyone outside of Tellisford about the video that ruined her young life.

She had gritted her teeth and gripped the phone, standing firm against the onslaught of guilt until the voicemail notification light came on.

She would call him as soon as she got home. Promise.

She had checked the traffic map on her phone before pulling out of her assigned parking space. It appeared as if someone had emptied a vein over metro Atlanta. Every artery was red. Not bright, happy red, but deep, non-moving, ‘why go on living?’ crimson. She’d sighed and left Heather a voicemail, saying she would be late due to living in Atlanta and not to wait for her at the front gates. The usual ten-minute jaunt to Piedmont Park took an excruciating half-hour of inching along, and then she had spent ten minutes driving around the parking deck, trying to squeeze in between the sleek, black BMWs and Mercedes.

“You know I love you.” She hugged Terence. She was so pathetic. She savored the skin-to-skin contact with her gay friend. Oxytocin deprivation was one of the negative side effects of her pathetic romantic life. “Am I messing up your signals?”

She was mid-laugh when she caught sight of her banner again out of the corner of her eye. At this angle, the graphic appeared fresh as if she hadn’t spent thirty hours staring at the words and images, combing each pixel.

That’s when she saw it. Her arms went limp, falling from Terence’s shoulders. “Oh. My. God!”

“What? You see a man?”

“No! The text. On the banner. It’s off-center.”

 “Wha—It ain’t.” Terence scrunched his eyes. “Well, yeah it is, a little. But nobody’s going to notice, they’re too busy worrying if they look good. Get yourself a martini or two or three, and you won’t notice neither.”

She slammed the pad of her palm against her forehead. “That… that was the version I played with when adding ladybugs at the end of the words. Oh no, I sent the wrong version to the printer! How could I have made such a stupid mistake! Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!”

“Stop hitting yourself on the head like that. It’s unsexy. Now we’re not going to discuss your perfectionism issues tonight. Dr. Phil ain’t in the office, but on the prowl. Look at all these cultured men. I know one wants to fall madly in love with me. Maybe one will fall madly in love with you, too, if you stopped obsessing about something that ain’t nobody looking at anyway—being off a few pixels.”

“Pixels? It’s off by inches.”

“Don’t get caught up in the inches. It’s what you do with the inches.”

She shot him a look. “This is serious.”

“To you.”

“Kiki, you bitch.” A female voice said affectionately. Kiki whirled around to find Heather ambling forward, holding two glasses of white bubbling wine in her thin fingers. “I saw you come in. You look amazing. I love that dress, the heels, the hair. You’re like, a watercolor nymph flitting in the garden.” She offered a glass and kissed Kiki’s cheeks French style when Kiki took it. “If you weren’t so sweet, I could unabashedly wallow in my jealousy. Instead, I brought you a glass of Prosecco. Aren’t I a lovely date?”

“You are lovely on every count, sweetie.” Kiki drew a vertical line in the air with her index finger. “And that vintage look you’ve got going totally works.”

Heather had curled her cherry cola red hair into a retro pageboy. Rhinestone bracelets circled her wrists, and her arms were adorned with tattoos of quotes and colorful images, which she would explain came from scenes in Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and To Kill A Mockingbird. She wore a turquoise silk dress that gathered across the bodice and hips, meeting at a round rhinestone pin on the left side of the waist. The fabric was a little discolored with age along the gathers, but otherwise it was “stunning 1950s glam,” Kiki proclaimed.

“And I’m all about the glam,” Heather said. “Selfie?” She fossicked around in her vintage beaded purse, digging out her phone.

Terrence groaned. “Cause if you don’t take a picture of it, it never happened.”

“Come on,” Heather said. “I have to make my life look amazing in case my ex sees my feed.”

The friends scrunched together for a picture, while Heather held her phone up.

Kiki was heartened to see her friend in better spirits and smiling again. Heather was a freelance journalist and had released her first work of fiction last fall. “A dream finally realized,” Heather had said when it came out. “Things are turning around for me. Finally. I can feel it.” Later, Kiki had treated her friend to a foot massage, Goodwill shopping therapy, and then a crying drink fest after Heather had received her first real review for her debut novel—a savage take-down. The other reviews weren’t any nicer.

 “Okay, look at the banner.” Kiki aligned her friend with the sign after Heather was done taking multiple selfies. “What do you see?”  

“What I expect from a Kiki creation—beautiful, eye-catching, yet slick.” Heather wrinkled her nose. “I adore the little bugs. They’re cute.”

“The text is off-center,” Kiki said.

“It is?” Heather narrowed her eyes. “Isn’t that, like, an artistic choice?”

“See,” Terence said. “Nobody’s gonna care. Your pristine world won’t end.”

 He turned to Heather and abruptly changed the subject, cutting off Kiki before she could drag him further into her spiraling insecurity. “Are you covering the event for Atlanta City Life?”

 “Didn’t Kiki tell you?” Heather waved her hand, clanking her numerous bracelets. “I may be moving up in the world of low paying, freelance journalism. The Southern Hearth and Home liked my pitch about the sophisticated Southerner. They liked it! Now I have to write it and not screw it up because they still might not take it. So, I’m here as Kiki’s date to, you know, schmooze with the sophisticates. And y’all are extremely sophisticated, soooo…” She held her phone out like a recorder. “Tell me about the ‘Alight in the Garden’ exhibition. Elucidate. Enlighten me. Be profound. This article has to rock. I need a win. Like desperately.”

“They’ve imported Daiki Sato’s sculptures from Japan,” Terence explained, taking on his business tone. “He mostly works in glass, and his subject is nature. The garden has set out thousands of colored LED lights to—wait, don’t you know this already? Ain’t this what you’re supposed to do for a living?”

“I wouldn’t call it, like, a living, because I had to move in with my mom again,” Heather clarified. “But if you tell me about the art, I can write, ‘as explained by the acclaimed local artists Kiki Keller and Terence Grady’—totally plugging y’all. Friends stick up for friends.”

 “I’m just a graphic designer,” Kiki corrected and then nodded to Terence. “He’s the true artistic genius.” When not on the clock, Terence was a muralist, graffiti artist, and social media sensation. His work, both commissioned and illegal, adorned rail line bridges and rotting buildings in the older parts of the city. Sometimes Kiki rode shotgun on his two a.m. art missions and assisted him, buzzing on the dark thrill.

“The difference being?” Heather asked.

“Don’t go there,” Terence warned. “You don’t know how many arguments, I mean, heated discussions we had about this subject in school. Kiki don’t listen.”

“Look, Daiki Sato art is about frailty and the delicate balance of nature.” Kiki gestured about the garden, where glass sculptures rose above the flowers. “He is complexity within simplicity. Ugliness and beauty intertwined. His best, most edgy work­, which is not shown here, by the way­­, both repulses and attracts. He delights in uncomfortable paradoxes. He is trying to share a deep, profound truth in his art like Terence does. Meanwhile, I’m a happy little brownie choosing fonts and stock photography that represent the profound marketability of toothpaste.”

“Girl, please,” Terence said. “I happen to have seen your graduating art project.”

“I’m not an artist,” Kiki insisted. “I’m not. I’m not smart enough to say anything about nature, sex, death, religion, ideology, or any kind of ‘ism.’ I’ll let y’all be the artists. Terence, your murals are stunning art that you deceptively embed with dark social messages with even more contradictory messages within those messages. It’s like a mirror to a mirror. I’m blown away every time I look at one.” Breathless, she went on. “And Heather, your book is literary art. It’s profound and—”

“Now I know you’re lying.” She held up her palm, her bracelets shimmying down her arm. “And remember we’re not going to talk about my book anymore. I’m finally somewhat happy tonight. Don’t ruin it.”

“But you know what I mean,” Kiki said. In truth, whenever she tried to create a true piece of art, all that bubbled up from her silent depths was an embarrassing outpouring of raw, unformed hurt and anger. No transcending message. No truth or profound meaning. Just lush red, all-consuming anger over what happened to her back in Tellisford. Nobody wants to hang a piece titled “Rage I Repress” over a sofa or complement their dining set with “Velvet Black Hatred for Stephen.” Or worse, have her pathetic soul hanging in a frame at some bohemian coffee house with a price tag beneath it—her pain reduced to unnoticed visual ambiance as people ordered their espressos and lattes. She found refuge in the neat, benign, color-in-the-lines, glossy stock world of design. She felt safe in it. All the messiness hidden from view. She was Andy Warhol’s soup can—only without the deeper meaning.

But dammit, how could she not see the mistake? “The banner text is misaligned by almost two inches, y’all.”

“Let. It. Go,” Terence said.  “Maybe you don’t want a man, but your bad energy is killing my sexy vibes.”

“Just drink, sweetie,” Heather suggested.

A woman sporting short silvery hair, wearing a green suit accessorized with a silk scarf dotted with cherry blossoms, tapped the microphone, sending an electronic, reverberating thud sound over the lawn. 

“Is this working? Yes? Great. I’m Mary Alice Stonecipher, CEO of the Atlanta Botanical Gardens. Thank you for coming out on this lovely spring evening. On behalf of the gardens, I would like to give you a big welcome.” She extended her hands and clapped. 

“Ooh, golf clap,” Terence said, joining everyone in polite, restrained applause.

Ms. Stonecipher dove into a canned speech about how much the sponsors meant to the garden. Kiki forced herself to gaze across the lawn toward the conservatory, else she would obsess about the misaligned banner over Ms. Stonecipher’s head. 

A warm night breeze blew down the oval lawn, ruffling the grass and ornamental trees bordering the grass. Kiki stepped into its rush, letting it caress her skin. The last light of dusk was fading away into the night. A vague outline of buildings and orbs of gold light composed the skyline.

She loved the gleam of the city. It mesmerized her in its shine, making her forget about the traffic, the crowds, fighting for every little thing. In Atlanta, she could slip easily through the days without recognizing anyone, unencumbered by her past. Transplants said that Atlanta had no soul. To Kiki, the city certainly had a soul, just no form. Always in a state of flux and change. Atlanta took you in, not caring about your past. It didn’t say “Who do you think you are?” when Kittie Kellerman, running from Tellisford and the tormenting students in her high school, registered for art school with only GED scores. She dove into the city’s current when she arrived, reinventing herself, tearing away the old, ugly parts that hurt, putting in new elegant structures of sleek, cool design. Her ugly past eradicated, a new woman emerging. Broken Kittie Kellerman became sleek Kiki Keller, at least, among friends and on graphic work. She liked to think that she flew out of the ashes of her old life like the Phoenix, Atlanta’s symbol. 

“None of this abundance and beauty would be possible without your gracious help,” the garden’s CEO continued. “It’s donors like Benitez International and Tellisford Estates that—”

Kiki’s head jerked like she had been slapped in the face. Tellisford Estates?

Immediately, Stephen’s image flared in her head.

No! A roar filled her ears. 

She whirled around. A thirty-something man in an understated charcoal suit strolled forward, followed by a trim man in his fifties or sixties. The younger man had a smooth, reserved gait, not the bad-boy swagger of Stephen. Stephen was dark with disheveled chestnut hair and melting chocolate eyes. This man was all lightness. His neatly clipped, honey gold hair swept to the side of his long face. Soft lips contrasted with his flint hard cheekbones.

Heather leaned in. “Like, meow.”

“Girl, he’s mine,” Terence said. “He just don’t know it yet.”

“Thank you, Russell and Daniel,” the woman from the Botanical Garden said.

Russell? Was this Stephen’s older brother Russell? She hadn’t seen Russell since they played together when she was five or six.  He had been a freckled jumble of skinny arms and legs then.

It’s Russell, not Stephen. You can breathe now. Breathe.

Yet her insides rushed like a pipe had burst in her head spouting anxiety.

Just because it wasn’t Stephen, didn’t mean that Russell didn’t know what happened between her and Stephen or that he hadn’t seen the compromising video Stephen had secretly made of her for his friends’ enjoyment. She estimated a little over two hundred of her classmates, about half her county high school, must have seen the video. Surely Stephen’s brother must have seen it as well. Maybe they had a bro bonding moment over it. Maybe they laughed and joked about the video like Stephen’s friends. Maybe they called her Blow Job Queen and Cum Kittie like the others. The idea that someone in this lovely garden had seen it poisoned all the beauty for her. She felt violated and vulnerable.

The Botanical Garden’s CEO presented Russell and the other man with an open box, displaying a small Daiki Sato sculpture nestled in shiny fabric. Then she drew him into a hug and patted his back. “Russell is part of our family,” she explained to the audience.

Even though the man wasn’t Stephen, Kiki wanted to run to the stage, yank away the Daiki Sato and scream, “Get out of my city! Go home! This is not your family. You don’t belong here.”

For God’s sake, the Tellisford clan already ran Tellisford. Russell had transformed his family home into a resort and had developed all of the land around it. Were the Tellisfords getting ambitious and trying to take over Atlanta, too?

Then, as if he could hear her vicious thoughts, the older man—Daniel something—looked right at her. Her heart sped, a buzzy black heat rushing to her head. Oh God, a full panic attack was beginning to bloom. She hadn’t had one in years.

Just get away.  She had to flee before she embarrassingly fell apart in front of the city’s elite.

“E-excuse m-me,” Kiki whispered to her friends, but she doubted they heard. Her voice was a low, thin reed of sound.

She spun, stumbling through the Japanese garden until she almost fell over a stone bench concealed behind a brick wall.  She slumped down on the cool stone and tried to do the breathing exercises she had learned in Meditation for Anxiety class.

Focus on the breath. In for two, hold, out for three.

But she couldn’t manage even the simple task of breathing because it sounded as though the speaker amplifying Russell’s voice was shoved next to her eardrum.

He spoke in polite, gracious tones—his consonants were soft, the vowels elongated with a slight ‘h’ sound capping them. He spoke about how the Botanical Garden was a gift to the Atlanta community, as well as to the country, for their conservation efforts. And that Tellisford Estates in partnership with Benitez International was proud to be sponsors of the garden and its outreach programs, which were vital to the health of the city, and other such boilerplate rhetoric.

Kiki’s stomach burned with shame. Tellisford was only an hour away, but somehow Kiki naively thought she could hide in the populous city and its fortress of interstate systems and skyscrapers could keep her safe from the Tellisford family. Now she felt no better than seventeen-year-old Kittie on her first day back to school after the summer, hiding in between the enormous air conditioning units by the high school auditorium, her book bag on the ground at her feet, decorated by Stephen’s friends with the words “lick it” from the mayonnaise squirt bottles in the cafeteria. She had hoped the school had forgotten about the video over the summer. But they hadn’t.

And now, ten years later, neither could she.

What would she say when her boss called from his cruise stop tomorrow? “Oh, that Botanical Garden event? It was lovely until I ran into the brother of the guy who secretly taped me and ruined my life. Then I had a total PTSD meltdown and spent the evening under a bench in the fetal position. Oh, and I misaligned the banner by two full inches. Now, how about that bonus?”

Finally, Russell mercifully stepped away from the microphone, and someone else was being announced. Kiki’s heart rate slowed down. Oxygen trickled back into her blood and into her brain.

How could she not have known Russell Tellisford would be here? When Terence offered to do all the typesetting, she didn’t even look at the sponsor copy the garden had sent and gratefully forwarded it on to Terence. Then she went on making pretty, glittery insect and plant graphics for the brochure and the screwed-up banner. For God’s sake, why didn’t she even look at the copy?

She pressed her fingers to her temples. The anxiety was physically sickening.

What she loathed most, more than the video, was how gullible, how stupid she had been. She had willingly removed her clothes and did what he asked because she somehow thought Stephen loved her too. How could she not see? Like the banner tonight, how could she not see it was misaligned by several inches? Why did she always miss the most apparent things? Stupid K—

Stop.

She couldn’t go down this well-worn, spiraling mental path right now. She had to keep it together until she could have a nervous breakdown in the comfort of her own home.  She needed a distraction. She rose and wiped her shaking palms on her legs.

Although it was dark, a low ambient light outlined a boxwood garden. In the center of the area, something glassy shined in the dimness. She strolled toward the glossy object and knelt to see it better. The colors reflected dimly from the ambient glow of the city. And then, at that moment, beautiful colored lights burst around her—luminescent purples, pinks, and blues. A loud chorus of “Ahhhs” filled the air and then applause. The garden was alight with lush, brilliant color. 

Everyone else remained gathered at the central fountain, leaving Kiki alone to take in the stunning sculpture of two brilliant hummingbirds locked in battle.

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