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A Blog to free up the Imagination

Be yourself; Everyone else is already taken.

— Oscar Wilde.

This is a blog dedicated to stories that I have created by immersing myself into the harsh and yet beautiful world that surrounds me. You will thus find a bit of me and the people I encounter in the characters, events and places displayed by those stories. They do not depict life as I actually live it; Maybe just life as I imagine it… I do hope that reading them can help you escape, dream or free up your own imagination.

Sophie Heine

Chapter six : Friendship

(Escape to Manhattan)

The next few days, Sylvia was feeling as lost as the day before. The conversation with Clara had made her aware of the risks of getting involved with a man who did not make her feel comfortable and safe. Beside the fact that it was going fast, the interaction between them had become more and more distressing. He was certainly into her physically and they had already met twice since their first night together; they had been to cafes, restaurants, slept together again, walked in parks…and the more she was getting to know him the more uncomfortable she felt. The attraction was reciprocal but she could not find that kind of sex rewarding. It was all about him, his pleasure and his ego.

Moreover and more importantly, she did not feel valued by him. After their first date during which he had listened to her intently and reacted appropriately to her story, the conversations had started revolving mainly around him. She felt that she knew everything about his life and was supposed to get an interest in it but that the opposite was not true. She had also started to wonder whether this job prospect he had mentioned was just a mirage to keep her attached. Of course, she would never be with someone because of that, but it was a bit weird how he never brought up the subject again. She had asked him a few times about it and he had promised to send her information via email but nothing came. She also regretted telling him about the reasons why she had impulsively left Paris to fly to Manhattan. Now that he knew her trauma maybe he was using her vulnerability? More fundamentally, she did not want to be in such an intense link with someone when she had flown away to escape her past life. She needed time to rebuild herself and maybe become a new person.

As she was strolling through central park by the lake, looking at children throw bread to the ducks, her phone rang. It was her mother. She instantly felt guilty; Of course, her parents…She hadn’t called them for weeks; they must have been so worried.

“Hi, mum, how are you?”

“Oh,Sylvia, love; why haven’t you called us?”

“ Before you say anything else: I’m so so so sorry…Its been really hectic here; Ive started a small job, met someone, I still haven’t fund a place of my own, my money is running out and I’m not feeling that good…so please don’t have a go at me:.

Her mum’s comforting voice came through the line:

“Oh, my darling; you will always remain my little girl, you know that? And hearing how distressed you are really breaks my heart. Do you want me to fly over? I need a break from your dad, to be honest, and a holiday…”

Despite her low mood, Sylvia couldn’t help smiling. Her mum always talked about her life as if she was a very busy business woman. Surely she was doing most of the household but she had never worked and had always made sure she could pamper herself and have fun activities outside the house: how tiring could that be?But then her dad could be a bit of a pain.

“How is dad anyway?”

Her mum sighed.

“He’s in the living room watching some sort of agressive sport; boxing or karate, Im not sure. Do you want to talk to him?”

Who on earth didn’t know the difference between karate and boxing? God, she loved her mum.

“Yes pass him to me in a moment. But regarding your offer to come over, maybe that wouldn’t be a bad idea; if you can afford the tickets? I mean it’s outside the holiday season so the prices might be lower but, still, it’s a transatlantic flight; Plus I don’t have a place of my own yet…”

Her mum’s joy resounded all over the ocean:

“Wonderful! I will get your dad to get me a ticket today! And don’t worry about the place to stay; I can do a little airbnb as you the youth call it. I’m not fussy”

Sylvia grinned. There was no way her mum could be satisfied sharing a flat with strangers.

“I’m sure we can add a bed in my hotel room, its massive. I have been a bit living the glamourous life…But now I need to find a studio I can afford with my savings and little wage…will you help me look for one?”

“Of course I will! And what about the wage? You’ve found a job, that’s so exciting?”

She loved how her mother always showed so much enthusiasm.

“well it s not a great job, just something to get by at the moment: I m working in this restaurant down-town. The food and drinks are really healthy and the manager is really nice. But I’m going to apply soon to find something better”

“Poor you, working all day in a restaurant; you must be exhausted! But that’s better than nothing , particularly in a foreign country with a foreign language, culture and everything…But I hope you get something a bit better paid and less tiring.”

Sylvia sighed.

“Yes I will, mum; at least I’m not being idle. I still have some savings to help me for the next few months anyway…”

Her mum cut her off:

“Sylvia, how many times have I not told you that savings are to be invested in something that lasts rather than wasted away?”

She really didn’t need a lecture. Was it a good idea to invite her over? Oh, she would just deal with it. At least she would get some practical support in looking for flats.

“Ok mum, can I talk to dad , now?”

After a brief conversation with her dad, she hung up and relaxed on a bench. Her mother would be here soon, she would help her sort her life out. She closed her eyes and breathed in. She was in New York, on her own, and she managed. She could be proud of herself.

She startled when her phone buzzed again in her bag. It was Tim, asking her to meet at his. His place? She hadnt seen where he lived yet. The conversation with her mother had made her feel stronger and she texted him back that she was busy today but could make it the next day. His reply was a bit cold but so what? She needed to have a little bit of boundaries and not let him take over her entire schedule. They arranged to meet the next day. She sat back and looked for a while at the peaceful lake and ducks. Then she took her phone out again, went on jobs websites and sent loads of applications for office positions.

As she was walking out of Central Park and the sun was slowly going down, her soul felt more at peace. Her mother would be here soon and she would help her sort her life out. Besides, what if she decided to go back home? That was always a possibility. New York did not have to be her new home; maybe it was just a short term escape, to help her get away from traumatic events. She did miss Paris, her friends and family there.

She walked all the way back to the hotel, admiring every sight. Manhattan truly was a lively city. She walked through Broadway and went in one of the theatres to book a ticket for the famous Chicago musical. She needed to appreciate everything here because she might be returning to Europe soon.

Once she was back at her hotel, she treated herself to a light diner at the restaurant. Back home, it would have felt odd to be sat alone in a restaurant. But here in Manhattan, she didn’t feel that anyone found her strange; or maybe she was less harsh on herself because she was in a strange land? In any case, she found it very peaceful to sit eating a delicious salmon by herself. Tim tried to call her several times again but she magisterially ignored him. It was good to feel free again. As she was sipping her wine and eating her salmon, she let herself imagine what it would be like to be free from men; to be on her own for a while, maybe even all her life.

Why did women need men anyway? She was not into women so it was not a change of sexual preference she contemplated. Besides, being with women would still mean relationships and some women could be controlling and nasty too, she had heard. No, what she wanted was to be free from all amorous ties, to have friends but no lovers. And possibly to be her own love. Yes, that was it! She had to fall in love with herself again!

As she was musing on that lovely idea, she felt someone gaze at her and turned around. A stranger sat at the back was looking at her intently. He flushed when she looked at him. She had never seen a man flush in that sort of circumstances. She smiled and he smiled back. He had beautiful brown hair, cut short, intense blue eyes and a strong looking frame. After a few seconds, he got up and walked towards her,

“Allow me to introduce myself: My name is Pat”.

He handed out his hand to her and she shook it slowly, mesmerized by his blue eyes. They were so intense she almost felt like she could drown in it.

“Hi Pat, I’m Sylvia. Nice to meet you”

So, if she was to follow her own new resolution, this was only going to be friendship, nothing else.

One hour later, they were still sat in a now almost empty restaurant. He had made her laugh so much that her jaw actually ached. Pat was an actor who had moved from Canada to try and find his luck in Manhattan. He was not interested in tv or cinema but wanted to be on stage a nd he seemed to be doing really good: he had already been in a few plays on Broadway. She had talked about herself a lot too =, but this time carefully avoiding the difficult events of her life.

It was now getting quite late and she could see that the waiters were waiting for them to leave so that they could end their shifts. Given that she was now a waitress, she felt for them and decided to tell Pat they had to go.

“It has been really lovely talking to you but it’s getting late and”

“The waiters are waiting?”

“Exactly.”

She smiled and he smiled back. When he smiled, his blue eyes were even shinierr. God, she loved blue eyes: they were so special. She had always found her own broan eyes so boring. And just as she could not stop staring at him he told her: “ I love your eyes”

That sentence made her happier than she would have thought . But suddently she remembered her newly made resolution: away from men she wanted to be and away from men she would be.

“Listen, Pat”

His face crumpled.

“Oh no, dont tell me you’re engaged, or worse, married? A boyfriend I could easily beat but not a fiance or a husband”.

Smiling at him, she said softly:

“No, I am neither engaged nor married; and don’t even have a boyfriend as such. But I have just verry recently decided to be focusing on myself for a while, away from men…except as friends. I dont suppose yo would like to try and be friends?”

As soon as the words were out of her mouth she realised how childish they must have sounded.

He gave her a little stroke of the shoulder and said cheerily:

“that’s more than what I expected. I would love to be your friend, Sylvia. I actually need one of those in this strange city”.

Sylvia felt an internal peace that surprised her. She hadn’t realized how badly in need of a friend she had been.

“That’s great! You will meet my best friend from Paris when she comes over. I’m sure the two of you will get on superbly!”.

He nodded fervently, before adding a little awkawrdly.

“Shall we just say that the beginning of whatever chemistry there was between us should be transformed into mesmerizing friendship?”

“yes, I would totally go for that!”

He extended his hand and she took it , shaking it vigorously to avoid thinking about the shivers the mere touch of him was triggering. Trying to be friend with a man she found attractive was a brand new experience for her. She convinced herself that she could totally do it. She would have all the good aspects of getting on with a man without any of the stress and the expectations created by romantic relationships.

And, as she waved him good night, she could almost believe that it was going to be a peace of cake.

No smoke without Fire

Chapter Five (Escape to Manhattan by Sophie Heine)

Tim was at the bar when she came down about fifteen minutes later. It had been a record for her to shower and apply make up so fast. She had tried to stretch a little too to put some colour back to her cheeks but, in the end, she just decided to rely on the make up. With her tight-fitted purple dress and very high heels, she knew she was looking very attractive. She walked towards him, full of self-confidence. Tim looked at her with sparkling eyes.

“You’re looking very beautiful. And I only had time to have one other drink. How did you manage that transformation in such a short time?”

Sylvia gave him a shocked look.

“Transformation?”

Tim laughed.

“I’m only joking. You looked fine earlier as well. I mean, pretty, great,…anyway, shall we go?”

His embarrassment was so obvious that she decided to let his hurtful words go. But, really, what was it with some men? Why did they always need to transform compliments into barely veiled criticisms?

They walked in silence towards a little Italian restaurant down the road. Tim looked at her sideways a few times in a way that made her feel wanted. They spent a lovely evening, chatting over spaghetti and wine. After a few glasses of red, Sylvia felt her head spin.

“Sorry”, she said in a slurred voice; I haven’t been drinking much recently and it seems that I’m already drunk!

Tim looked at her with his lopsided smile and stroked her hand.

“you look lovely when you’re tipsy. In fact, it’s extremely sexy”.

As his hand was touching hers, she felt an intense desire grow within her. She realized she hadn’t had sex in far, far too long. Clearly, she was ready for that with him and the dress she had chosen sent all the right signals, so why was she feeling scared?

Totally unaware of her ambiguous feelings, Tim just asked for the bill and led her out of the restaurant by holding her firmly by the waist. This gesture made her feel that she was already his. And again, that longing for him overwhelmed her.

Before he could say anything, she asked him in a husky voice to come back with her to her hotel. He simply nodded and grinned.

Their journey back was silent. Now that they were in the elevator, the atmosphere had become loaded with sexual tension. She wanted that man desperately but part of her was telling her to hold off. She could hear her friends’ voice in her head telling her to not rush it, that she barely knew him etc. But another voice was reminding her that he had invited her to eat twice, had offered to help her, had given her an empathetic ear, and, of course, that he was incredibly hot. Besides, what was wrong with having a bit of fun?

She slid the key in the door and invited him in the spacious hotel room. The large curtains were drawn., revealing the light of the “city that never sleeps”.

“Do you want another drink?”, she asked him.

Without replying, he just pulled her towards him. His mouth pressed on hers, at first gently then much more strongly. She was so aroused that she could hardly breathe. She pushed him back slightly to catch her breath, but he tightened his embrace and pushed her against the wall. His hands were all over her body. She liked his touch but felt that he was too rough. Again she pushed him away but he resisted. She wanted to tell him to go more slowly, to be more gentle, but felt torn. In the end, she let go and they had sex.

It was absolutely not what she had imagined: brutal instead of soft, their intercourse made her feel diminished rather than empowered. She did feel a lot of pleasure but the whole act felt wrong.

How could she enjoy that sort of sexual intercourse? All her other experiences had been rather gentle. At least, before the rape she had lived. Did it mean she now accepted to be treated without respect because of that act?| And why would he show her such a lack of respect when he knew perfectly what she had lived?

As they were lying by each other in the broad bed, she could hear him breathe deeply in his sleep. She, on the other hand, was wide awake and felt totally disoriented and ashamed of the pleasure she had felt.

After a while, he woke up and went straight to the bathroom. She sat on the bed and wrapped herself on one of the sheets. She could hear him sing in the shower. obviously content. After a few minutes, he came back, a broad grin all over his face, and asked her.

“That was amazing, right?”

“I guess so”, she replied in a shy voice she wasn’t used to.

He gave her a surprised look. “What do you mean? I could feel and hear how much you enjoyed it. So just admit it: the best sex of your life, right?”

She just smiled at him and got up but he pulled her towards her and wrapped her in a hug. That felt good, as if she needed that gesture to repair the humiliation that sex had made her feel.

After they were both dressed, they took the elevator down to the lobby. He said goodbye with a kiss on her lips. A few faces turned towards them. So now they were a couple?

“I will call you Sylvie. It was amazing!”

she just smiled and replied in a most noncommittal way:

“See you soon!”

She walked straight to the breakfast room and ate as much as she could.

*****

She spent the day working at the restaurant, attempting to focus on the tasks at hand rather than think about the night she had spent with Tim. But all day, her thoughts were obsessive: she could remember his touch, smell and voice vividly. And although she hated the brutish was he had treated her, her entire body demanded more. At the end of the day, when she received a text from him, she could already feel the flutters in her stomach. She needed to see him.

At the end of her working day, she walked all the way home despite the rain in a vain attempt to cool her head down. But when she arrived at her hotel, she still felt totally flustered. She had tried to think clearly about what to do but her guts and head did not seem to agree. She went to her room and changed to use the fitness room. The sound of her phone beeping with a few messages from her friend Clara made her jump.

“Hey stranger, how is it going? Still waitressing?”

She replied straight away.

“Yes…it’s not too bad; except that my feet really ache…”

“you’re a bourgeois little lady; that’s not a job for you.” The text was followed by a lot of laughing emojis.

She was clearly not bourgeois from a sociological point of view, even if she was perhaps a little lazy and liked her comfort too much. But she was not going to give up that easily. Plus, she already had other opportunities. Hadn’t Tim offered to help her? she typed quickly:

“This is just a temporary job, you silly; I’m going to soon be working in a fabulous office with fab people.”

Clara’s replied came straight away:

“Not thanks to that man you’ve met on the plane, I hope?”

How did Clara always guessed things so easily?

Sylvia replied defiantly.

“Why not? Why would it be so bad to be helped by a handsome man?”

“Oh no, don’t tell me that you’re falling for the crap; you’re not , are you?”

The message was followed by about ten crying emojis. And why on earth would it be bad to fall for a beautiful man? Clara didn’t even know him, for god’s sake. Feeling defensive, Sylvia pressed dial and actually called her friend.

“Hey you; I thought it would be warmer to talk directly. I hate talking via messages, remember?”

“Yes I know, sweetie; it’s just that I’m working right now…but don’t worry, friends come first, always. So tell me about the handsome stranger”.

“Well, last night was…”

She heard her friend scream down the line.

“What???? you’ve already slept with him? But the air of New York is seriously creating a new you. Even though I think that’s perilous because you know nothing about the man and you’ve confided in him much too much, I am still impressed. So how was it?”

“Calm down, missy; your boss will hear you. It was awesome but weird”.

“What do you mean? It’s usually either good or bad. How could it be awesome and weird at the same time?”

“I don’t know; a bit brutish maybe; but then I really enjoyed it too so I’m confused”

Clara sighed on the other side of the line.,

“Oh, darling you’re in trouble. That type of sex is the worst: bad but good. And it usually announces storms for the relationship as well…”.

Where did Clara get all that knowledge from?

“Listen, my friend; we don’t even have a relationship. It was just this one time sex; amazing and strange, too rough for my own liking to be honest; but then I still cant do anything but thinking about him and it’s very disturbing…so what’s your advice? Keep away from him?”

“I would tell you to run away as fast as you can but I feat that it might be too late…Honey, now that you are in the deep mud you wont be able to come out of it, even if I travelled all the way from Paris to pull you out of it myself.”

Sylvia couldn’t help laughing at the image.

“Would you, really?”

“Of course I would! Like you would for me. We are best friends, remember.”

Suddenly, Sylvia felt tears flooding her eyes. She was so far away from home and knowing that her best friend would do that for her made her feel warm all over.

“You know what? That’s the most wonderful thing in the world knowing that we can count on each other like that; even with that huge distance between us. I love you, babe”.

“Me too, I love you. I’ve got to go though. Work stuff. But call me any time if things start going wrong or you don’t know what to do or, you know, I need to pull you out of the mud. Promise?”.

“Yes, I will. And please tell me about what’s going on on your side of the Atlantic. I miss you , you know”.

“Nothing very exciting at the moment but I will text you some gossips. Take care”

After she had hung up, Sylvia breathed in deeply. Her friend was right: she was now deep deep in the mud. She felt that the mud was actually swallowing her. She had that irrepressible urge to call Tim…Plus she was eager to hear about that job opportunity he had mentioned. Part of her was incredibly scared but maybe she needed to let go and follow the flow, For a while at least.

Chapter Four: The Job

The following Monday, Sylvia was in the downtown restaurant “Joe and Linda” to start her new job. The boss, Joe, told her everything about how he had started that business ten years before with his beloved wife, before she left him with one of the cooks, much younger and much fitter than he was. He told her the story in such sad tones that Sylvia felt like hugging him. But that would not have been appropriate. So, instead, she listened politely to him and nodded intently. His wife, Linda, had been a beauty, only a bit younger than him but she looked like an eternal princess. Then he went on to explain how they could never have children and how, maybe, that’s the reason why she chose ‘looks over intelligence’.

Joe did not seem like the particularly clever type but then he had launched a business and made it successful in only a few years, and he explained to her how he constantly adapted his menu and the restaurants’ atmosphere to his clientele. After a long and detailed story of his failed marriage, Joe went on to teach her the menus: he told her everything was adapted to their current customers: mostly young, busy professionals, sometimes with babies and toddlers; although those customers valued quality and usually had a good job somewhere in Manhattan, their budget was not very high. This didn’t surprise Sylvia in a city like Manhattan. He explained to her that a lot of them lived in Brooklyn but came to the place for breakfasts or lunches during their working day or for an early diner with their kids after picking them up. So the food was adapted to that type of customers: plenty of fresh fruit vegetables and original sauces, a little bit diverse but not too eccentric and with options for vegetarians and vegans. Sylvia looked at the menu and thought that was a lot to learn, As if reading her mind, Joe told her in soothing tones:

“Don’t worry, you‘ll pick it up by serving customers. If you have to ask me questions, please do so. You will also meet the other waiter, Luc. He is a student and works only part-time but he now knows the menu so he can help you too. “ Joe gave her a little tap on the shoulder while eyeing the new customers who had just sat down.

“Thanks a lot Joe; I’m sure I’ll pick it up, yes”. She gave him a hopeful smile.

Gesturing at the table of new customers, he asked her: “do you want to take this order?”

Sylvia looked at the table in horror. “Now? But I have barely read the menu, even less, remembered anything”. She flapped the air with her menu.

Joe smiled at her warmly and gently pushed her towards the table. He whispered to her “don’t worry, that’s how you’ll learn”.

That’s definitely a baptism of fire, Sylvia thought.

A few minutes later, she was back at the counter where Joe was preparing some drinks, cheeks flustered and heart beating fast.

“so, how did it go?”, he asked with his fatherly smile.

“Ok, I think; I wrote the order down in the pad you gave me earlier. I still don’t have the tablet so…”

Joe cut her off with his big hands.

“Perfect. I like a bit of traditional approach. The tablet looks good but, to be honest, I much prefer to do things the traditional way”.

After scanning her notes quickly, Joe shouted the order in the kitchen and came back to the bar.

“Now, do you want to fix them their drink?”

Sylvia hesitated. “Eh, yes, but one of them is a cocktail and I’m not entirely sure what’s in it…”.

Joe made a calming gesture and responded in soothing toes: “I will tell you the ingredients and where to find them, deal?”

Sylvia gave a little nod and started preparing her first cocktail ever. Who on earth orders a cocktail before Midday?, she wondered. The couple sat at the table were elegant and well dressed. They certainly didn’t look like alcoholics but, in her opinion, anyone who drank in the middle of the day, had a bit of a problem…

“There you are”, she said, showing the cocktail to Joe.

He gave her an appraising look and indicated to her to walk to the table to serve it.

Walking very carefully so that she wouldn’t trip and pour the precious beverage, Sylvia served her first cosmopolitan with a broad smile.

The lady sat at the table was in her late thirties or early fourties, had long blond hair, was slim and overall very well dressed. The clothes she had on looked like expensive ones and her bag, God her bag, Sylvia noticed the Dolce and Gabbana sign on it. The envy in her eyes must have been obvious because the lady told her in an amused voice: “I got it in the sales. I could never have afforded it otherwise”.

Looking up guiltily, Sylvia told her in a shy voice : “it is a very pretty bag”. And it was. White with pink stripes and little golden borders, it really suited that lady.

The man laughed at their encounter. “Women and bags…A love story”.

The man was in his mid to late forties and very smart as well. Tall with slick dark hair, all his person breathed of elegance and wealth. He was handsome too.

Sylvia looked at both of them and said: “you make a stunning couple”.

The blond woman laughed and she seemed even more engaging. God, that couple was charismatic, Sylvia thought.

He cleared his throat and asked her gently: “you haven’t forgotten my diet coke, have you?”.

“Oh, I’m so sorry; it’s just there, it’s ready. I’ll fetch it now. And the food is on its way was well.”

She hurried clumsily to the bar to get the diet coke and rushed back to the table.

“So sorry about that , it’s just that…”

“It’s your first day, isn’t it?”, the woman asked, smiling at her.

“Yes, it is”.

“And you’re new to the City aren’t you?”

Sylvia nodded. “How could you tell? Is it that obvious?”

The woman told her simply: “well, you have a lovely accent, first of all; then, I don’t know, I can just sense it when people are new to Manhattan”.

She looked up absently for a while then said with an unreadable expression:“It reminds me of how I was, many years ago, when I first arrived in this wonderful city”.

Sylvia looked at her admiringly. “It seems like you’ve really made it here, anyway”.

She heard her boss call her from the bar and excused herself to go and get them their dishes.

When they had finished, she handed them the bill and was astounded by the enormous tip they left. Only for that reason was waitressing worth it. But then, the pay was so little that one needed higher tips to compensate for that.

“Thanks for that delicious meal”, the dark-haired man was saying.

“I will pass on the compliments to the chef”, Sylvia replied simply.

The woman got up and handed her a card. “Here you are; I’m a writer and a journalist; I would love to tell you more about this city”.

Sylvia took the card gingerly.

“Thank you so much. I used to work for a magazine myself, in Paris. But I’ve left it all and I’m trying to find out what I want”.

The woman seemed genuinely impressed. “Wow, you must tell me more about that. There is plenty of space for talents here in New York, as long as you meet the right people”. She gave her a wink, before adding “call me!”.

Sylvia took her card and replied sincerely: “I will”.

At the end of the day, she was totally exhausted from running from the tables to the bar and then to the tables again , then to the kitchen and finally from the kitchen to the tables. Her feet were aching and she could even feel some pain in her lower back. She had done an eight hour shift with two breaks and she was shattered. How did people do that sort of job for years? She wondered. This cannot be good for your health, she thought to herself. Of course, she didnt say anything to Joe when he asked her how her day had gone.

“I loved it. I’m learning so much!”, she lied.

He gave her a curious look then handed her an envelope.

“here is your share of the tips for today; for the wage, you’ll have to wait for the end of the week. So how many days would you like to do?”

She had calculated that she needed to work at least five or six full days in order to afford even just a flatshare but she was never going to bear it physically so she said:

“How about three days to start?”

Joe shook her hand firmly and said:

“that’s a deal. Three days, every other day, so that you can rest in between.”

He finished his sentence with a wink.

Had he noticed that she was struggling? The last thing she wanted was for her boss to realise how hard she found the job. But then, the cafe was extremely busy and she had been the only waiitress today.

As if reading her mind, Joe added:

“the young lad I told you about will be there to help you on your next shift. I can appreciate today was not easy. But when there are two of you, it gets easier. So now, if you’ll excuse me, I will have to finish off here”.

Sylvia nodded, grabbed her bag and coat and left the cafe. The evening air was still warm and the streets as busy as earlier during the day. Although her feet were aching, she was determined to not blow all her money on cabs straight away. She walked towards the hotel and decided to have a better look at the famous 5th avenue. Although it was already six pm, the street was still bustling with businessman and women hurrying back to their homes. She tried to imagine the sort of places where they lived. Even with a lot of money, how could one afford space in New York? Did they just have bigger flats? Maybe she would try and make a few friends in that world, purely for sociological purposes, maybe she would even write about them. After all, she was still a writer; she was just taking a break from the fashion world and breathing some new air. Relatively polluted, admittedly, but still, it was new and fresh. The waitressing job might not be ideal in the long term but it would do for now.

Finally, she arrived at her hotel. She sat in the lobby a little to enjoy its luxury. She needed to let the reception know pretty soon when she was going to leave. If only she could stay there forever, she thought. But it was simply not feasible financially…she had to a) find a small place to live and b) find a better paid job.

As she was pondering all these challenges, she heard a voice call her. It was him, Tim. He had come all the way to her hotel to meet her. He was sitting behind her on a red sofa, sipping something that looked like whisky. He smiled at her; she smiled back and walked towards him. He gestured for her to sit by him.

He looked at her and asked her : “ So how have you been? Exploring the city?”

Suddenly she realised what she must look like with her tired eyes, simple back outfit and dishevelled hair.

“Not exactly; I’ve been trying a new job.”

He raised his eyebrows in surprise.

“Really? Already? What type of job?”

She hesitated for a moment then decided to be honest.

“it’s really not what I want to do here long term but it will pay a bit. I’m going to be a part time waitress in a very trendy down town restaurant.”

Tim’s eyebrows raised even further.

“Waitressing…You? Come on, you must be joking…”

He slapped his thigh and started laughing.

Slightly offended, Sylvia looked at him defiantly.

“And why not? Not everyone can find the perfect job straight away, Mr privileged. Not everyone has the luxury of sitting the whole day. Some of us need to work hard.”

Unable to stop laughing, Tim pointed at her shoes and said:

“you might want to find better shoes than those. Heels for waitressing is the way to totally destroy your feet. Didn’t your manager tell you? What about health and safety?”

she could see that he was half joking, half talking seriously and she realised that he was right. Of course she could not run around a restaurant in heels; even if they were small ones.

“You’re right “, she admitted. “I’ve never done that type of job but I thought I would give it a try until…you know…something better comes along”.

He put a comforting hand on her shoulders and told her.

“I told you I would help you and I will”.

She stiffened slightly, remembering what her friend had said.

“I would be very grateful for any advice you can give me but I think I should first try on my own. There must be loads of jobs in New York for someone like me, don’t you think?”

He nodded absent-mindedly and changed the subject.

“Now, how about diner? I tried to call you all day but I understand now that you were not just ignoring me”.

“No, I literally had no time to look at my phone. And yes, diner would be great. Can you wait here while I get changed?”

“Of course”. And again, he smiled at her and gave her that cheeky look.

As she was going up to her room, her heart filled with joy and anticipation. Tonight would be the night they did more than kissing, she thought. Of course, that was fast; but then, she was in a new place and therefore, new rules should apply. She looked at her tired reflection in the elevator. Well, only if she managed to somehow look a bit revived after a shower and a lot of make up.

****

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Chapter Three: Carefree

Sophie Heine

Sylvia woke up the next day, happier than she had never been before. After she had left the restaurant with Tim, they had walked in silence for a while, enjoying the cool evening air of Manhattan. The city was so lively at night; She understood now why they called it “the city that never sleeps”. When they had arrived at her hotel, Tim had laid a gentle kiss on her lips to say goodbye. No fuss no muss. Just a kiss, as if it was the most natural thing to do in the world! And she had not even seen their evening as a date! But clearly he was seeing her as more than just a friend. If she was to be honest to herself, maybe she did like him too.

Now she was lying in bed, on her third day in Manhattan, looking at the beautiful white ceiling in her luxurious room and could not stop thinking about him. It was just a kiss, she kept repeating to herself, nothing more. But still, on a first date! Besides he had been considerate, a good listener and she had opened up to him like she never did. Only her two close friends knew the true reason why she had left Paris in such a rush. Maybe it was easier to talk to strangers after all.

After a quick shower, she considered her options for the day: do some proper sightseeing, start looking for a flat, call her family…None of this was very appealing. She sat on the bed and looked at her phone. He had not texted her yet. What did that mean? Would he still want to see her? Or had he realized their kiss had been a mistake? A message from her friend Clara made her startle: “Your mum keeps asking me where you are: shall I tell her?”

Her parents…Of course, she had to talk to them. There was a family gathering at the weekend and she had to let them know she wouldn’t be able to make it. It was her nephew’s baptism. These things were very important in her family. Her sister would probably not forgive her absence but there was nothing she could do. With a big sigh, she dialed her parents’ number. Her mother picked up after the first ring.

“Sylvia, tell me it’s you!”

“it’s me, mum. What would you have done if it had been someone else?”

“Well, I would have explained that my daughter has gone missing and has been driving me totally mad for the last few days by her absence.”

“I haven’t gone missing, have I? I’m talking to you right now; and it’s only been a few days since we last spoke”.

“yes, but you did need to confirm whether you were coming with someone on Saturday and you normally call when you’re supposed to. Anyway, what’s wrong?”

“Nothing, nothing is wrong; it’s just that I wont be able to make it Saturday”

“Sylvia, you cant do this to your sister and entire family because of a work thing”

“It’s not a work thing. It is…well I’ve decided to go away for a while and I’m not in Paris anymore”.

“What? But you never take any holiday!”

“I know; But don’t worry mum; I’m fine.”

“Where are you?”

Her mother sounded alarmed. It was really not like her to take off like that without taking to her family about it and even less like her to miss a big family celebration.

She breathed in deeply before telling her:

“I’m in New York, mum.”

“What? Have you gone insane? But New York is thousands of kilometres away…Why go so far? Surely you could have taken a holiday a bit closer to home?”

“I’m not on holiday. I’m taking a break, from everything, everyone. Something bad happened at work and I just needed to go away”.

There was a long silence on the other line. Then her mother spoke in a cold voice.

“I hope you are ok, your father will be extremely worried to know that you are alone in such a dangerous city”.

“Mum, it’s not dangerous anymore. And I’m safe and fine; I just need time to think and figure out what I want to do with my life”.

“Mmmmh. That doesn’t sound like you at all. I hope they have good doctors there in case you need one. I have to go. My yoga class will start soon. But call any any time, darling. We worry about you.”

“Don’t’ worry, I’m fine; and yes, I will. Love you”.

And with that she hung up. She lied back on the bed and looked at the broad ceiling again. Talking to her mum had made her realise the enormity of what she had done. And her mother was right: it was just so unlike her to abandon everything and everyone behind, miss important family commitments and fly as far as the States…Maybe she was in shock. Maybe she had gone mad. She touched her forehead to make sure it was not hot then tried to calm herself down. Talking to her mum always made her anxious. And so what if she was acting a little foolishly? She was only twenty-eight, for god’s sake. She deserved a break after what she had lived. Her parents didn’t need to know the details, but if she needed to escape for a while, it was more than her right as an adult to do so.

She went down to the dining hall to eat the fabulous breakfast served at the hotel before going on her American adventures.

*****

That day, she managed to visit the Metropolitan museum, the Guggenheim and to have a long walk again in the fabulous central park. She sat in the early afternoon at the terrace of a charming cafe in Greenwich village downtown to have a sandwich and read the paper. She looked around and let the general cool vibe of Greenwich village penetrate her. She had walked the whole way from the museums and central park, not taking the tube once. She loved it how you could just cross Manhattan by foot. She had been her only a few days and already felt like she belonged. But if she wanted to stay she needed to find a job soon.

As she was observing the people having food and drinks at the tables, she noticed a sign on the window: “looking for a waitress. Part time or full time. Flexible hours, friendly atmosphere and free food”. She walked in determinedly inside and asked to speak to the manager. A chubby man in his fifties leaned on the bar and smiled at her.

“so, you’ve seen the job ad, right?”

“Yes indeed but how do you know?”

“It doesn’t matter. But I like you. You’re hired. The customers will love your French accent”.

Sylvia couldn’t believe what she was hearing. She beamed at her new boss.

“Wonderful! When shall I start?”

“Let’s say on Monday. We can sort out the contract, your hours etc then”.

Sylvia left the restaurant with a huge smile on her face. She, she had only been in New York a few days and she already had a job. Certainly she had never worked in a restaurant before but how hard could it be? If she could write articles, she could serve dishes to friendly customers. Plus the food was delicious and the atmosphere was warm.

As she was walking back towards her hotel, she felt elated. Now, she felt like a proper New Yorker. Soon she would be like all these other busy pedestrians: hurrying to her job, earning a living here and trying to make a better life for herself. OK, waitressing was not exactly her ideal job on paper but then, could she say she was really happy working fifty hours a week for a company that hired sexist managers? Furthermore, she had never really felt valued by that company. It was as if all the extra hours and commitment were just expected, never rewarded or even acknowledged. Maybe doing a simple job for a while would help her clear her mind, in order to know what she truly wanted to do.

On impulse, like everything she did here, he decided to go to Central Park again to enjoy the afternoon sun. She sat in a wide and almost empty field and observed the beauty around her: so many skyscrapers were looking down at her; with the sun shining brightly in the sky, she really felt like she was part of one of the many romantic comedies and series taking place in New York. Apart from her, there was only a young man playing the guitar and a family having a picnic. They had the whole space to themselves! She breathed in deeply and closed her eyes. All her worries and anxieties seemed incredibly far away. She felt like she had found a new home. And it was utterly strange because she didn’t know anyone in that town. But, somehow, she related to its atmosphere at a very deep level.

She was taking out of her daydreaming by the sound of her phone ringing. She discarded it at first but, when it kept ringing, she took it out of her bag to see that it was her friend Clara. With a sigh, she picked up the phone.

“Hey you, bitch ; why haven’t you been answering my two hundred calls ?”

“I think I would have seen if you had called me that many times”.

“Don’t joke with me please; since you’ve talked about that date with that stranger and not answered my calls, I’ve worried myself like crazy. I started imagining the worse and talking to Sebastian didn’t help. You know how he can be…”

“sorry it’s the time difference then this morning I went for a walk and barely looked at my phone and…you know what? I’ve found a job!”

She couldn’t help but sounding triumphant about it, even if she knew that it was only a basic job. Clara was aghast.

“A job? But that’s so fast; How could you even find the time to send cv’s? “

“Well, I didn’t have to”

“What? Don’t tell me that stranger gave you a job…Because you know what, I’d tell you that’s trusting too much too fast.”

“Haha. Good one; no he’s not like that; even if he offered to help”

“Don’t go down that route, Sylvia, you’re an independent woman, remember”.

Sylvia smiled to herself. Her friend was both protective and fiery, two qualities she deeply admired. But she was also distrustful and so focused on her feminist credo that she was sometimes blind to proper kindness. She had rejected so many men just because they wanted to help her. But Sylvia had given up trying to convince her to be a bit less rigid. She would learn with time that you couldn’t live your life just by following strict principles.

Clara almost yelled in the phone.

“Sylvia, are you still there? You haven’t been abducted or anything?”

Sylvia laughed loudly in the phone.

“I’m here. I was just thinking about your lack of trust but then, we’ve talked about that before, haven’t we?”

Clara sighed heavily.

“well, listen, Babe. I might not trust anyone but you trust too easily. So what is that new job of yours anyway?”

Sylvia hesitated, wondering whether, maybe, she should invent another job title to make it sound more interesting.

“It’s in customer service”, she said simply.

“Oh, nice; for what type of company?”

“A restaurant.”

Clara’s tone became suspicious.

“Don’t tell me you’re going to do waitressing?”

“What’ wrong with that? Maybe I want a simple job for a while; a job that gives me the opportunity to breathe and think about what I truly want to do in life.”

“By waitressing? But how are you going to breathe when you’re there all day and night serving angry customers in order to pay for your flat?”

She hadn’t really thought that far. Would that sort of wage be sufficient to pay for a rent in New York? Well, she would have loads of time to find a cheap place to live.

“Maybe I’ll do a flat-share or something”.

“Sylvia, everyone in Manhattan does flat-shares. Even in Brooklyn.”

“How do you know all this, Clara?”

“I watch series and movies properly”.

Sylvia looked at her watch.

“Listen, Clara. I’ve got to go. But Let’s call each other tomorrow, ok?”

“Ok, babe, Be careful though.”

“I will. Love you.”

After talking to her friends, Sylvia stayed a bit longer in the park, pondering the questions she had raised. What about the cost of living here? Could she ever afford it? Particularly if she had such a low ambition as working as a waitress? But then that could just be a temporary solution, while she still had savings, until she found something more suitable. All her adult life, she had always been over thinking. In fact, she was always the reasonable one among her friends and they used to blame her for it. And now, there she was: the reckless and carefree one and yet they still didn’t seem happy. Maybe a little balance between those two extremes would be good but she also deserved to live a bit.

*****

Chapter Two: A new City

Sophie Heine

When Sylvia woke up, she saw on the clock on the bedside table that it was already Ten AM; she had slept about fourteen hours! She felt refreshed and like a totally new person. The first thought that came to her mind as she sat in the big white comfortable bed was that she definitely had to tell her parents where she was. She turned on her phone and saw that she had several messages from her friends and a few from her mother. They were supposed to talk to each other about a wedding in the family and it was not like Sylvia to take so long to get back to her mother. She decided to tell her later today about her plans of staying for a while in New York. As for her close friends, they knew she was here but were just worried about her.

She texted her friend Clara that everything was fine, that she was in a fabulous hotel, having a fabulous time and that she would call her very soon. Her friend Sebastian could wait a bit longer or he would get the news from Clara. He had been so disapproving of her decision to get on the plane that she really did not need to talk to him yet. She knew that, eventually, he would see that this was the right choice for her to put some distance between her and what had happened to her back home.

She turned the television on, had a burning shower, dressed with a jean and t-shirt and decided to go down to see whether there was still some breakfast available. It was and what a breakfast! The buffet contained absolutely everything that anyone from all continents would need for a very hearty first meal of the day: the traditional American egg, bacon and beans; but also some continental with croissant, jam, orange juice, Chinese, Indian and African various dishes. She took some generous portions of a bit of everything – after all, why not start having a taste of multicultural New York straight away? – and ate everything with the appetite of someone who had not eaten for two days.

The hotel was full of tourists, dressed in a casual way like her but there were also some smarter looking people: probably business people doing some important professional trip, she thought. She started wondering what her life would be like if she met one of these attractive young business men and decided to move permanently to this amazing country.

On her way back to her room, she stopped at the reception to take a few leaflets. Her first duty was definitely to start checking the city that was being so welcoming to her. Well, at least that’s what she expected the city to be to her.

Sat on her bed with the big curtains open, she could see a big part of the city: skyscrapers were everywhere. She knew some of the buildings from her general knowledge and, of course, from her love of all the series and movies filmed here. Leafing through the touristic information was interesting but, she decided, a spontaneous walk through the city would probably help her discover everything faster.

This way, she could also see where her heart and the spirits of New York would take her first. Her phone beeped: it was another message from Clara. She was obviously still worried about her. She dialled her number and her friend responded straight away:

“Hello Sylvia! Finally; I was so worried about you? So how have you been?”

“Hello clara; didn’t you received my texts? I told you: I’m in a fabulous hotel, having a fabulous time…”

“Yes yes, I read that; good for you; now, what’s next?”

“What does that mean?”

“Well , no, I mean it: it’s great that you’re having a fabulous time…But , come on, you can’t stay in a hotel forever…”

“Clara, I arrived yesterday….Give me a break. I just need to get away from all the stuff I’ve lived  and be far and, who knows, maybe start a new life here.”

“What? How can you say that?”

“Why not? I can live off my savings for a few months then find a job, apply for a visa…you and Sebastian could visit me…”

“About that…”

“Oh no, don’t tell me you’re not coming…you said you’d join me as soon as you could…”

“Yes and you know I would; but work is mad at the moment. We keep having delays for all the books on our list and I don’t know how I could just take an impromptu holiday like that; as for Sebastian, he is still very angry that you left…”

“I’ m not surprised; he has never been the very adventurous type…”

The three of them had known each other since secondary school and they were inseparable. After a short flirtatious phase with both of them, Sebastian understood that he would never get anything else than friendship with them and now everything was perfect. They formed the perfect trio of friendship. Sylvia felt a little pang at that thought: how was she going to keep her friends if they could not visit her or, worse, disapproved of her presence in the States?

Clara’s voice resonated in her voice, warm and comforting:

“Don’t worry about him; he just misses you; I do too; But I’m sure he will eventually understand…”

“Eventually?”

“You know what I mean; he just needs time…he’s never left Brussels apart from holidays…”

“Yes; and you, don’t you think you could pull a sickie and come and see me?”

“You know I’d love to; I ll work something out and will let you know; but please be careful on your own out there;”

“I will”

“And, clara, you can’t spend all your money in a hotel; i known it’s fabulous etc but maybe you need a place, if you’re going to stay a while.”

“Yes you’re right.”

Clara had always been the reasonable one.

After a little pause, she added:

“Do you need me to call your mum and dad?”

“Ah no, absolutely not; they’d worry too much; I will leave them a message, will let them digest the information then I will call them.”

“Ok, whatever you say. I’ve got to run to a meeting. Be careful and give me some news regularly!”                                                                                                                                                            

“I will, I promise.”

Talking to her friend had made Sylvia slightly homesick. But then, if she wanted a new life, she needed to be strong. They would, at some point, come and visit her: she was convinced of that.

She tied her long brown her into a ponytail, put a light make up on and decided to go out on her first adventure in Mahattan.

Outside, the sun was high in the sky and there was not a single cloud. She started walking straight ahead, eager to see where her steps would take her. The streets were busy with cabs and cars and the pavement crowded with pedestrians and tourists. Finally she caught a view that was worth it: the main entrance of the famous Central park!

The wide entrance opened to the famous lung of New York. She walked in and understood straight away why people talked about central park so much: it was airy, green, with a beautiful diversity of trees and she knew that there was a lot to discover inside the park. She started walking on the main road and took long deep breaths, looking at the nature around her. She could also spot several squirrels, eager to be fed by pedestrians, runners and families with young kids. She immediately felt at home in this park. After a while, she arrived at the lake: it was stunning. She noticed that one could even rent a boat ! she would definitely do that as soon as she could. She sat on a bench and took her phone out, snapping pictures everywhere she could.

Clara was right: she had to start acting like an adult at some point. That meant: calling her parents to let them know where she was, figure out where she was going to stay, decide for how long, maybe start looking at some jobs…she could stay as a tourist for three months so that gave her plenty of time, didn’t it? In any case, she had only just arrived and she was not going to worry about all that now.

After sitting by the lake she then walked to one of the cafes and treated herself to a lovely cappuccino. She felt so good here: maybe she belonged in this place. Then she remembered that she was actually fleeing from everything: trauma, responsibilities, habits, routine…it was like being on a holiday, except that she wanted to make it permanent. But then, why not? Why not break away from the stress and the anxieties and lead a different life?

After a couple of hours in the park, she decided to walk towards Broadway and Times Square. She knew the view from the many movies she had seen it in but it was definitely better in real. She promised herself to try and still be here to celebrate New Year in that incredible place.

It was the middle of the summer and, normally the heat would be unbearable in New York, but her walk in Central Park had refreshed her and she felt good. In the end, she went back to her hotel to sort things out for the next few days. She needed to at least decide where she was going to stay.

The hotel lobby was full of visitors and tourists and the lounge was busy too. She went straight up to her room and, once inside, collapsed on the freshly made beautiful white bed and took a pen and notepad to write a few bullet points on her next plan for action:

  1. keep family informed
  2. find a place to stay
  3. find a job
  4. get a visa

Well that did not seem that hard now that it was on paper, did it?

After a long bath and more television, she started feeling a bit lonely. And then she remembered the stranger she had met on the plane. Hadn’t she got his card somewhere in her bag…: yes! She looked at it again: a legal advisor for the United Nations. Good job , probably a good wage, but also for a good cause. He had it all! She typed him a quick breezy text offering to meet somewhere glamorous and typed send. Only a few seconds later, his reply came back: full of emojis, she noticed. He hadn’t seemed like the emoji type to her. The she looked at what he had written: it was actually quite nice, polite and friendly at the same time. He was offering to meet in a trendy restaurant closed to Times Square.

She smiled and jumped on the bed: only her second evening in Manhattan and she already had a date, with a gorgeous man and in a trendy place. Of course it was not a date per se and she didn’t even like the guy so much; but he was a New Yorker; He could give her a heap of tips and advice on her life here.

She had to let Clara know: she typed a quick text to her friend and decided to browse for places to stay on her laptop that would be in her budget before starting to get ready for her night out.

A couple of hours later, she had narrowed down her search to a few flats and was fully ready to go out. Although she had packed in a rush and lightly, she had taken a few night dresses with her. Tonight she was wearing  a short blue dress, cintree a la taille and with a relatively low décolleté. Even if it was sexy, it was also very elegant. She gave herself a last like in the mirror and smiled at her reflection. She had opted for low heels since she knew that she was tall enough and had blow dried her long brown hair. She looked good and felt good, but, she reminded herself, this was not a date:  simply a get to know each other meal in order to network in her new city. 

She arrived by taxi to the restaurant sharp on time. She could have easily walked to the place but she didn’t want to risk getting lost on her second day. The vibe of that area was electric: she knew that the Times square area was full of plays and musicals, but she had not expected that many theatres. Most of them had bright signs announcing the new releases: she promised herself to watch a famous musical as soon as she could.

The restaurant was….: it was already full at just seven pm but she could not spot her date. Suddenly a thought struck her: what if he had decided to stand her up?

She took a table by the window and buried herself in the menu: she did not want to see faces full of pity because she looked like someone desperately alone. Fortunately, she spotted him come in after a few minutes. He came straight to her, with a broad smile on his face.

“Hey there; I hope you haven’t been waiting for long?”

“No, I’ve literally just arrived.”

Before sitting in front of her, he gave her a kiss on the cheek. She knew that was not common for Americans who tended to be more distant than French people. Was it a sign that he liked her? She just smiled politely and started asking him questions about his life in this marvellous city.

“So have you been here long?”

“All my life actually?”

“Seriously?”

She couldn’t believe it: she had met a proper New Yorker!

“Well sort of; I grew up in Connecticut but came here as a student to study law at NYU”

“Wow…”

She was in awe, just listening to him.

He gave her an amused smile.

“Well you know I m not the only one: there are many people here who are proper New Yorkers. We are not all immigrants and former gangsters etc.”

“I know, I know; It’s jsut that you  must have had such an amazing life…Studying at NYU…I studied journalism and communication in Paris in a totally unknown university, paris 8…”

“For me Paris is a more extraordinary place than new York. It is so beautiful.”

“Have you been there?”

“Yes, a couple of times, for work.”

“It is a very romantic place.”

Silvia felt her cheeks blush and looked quickly at her menu.

“Why don’t we, eum, order some nachos or something?”

“Excellent idea!”

He waved at the waiter and Syvia had another proper look at him: he was definitely very attractive: she particularly liked his strong dark hair and square jaw. His eyes had this deep but also cheeky look that she had seen in a lot of business men. Was he a player? She wondered. Maybe not; after all, he did work for the good side..the UN…

“So , are you ready to order? “

“Yes; I will have a chicken burger with fries and a salad”

“I like a girl who can eat”

Was that a compliment? She did like her food and she was slim so why not indulge in a nice burger; except that she had already eaten fried food the day before.

“Actually, I might take the salmon. That will be lighter. With a salad. Thank you.”

“And I will take the beef burger with fries.”

He winked at her as the waiter was taking their menu back. Cheeky, she thought; definitely cheeky.

After they had also ordered a bottle of red to share and started drinking, she found herself relax a little.

“So, can you finally tell me this reason you’ve had to escape your country and come all the way to Manhattan?”

“Listen, I m not sure I want to talk about that…”

“Fair enough; can you at least tell me what you do?”

“I used to be a journalist, for a fashion magazine; a French one so you wouldn’t know it. But I might leave all that and try other things.”

“Like what?”

Why did he have to be so inquisitive?

“I m not sure yet… Maybe the UN would be a good place to start looking; they must need people with a communication degree, right?”

“Sure; but I must warn you: i have a few friends who emigrated here and they struggled to find a job in their field, particularly if English is not their first language.”

“Are you implying that my English is not good?”

“No no no….Your English is perfect…”

“I know I have a strong accent…but my written English is excellent and that’s mainly what you need in communication; in any case, I will start sending CV’s tomorrow.”

There was a short silence that Tim broke with an encouraging nod.

“Go ahead; it s’ good to be bold.”

“What does that mean?”

“Well, here, people don’t really find jobs by just sending cv’s…you need to be found by a recruiter or register on their websites; sometimes they headhunt you, sometimes you send them your cv first…in any case, most companies do not accept spontaneous applications and mainly rely on recruitment agencies…”

“I see; thanks, that’s very useful…”

“You’re welcome; I’ll send you a few recruitment websites that could help you.”

Maybe finding a job in New York was going to be harder than she thought; but she liked a challenge and, mostly, she liked the place, so why not give it a go?

The waiter came back with their orders and that gave them a very welcome distraction. After eating for a while in silence, Tim asked her:

“So are you going to tell me now what made you flee such a beautiful city like Paris?”

“You’re not going to give up, are you?”

“I usually don’t…”

And again there was this cheeky smile. She didn’t know if it was the wine, the food or the nice atmosphere of that restaurant, but she was feeling more and more relaxed with in his company.

“Well, if you’re not going to give up: I did not really flee Paris. I love that place. Plus, I have my friends and family there; I left because of an extremely bad experience…”

“Involving a man, right?”

“How do you know?”

“Only heart matters can make you do such extreme gestures.”

“It was nothing to do with the heart, if you want to know. That man is a total and utter prick.”

Tim burst into aloud laughter, that deeply offended Sylvia.

“Yes he was a total monster. When I have made enough money, I will sue him.”

“That’s what hurt women always say. In any case, I am happy you’ve left France. Otherwise I wouldn’t have met you.”

He gently touched her hand and she felt her skin prickle. She hadn’t been touched by a man since, well, since what happened.

She swiftly moved her hand and looked away.

Tim told her apologetically:

“Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be rude. It’s just that I find you extremely attractive and haven’t stopped thinking of you since we first met on the plane.”

Sylvia flushed from head to toes.

“Thanks a lot; it’s just that you remind me a bit of..”.

“That bad guy you were talking about?”

“Yes”, she whispered.

“Well, I’m sure I’m nothing like him. Listen, I only do relationships. How many guys my age will you find who are that committed? After I turned thirty five, I decided I had to become serious and start looking for “the one””.

Sylvia looked at him  disbelievingly?

“You really believe that there is a soulmate out there for everyone?”

“Of course I do!”

Wow, that was so much more optimistic than her approach to men.

Tim leaned forward and came so close to her that she could smell his aftershave. 

“So, if I am going to try and make you interested in going out with you, I need to know what brought you here. Why did you break up with that bad man?”

“Listen, you don’t want to know…It’s too private…”

“Come on; I’m a good listener. Some of my friends call me the ‘therapist’.”

Something else Sylvia would never have guessed from his appearance. He was looking at her so expectantly that she didn’t want to disappoint him.

“Ok, let’s just say he did something totally unacceptable, treated me like shit and that’s why I’m here.”

“But what did he do?”

She was now getting more than annoyed by his insistence.

“Well, if you really want to know: he raped me.”

“What?”

He seemed genuinely shocked.

“Yes, he raped me.”

Realising she was serious, Tim frowned and took her hands in his.

“My god, my poor Sylvia, that’s horrible. Give me his name and address and I make sure he lives to regret this.”

Sylvia couldn’t help but give a little smile. He seemed to genuinely care. And he hardly knew her.

He seemed to want more: “But you knew the guy, didn’t you?”

“Yes”. She said simply.

“So why didn’t you call the police afterwards?” He looked so indignant that Sylvia just felt shame.

“I had no proof, nothing; he would have denied everything.”, she said in a desperate voice. “He is charming, convincing. I’m sure people would have believed him over me. Plus he would have said I had tried to seduce him.”

“Did you?”

Again, she felt ashamed.

“Not exactly”

“What do you mean?”

Why was Tim asking so many questions? She hesitated then explained to him the situation she had found herself in: “Well we worked together for a few years. He was my boss. And he was very flirtatious. I wasn’t indifferent to his charms. The man is not ugly, you see. But never in a million years would I have wanted anything together; I knew his reputation was that of a bastard.”

“So what made you…?”

He seemed scared of pronouncing words like ‘sex’ in that context. He really was considerate, thought Sylvia.

“That evening we had celebrated the twenty years of the magazine, with all these celebrities, in this really posh hotel…and he asked me to come to his room to help him write a piece on the evening. He is the editor in chief and normally doesn’t do that sort of work but I thought…anyway, it doesn’t matter now.”

“But why did he have a room in the hotel?”

She shuddered at the reminiscence.

“He doesn’t live in Paris. He has a big house one hour away; he is married with three kids, you see.”

“Oh I see…a real and utter bastard.”

An air of profound disgust passed over Tim’s face and that made Sylvia feel a little less lonely.

“Exactly; anyway I did go upstairs but we didn’t work on the article. He offered me more to drink and started kissing me straight away. I pushed him back and told him to leave me alone. Then he grabbed me and told me to come and sit just to talk. But he didn’t want to talk. He kissed me again. I said no, Tim. So many times. But he didn’t care, he kept going. I tried to push him but his hold was too stg. In the end, I gave in. I should have screamed and screamed. He was my boss, you see.” She sighed then continued. “I told him he had a wife and kids. But he kept telling me how much he wanted me. Oh god, I hate myself so much.”

Sylvia stopped, short of breath and realised that her cheeks were full of tears.

Tim got up and pulled his chair close to her so that he could give her a hug. And, to her surprise, she did not resist, and just cried in his arms for a long minute. Then she wiped her tears away and thanked him.

“That’s so kind of you. Only my close friends know what happened. And even they don’t seem to understand how I feel.”

She shivered. He put a soothing hand on her arm.

“I understand. It’s awful the way that man treated you, simply awful; he deserves to go to jail.”

Sylvia looked at him and saw genuine indignation on his face.

“Thank you so much, Tim; your empathy makes me feel much better.”

He gave her a smile and said “Come on, I’ll get the bill and we’ll get out of here; Walking in the fresh air will make you feel better.”

She nodded as he walked to the bar to pay for their meal. She had decided to let him pay. It was nice to be treated well for once. She couldn’t believe she had opened up like that to a total stranger. Maybe this city was going to make her behave totally differently. In any case, she felt much lighter than she had in many months.

                                                                                 ****

Escape to Manhattan

Sophie Heine

Chapter one:  The journey

Sylvia was sat comfortably on the plane. She had never travelled in first class before and it was just simply dumbfounding: the space, the treats, and the attention from the staff…she just loved it!

Of course, her mind was elsewhere; after what she had just lived, she could not fully relax or enjoy the happiness this situation would normally have triggered in her.

She sat back and looked at the sky through the window: it was totally blue. She wondered how was the weather back in Brussels and what would the weather be like on the other side of the Atlantic. Of course, she had read about New York and the extreme temperatures you could have there. But reality was probably different. Like so many things in life: what was supposed to be on paper, was never how it was in practice. She had found that out the painful way recently. But maybe the surprises of New York would be positive ones!

Her friends had of course tried to dissuade her from getting on the place. But, she kept asking herself, why not leave everything behind, use her savings and start everything from scratch? She had wanted to visit New York since as long as she could remember. All her fav ourite movies and series were taking place there; surely, the spirit of that incredible city would heal her from her self-hatred?

She was normally a very cheerful and confident person. But since that blow, it seemed that everything inside her had crumbled. Nothing she believed in seemed to make sense anymore. Everything seemed like a lie. Of course, her friendships were real and strong but, what if even friendship was fake too? She needed to base her life on something strong, something stable, something she could always rely on. She did not know what it was but she was determined to find out.

The flight attendant woke her up from her thoughts with a meal that looked exquisite.

“Hi, miss, would you prefer the vegetarian option or are you happy with the beef?”

“The beef will be fine, thank you.”

She was going to need some energy to discover that new city after that long flight and was therefore happy to eat as much as she could.

“Here you are; I will bring you the desert in a little while; would you like some wine with this?”

“Hell, yes! I mean, yes, of course.”

The flight attendant gave her an amused smile and poured her a small glass of wine. Sylvia was not the big drinker type but, again, she had to relax and, after the ordeal she had just lived, she definitely needed a drink.

She sipped her drink while devouring her beef, potatoes and roasted vegetables. She spread as much butter as possible on her little bread. She always loved the bread and butter they gave them on journeys and this meal was so much better than the one she had had in economy. As a child she had travelled with her parents by plane when they still used to serve meals on board; now, most flight companies made people pay for these disgusting sandwiches.

She smiled with contentment at the idea of being treated like a queen. Finally, she could feel her mind and body unwind. She deserved those treats, she deserved to relax. She exhaled slowly and, after her meal was finished, took her book out. It was a paperback she had bought at the airport: the perfect romance to take her mind away.

A voice took her out of her reading. She looked up with a frown to see a stranger look at her with an annoyed expression.

“I think you are in my seat, miss”

“What? But we have been flying for more than two hours, how can it be?”

“Well, I saw that you were sat in my seat straight away but did not want to disturb you so that I took the free seat behind.”

“Ah, that’s very thoughtful of you; and may I ask why you have now changed your mind?”

The stranger gave her a quite attractive grin. She looked at him a bit more carefully: he was strong looking and tall and had beautiful dark hair. He replied to her :

“Well, my neighbour has just started to snore and since I would like to sleep myself, it is becoming unbearable.”

“And you would like me to sit by that snoring person?”

“Precisely! This is your seat, at the end of the day…”

His grin was now extremely annoying.

Sylvia looked back to see a very big man, whose breathing made his chest and whole stomach go up and down heavily.

Sylvia frowned and tried to find an alternative. She looked everywhere around her but all the other seats were taken. As she was about to give up, gather all her things and sit by the snoring man, the stranger put a hand on her arm and told her gently:

“Unless you wouldn’t mind me sitting by you?”

Sylvia considered both options. She didn’t really have a choice, did she?

“Ok, go ahead.”

“Thanks, that’s very kind of you and don’t worry, I will not snore. I sleep very peacefully.”

He finished that sentence with a wink that made her stomach flutter. Although he was handsome, he was not her type at all. Plus he was much too rude and forward for her to find him attractive.

She shrugged and resumed her reading.

A few minutes later, she was distracted again but this time it was by the attractive stranger’s snoring. She could not believe it: so he was snoring too after all? If she had not been so eager to relax and empty her mind, she would have found that situation extremely comical.

She sighed and slapped her book shut, loudly enough, she hoped, to wake the snoring man but in vain. He was still sound asleep and noisier than ever. She started rumbling in her bag, looking for earplugs but there were none to be found. She must have left them in her suitcase. How annoying. She then called the stewardess in a loud voice, again, hoping this would wake him up, but not at all. She looked at him for a furtive moment: he was definitely very handsome and now that his features were relaxed, she could see what a well defined mouth and beautifully dark eyebrow he had. As she was studying his face, his eyes all of a sudden opened widely.

“What are you doing, staring at me like that?”

She flushed all over, looking for an answer that was not “I was looking at you and thinking how hot you were”.

“Well, I was trying to see where that snoring sound was coming from…”

The stranger gave her that mischievous smile again.

“Don’t tell me I snore too? Well, this is me being punished for being angry at that poor passenger… Is it that bad?”

“You might want to get it checked, you know, just in case it bothers your girlfriend…”

Of course, she had not added the part on the girlfriend to probe in his life but just to make conversation. Wasn’t it what people did on a plane: conversation?

He burst into a cheerful laughter.

“I wish I had a girlfriend to disturb at night. What about your boyfriend: does he snore?”

“I don’t have a boyfriend to disturb me at night either.”

On this awkward note, they  both stopped talking and went back to their respective books.

Sylvia did not like the vibe that was growing between them: the last thing she wanted was to get smitten with a stranger on the plane. A stranger she would most likely never see again in her life after that journey.

After what felt like an endless silence, the stranger asked her:

“What’s your name anyway? We still have several hours before we reach the US so we may as well get to know each other a bit more.”

“Sylvia; what about yours?”

“My name is Timothy, but everyone calls me Tim; so, Sylvia, what brings you to the US?”

Tim had an American accent and was thus very probably a native, she thought. So maybe they would see each other again after all. But what was she doing extrapolating like that? She hesitated a few seconds then decided to give a general answer that would not divulge much about herself.

“I’m just trying to clear my mind.”

Tim gave her an odd look.

You’re crossing the Atlantic just to clear your mind?

 She looked at him defiantly.

 “And why not?”

Why could people not go on a transatlantic flight to clear their mind? She could be a millionaire, and be doing that every fortnight; wasn’t she travelling in first class?

He replied in a gentle voice:

“It’s just say that it seems like a long way to go, that’s all.”

“Well , let’s just say I had to get away after a very bad experience.”

That’s it, she was already talking too much and revealing too much about herself. Tim perceived her reluctance to talk further and quickly changed the subject.

“In any case, if you’ve never been to New York, I can give you some pretty amazing tips. It’s an incredible city.”

“Yes, it seems so. I’m already fascinated by it.”

“So it is your first time there, right?”

“That’s right.  And I can’t wait!”

Her eyes were glittering with excitement.

“I’m sure you will love it. New Yorkers are very welcoming and the city is just indescribable.”

“That’s great!”

She couldn’t wait to see New York in real and meet proper New Yorkers.

Hi curiosity was obviously not satisfied since he continued asking questions:

“How long are you staying?”

“Indefinitely…”

He raised his eyebrows.

“Indefinitely? But how can that be? Don’t you have a life to go back to? Family, friends, a job?”

“Well, it’s complicated but let’s just say that, for now, I will put all that on hold and focus on myself.”

“I see.”

Tim did not seem convinced. And indeed she was probably a bit mad to just take off like that and leave everything behind. But then, he did not know what had happened to her recently.

Again, Tim seemed to read her mind and remained silent.

She went back to her reading and he ordered some drinks. She politely refused to share some wine with him and kept on reading. What she needed for now was romance in books, not in real life.

Finally, they landed. The excitement she had felt while getting on the plane and during all the journey had now reached its peak. She was in New York! At some point, she would have to let her parents know; but for now, she just wanted to figure out what she was going to do and where she was going to stay.

She had said goodbye to the stranger as they landed but there he was again, coming close to her while she was waiting for her suitcase.

“Still not there?”

“No…”

Se looked anxiously at the few suitcases still being picked up by passengers ; Where was hers? Could it have been lost?

“I’ve lost more than one suitcase on these planes…”

She grumbled an inaudible reply and started looking for a member of staff. But before she could grab someone, the stranger spotted her suitcase.

“Is that yours?”

“Yes it is; how do you know?”

“Well it reflects your character”

Her suitcase was just a plain red little suitcase. How could it reflect anything.

And he gave her that irresistible smile again.

“Come on, it is the only one left!”

She smiled too, relieved to have her luggage back.

They walked together towards the exit and before she could grab a taxi, Tim gave a card.

“Wow, legal adviser at the UN! That must be an exciting job”

And she thought silently: it must be very well paid.

“Most days it is yes.”

He looked at her intently with his dark brown eyes.

“I really hope we can grab a coffee some day.”

“That would be my  pleasure.”

After all, she didn’t know anyone and she might as well use the help of a native newyorker to give her advice about life in that city.

“Where are you going?”

“To a hotel…”

“You don’t know which one?”

“Not yet, but I will find one, I’m sure”

Tim laughed.

“Of course you will; but don’t get ripped off; you should stay somewhere downtown; or maybe not far from central park.”

“Thanks for the advice ; I will ask the taxi driver to take me somewhere close to the park; see you!”

“Call me!”

“I will”

She meant it.

The taxi driver drove her to a very classy hotel that was five minutes from central park. 6 columbus central park hotel on 58th street. She paid the driver and walked in with her suitcase.

The hotel was not massive but it was very modern and elegant. She had not stayed in that type of hotels for years , so, for her, this was extreme luxury. She booked a room for two days, with the option to prolong her stay if needed. The price was high but then, she know she was going to spend here.

When she saw the room, she felt like she had arrived in heaven: long dark blue curtains fell in front of the massive window; the double bed was covered in beautiful blue pillows and duvet. All sorts of modern paintings, chairs, tables and even a big white sofa furnished the large room. That was almost as big as studio! Long mirrors hung on various walls. And the bathroom, my god, the bathroom! The lights were dim, flowers were arranged by the sink and there was the most gigantic and deep tub she had never seen before. She went back in the room and removed her shoes. She let her feet sink in the thick blue and white carpet. She switched on the huge television and lied on the bed. She felt so good she never wanted to move again.

She ordered some food – again, it was an extravagance, but she deserved it – and relaxed while watching an old episode of Sex and the City that was being replayed on tv. She was a massive fan of the series, even if she knew all the feminist criticisms against it. Certainly, Carrie, Charlotte, Miranda and Samantha all had amazing lives (and clothes and hair) in comparison to the average women. But still, they were pro-women: she had learnt a lot by watching that series belatedly, after everyone was already bored of it. She wishes others had followed and managed to be as witty, funny, clever and contentious than Sex and City but she was still looking.

As she watched Carrie cry over Mr Big’s lack of commitment, she heard a knock on the door. Food! She jumped to her feet and opened the door to the most beautiful waiter she had ever seen.

“Miss?”

“Yes?”

“You don’t have any trousers…”

“Oh, sorry…I was just relaxing…”

Suddenly very aware that she was showing her legs and pants to an absolute god, she quickly wrapped herself in a blanket and accepted the tray with food.

He was slim but toned, as his tight shirt clearly revealed, and had the most beautiful curly gold hair. His light blue eyes also seemed to look deeply into her soul. Or maybe she was just imagining it.

Come on, she reminded herself; he was only a hotel worker. She felt like giving herself a little slap on the cheek but thought it less scary to wait until that semi god had left her room.

She thanked him and resist the urge to shake Hus hand, afraid she might never let it go. After she had closed the door on him, he tried to remember if she had drunk anything on the plane: definitely not; but then why was she feeling so strange? It was as if she was drunk with Manhattan air.

She looked at the posh table and chairs and hesitated but then she opted for the bed and stuffed herself with everything she had ordered: chicken burger with fries and onion rings: absolutely delicious. Maybe she could eat like that every day for ever. She certainly would if she wasn’t a bit health conscious.

She was a twenty eight year old woman, lying in a T-shirt and pants and eating fried food in a beautiful hotel in Manhattan: what else could she dream of? All her worries now seemed extremely far away.

After that she lied back, intending to watch the rest of the series, but instead she collapsed almost immediately into a deep, jetlag-induced sleep.

A Pain-free World

Sophie Heine

This story is set in a dystopian future in which pain in all its forms has been abolished. The main character starts experiencing both physical and emotional pain. The scientist she meets convinces her to embark on a risky experiment. In her difficult discovery of pain, Cyntia realises that this new condition makes her able to feel all sorts of new emotions. This is a fiction as much as a reflection on all the dimensions that make us truly human.

Chapter One: The vaccine

Cyntia had woken up early to cycle to her doctor appointment. She was due an injection for the vaccine everyone was administered every four years since birth. This regular injection had had the marvellous impact of eliminating one of the worst diseases ever: pain. In 2050, almost all illnesses had been eradicated, including pain. The Global Health Institution, now stronger than ever, had imposed its guidelines to all the countries in the world. Presented as being in the interest of states as much as of their citizens, these directives were strictly implemented. The reason why the vaccine had to be renewed every four years was medical but also psychological: everyone was to be regularly reminded of the progress achieved thanks to the abolition of pain.

Cynthia knew she risked a lot if she missed her appointment. Not turning up would make the authorities create a record against her, with possible home visits, phone calls from police or, worse, a severe punishment such as a time in jail. She was cycling to her GP practice with her heart pounding hard in her chest: she ferociously disliked injections and doctors and it was the first time she was going alone to get one. After she had received the letter reminding her of her appointment a week before, she had started having nightmares about the nurse or doctor in white sticking a big needle in her arm. The letter had been on her desk for the whole week, reminding her of the ominous moment she had to be injected the product in her veins.

As she was checking in at the practice, she was trying to remember how amazing that medical progress was. The scientific advances of the past decades had been so tremendous that everyone was now living until they were at least a hundred and, usually, with hardly any disease. Very soon, probably, the ageing process would be delayed even further. Certainly, nobody could complain about this state of affairs.

Her thoughts were interrupted by the nurse calling her in a crisp voice. With a shiver of fear going down her spine, Cyntia followed her reluctantly.

-Hi, Miss Misano, how are you today?

-I am OK, thanks

Cynthia’s voice was faint and her face pale.

The nurse smiled and pulled out a big needle.

-As you know, you will now receive your compulsory injection against pain.

Cyntia shook her head and stopped the nurse with a firm hand. 

-Just a moment, please. This time, I would like to have a little bit more information on all this.

The nurse sighed heavily, put the needle away and sat by her.

-All the information is on the health department website; plus, you must have heard it at school, university and in your workplace, numerous times….

-I know, but I need more information, please.

-If you insist…

The nurse started a general narrative on the many dangers related to a potential come back of the dreadful problem of pain and on the benefits of the vaccine. She told Cyntia she was still protected by the last one for many weeks but that the medical authorities liked being cautious. After a five minutes talk, the nurse seemed to feel that she had spent enough time delaying the inevitable injection and told her patient with authority:

-Are you ready now? Please extend your arm.

Cyntia wanted to run out of the practice but knew she had no choice. She breathed in deeply.

-OK. But please, do it fast.

She closed her eyes while the nurse was injecting the vaccine in her arm, wishing with all her guts that it was only water. She felt some repulsion at the idea of her body being so controlled by public authorities. What right did they have to decide what was and what was not good for her? How could she run the risk of being punished if she refused to receive an obscure medical treatment against an illness she knew nothing about? What if the whole thing was a con, a way of controlling people’s minds and bodies?

-Done!

The nurse’s triumphant expression made her feel like slapping her but, instead, she smiled politely.

-You might feel a little itch and experience some redness but, apart from that, it should be fine and, thanks to our fabulous medical knowledge, you will remain pain-free for the next four years. We will see you again in four years time!

Cyntia gave her another artificial grin and left the medical centre as quickly as possible.

Once back in her flat, she realised that her arm was very red and swollen. Her arm had been fine after the last injection. Maybe the nurse had missed her vein or she was doing an allergic reaction to the vaccine.

Trying not to think about it, she poured herself a hot tea, hoping it would soothe her mind in turmoil if she accompanied it with a dark chocolate bar. But, probably still stressed by that appointment, she missed the cup and poured some of the hot water on her hand instead. The scream that this gesture triggered from her was so loud that she felt immediately worried about disturbing her neighbours. What she had experienced was something she had never felt before. The water had done something terrible to her, not just superficially to her hand but also deep down inside her whole body. She was now crying and jumping on the spot to try and make that feeling go away. Of course, she remembered what she had been told at school: if hot water touched part of the body, one had to blow on the area, pour cool water on it and then apply an anti-burning gel. But when that sort of incident had happened to her in the past, she had never felt anything. She sat on her sofa, applying more gel on her hand and started thinking: what was that unpleasant and distressing sensation she had just experienced? Was it a reaction to the vaccine?

Suddenly, she remembered what she had read and learnt about physical pain: it was always described exactly like that. Could it be that the vaccine had not worked or, worse, that it had had the opposite effect and had now made her sensitive to pain?

She sat down in her living room for the next half an hour, not knowing what to do, her mind racing with hypotheses: so, the vaccine had not worked, but was it a temporary or a permanent flaw? What if it was not only physical but also emotional pain she was going to feel? Again she only knew the theory of those conditions. Her mind became clouded with fear. She had heard stories of the time when pain was still a very present disease and how horrendous life was for everyone because of it.

Her phone made her jump:  it was her friend Lina.

-Hi Cyntia, how are you?

-Not that good…do you want to meet up tonight?

-Yes of course! Hey, by the way, I bumped into your ex…That tall guy. He asked how you were…

Cyntia had not thought of that man in a while. She had been in a long relationship with him for many years. For the first time, raising the memory of that relationship made her feel shaken.  She felt something in her stomach that she had never felt before: some unpleasant feeling; some form of emotional pain, probably. It was certainly not agreeable. Determined to get rid of these thoughts, she changed the subject.

-Well, let us speak about light subjects tonight please; I need to wind down…

-Yes, let’s meet up and you’ll tell me about it all.

The rest of the afternoon, Cyntia tried to focus on her drawing projects. She was working as a designer for a big company. Her work overtook her whole weekends as well. Although she shared an office in the firm, she had the status of a freelance and was paid according to her performance and productivity. She sat at her desk and started focusing her mind on the landscape she was drawing. She was creating a design for a chique hotel brand. Her design was to be in every bathroom of the hotel. She was always passionate about her work, even though the amount of hours she had to spend on it drained her.

She could only concentrate for a few hours. Hearing her friend mentioning her ex triggered a flow of memories. The same odd feeling she had had before gripped her and made her stomach feel achy and her chest tight. The face of the man she had spent years with before they broke up kept dancing in front of her eyes. Since their break up, she had only missed him in a light and detached manner. But now she was missing him in a much deeper and more negative way. She surmised that this was probably that nasty emotional pain again messing up with her heart.

She stood up and decided to go out for a run in order to relax and feel better.

On the way to the park, she was struck by the content faces of all the pedestrians. Everyone always seemed so calm and happy. Sometimes, she could see a glimpse of negativity on those strangers’ faces, but nothing that indicated the sort of feelings she had just recently experienced.

Once she arrived in the park, she started running as fast as she could. She wanted to exhaust her body to quell the anxiety. As she was focused on her running, she overlooked a branch on the path, stumbled over it and fell heavily on the floor. She screamed, again, then noticed that her knee was covered in blood. The wound was giving her an extremely unpleasant sensation, close but different from the one she had felt after burning herself. She looked at her knee in dismay, realising that, once again, this was most likely pain. Obviously she knew how to treat injuries but that disagreeable sensation was totally new.

She noticed a man who had been observing her for a few seconds. He walked closer to her:

-Are you all right?

Trying to hide her tears, she attempted a feeble smile.

-Yes, I am fine.

After a brief look around, he offered her a hand. But standing on her leg only made her scream again. He looked at her with compassion.

-Are you feeling pain?

-I think so. How do you know?

-That’s what it is supposed to be like…Have you missed an injection?

Cyntia did not reply to him. Rubbing her knee, she was wondering why she should open up to a stranger. She looked at him: in his early fifties, he was athletic, charming and even handsome. His deep blue eyes gave him an earnest and gentle look. Despite a rational inner voice telling her not to, she decided to trust him.

-The vaccine I’ve just received against pain just does not seem to work. Since my doctor appointment, I have felt various sorts of pain, physical and emotional.

The man’s face turned pale.

-Poor, poor girl; you need urgent help.

-I have thought of calling the clinic but first wanted to check if this was just a temporary delay of the vaccine…

-Strange coincidence that the pain started just after the injection…

-Well, I left it quite late to make an appointment… If the product did not work, the pain I am feeling must be due to the wearing off of the one I received ten years ago…

Suddenly, she realised that a few people had stopped to watch her: she was limping and her face was probably showing the pain she was feeling. The man, who had also noticed the inquisitive looks, too, turned to her:

-Come on, let’s get out of here. I will bandage your knee and will take you for a coffee. And please try to pretend you do not feel anything.

Cyntia bit her lips and followed him. Again, wondering why she trusted a total stranger.

Once there were sat on a table in a nearby cafe, Cyntia relaxed a little and realised that the pain from her injury had decreased substantially.

As she was sipping her coffee, she observed him again: despite his maturity, he had very strong and manly features as well as a determined gaze that she could not help find attractive. Only his pale blue eyes gave him a hint of fragility. He started moving on his chair as if uneasy by the way she was scrutinising him. She reached for her phone, pretended to look at her messages for a while, then looked back at him. There was now a smile on his face. It suddenly occurred to her that he might have looked at her in the same way. There was a fire in his eyes that betrayed the desire he felt for her. Her cheeks red with embarrassment, she became more voluble.

-That was thoughtful of you to check on me earlier. At the moment, I feel a bit vulnerable. Anyway, thanks a lot!

He winked at her.

-Well, it is rather rare nowadays to see someone in that state. Even though I find everyone strange…

Cyntia gave her a hopeful look.

-Ah, I too have always found the world so weird… All the people I meet seem tasteless, lifeless, robotic and unnatural. Their constant air of contentment just freaks me out. 

-Yes, agreed. But you…I can tell that you are different. Regardless of this little wound and the failed injection.

-Yes, maybe…But I am pretty uncertain as to how to react to all that, I think I need to call my doctor.

He frowned then whispered to her.

-My advice, little girl, is that you keep this a secret for now, do you hear me? You would end up being in really big trouble with the state if they suspected any fraudulent behaviour from your part…

-What? I haven’t done anything wrong…if anything, it is the nurse’s fault, or the health department’s…Plus, I only saw her early today…

-I know, I know…But they could deny all that and are much stronger than you so, for now, my advice to you is to keep your mouth shut.

His tone of authority made her react with anger.

-Who on earth do you think you are? You call me “little girl” when I hardly know you. And now you would like me to keep hurting any time I fall, hit something or remember some difficult event? Definitely not. I need to tell them and have the problem fixed.

He sighed heavily.

-I am a doctor too, you know, and have a lot of knowledge on all this.

-Go on.

-Apart from the risk you take in notifying the authorities, I would like you to reflect on this: are you absolutely sure that what you are going through is only a bad thing?

Cyntia looked at him with wondering eyes. Of course this was a problem. Pain used to be one of the worst disease of all times abolished by incredible medical progress: everyone knew that. But she suddenly gasped, as he was looking at her with his clever blue eyes. What if it was not such a bad disease? What if it was only a lie told to justify its eradication?

As if he could read her thoughts, he nodded in approval.

She asked him with an anxious voice:

-You don’t think pain is only a negative thing?

-I know for a fact that it is not

-But why all these injections and this negative discourse about it?

-Maybe because it is dangerous but not in the way most people think it is…As a scientist this is one of the topics I used to research and meeting you has reignited my willingness to uncover some of the mysteries about pain. I believe indeed that you could help me get these replies.

This scientific interest he had in her made her feel important but, at the same time, gave her the impression she was only an instrument. She also realised she did not know much about him: who he was, what was his profession and , more importantly, why he wanted to help her.

She looked at him suspiciously.

-Tell me more about yourself, please. 

The stranger’s expression softened. He reached out his hand and shook hers. 

-Let me introduce myself. My name is Rick Slay. And you are ?

-Cyntia Misano; so, tell me, Rick, what do you do in life?

-I have much too many interests but, as I’ve already told you, I am a scientist. I discover things and unravel mysteries.

His eyes were shining in a slightly scary way.

-What about you, Miss Misano? What do you do in life, apart from falling in the park?

-Very funny…I am actually an artist; I draw and paint…but my pieces have become slightly more commercial lately…One has to live…

-I understand. It is the same with science. Only a few lucky people can escape the financial constraints of current scientific research.

Cyntia did not dare to ask whether he belonged to these lucky few and only told him that she had some work to do.

He asked for the bill and paid for the two coffees.

As they were leaving the cafe, he noticed how she was still limping on her injured leg.

-Do you need medical assistance? If you do, I can provide it; you wont need to go to the hospital and explain the whole thing…Risking to say the word ‘pain’ in front of these brainwashed doctors and nurses would not be a good idea… But then, it is up to you of course.

-It does not hurt much anymore…It’s only a scratch… I can disinfect it at home…

She did not dare to tell him that she did not really want to have a stranger look after her knee.

Again, he seemed to read her mind. He stepped back further away from her and told her in an icy voice.

-Of course, we do not know each other and I can imagine how strange you must find my interest in you, Miss Misano. But I can totally assure you that it is both well meaning and innocent.

His sudden seriousness made her smile.

-Thanks, Rick; It is nice to be able to speak to someone different for once. I will think about our conversation on what to do next.

-you are welcome. If you feel like talking more or want my advice to deal with this pain in a useful way, here is my number. And, who knows, I could also get rid of it myself if really this is what you want.

He handed her out a card, on which was only written “Dr Rick Slay” and a number. Dr in what? She felt like asking. But tired by the whole conversation, she just thanked him once more and hailed a taxi.

Back in her flat again, she felt overwhelmed by an immense feeling of loneliness. She wanted to call the clinic but what if this man was right and if telling other people about the pain she could now feel was potentially harmful to her? But then, did it mean that she had to accept to live like that forever? Maybe she had to just wait and see whether the vaccine had a delayed effect? Or call that scientist and only ask him for a cure? But then, how could she trust a stranger?

A phone call from her friend Lina interrupted her worried thoughts.

-Hey, I was just calling to ask you to meet tomorrow instead. I’ve had a late one last night and I am exhausted…

-Yes, that suits me too.

-Great, see you tomorrow evening at our usual place?

-Deal! 

Cyntia felt immediately much calmer. Knowing that she would see her friend soon was always the best way to relieve her anxieties. She worked hard the rest of the day to forget about all her new worries.

                                                                       *****

Chapter two: New emotions

The following days, Cyntia experienced pain in many ways and realised that the worst kind of all was, without a doubt, emotional pain.

As she was going to her martial arts class soon after that medical event, she got hit in the jaw and, despite her protection, felt a huge pain go through her; since she could not show it to her fellow martial artists, she ran to the toilets, pretexting an indigestion; she decided to never ever go again to a martial art class in her life; People had not stopped to do violent sport since the abolition of pain; they just knew how to protect themselves better. However, Cyntia realised that when one could feel pain, these protections were clearly not enough.

As she was walking back from a drink with her friend Line, she then experienced something  worse; she bumped into her ex, the one who had broken up with her so many times, always for changing and unclear reasons. The last time, he told her he had found someone else. Despite her pride being hurt she had reacted coolly. She had decided very rationally that the man was not worth staying with anyway since he was so unstable. She had neither cried not suffered. But with her new condition, when she saw him, all the feelings she would have felt before, had she been able to feel pain, overwhelmed her at once.

He looked tipsy and was coming out of a pub with a tall blonde on his arm.  He recognised her straight away.

-Hi Cyntia, how are you? Let me introduce you to my fiancée.

Cyntia flushed and started trembling.

-Are you OK?

He said to her in a blunt voice.

-You look a bit pale. Maybe you need some food or some water.

She replied, as cooly as she could.

-I am fine. Just walking back home.

-Well, it was nice to see you; we should all catch up one day for a coffee

He gave her a confident smile and walked away with his beautiful partner.

Cyntia could not move for a few seconds, then she suddenly realised that the stress on her face could raise suspicion. She headed back to her flat, her head full of memories and her heart in turmoil. The man she had just seen had been her partner for years. They had got engaged but shortly before the wedding, he had broken up with her. His reason for letting her down in such a humiliating way was that he did not feel able to guarantee her the long term fidelity she needed. But Cyntia then discovered hat he had already been unfaithful to her. Of course, her pride had been tremendously hurt. But she was at the time unable to feel the sort of affective hurt she was now experiencing, months after that event. She had started to date other people really quickly and decided to postpone her quest for a “good husband”, focusing instead on work, hobbies and friends.

But the new state she found herself in now shed a radically different light on that story. His past behaviour now seemed utterly cruel and careless as much as irresponsible. His last minute break up had not only led to her public humiliation and cost her a lot of money, it was now breaking her heart with a delay: how awful to cheat on his fiancée, who loved him so much that she was ready to spend the rest of her life with him. While, at the time, their separation was a rational, cool and well thought act, she now felt like screaming her anger, sorrow and indignation out. That man was a bad man, a devil who did not know right from wrong and had deeply hurt her.

She stopped walking, looking at her reflection in a shop window: she looked ridden with anxiety.  Words such as “pain”, “sorrow”, “hurt” or “devil” were spontaneously flooding her mind. She had never used those words before but she instinctively knew their meaning. Like everyone else she had read about the past, when pain and suffering were plaguing humanity. She just did not know that the emotional part of it could be so horrendous. This trail of thought then led her to his bad ex’s new victim: he would most probably treat her badly too. That thought filled her with another completely new feeling: she felt terribly sorry for that pour soul she had briefly met. She remembered her reading on empathy and realised what she had just felt was probably emotional empathy for another person.

She stopped in a shop close to her flat to buy a few sweets, then went on walking home. Why, she wondered, were not people acting more inhumanely despite their inability to feel emotional  pain and inflict it on others ?  Maybe what made people act in the right way, most of the time, was the  stringent education and indoctrination they all received. At school, university and on the workplace, every individual was constantly reminded about what was right and wrong. They were also able to recognise other people’s feelings, in other words, to have some cognitive empathy for them. But they were clearly not capable of emotionally empathise with them. This, she now understood, required a capacity to be affectively hurt oneself. How could one really understand what other suffering was if one could not feel it oneself? This meant that current crowds were potentially very dangerous. If the wrong leader came along and changed the indoctrination the population received, they could easily make them do terrible things. 

When she arrived home, she let herself fall on her sofa, put her feet up and started watching some television while eating her sweets. She tried to forget the prick who was now breaking her heart a posteriori. Just as she was cheering up, laughing at a stand up comedy, she received a text from him. So he had kept her number… His text was so shocking she felt like smashing her phone: “Hi, beauty. Would you like a coffee with us next week?”. So he was offering her to meet for a coffee with him and his new girlfriend! Repressing a violent urge to throw her phone on the floor, she only replied a clear “fuck you, arsehole, you treated me like la piece of shit before; never contact me again or I will sue you”. She obviously received no reply. The man must have been both surprised and scared, since he had no idea someone could be that hurt.

                                                                        *****

Her new condition made  her feel vulnerable everywhere she was, including at work. She was currently hired as a freelance designer for a big company on a two year project. The pay was high, the offices amazing and the cafe offered free food all day long. The building was made out of several open plans and offices, a library and a special relaxation room where the employees could take breaks, have a coffee, chat or enjoy various games. Even if she was too busy to do anything else than work there, she really liked the company’s vibe. The type of work she was hired for, requiring a drawing table on top of the usual computer, entitled her to a shared office rather than just a seat at a desk. The two colleagues she shared an office with were friendly and a bit more junior than her. Another advantage of her position was that her line manager was always abroad, travelling to represent the company in the most exotic places. The firm provided decoration, architecture and interior design to the most expensive hotels in about forty countries all over the world. Cyntia’s project mainly entailed conceiving the decoration of the executive rooms of a very select hotel present in various European cities. Although she always felt enthusiastic at work, her new state had changed something in her: she felt anxious, sensitive and unable to concentrate on the tasks at hand.

Her colleague Bob noticed her distant look.

-Hey, Cyntia, are you OK ?

-I m fine; just a few personal worries.

-Ah, sorry to hear that; If you want to grab a coffee and talk about it, I am there, ok?

-Thanks. I will,

Bob was in his late twenties and very cute, in all the senses of the term. He was also very empathetic and able to detect any change of emotion in the people who surrounded him. Cyntia clearly saw him as a friend but she did not trust his capacity to keep quiet about her problems.  She certainly did not want her management to report her to the health department. She forced herself to put on a positive and professional face for the rest of the day.

At lunchtime, she sat with Bob and Coralie, the other employee she was sharing her office with. After grabbing a healthy salad, they tried to make conversation despite the noise of the cafeteria. Still feeling very strange, Cyntia noticed that all the firm’s employees had a constant ecstatic and relaxed expression. Of course, she thought, none of them had ever experienced pain. A few of her colleagues were staring at her, probably trying to guess what could trigger such a worried look.  Although she was trying hard to look as cheerful as usual, it was blatant that her mind was in turmoil. She kept reliving the scene of the previous night: that man she had almost married now seemed like a sadist who had treated her with pure evil. As they were still sat in the restaurant, Coralie gave her a gentle tap on her shoulder. She had been trying to catch Cyntia’s attention for while but to no avail.

-Cyntia, are you ok? You seem so stressed and worried.

Scared to be denounced, Cyntia tried again to put on an artificial smile and replied in a detached manner:

– I am just tired. I worked late last night, to speed up on the project.

Her colleague, reassured by this reply, sighed heavily. s

-You should not get overworked, Cyntia. Health first, remember?

-Yes, of course. Health first! Now if you will excuse me both, I have to get back to work.

But instead of heading back straight to her office she walked towards the social room. She knew that it was too early for anyone to be in there. Usually, the employees gathered in it during coffee breaks or at the end of the day but not at midday. She let herself sink in one of the chairs and tried to follow the musical clip playing on the screen. But, only after a few seconds, tears started running down her cheeks. All the painful emotions she had been immunised against were suddenly becoming incredibly vivid and crushing her entire soul. She remembered all the nasty words, unjust judgements and criticisms, lies, deceits…, including those she had undergone in high school or in kindergarten. At the time, all of these seemed innocuous and immature games of young persons still learning the moral codes. Later on, similar deeds had just seemed like mistakes from young adults breaking this socially learn moral code. But never ever had they felt like intentional darts to her heart. But were they anyway? She wondered whether, without an ability to sense pain, people were actually able to realise how much their words or actions could hurt. IN a world without pain, could they even imagine what it felt like to be affectively wounded?

As she was pondering these questions, she heard someone walk in the room. She rapidly wiped her tears away and tried to relax her features. As she kept fixing the screen, she heard the person sat in an armchair beside her. She did not dare to look at them, fearing it would be her colleagues again or, worse, her manager. But the person behind her took broke the silence as she was getting up to leave.

-Sorry, I did not mean to disturb you

As Cyntia turned towards the voice, she startled at the sight of the man facing her: better than a model, he was tall, muscly, with blond full hair and green-blue eyes. Feeling goose bumps and a diffuse yet intense desire, she replied as coldly as she could:

-Well, this is a public room

As she was reaching for the door, the man told her in a sensual voice.

-why are you leaving so fast? My name is Jeff, what is yours, lovely?

Cyntia could not believe her ears: he had called her “lovely”. She was clearly out of his league…Plus it was clearly a very unprofessional move since employees were not supposed to date one another. But then, he was simply and utterly gorgeous.

She laughed.

-I can stay a few more minutes but then I have to get back to work. My name is Cyntia.

-Ah, beautiful name; and nice to see a real smile on your face now.

What did he mean? Had he seen her cry before? Or simply noticed that her smile before had just been fake?

-I am a bit tired at the moment

-I know…too much work, right? We are all in the same boat. I work in the marketing department and, believe me, if it was not for the pay and free food, I would have already escaped…

He burst into laughter and Cyntia was, once more, struck by his beauty. Surely, that man must be a model in his free time.

Obviously aware of the impact he was having, he came a bit closer to her and grabbed her hand innocently to look at her watch. The mere touch of him made Cyntia shiver.

-Let us talk a few more minutes, please.  So, what do you do here?

-I work as a designer.

He seemed impressed.

– You don’t look like a designer. I would have thought…never mind

-What? Did you think I was a secretary?

He looked at her mischievousness.

-Never mind…

Cyntia’s pride was hurt.

-I am a designer with many degrees and several years of experience. Now, if you will excuse me, I have to get back to work

He grabbed her arm before she had left the room and pulled her back gently. Even if she found that gesture much too familiar, she did not resist. Her heart was racing.

-Listen, beautiful , I would love to have  a proper chat with you when you have time, so here is my card

Cyntia looked at the card and saw that he had given her the right information about himself.

She gave him a shy smile and left the room as fast as she could.

She only relaxed once she was sat again at her computer. That afternoon, she worked as hard as she could  but the image of that gorgeous man, his voice and compliments occupied her entire brain.

After noticing her trouble, Bob and Coralie exchanged a few concerned looks. They asked her a few times if she was all right. Cyntia tried to reassure them but to not avail. It seemed that her ability to feel pain had now made her more sensitive to other emotions as well.

                                                                        *****

Chapter Three: The Scientist

The following days, Cyntia’s anxiety became so vivid that she had to pretend she was sick to avoid going to work. She told her managers she would work from home but that, because of a bad cold, she had to stay in for at least a week. Her company praised itself for the bond of trust that existed with its employees so that she did not need a medical certificate. She felt terrible for lying to her employer but felt that she could not run the risk of being denounced by anyone. Clearly, her closest colleagues were starting to suspect that there was something wrong with her. Even if she could make sure she did not hurt herself physically at work, it was much harder to conceal the emotional trouble she was now feeling since her encounter with her ex. Of course, she was a bit disappointed not to be able to flirt with the handsome man but hoped that she would soon find a cure to her condition.

After a couple of days of reflection, she decided to wait to go back to the clinic and to first call the stranger she had met after the failed injection. Her mind was torn about that man: he could very well be a real crook ready to take advantage of her situation; On the other hand, part of her wanted to trust him. After all, he had not denounced her to the authorities.

Sat in a busy cafe, she stared for a while at his business card. After swallowing her cup of coffee, she dialled his number. His voice was loud and confident. 

-Hi, Rick speaking

-Hi. This is  Cyntia…from the park, the other day…Do you remember?

-Of course, I remember. How are you, my dear? I have been waiting for your call

They chatted for a while and, when he offered to meet over diner, Cyntia, to her own surprise, accepted. She was so lost as to what to do that she needed to speak to the only person who knew about her situation. His reaction was cheerful.

-I am so happy we are going to finally take some time to speak. Shall we say tonight 8 o’clock, my place?

-If you don’t mind, I would prefer in a restaurant…

-Oh, sorry, I should have said it straight away: I proposed my place so that we can speak freely. Although you are very attractive, you are much too young for me!

Rick’s laughter resounded  in Cyntia’s phone. His joy was so infectious that it made Cyntia smile.

-OK, Rick, your place will be fine. See you later.

She walked back to her flat feeling much lighter.

After spending a few hours on  her new design, she decided to practice the routine she was rehearsing with her dance group. Dancing not only made her feel joyful but also had the power to annihilate all her concerns. After one hour of practice, she resolved to go to the next rehearsals and perform with the group, regardless of her general state.

                                                                        *****

She took the tube to Rick’s flat, located in central London by Westminster. She observed the old Victorian building before ringing the bell. It was blatant that Rick was very well-off. Who could afford to live on its own in central London and in such a beautiful historic and perfectly refurbished building? Most ancient buildings were now owned by the city or had been completely rebuilt. People now lived in very modern and small accommodations. Only a very small elite had enough wealth to still live in such places.

As the door opened, her first impression was confirmed: entering the private elevator, she felt an increasing curiosity about the man who had invited her.

He welcomed her with a large smile uncovering a pair of perfectly white teeth. Despite the fact that he was at least twenty years older than her, he was still very charming. Cyntia was nonetheless happy that he had established a barrier between them straight away. She mainly wanted his help to find a cure for what the terrible condition that was now affecting her.

Rick showed her the way inside his apartment.

-So, my dear, come on in and take a seat in the living room

Cyntia followed him and uttered a few words of admiration as she entered the spacious and bright living room. She had never seen such a grand flat in London: bigger than her entire apartment, the living room was decorated with ancient paintings, tapestries and mattresses; apart from the brand new leather sofas and flat screen television, every piece in the room looked like a precious item from an antique shop.

-This is marvellous! Where have you found these paintings? And the vases and sculptures? And the tapestries?

Obviously very pleased by her reaction, Rick replied with a tone of false modesty:

-Many of these items belonged to my family. I have however purchased a few of them myself. This is the privilege of the sort of job I do: it is well paid and gives me a lot of free time.

Cyntia raised an eyebrow: “the sort of job he did?”. The only scientists she knew were exploited by universities or research institutes and spent about fifteen hours a day in their labs, at any level of their career.

-So what exactly do you do then?

-well, I am an independent scientist. My initial area of expertise is molecular biology but now I am very eclectic. I have my own research agenda

-So you do not work for an organisation? How do you make a living?

-I don’t have too, my dear! I used to work for the government, then for a big private pharmaceutical company and earned many awards. I invested these in shares and properties and here I am: a self-sufficient and epicurean scientist.

Cyntia was dumbfounded. That man was so lucky…

-But why do you still work if you don’t have to?

-Very good question. For once, I wouldn’t call it work since it is by choice, by passion, even, that I still carry on doing scientific experiments; and also maybe out of pride and in order to avoid boredom. It is quiet nice to still be published in renown journals or invited to fancy conferences with fellow scientists; secondly, it is far from being the only thing I do! I am, as I said it before, an epicurean…

Cyntia was both intrigued and impressed. Her admiration, written all over her face, made Rick laugh.

-Come on, don’t be so envious. One day, you will do that too , I am sure; I can see that you have a very independent mind. What do you do for a living?

-I an a self-employed designer but in a very different sense…Many big companies nowadays prefer freelance over employees…they are cheaper and more flexible…Basically, they are easier to exploit.

Cyntia sighed heavily before going on:

-But the company I work for does have a lot of advantages. It offers a very beautiful, original and friendly work environment.

-You sound like you are reading out of a textbook..

-Well, maybe this is not exactly what I feel like, but that’s what we are told at work..

-I see. The question is: do you like what you do?

-Yes the job itself is my passion. I love to create designs, patterns, drawings, colours…etc. it does not matter that I do not own the final product…well, actually it does…This is something that really does anger me a lot: I do not decide the general pattern nor do I own the product once it is finished. And my pay really does not reflect the amount of skills I have or the work I put in each project…So, yes, one day, I would like to be my own boss and make proper money for it.

Rick gave her a comforting smile.

-I am convinced that you will make it happen when the time is right. Now, are you hungry?

-I am starving.

-Follow me.

Cyntia followed him to the dining hall. A bit smaller than the living room, it was still big enough to fit a small studio. Cyntia opened her mouth to express her admiration but could not find any words to tell how surprised she was.

The long wooden table had ten chairs neatly placed around it. The rest of the room was decorated with modern paintings and simple and dark sculptures.

-I know… a bit big, isn’t it?

-Yes, unless you like to sit on a different chair every day…

He smiled at her.

-I do not eat here when I am alone. There is a stable in the kitchen. I am a very sociable being, you know: since I belong to all these clubs, I have the obligation to regularly organise parties and diners. This is normally the purpose of this room. But if it makes you feel uncomfortable we can eat in the kitchen.

-If you don’t mind, yes, I would prefer a smaller table.

The kitchen was totally different from the two other ones she had seen: cosy, warm, samll and old fashioned.

-This is lovely!

She had just pronounced these words when she noticed a lady busy doing some cooking. She turned around when hearing her voice.

-Hello, I am Alice, the housekeeper.

That man had a housekeeper! Everything about him was so surprising and different.

Cyntia introduced herself in a hesitant voice:

-Hi, I am Cyntia.

Alice smiled warmly at her. She seemed in her fifties too. Her neat little bun of grey hair and plump figure tied by her apron made her look like a true traditional housekeeper.

Rick intervened:

-I know what you are thinking: no wife but a female housekeeper; how awfully macho of me…But what can I say? I am an old fashioned bachelor. Cooking and cleaning for myself would be very hard…

Alice looked at him kindly and said:

-Rick is a very good boss.

-Thanks, Alice, we will eat here. Cyntia finds the dining hall a little intimidating.

-Perfect, you will be served in five minutes.

They both sat at the little round table in the middle of the kitchen while Alice was finishing a meal with a powerful smell. She finally served them a beautiful marinated salmon with baby potatoes and Mediterranean vegetables. Then she discreetly retreated.

After a few silent minutes, Rick asked:

-Are you enjoying the meal?

-It is absolutely delicious. Thanks again for inviting me. To be frank, I wanted to speak to you more about my …condition.

-Ah, yes, the pain…how is it all going?

-well, I have been extra careful but even so, I have hurt myself a few times, and not only physically.

Rick’s mouth opened in dismay.

-Don’t tell me you have already felt emotional pain?

-Yes, I have; and it is awful.

-I am so sorry you felt that pain.

His eyes were shining as he was pronouncing these words. When he put his hand over her arm, she felt suddenly frozen. There was something artificial in his compassion, something she did not find natural.

Cyntia pulled her arm away and continued to eat. After a few minutes, she looked at him with a stern face and asked him:

-Rick, can you help me? You convinced me to not contact my doctor, but what else can I do? Maybe I should try and get another vaccine done?

Rick was still eating and kept silent for a few seconds, before finally replying:

-My dear, it has been a week since your failed injection. The authorities will question why you have not notified them earlier…they will start suspecting that you might have wanted to play with fire…they might start asking questions to your boss and colleagues…It will be a source of stress for you, if not worse…

-What do you mean? Why are you trying to scare me like that?

-Cyntia, I am only trying to warn you. I know about these procedures. I worked for the government for many many years… I only want to help you.

Cyntia got up in anger.

-But scaring me like that is not helpful. Please tell me what to do!

-Calm down, my dear.

He rested an arm on her shoulder and this time, Cyntia did not move. Then he continued, in a very soft voice.

-I an going to help you but you have to trust me and do what I will tell you.

Cyntia looked at him with her beautiful brown eyes before whispering:

-I will try. But, first, tell me more about what you know about pain and why I should follow your advice.

Ricks’ face brightened up.

-Of course, my dear. Let’s have our tea in the living room and I will tell you more about my knowledge on this topic.

He got up, clapped his hand and called ‘Alice’ in a loud voice.

Alice entered the kitchen straight away, making Cyntia wonder if she had waited all that time behind the door.

Her smile was as wide as before.

-What can I do for you, sir?

Cyntia was surprised by this lady’s tone of deference; it was no longer common in the twenty-second century to have domestics who spoke to their bosses as if they were masters. As the rest of the property and anything related to Rick, this behaviour reminded Cyntia of what she had read about the past.

Rick replied in a very formal way to his domestic, making Cyntia feel even more uneasy.

-Would you please bring us some coffee and biscuits in the living room?

-Of course, sir, right away.

And, in front of an even more dumbfounded Cyntia, Alice curtseyed.

                                                                        *****

They were now sat in Rick’s beautifully decorated living room. Rick’s smile had disappeared, his face looking more serious then ever. They had been sipping their coffee in silence for several minutes before he started talking.

-Are you sure you want my help?

-Of course! This is why I have contacted you and accepted to have diner with you, I have already told you so.

-Very well. Listen to me carefully: I am going to help you but only if you do the same.

His smile returned but, this time, it looked more like a grin, making Cyntia shiver for a moment, before it became a joyful smile again.

-What do you mean? How can I help you?

-In exchange for me to work on a cure to your condition, you would accept to be studied by my team

-Your team?

-I never work alone on my experiments

-Are you suggesting that I become one of your guinea pigs?

Her voice was full of indignation, whereas Rick’s tone was as calm as still water.

-I would not demand much from you. You would have to accompany me to a place where I could observe and measure your reactions objectively and, of course, completely safely; In exchange, I will sign a contract promising you a vaccine that will annihilate pain forever. Because, this is actually possible

-Is it? But then why does the government asks us to get an injection every four years?

-I am not sure of their reasons…Maybe this is a way to control our minds and bodies…I don’t know and, to be frank, do not really care…

-but you said you worked at a very high level within the health department.

-Yes, I did, but I was not involved with the political side of things; I used to focus only on the scientific aspects.

-I see…

-This is the reason why I advised you not to inform your doctor about that failed vaccine; they would immediately notify the authorities and you could then be in deep trouble in so many ways: fine or, worse, imprisonment…and who knows what the media would do with such a story…You could end up spending the rest of your life hiding from journalist’s coverage.

Cyntia shivered at the idea of having to face all that. However, part of her was suspicious of Rick. What if he was lying to her, trying to scare her so that she would take part in his experiments?

He seemed to read her mind.

-Don’t worry, if all this does not appeal to you, you will never hear from me again. Coffee?

After a brief hesitation, Cyntia accepted the coffee and sighed heavily then asked him in a serious voice:

-Could you not give me this vaccine straight away?

-Well, it still needs a few refinements before being used on a human being…and during that time, you could help me understand the process of pain and make science progress!

She gave him a suspicious look.

-What you are asking me to do is very off-putting. Certainly, my gut feeling is that I should not speak to the medical institution. But does that mean you are my only salvation? I am not so sure of that. In any case, I need to think.

If Rick was upset or disappointed by her reply, he did not show it to her.

-Very well, my dear. You have my number. Now, let me show you my collection of paintings.

-I guess it will be distracting.

Cyntia thought that the pieces of art she had seen in the living room and dining hall were already very impressive; Rick was definitely a  man full of surprises.

-I have my own little collection; Nothing to do with my family’s inheritance. Pieces I have collected during my journeys.

-I am intrigued.

He led her to a room with no windows.  When he turned on the light, Cyntia could not help but release a little cry.

-My god!

The walls were all filled with paintings of different styles and historical periods all depicting some form of suffering: religious martyrs, women in childbirth, dramatically ill characters, bloody combats…

Noticing her trouble, Rick told her:

-I know; these are pretty grim stories. In the past, not everything was a painless contentment and bliss and thus most paintings reflected the harshness of life.

She gave him a disgusted look.

-I have been to museums…and not all paintings before the late 21st century depict pain…

-Anyway. This is my collection: all originals and made by very famous artists, now often forgotten…But as you can see: it stops in the 20th century. At the time, pain had not been abolished medically, but artists were already degenerated brats….Their abstract pieces stopped showing any realistic account of humanity. I like this older art because it reveals that what makes us truly human is the full range of emotions that we are able to experience.

Although his words sounded clever and made her reflect, the chill she was feeling while listening to them and looking at these horror stories made her unable to speak.

They both stayed quiet for a few seconds, before, finally, Cyntia managed to articulate a few words.

-It is getting late, I need to get back to my flat.

                                                                        *****

Cyntia was so stunned by her evening with Rick that she decided to treat herself to a journey back home via the individual fast coach, instead of taking the ordinary tube. She walked to the nearest station to get her own individual coach. This had been an invention of the mid twenty-first century: once most cars had been banned from big cities, the normal tubes had become more and more crowded; therefore, megapolis like London introduced a new mode of transportation : a hybrid between the car and the tube. The individual coaches were like mini trains, composed of several separate compartments in which up to two or three persons could sit. Even if the fare was a bit more expensive, it was clearly worth it. Since those coaches were on electric tracks, they had the advantage of being environmental-friendly while offering the luxury of privacy.  Since London had doubled in size over the last century, clean transport had become a necessity. A special fee was offered to unemployed people; Cyntia had to pay the full price since she was working full time for a big company. Cyntia only used them when she was feeling very upset or needed to schedule a physical meeting while travelling. But she felt that, after the diner with Rick, she really needed to relax.

After waiting for a few minutes on the platform, she entered the first coach that stopped in front of her. The whole train was composed of only three coaches, all decorated with tasteful colours and drawings. These trains were more more private and cosy then the normal tubes. After tapping her credit card on the door, she sat on the comfortable seat, dimmed the lights down, turned the heating on and started watching the news. But she soon closed her eyes, trying to put her  mind at rest despite the whirlpool inside her.

Her second encounter with Rick had deeply shaken her. Everything about his lifestyle seemed odd to her: his obsolete but charming apartment, his curtseying domestic and, more particularly, his collection of paintings depicting scenes of suffering. Now that she knew what pain was, these scenes could not leave her indifferent. She could not help imagining what these painful experiences inspiring the authors of the paintings must have felt like.

Shaking her head to forget about the last hours, she looked at her phone. She had several messages from her friend Line. Because they never spent three days without exchanging a message or seeing each other, her friend was clearly worried. Cyntia decided to call her, knowing that hearing a familiar voice would make her feel reassured.

Line replied straight away, despite the late hour; Cyntia had turned off the video because she did not want her friend to guess how anxious she was.

-Hey, where have you been?I have been trying to call you every day!

-Sorry, I ve been… so so busy…

-You sound stressed. What’s happening?

-I am not stressed. Maybe a little… Listen…No, I cant tell you…

-Cyntia, talk to me; We’ve been best friends for years now: you can tell me everything, and I will never repeat it; you trust me, don’t you? Is it a problem at work?

-Of course I trust you…But this is different…It’s so huge…I feel that I cannot speak about it to anyone…

-You are scaring me now…Are you pregnant?

That remark was so far from what she was living that Cyntia burst into a loud and cheerful laughter.

-What? Of course I’m not pregnant! You would be the first to know about that.

-Well, if you are and don’t want the child, there are means to sort the problem out…this being said, you are at the right age

-Line, stop, I am not pregnant, OK?

Cyntia had started winding down and decided that, yes, she could trust her friend, but not over the phone.

-Would you come over for a tea, it it’s not too late? We could chat then?

-Yes, Cyntia, I’d love too. I’m leaving right now.

-Great, I am still on the coach; I will see you at my flat in half an hour. You know the door code.

-Great! see you there.

Feeling much more relaxed, Cyntia spent the rest of her journey watching soap operas. When she arrived at her destination she had almost totally forgotten about her odd meal with Rick. As she was hurrying out of the station, she bumped into a tall and blond man that she recognised instantly: it was that guy she had talked to at work, Jef.

He smiled at her while and shook her hand.

-Hi, beautiful. What are you doing out here at this late hour?

-Well, getting back home after a diner with a friend…what about you?

-I’ve just had a work meeting nearby

Cyntia was surprised that he would have a work meeting that late and that far from their company but she clearly did not know him well enough to ask him more questions. She simply nodded and said goodbye but he grabbed her by the arm and whispered to her: 

-Cyntia, be careful with what you say to people; Walls have ears, you know…

She shivered. What did he mean? Did he know anything?

She mumbled back:

-What…what are you talking about?

After a moment, a flicker of amusement spread over his face.

-Come on, Cyntia, I’m only joking…I’ve had a couple of drinks…

Cyntia was studying his face in silence.

-OK, Jef, I’ll see you around.

-Yes, and remember: we need to have a coffee, just you and me, to wind down anf forget about work, all right?

He winked at her and left her speechless.

Cyntia started walking quickly to her street with her eyebrows tightly knitted. She could not make sense of his words: he clearly knew something. But she had hardly talked to him. Was he a spy? An informer? Was the company suspecting something?

She spotted Line walking to her street and immediately felt calmer. After hugging each other cheerfully they went up to Cyntia’s studio flat.

                                                                        ****

Chapter four: The Deal

Cyntia’s flat was composed of a big living room with a bedroom corner and a small kitchen. The bathroom was the only separate room. Although it was tiny, it made her feel at home and secure. She had decorated with a big wide sofa and warm and colourful chairs, cushions and paintings. The two friends sat down on the red sofa, enjoying a warm tea and chocolate biscuits. Although Cyntia now felt relaxed, Line kept staring at her friend, scrutinising the traces of worry over her face. Like most people, she had no idea what true worry was. In this pain-free society, everyone always seemed cheerful, relaxed and content.

-Tell me, Cyntia, what’s going on? I can tell you are not yourself

-You’re right; Something incredible happened that changed me completely…

-Have you spoken to your doctor about it?

-No and I absolutely don’t want to…

Line seemed even more dismayed.

-But why?

-Listen, I will tell you what happened but give me a moment. I’ve had the most stressful week…

Cyntia was interrupted by a message from her ex…Again! But what was he thinking? She had told him everything he needed to hear…maybe in an angrier tone than usual…but still…that should have shut him up.

His text was brief and sarcastic: “Come on, Cyntia, what is wrong? We had a good time together. What happened was just a bit of fun on my side. No need to over-react”.

That careless text seemed to reactivate her anger.

-What a stupid idiot!

She had yelled and tears were now coming to her eyes.

Line looked at her with concern.

-What is it?

– Do you remember that ex of mine? Let me show you the texts we exchanged after we bumped into each other. He was with his new perfect blond girlfriend

-Cyntia, all this is the past. You had accepted the decision to break up; you both discussed it, remember?

-Yes but I was different then..I could not feel anything, like all of you; I was nothing but a cold robot.

-Yes I can see you’ve changed, a lot. And personally I think you should be treated by a doctor

-Listen, Line. I feel pain now, all sorts of pain: physical, for instance when I burn myself with hot water; and emotional; if someone is disrespectful, unfair, cruel, deceitful or mean…

-What? But how can you feel pain? Did you miss your last injection? The health department would have been advised…Cyntia, tell me what is going on.

Cyntia sighed heavily before pursuing:

-I did go to get the vaccine I was due; But for a totally unexplained reason, it did not work and now I can actually feel pain…

-But why did you not go back there straight away?

-Well, I met this guy just after the appointment… And he convinced me not to.

-Which guy?

-A scientist; His name is Rick. I had diner with him tonight. He knows about all that; in fact, he used to work in that field for the government and now he does his own private research. Anyway, he told me I would have a lot of problems if I told them I could not feel pain…and I suspect he is right

Line seemed shocked by her friend’s naïve reaction.

– But you don’t even know the man; why did you believe him?

-He tried to convince me with rational arguments: he told me I’d get a fine, maybe even go to jail if they suspected I had acted wrongly.

-Come on, Cyntia, they have the record of your appointment: you didn’t do anything wrong; if anyone made a mistake it was the nurse who gave you the injection or the lab who produced the vaccine.

-I know but I think they can be really nasty about these things. At least that’s what Rick thinks. In any case, it’s been a week now so how could I explain I waited so long?

Line was more and more puzzled:

-You could tell them about this stranger who is advising you. Come on, Cyntia, you don’t know that guy…

Although Cyntia always trusted her friend’s judgement, she was no longer certain of anything.

-I don’t know what to do and he is the only person who’s advised me up to now. I am lost. Plus all these disagreeable feelings I’ve had since I saw that nasty ex just make it worse. I just don’t know who to listen to.

Her friend finally understood how distressed she was; Her face said it all: Cyntia was pale, anxious and her forehead wrinkled with worry. Line came closer to her and gave her a tight hug. Receiving so much empathy from someone who did not even know what emotional pain filled Cynthia’s heart  with gratefulness. 

-Thanks, Line, your support means a lot to me.

Line tapped her on the shoulder.

-I can see you’re definitely not yourself. To be honest, I’ve never even seen anyone look and sound as troubled as you are right now. So, please, tell me what to do to help you.

Cynthia just sighed heavily.

-I have no idea…

Although Line could not feel emotionally sad at the sight of her friend being so upset, she was angry and indignant and determined to help her find a solution.

-Would you like me to enquire about the potential reaction from the health department? I have a lot of contacts and could just ask the question in a very hypothetical way, without even mentioning your name.

-Yes, but what if they start an enquiry about you, your relatives, friends…find out what occurred and imprison me for not saying anything before?

Now Line was really shocked.

-You are being too dramatic. The government care for us and want us to be happy.

-Supposedly… But now I see things in a completely different light.

-That scientist is making you paranoid.

Cynthia kept silent a few seconds before responding.

-Maybe. But it’s not just what he told me. I feel different things now and, although it is still pretty unpleasant, it does make me feel more alive. I’m starting to think that the eradication of pain might have had other purposes than the happiness of all.

Line frowned and replied in a low voice:

-Are you saying that the government might not want our happiness?

Her dramatic tone almost made Cynthia laugh.

-Hey, don’t look so afraid! I am only asking questions. Why did they decide to eliminate pain altogether? The invention of that medicine was so long ago that there is no living memory of it; we only know what we are told about the assumed damages caused by pain. Feeling physical or emotional pain is obviously not fun; but what if it allowed us to also experience other things, other sensations…and maybe even think differently? What if it was part of what makes us truly human?

Now Line simply looked horrified.

-Just stop now, please. I don’t like the way you’re talking. This is absurd. Everyone knows that pain is a bad, dangerous, terrible disease and that those who found the cure against it were heroes:

-Well, we only think that because this is what we have been told at school and everywhere. But Reflect a minute: don’t you find it odd that I am emitting this hypothesis while being able to feel pain? If it was purely negative why would I even think like that?

-Maybe because you just like to set yourself apart from other people…Even before that event, you were always a bit different, asking the weirdest questions and trying to live life in your own way.

Line’s expression had become utterly suspicious. She got up from the sofa and started walking towards the door.

Cyntia walked after her.

-Don’t leave like that. You’ve known me for a long time, you’re my friend,  Listen to me for a while, please.

For a fleeting moment, Line’s kind look reappeared ; but a few seconds later, it was replaced with coldness.

-I don’t mind listening to you but my opinion is made: all this is not good and you should tell your doctor about it. I will never denounce you for you are my best friend. But the way you’re acting is so unusual that, at some point, someone will. And that might be much worse than coming clean by yourself.

-You speak as if I was a criminal. None of this is my fault!

Line waved away her friend’s indignation and sat back on the sofa.

-Anyway, go ahead. I’m listening.

Cyntia breathed in and drank a few more sips of her tea.

-Here is what I think: pain is not unilaterally pernicious. The bad feeling it brings us goes hand in hand with other, more positive, things. I’m not sure what yet. But when I saw that ex with his new girlfriend and that shooting pain crushed me, it made me realise that he had not treated me right. It made me feel that his behaviour had been cruel and morally wrong. Before, I just knew it in theory but could not feel how much it hurt. And therefore I could have exposed myself to other similar treatments. But now, I will always want to avoid that type of men because I know how horrible it feels to be treated that way… Do you get my point?

-Roughly…So your feeling of pain makes you more conscious of your interest to choose a good man who will not cheat on you?

-Yes. But that’s only one example. And it’s been only a week. I do suspect that pain can be associated to useful and even beneficial outcomes.

-Hmm OK…But we can also learn not to make mistakes, without experiencing that excruciating pain beforehand. Besides, what about physical pain? What could be good about that?

Her tone was sarcastic.

-Well, maybe it works in the same way; now, we know that we have to avoid certain things to not be injured or worse; and it takes a long time for us to learn about all the physical dangers that could assail us; However, we would probably be much quicker in knowing how to avoid these things if we felt the pain these dangers can trigger; this means we could do many things much earlier: certain activities, sports, journeys… Nowadays, kids have to wait years and years before they ride a horse, a bicycle, use certain toys, tools, kitchen instruments…Some professions are extremely long to teach because of the dangers they imply….However, if we learnt by trial and errors, including some painful errors, we would remember faster to avoid certain things…So the function of pain might be to make us go for the good instead of the bad, both emotionally and physically.

Line was silent. Cyntia looked at her with expectant eyes.

-What do you think? Does it make sense?

-Maybe…but still, I think it is better to learn about the good without feeling pain.

-Well all this is just a conjecture…I have no proper proof of it. Thanks for listening to me anyway. At least now you can see why I am not willing to leave that state so easily. I have a lot of things to learn about it. And this scientist will help me.

-Cyntia, it’s your life and your choice. I will be there if you need me. But, promise me, be careful. I would not want you to be too hurt. And don’t speak to anyone else: promise me!

Line gave Cyntia her most pleading look.

-Of course, I promise.

The two friends hugged each other tightly before Line said good buy.

Feeling as lonely as ever, Cyntia sank in her sofa and watched a silly movie for the rest of the night. She was now avoiding dramas because they made her cry so she had to stick to happy movies. When she finally got too tired to stay awake she finally went to bed, determined to call Rick in the morning. He was, she could feel it, the only person who could help her see through the maze she had fallen into.

    ****

When she called Rick the next morning, Rick’s voice was as upbeat as ever. And when she told him she was happy to consider the deal he had offered her, he was totally enthusiastic.

-Cyntia, this is a wonderful piece of news; you won’t regret it, I promise!

-Well, I had to make a choice and I agree that talking to public doctors is not a good idea. Plus…

-Yes?

-Part of me is also curious of the whole thing…you know, pain: what it means, what it does, why a need was felt to eradicate it, etc.

-Good. This is exactly my point: there are many sides to pain. Some of them might not be as bad as people think.

-Yes. Some of these aspects might even be necessary.

-I see that we are on the same level, Cyntia; that’s perfect!

-Great. Now, I have to leave you because I am supposed to be doing some work…

-Of course , my dear. We will meet soon so that I can explain to you more in detail what our little deal involves.

Cyntia did not like the term “deal” but then that also meant that she could negotiate her part as well.

After a lavish breakfast, she worked hard on her project for the rest of the day. She was relieved to not have to go to work and see her colleagues for a week. She dreaded her return to the company and the constant fear of being denounced by anyone there.

In the middle of the afternoon, as she was taking a break with a cup of coffee on her terrace, she received a voice message from Jef. She had no idea why he was contacting her or how he had got her number. His voice was as stunning as his looks: “Cyntia, why are you not at work? I was hoping to meet you there…I have been waiting for your call…Anyway, please call me and let’s just have a chat soon.”

Cyntia called him back to arrange a coffee. A little bit of flirting could not do her any harm right now.

                                                                        *****

This time Cyntia made sure she would meet Rick outside his flat. She only wanted to speak about their deal together and certainly did not want to be distracted by some 20th century style apartment full of antique items and unsettling pieces of art.

Rick was waiting for her in a smart cafe not far from his place, dressed very elegantly and his greying hair carefully combed. Cyntia appreciated again how well he looked after his appearance, much more so than most of the younger men she knew.

She immediately apologised for being late:

-Hey, sorry to be late but I had to finish something for work.

-No worries at all. Work is work, isn’t it?

After a few seconds of silence, he went on, his brow tightly knit together.

-Actually, your work might be a bit of an issue for the little arrangement I wanted to talk to you about.

-What do you mean?

-Well, the nice part of the deal is that you get to go abroad and stay in a magnificent villa in a sunny place for a whole week.

Her eyes lit up.

-Oh, I see…I suppose I could take some annual leave; I haven’t been on holiday since I started that job…

-Wonderful!

He gave her his brightest smile.

-Now, what would you like to order, my dear? They have the most incredible chocolate mousses here.

-I have been trying to cut back on chocolate but, why not!

Rick ordered two chocolate mousses and two espressos. As soon as the waitress was far enough to no longer hear him, he leaned forward and whispered:

-Let me tell you a bit more about the deal I would like to make with you.

His eyes were shining with a sparkle of excitement that Cyntia could not help but find a little attractive. She had to repeat to herself that this man was old enough to be her father but still, there was something about him that made her shiver.

Rick went on with a more serious, almost professional, voice:

-Here is the idea: you will go on a marvellous holiday with the person of your choice, ideally a man, but it does not matter so much…As long as it is someone you are attracted to. Over there, you will have a lot of fun but will also go through a few situations that will allow me to understand your condition a little better.

Cyntia was simply flabbergasted.

-Do you mean painful situations? Are you out of your mind? I thought by “experiments” you meant something like sitting in a lab a couple of hours…

-Do not get so flustered, my dear. What I’m proposing will be so much better for you. And of course I will guarantee your safety.  Besides, I am only interested in the emotional aspect of your …condition…and this requires a little bit of staging…that sort of experiments can not be carried out in a lab, I m afraid.

Cyntia was looking at him with suspicion in her eyes.

-I can see why you would find this interesting but what will I get from this?

-I like a bit of a challenging conversation! first of all, you will go on a free holiday; Secondly, you will get closer to an understanding of the complex character of pain; finally, at the end of the week I will give you a remedy to that condition saving you the hassle of going to your GP and the negative consequences that would follow.  This way you will avoid any of the punishments they now have in place for the free riders like you.

Rick gave her a self-contented look and waited for her reply.

Her voice was trembling slightly:

-I m not a free rider…I took the vaccine…

He rested a hand on her arm.

-I know, I know,.. but they will find a way of blaming you for the mistake that they probably made, I assure you of that. Remember that I have worked for them.

Cyntia took her head in her hands and started breathing heavily before pulling herself together and  looking straight at him

-Why don’t you just give me the vaccine directly?

-Oh, if only I could…But the preparation will take a bit of time…about a week; then it will all be ready for you

-I see. How do I know I can trust you?

-You don’t. But I haven’t denounced you so far, have I?

Was this a threat? Cyntia started moving awkwardly on her chair.

-Do not worry, my dear, yo are free to refuse.  I will not share your story with anyone and you can decide what to do about your condition all by yourself, like the big girl that you are.

Cyntia stayed quite for a few seconds then looked at him determinedly.

– Ok, I will think about it. But for now, I need to know:  what will the experiments entail? How do you know if I will not succumb from too much suffering?

-I know the subject very well, my dear. The emotional pain you will go through will only be mild; I have prepared a little informal contract in which I commit to keep you safe. You can ask a trustworthy friend to have a look at it and get back to me.

-Just give me that document and I will have a look. One last question: Why do I need to go there with a man I am attracted to? I don’t even have a boyfriend.

-This is just so that you also have a fun and relaxed time there and, who knows, maybe reinforce your ties with someone you already like? See it this way: taking a guy on a free holiday is not a bad start to a potential relationship… Surely there must be someone out there you would like to spend a week in the sun with?

Cyntia flushed.

-Not really; I work a lot… Actually, there might be someone…

She had suddenly remembered Jef. He was definitely a sexy and good-looking man…

Rick clapped his hands together in satisfaction.

-Perfect! Invite that gentleman over to Sicily and I will sort all the booking. The place is purely magical, believe me.

The waitress came over to their table and laid two very appealing chocolate mousses and coffees. Cyntia took a few spoons of the mousse and drank her coffee, before wiping he mouth and saying goodbye to Rick. Their conversation had totally suppressed her appetite. 

                                                                        *****

She left the café with a tight stomach. She did not know whether to accept Rick’s proposition or not. Even if he had clearly taken her silence for a ‘yes’, she was far from trusting him fully. But then, another part of her really wanted to know more about all that pain stuff. And a free holiday in a sunny paradise, potentially accompanied by a handsome man, would not do her any harm. She had been working exceedingly hard for that company for an absolutely mediocre wage. She needed some fun on the beach and in the sun!

Once back at some, she texted her friend Line, absolutely sure that she enlighten her about  the right path to follow. She also resolved to go to work the next day and to meet Jef for a coffee. Not only had he given her his phone number, but he also had made it pretty clear that he liked her. In any case, there was really no harm in engaging in a little flirtatious encounter with a gorgeous man.

She was meeting Line in a lively bar in Soho where they always played music that cheered them up. That night the music being played was a mixture of jive, swing and rock. Once she arrived at the club, she realised how much she had missed going out: they had skipped their partying nights for much too long, too busy with their respective jobs. They danced for a good two hours non stop, inviting and getting invited all the time. Thanks to the couple of cocktails she had drunk, Cyntia felt incredibly relaxed and confident. The alcohol helped her be more assertive in asking her friend’s opinion on that strange project. As Line was dancing with a good-looking latino man, Cyntia tapped her forcefully on the shoulder and said in a loud voice:

-Line, I need to talk to you!

Her friend hardly looked at her, her eyes fixed on the beautiful body of the man she was dancing with.

-Can you wait a bit? I am sort of in the middle of something right now…

She whispered back.

-No, it cant wait! I am working tomorrow so I need to leave soon; and I really really need your advice on an absolutely crucial matter. Please…

She gave Line that puppy look that always melted her.

-Ok, fine.

Line apologised to her dance partner and headed towards the bar with her friend. 

Line was a tall attractive girl, with long and wavy blonde hair. She loved her single life and always managed to pull someone when she went out dancing. Cyntia knew that her darker and slim looks – hair and eyes – had a strong effect on men as well but she did not like dating strangers from a bar. She was more the picky type. Even before the failed vaccine, she was always  extra cautious when it came to relationships. Not because of potential suffering, since she had up to now been properly immunised against it;  But because her strong moral sense made her find the use of another as an object utterly repugnant. And her recent knowledge about the pain a broken heart could trigger made her even more prudent. 

Before she had the chance to ask her opinion on that holiday abroad, Line winked at her, showing her a handsome dark man in a corner.

-That guy over there has been checking you out for the past half an hour. You should go and chat with him, it might do you good

-I m really not in the mood…really not. I just want to protect myself…

As she was pronouncing those words., it occurred to her that going on this very odd holiday with a stranger might not be the best way to avoid danger. But that was different: it was for the sake of science! Plus, it would allow her to get a cure and feel normal again, at least, if that meant feeling like  everybody else.

Brushing these thoughts aside, she started explaining her dilemma to her friend, waving her hands as she was talking. Once she had finished, she waited for Line to scold or lecture her but her friend  said nothing. After gazing at her in silence for a few seconds, she sighed and responded.

-Listen, Cyntia, I must be either drunk or becoming mad, who knows; But I think you should give it a go.

-Wow, I wasn’t expecting that from you…You really think I should trust that Rick?

-I know you well enough to see that you’ve already decided to go. Besides, the whole craziness of this trip might distract you, give you a free holiday, have a bit of fan with that gorgeous guy…and maybe make you normal again if that scientist gives you the vaccine. 

-Ok; It’s exactly what I ‘ve been thinking…You know me so well…But then the sensible voice in my head is telling me not to go. I’m unsure about this Rick…

Line shrugged.

-If he was really dodgy you would already know; And that paper is a guarantee. I can be this  trustworthy person who will have a look at it. I can make other people know you are there and you can tell him.

-Well, In know that he won’t murder me but what about the experiment?

-Clearly it is a risk: you still don’t know much about emotional pain; But maybe that’s exactly the thrill for you. I know you have a wild nature, repressed behind that serious mask of yours…Maybe just unleash it and see what happens.

Cyntia was dumbfounded by her friend’s words. But then she had to admit that a huge part of her just wanted to give it a go.

-I’m not sure. I know I shouldn’t go but you’re right: I am attracted by the whole thing. And this guy from work is soooooo handsome…

Line gave her a frown.

-Don’t get too excited: if the week is an experiment for that weird scientist, that might not be the start of a relationship. You know him even less than that Rick… By the way, will he be watching you ? Isn’t that a bit pervert?

-I guess so; the whole thing is just madness, really. But things like perversion are not supposed to affect people anymore.

Their psychology courses at uni had taught them about such mental disorders: they only affected people a long time ago when they could feel pain and all sorts of related feelings. Their professors had only mentioned them briefly but they had stuck in their minds, highlighting the state of stability and contentment that now characterised most personalities.

Thoughtful and worried for a while, Cyntia then said to her friend in an anxious tone:

-If he has a pervert personality disorder, Rick might also be likely to feel pain. Line squeezed her hand.

-It might be and that would explain his interest for the subject, I guess. But then why doesn’t he carry out his weird experiments on himself? Think it twice. If you decide to go, I will look at this document and will give you my full support but you will have to promise me that you will be careful and will call me or the police if anything bad happens there.

Cyntia smiled warmly at her friend. Line really was her family.

-I promise. Now, I have to go and you have fun with the latino guy.

Line grinned at her naughtily before kissing her good night.

After a brisk walk to the tube, Cyntia quickly found herself sat in a comfortable mono-coach. On her way home, she let herself sink in her seat, shut her eyes and let her mind wander about her upcoming exciting  holiday.

                                                                        *****

When she woke up the next morning, Cyntia had butterflies in her belly at the idea of seeing the handsome Jef again. She put on a smart and yet sexy dress, applied a subtle make up and washed her beautiful dark brown hair. Before leaving her flat, she glanced at her pretty reflection in the mirror: the dress highlighted her feminine and slender figure. That morning, she went to work with a confident smile.

But once at her desk, her mind seemed unable to focus. How was she going to invite Jef on a holiday with her without sounding desperate? No that was not going to be a pushy move: he had made it crystal clear that he found her attractive.

Even though they noticed her excitement, her colleagues did not say anything; that sort of positive mood was rather welcomed by the company.

At precisely two pm, she left her office, pretending to have a professional meeting with another department.

Jef was waiting for her in the lounge area where she had first met him: his dark blonde hair shining and his blue eyes staring at her. He greeted her with a sensual smile and, straight away, kissed her sensually on both cheeks. Tall and so strongly built he looked like he could have lifted her with one hand, he stared at her with his deep blue eyes.

-Hey, so nice to see you again Cyntia. You look stunning today!

She flushed as his eyes surveyed her in a way that showed he wanted her.

-I thought it would be nice to catch up…

Jef’s face dropped a little but then his eyes got that little cheeky twinkle again.

-I was hoping that it would be more than just a friendly catch up…

Cyntia looked straight at him. Why on earth was this man being so flirtatious with her? Should he not be with a model like him?

Jef noticed her embarrassment.

-Don’t worry, I am not going to attack you…

-It’s fine; I m just not used to this…

-You’re not used of men flirting with you? Don’t bullshit me: you are young, pretty and charming…

-Of course men flirt with me! But I am not sued to receiving so many compliments.

She lowered her voice a little, as if she was about to touch upon a very taboo subject.

– Besides, my last experience with a man ended up in a drama.  

She saw Jef’s jaws tighten but the look on his face expressed desire more than anger.

– I could I would hit all the guys who treated you badly; You deserve to be treated like a princes and to be adored for your beauty.

Cyntia’s cheeks were now completely red with joy at hearing such a compliment. Yet, she was still hesitant to invite him to that holiday. After chitchatting for a while, she realised that she had left her office much too long. If she wanted the deal to be closed with Rick, she just to invite him; no fuss no muss. He would be free to decide whether to come with her to that idyllic sunny place.

When an awkward silence settled between them, she resolved to ask him as casually as she could: -Do you have any holiday planned soon?

-Unfortunately not…I really need one soon though…to get away from work… By the way, if you are in the same spirit, I wouldn’t mind some company.

Cyntia could not believe it: he was actually inviting her!

-Wow, that’s incredible! I actually do have a holiday planned, fairly soon; actually, extremely soon.. I m going to a friend’s place…and the …mmmhhh…the friend who was supposed to come with me has just cancelled so…if you are free next week…

She looked away and then back at him: he burst into laughter.

-In other words, you are asking me to replace your boyfriend or whoever that person was…slightly insulting I must say.

His expression was however more amused than offended.

Cyntia’s embarrassment was blatant. She just wanted to hide under the table.

-It s not like that at all…it was a female friend. But she had to cancel because of …a sudden work commitment.

Jef was still smiling.

-Well, I do need a holiday so, provided that it is in a nice place and that you will relax a bit, I m your man!

Cyntia clapped her hands joyfully.

-Wonderful! Yes, the place is great; Would you like to meet again tomorrow so we can arrange all the details?

-Sure.

He gave her a mischievous wink and kissed her goodbye on one cheek, so close to her mouth she thought he was going to touch it. The butterflies in her belly were getting more and more intense.

Cyntia spent the rest of the day in a state of perfect bliss. Even if she perfectly knew that there was more to the trip than a holiday, she was determined to see it, for now, as a fun and exiting plan. She gave Rick a quick phone call that evening, to inform him that she would travel in very good company. After marvelling at the speed with which she had found someone to go to Sicilia with, Rick told her the villa was located in a pretty village locate din the South of the Island, a few meters away from the beach. The place she found in her internet search while still on the phone with Rick confirmed Rick’s words: the place really seemed gorgeous. Things were not going so badly for her afterwards. Maybe they would not stop improving. Rick’s voice interrupted her trail of thought :

-Are you still there, my dear?

-Yes. I was just imagining myself in this marvellous place.

-Wonderful. I will arrange everything for you, including the journey by plane. I will text you tomorrow to arrange to meet so that we can sign our little contract. And, again, I insist that you have it looked at by a close friend so that our mutual trust is total.

-I will Rick. Let’s meet soon to arrange the last details.

After hanging up the phone, she brushed away the thought of that strange experiment headed towards her wardrobe. She wanted everything packed as soon as possible.

                                                                        *****

 After an early breakfast shared with Rick, she walked to work. He had briefed her on what she needed to know about that holiday in Sicily. She still found it hard to call it an “experiment”, although she knew that it was precisely what it was. Rick had gone through the “contract” with her in a very professional manner: the location, length and conditions of her stay had been specified in the document she had signed. The paragraph concerning the experiences she was going to take part in was extremely evasive, only mentioning a few elements. She understood that she was going to have to endure some hardship and that her reactions would be tested; However, the contract to be signed by a close friend detailed clear limits to the sort of difficulty she could go through:  no physical harm and no substantial emotional pain. When she asked Rick what he meant by “substantial”, his reply made her shiver slightly: “anything that would create a long lasting trauma”. That still left a lot of room for strong emotional pain. But decided to not let fear overwhelm her, she shrugged and continued eating her breakfast. It was only a question of mindset: she would see that holiday in a positive light despite all the weirdness that surrounded it.

She said goodbye to Rick and hurried to her rendez-vous with Jef before starting work. Her cheeks were red with excitement and her heart was bouncing so hard in her chest that she forgot to pay attention to the pavement and scratched her knee on a gate. Repressing a huge urge to scream in public, she just squeezed her teeth really tight, waiting for the pain to subside. This was a cruel reminder of her current weakness. She entered the nearest café, went to the toilet and applied a little disinfectant on the wound. Once locked in the toilet, she let out a few soothing sobs. Although she managed to pull herself together, she was still shocked by the experience of even a slight physical suffering. After all, she had lived a totally pain-free existence until that ineffective vaccine.

*****

She went in the playroom of their company where she was supposed to meet Jef. He was sat in a comfortable armchair, the shine of his blond head intensified by the sun coming through the broad window. He got up and came straight towards her. After an awkward hug, they both helped themselves with coffee served and looked at each other. Even though Cyntia had made a special effort that day to feel and look attractive, she still felt much less beautiful than him. Too intimidated to start the conversation, she looked at him in silence and started sipping her coffee.

Jef led her to one the big leather sofas where they both sat very close to each other. She could smell his cologne and look at his features in details. The sight and smell of him filled her with a huge desire. Despite the buzzing sound around them, the silence between them was starting to make her  feel uneasy. Sensing how she felt, he broke the silence with another compliment:

-You look so pretty today!

Slightly disappointed that he would call her “pretty” instead of “beautiful”, she responded with a sensual smile:  

– Thanks. You too. Well, I mean handsome…You know what I mean…

He threw his head back and laughed loudly.

– I know women like my looks but I like compliments too. Now, could you tell me more about our upcoming holiday? By the way, I do want to share the costs.

– Actually, I don’t have to pay a penny so don’t worry. We will be there a week, in a villa in a small village in the south of Sicily, very close to a paradisiacal beach.

-Sound good to me.

A flicker of amusement passed over his face, before he continued:

-I will be delighted to be staying in the same villa as you.

She flushed and nodded shyly.  

She wondered again why such a gorgeous man wanted to go on a holiday with her. Maybe he was just bored or lonely…But then how could such a beautiful being ever feel boredom or loneliness? Besides, he did not seem to be surprised by the odd setting she was offering him: a free holiday paid by a stranger…an idea suddenly struck her: what if he was an escort, used to flying to unknown destinations on holidays paid by desperate women? Surely she did not look that desperate…

Jef touched her arm.

-Are you OK? You seem very distressed… Have I said anything upsetting?

Cyntia composed herself, realising that the way her emotions had become so obvious could raise suspicions. To her relief, the other persons in the room were not looking at her.

-I like your enthusiasm. I am just a bit surprised that you are not that surprised by my proposition. Have you already flown away with somebody you barely knew?

Jef’s expression changed from amused to appalled.

– Who do you think I am? I have always paid for my own holidays and that’s precisely why I offered to split the costs…never mind. Your question just shocks me.

Seeing so gob smacked made Cyntia feel very guilty.

-I am sorry, Jef. Let me be honest with you:  this free holiday is part of a deal…I was not supposed to divulge it but I prefer to be honest

-So in order to get a favour from you, he offers you that holiday, is that right?

-sort of…But I will also get something invaluable after that holiday.

Jef seemed puzzled,

-So what are you giving him? You don’t look like a prostitute to me…

-Very funny…It is a bit more complicated than that…Let’s just say I will have to put up with some unpleasant elements during that time…But don’t worry, that shouldn’t affect you. 

Jef seemed to reflect on her words for a few seconds then his expression brightened up again.

-Well it all sounds a bit strange but as long  as those unpleasant things don’t make you lose your pretty smile, I am cool.

After a pause he added:

-I suppose these little surprises won’t be dangerous, will they?

-I have the guarantee that they will not.

She then remembered she had to show Line the contract she had just signed, Pushing away the fearful thoughts whirling around her mind, she finished her coffee and tackled the issue of the practicalities of the trip.

*****

On her way to her office, she was feeling lighter than ever. They had decided to meet on Monday of the following week in order to go together to the airport. Not only had Jef been relaxed and accommodating about the whole thing, he had also become more intimate and closer during their conversation. At the end of it, he was regularly touching her hands, arms and shoulders while speaking and when he kissed her goodbye, his lips came very close to hers. Cyntia knew that this holiday was going to be love in paradise, or at least sex, loads of sex, in paradise. After more than a year of being single, she really needed that sort of casual interaction. She sat at her desk with a wide dreamy smile all over her face. Her two colleagues looked at each other intriguingly. Let them gossip, she thought. After all, feeling butterflies in your stomach for a guy is not a crime yet in this world.

                                                                        *****

                                                                 

Chapter five: The holiday

She had been waiting for him more than half an hour in the cold hall of Standsted airport. She had already had two cappuccinos and was now sat one of these indoor bikes, trying to do some exercise to stop from worrying: what if he had changed his mind and had decided to not come? She had seen that his phone was disconnected so that she had no way of reaching him. The boarding was now in half an hour and they still had to check in. As she was cycling faster, looking at her watch at the same time, she suddenly heard a cheerful voice behind her.

-Hi, Cyntia; Sorry I’m a little late…I had an unexpected visit yesterday…and well, let just say that it delayed me.

Cyntia turned angrily towards him and got off the bike.

-A little late? We are about to miss the plane…If you don’t want to come, no problem, but you could have at least told me so!

Obviously surprised by her anger, his expression became extremely apologetic. He told her in a soft voice.

-Cyntia, I really am sorry; why don t we just check in? It must be time now, right? And of course I want to go on that plane with you!

It suddenly occurred to Cyntia that her anger was an exaggerated reaction since he was still merely a friend; in fact, she barely knew him so what right did she have to get so angry at him?

She composed herself and told him in a cold and civil manner.

-Yes of course, let’s get on that plane; Sorry I got so upset. I just dont like being late. But, you know, I could very well have gone by myself to that amazing place.

He gave her a little sarcastic smile that she totally ignored and they hurried towards the check in. Forty minutes later, they were both comfortably sat in first class. Rick had really organised that trip remarkably, thought Cyntia.

Whereas it was her first time on a first class seat, Jef seemed totally accustomed to it.

-Have you flown a lot? She asked in a timid voice.

-Yes, you could say that.

His eyes were sparkling but he did not expand on that point, as if he didn’t want to give away too much of himself yet. He merely returned the question:

-And you?

-Not really. I have been on a plane before, obviously, but never in first class. I’m intrigued to see what the food is like.

-It is simply exquisite. But what I like best is all the little extras you can require.

-Like what?

-Well, special movies, drinks, porn…

He threw his head back and burst into laughter.

Cyntia had an appalled look on her face.

-Porn? They give you porn in first class?

She wanted to add that it was anything but classy but then saw the smile on Jef’s face.

-I was just joking.

-well it is not funny.

She gave him a stern look and started reading her art magazine.

He seemed baffled now.

-Are you one of these austere women militating against porn? You know some of it is nice for women as well…

-If you really want my opinion: yes I m against porn; I think it destroys the authenticity of sexual intercourse and conveys a terrible vision of women; even when it is supposedly addressed to them

-Ah, so you have watched it?

Cyntia flushed.

-No but I have read about it.

He gave her an understanding smile.

-Don’t worry. I much prefer real sex too.

After a little wink, he closed his eyes and she was left with that suggestive sentence hovering in the air like a promise.

                                                            ****

Rick had not exaggerated in his description. The place was a sheer paradise: a sumptuous three bedrooms villa, one kilometre from the nearest town and five hundred meters from the beach.

Cyntia started exploring the house with awe, while Jef simply sat in front of the big flat screen television hanging on the main wall of the living room. It was a traditional Mediterranean holiday house: painted in white and pastel colours, the large rooms were very bright, thanks to large windows letting the light generously in, and they were all furnished with light wooden furniture and plainly decorated. The travel agency had added basic modern equipment in the bedrooms and in the kitchen, so that people coming from big cities did not feel lost: laptops, Mp3s, stereos and  loads of cooking devices that Cyntia had never even seen before.

After her tour of the house, Cyntia came back to the living room. Jef had found a soap opera in English and was resting in front of the television, his feet on a stool and his head supported by a comfortable pillow.

Cyntia looked at him: his muscular body was more than obvious in his tight clothes. Feeling her eyes on him, he shot her a sparkly gaze.

– What?

-Oh, nothing.

She had mumbled, her cheeks red with shame at the thoughts she was having.

-You were staring at me.

-No, not at all… I was just thinking.

-About what?

She adopted a matter-of-fact tone:

-What could we do the rest of the day? The pool seems amazing, but then we haven’t seen the village nor the sea…Of course we can also spend our time separately…

He was looking at her with intensity.

-Let’s have a look at the beach together! The booklet here says it is only down the road.

Cyntia nodded.

-Great. I will just put my swimming suit on.

She parted her lips in surprise.

At the idea of standing in a swimming suit in front of him, Cyntia shivered. Wasn’t it a bit soon for her to show him her body? Besides, who said anything had to happen between them? They could also just stay – or, more accurately, become – friends…

-I have had a cold recently so I might just stay like this; but I will happily sit on the beach and enjoy the sun

Jef looked at her with glittering eyes.

-Come on, you have to swim too; that’s the whole point of being by a beach, isn’t it?

-Maybe tomorrow.

-No worries, Cyntia. No pressure! I’ll be a minute.

After a minute of reflection, she went herself to the bedroom and decided to wear a swimming suit and a light dress over it. Jef was waiting for her sat at the table sipping a coffee in a tight short. She could see his muscular torso and arms, as well as his long leopard-like legs and his perfect behind. Noticing her gaze over his body, he said cheerfully:

-I’ve been working out, can you tell?

-Yes…, I guess so

Looking away so that he couldn’t see how red her cheeks were, she grabbed her bag and said in a casual tone:

-Let’s go and enjoy the rest of the day.

-Yes, let’s have fun!

The way his eyes fell on her body left no ambiguity as to what he meant.

They spent the whole afternoon on the private beach near the villa, alternating between sunbathing and short swims. Cyntia was an excellent swimmer but did not want to show off. She knew how sensitive men were when women were better than them…

At the end of the day, they got back to the villa and sat by the swimming pool to enjoy the descending sunlight. The view was more stunning than anything Cyntia had ever seen: the villa was located on top of a hill and from the pool they could see the garden in flowers and further away, neat fields, high trees and a remote little village in a dry landscape. Cyntia breathed in deeply and tried to fully imbue herself with this paradise on earth.

Suddenly she felt Jef’s fingers brush her arm. She startled and sat up.

-Sorry, I didn’t want to wake you

-I wasn’t asleep, just relaxing

He stared at her with his feline eyes.

-I wanted to thank you for this amazing holiday.

-It has just started so you can’t tell how it is going to be yet…

-Well, the place is idyllic, just perfect.

-I know…? I will have to thank Rick

-Ah yes the friend who offered you that holiday

Cyntia noticed the sarcasm in his voice.

-Do you think that was wrong of me to have accepted? As I told you, it was a mutually interested agreement.

-Yes, you told me. I don’t need to hear anymore than that;

He looked at her with his deep brown eyes; His blond hair and already tanned skin were glowing in the twilight.

He noticed her interest.

– You are looking at me as if I was an alien…

– It’s just that you are so…

-what?

-It would sound bizarre of me to use that word but, oh, I will just say it: you are so beautiful.

For a short while he did not respond, looking gobsmacked. Then he threw his head back and burst into a clear loud laughter that made him look even more irresistible.

-What is so funny?

-I mean, women have complimented me before, but they normally tell me I’m hot, attractive, handsome, etc. It’s the first time I’ve been called ‘beautiful’/

-Well you have called me beautiful and, in my case, it is not exactly true. 

His expression suddenly turned serious.

-Of course it is. Cyntia, you are stunning!

He touched her dark hair with his long fingers and stroked her forehead, then went down towards her mouth and repeated:

-Just stunning…

Her heart was pounding and her body responded with a hot, burning and demanding desire.

He pulled her closer to him and started kissing her feverishly. His mouth was warm, his smell strong and sweet. Soon she could feel his hands all over her body. She closed her eyes and abandoned herself to him.

Chapter Six: The Pain

They were lying on the grass by the pool after two hours of absolutely mind-blowing sex. Cyntia’s body felt the more relaxed it had felt in years. The sex was so much more intense and passionate than with her ex and with any of the men she had been with. In his arms, she just felt like a marvellous queen who could achieve anything. And then, the pleasure was so intense she could scream just thinking about it.

-So, what do you want to do now?

His voice was smoother than before, probably due to the endorphin released by all their embraces.

-Let’s just stay here a bit longer, OK? I feel so good…better than I have felt for so long.

He pulled her closer to her and they just lied there for another half an hour, saying nothing and just breathing each other’s smell.

Suddenly he let go of her and stood up, stretching his arms and legs.

-I will go for a run now and then I will take you out for diner. All this has made me very hungry

-Wonderful idea! I think there are a few trendy restaurants in the village; I will get dressed while you run

-Actually, why don’t you come with me? You seem pretty fit!

-I am, but with my little legs…compared to yours I mean…I would slow you down…

-No you wont. And if you do, I won’t blame you. Come on… Lets put some shorts on and let s go for a run along the beach

The rest of the evening was as magical as the afternoon: after a reviving run during which Jef kindly slowed his pace so that she could keep up with him, they went out and had a romantic diner by candlelight. Jef kept telling her how beautiful she was, interrupting his meal to kiss her and take pictures of her. She had never felt more like an adored princess. When they came back to the villa, they went straight to the bedroom and had another few hours of inflamed sex. Cyntia fell asleep in his arms, feeling enormously grateful to Rick for offering her such a beautiful holiday. Certainly, a little voice inside her head was telling her to keep her guards on, since she had been warned about the unpleasant aspects of the ‘experiment’ but, for now, she just hushed that voice completely and enjoyed the moment.

*****

the next couple of days continued to be totally magical and romantic. Cyntia started feeling something more than pure sexual attraction to Jef, letting her mind wander about ideas of marriage, house purchasing and having kids. That is, until the third day of their stay in Sicily. That morning, Jef woke up looking very different: tired and worried looking, he would not even look at her during breakfast. As she tried to kiss him, he angrily pushed her away as if she was a nasty little fly. Cyntia was just dumbfounded by such a radical change of behaviour. She decided to eat her toasts in silence, hoping that Jef would cheer up after their meal. But his low mood went on as they were sat together on the beach. No longer bearing such an offensive attitude, Cyntia finally told him in a firm tone:

-Jef, what;s going on? Is it something I have done or said? Why are you acting so weird?

Jef looked at her with empty eyes, his brow still frown with tension.

-Oh, leave me alone…

-But, I dont understand…we were having such a good time. Are youb coming down with something? Are you feeling unwell?

-Would you please just shut up and leave me alone?

His tone was so mean that Cyntia felt tears coming to her eyes. How could she have been so dumb as to imagine this guy was a good person? At the end of the day, he was pronbably just using her to have a free holiday.

Wiping her tears with her hands, she stoop up and stared at him for a while. Then she said in a blunt voice:

-Fine. I will leave you be today. I don’t need to be with a grumpy sand ungrateful man. I can have fun by myself. I wont be back until tonight

This sentence seemed to have mellowed Jef’s expression. He called her back, as she was already walking away.

-Cyntia, wait. I dint mean to… I just have these strange feelings at time…Never mind. You go and enjoy yourself.

-Yes, I will do a bit of sightseeing using the buses. I will see you tonight

-Ok, Cyntia. See you later

She thought she had seen what seemed like sadness quickly passing over his face. But too hurt by his earlier rejection, she decided to simply discard it and kept walking away.

She spent her day discovering the nearby villages, churches and charming streets and beaches. Although she was by herself, she did not feel lonely at all in that beautiful area. She did not call nor text Jef for the whole day and he didnt either. She was clearly surprised by his behaviour but decided to discard it and simply absorb the subtle details of the beautiful Sicilian scenery. Hungry and tired, she headed back by bus to the villa when the sun was coming down, hoping to find Jef in a better mood.

She called for him as soon as she stepped inside the house but received no reply. She checked all the rooms but no presence of Jef. She then went outside to look whether he was by the pool and, indeed, he was lying in the descending sun, reading a book in his sexy swimming suit. She walked closely towards him and laid a kiss on his belly. This time, he did not reject her. He put his book away and smiled at her, kissing her back feverishly. They had passionate sex again on the bench, then in the pool, then on the grass. Cyntia was quite proud of herself to have managed to cheer his mood up simply by giving him a little bit of space.

-Jef, do you want to hear about what I’ve seen today?

-Mmmh, yes…

His voice was low and distant. When Cyntia looked at him, she could see that he had his eyes closed and was falling asleep.

‘Never mind’, she thought. ‘We can just rest here a bit before going to bed’.

They got up after one hour of sleeping by the pool as the sun was now totally down and the darkness had slowly surrounded the villa.

Before going in her own room, Cyntia quickly went to the bathroom to wash her face and brush her teeth. But, to her horror, as she was reaching for the towel, she saw something that overwhelmed her with sadness and anger: small pink female underpants were there, hanging but the towel and they were not hers. Surveying them, Cyntia felt a flood of disgust dawning her. How could she be so stupid? Of course, the man wanted to be alone because he was a pathological cheater or polygamist. Standing in shock still looking at the pink pants, she heard Jef’s voice calling her. She did not reply, her brain incapable to work, as if stopped by the flow of negative emotions she was feeling.

After a few minutes, Jef entered the bathroom and looked at her in surprise. In those days, nobody was overwhelmed by painful emotions anymore so he could not understand why Cyntia seemed so in shock.

Seeing him just made her burst into an irrepressible anger. She started screaming at him and even hit him on the chest a few times. Jef felt helpless in front of so much savagery: he had only ever known cold people who could never ever feel hurt so he had no idea how to react in front of such pain.

-Cyntia, come on; it was only a little thing; surely this has happened to you before…come on we ve only known each other a few days; how can you react like that?

These words reminded Cyntia of Jef’s inability to feel pain but did not calm her.

-It hurts me, do you get that, you monster! I am not like any of you all in this world. I know what pain is and feels like, and when someone lies to you and cheats on you, it hurts, it destroys you inside and makes you feel like shit. Do you understand that, you horrible vicious monster?

-I can try but, to be honest, your words dont make much sense to me. I didnt know you wanted me to be faithful, we never discussed it. Normally that happens after marriage…and again, we’ve only known each other a few days…

-Oh shut up you horrible disgustful man; just leave me alone; actually no, get out of my villa; go to her place if you like her and leave me be; and never ever touch me again!

Cyntia looked so scary that Jef moved back and stepped out of the bathroom.

-Ok, Cyntia, I will stay in a hotel tonight; Hopefully my credit card will work. Because, you know, I didnt expect to pay for my stay here

Seeing Cyntia run after him, Jef moved back further.

-Ok ok, fine, I am leaving right now; I will grab a few things then I will leave. But, please, talk to me tomorrow and explain to me why this has put you in such an uncontrollable state.

-Get out, now!

A few minutes later, Jef was out and Cyntia was still crying and shaking. She made herself a hot drink, ate a lot of chocolates and took a sleeping pill to forget about it all. After all, men were monsters, all of them. That is what her ex had taught her. And apparently he was not the only one. She fell into a heavy sleep with tears all over her cheeks.

*****

The next morning, she saw about ten texts from Jef. He was expressing how surprised he was by her reaction, giving her all the same arguments again. She replied only one thing: “I am not painfree anymore, Jef; I know what physical and emotional pain is. So now fuck off out of my life and phone’. His only reply was ‘wow’. He obviously had not even thought of that possibility. Like most people, he only knew pain as a bad historical fact that used to create much individual and collective trouble; Cyntia knew she was not supposed to reveal her condition to many people since there was a risk they would denounce her to the authorities; but what if he did? She had done nothing wrong: she had taken that damn vaccine and it hadnt worked. She could always pretend she had only just found out.

She spent the day like a recluse in the villa, reading the novel she had brought with her and eating a lot. She had no eagerness to swim, exercise or see the Sicilian landscape anymore. Jef’s cheating and ruthless behaviour had totally destroyed her stay here. As she was brooding all by herself, contemplating to empty her bank account by booking an early return to the UK, she received a text from Rick: “Is everything all right my dear? I hope you are enjoying the Italian Dolce Vita. She just felt like throwing her phone away but she contained herself and just replied a brief: “it ‘s hell. Part of your little experience, right?? I am done with this torture and going back to the UK”. Then she realised that, in order to know what had happened to her, Rick must have put some cameras in the villa. Struck by the horror of such a pervert act, she started looking at the ceilings and corners of the walls in every room and, indeed, she did find what looked like tiny cameras. She jumped on her hone and texted Rick again: “you horrible bastard. You were spying on me and on the torture that man was inflicting on me. Go to hell. I am leaving this place”. She then turned off her phone and smashed every one of the minuscule cameras with her shoe; then to make sure they were properly destroyed she snatched them away from the walls and jumped on them many many times.

After what felt like an incredibly cathartic act, she threw herself on the sofa and closed her eyes. As she was about to fall into a restful nap, her mind finally escaping the dark moments she had been living, she heard someone come in the house. She sat straight away, all her senses alert and ready to fight. There, standing in front of her was Jef, holding a bunch of flowers and a wrapped gift. He was not smiling and looked dreadful. Of course, he was still handsome but he looked like he had had no sleep at all, his face wary and tormented.

-This is for you, Cyntia. I want to apologise for what I did. I had no idea that you could be hurt. I am sorry

Cyntia looked away, not knowing what to reply. The she said, in a calm voice:

-well not everyone behaves like that; you don’t need to feel pain to be kind, faithful and empathetic. What you did was immoral and you know it; you cheated on me

-I am sorry, Cyntia. I just thought we were not getting on and when that girl offered herself ot me I was weak; I thought you were not coming back

At the mere idea of a girl offering herself to Jef, Cyntia shivered.

-you thought I was not coming back after I had told you very clearly I would be back in the evening? I went away because you wanted me to, remember?

-I just felt tired…You see, I have this fear of being abandoned; and sometines I just push people away so that I don’t get abandoned…

All this just sounded like a bunch of lies. How could you have such fears when you felt non pain?

-All bullshit, Jef, just pure fake rubbish.

-Ok, if you don’t want to accept my apologies I will go; I will leave my gifts here for you so that you remember that at least I have tried to apologise.

As Jef was walking away, Cyntia realised she did not want him to leave her; she wanted to be the one breaking up, making her point; if she could not hurt him, she could at least get out of that situation with pride.

-Jef, wait! Let us just spend the afternoon together before you go, ok? And thanks for the gifts.

Jef rushed back to her and grabbed her hands.

-Thank you Cyntia, thank you so much, why don’t we just have a swim, as old friends do?

-old friends? we re not even friends!

-well let s just enjoy the pool anyway

-Ok

They spent the rest of the day calmly with each other, not speaking much, just doing things side by side. Cyntia was still hesitating to take the next plane back to London but her anger seemed to have receded. Now that they were not having sex anymore, it did not hurt that much to know that he had been with another woman. She then started teasing him about it.

-So when are you seeing your girlfriend again?

-What?

Jef looked properly astonished.

-the girl you slept with after me? You are no longer interested in her? Come on…You can tell me

She gave him a little friendly grin.

-Ok, if you do want to know: I havent contacted her again since that time; Your reaction put me off it…and I was hoping that things between us could maybe…you know

Now it was Cyntia who looked surprised.

-Could what? Start again? Sorry, my friend, but you are out of your mind. I am an exclusive person

-Cyntia, I am sorry again. I did not know you were different…more sensitive…able to feel pain and all that

This sentence made Cyntia get up in anger.

-But it’s not just that, Jef! Even before I never used to cheat or accept to be cheated on. It’s a question of morality not just of hurt.

Jef seemed a bit baffled by her passionate speech and stayed quiet for a while. Then he looked at her with his beautiful eyes, an interested look all over his face.

-Does that mean that you also feel physical pain?

-Yes, as I told you so.

And suddenly a thought occurred to her: what if he started hurting her, just to see what someone in pain looks like? Maybe he had been hired by that psychopathic Rick because he shared his sadism.

As she stepped away from him, he started laughing.

-Come on, you are safe with me. You could damage me back, you know?

True. Even pain-free people could get injured. They were still human. But because they had lost the ability to sense pain they just had to be extra careful not to inflict injuries on themselves or on others.

He pulled her towards her and gave her a hug. Although she was still attracted to him, she was resolved not to have sex with him again. She was now much too aware of his ability to hurt her.

She pretended she had to use the bathroom to get back inside the villa. Then she sent him a text saying she had a headache and needed to lie down. After locking her bedroom door, she opened up her computer and booked the next flight to London the next day. She wanted to go back to her safe and cosy own little flat and tell that horrible Rick what she thought of his little experiment.

*****

After a couple of hours of pilates, reading and stretching, Cyntia was eager to get out of her room and swim in the sea before leaving the next day. Jef had texted her back that he was going to town and would see her later. She unlocked her door and peeped inside the living room: no trace of him; She quickly looked outside and can see he is not there either. Relieved, she put on her swimming suit, grabbed her bag and started walking towards the beach. She was determined to just relax and enjoy her last day in Sicily all by herself, safe and sound.

The sun was high in the skin and, despite the cream she had covered her body with, her skin felt too hot. She decided to do w long relaxing swim in the beautifully clear and blue Mediterranean. As she was relaxing in a plank, enjoying all the sensations the mixture of sea, sun and children voices gives to the body, she suddenly felt a sting on her right leg. The sting then turned into a burning sensation: it seemed that her leg was on fire. Unable to repress a cry, she started desperately swimming back to the sand. She could see a lot of people looking at her with scared faces. She was basically screaming out of pain. Whatever bit or stung her must have been pretty monstrous,. Finally she arrived on the sand and rushed out of the water, still in tears and holding her leg. A little crowd had formed around her, a few people asking her questions and mumbling words to each other. She was aware that all these people had no idea how she must feel, painless as they were. She shouted to the crowd:

-Is there a doctor? A nurse? Some medical person? Can someone tell me what happened to me?

A young man approached her briskly. He was slim and tall, with dark hair. He looked at her with a stern face then zoomed on her leg and at the red area on it.

-It seems that you have been stung by a jellyfish. In this sea, they are only small, harmless ones

-Oh, good, thanks

She rubbed the tears off her face and tried to compose herself but the pain had not subsided.

The crowd has dispersed by now so that she dared ask the young doctor:

-what can I do to get rid of that burning sensation?

Seeing his puzzled look, she realised that she needed to give him more explanation.

-I don’t know what’s happening to me but I seem to feel…pain

A shadow of scepticism passed over his face but then he said in a matter-of-fact tone:

-I do not have painkillers with me since, well, they have become pretty much unnecessary but I do know of some natural medicines that could help you

-Oh yes, that would be great, thank you; what is it?

-Well, a basic one would be to pour urine on the burn…

-What?

-I know that it sounds gross but it is supposed to be very efficient… However, I could also prepare you a potion with some plants from my garden. If you don’t mind following me to my villa?

Cyntia would normally not accept to follow a stranger to his place but the burning sensation was too unpleasant for her to refuse.

She started walking behind him, regularly stopping to rub her leg. The young doctor escorted her very calmly and politely to a small house right next to the beach. The house was surrounded by a small but flowered garden.

-It is so pretty!

She exclaimed.

-Well, I do come a lot and I have to keep myself busy so that I do some gardening in my spare time

She surveyed him properly for the first time.

He must be in his late thirties but looked overall much younger with his smart glasses and slim and dark looks. He was sort of attractive, she suddenly realised. Trying not to flush and to only focus on the reason why she has followed him to his house, she cleared her throat and says:

-I will wait for you on the terrace; take your time

He smiled at her for the first time, as if reading her thoughts and gave her a seat.

-Fine. I will bring you a glass of orange juice while I prepare the potion. I have a lot of those plants in my kitchen already.

‘What sort of man keeps medicinal plants in the kitchen of his holiday villa? Probably the type who does gardening as a hobby, she thinks.’ And smiled to herself.

Only a few minutes later, the doctor came back and with a bowl of something looking very gooey and gross. She tried not to show how disgusted she felt and put on a brave face.

-So this should go on my leg?

-Yes, a few times today and tomorrow and the burning will disappear very fast. In fat, this should also help the prevent a scar.

-Wow…

-Do you want me to help you…?

Although the idea of having this handsome doctor touch her leg was appealing, she was not feeling in that sort of mood .

-No, it’s Ok, I can do it.

She used her hands and spreads the mixture evenly on the burn while he gave her guidelines.

And almost immediately she felt the pain go away.

-This is incredible. Are you a male witch?

He burst out into laughter and that made him look even more youthful.

-No, just a mainstream doctor who happens to use alternative medicines while on holiday…

-In any case, thank you so much, doctor…

She then realised that she did not even know his name.

Just call me Tom.

-well thanks a loti, Tom. I am Cyntia by the way.

And she shook his hand warmly.

-Would you like another glass of juice?

She was dying to say yes but she now felt a bit ashamed at that much too sudden proximity.

-Actually, I should get going…

-How long are you staying?

-Only until tomorrow, I’m afraid.

-But then I must take you out…

He stopped himself, probably realising how forward this was.

-I mean, I would love to invite you for diner.

-Only if you let me pay for it! I owe you that.

-Ok, deal! Let us meet on the town square at 8!

He gave her a hand shake again and squeezed her hand a little; Or had she imagined it? Maybe he found her attractive too.

As she started walking down the steps of the small villa, he shouted at her.

-Ah yes, and I expect you tot ell me a bit more about that sudden pain you have felt…After all, I am a doctor.

She smiled at him.

-Maybe!

Cyntia walked back to the villa in a state of perfect bliss. She had been asked out by a handsome doctor! All the pain of the last few days seemed to have disappeared at once. She felt lighter than ever and as she entered the villa and bumped into Jef, she realised that she had almost forgotten about his very existence. His brow was tightly knitted and he seemed both wiped out and worried.

-Hi Cyntia, where have you been?

-At the beach then in the sea..why?

-Well, I don’t know…I know you are leaving tomorrow and I…I just wanted to spend a little time with you…that’s all…

-Ah…

-Oh, what s wrong with your leg? What have you put on it?

-Oh that…It’s nothing…I got bitten by a jellyfish and someone helped me…

-Ouch…For you that must have been painful…Who helped you?

-Just a doctor who happened to be there on the beach. Now, if you ll excuse me…I want to have a bath

She passed by Jef, who just looked at her with a hundred questions in his eyes.

As she was realizing in her bath, she could hear him walk around the villa; But she could not care less. For her that man had always been a stranger, a mere distraction. His cheating was not really a betrayal since there had never been anything between them. Her thoughts were drifting towards the handsome doctor. He seemed like a nice, kind, honest guy. And he obviously had a good situation: a doctor, owning a villa in Sicily… For a moment, she allowed herself to dream that she would end up in a relationship with him, then they would have kids, marry… A knock on the door abruptly stopped her trail of thought. She sat up in her bath and shouted in an unnerved voice:

-What?

-Cyntia, it’s me; Come on, can you get out of there? I would really like to spend a bit of time with youj before you go. What about…dinner tonight?

-Sorry, I already have a date. Just call your girlfriend back. Stay at hers if you want. I could not care less

-A date? With whom?

Jef banged on the door more forcefully.

-Open the door, please open the door!

-I am in a bath. Leave me alone. Shall I remind you that you were invited her? If you are not happy go and stay somewhere else? By the way, I am taking the keys back with me so if you are staying after tomorrow you will need another place to stay

There was a long silence.

Then she heard Jef swear and hit something.

A shiver of fear went down her spine.

-What if that man was the violent type? After all he had been quite ruthless/…Maybe that was only the nice part of him…maybe there was worse…

No she would not allow herself to feel fear for such as a tiny immoral and heartless prick.

She grabbed a towel and went out of the bath. Keeping the door shut, she spoke to him through the door as firmly as she could.

-Jef, you’d better behave. Many people know I am here and I can make phone calls to get you in trouble if you do anything bad. So now, just leave the villa, book a hotel and leave me alone.

She heard him walk back closer to the door ans say, in a desperate voice:

-Cyntia, I think I love you; I am sorry if I have hurt you without meaning to.

-Leave me alone! I will not repeat it. If you continue harassing me I will notify the police.

-Ok, ok, No need to get all wound up. I will leave.

-Good.

She waited until there was no more noise in the villa to get out of the bathroom. Just out of precaution she ran straight to her bedroom and locked the door. Why was she so scared of that man? Was it because of what he had done to her? It was pretty violent, on an emotional level, when you could feel pain…But he had said he would leave…So.

She started getting dressed then a thought occurred to her: he still had the key to the villa. She texted him straight away: “drop the key in the letterbox within the next hour if you want no trouble. Thank you.” He did not reply.

*****

Chapter seven: The Choice

She put on a short and simple blue dress, tied her hair back and carefully applied her make up. She was really excited but forced herself to

not have high expectations. Maybe that man was just feeling lonely in that villa all by himself. He was probably just looking for friendship. In any case, it would be a good way of ending this holiday: on a cheerful and friendly note.

She checked her watch and realised that she was at least half an hour early. She decided to walk to the beach and look at the sea; By this time all the tourists would have gone and it would be beautiful and peaceful. Before leaving the villa, she quickly glanced at Jef’s room and saw that he had indeed packed his bag. She sighed out of relief and locked the door behind her.

She sat on the warm sand and looked at the waves, before closing her eyes and only listening to the soothing sound of the sea. As she had foreseen it, the beach was totally empty. She let that atmosphere fill her up with this inner peace she only felt close to the sea. Since her childhood, the only time she felt properly safe was by the sea. This was maybe because the sea, despite its wildness, also embodied calmness and oblivion of the human world. For a few minutes, her mind started being flowed with childhood memories, particularly the good ones. Life as an adult was so hard, even more so as an adult able to suffer.

-Hi!

She opened her eyes and saw the handsome doctor standing in front of her. What if he had been there for many long minutes, observing her while she had her eyes closed?

She blushed at that thought.

-Oh, Hi; sorry I was just dreaming…

-I know that very well…Particularly by the sea. I love it too. Why do you think I have a villa right next to it?

-Of course. It is very calming

She smiled warmly at him.

He sat right next to her and they both looked at the sea in silence for a moment. Then she turned her head towards him and decided to be frank straight away :

-As you have noticed, I am very unusual…I can feel pain…Not out of choice; I took the injection I was due but it did not work and, since then, I have just been trying to cope…

-I see. It must be very difficult

Surprisingly, he was not asking her why she had not gone back to the doctor.

-And since you must probably wonder: I meant to go back to my GP but I met that guy, that scientist…who convinced me not to.

Tom’s eyebrows raised in surprise.

-He told you what? Why?

-Well, he gave me a lot of theories…about how interesting it would be for me and for him to see how life was in that state…

-For him?

She noticed his tone of indignation.

-Yes, he said he wanted to study me…That s why I came here.

-What?

Now Tom looked properly astonished.

-But where is he then?

-Oh, he is not here…I think he put cameras in the villa. But he rented it for me and recommended that I came with a friend…so I asked this guy from work…It was nice initially; we had this fling…but then he behaved like a prick and cheated on me in the most hideous way.

Tom was drinking her words with intense interest but also seemed appalled by the whole story.

-So he basically set up a trap for you to fall in!

-What? What do you mean?
-Well if he wanted to study you…

-Oh, you mean that he knew I would chose that guy…but no, he couldn’t… Wait…this man had just sprung into my life…and had been more than eager to…Oh no…

She stopped in horror…So that was why Jef had accepted the invitation so readily; he was working for Rick.. No, it all sounded too far-fetched…But then, that Rick guy was very strange and did seem capable of such a deed.

Tom stood up and gave her his hand.

-Come on, let’s go and have diner. I’m starving. We can discuss your ordeal later on.

She followed him in silence, pondering the idea he had now put in her head. It all made sense but if that was true, it meant that Rick was totally evil.

Tom took her to the most romantic restaurant in town. They had a lot of food and wine and talked about everything: their jobs, hobbies, childhoods, London… The more he spoke, the more she found him attractive and interesting. He seemed so poised, calm and determined. She was trying to not show too much excitement, because she could not really read his expressions clearly: did he just want to have fun? Friendship? More? She could not tell anything from the way he looked at her. His face was jovial but closed.

At the end of the meal they touched upon the subject of relationships. He told her that he was getting out of a long relationship and that he was still very sad about it. His honesty made her tell her own story: that man she loved but who cheated and her with someone else. She told him that her ability to now feel pain made her feel much more sorrow about the whole situation.

After listening to her, he looked at her with moist eyes and put a hand on her arm. Immediately, she felt that warmth she had already felt when he had touched her leg.

He then whispered to her:

-Would you like to have a last drink or a tea in my house?

-I would love to!

Her phone beeped: she looked at it and saw messages from Jef and from Rick. She deleted them all without hardly looking at them: two pricks who had worked hand in hand to observe what emotional pain looked like. But now she was safe, with a kind and non judgemental man. She felt very safe indeed with him.

But as they were walking to his villa in silence, a doubt started mounting in her ; what if he was part of the evil plan Rick had set up to test her like a vulgar guinea pig? What if his aim was just to hurt her even more? She stopped walking and told him in a very serious tone:

-Tom, you seem like a good guy; But what if you are just lying to me and trying to hurt me? What if you are part of that scientist’ plan?

Tom just erupted. His laughter was clear, honest and loud.

-You think I just put the jellyfish in the sea so that you would get stung, waiting to rescue you and then hurt you? Is that not very very far-fetched?

-Well, I don’t know about the jellyfish…We could have met elsewhere; It’s not my point. My point is…

-I understand your point and you are wrong. Full stop. I just like you, that’s all!

He finished his sentence with a broad smile.

This sentence made her shiver with joy. He liked her! He barely knew her but he liked her and he had the guts and manhood to say it straight away!

-Oh thanks; that s flattering… I like you too…

Because of her shyness when it came to feelings, she had pronounced those words without looking at him.

He cupped her face in his beautiful hands and kissed her on the mouth. His lips were soft and warm and hers stayed on them for a while. This felt good, definitely. And for the first time in her life, Cyntia decided to trust her feelings. When she was pain-free, she had to analyse and think everything through before making any decision. Strangely, now that she knew what true suffering was, it seemed that she also knew how to trust people.

Of course, the intense desire she felt for that man made it slightly easier.

As they arrived to his villa, he stopped in front of his door and looked at her gravely.

-Cyntia, although I am extremely attracted to you, I don’t want to push you into anything…I know you’ve been having a hard time recently…So, if you prefer to go back to your holiday house, I will not keep a grudge

She beamed at him.

-This is really considerate, Tom, but I want to come inside. And you know what? Meeting you has been the one highlight of this nightmarish week!

He smiled back at her.

-Wow…this is flattering….But also maybe a bit of pressure…Thanks anyway.

He led her by the hand inside the villa, neatly tidied and decorated very simply. She was a bit surprised since she had imagined a totally different interior: full of books on alternative medical treatments and weird objects that showed what a genius Tom was….But this was only a holiday home at the end of the day.

As if reading her mind, he said to her in a witty tone:

-Not what you expected? I am not very good at the decorating stuff…it bores me a bit , to be honest…

-It is very nice, simple and tidy

-That’s thanks to my cleaner;

-Your cleaner? You only come here on holiday and you have a cleaner?

Not looking offended at all, Tom pulled her to him and started kissing her intensely.

-Well, as I said, I prefer to spend my time on other things…

-Lucky me!

Now his hands were all over her body. Oh, she could almost faint with lust… They were going to have the most amazing night ever.

Suddenly, her phone rang. Ignoring it, she continued exploring his body with her lips and hands. But the phone kept on ringing…

-Shouldn’t you answer that? It might be urgent…

-I’m sure it s not…Sorry about that… I’ll just have a quick look…

It was Rick…Why was he trying to call her like that late in the evening? She had been more than clear in her blunt texts to him that she was cancelling that whole bloody experiment and did not want to hear from him ever again. But the phone kept ringing…

-Listen, Cyntia: just pick it up, it might be something important.

-Ok, I’ll be very brief.

She didn’t want to spoil the evening by telling him who it was so she went outside to pick up when the phone rang again.

She almost yelled in her mobile:

-What? I texted you never to contact me again, you crazy scientist!

-I am sorry, Cyntia, but I had to get through to you…I apologise for the whole thing with Jef,..I never meant it to turn out so badly…Anyway he has contacted me and told me you left the house

-Yes. So, now leave me alone! I never want to hear from you ever again.

-I also heard that you have spent the evening with a doctor…

Cyntia could hardly breathe. How could he know that?

-Have you been spying on me? I will call the police if you don’t leave me alone. I am warning you…

-Cyntia, I only want to warn you. This man is not good. I checked on him…he has a record of violence and…worse. He is very bad. Get away from him, now!

-What? Your little tricks are not working anymore, you weird person; I should never have trusted you in the first place; you totally manipulated me and you are trying to do it still; now fuck off and let me enjoy my evening!

She rang off, sighed heavily and started walking back to the villa.

As she came back inside the small villa, a doubt started gripping her: what if Rick was right? What if Tom was as bad as he pretended? But then why should she believe someone who had only seen her as a guinea pig?

Tom was not in the living room but he had lit a few candles, probably to give a touch of romanticism to his cold interior.

-Tom?

She called, in a slightly unsure voice, wondering why he was not there.

-Yes?

She jumped and turned to face him: he was standing in front of her with two mugs in his hands.

-Sorry if I scared you. Would you care for some tea, Miss… What is your last name Cyntia?

-Misano, it is Cyntia Misano.

-Well, here you are, miss Misano. I guess you are not married so I can call you Miss, right?

‘”What an odd question”, she thought. Why would she be there with him if she has been married? Of course she was not married’. A smile glued to her face, she replied in her smoothest tone:

-No, I am not. What about you, Mr…, Mr…?

He erupted into a loud laughter before replying.

-Fair enough, Miss Misano; Well, My name is Tom Lee

-I like it. Well, thanks for the tea.

They both sat down on the small sofa and started sipping their tea. The phone call she had received from Rick had definitely spoilt her mood and the atmosphere. Her gut instinct was that Tom was a nice man, but Rick had clearly planted the seed of doubts in her mind. Tom seemed to pick up on her discomfort. He gently squeezed her hand and came closer to her.

-Are you ok? You seem so cold, all of a sudden, since that phone call…

-Yes, I’m sorry…It was that scientist I told you about…

She stopped, refraining from sharing her thoughts was him, just in case he was this dangerous violent man Rick had warned her against.

-I see. Well, that man does not sound like a piece of fun. If I were you, I would just keep my distances. At the end of the day, what he has done to you on this so-called ‘holiday’ is pretty revolting.

‘Either he is really clever at deceiving people or else he is just genuinely kind’, Cyntia thought to herself.

She decided to try and trust him and told him joyfully:

-You are right; Let’s just forget about him. Do you have anything else to drink?

-You mean, other than tea?

He winked at her.

-Yes, other than tea, like wine, spirits…

-Are you trying to get me drunk, Miss Misano?

She smiled at him, a bit unsure of what to reply. Then she decided to put Rick’s words totally aside and enjoy the evening.

She replied good-humouredly:

-Why not? If that’s what you need to kiss me the whole evening and…

-And?

His eyes were sparkling with desire. She could feel his eyes all over her body and started feeling a mounting, almost unbearable, amount of desire coming over her.

-You know what, Miss Misano? Maybe I do not need a drink to do that

He kissed her gently on the lips and, a few seconds later, his hands were everywhere on her body again. She was stroking his hair while kissing him with intense desire. She could feel that the night was going to be simply amazing. As they were getting more and more intimate, they heard a loud knock on the main window. Cyntia startled.

-Who is that?

She whispered.

-I have no idea…

The knock went on again, louder this time.

Tom finally got up, looking a bit apprehensive.

-I wonder why they haven’t just rung the bell

All of a sudden, Cyntia became fearful too.

-Why don’t you take a weapon with you, just in case?

Tom smiled at her.

-A weapon, you must be joking? It must be a mistake

He opened the door but there was no-one there. He stepped outside and asked whether there was anyone there but one could only hear the sound of waves in the distance.

Cyntia had come to the door too. After a few seconds of looking in the darkness, she released a little cry.

-Who is that?

She was pointing towards the road where a blond woman was running.

-Hi there! Stop!

She shouted

But the woman just ran faster.

She looked at Tom with suspicion in her eyes:

-Do you know that woman?
-No, I don’t.

His calm did not impress her. Surely he must know her. Why on earth would she be knocking on his window then run away like that?

Tom’s expression showed that he could read Cyntia’s feelings.

-You are not accusing me, are you?

-Well, why was she there, if you have nothing to do with her? And why do you look unsettled if you have nothing to hide?

Tom lost his composure at once and started yelling:

-a) I have no idea why that woman was running on the road; b) it might not have been her knocking on my window ; c) I am unsettled because you make me feel like I am a criminal when I have done absolutely nothing and d) Incidentally, I am felling very frustrated right now; we were in the middle of something interesting that this incident just stopped.

This last sentence made Cyntia shiver with recollection. She too wanted him badly. And, yes, she was definitely being unfair to him. The knock on the window was probably a silly joke from some stupid kids who had nothing better to do and the woman running on the road had probably nothing to do with it.

She took a few steps to come closer to him and gently stroked his arm.

-I’m sorry…I didn’t mean to accuse you; It’s just that I’ve been so on edge and I don’t know you…I’ve had such a bad surprise with that Jef guy…

-I understand ; Come on, let’s go back inside, lock all the doors and windows and resume what we were doing; Unless you’d prefer to watch a movie?

-I like option 1 better…

*****

Cyntia spent the entire night at Tom’s: it was the most intense and wildest night. Her body was still so sensitive after all their embraces. She woke up early and saw that he had left the bed. She sat in the bed and looked around her in the room full of sunshine. In daylight, everything seemed different: Tom’s bedroom definitely lacked character: white walls, big broad bed with white sheets and just one big painting with a country landscape…It looked like a hotel room…But then, this was his holiday home, after all.

Tom entered the room carrying a tray full of a beautiful and enticing breakfast: scrambled eggs, yoghurt, fruits and a nice and strong coffee.

-Good morning! He said cheerfully

-Hi; Thanks for the breakfast, it looks amazing

-Well, apart from being a doctor, I am also a bit of a cook… Just joking, this is pretty basic…But I thought you might be hungry after last night

-I am, indeed!

-They both ate the fabulous breakfast Tom had made and started kissing again.

She really liked his body and how he made her feel but then, could he maybe be something more? She was supposed to leave to London the next day. He was from London too…What if they could keep something, some form of contact there.

As her thoughts were whirling around in a disorderly way, Rick’s words popped in her mind again.

Tom noticed her worried expression and stopped kissing her neck.

-What’s wrong? You have that preoccupied look that you already had yesterday after taking that phone call. Come on, speak to me!

-It’s nothing; really…

-Mmmhhhh, I can see there is something…Just tell me

She pulled away from him and looked at him with her intense brown eyes.

-Ok, here it is: what if someone had warned me against you…telling me you were a very bad person?

-What?

A flicker of indignation passed over his face but, a moment later, his smile was back.

-You must be joking… I am a nice person; all my family and friends will tell you that.

-Maybe but I don’t know them; Just you…

-Well…you’ve just had sex with me while having those doubts on your mind…Isn’t that a bit strange?

-Maybe; but I do find you attractive and it was only sex… Whereas now, you’ve made breakfast and I was thinking that maybe we could see each other again in London…

-Oh…I would love that!

Cyntia’s cheeks flushed;

-Ok…but still…What if you are bad?

-Like that scientist guy told you…Again, remember how he has tried to use you for his own purposes…Why would you trust him?

-You’re right…Why would I? But then there was this knock on the window…this lady running away…

-Come on, Cyntia…I have no idea who this was…I told you what I think about the knock: just some silly kids playing around; As for that woman, I had never seen her in my life; This village is busy at this time of year , you know…Maybe she was running away from somebody. Whatever.

Feeling how annoyed he was getting by her suspicions, Cyntia changed the subject to lighter things; They kissed and more; then they made plans to meet in London once they were both back in the UK.

They said good bye after a light breakfast together.

Tom held her really tightly to him and murmured in her ear:

-You know Cyntia, I think I love you already

Cyntia could not help shivering a bit. He looked at her with worried eyes.

-Are you ok? I hope I am not scaring you, am I?

-Not at all but it’s just that it is so sudden…

-Well, I am a bit of an impulsive person and when my feelings are strong, I like to express them directly.

He let go of her and looked at her with a stern face.

-Why are you looking at me like that?

-You don’t seem to feel the same way about me…

-Listen, I hardly know you; We’ve had sex once…It was great, yes, absolutely great…

-But your stupid scientist friend warned you against me, right?

-What? How do you know what he said?

-Well let’s just say I heard some of your conversation…

-What? I can’t believe it; and you didn’t say anything?

-It doesn’t matter; I thought you would just discard what this old fool was saying about me…

-Wait a minute…How do you know his age?

Tom seemed taken aback.

-I just guessed. Why would you be so impressed by him if he was not much older?

Cyntia took a few steps back.

-No, that’s not it…

She surveyed him with angry eyes.

-You know him! Am I right? You do know him!

Tom avoided her gaze and started looking at his phone then he stared at her with a determined look.

-The only thing that matters is that I love you and I hope you feel the same

-If someone tells me you are a bad person, I have to think about whether I want to see you again or not…

-Oh, come one, silly woman. Why would you listen to that crazy scientist?

Tom got up and started pacing around on his terrace with fury in his eyes.

-Why does this man have to interfere with my plans ?

Although she was getting a bit scared of his demeanour, Cyntia asked him in a calm voice:

-How do you know Rick?

-He used to be a friend. But he is not anymore. I could no longer bear his lessons on morality… He thinks he is a saint but he is only an old fool…And now I know he carries out strange experiments with beautiful girls like you so I dislike him even more.

Tom’s face softened and he touched Cyntia’s arms. He tried to pull her to him but she resisted.

-Sorry, Tom, but all this is making me feel very uncomfortable. I think I need to think…

Again, Tom’s expression turned to anger.

-Think? Think about what? We have a marvellous, perfect, connexion! I love your body, voice, everything…I love you! No-one will ever love you as much as I do, do you get that?

She knew such a fervour was rare but she couldn’t help feeling unsettled by his strange and almost hysterical behaviour.

-I am so sorry, Tom, but I have to go. I will call you once in London and maybe we can meet there, OK? Thanks for last night and the breakfast.

Tom gave her a look tainted with regret and spite.

-Ok, Cyntia, so be it. We will have a coffee in London.

-I do like you a lot too but we have to get to know each other more, do you understand?

-Fine, fine. Now, if you don’t mind…I have a lot to do…

Feeling rejected when she hadn’t even asked for anything, Cyntia took her bag and left. As she was walking back towards her own villa, tears started filling her eyes. She was not really sad, just tired, depressed and disturbed by all the events of the last few days. Was Tom genuine? He clearly had a bit of an anger management problem. But he did tell her that he loved her…What if that never happened again?After all, men able to express deep feelings were so rare.

She stopped walking. A little voice inside her was telling her to listen to her first impression and get back to London to think it all through. But her insecure self just wanted to be reassured again. He had told her so many nice things in the last twenty-four hours. He had helped her with her wound. She turned around and walked back to his place. As she was approaching the house, joy was mounting inside her soul: she was going to tell that man that, maybe she did not know him well, but that she was ready to start loving him as he loved her. A wide smile on her face, she rang the bell.

As Tom was not opening, she knocked on the door then walked to the window. If he was having a shower maybe he could not hear her. She would surprise him through the window and they would have another hour of perfect, amazing, sex. But when she looked through the window, she almost fainted at what she saw: Tom was sat on the sofa without his shirt and he was kissing a blonde woman with passion. That woman looked like the one Cyntia had seen run away the night before. No, it couldn’t be…It was Tom’s girlfriend, other shag…whatever!!! As anger was mounting inside her, Cyntia felt the urge to slam the window open and spit on his face. But she just stayed there without moving and looking away. She only gave a little knock on the window and when they both turned their head, she gave him the finger. Then she turned away and started running as far as she could… She was now, it occurred to her, exactly in the same position as that blonde woman the might before.

She ran all the way to the villa, tears all over her face. God, she thought, how could she have been so incredibly stupid? She did not know the man…Rick was right: he was violent, at least emotionally. The emotional pain she felt was so acute she could barely breathe. And her pride was so wounded. She felt like less than a piece of shit. Was that another part of that horrible’s Rick plan? But if so, why warn her? Oh she could not be bothered with any of that anymore…

Once in the villa, she did not reply to Jef who was still there, taking advantage of the swimming pool. “Just a vile parasite”, she thought. She rushed towards the bedroom and grabbed the bag she had already packed; then she walked to the nearest bus stop, not even turning back once. She only started breathing calmly again once she was at the airport, ready to board on the plane.

An elegant air hostess welcomed her on the plan

-Hi, miss Misano, here is your seat.

-Thank you;

-Have a nice trip back to London, Miss

Chapter Seven-I will; thank you so muchShe sat in her seat, closed her eyes. Never, ever, again, would she trust any man. And as soon as she would be back in London she would make an appointment to the GP to sort all that pain problem. She wanted to be peaceful again. She wanted to forget about it all. She wanted to feel safe.Her phone beeped: it was a text from Rick , that evil Rick.-Hi, sweetie; I hope you have followed my advice. If you are still coming back, we can meet and I can give you your treatment. If you want…-Fuck off out of my life, you weirdo!Her reply made her feel better. She would go to the GP and they would sort it all for her.Her phone kept beeping with texts from Rick: he was now trying to convince her to not speak to the medical world, using all the same arguments as before…trying to scare her…She thought for a few seconds then replied:-Ok, we ll meet for that reason only; you ll give me my injection then I will never hear from you again, is that clear?-Totally clear, sweet Cyntia.Why was he calling her like that? It did not matter. At least , soon she would be pain-free again: that was the only thing that mattered. And she would close the door to all the weird men who tried to approach her. So that experience had taught her something: to protect herself.The prospect of going back to a life deprived of suffering again soothed her. At the same time, what about the excitement of actually feeling the powerful emotions associated to the ability to experience emotional pain? She looked out the window at the clear blue sky then at the other passengers peacefully enjoying their trip. Did she want to live the rest of her life in denial of what it was to be truly human? Maybe she would give it another thought and maybe she would meet Rick for coffee after all. Despite his twisted mind, the man was clever and knowledgeable on that topic. An eagerness to understand what she had experienced and learn to master it was growing inside her. She would however make sure to keep a possibility to escape the state of suffering she was now able to sink in. She would make a new deal with Rick that would involve giving her the power to immunise herself again in the future, if she wanted to. She sighed and closed her eyes, accepting that she might have to endure more pain if she was to fully understand what being human truly meant.

Here is the last chapter of my second novella “A Pain-free World”. A reader asked me recently why all the male characters in that story have such horrible traits…Well, my friends, no fiction is ever written without being partly inspired by reality (one’s own and the reality of others). Only partly. Reality is clearly something different. But fiction can make us think and reflect and maybe help us become stronger and protect ourselves better.

The choice

She put on a short and simple blue dress, tied her hair back and carefully applied her make up. She was really excited but forced herself to not have high expectations. Maybe that man was just feeling lonely in that villa all by himself. He was probably just looking for friendship. In any case, it would be a good way of ending this holiday: on a cheerful and friendly note.

She checked her watch and realised that she was at least half an hour early. She decided to walk to the beach and look at the sea; By this time all the tourists would have gone and it would be beautiful and peaceful. Before leaving the villa, she quickly glanced at Jef’s room and saw that he had indeed packed his bag. She sighed out of relief and locked the door behind her.

She sat on the warm sand and looked at the waves, before closing her eyes and only listening to the soothing sound of the sea. As she had foreseen it, the beach was totally empty. She let that atmosphere fill her up with this inner peace she only felt close to the sea. Since her childhood, the only time she felt properly safe was by the sea. This was maybe because the sea, despite its wildness, also embodied calmness and oblivion of the human world. For a few minutes, her mind started being flowed with childhood memories, particularly the good ones. Life as an adult was so hard, even more so as an adult able to suffer.

-Hi!

She opened her eyes and saw the handsome doctor standing in front of her. What if he had been there for many long minutes, observing her while she had her eyes closed?

She blushed at that thought.

-Oh, Hi; sorry I was just dreaming…

-I know that very well…Particularly by the sea. I love it too. Why do you think I have a villa right next to it?

-Of course. It is very calming

She smiled warmly at him.

He sat right next to her and they both looked at the sea in silence for a moment. Then she turned her head towards him and decided to be frank straight away :

-As you have noticed, I am very unusual…I can feel pain…Not out of choice; I took the injection I was due but it did not work and, since then, I have just been trying to cope…

-I see. It must be very difficult

Surprisingly, he was not asking her why she had not gone back to the doctor.

-And since you must probably wonder: I meant to go back to my GP but I met that guy, that scientist…who convinced me not to.

Tom’s eyebrows raised in surprise.

-He told you what? Why?

-Well, he gave me a lot of theories…about how interesting it would be for me and for him to see how life was in that state…

-For him?

She noticed his tone of indignation.

-Yes, he said he wanted to study me…That s why I came here.

-What?

Now Tom looked properly astonished.

-But where is he then?

-Oh, he is not here…I think he put cameras in the villa. But he rented it for me and recommended that I came with a friend…so I asked this guy from work…It was nice initially; we had this fling…but then he behaved like a prick and cheated on me in the most hideous way.

Tom was drinking her words with intense interest but also seemed appalled by the whole story.

-So he basically set up a trap for you to fall in!

-What? What do you mean?
-Well if he wanted to study you…

-Oh, you mean that he knew I would chose that guy…but no, he couldn’t… Wait…this man had just sprung into my life…and had been more than eager to…Oh no…

She stopped in horror…So that was why Jef had accepted the invitation so readily; he was working for Rick.. No, it all sounded too far-fetched…But then, that Rick guy was very strange and did seem capable of such a deed.

Tom stood up and gave her his hand.

-Come on, let’s go and have diner. I’m starving. We can discuss your ordeal later on.

She followed him in silence, pondering the idea he had now put in her head. It all made sense but if that was true, it meant that Rick was totally evil.

Tom took her to the most romantic restaurant in town. They had a lot of food and wine and talked about everything: their jobs, hobbies, childhoods, London… The more he spoke, the more she found him attractive and interesting. He seemed so poised, calm and determined. She was trying to not show too much excitement, because she could not really read his expressions clearly: did he just want to have fun? Friendship? More? She could not tell anything from the way he looked at her. His face was jovial but closed.

At the end of the meal they touched upon the subject of relationships. He told her that he was getting out of a long relationship and that he was still very sad about it. His honesty made her tell her own story: that man she loved but who cheated and her with someone else. She told him that her ability to now feel pain made her feel much more sorrow about the whole situation.

After listening to her, he looked at her with moist eyes and put a hand on her arm. Immediately, she felt that warmth she had already felt when he had touched her leg.

He then whispered to her:

-Would you like to have a last drink or a tea in my house?

-I would love to!

Her phone beeped: she looked at it and saw messages from Jef and from Rick. She deleted them all without hardly looking at them: two pricks who had worked hand in hand to observe what emotional pain looked like. But now she was safe, with a kind and non judgemental man. She felt very safe indeed with him.

But as they were walking to his villa in silence, a doubt started mounting in her ; what if he was part of the evil plan Rick had set up to test her like a vulgar guinea pig? What if his aim was just to hurt her even more? She stopped walking and told him in a very serious tone:

-Tom, you seem like a good guy; But what if you are just lying to me and trying to hurt me? What if you are part of that scientist’ plan?

Tom just erupted. His laughter was clear, honest and loud.

-You think I just put the jellyfish in the sea so that you would get stung, waiting to rescue you and then hurt you? Is that not very very far-fetched?

-Well, I don’t know about the jellyfish…We could have met elsewhere; It’s not my point. My point is…

-I understand your point and you are wrong. Full stop. I just like you, that’s all!

He finished his sentence with a broad smile.

This sentence made her shiver with joy. He liked her! He barely knew her but he liked her and he had the guts and manhood to say it straight away!

-Oh thanks; that s flattering… I like you too…

Because of her shyness when it came to feelings, she had pronounced those words without looking at him.

He cupped her face in his beautiful hands and kissed her on the mouth. His lips were soft and warm and hers stayed on them for a while. This felt good, definitely. And for the first time in her life, Cyntia decided to trust her feelings. When she was pain-free, she had to analyse and think everything through before making any decision. Strangely, now that she knew what true suffering was, it seemed that she also knew how to trust people.

Of course, the intense desire she felt for that man made it slightly easier.

As they arrived to his villa, he stopped in front of his door and looked at her gravely.

-Cyntia, although I am extremely attracted to you, I don’t want to push you into anything…I know you’ve been having a hard time recently…So, if you prefer to go back to your holiday house, I will not keep a grudge

She beamed at him.

-This is really considerate, Tom, but I want to come inside. And you know what? Meeting you has been the one highlight of this nightmarish week!

He smiled back at her.

-Wow…this is flattering….But also maybe a bit of pressure…Thanks anyway.

He led her by the hand inside the villa, neatly tidied and decorated very simply. She was a bit surprised since she had imagined a totally different interior: full of books on alternative medical treatments and weird objects that showed what a genius Tom was….But this was only a holiday home at the end of the day.

As if reading her mind, he said to her in a witty tone:

-Not what you expected? I am not very good at the decorating stuff…it bores me a bit , to be honest…

-It is very nice, simple and tidy

-That’s thanks to my cleaner;

-Your cleaner? You only come here on holiday and you have a cleaner?

Not looking offended at all, Tom pulled her to him and started kissing her intensely.

-Well, as I said, I prefer to spend my time on other things…

-Lucky me!

Now his hands were all over her body. Oh, she could almost faint with lust… They were going to have the most amazing night ever.

Suddenly, her phone rang. Ignoring it, she continued exploring his body with her lips and hands. But the phone kept on ringing…

-Shouldn’t you answer that? It might be urgent…

-I’m sure it s not…Sorry about that… I’ll just have a quick look…

It was Rick…Why was he trying to call her like that late in the evening? She had been more than clear in her blunt texts to him that she was cancelling that whole bloody experiment and did not want to hear from him ever again. But the phone kept ringing…

-Listen, Cyntia: just pick it up, it might be something important.

-Ok, I’ll be very brief.

She didn’t want to spoil the evening by telling him who it was so she went outside to pick up when the phone rang again.

She almost yelled in her mobile:

-What? I texted you never to contact me again, you crazy scientist!

-I am sorry, Cyntia, but I had to get through to you…I apologise for the whole thing with Jef,..I never meant it to turn out so badly…Anyway he has contacted me and told me you left the house

-Yes. So, now leave me alone! I never want to hear from you ever again.

-I also heard that you have spent the evening with a doctor…

Cyntia could hardly breathe. How could he know that?

-Have you been spying on me? I will call the police if you don’t leave me alone. I am warning you…

-Cyntia, I only want to warn you. This man is not good. I checked on him…he has a record of violence and…worse. He is very bad. Get away from him, now!

-What? Your little tricks are not working anymore, you weird person; I should never have trusted you in the first place; you totally manipulated me and you are trying to do it still; now fuck off and let me enjoy my evening!

She rang off, sighed heavily and started walking back to the villa.

As she came back inside the small villa, a doubt started gripping her: what if Rick was right? What if Tom was as bad as he pretended? But then why should she believe someone who had only seen her as a guinea pig?

Tom was not in the living room but he had lit a few candles, probably to give a touch of romanticism to his cold interior.

-Tom?

She called, in a slightly unsure voice, wondering why he was not there.

-Yes?

She jumped and turned to face him: he was standing in front of her with two mugs in his hands.

-Sorry if I scared you. Would you care for some tea, Miss… What is your last name Cyntia?

-Misano, it is Cyntia Misano.

-Well, here you are, miss Misano. I guess you are not married so I can call you Miss, right?

‘”What an odd question”, she thought. Why would she be there with him if she has been married? Of course she was not married’. A smile glued to her face, she replied in her smoothest tone:

-No, I am not. What about you, Mr…, Mr…?

He erupted into a loud laughter before replying.

-Fair enough, Miss Misano; Well, My name is Tom Lee

-I like it. Well, thanks for the tea.

They both sat down on the small sofa and started sipping their tea. The phone call she had received from Rick had definitely spoilt her mood and the atmosphere. Her gut instinct was that Tom was a nice man, but Rick had clearly planted the seed of doubts in her mind. Tom seemed to pick up on her discomfort. He gently squeezed her hand and came closer to her.

-Are you ok? You seem so cold, all of a sudden, since that phone call…

-Yes, I’m sorry…It was that scientist I told you about…

She stopped, refraining from sharing her thoughts was him, just in case he was this dangerous violent man Rick had warned her against.

-I see. Well, that man does not sound like a piece of fun. If I were you, I would just keep my distances. At the end of the day, what he has done to you on this so-called ‘holiday’ is pretty revolting.

‘Either he is really clever at deceiving people or else he is just genuinely kind’, Cyntia thought to herself.

She decided to try and trust him and told him joyfully:

-You are right; Let’s just forget about him. Do you have anything else to drink?

-You mean, other than tea?

He winked at her.

-Yes, other than tea, like wine, spirits…

-Are you trying to get me drunk, Miss Misano?

She smiled at him, a bit unsure of what to reply. Then she decided to put Rick’s words totally aside and enjoy the evening.

She replied good-humouredly:

-Why not? If that’s what you need to kiss me the whole evening and…

-And?

His eyes were sparkling with desire. She could feel his eyes all over her body and started feeling a mounting, almost unbearable, amount of desire coming over her.

-You know what, Miss Misano? Maybe I do not need a drink to do that

He kissed her gently on the lips and, a few seconds later, his hands were everywhere on her body again. She was stroking his hair while kissing him with intense desire. She could feel that the night was going to be simply amazing. As they were getting more and more intimate, they heard a loud knock on the main window. Cyntia startled.

-Who is that?

She whispered.

-I have no idea…

The knock went on again, louder this time.

Tom finally got up, looking a bit apprehensive.

-I wonder why they haven’t just rung the bell

All of a sudden, Cyntia became fearful too.

-Why don’t you take a weapon with you, just in case?

Tom smiled at her.

-A weapon, you must be joking? It must be a mistake

He opened the door but there was no-one there. He stepped outside and asked whether there was anyone there but one could only hear the sound of waves in the distance.

Cyntia had come to the door too. After a few seconds of looking in the darkness, she released a little cry.

-Who is that?

She was pointing towards the road where a blond woman was running.

-Hi there! Stop!

She shouted

But the woman just ran faster.

She looked at Tom with suspicion in her eyes:

-Do you know that woman?
-No, I don’t.

His calm did not impress her. Surely he must know her. Why on earth would she be knocking on his window then run away like that?

Tom’s expression showed that he could read Cyntia’s feelings.

-You are not accusing me, are you?

-Well, why was she there, if you have nothing to do with her? And why do you look unsettled if you have nothing to hide?

Tom lost his composure at once and started yelling:

-a) I have no idea why that woman was running on the road; b) it might not have been her knocking on my window ; c) I am unsettled because you make me feel like I am a criminal when I have done absolutely nothing and d) Incidentally, I am felling very frustrated right now; we were in the middle of something interesting that this incident just stopped.

This last sentence made Cyntia shiver with recollection. She too wanted him badly. And, yes, she was definitely being unfair to him. The knock on the window was probably a silly joke from some stupid kids who had nothing better to do and the woman running on the road had probably nothing to do with it.

She took a few steps to come closer to him and gently stroked his arm.

-I’m sorry…I didn’t mean to accuse you; It’s just that I’ve been so on edge and I don’t know you…I’ve had such a bad surprise with that Jef guy…

-I understand ; Come on, let’s go back inside, lock all the doors and windows and resume what we were doing; Unless you’d prefer to watch a movie?

-I like option 1 better…

*****

Cyntia spent the entire night at Tom’s: it was the most intense and wildest night. Her body was still so sensitive after all their embraces. She woke up early and saw that he had left the bed. She sat in the bed and looked around her in the room full of sunshine. In daylight, everything seemed different: Tom’s bedroom definitely lacked character: white walls, big broad bed with white sheets and just one big painting with a country landscape…It looked like a hotel room…But then, this was his holiday home, after all.

Tom entered the room carrying a tray full of a beautiful and enticing breakfast: scrambled eggs, yoghurt, fruits and a nice and strong coffee.

-Good morning! He said cheerfully

-Hi; Thanks for the breakfast, it looks amazing

-Well, apart from being a doctor, I am also a bit of a cook… Just joking, this is pretty basic…But I thought you might be hungry after last night

-I am, indeed!

-They both ate the fabulous breakfast Tom had made and started kissing again.

She really liked his body and how he made her feel but then, could he maybe be something more? She was supposed to leave to London the next day. He was from London too…What if they could keep something, some form of contact there.

As her thoughts were whirling around in a disorderly way, Rick’s words popped in her mind again.

Tom noticed her worried expression and stopped kissing her neck.

-What’s wrong? You have that preoccupied look that you already had yesterday after taking that phone call. Come on, speak to me!

-It’s nothing; really…

-Mmmhhhh, I can see there is something…Just tell me

She pulled away from him and looked at him with her intense brown eyes.

-Ok, here it is: what if someone had warned me against you…telling me you were a very bad person?

-What?

A flicker of indignation passed over his face but, a few seconds later, his smile was back.

-You must be joking… I am a nice person; all my family and friends will tell you that.

-Maybe but I don’t know them; Just you…

-Well…you’ve just had sex with me while having those doubts on your mind…Isn’t that a bit strange?

-Maybe; but I do find you attractive and it was only sex… Whereas now, you’ve made breakfast and I was thinking that maybe we could see each other again in London…

-Oh…I would love that!

Cyntia’s cheeks flushed;

-Ok…but still…What if you are bad?

-Like that scientist guy told you…Again, remember how he has tried to use you for his own purposes…Why would you trust him?

-You’re right…Why would I? But then there was this knock on the window…this lady running away…

-Come on, Cyntia…I have no idea who this was…I told you what I think about the knock: just some silly kids playing around; As for that woman, I had never seen her in my life; This village is busy at this time of year , you know…Maybe she was running away from somebody. Whatever.

Feeling how annoyed he was getting by her suspicions, Cyntia changed the subject to lighter things; They kissed and more; then they made plans to meet in London once they were both back in the UK.

They said good bye after a light breakfast together.

Tom held her really tightly to him and murmured in her ear:

-You know Cyntia, I think I love you already

Cyntia could not help shivering a bit. He looked at her with worried eyes.

-Are you ok? I hope I am not scaring you, am I?

-Not at all but it’s just that it is so sudden…

-Well, I am a bit of an impulsive person and when my feelings are strong, I like to express them directly.

He let go of her and looked at her with a stern face.

-Why are you looking at me like that?

-You don’t seem to feel the same way about me…

-Listen, I hardly know you; We’ve had sex once…It was great, yes, absolutely great…

-But your stupid scientist friend warned you against me, right?

-What? How do you know what he said?

-Well let’s just say I heard some of your conversation…

-What? I can’t believe it; and you didn’t say anything?

-It doesn’t matter; I thought you would just discard what this old fool was saying about me…

-Wait a minute…How do you know his age?

Tom seemed taken aback.

-I just guessed. Why would you be so impressed by him if he was not much older?

Cyntia took a few steps back.

-No, that’s not it…

She surveyed him with angry eyes.

-You know him! Am I right? You do know him!

Tom avoided her gaze and started looking at his phone then he stared at her with a determined look.

-The only thing that matters is that I love you and I hope you feel the same

-If someone tells me you are a bad person, I have to think about whether I want to see you again or not…

-Oh, come one, silly woman. Why would you listen to that crazy scientist?

Tom got up and started pacing around on his terrace with fury in his eyes.

-Why does this man have to interfere with my plans ?

Although she was getting a bit scared of his demeanour, Cyntia asked him in a calm voice:

-How do you know Rick?

-He used to be a friend. But he is not anymore. I could no longer bear his lessons on morality… He thinks he is a saint but he is only an old fool…And now I know he carries out strange experiments with beautiful girls like you so I dislike him even more.

Tom’s face softened and he touched Cyntia’s arms. He tried to pull her to him but she resisted.

-Sorry, Tom, but all this is making me feel very uncomfortable. I think I need to think…

Again, Tom’s expression turned to anger.

-Think? Think about what? We have a marvellous, perfect, connexion! I love your body, voice, everything…I love you! No-one will ever love you as much as I do, do you get that?

She knew such a fervour was rare but she couldn’t help feeling unsettled by his strange and almost hysterical behaviour.

-I am so sorry, Tom, but I have to go. I will call you once in London and maybe we can meet there, OK? Thanks for last night and the breakfast.

Tom gave her a look tainted with regret and spite.

-Ok, Cyntia, so be it. We will have a coffee in London.

-I do like you a lot too but we have to get to know each other more, do you understand?

-Fine, fine. Now, if you don’t mind…I have a lot to do…

Feeling rejected when she hadn’t even asked for anything, Cyntia took her bag and left. As she was walking back towards her own villa, tears started filling her eyes. She was not really sad, just tired, depressed and disturbed by all the events of the last few days. Was Tom genuine? He clearly had a bit of an anger management problem. But he did tell her that he loved her…What if that never happened again?After all, men able to express deep feelings were so rare.

She stopped walking. A little voice inside her was telling her to listen to her first impression and get back to London to think it all through. But her insecure self just wanted to be reassured again. He had told her so many nice things in the last twenty-four hours. He had helped her with her wound. She turned around and walked back to his place. As she was approaching the house, joy was mounting inside her soul: she was going to tell that man that, maybe she did not know him well, but that she was ready to start loving him as he loved her. A wide smile on her face, she rang the bell.

As Tom was not opening, she knocked on the door then walked to the window. If he was having a shower maybe he could not hear her. She would surprise him through the window and they would have another hour of perfect, amazing, sex. But when she looked through the window, she almost fainted at what she saw: Tom was sat on the sofa without his shirt and he was kissing a blonde woman with passion. That woman looked like the one Cyntia had seen run away the night before. No, it couldn’t be…It was Tom’s girlfriend, other shag…whatever!!! As anger was mounting inside her, Cyntia felt the urge to slam the window open and spit on his face. But she just stayed there without moving and looking away. She only gave a little knock on the window and when they both turned their head, she gave him the finger. Then she turned away and started running as far as she could… She was now, it occurred to her, exactly in the same position as that blonde woman the might before.

She ran all the way to the villa, tears all over her face. God, she thought, how could she have been so incredibly stupid? She did not know the man…Rick was right: he was violent, at least emotionally. The emotional pain she felt was so acute she could barely breathe. And her pride was so wounded. She felt like less than a piece of shit. Was that another part of that horrible Rick’s plan? But if so, why warn her? Oh she could not be bothered with any of that anymore…

Once in the villa, she did not reply to Jef who was still there, taking advantage of the swimming pool. “Just a vile parasite”, she thought. She rushed towards the bedroom and grabbed the bag she had already packed; then she walked to the nearest bus stop, not even turning back once. She only started breathing calmly again once she was at the airport, ready to board on the plane.

An elegant air hostess welcomed her on the plan

-Hi, miss Misano, here is your seat.

-Thank you;

-Have a nice trip back to London, Miss

-I will; thank you so much

She sat in her seat, closed her eyes. Never, ever, again, would she trust any man. And as soon as she would be back in London she would make an appointment to the GP to sort all that pain problem. She wanted to be peaceful again. She wanted to forget about it all. She wanted to feel safe.

Her phone beeped: it was a text from Rick , that evil Rick.

-Hi, sweetie; I hope you have followed my advice. If you are still coming back, we can meet and I can give you your treatment. If you want…

-Fuck off out of my life, you weirdo!

Her reply made her feel better. She would go to the GP and they would sort it all for her.

Her phone kept beeping with texts from Rick: he was now trying to convince her to not speak to the medical world, using all the same arguments as before…trying to scare her…

She thought for a few seconds then replied:

-Ok, we ll meet for that reason only; you ll give me my injection then I will never hear from you again, is that clear?

-Totally clear, sweet Cyntia.

Why was he calling her like that? It did not matter. At least , soon she would be pain-free again: that was the only thing that mattered. And she would close the door to all the weird men who tried to approach her. So that experience had taught her something: to protect herself.

The prospect of going back to a life deprived of suffering again soothed her. At the same time, what about the excitement of actually feeling the powerful emotions associated to the ability to experience emotional pain? She looked out the window at the clear blue sky then at the other passengers peacefully enjoying their trip. Did she want to live the rest of her life in denial of what it was to be truly human? Maybe she would give it another thought and maybe she would meet Rick for coffee after all. Despite his twisted mind, the man was clever and knowledgeable on that topic. An eagerness to understand what she had experienced and learn to master it was growing inside her. She would however make sure to keep a possibility to escape the state of suffering she was now able to sink in. She would make a new deal with Rick that would involve giving her the power to immunise herself again in the future, if she wanted to. She sighed and closed her eyes, accepting that she might have to endure more pain if she was to fully understand what being human truly meant.

*****

A Pain-free World. Chapter Seven. The Choice

Sophie Heine

Here is the last chapter of my second novella “A Pain-free World”. A reader asked me recently why all the male characters in that story have such horrible traits…Well, my friends, no fiction is ever written without being partly inspired by reality (one’s own and the reality of others). Only partly. Reality is clearly something different. But fiction can make us think and reflect and maybe help us become stronger and protect ourselves better.

The choice

She put on a short and simple blue dress, tied her hair back and carefully applied her make up. She was really excited but forced herself to not have high expectations. Maybe that man was just feeling lonely in that villa all by himself. He was probably just looking for friendship. In any case, it would be a good way of ending this holiday: on a cheerful and friendly note.

She checked her watch and realised that she was at least half an hour early. She decided to walk to the beach and look at the sea; By this time all the tourists would have gone and it would be beautiful and peaceful. Before leaving the villa, she quickly glanced at Jef’s room and saw that he had indeed packed his bag. She sighed out of relief and locked the door behind her.

She sat on the warm sand and looked at the waves, before closing her eyes and only listening to the soothing sound of the sea. As she had foreseen it, the beach was totally empty. She let that atmosphere fill her up with this inner peace she only felt close to the sea. Since her childhood, the only time she felt properly safe was by the sea. This was maybe because the sea, despite its wildness, also embodied calmness and oblivion of the human world. For a few minutes, her mind started being flowed with childhood memories, particularly the good ones. Life as an adult was so hard, even more so as an adult able to suffer.

-Hi!

She opened her eyes and saw the handsome doctor standing in front of her. What if he had been there for many long minutes, observing her while she had her eyes closed?

She blushed at that thought.

-Oh, Hi; sorry I was just dreaming…

-I know that very well…Particularly by the sea. I love it too. Why do you think I have a villa right next to it?

-Of course. It is very calming

She smiled warmly at him.

He sat right next to her and they both looked at the sea in silence for a moment. Then she turned her head towards him and decided to be frank straight away :

-As you have noticed, I am very unusual…I can feel pain…Not out of choice; I took the injection I was due but it did not work and, since then, I have just been trying to cope…

-I see. It must be very difficult

Surprisingly, he was not asking her why she had not gone back to the doctor.

-And since you must probably wonder: I meant to go back to my GP but I met that guy, that scientist…who convinced me not to.

Tom’s eyebrows raised in surprise.

-He told you what? Why?

-Well, he gave me a lot of theories…about how interesting it would be for me and for him to see how life was in that state…

-For him?

She noticed his tone of indignation.

-Yes, he said he wanted to study me…That s why I came here.

-What?

Now Tom looked properly astonished.

-But where is he then?

-Oh, he is not here…I think he put cameras in the villa. But he rented it for me and recommended that I came with a friend…so I asked this guy from work…It was nice initially; we had this fling…but then he behaved like a prick and cheated on me in the most hideous way.

Tom was drinking her words with intense interest but also seemed appalled by the whole story.

-So he basically set up a trap for you to fall in!

-What? What do you mean?
-Well if he wanted to study you…

-Oh, you mean that he knew I would chose that guy…but no, he couldn’t… Wait…this man had just sprung into my life…and had been more than eager to…Oh no…

She stopped in horror…So that was why Jef had accepted the invitation so readily; he was working for Rick.. No, it all sounded too far-fetched…But then, that Rick guy was very strange and did seem capable of such a deed.

Tom stood up and gave her his hand.

-Come on, let’s go and have diner. I’m starving. We can discuss your ordeal later on.

She followed him in silence, pondering the idea he had now put in her head. It all made sense but if that was true, it meant that Rick was totally evil.

Tom took her to the most romantic restaurant in town. They had a lot of food and wine and talked about everything: their jobs, hobbies, childhoods, London… The more he spoke, the more she found him attractive and interesting. He seemed so poised, calm and determined. She was trying to not show too much excitement, because she could not really read his expressions clearly: did he just want to have fun? Friendship? More? She could not tell anything from the way he looked at her. His face was jovial but closed.

At the end of the meal they touched upon the subject of relationships. He told her that he was getting out of a long relationship and that he was still very sad about it. His honesty made her tell her own story: that man she loved but who cheated and her with someone else. She told him that her ability to now feel pain made her feel much more sorrow about the whole situation.

After listening to her, he looked at her with moist eyes and put a hand on her arm. Immediately, she felt that warmth she had already felt when he had touched her leg.

He then whispered to her:

-Would you like to have a last drink or a tea in my house?

-I would love to!

Her phone beeped: she looked at it and saw messages from Jef and from Rick. She deleted them all without hardly looking at them: two pricks who had worked hand in hand to observe what emotional pain looked like. But now she was safe, with a kind and non judgemental man. She felt very safe indeed with him.

But as they were walking to his villa in silence, a doubt started mounting in her ; what if he was part of the evil plan Rick had set up to test her like a vulgar guinea pig? What if his aim was just to hurt her even more? She stopped walking and told him in a very serious tone:

-Tom, you seem like a good guy; But what if you are just lying to me and trying to hurt me? What if you are part of that scientist’ plan?

Tom just erupted. His laughter was clear, honest and loud.

-You think I just put the jellyfish in the sea so that you would get stung, waiting to rescue you and then hurt you? Is that not very very far-fetched?

-Well, I don’t know about the jellyfish…We could have met elsewhere; It’s not my point. My point is…

-I understand your point and you are wrong. Full stop. I just like you, that’s all!

He finished his sentence with a broad smile.

This sentence made her shiver with joy. He liked her! He barely knew her but he liked her and he had the guts and manhood to say it straight away!

-Oh thanks; that s flattering… I like you too…

Because of her shyness when it came to feelings, she had pronounced those words without looking at him.

He cupped her face in his beautiful hands and kissed her on the mouth. His lips were soft and warm and hers stayed on them for a while. This felt good, definitely. And for the first time in her life, Cyntia decided to trust her feelings. When she was pain-free, she had to analyse and think everything through before making any decision. Strangely, now that she knew what true suffering was, it seemed that she also knew how to trust people.

Of course, the intense desire she felt for that man made it slightly easier.

As they arrived to his villa, he stopped in front of his door and looked at her gravely.

-Cyntia, although I am extremely attracted to you, I don’t want to push you into anything…I know you’ve been having a hard time recently…So, if you prefer to go back to your holiday house, I will not keep a grudge

She beamed at him.

-This is really considerate, Tom, but I want to come inside. And you know what? Meeting you has been the one highlight of this nightmarish week!

He smiled back at her.

-Wow…this is flattering….But also maybe a bit of pressure…Thanks anyway.

He led her by the hand inside the villa, neatly tidied and decorated very simply. She was a bit surprised since she had imagined a totally different interior: full of books on alternative medical treatments and weird objects that showed what a genius Tom was….But this was only a holiday home at the end of the day.

As if reading her mind, he said to her in a witty tone:

-Not what you expected? I am not very good at the decorating stuff…it bores me a bit , to be honest…

-It is very nice, simple and tidy

-That’s thanks to my cleaner;

-Your cleaner? You only come here on holiday and you have a cleaner?

Not looking offended at all, Tom pulled her to him and started kissing her intensely.

-Well, as I said, I prefer to spend my time on other things…

-Lucky me!

Now his hands were all over her body. Oh, she could almost faint with lust… They were going to have the most amazing night ever.

Suddenly, her phone rang. Ignoring it, she continued exploring his body with her lips and hands. But the phone kept on ringing…

-Shouldn’t you answer that? It might be urgent…

-I’m sure it s not…Sorry about that… I’ll just have a quick look…

It was Rick…Why was he trying to call her like that late in the evening? She had been more than clear in her blunt texts to him that she was cancelling that whole bloody experiment and did not want to hear from him ever again. But the phone kept ringing…

-Listen, Cyntia: just pick it up, it might be something important.

-Ok, I’ll be very brief.

She didn’t want to spoil the evening by telling him who it was so she went outside to pick up when the phone rang again.

She almost yelled in her mobile:

-What? I texted you never to contact me again, you crazy scientist!

-I am sorry, Cyntia, but I had to get through to you…I apologise for the whole thing with Jef,..I never meant it to turn out so badly…Anyway he has contacted me and told me you left the house

-Yes. So, now leave me alone! I never want to hear from you ever again.

-I also heard that you have spent the evening with a doctor…

Cyntia could hardly breathe. How could he know that?

-Have you been spying on me? I will call the police if you don’t leave me alone. I am warning you…

-Cyntia, I only want to warn you. This man is not good. I checked on him…he has a record of violence and…worse. He is very bad. Get away from him, now!

-What? Your little tricks are not working anymore, you weird person; I should never have trusted you in the first place; you totally manipulated me and you are trying to do it still; now fuck off and let me enjoy my evening!

She rang off, sighed heavily and started walking back to the villa.

As she came back inside the small villa, a doubt started gripping her: what if Rick was right? What if Tom was as bad as he pretended? But then why should she believe someone who had only seen her as a guinea pig?

Tom was not in the living room but he had lit a few candles, probably to give a touch of romanticism to his cold interior.

-Tom?

She called, in a slightly unsure voice, wondering why he was not there.

-Yes?

She jumped and turned to face him: he was standing in front of her with two mugs in his hands.

-Sorry if I scared you. Would you care for some tea, Miss… What is your last name Cyntia?

-Misano, it is Cyntia Misano.

-Well, here you are, miss Misano. I guess you are not married so I can call you Miss, right?

‘”What an odd question”, she thought. Why would she be there with him if she has been married? Of course she was not married’. A smile glued to her face, she replied in her smoothest tone:

-No, I am not. What about you, Mr…, Mr…?

He erupted into a loud laughter before replying.

-Fair enough, Miss Misano; Well, My name is Tom Lee

-I like it. Well, thanks for the tea.

They both sat down on the small sofa and started sipping their tea. The phone call she had received from Rick had definitely spoilt her mood and the atmosphere. Her gut instinct was that Tom was a nice man, but Rick had clearly planted the seed of doubts in her mind. Tom seemed to pick up on her discomfort. He gently squeezed her hand and came closer to her.

-Are you ok? You seem so cold, all of a sudden, since that phone call…

-Yes, I’m sorry…It was that scientist I told you about…

She stopped, refraining from sharing her thoughts was him, just in case he was this dangerous violent man Rick had warned her against.

-I see. Well, that man does not sound like a piece of fun. If I were you, I would just keep my distances. At the end of the day, what he has done to you on this so-called ‘holiday’ is pretty revolting.

‘Either he is really clever at deceiving people or else he is just genuinely kind’, Cyntia thought to herself.

She decided to try and trust him and told him joyfully:

-You are right; Let’s just forget about him. Do you have anything else to drink?

-You mean, other than tea?

He winked at her.

-Yes, other than tea, like wine, spirits…

-Are you trying to get me drunk, Miss Misano?

She smiled at him, a bit unsure of what to reply. Then she decided to put Rick’s words totally aside and enjoy the evening.

She replied good-humouredly:

-Why not? If that’s what you need to kiss me the whole evening and…

-And?

His eyes were sparkling with desire. She could feel his eyes all over her body and started feeling a mounting, almost unbearable, amount of desire coming over her.

-You know what, Miss Misano? Maybe I do not need a drink to do that

He kissed her gently on the lips and, a few seconds later, his hands were everywhere on her body again. She was stroking his hair while kissing him with intense desire. She could feel that the night was going to be simply amazing. As they were getting more and more intimate, they heard a loud knock on the main window. Cyntia startled.

-Who is that?

She whispered.

-I have no idea…

The knock went on again, louder this time.

Tom finally got up, looking a bit apprehensive.

-I wonder why they haven’t just rung the bell

All of a sudden, Cyntia became fearful too.

-Why don’t you take a weapon with you, just in case?

Tom smiled at her.

-A weapon, you must be joking? It must be a mistake

He opened the door but there was no-one there. He stepped outside and asked whether there was anyone there but one could only hear the sound of waves in the distance.

Cyntia had come to the door too. After a few seconds of looking in the darkness, she released a little cry.

-Who is that?

She was pointing towards the road where a blond woman was running.

-Hi there! Stop!

She shouted

But the woman just ran faster.

She looked at Tom with suspicion in her eyes:

-Do you know that woman?
-No, I don’t.

His calm did not impress her. Surely he must know her. Why on earth would she be knocking on his window then run away like that?

Tom’s expression showed that he could read Cyntia’s feelings.

-You are not accusing me, are you?

-Well, why was she there, if you have nothing to do with her? And why do you look unsettled if you have nothing to hide?

Tom lost his composure at once and started yelling:

-a) I have no idea why that woman was running on the road; b) it might not have been her knocking on my window ; c) I am unsettled because you make me feel like I am a criminal when I have done absolutely nothing and d) Incidentally, I am felling very frustrated right now; we were in the middle of something interesting that this incident just stopped.

This last sentence made Cyntia shiver with recollection. She too wanted him badly. And, yes, she was definitely being unfair to him. The knock on the window was probably a silly joke from some stupid kids who had nothing better to do and the woman running on the road had probably nothing to do with it.

She took a few steps to come closer to him and gently stroked his arm.

-I’m sorry…I didn’t mean to accuse you; It’s just that I’ve been so on edge and I don’t know you…I’ve had such a bad surprise with that Jef guy…

-I understand ; Come on, let’s go back inside, lock all the doors and windows and resume what we were doing; Unless you’d prefer to watch a movie?

-I like option 1 better…

*****

Cyntia spent the entire night at Tom’s: it was the most intense and wildest night. Her body was still so sensitive after all their embraces. She woke up early and saw that he had left the bed. She sat in the bed and looked around her in the room full of sunshine. In daylight, everything seemed different: Tom’s bedroom definitely lacked character: white walls, big broad bed with white sheets and just one big painting with a country landscape…It looked like a hotel room…But then, this was his holiday home, after all.

Tom entered the room carrying a tray full of a beautiful and enticing breakfast: scrambled eggs, yoghurt, fruits and a nice and strong coffee.

-Good morning! He said cheerfully

-Hi; Thanks for the breakfast, it looks amazing

-Well, apart from being a doctor, I am also a bit of a cook… Just joking, this is pretty basic…But I thought you might be hungry after last night

-I am, indeed!

-They both ate the fabulous breakfast Tom had made and started kissing again.

She really liked his body and how he made her feel but then, could he maybe be something more? She was supposed to leave to London the next day. He was from London too…What if they could keep something, some form of contact there.

As her thoughts were whirling around in a disorderly way, Rick’s words popped in her mind again.

Tom noticed her worried expression and stopped kissing her neck.

-What’s wrong? You have that preoccupied look that you already had yesterday after taking that phone call. Come on, speak to me!

-It’s nothing; really…

-Mmmhhhh, I can see there is something…Just tell me

She pulled away from him and looked at him with her intense brown eyes.

-Ok, here it is: what if someone had warned me against you…telling me you were a very bad person?

-What?

A flicker of indignation passed over his face but, a few seconds later, his smile was back.

-You must be joking… I am a nice person; all my family and friends will tell you that.

-Maybe but I don’t know them; Just you…

-Well…you’ve just had sex with me while having those doubts on your mind…Isn’t that a bit strange?

-Maybe; but I do find you attractive and it was only sex… Whereas now, you’ve made breakfast and I was thinking that maybe we could see each other again in London…

-Oh…I would love that!

Cyntia’s cheeks flushed;

-Ok…but still…What if you are bad?

-Like that scientist guy told you…Again, remember how he has tried to use you for his own purposes…Why would you trust him?

-You’re right…Why would I? But then there was this knock on the window…this lady running away…

-Come on, Cyntia…I have no idea who this was…I told you what I think about the knock: just some silly kids playing around; As for that woman, I had never seen her in my life; This village is busy at this time of year , you know…Maybe she was running away from somebody. Whatever.

Feeling how annoyed he was getting by her suspicions, Cyntia changed the subject to lighter things; They kissed and more; then they made plans to meet in London once they were both back in the UK.

They said good bye after a light breakfast together.

Tom held her really tightly to him and murmured in her ear:

-You know Cyntia, I think I love you already

Cyntia could not help shivering a bit. He looked at her with worried eyes.

-Are you ok? I hope I am not scaring you, am I?

-Not at all but it’s just that it is so sudden…

-Well, I am a bit of an impulsive person and when my feelings are strong, I like to express them directly.

He let go of her and looked at her with a stern face.

-Why are you looking at me like that?

-You don’t seem to feel the same way about me…

-Listen, I hardly know you; We’ve had sex once…It was great, yes, absolutely great…

-But your stupid scientist friend warned you against me, right?

-What? How do you know what he said?

-Well let’s just say I heard some of your conversation…

-What? I can’t believe it; and you didn’t say anything?

-It doesn’t matter; I thought you would just discard what this old fool was saying about me…

-Wait a minute…How do you know his age?

Tom seemed taken aback.

-I just guessed. Why would you be so impressed by him if he was not much older?

Cyntia took a few steps back.

-No, that’s not it…

She surveyed him with angry eyes.

-You know him! Am I right? You do know him!

Tom avoided her gaze and started looking at his phone then he stared at her with a determined look.

-The only thing that matters is that I love you and I hope you feel the same

-If someone tells me you are a bad person, I have to think about whether I want to see you again or not…

-Oh, come one, silly woman. Why would you listen to that crazy scientist?

Tom got up and started pacing around on his terrace with fury in his eyes.

-Why does this man have to interfere with my plans ?

Although she was getting a bit scared of his demeanour, Cyntia asked him in a calm voice:

-How do you know Rick?

-He used to be a friend. But he is not anymore. I could no longer bear his lessons on morality… He thinks he is a saint but he is only an old fool…And now I know he carries out strange experiments with beautiful girls like you so I dislike him even more.

Tom’s face softened and he touched Cyntia’s arms. He tried to pull her to him but she resisted.

-Sorry, Tom, but all this is making me feel very uncomfortable. I think I need to think…

Again, Tom’s expression turned to anger.

-Think? Think about what? We have a marvellous, perfect, connexion! I love your body, voice, everything…I love you! No-one will ever love you as much as I do, do you get that?

She knew such a fervour was rare but she couldn’t help feeling unsettled by his strange and almost hysterical behaviour.

-I am so sorry, Tom, but I have to go. I will call you once in London and maybe we can meet there, OK? Thanks for last night and the breakfast.

Tom gave her a look tainted with regret and spite.

-Ok, Cyntia, so be it. We will have a coffee in London.

-I do like you a lot too but we have to get to know each other more, do you understand?

-Fine, fine. Now, if you don’t mind…I have a lot to do…

Feeling rejected when she hadn’t even asked for anything, Cyntia took her bag and left. As she was walking back towards her own villa, tears started filling her eyes. She was not really sad, just tired, depressed and disturbed by all the events of the last few days. Was Tom genuine? He clearly had a bit of an anger management problem. But he did tell her that he loved her…What if that never happened again?After all, men able to express deep feelings were so rare.

She stopped walking. A little voice inside her was telling her to listen to her first impression and get back to London to think it all through. But her insecure self just wanted to be reassured again. He had told her so many nice things in the last twenty-four hours. He had helped her with her wound. She turned around and walked back to his place. As she was approaching the house, joy was mounting inside her soul: she was going to tell that man that, maybe she did not know him well, but that she was ready to start loving him as he loved her. A wide smile on her face, she rang the bell.

As Tom was not opening, she knocked on the door then walked to the window. If he was having a shower maybe he could not hear her. She would surprise him through the window and they would have another hour of perfect, amazing, sex. But when she looked through the window, she almost fainted at what she saw: Tom was sat on the sofa without his shirt and he was kissing a blonde woman with passion. That woman looked like the one Cyntia had seen run away the night before. No, it couldn’t be…It was Tom’s girlfriend, other shag…whatever!!! As anger was mounting inside her, Cyntia felt the urge to slam the window open and spit on his face. But she just stayed there without moving and looking away. She only gave a little knock on the window and when they both turned their head, she gave him the finger. Then she turned away and started running as far as she could… She was now, it occurred to her, exactly in the same position as that blonde woman the might before.

She ran all the way to the villa, tears all over her face. God, she thought, how could she have been so incredibly stupid? She did not know the man…Rick was right: he was violent, at least emotionally. The emotional pain she felt was so acute she could barely breathe. And her pride was so wounded. She felt like less than a piece of shit. Was that another part of that horrible’s Rick plan? But if so, why warn her? Oh she could not be bothered with any of that anymore…

Once in the villa, she did not reply to Jef who was still there, taking advantage of the swimming pool. “Just a vile parasite”, she thought. She rushed towards the bedroom and grabbed the bag she had already packed; then she walked to the nearest bus stop, not even turning back once. She only started breathing calmly again once she was at the airport, ready to board on the plane.

An elegant air hostess welcomed her on the plan

-Hi, miss Misano, here is your seat.

-Thank you;

-Have a nice trip back to London, Miss

-I will; thank you so much

She sat in her seat, closed her eyes. Never, ever, again, would she trust any man. And as soon as she would be back in London she would make an appointment to the GP to sort all that pain problem. She wanted to be peaceful again. She wanted to forget about it all. She wanted to feel safe.

Her phone beeped: it was a text from Rick , that evil Rick.

-Hi, sweetie; I hope you have followed my advice. If you are still coming back, we can meet and I can give you your treatment. If you want…

-Fuck off out of my life, you weirdo!

Her reply made her feel better. She would go to the GP and they would sort it all for her.

Her phone kept beeping with texts from Rick: he was now trying to convince her to not speak to the medical world, using all the same arguments as before…trying to scare her…

She thought for a few seconds then replied:

-Ok, we ll meet for that reason only; you ll give me my injection then I will never hear from you again, is that clear?

-Totally clear, sweet Cyntia.

Why was he calling her like that? It did not matter. At least , soon she would be pain-free again: that was the only thing that mattered. And she would close the door to all the weird men who tried to approach her. So that experience had taught her something: to protect herself.

The prospect of going back to a life deprived of suffering again soothed her. At the same time, what about the excitement of actually feeling the powerful emotions associated to the ability to experience emotional pain? She looked out the window at the clear blue sky then at the other passengers peacefully enjoying their trip. Did she want to live the rest of her life in denial of what it was to be truly human? Maybe she would give it another thought and maybe she would meet Rick for coffee after all. Despite his twisted mind, the man was clever and knowledgeable on that topic. An eagerness to understand what she had experienced and learn to master it was growing inside her. She would however make sure to keep a possibility to escape the state of suffering she was now able to sink in. She would make a new deal with Rick that would involve giving her the power to immunise herself again in the future, if she wanted to. She sighed and closed her eyes, accepting that she might have to endure more pain if she was to fully understand what being human truly meant.

*****

A Pain-free World. Chapter Six: The Pain

Sophie Heine

Chapter Six: The Pain

They were lying on the grass by the pool after two hours of absolutely mind-blowing sex. Cyntia’s body felt the more relaxed it had felt in years. The sex was so much more intense and passionate than with her ex and with any of the men she had been with. In his arms, she just felt like a marvellous queen who could achieve anything. And then, the pleasure was so intense she could scream just thinking about it.

-So, what do you want to do now?

His voice was smoother than before, probably due to the endorphin released by all their embraces.

-Let’s just stay here a bit longer, OK? I feel so good…better than I have felt for so long.

He pulled her closer to her and they just lied there for another half an hour, saying nothing and just breathing each other’s smell.

Suddenly he let go of her and stood up, stretching his arms and legs.

-I will go for a run now and then I will take you out for diner. All this has made me very hungry

-Wonderful idea! I think there are a few trendy restaurants in the village; I will get dressed while you run

-Actually, why don’t you come with me? You seem pretty fit!

-I am, but with my little legs…compared to yours I mean…I would slow you down…

-No you wont. And if you do, I won’t blame you. Come on… Lets put some shorts on and let s go for a run along the beach

The rest of the evening was as magical as the afternoon: after a reviving run during which Jef kindly slowed his pace so that she could keep up with him, they went out and had a romantic diner by candlelight. Jef kept telling her how beautiful she was, interrupting his meal to kiss her and take pictures of her. She had never felt more like an adored princess. When they came back to the villa, they went straight to the bedroom and had another few hours of inflamed sex. Cyntia fell asleep in his arms, feeling enormously grateful to Rick for offering her such a beautiful holiday. Certainly, a little voice inside her head was telling her to keep her guards on, since she had been warned about the unpleasant aspects of the ‘experiment’ but, for now, she just hushed that voice completely and enjoyed the moment.

*****

the next couple of days continued to be totally magical and romantic. Cyntia started feeling something more than pure sexual attraction to Jef, letting her mind wander about ideas of marriage, house purchasing and having kids. That is, until the third day of their stay in Sicily. That morning, Jef woke up looking very different: tired and worried looking, he would not even look at her during breakfast. As she tried to kiss him, he angrily pushed her away as if she was a nasty little fly. Cyntia was just dumbfounded by such a radical change of behaviour. She decided to eat her toasts in silence, hoping that Jef would cheer up after their meal. But his low mood went on as they were sat together on the beach. No longer bearing such an offensive attitude, Cyntia finally told him in a firm tone:

-Jef, what;s going on? Is it something I have done or said? Why are you acting so weird?

Jef looked at her with empty eyes, his brow still frown with tension.

-Oh, leave me alone…

-But, I dont understand…we were having such a good time. Are youb coming down with something? Ar eyoub feeling unwell?

-Would you please just shut up and leave me alone?

His tone was so mean that Cyntia felt tears coming to her eyes. How could she have been so dumb as to imagine this guy was a good person? At the end of the day, he was pronbably just using her to have a free holiday.

Wiping her tears with her hands, she stoop up and stared at him for a while. Then she said in a blunt voice:

-Fine. I will leave you be today. I don’t need to be with a grumpy sand ungrateful man. I can have fun by myself. I wont be back until tonight

This sentence seemed to have mellowed Jef’s expression. He called her back, as she was already walking away.

-Cyntia, wait. I dint mean to… I just have these strange feelings at time…Never mind. You go and enjoy yourself.

-Yes, I will do a bit of sightseeing using the buses. I will see you tonight

-Ok, Cyntia. See you later

She thought she had seen what seemed like sadness quickly passing over his face. But too hurt by his earlier rejection, she decided to simply discard it and kept walking away.

She spent her day discovering the nearby villages, churches and charming streets and beaches. Although she was by herself, she did not feel lonely at all in that beautiful area. She did not call nor text Jef for the whole day and he didnt either. She was cleqarly surprised by his beahviour but decided to discard it and simply absorb the subtle details of the the beautiful Sicilian scenery. Hungry and tired, she headed back by bus to the villa when the sun was coming down, hoping to find Jef in a better mood.

She called for him as soon as she stepped inside the house but received no reply. She checked all the rooms but no presence of Jef. She then went outside to look whether he was by the pool and, indeed, he was lying in the descending sun, reading a book in his sexy swimming suit. She walked closely towards him and laid a kiss on his belly. This time, he did not reject her. He put his book away and smiled at her, kissing her back feverishly. They had passionate sex again on the bench, then in the pool, then on the grass. Cyntia was quite proud of herself to have managed to cheer his mood up simply by giving him a little bit of space.

-Jef, do you want to hear about what I’ve seen today?

-Mmmh, yes…

His voice was low and distant. When Cyntia looked at him, she could see that he had his eyes closed and was falling asleep.

‘Never mind’, she thought. ‘We can just rest here a bit before going to bed’.

They got up after one hour of sleeping by the pool as the sun was now totally down and the darkness had slowly surrounded the villa.

Before going in her own room, Cyntia quickly went to the bathroom to wash her face and brush her teeth. But, to her horror, as she was reaching for the towel, she saw something that overwhelmed her with sadness and anger: small pink female underpants were there, hanging but the towel and they were not hers. Surveying them, Cyntia felt a flood of disgust dawning her. How could she be so stupid? Of course, the man wanted to be alone because he was a pathological cheater or polygamist. Standing in shock still looking at the pink pants, she heard Jef’s voice calling her. She did not reply, her brain incapable to work, as if stopped by the flow of negative emotions she was feeling.

After a few minutes, Jef entered the bathroom and looked at her in surprise. In those days, nobody was overwhelmed by painful emotions anymore so he could not understand why Cyntia seemed so in shock.

Seeing him just made her burst into an irrepressible anger. She started screaming at him and even hit him on the chest a few times. Jef felt helpless in front of so much savagery: he had only ever known cold people who could never ever feel hurt so he had no idea how to react in front of such pain.

-Cyntia, come on; it was only a little thing; surely this has happened to you before…come on we ve only known each other a few days; how can you react like that?

These words reminded Cyntia of Jef’s inability to feel pain but did not calm her.

-It hurts me, do you get that, you monster! I am not like any of you all in this world. I know what pain is and feels like, and when someone lies to you and cheats on you, it hurts, it destroys you inside and makes you feel like shit. Do you understand that, you horrible vicious monster?

-I can try but, to be honest, your words dont make much sense to me. I didnt know you wanted me to be faithful, we never discussed it. Normally that happens after marriage…and again, we’ve only known each other a few days…

-Oh shut up you horrible disgustful man; just leave me alone; actually no, get out of my villa; go to her place if you like her and leave me be; and never ever touch me again!

Cyntia looked so scary that Jef moved back and stepped out of the bathroom.

-Ok, Cyntia, I will stay in a hotel tonight; Hopefully my credit card will work. Because, you know, I didnt expect to pay for my stay here

Seeing Cyntia run after him, Jef moved back further.

-Ok ok, fine, I am leaving right now; I will grab a few things then I will leave. But, please, talk to me tomorrow and explain to me why this has put you in such an uncontrollable state.

-Get out, now!

A few minutes later, Jef was out and Cyntia was still crying and shaking. She made herself a hot drink, ate a lot of chocolates and took a sleeping pill to forget about it all. After all, men were monsters, all of them. That is what her ex had taught her. And apparently he was not the only one. She fell into a heavy sleep with tears all over her cheeks.

*****

The next morning, she saw about ten texts from Jef. He was expressing how surprised he was by her reaction, giving her all the same arguments again. She replied only one thing: “I am not painfree anymore, Jef; I know what physical and emotional pain is. So now fuck off out of my life and phone’. His only reply was ‘wow’. He obviously had not even thought of that possibility. Like most people, he only knew pain as a bad historical fact that used to create much individual and collective trouble; Cyntia knew she was not supposed to reveal her condition to many people since there was a risk they would denounce her to the authorities; but what if he did? She had done nothing wrong: she had taken that damn vaccine and it hadnt worked. She could always pretend she had only just found out.

She spent the day like a recluse in the villa, reading the novel she had brought with her and eating a lot. She had no eagerness to swim, exercise or see the Sicilian landscape anymore. Jef’s cheating and ruthless behaviour had totally destroyed her stay here. As she was brooding all by herself, contemplating to empty her bank account by booking an early return to the UK, she received a text from Rick: “Is everything all right my dear? I hope you are enjoying the Italian Dolce Vita. She just felt like throwing her phone away but she contained herself and just replied a brief: “it ‘s hell. Part of your little experience, right?? I am done with this torture and going back to the UK”. Then she realised that, in order to know what had happened to her, Rick must have put some cameras in the villa. Struck by the horror of such a pervert act, she started looking at the ceilings and corners of the walls in every room and, indeed, she did find what looked like tiny cameras. She jumped on her hone and texted Rick again: “you horrible bastard. You were spying on me and on the torture that man was inflicting on me. Go to hell. I am leaving this place”. She then turned off her phone and smashed every one of the minuscule cameras with her shoe; then to make sure they were properly destroyed she snatched them away from the walls and jumped on them many many times.

After what felt like an incredibly cathartic act, she threw herself on the sofa and closed her eyes. As she was about to fall into a restful nap, her mind finally escaping the dark moments she had been living, she heard someone come in the house. She sat straight away, all her senses alert and ready to fight. There, standing in front of her was Jef, holding a bunch of flowers and a wrapped gift. He was not smiling and looked dreadful. Of course, he was still handsome but he looked like he had had no sleep at all, his face wary and tormented.

-This is for you, Cyntia. I want to apologise for what I did. I had no idea that you could be hurt. I am sorry

Cyntia looked away, not knowing what to reply. The she said, in a calm voice:

-well not everyone behaves like that; you don’t need to feel pain to be kind, faithful and empathetic. What you did was immoral and you know it; you cheated on me

-I am sorry, Cyntia. I just thought we were not getting on and when that girl offered herself ot me I was weak; I thought you were not coming back

At the mere idea of a girl offering herself to Jef, Cyntia shivered.

-you thought I was not coming back after I had told you very clearly I would be back in the evening? I went away because you wanted me to, remember?

-I just felt tired…You see, I have this fear of being abandoned; and sometines I just push people away so that I don’t get abandoned…

All this just sounded like a bunch of lies. How could you have such fears when you felt non pain?

-All bullshit, Jef, just pure fake rubbish.

-Ok, if you don’t want to accept my apologies I will go; I will leave my gifts here for you so that you remember that at least I have tried to apologise.

As Jef was walking away, Cyntia realised she did not want him to leave her; she wanted to be the one breaking up, making her point; if she could not hurt him, she could at least get out of that situation with pride.

-Jef, wait! Let us just spend the afternoon together before you go, ok? And thanks for the gifts.

Jef rushed back to her and grabbed her hands.

-Thank you Cyntia, thank you so much, why don’t we just have a swim, as old friends do?

-old friends? we re not even friends!

-well let s just enjoy the pool anyway

-Ok

They spent the rest of the day calmly with each other, not speaking much, just doing things side by side. Cyntia was still hesitating to take the next plane back to London but her anger seemed to have receded. Now that they were not having sex anymore, it did not hurt that much to know that he had been with another woman. She then started teasing him about it.

-So when are you seeing your girlfriend again?

-What?

Jef looked properly astonished.

-the girl you slept with after me? You are no longer interested in her? Come on…You can tell me

She gave him a little friendly grin.

-Ok, if you do want to know: I havent contacted her again since that time; Your reaction put me off it…and I was hoping that things between us could maybe…you know

Now it was Cyntia who looked surprised.

-Could what? Start again? Sorry, my friend, but you are out of your mind. I am an exclusive person

-Cyntia, I am sorry again. I did not know you were different…more sensitive…able to feel pain and all that

This sentence made Cyntia get up in anger.

-But it’s not just that, Jef! Even before I never used to cheat or accept to be cheated on. It’s a question of morality not just of hurt.

Jef seemed a bit baffled by her passionate speech and stayed quiet for a while. Then he looked at her with his beautiful eyes, an interested look all over his face.

-Does that mean that you also feel physical pain?

-Yes, as I told you so.

And suddenly a thought occurred to her: what if he started hurting her, just to see what someone in pain looks like? Maybe he had been hired by that psychopathic Rick because he shared his sadism.

As she stepped away from him, he started laughing.

-Come on, you are safe with me. You could damage me back, you know?

True. Even pain-free people could get injured. They were still human. But because they had lost the ability to sense pain they just had to be extra careful not to inflict injuries on themselves or on others.

He pulled her towards her and gave her a hug. Although she was still attracted to him, she was resolved not to have sex with him again. She was now much too aware of his ability to hurt her.

She pretended she had to use the bathroom to get back inside the villa. Then she sent him a text saying she had a headache and needed to lie down. After locking her bedroom door, she opened up her computer and booked the next flight to London the next day. She wanted to go back to her safe and cosy own little flat and tell that horrible Rick what she thought of his little experiment.

*****

After a couple of hours of pilates, reading and stretching, Cyntia was eager to get out of her room and swim in the sea before leaving the next day. Jef had texted her back that he was going to town and would see her later. She unlocked her door and peeped inside the living room: no trace of him; She quickly looked outside and can see he is not there either. Relieved, she put on her swimming suit, grabbed her bag and started walking towards the beach. She was determined to just relax and enjoy her last day in Sicily all by herself, safe and sound.

The sun was high in the skin and, despite the cream she had covered her body with, her skin felt too hot. She decided to do w long relaxing swim in the beautifully clear and blue Mediterranean. As she was relaxing in a plank, enjoying all the sensations the mixture of sea, sun and children voices gives to the body, she suddenly felt a sting on her right leg. The sting then turned into a burning sensation: it seemed that her leg was on fire. Unable to repress a cry, she started desperately swimming back to the sand. She could see a lot of people looking at her with scared faces. She was basically screaming out of pain. Whatever bit or stung her must have been pretty monstrous,. Finally she arrived on the sand and rushed out of the water, still in tears and holding her leg. A little crowd had formed around her, a few people asking her questions and mumbling words to each other. She was aware that all these people had no idea how she must feel, painless as they were. BShe shouted to the crowd:

-Is there a doctor? A nurse? Some medical person? Can someone tell me what happened to me?

A young man approached her briskly. He was slim and tall, with dark hair. He looked at her with a stern face then zoomed on her leg and at the red area on it.

-It seems that you have been stung by a jellyfish. In this sea, they are only small, harmless ones

-Oh, good, thanks

She rubbed the tears off her face and tried to compose herself but the pain had not subsided.

The crowd has dispersed by now so that she dared ask the young doctor:

-what can I do to get rid of that burning sensation?

Seeing his puzzled look, she realised that she needed to give him more explanation.

-I don’t know what’s happening to me but I seem to feel…pain

A shadow of scepticism passed over his face but then he said in a matter-of-fact tone:

-I do not have painkillers with me since, well, they have become pretty much unnecessary but I do know of some natural medicines that could help you

-Oh yes, that would be great, thank you; what is it?

-Well, a basic one would be to pour urine on the burn…

-What?

-I know that it sounds gross but it is supposed to be very efficient… However, I could also prepare you a potion with some plants from my garden. If you don’t mind following me to my villa?

Cyntia would normally not accept to follow a stranger to his place but the burning sensation was too unpleasant for her to refuse.

She started walking behind him, regularly stopping to rub her leg. The young doctor escorted her very calmly and politely to a small house right next to the beach. The house was surrounded by a small but flowered garden.

-It is so pretty!

She exclaimed.

-Well, I do come a lot and I have to keep myself busy so that I do some gardening in my spare time

She surveyed him properly for the first time.

He must be in his late thirties but looked overall much younger with his smart glasses and slim and dark looks. He was sort of attractive, she suddenly realised. Trying not to flush and to only focus on the reason why she has followed him to his house, she cleared her throat and says:

-I will wait for you on the terrace; take your time

He smiled at her for the first time, as if reading her thoughts and gave her a seat.

-Fine. I will bring you a glass of orange juice while I prepare the potion. I have a lot of those plants in my kitchen already.

‘What sort of man keeps medicinal plants in the kitchen of his holiday villa? Probably the type who does gardening as a hobby, she thinks.’ And smiled to herself.

Only a few minutes later, the doctor came back and with a bowl of something looking very gooey and gross. She tried not to show how disgusted she felt and put on a brave face.

-So this should go on my leg?

-Yes, a few times today and tomorrow and the burning will disappear very fast. In fat, this should also help the prevent a scar.

-Wow…

-Do you want me to help you…?

Although the idea of having this handsome doctor touch her leg was appealing, she was not feeling in that sort of mood .

-No, it’s Ok, I can do it.

She used her hands and spreads the mixture evenly on the burn while he gave her guidelines.

And almost immediately she felt the pain go away.

-This is incredible. Are you a male witch?

He burst out into laughter and that made him look even more youthful.

-No, just a mainstream doctor who happens to use alternative medicines while on holiday…

-In any case, thank you so much, doctor…

She then realised that she did not even know his name.

Just call me Tom.

-well thanks a loti, Tom. I am Cyntia by the way.

And she shook his hand warmly.

-Would you like another glass of juice?

She was dying to say yes but she now felt a bit ashamed at that much too sudden proximity.

-Actually, I should get going…

-How long are you staying?

-Only until tomorrow, I’m afraid.

-But then I must take you out…

He stopped himself, probably realising how forward this was.

-I mean, I would love to invite you for diner.

-Only if you let me pay for it! I owe you that.

-Ok, deal! Let us meet on the town square at 8!

He gave her a hand shake again and squeezed her hand a little; Or had she imagined it? Maybe he found her attractive too.

As she started walking down the steps of the small villa, he shouted at her.

-Ah yes, and I expect you tot ell me a bit more about that sudden pain you have felt…After all, I am a doctor.

She smiled at him.

-Maybe!

Cyntia walked back to the villa in a state of perfect bliss. She had been asked out by a handsome doctor! All the pain of the last few days seemed to have disappeared at once. She felt lighter than ever and as she entered the villa and bumped into Jef, she realised that she had almost forgotten about his very existence. His brow was tightly knitted and he seemed both wiped out and worried.

-Hi Cyntia, where have you been?

-At the beach then in the sea..why?

-Well, I don’t know…I know you are leaving tomorrow and I…I just wanted to spend a little time with you…that’s all…

-Ah…

-Oh, what s wrong with your leg? What have you put on it?

-Oh that…It’s nothing…I got bitten by a jellyfish and someone helped me…

-Ouch…For you that must have been painful…Who helped you?

-Just a doctor who happened to be there on the beach. Now, if you ll excuse me…I want to have a bath

She passed by Jef, who just looked at her with a hundred questions in his eyes.

As she was realizing in her bath, she could hear him walk around the villa; But she could not care less. For her that man had always been a stranger, a mere distraction. His cheating was not really a betrayal since there had never been anything between them. Her thoughts were drifting towards the handsome doctor. He seemed like a nice, kind, honest guy. And he obviously had a good situation: a doctor, owning a villa in Sicily… For a moment, she allowed herself to dream that she would end up in a relationship with him, then they would have kids, marry… A knock on the door abruptly stopped her trail of thought. She sat up in her bath and shouted in an unnerved voice:

-What?

-Cyntia, it’s me; Come on, can you get out of there? I would really like to spend a bit of time with youj before you go. What about…dinner tonight?

-Sorry, I already have a date. Just call your girlfriend back. Stay at hers if you want. I could not care less

-A date? With whom?

Jef banged on the door more forcefully.

-Open the door, please open the door!

-I am in a bath. Leave me alone. Shall I remind you that you were invited her? If you are not happy go and stay somewhere else? By the way, I am taking the keys back with me so if you are staying after tomorrow you will need another place to stay

There was a long silence.

Then she heard Jef swear and hit something.

A shiver of fear went down her spine.

-What if that man was the violent type? After all he had been quite ruthless/…Maybe that was only the nice part of him…maybe there was worse…

No she would not allow herself to feel fear for such as a tiny immoral and heartless prick.

She grabbed a towel and went out of the bath. Keeping the door shut, she spoke to him through the door as firmly as she could.

-Jef, you’d better behave. Many people know I am here and I can make phone calls to get you in trouble if you do anything bad. So now, just leave the villa, book a hotel and leave me alone.

She heard him walk back closer to the door ans say, in a desperate voice:

-Cyntia, I think I love you; I am sorry if I have hurt you without meaning to.

-Leave me alone! I will not repeat it. If you continue harassing me I will notify the police.

-Ok, ok, No need to get all wound up. I will leave.

-Good.

She waited until there was no more noise in the villa to get out of the bathroom. Just out of precaution she ran straight to her bedroom and locked the door. Why was she so scared of that man? Was it because of what he had done to her? It was pretty violent, on an emotional level, when you could feel pain…But he had said he would leave…So.

She started getting dressed then a thought occurred to her: he still had the key to the villa. She texted him straight away: “drop the key in the letterbox within the next hour if you want no trouble. Thank you.” He did not reply.

*****

A Pain-Free World : Chap 5 The Holiday

 

Sophie Heine                                                                   

The holiday

She had been waiting for him more than half an hour in the cold hall of Standsted airport. She had already had two cappuccinos and was now sat one of these indoor bikes, trying to do some exercise to stop from worrying: what if he had changed his mind and had decided to not come? She had seen that his phone was disconnected so that she had no way of reaching him. The boarding was now in half an hour and they still had to check in. As she was cycling faster, looking at her watch at the same time, she suddenly heard a cheerful voice behind her.

-Hi, Cyntia; Sorry I’m a little late…I had an unexpected visit yesterday…and well, let just say that it delayed me.

Cyntia turned angrily towards him and got off the bike.

-A little late? We are about to miss the plane…If you don’t want to come, no problem, but you could have at least told me so!

Obviously surprised by her anger, his expression became extremely apologetic. He told her in a soft voice.

-Cyntia, I really am sorry; why don t we just check in? It must be time now, right? And of course I want to go on that plane with you!

It suddenly occurred to Cyntia that her anger was an exaggerated reaction since he was still merely a friend; in fact, she barely knew him so what right did she have to get so angry at him?

She composed herself and told him in a cold and civil manner.

-Yes of course, let’s get on that plane; Sorry I got so upset. I just dont like being late. But, you know, I could very well have gone by myself to that amazing place.

He gave her a little sarcastic smile that she totally ignored and they hurried towards the check in. Forty minutes later, they were both comfortably sat in first class. Rick had really organised that trip remarkably, thought Cyntia.

Whereas it was her first time on a first class seat, Jef seemed totally accustomed to it.

-Have you flown a lot? She asked in a timid voice.

-Yes, you could say that.

His eyes were sparkling but he did not expand on that point, as if he didn’t want to give away too much of himself yet. He merely returned the question:

-And you?

-Not really. I have been on a plane before, obviously, but never in first class. I’m intrigued to see what the food is like.

-It is simply exquisite. But what I like best is all the little extras you can require.

-Like what?

-Well, special movies, drinks, porn…

He threw his head back and burst into laughter.

Cyntia had an appalled look on her face.

-Porn? They give you porn in first class?

She wanted to add that it was anything but classy but then saw the smile on Jef’s face.

-I was just joking.

-well it is not funny.

She gave him a stern look and started reading her art magazine.

He seemed baffled now.

-Are you one of these austere women militating against porn? You know some of it is nice for women as well…

-If you really want my opinion: yes I m against porn; I think it destroys the authenticity of sexual intercourse and conveys a terrible vision of women; even when it is supposedly addressed to them

-Ah, so you have watched it?

Cyntia flushed.

-No but I have read about it.

He gave her an understanding smile.

-Don’t worry. I much prefer real sex too.

After a little wink, he closed his eyes and she was left with that suggestive sentence hovering in the air like a promise.

                                                            ****

Rick had not exaggerated in his description. The place was a sheer paradise: a sumptuous three bedrooms villa, one kilometre from the nearest town and five hundred meters from the beach.

Cyntia started exploring the house with awe, while Jef simply sat in front of the big flat screen television hanging on the main wall of the living room. It was a traditional Mediterranean holiday house: painted in white and pastel colours, the large rooms were very bright, thanks to large windows letting the light generously in, and they were all furnished with light wooden furniture and plainly decorated. The travel agency had added basic modern equipments in the bedrooms and in the kitchen, so that people coming from big cities did not feel lost: laptops, Mp3s, stereos and  loads of cooking devices that Cyntia had never even seen before.

After her tour of the house, Cyntia came back to the living room. Jef had found a soap opera in English and was resting in front of the television, his feet on a stool and his head supported by a comfortable pillow.

Cyntia looked at him: his muscular body was more than obvious in his tight clothes. Feeling her eyes on him, he shot her a sparkly gaze.

-What?

-Oh, nothing.

She had mumbled, her cheeks red with shame at the thoughts she was having.

-You were staring at me.

-No, not at all… I was just thinking.

-About what?

She adopted a matter-of-fact tone:

– What could we do the rest of the day? The pool seems amazing, but then we haven’t seen the village nor the sea…Of course we can also spend our time separately…

He was looking at her with intensity.

-Let’s have a look at the beach together! The booklet here says it is only down the road.

Cyntia nodded.

-Great. I will just put my swimming suit on.

She parted her lips in surprise.

At the idea of standing in a swimming suit in front of him, Cyntia shivered. Wasn’t it a bit soon for her to show him her body? Besides, who said anything had to happen between them? They could also just stay – or, more accurately, become – friends…

-I have had a cold recently so I might just stay like this; but I will happily sit on the beach and enjoy the sun

Jef looked at her with glittering eyes.

-Come on, you have to swim too; that’s the whole point of being by a beach, isn’t it?

-Maybe tomorrow.

-No worries, Cyntia. No pressure! I’ll be a minute.

After a minute of reflection, she went herself to the bedroom and decided to wear a swimming suit and a light dress over it. Jef was waiting for her sat at the table sipping a coffee in a tight short. She could see his muscular torso and arms, as well as his long leopard-like legs and his perfect behind. Noticing her gaze over his body, he said cheerfully:

-I’ve been working out, can you tell?

-Yes…, I guess so

Looking away so that he couldn’t see how red her cheeks were, she grabbed her bag and said in a casual tone:

-Let’s go and enjoy the rest of the day.

-Yes, let’s have fun!

The way his eyes fell on her body left no ambiguity as to what he meant.

They spent the whole afternoon on the private beach near the villa, alternating between sunbathing and short swims. Cyntia was an excellent swimmer but did not want to show off. She knew how sensitive men were when women were better than them…

At the end of the day, they got back to the villa and sat by the swimming pool to enjoy the descending sunlight. The view was more stunning than anything Cyntia had ever seen: the villa was located on top of a hill and from the pool they could see the garden in flowers and further away, neat fields, high trees and a remote little village in a dry landscape. Cyntia breathed in deeply and tried to fully imbue herself with this paradise on earth.

Suddenly she felt Jef’s fingers brush her arm. She startled and sat up.

-Sorry, I didn’t want to wake you

-I wasn’t asleep, just relaxing

He stared at her with his feline eyes.

-I wanted to thank you for this amazing holiday.

-It has just started so you can’t tell how it is going to be yet…

-Well, the place is idyllic, just perfect.

-I know…? I will have to thank Rick

-Ah yes the friend who offered you that holiday

Cyntia noticed the sarcasm in his voice.

-Do you think that was wrong of me to have accepted? As I told you, it was a mutually interested agreement.

-Yes, you told me. I don’t need to hear anymore than that;

He looked at her with his deep brown eyes; His blond hair and already tanned skin were glowing in the twilight.

He noticed her interest.

– You are looking at me as if I was an alien…

– It’s just that you are so…

-what?

-It would sound bizarre of me to use that word but, oh, I will just say it: you are so beautiful.

For a short while he did not respond, looking gobsmacked. Then he threw his head back and burst into a clear loud laughter that made him look even more irresistible.

-What is so funny?

-I mean, women have complimented me before, but they normally tell me I’m hot, attractive, handsome, etc. It’s the first time I’ve been called ‘beautiful’/

-Well you have called me beautiful and, in my case, it is not exactly true. 

His expression suddenly turned serious.

-Of course it is. Cyntia, you are stunning!

He touched her dark hair with his long fingers and stroked her forehead, then went down towards her mouth and repeated:

-Just stunning…

Her heart was pounding and her body responded with a hot, burning and demanding desire.

He pulled her closer to him and started kissing her feverishly. His mouth was warm, his smell strong and sweet. Soon she could feel his hands all over her body. She closed her eyes and abandoned herself to him.