Story Excerpt

The Trouble with Rebecca

by Larry Light

Art by Shutterstock

For an introverted tech geek, he was good at tender talk.

“Don’t worry, darling. We’ll sort it out. Listen, I can’t talk now. Love you.” Max Winters hung up his desk phone. The little red light winked out. “Sorry. My wife. Cleaning lady hasn’t shown up.”

“Not a problem,” Sean said, wearing a tiger smile. The company’s CEO was a man who had no problems, and if he did, he squelched them. Pronto. Sean squinted at Max with an inspector’s intensity.

“I’m sorry. I had to see what she wanted.” As Sean’s smile fled, Max realized he should’ve gotten off the call as soon as the man appeared. He’d kept Sean waiting for twenty seconds. When Becca phoned, as she did often when he was at work, Max always found time to talk to her, no matter how busy he was. He never let her go to voicemail—even when his boss hovered outside his cubicle.

Sean looked around Max’s workspace, as if taking inventory. There could be nothing to find fault with. Max kept a very tidy desk. It held only a few neat stacks of papers and a framed picture of Rebecca. The bank of computers blinked to the side.

“Marriage is important, Winters.”

“I’ll second that emotion,” Max said. He hoped a flippant Smokey Robinson reference would set the right tone. Sean liked Smokey, and no one else. Max’s policy was to avoid displeasing Sean.

“I’ve never met your wife. She never comes to any company social activities.”

“Rebecca is a bit of a recluse. She’ll come to the next event. I promise.”

Something moved behind Sean’s eyes. “Did you enjoy the Saint Paddy’s Day party last week?”

“Sure did.”

That was the only answer. Every year Sean rented a ballroom in a local catering hall, and laid on the corned beef, the cabbage, and the green beer. Irish step dancers and bagpipers performed. Attendance was compulsory.

“In fact, Winters, I hear you had a particularly good time.”

Max’s heart slammed in his chest. Now he knew where this was headed. He said nothing.

The atmosphere of Sean’s disapproval thickened in the cubicle. He spoke in a low, deliberate voice.

“Single employees can date, Winters. That’s allowed.” He leaned in. “But married employees can’t fool around. Ever. We can’t tolerate it at this company. Understand?”

“I’m not fooling around,” Max blurted.

Sean replied as though biting each word. “Don’t. Contradict. Me. Ever.”

Max’s breath caught in his chest. The boss didn’t want to hear any arguments, justifications, or excuses.

Sean gave an exasperated sigh, like an old-fashioned locomotive expelling steam. “Scandal is not good for business. Especially our business. Don’t forget it, Winters. Ever. Or you’re gone.”

Max found himself chuckling at the absurdity of it all.

“You think this is funny?” Sean said, bending forward as if about to strike him.

“No, no, no. Of course not.” Max tried to be rational always. Yet sometimes, life’s preposterous side forced laughter out of him, and he couldn’t stop it. Inside, he felt no levity. He felt terrified.

“I thought you were smart,” Sean said. “Turns out, not about everything.”

After Sean walked away, Max bolted from his desk. At the end of the workday, the staff was circulating and chatting as usual. But now their tone seemed different: a strange, insectlike buzz.

Toni stepped out of her cube, her eyes wide, her mouth open, as if she wanted to scream. She pointed to an empty conference room. Toni was wearing a short skirt. Max watched her well-sculpted thighs moving toward the conference room.

He followed her. A few employees noticed, but looked away when he caught their eyes. He kept the conference room door open, lest someone think they were up to no good.

“What did Sean say to you?” Toni whispered.

“That married employees can’t fool around at the company.” Max heard himself talk as though another man were speaking. Electricity danced up and down his spine.

“We should stop, Max. We have to stop.”

“We’re not doing anything wrong, Toni.” An unwelcome whine had somehow invaded his speech.

Toni wore a pendant with a small golden heart against her chest. She had killer cheekbones and a grin that would melt an ice cap. She wasn’t grinning now.

“I can’t be involved with a married man, Max. Sean is incensed. A minute ago, he all but called me a whore. He said that I’ll get fired if we don’t stop. And so will you.” Her hand with its elegant fingers swiped the air from right to left, brushing the idea of adultery into oblivion. “It’s over, Max.”

The hot memory washed over him—of how those long fingers felt when caressing his bare back. Could he tell her how she was on his mind all day and all night long? Would she believe him? Would she scoff if he said he was in love with her? She turned to go.

“What if I wasn’t married?”

Toni turned back. “But you are. To Rebecca. For four years. You celebrated your anniversary last month. I can’t do this, Max.” Her pretty face was contorted into an expression that could have been pleading, sorrow, or shame. At that fraught moment, Max was sure she loved him too.

Max wanted to tell her. The words raged within him, like a storm. “But, if I wasn’t?”

Her face turned angry, teeth gritted, eyes narrowed. “Go home. Go home to your wife, Max.” She stalked away.


The rush hour traffic on Route 110 was thick. Max waited in line to leave the parking lot and join the parade of crawling cars, many coming off the LIE at the exit up ahead. The stop-and-go congestion kept Max occupied with his driving, although nothing could keep his mood from tumbling into the sub-basement.

At long last, he reached the safety of his neighborhood. Night had fallen. Luminous pools of streetlamp yellow dotted Manderly Lane’s shadows. At either curb, skeletal trees scraped the cold March sky with its dim, indifferent stars.

Their three-bedroom bungalow, built after World War II, was unlit except for a solitary light in the kitchen. He pulled himself together. He had to maintain a normal appearance for Becca’s sake.

He entered his house from the garage, where he parked next to her Jeep Grand Cherokee. He pulled a smile onto his face as he stepped into the kitchen.

Rebecca’s answering smile had none of Toni’s bedazzling power, but it always made him feel better. She knew he needed cheering up.

“Bad day, huh?” Becca had an uncanny ability to read his thoughts. At times, they almost might have been halves of the same person.

“Horrible. Sean is crazy. He threatened to fire me. You know how he is.”

“What for? You’ve done superb work. Planting that malware into the Revolutionary Guard’s system. They should give you an award. You’re so smart.”

“That’s what Sean said, before he called me stupid.” He didn’t feel smart. “You realize I shouldn’t be telling you stuff like the Iran initiative.”

“Sure, sure. Classified information. Need to know. National security. You realize that you can tell me everything.”

Becca didn’t have friends with whom she’d be tempted to share confidences. For the hundredth time, he wondered how Sean found out about him and Toni at the party. They were in a side room, with no one else around. Had Toni blabbed about their rendezvous to a girlfriend?

Becca kissed his cheek. “Let’s have a nice dinner with some wine. Tell me all your problems.”

“That sounds terrific.”

He was feeling better already. At dinner, they discussed Sean and his difficult personality. And they talked about her concern that Olga, the cleaning lady, hadn’t shown up again. Despite language difficulties, his wife liked Olga. “She’s almost like a sister. Such a genuine person. So real.”

Later that night, lying in bed in the peaceful darkness, he told himself that he had to sort out his feelings. He needed to consider the problem in rational terms. Unbidden, visions of Toni clicked through his mind.

As she lifted her head from the pillow, Becca said, “It’s that Toni woman, right?”

“No.” She could tell he was lying. His wife was insightful. She’d have made a great computer hacker. He must have mentioned Toni to her.

“After you came back from the St. Patrick’s Day party, I could smell her on you.” Becca didn’t sound angry. She sounded sad.

“I . . . well . . .” What should he say?

“Max, you know I’m what you need. Toni won’t make you happy. Not like I do.”

He couldn’t reassure her. He couldn’t speak. The words were lodged in his throat.

“You can’t have us both.”

“I know,” Max said, soft and almost tender. “I’m sorry. You were perfect.”

She knew it was over. And, in a blink, she left.


Toni recited the story the way she’d give a deposition. Flat and emotionless, although that was a pose. Heather had known her since high school.

“You can’t fool me. You care for this guy, don’t you?”

With a shake of her head, Toni said, “He’s married.”

“That never stopped you before.”

Taking a small sip of her gimlet, as though drinking at a slower pace would stave off the inebriated wave engulfing her, Toni said, “I usually have terrible taste in men. I admit it. But Max . . .This is different, Heather.”

Someone selected “Stranger in Paradise” on the jukebox, the lush Gordon MacRae version. The old song warmed Toni. “Max gave me a hint that maybe his marriage isn’t going to last. Okay, okay, maybe that’s wishful thinking on my part. If we keep going, Sean will can us both.”

She downed the rest of her drink and signaled the barkeep for another. She liked this bar. The place had integrity. The shelves held a rainbow of liquor bottles, backlit, and the rows of glasses caught the low lighting like a chandelier. The bar was in Melville, not far from work and right off the Long Island Expressway. After fending off the advances of several members of the Y chromosome set, the two women had settled in for some serious drinking and talking.

“Max is sweet,” Toni said. Was she slurring? She’d better speak with more deliberation. “So many of the guys at the company are such dweebs. Max is different. He’s pretty good looking, for a tech nerd. He’s a bit of a loner, but that’s typical for a techie. He doesn’t like company parties, though he knows he has to go. Hell, I like him, and that’s the truth.”

Heather nursed her draft beer. Half joking, she called herself “Toni’s enabler,” and was committed to doing the driving tonight. “Oh, I can see the attraction. Still, what do we know about the wife?”

At that, Toni gave a hiccuping laugh. With a drinker’s care, she reached down to retrieve her bag from the floor, and pulled out a thick, bound dossier. In neat printing on the cover, in her best grade-school calligraphy, was one word in capitals: rebecca.

Heather gave a laugh of amazement. “You guys in Data Ops can find out anything, can’t you?”

Toni opened the dossier to the first page—a photocopy of Rebecca’s driver’s license. The picture was of a twenty-five-year-old brunette, of plain appearance, with brown eyes set too close together, thin lips, and a dimpled chin. To Toni, Rebecca had the furtive appearance of a suspect in a criminal lineup.

“Married four years ago in Chicago, where Max worked at the time. She used to be a bookkeeper.” Toni flipped past Rebecca’s birth certificate to her Social Security record. “She hasn’t worked since they came to Long Island.”

“You say she seldom leaves home. Maybe she has agoraphobia.”

“Max says she’s very shy. He says they’re well matched. Or he did before he got all moony over me.” She checked the time on her phone. “It’s late. Let me finish this and then you can take me home.”

A conspiratorial smirk twisted Heather’s mouth. “Max lives close by. In Huntington Village. Manderly Lane. I checked. Let’s drive past.”

“Forget it. What would we see? They’re in bed by now. Besides, I’ve driven by in daylight, on the weekends. And I never saw her.” She wondered for the hundredth time what went on in that house. . . .



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Copyright © 2021. The Trouble with Rebecca by Larry Light

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