Thomas Potter sat at his desk, massaging his aching temples. “Only five more files to go through, and then I can go home,” he thought to himself, glancing at the clock. Just then, one of his firm’s legal assistants poked her head into his office, with her coat on.
“Mr. Potter, these just came for you with apologies from the client,” she said. “I just thought I’d drop them off to you before I leave.”
Tom groaned inwardly. It was already 9 p.m., and he realized that, due to the name on the files, he couldn’t put them off until another day. The client was supposed to fax them over during the previous morning, but of course, he’d been late. “I guess I’ll be here until midnight,” Tom grumbled. “Have a good night, Elizabeth.” Since Elizabeth was paid by the hour, he knew the firm couldn’t afford for her to stay and help him.
At times, Tom loved his job as a New York lawyer. He was, without question, very grateful to have it. He’d grown up in a family that had been on and off welfare, and he had vowed never to make his parents’ mistakes. By taking out huge student loans, getting his food from the food bank, and living in a rented room the size of a closet, he had put himself through a bachelor’s degree and then law school. While attending school, he’d had almost no social life whatsoever, but he convinced himself that this had been worth it when he landed a job with a major firm shortly after passing the bar. Here he sat, in the same desk he’d first occupied in 2003. The only differences were that his salary had grown by 10 percent, and the firm had more clients, so that meant that he spent many more late nights at the office.
Tom progressed through his files at a rapid pace, but still, when he put on his coat to leave the office, it was nearly midnight. He was going to be heading home to an empty apartment. For a while, his most recent girlfriend, Monica, had been living with him, but recently she’d ended things and moved her stuff out. All of Tom’s relationships seemed to end this way—he really didn’t blame the women for leaving, since he knew he didn’t have nearly enough time to spend with them, although that realization never stopped him from pursuing a relationship again with someone new.
Tom went down the office elevator to the parking garage. As he was walking through the dimly lit space in the direction of his parked car, he suddenly felt himself being pushed roughly against one of the garage’s cement walls. “Give me your money!” a guy in a mask hissed, shoving a large knife in Tom’s face.
“I—uh—I don’t have any money,” Tom said, petrified.
“Of course you do,” the man snarled, not moving the knife. “You big-wig lawyer types always have money!”
“I really don’t,” Tom protested, growing more and more scared by the minute. “I only have credit cards… you can look in my wallet and see for yourself…” he trailed off.
“Stupid lawyer,” shouted the strange guy. “Six-figure salary and no money. You don’t really want to be a lawyer, do you? You really don’t want to sit in that office all night, do you?” he asked menacingly. “Tell me what you really want out of life, and I won’t kill you.” He moved the knife back about an inch.
“Um…uh…,” Tom sputtered.
“Come on. You must want something,” he barked back. “First thing that comes to mind, now, and I’ll see if that’s good enough to spare you your life.” He moved the knife closer to Tom’s face again.
“I want to see Annie!” Tom blurted out in terror. Annie was Tom’s old high school girlfriend, who had worked as a waitress since she was sixteen, and had been content to continue with that after graduation, instead of pursuing higher education. Tom had broken up with Annie when he went off to university. Well, he’d given her the option of coming along to live with him, but she had said she wouldn’t be able to afford the living expenses without a student loan. Since he had already had to get his groceries from the food bank, Tom sure wouldn’t have had any extra money to pay for her necessities while she looked for a new job. Tom had seen Annie during Christmas vacations while he was completing his bachelor’s degree, but their relationship had fizzled into nothing after he had stopped coming home for Christmas during law school.
“Who’s Annie?” the knife-wielding thug asked mockingly.
“My high school girlfriend,” Tom squeaked out.
“Were you in love with her?” demanded the strange man.
“Yes,” Tom admitted.
“If you go see Annie right away, I won’t kill you,” the man said, dropping the knife, but keeping one hand on Tom’s shoulder.
“I’ll go see her tomorrow,” Tom said weakly, thinking that the guy must be crazy, but he’d do what he could to appease him and keep that knife away from his face.
“You do that,” the other man replied roughly. “If not, I know where to find you.” He stuck his knife inside his jacket and walked off, whistling “The Song that Never Ends,” which was enough to convince Tom that he actually was crazy.
Tom should have called the police immediately, but after the terrifying ordeal that had just occurred, he wasn’t thinking clearly. Visions of Annie’s slim body and her shiny brown hair kept dancing in his head. He had to see her tomorrow—he just had to. Even if the guy with the knife was nuts, he really shouldn’t have gone so long without communicating with the former love of his life. Plus, the wacko might really do him in if he came back and spotted him at the office the next day.
The next day, for the first time since the previous Christmas, Tom didn’t go to work on a Tuesday. Instead, he went online and bought a bus ticket to his hometown. He hadn’t been there since he had finished his bachelor’s degree twelve years ago. He had just wanted to distance himself from his parents’ fighting and the life he left behind. He had sent his parents money for the last ten years, since he’d started working as a lawyer, but he hadn’t had any real contact with them besides greeting cards and thank you notes. Tom tried to ignore the queasy feeling in the pit of his stomach as he threw a few things into an overnight bag and started walking to the bus station, which was very close to his apartment. He reminded himself that he really had no choice but to go—that strange guy knew where he worked, so he might be killed if he went back to work with no proof that he’d been out of town.
Tom passed his time on the bus silently, staring out the window. Luckily, the bus wasn’t too full, so he got a window seat and didn’t have to sit next to a stranger. The ride was only three hours long, which made Tom feel rather guilty about not making the trip for twelve years. When he got off the bus at his hometown’s small station, he realized the town still looked much the same as when he left, with its many old brick houses interspersed with some low-rise apartment buildings. However, when he started walking in the direction of his parents’ house, with no idea exactly what he would encounter when he got there, he noticed a Wal-Mart and a Starbucks had sprung up on one of the busiest streets. When he got to the house (which looked the same as it did before, only a bit older), he rapped on the door.
His mother, still looking thin, but with hair much greyer than it had been when Tom had last seen her, gasped. “Tom!” she cried in surprise. “NORM! It’s Tom!”
Tom’s father, who now had an even bigger pot belly than he had twelve years before, shuffled toward the door. “Son!” he said.
Tom was happy that it didn’t seem like he had interrupted a skirmish, and he hoped that now that his parents were in their 60s, they had outgrown their constant fighting. He threw himself on his mother and almost started to cry. “I’m sorry I didn’t come back,” he said. “I’m so sorry.”
“Shh,” said his mother, patting his back. “You’re here now, right? Come sit down.” The three of them made their way through the messy hallway (which was for some reason full of cleaning supplies, even though the house didn’t look clean) and to the living room to sit on the sofa and chairs.
“It’s good to see you, son,” said Norm. “But what exactly brings you to town?”
“I just… all of a sudden wanted to see Annie,” Tom said, becoming almost tearful again. “I’ve tried to forget about her, but I still think about her every day. I wish I’d come back to see her sooner.”
Tom’s mother and father exchanged strange looks. “We really appreciate all the money you’ve been sending us,” Tom’s mother said. “It’s allowed us to keep the Buick running much longer than we would have been able to.” She gestured towards the driveway, where the ancient car, which his parents had purchased when Tom was in high school, sat. Tom wondered why his mother had changed the subject so abruptly—he really wanted to find out about Annie.
“So, where is Annie?” he asked. “What’s she been up to? Is she still at the restaurant?”
“Tom,” his father began slowly. “There’s something we need to tell you about Annie.”
His mother abruptly cut in, “She’s dead.”
All of the colour suddenly drained from Tom’s face. “Dead?” he asked incredulously. “From what?” He couldn’t believe it. His young love, Annie, couldn’t be dead. In his mind, she was still 18 years old, with her sleek brown hair in a high ponytail, dancing to Genesis at the high school prom.
“Alcohol abuse,” his mother said.
“But—” Tom was about to protest that Annie had never even liked to drink alcohol, but he realized that a lot can change in twelve years.
“She really took it hard when you didn’t come back,” his father added. “One night she had a bit too much, went out for a drive, and ran off the road. We never told you because we didn’t want you to blame yourself.”
“But it is my fault,” Tom said. “I was so selfish…I can’t believe I just left her.”
“No, it’s not your fault,” Tom’s mother said, coming over and patting his back again. “You were young. Yes, you left, but she chose to deal with it in the way she did. Even if you had been here, she still might have gone down the same path.”
“Take me to her grave,” Tom said seriously. His mother and father exchanged looks again, (worried ones this time) but agreed to go to the cemetery. They all piled into the old Buick, with Norm driving because Tom was too choked up to, and drove the five minutes to the graveyard. When Tom saw his old lover’s name on a headstone, he truly wept for the first time since he was a child. He saw some flowers growing on the other side of the graveyard’s back fence, and he all but ran to pick one, even though they were clearly part of someone’s private garden. The flower he picked was a pink rose. He placed it on her grave, whispering, “I’m sorry, Annie. I didn’t deserve you. You didn’t deserve this.”
At that moment, Tom knew what he had to do. Whether his decision would end up making his life better or worse, he didn’t know, but his heart and soul were telling him he had no choice. After leaving the graveyard and returning to his parents’ house, he called and gave notice at his six-figure lawyer’s job. With both his business knowledge and his large savings account in tow, he started a non-profit foundation to help women in his hometown and the surrounding areas who suffered from substance abuse problems; one of the first projects the organization took on would be building a rehab facility in the town, since the furthest one was three hours away in his former city. He called the company Annie’s Foundation. While he still felt a little guilty about what had happened to her for the rest of his life, he was able to assuage a great deal of his guilt by helping other women who were suffering from the same problems. Yet he never married or lived with a woman again. Instead, he chose to stay with his parents and help them out around the house until they died 30 years later.
When Tom made speeches about Annie’s Foundation to the public, he told others that even if a certain situation in life seems awful, or even evil, it can often be turned into something good. After all, it had taken a strange man threatening him with murder at knifepoint to get him to stop focusing on himself, and change his life for the better by helping others. He’d tried to run away from his hometown and his family ties, but in a strange twist of fate, he’d ended up right back where he started, and had also ended up being happier because of it.