It was the sound of machinery and iron, the smell of sweat and strong disinfectant. Max bent under the dead lift rack to pick up a couple of discarded towels.
He loved his job at Roadie’s Gym. The place was modern and state of the art. The exercise equipment was calibrated and perfect. Roadie made sure of it himself. Roadie wasn’t his real name. Truthfully, Max wasn’t sure what it was. Roadie’s wife signed the paychecks. Roadie got the nickname from working on the road crew of one of the big-time, pro-wrestling companies. He had learned work out tips from the trainers there, and when the time was right, he had quit and opened his gym.
Max smiled as he gathered the roaming disinfectant bottles scattered around the free weights area. This is the life he wanted, Roadie’s life. Not that the constant travel all over the world, assembling and disassembling wrestling rings, appealed to him. Max wanted to own his own gym. He wanted to know that he had made a difference when it came to someone’s health. Max envied Roadie.
Max spun as he heard a long string of curses come from Roadie's office. Roadie stormed out, his face and nearly bald head growing redder by the second.
"Blast it!" Roadie fumed. "Chloe called in sick again!"
Max slowly exhaled as the rest of the personal trainers he worked with started to gripe. Chloe called in sick a lot, at least once a month. Everyone at Roadie's Gym was sick of covering her classes and personal training sessions. Even Max had used her name in vain a time or two, especially when he was stuck training Mrs. Rozinski. The rotund woman liked to flirt a little too much and stunk of cheap perfume.
It didn't make sense to Max. Chloe seemed to love her job. The petite brunette was always happy, always energetic when she was at the gym. Her big, deep brown eyes were always sparkling. Her shoulder length brown hair was always in a neat ponytail. The clients all loved her when she was there.
Max sighed. The clients weren't the only ones who loved her. He had to admit he had a huge crush on Chloe. He had since she had started at Roadie's. He had worked up the courage a couple times to ask her out. It always happened on those inevitable days when she called in sick.
Max looked at the nearest calendar, a puzzled look etching on his face. Thursday. Chloe always called in on Thursdays. What bar in Minneapolis has ladies night on Wednesdays? And why is Chloe only getting drunk every third week?
Roadie's voice broke Max from his thoughts. "Max, you’re going to have to cover Chloe's kickboxing class. And her appointment with Mrs.Rozinski."
Max groaned as he threw the dirty towels he held into the hamper.
Balancing both his and Chloe’s workload wore him out. That night, he barely got back to his apartment and got something to eat before he collapsed onto his bed and fell asleep. The morning came too early.
Max hung up his jacket in the employee locker room then checked his watch. Seven-thirty. He could get a couple miles in on the treadmill before his shift started. Lifting his foot onto the bench anchored to the ground, he re-tied his shoe.
Max looked up as the soft, feminine voice greeted him. Chloe stood in the doorway, her purple tank top and running shorts clinging tight to her small frame. Her brown hair was tied up in its customary ponytail, brushing lightly against her shoulders.
“Hey, Chloe. How’re you feeling?”
“Better, thanks. Thanks for covering for me yesterday.”
“No worries.” Max dropped his foot to the floor and stood straight. He was pretty tall at six foot four. Chloe hardly made it to his chest. The huge difference in size made him feel instinctively protective of her.
“Well, I have Zumba, so I better go. I just wanted to thank you. I know I put you in an awful position yesterday.”
“Chloe, wait,” Max rushed out. “I have something to ask you.”
“Do you want to go to dinner with me tonight?”
Chloe frowned slightly. “I don’t know.”
Max’s heart plummeted in his chest. She wasn’t as interested in him as he was in her. “Come on, Chloe. It’s just dinner.”
Chloe stared at him wide-eyed for several moments. Finally, she smiled. “Sure.”
“Pick you up at seven?”
Max grinned excitedly as Chloe waved goodbye and jogged off to her class.
He watched the clock slowly tick past as he waited for the workday to be over. When quitting time arrived, he hardly said goodbye to anyone. He was too excited to get home and get ready for his date.
Max put the car in park then glanced up at the two-story, white house with the wide front porch. His heart raced in his chest. He watched as the front door then the screen door opened. Max scrambled for the umbrella sitting on the passenger seat of his '57 Ford Mustang. He left the car running as he flung open his door and opened the umbrella. He jogged to the base of the porch steps and smiled as he greeted Chloe.
He gazed up at her as she stopped on the top stair, still protected from the rain by the roof. Her brown hair was held up on her head in a mass of curls by a barrette. She wore a burgundy, spaghetti strap sundress that ran down her fit body and ended at her knees. Her feet were nestled in a pair of strappy sandals. He stared at her in fascination for several moments.
“Are you alright, Max?” Chloe asked with concern.
Max shook his head, bringing himself back to reality. “Yeah, sure.” He leapt up the stairs to her. “You are so beautiful.”
Chloe’s cheeks flushed pink. “Thank you.”
Max took her arm in his as he held the umbrella over their heads. He escorted her to the waiting vehicle, being careful to maneuver her around the puddles. Once she was comfortably inside and the door was shut, he walked to the other side and climbed in.
“I hope you’re hungry,” Max began. “I thought we’d try that new Italian restaurant near the gym. I hear the lasagna is incredible. What do you think?”
“Sure. That would be great,” Chloe answered weakly.
Max stared at her for a moment stifling a sigh. She really isn’t into me, I guess. He slid the car into gear and pulled away from the curb.
The small Italian restaurant was bathed in an amber golden light. The booths and tables were stained in a deep chocolate brown, each tabletop draped in a red and white, checkered cloth. Max smiled. He loved small, independently owned places like this instead of big chain restaurants.
He glanced over to Chloe standing beside him. She was biting her lower lip with an anxious look in her eye. I hope she likes this place as much as I do.
They were escorted to a table and given their menus. Max pulled Chloe's chair out for her. Anything I can do to impress her. He took his seat before looking up to start a little small talk. But she had buried herself in her menu, blocking her entire face from his sight.
With a sigh, he reached across the table for a breadstick. Only to jump back as his arm knocked over his water glass, soaking the front of his lilac dress shirt and black tie. He ripped his napkin from the table and blotted at the blossoming, ice-cold spot.
As he heard the sound of giggling, Max looked up. Chloe was pressing her hands against her mouth to hide her laughter. But it was no use. Max chuckled as he sat back in his seat. What a way to break the ice.
"Are you all right?" Chloe asked.
"Yep. Nothing but a little hurt pride."
She reached across the table and wrapped her hand around his. "If it means anything, I thought you handled it gracefully."
He felt a surge of electricity jolt him at her touch. "Well, thank you."
They talked as they waited for their food. They chatted through their meal. They chattered so long past finishing supper that they ordered dessert. Chloe told him about growing up in Minneapolis. She still lived with her mom in the house where she grew up. Max told her about growing up in small town Minnesota—New Ulm to be specific, a town known more for its German heritage than health and fitness. He spoke about going to college in Mankato to study physical fitness before moving to Minneapolis.
Chloe reached across the table again and brushed a brown lock from his forehead. "I can see the German heritage in you."
Max couldn't speak. Her touch sent his heart racing. He nervously returned her smile before handing the server his credit card. Max wrapped his arm around Chloe's as he led her outside. The rain had quit. The streetlights reflected in the puddles randomly scattered around the street and sidewalk. They stopped as they reached Max's car.
Max gazed at Chloe, meeting her brown eyes with his. His breath caught in his throat as his eyes wandered to her lips. He dipped his mouth against hers for a soft kiss.
He thought he felt her sink into the kiss. He thought he felt her deepen it. Then, suddenly, she pushed against him, jerking out of his grasp. There was a look of terror in her eyes. She back-pedaled several steps then turned and rushed around the corner.
Max simply stared at the empty street, wiping his hand across his mouth. Was kissing me really that bad? He shook his head, frustrated. Part of him was ready to walk away. But he knew he couldn't. He had brought Chloe to this restaurant. It was several miles from her home. He had no idea if she had enough money for cab fare. He certainly didn't want her to take public transportation. With a sigh, Max trotted off after her.
Max wandered down the city streets of downtown Minneapolis. Traffic and pedestrians made his search nearly impossible. After twenty minutes, he stopped and exhaled, exasperated. She must have found a way home.
He turned his head as he heard a noise in an alley behind a grocery store. His better sense told him to stop, to stay there. Looking in dark alleys in the middle of major metropolitan areas was suicide. But something inside him fought to pull him in. He followed the instinct and journeyed into the shadows.
The sound grew louder. It wasn’t the sound of crying or violence. It wasn’t the sound of a wayward cat. It was the sound of retching. And it had come from behind a dumpster. The one weak street lamp hanging from the building revealed a strappy sandal attached to a limp foot. Max leapt into a sprint until he reached the dumpster.
Chloe lay half in, half out of a puddle, her beautiful burgundy dress ruined in the stagnant, putrid water. Her hair was matted to her face, her barrette hanging by one thin lock. What had originally been her dinner was piled near her pale face. Her expression contorted as she began to vomit again.
“Chloe!” Max knelt beside her, scooping her into his embrace. He stared into her eyes. They were vacant. It’s as if she doesn’t know where she is or who I am. He shook her gently. “Chloe, hey! Wake up!”
She responded by turning her head and vomiting what little was left in her stomach onto his shirt. Then, she collapsed onto his chest, her breath labored.
“I don’t know what’s wrong with you, but you need to go to the hospital.” Max picked her up, cradling her in his arms. He carefully made his way down the city streets to his car.
Max wasn’t sure just how fast he drove. Moments later, he pulled into the first available spot in the parking lot of the hospital. Chloe had retched the entire ride to the hospital, her stomach long past empty. Her lips were starting to turn dry, and her skin grew paler. Whatever illness she had come down with had hit her quick and hard. Max was just thankful he’d had an empty plastic bag in his backseat.
He lifted her from her seat and raced into the emergency room, holding her close to him as he ran. He stopped breathlessly at the receptionist’s desk. She handed him a clipboard without taking her eyes off her computer screen. A growl escaped his throat as he struggled to grasp it from beneath the limp woman in his arms.
He dropped into a chair in the waiting area, setting Chloe next to him. He stared blankly at the form, which demanded vital information on her. He filled out her name and address before returning it to the woman behind the front desk.
He reached into the purse he had found next to Chloe and pulled out her cell phone. He scrolled through her address book until he reached her mom’s number. Dialing it, he waited quietly. He took a deep breath as the voicemail popped on. He left a brief message then ended the call. Max picked up Chloe as the nurse called her name and followed close behind as she led him into a treatment room. He laid Chloe onto the gurney then watched nervously as the nurse took her vitals. The nurse dropped a basin onto Chloe’s lap as she started again. How can one woman throw up this much?
The doctor swept in as the nurse finished up. He looked up at Chloe and moaned. “Great. Not her again. Start her on IV fluids and Zofran.”
“What do you mean ‘not her again’?” Max demanded.
The doctor scanned him from head to toe. “Who are you?”
“Max. Max Thomas.”
“And you’re with her, why?”
“I took her on a date. Why is it any of your business?”
The doctor chuckled. “Dude, let me give you some advice. Run. Don’t get into it with this girl. She has some massive baggage. She’s constantly in here looking for attention doing…” He waved his hand at the limp Chloe. “This. Forcing herself to throw up. She’s going to cling to you like a second skin. So, get out while you can.”
Max glared at him as he pried her mouth open with a gloved thumb. “Yep, she’s gone too far this time. She’s dehydrated.” He turned to the nurse. “Call upstairs and have them prepare a room. She’s staying.”
The two medical professionals disappeared around the corner, leaving Max alone with Chloe. What the doctor had just said didn’t make sense to him. Chloe was the least clingy person he knew. When she wasn’t happily interacting with her clients and co-workers, she was quiet and kept to herself.
“Who are you?”
Max spun around. An older woman stood in the doorway, her icy stare piercing through him.
“And you’re standing here with my daughter, why?”
Max glanced from her to Chloe. “I took her on a date. I don’t know what happened.”
The older woman sneered at him. “Well, Max, you can leave. I’ll take care of my daughter now. You wouldn’t know how to handle the imbeciles that work here.”
Max stared at her in disbelief for several moments. Then, he took one last look at Chloe before he slipped from the room.
Three days passed without a word. And he worried every second. Most of the time, he stared into space, distracted by his thoughts. He snapped back to attention as he heard his name called.
“Max, dude! A little help here, please?”
Max shook himself back to reality then grasped the bench press bar, lifting it from the hands of the struggling body builder. The muscle-bound man turned and glared at him. “You okay, buddy?”
“Yeah, fine,” Max answered. But he was far from fine. All he could think about was his date with Chloe. Epic disaster. He felt like a complete jerk for not going back to the hospital to see if she was all right. Not that her mother would let me. That witch would have thrown me out herself. On top of all that, the doctor’s warning to get as far away from Chloe as possible kept ringing in his ears.
Maybe the doctor was right. Maybe he did need to get as far away from Chloe as possible. She certainly didn’t want him.
He turned as he caught something out of the corner of his eye. Speaking of the devil…
The object of his thoughts shuffled across the fitness area, toward the employee locker room. She was ghostly pale, and her shoulders were hunched. Her eyes, shaded with dark circles, were glued to the floor.
“Chloe, can I talk to you a minute?” Roadie called.
She raised her head. Without speaking, she slowly crossed over to him.
“You’re a valuable asset to this company,” Roadie began, his booming voice silencing treadmills and weight machines. Max looked around at all the faces focused on the scene. “But I need you here to be that asset.”
“I know, Roadie,” Chloe protested. “I’ve been sick.”
“It seems you’re always sick, Chloe. Which makes me question how someone so physically fit can always be so ill.”
Chloe didn’t answer. Instead, she bit her lower lip as tears filled her eyes.
Roadie continued, “I’m going to have to let you go, Chloe. Please, clean out your locker.”
Chloe sobbed as she spun on her toe and dashed for the locker room. Slowly, the whirl of elliptical and stationary bikes filled the air again.
Max stormed toward Roadie and grasped the older man by the shoulder. “That was uncalled for, Roadie,” he growled.
“What, Max? You’ve covered enough of her classes to realize she has to go.”
“You publicly humiliated her! And, for the record, she was sick. She was in the hospital.”
“Yes, her mother informed me quite loudly. What would you have me do?”
“She’s been sick every third Thursday, like clockwork. Even I figured that out. Maybe you could have picked up on her pattern and just given her that day off? Or was that too simple?”
Roadie’s eyes drew to slits as he glared at Max. “If you’d like to join Chloe on the unemployment line, keep it up.”
Max stared angrily at him in silence for several moments before he stalked off to the free weights area.
* * * *
Max drove down the interstate, barely paying attention to the road. For the last week and a half, he couldn’t get Chloe out of his mind. Her laughter from their date echoed in his ears. Seeing her so sick she couldn’t recognize him twisted a knife in his heart. Seeing her running from Roadie’s Gym in tears made him feel helpless and pathetic. Not knowing how she was, what she was doing, was driving him insane.
He glanced briefly at his smart phone for the time, but instead caught the date. Thursday. He paused for a moment. Should I see if my hunch is right? Can I handle what I’m going to find? He nudged his turn signal on as he caught the next exit out of the corner of his eye.
Max turned the car off and stepped out. He stared at the old, large, white house for a moment before he jogged up the porch steps. He knocked on the door and waited. And waited. And waited. Hearing the television on inside, he knew someone was home. He knocked again.
Finally, the front door was wrenched open violently. It’s the witch. Chloe’s mom glared at him. Her eyes sear through him.
“Is Chloe home?” Max asked, his voice cracking weakly.
“Now’s not a good time, Mike.”
“Whatever. Get off my porch.”
He glanced down at the stains covering her sweatshirt. “Is she sick?”
“She’s in the bathroom. Check for yourself.”
Max squeezed past her and wandered into the house. His neck snapped around at the sound of retching from upstairs. He took the steps two at a time and came to a stop at the bathroom door.
Inside, Chloe lay on the cold, tile floor with a bucket near her. Her head rested on a rolled up towel. She didn’t turn to look at him. She’s about as aware of me as she was in that alley. Her body started to writhe as she vomited again.
He knelt beside her and held her in his arms, helping her to the bucket to keep the mess off the floor. When the retching stopped, she slumped against him weakly. He pushed a sweat soaked lock of brown hair from her forehead as he gazed at her pale, sunken face.
“So, want to stick around?” Chloe’s mom hissed from the doorway. “She’s not done yet. Are you all right with your precious, expensive athletic wear getting all messed up?”
Max held her tighter to him as he scowled at the older woman. “Yes. They’re just clothes. They wash.”
She stared at him, looking dumbfounded for several moments. Max felt Chloe jerk against him. He supported her as she puked again. “So, this is what happens every three weeks.”
“Do you have to take her to the hospital?”
“Hopefully not.” Chloe’s mom watched him silently as he settled Chloe back into his arms. “My name’s Liz.”
“Nice to meet you, Liz.”
She smiled at him. “Can I get you a soda?”
“Water would be fine.”
“Sure. I’ll be right back.” Liz disappeared down the hall.
Max listened to her footsteps pat down the stairs. Then, he turned back to Chloe, gently stroking her cheek. She relaxed, the tension that had once ripped through her now dissolving. Max shifted, crossing his legs to get more comfortable on the hard floor.
Liz reappeared, stepping over the two of them to sit on the edge of the bathtub. She handed the glass to him.
“She seems to have calmed down,” Max murmured.
“That’s good news. Hopefully, she’s done.”
“She’ll be out for a little while.”
He glanced around at the puddles on the floor and the fluid in the bucket. I can see why.
They sat in silence for nearly a half hour. Then, Liz smiled. “She’s done.”
Max cradled Chloe in his arms and carefully stood. “Where’s her room?”
Liz rose and motioned to him. “Follow me.”
She led him to a white room. The furniture was also painted white, and the bed was covered with a rose-colored quilt. Max pulled the quilt back and gently laid Chloe on the sheets. He covered her then pressed a kiss to her forehead. Glancing at Liz, he strode from the room.
“You’re leaving?” Liz asked incredulously, as she spun to follow him.
She stopped short as he walked into the bathroom and knelt on the floor. He looked at her from over his shoulder. “Do you have a towel, or scrub brush, or soap, or anything for this?” He gestured to the puddles.
He met her stunned gaze evenly then smiled as she rushed down the hallway to get him a scrub brush and soap.