"I'm really sorry, but I'm afraid that at this time we must turn down your loan request."
Shauna sat perfectly still, not letting the sharp, knife-in-the-gut pain show on her face. The words echoed in her mind, taking on a life of their own. They grew teeth, claws, tearing her heart out. Stunned, Shauna sat for a full ten seconds before pulling herself back together long enough to rise to her feet. She hoped the artificial smile pasted on her face would pass for real. She stared down at the hand Larry Mallert, the loan officer, held out.
I’d rather kiss a frog.
Then she grinned, hoped the banker would think her reaction nothing but professional, but the truth was, it wasn’t a frog she was interested in. Get a grip, Shauna, she told herself. What you really need is a man.
No, she didn’t need a man, her more pragmatic self groused. She needed a loan. Still, it would be nice to have someone to come home to, someone to talk her day over with, to share her woes, to celebrate her successes. Mercy, more and more she craved intimacy. The nights were getting too long, and science, which was all she ever needed before, was no longer the do-all and end-all that it had been during her university years.
You really have to get out more.
She blinked, shattering the comfort she had stolen from those few seconds and found herself standing tall, if a bit wobbly in the heels she was not used to wearing. Then because this was nothing more than business and they were both professionals, she accepted the banker’s handshake with firm, confident control, confidence she no longer felt. This loan application had been a long shot. They both knew that. It had also been one of her last options.
It might have been easier if she could have cried, just given into the impulse and wept her heart out for lost dreams. Already, acids were busily chewing up the lining of her stomach—and she had expected the refusal. That was what hurt so badly. She had expected it, and still it broke something primal deep within, something few professional women ever acknowledged.
If there were heightened color on her cheeks, and she had no idea if there were, there was nothing she could do about that. At least her eyes were dry and her smile betrayed no tremor. She offered her thanks for his time, as a standard response before pulling the strap of her purse onto her shoulder with what dignity she had left. It wasn't so much a question of collateral: the patents were worth at least that much by themselves; but of managerial experience. She was a biochemist, not a businesswoman. Shauna knew what to do behind a Bunsen burner or with a gas chromatograph. She cherished facts, but had not the slightest idea how to handle a financial review board. CPA's kept her books balanced, but couldn't help her fly in a hostile business world. She needed a CEO more than a loan, but she refused to hand over her corporation to someone who only cared about the bottom line.
If she frequently glowed with excitement, more than her chemical concoction provided the spark. The act of discovery, the very nature of raw, untamed science put the bounce in her step, made waking every morning worthwhile. Unfortunately, discovery, by itself, didn't pay the mortgage, and dreams, while they tasted sweet, never paid the bills.
She saw no taxis as she exited the bank. The noon rush hour had gobbled them up like pastrami sandwiches, but the air simmered with unexpected warmth and her laboratory wasn't far. She'd walk her nervous energy off in hopes that she'd had a new battle-plan drawn up before she reached her desk.
Five minutes from her destination, the full force of after-shock hit, leaving her trembling, her knees week and unfamiliar black dots attempting a coup over her retinas. Shoppers and office workers followed the prevailing current past her and for a small second she thought she might drown there in the middle of downtown State Street. It was impossible to breathe. Shauna, an intellectual, had never known panic before.
A small park beckoned, one she had passed a thousand times to and from work, but which she had always been too preoccupied to notice. Grateful, she darted toward it, as anxious as any Titanic survivor holding onto a life raft.
The last of her energy spent, Shauna slumped onto a bench, her shoulders and chin low. Oxygen poured into her lungs, without effect. She still felt suffocating. Her heart pounded and her fingertips tingled. If she had a brown paper bag, she would have to decide which to do first, breathe slowly into it, or use it as a receptacle for her half-digested breakfast.
Without the strength to sit up straight, she ran her fingers through shoulder length wheat-blond hair, and considered her options, finding only two: throwing her briefcase into the trash bin beside her and slitting her wrists, or selling the company and joining a massive industrial beehive as a lowly staff chemist. Given the choice, she'd much rather the first. In the long run, it would be less painful.
Her vision returned and her knees grew sturdier as the panic attack slowly receded. Suspecting she'd been on the park bench for hours, Shauna checked her watch, and noted only a few minutes had passed since she left the bank. She tried to dredge up enthusiasm to move. She needed to go back to Linda, fill her in on the bad news. She had to tell her assistant that now might be a good time for the rats to abandon the sinking ship. Not that she suspected Linda would. For all her technical brilliance, Linda was unfailingly loyal.
The sun, peeking through pockets of lumpy gravy-colored thunderclouds, felt revitalizing, and far warmer than an October afternoon had a right to be. The road-show haze which usually blanketed Albany had vanished, and the day suddenly felt magical, stolen from a half-forgotten fairytale. An entire chorus of unseen birds serenaded their revised rendition of Ode to Joy, getting the last of their summer-songs out of their system. Most birds, at least those with any sense, had already left for greener pastures. It was perhaps an example she should follow.
The park overflowed with humanity. Hundreds mobbed through crunchy maple leaves for a last lingering trace of autumn, stealing time on their lunch breaks to watch gray squirrels cavort, or pigeons make gluttons of themselves on popcorn or hot dog rolls. Her panic seemed foolish. Her dream seemed foolish. Who was she to think she could actually run a business?
It was the movement which startled her, almost had her screaming, for in the midst of all these people, she had thought herself alone. But it was not a mugger after her purse, not a pigeon thinking her one official pair of high heels looked like a worthy lunch. At her feet jumping in what was either joyful abandon or desperate escape, hopped a rather round green frog.
As she looked down at him, he met her gaze, glared right back at her with startling blue eyes as if somewhere in his genealogy there was a heavy infusion of Siamese cat.
Enchanted, Shauna reached down and brought the small green interloper to her lap. He was heavier than he looked, and while she could not adsorb his warmth, he was a cold blooded amphibian after all, she could for a few seconds attempt to share his joie de vivre.
“I’m usually very good at ignoring pick-up lines, but I don’t think I’ve ever encountered one quite so irresistible.”
The frog sat peacefully in her palms, as if content to share his love of life. Shauna grinned, decided he was exactly what she needed. “I’m glad you played hooky today from wherever you belong, because I was having a horrid day.” It felt the most natural thing in the world to speak to the frog as a companion.
She wasn’t much for confession, at least not to men she only met the second before, but this particular male seemed relatively harmless. “Thank you. I needed to be touched. I um…was just thinking…” but she would not tell him what she was thinking. Why ruin his day too?
But with her statement, her jumbled thoughts darted back to the bank, facing the slaughter of dreams she had lived on for years.
I'd rather kiss a frog.
Well, frogs were scarce and if she bypassed this opportunity, who knew when she’d have another chance to kiss a frog. Without thinking further, she raised her hands and kissed it, smack against the lips.
Then, stunned, Shauna found the frog vanished and a fully dressed man lying in her lap.