Teri tucked the last of her daughter’s lunch into her lunchbox, glancing at the time on her cellphone. Seven-twenty-four. “Zoe! Get your stuff together! We’re late!” It wasn’t true, but usually it was the only way to get her perpetually tardy daughter to school on time.
Touching the email icon on her phone’s menu, she leaned against the kitchen counter, sipping her coffee as it loaded. Down the hall came a thundering ruckus, terminating when Zoe stormed into the kitchen, frustratedly tossing her dangling backpack onto one shoulder only to have it slip and fall down her arm again.
“I’m getting my shoes!” Zoe snapped moodily, dropping her backpack to the floor with a heavy thunk and taking a seat at the table.
Unperturbed, Teri ignored the behavior, carrying the lunchbox to the table as she skimmed the new email contacts from her website. Three were from potential clients regarding bids for her services. These she knew instinctively would be last minute due diligence security tests for their information systems. While the modest pay was small potatoes, it was also low-hanging fruit in terms of cashflow into her dwindling bank account.
Another was from a former client requesting a bid for additional security upgrades. Teri frowned, contemplating. She hated to pass on work, especially from a good client where she knew the system and the work was easy, but also she knew the pay wouldn’t cover her costs to travel. That one their IT would have to develop in house, consulting her if needed.
Taking another sip from her coffee, she opened the last contact. The email server was unfamiliar—usually a sign of a new client—so she skipped the body, scrolling eagerly to the signature to see if she recognized who’d solicited her services. As soon as she laid eyes on it, her heart began to pound.
Nick Johansen, M.D., Director of Information Systems and Security, Moab Regional Hospital.
Beside Teri, Zoe stood at last, shoes now tied. She quickly zipped the insulated lunchbox into her already over-stuffed backpack. “Can Evie come with us?” She waited impatiently for an answer that didn’t come. “Mom. Mom!”
Startled from her engrossing thoughts, Teri focused on her daughter. “I’m sorry. I was concentrating on this email, kiddo. What is it?” she asked, closing the email application and putting the phone to sleep.
“Can Evie come?”
Teri eyed her daughter in expectation of the persistent disagreement that would follow. “She needs her harness.”
Immediately, Zoe rolled her eyes. “We can connect the seat belt to her collar!”
Teri held her hand up in a silent stop, her reply closed to debate. “We’ve had this conversation, Zoe. Get her harness, or she doesn’t go.” And—three, two, one—cue eye rolling, she thought, not remotely amused when that exact action by her willful daughter followed.
“C’mon, Mom!” The words dripped exasperation. Mother and daughter locked in nonverbal war of wills momentarily, before Zoe darted around her uncompromising mother into the kitchen for the dog’s harness, then raced for the garage door. “C’mon, Evie!”
A smiley pant on her face, the tan Sheltie leapt nimbly to her feet and zipped into the garage on Zoe’s heels. Teri followed more slowly, only in part to give her daughter time to get the harness on the dog. Her mind was still on the email from Dr. Johansen.
Teri navigated their small SUV along the crowded streets of morning traffic by rote memory, only superficially aware of the world around her. On the drive to school, Zoe bounced along to familiar songs on the radio, singing to herself quietly and watching the scenery go by with Evie while Teri ruminated. The memories she associated with Nick Johansen were, bar none, the worst of her life.
He’d been a resident in pathology informatics at the university hospital when Teri was an undergraduate, with oversight of several projects she’d worked on with a mentor as part of her undergraduate requirements. They’d dated, very briefly, but it was quickly apparent Nick Johansen was fiercely jealous and controlling. While she’d never been particularly liberated, Teri knew emotions like his required the work of their owner before anything else might be successful, but had ended the relationship with relief on the pretense her devout Catholic parents disapproved.
During her post-graduate internship, Dr. Johansen, now an associate director for the hospital’s pathology informatics, contracted with her employer for some updated coding that had proven too difficult for the hospital IT staff. Since Teri had some familiarity with the systems and location, she’d been assigned.
Her boyfriend at the time hadn’t been thrilled.
“I don’t like it, Teri.” Jim crossed muscular arms over his chest, staring moodily out the sliding door on the balcony of her apartment, open to allow the early spring air in to refresh and cool. “Everyone in the hospital knows he’s a womanizer.”
As part of his master’s thesis in anthropology, Jim had recently completed a two-year study at the hospital measuring the femur length in children under six, trending growth for better age estimates of anthropological-archaeological remains. Nick Johansen was the reason a male grad student had been assigned to the project.
“Johansen’s difficult to work for too. It’s a set-up for failure. Plus, I don’t want you working in that part of town while that parking structure attacker is still on the loose.”
Wrapping her arms around his narrow waist from behind, Teri rested her cheek against his broad back. “It’s an assignment, Jim. I don’t have a choice.”
Heaving a deep sigh, Jim had turned in her arms, clutching her to him and nuzzling kisses into her hair.
“Maybe I can convince Dr. Viejo we need more measurement data.” It was spoken more to himself than Teri. “That’d leave Tuesday and Thursday afternoons while I’m at swim that you’d need someone to walk you to your car.”
“I’m certain there’ll be other women walking together for the same reason.”
Teri was right on the latter account. As the number of assaults rose, increased media attention led to more police patrols and more frightened women banding together for protection. The vicious attacks eventually stopped altogether, though the perpetrator was never caught.
Jim was correct on the other topic, however. Dr. Johansen was indeed a womanizer and difficult to work for, though not unkind to Teri. Rather, his constant demands for revisions to the code that forced the project well past its anticipated deadline seemed less about any issue with her work than keeping her around. Johansen had made clear he wanted Teri back, despite her quietly fierce resistance and her involvement with someone else.
Teri had done her best to reassure the antagonized Jim. Failing, and wedged between the desires of two men, she’d kept secret Johansen’s unrequited attention, learning to dodge the doctor’s inappropriate touches and to redirect his innuendos and advances mildly. Eventually, Dr. Johansen and she settled into a tense but respectful working relationship.
As spring had rolled towards summer, Jim spent more and more of his nights at Teri’s apartment on the pretense of Teri’s safety and under the oblivious noses of her domineering parents. Despite the love clear between them and light discussions about marriage after his impending graduation, the agnostic Jim didn’t have her family’s approval any more than the abrasive Nick Johansen had.
What Jim did have was a powerful connection to and rapport with Teri, and their relationship had bloomed as a result. Elevated and secure in Teri’s love, the sometimes narcissistic, unfaithful and irresponsible grad student had grown confident, come to inhabit the integrity often made shallow by his good looks and drive to succeed. Emotionally safe with her, the inner fire and strength Teri saw in Jim met and held her, stood steady, mature and honoring in the face of her love and surrendered to it. The bond between them bordered on the sacred, divine, an undeniable force that others were drawn to and envied.
These secrets she’d kept too. Not from Jim, but from her family.
With the warmer summer temperatures, Jim’s responsibilities in Dr. Viejo’s department shifted, including increased time spent at excavation sites, and it had taken over an hour for him to get to the hospital after she’d been found, unconscious and badly injured in the hospital’s parking structure, victim of a brutal sexual assault by the attacker presumed to have been arrested for some other crime.
By that time, everything else in Teri’s life had already gone horribly wrong.
Her eyes were brimming with tears as she pulled into the drop-off loop in front of Zoe’s school. She waited in silence as Zoe hugged the dog, then reached around the front seat with one arm to hug her mother good-bye. “I love you, Mom! See you after school!”
“I love you too.” Teri barely managed to keep the tremor out of her voice. “Have a great day.” She waved to her child’s retreating back, watching as Zoe skipped away to catch some friends on their way into the building. Though she’d have preferred otherwise, her thoughts resumed as she pulled away from the curb, and she brooded more during the entire drive home.
Teri’s parents and Dr. Johansen had arrived shortly after she’d been brought to the emergency room. Both were present in the room when the attending ER physician had announced X-rays of her chest and abdomen couldn’t be performed. Those responsible for her medical care would attempt to ascertain the extent of her injuries using ultrasound or MRI. Despite her meticulous use of birth control pills, Teri was pregnant.
She would never forget the angry stare her mother leveled at her as she and Teri’s father exited the room and the harried Jim had entered. Nor could she forget the icy words.
“How dare you lie to cover up your sins!” her mother hissed, eyes boring into Teri before raking over Jim in disgust. “You shame your God and your family! Consider it God’s punishment. You get what you deserve if you’re going to behave like a whore!”
In the aftermath, despite Jim’s presence and constant reassurances, Teri couldn’t shake the belief her mother had been right. Both her dreams and waking moments were haunted by her attacker, but when she most needed his comfort, Jim withdrew both physically and emotionally.
Bereft and adrift in the growing communication gulf between them, she had been forced to divine Jim’s reasons on her own. With her mother’s words dominating her thoughts, there was only one conclusion she could draw.
Believing Jim couldn’t want someone so badly used or the child she carried, and in the absence of confidence otherwise, their relationship unraveled and Teri retreated into a mental abyss.
Though Dr. Johansen had offered a job after her internship, any proximity to the hospital sent Teri into panic attacks. And she knew she couldn’t manage full-time work and single motherhood and do either well.
She had to find another way.
As a programmer specialized in writing detailed sequencing code, Teri understood, deeply and exactly, how each small command resolutely, predictably, led to the next step in the series. How it culminated in a sophisticated functionality governed wholly by its own core logic, regardless of whether that logic operated anywhere else on earth.
Life, too, had its own algorithm. While some parts she couldn’t anticipate or control, others she most certainly determined.
With this epiphany, Teri made a choice.
Like rewriting faulty code, she would write what she chose for her own life and that of her unborn child.
Isolating herself from both men, Teri searched quietly for work anywhere she could find it and with the single determiner: she needed to be available for her future child. Accepting a contract position with a recruiting company, she quietly left her childhood home in Boise to move to Spokane, severing all her previous ties.
Inside her newly redesigned system, the logic of disappearing made the most sense.
Without a doubt, there had been some difficult days, alone with a small child and with no help and no break. But no longer burdened by the conflicting desires of either Jim or Johansen, safe in her anonymity and buoyed by the sheer joy she took in Zoe, Teri had thrived, grown strong and secure in herself and her ability to weather the storm, no matter how it assailed her.
Arriving home, she showered, letting the water soothe away the past and organize her present thoughts. Afterwards, settling into her home office, Teri finished a current project before addressing the emails she’d received, letting her subconscious fend with the past hovering, insistent, in the background of her thoughts.
Bravely determined, she started with Johansen’s email.
Reading the details carefully this time, she learned his hospital had recently conducted its required annual information security test and discovered dangerous and significant gaps. By chance, someone on the team conducting the test had heard of her, and Teri had been recommended.
Recognizing her name, Johansen was now soliciting her bid and project timeline. In addition, there were items the hospital Board had previously approved that Johansen needed to develop and deploy. The hospital was prepared to compensate generously, he assured her, including a stipend for food and local housing while the necessary upgrades and fixes were applied. He’d attached the pdf report from the security test, with notes on the other improvements he required for her review.
Teri stared at the screen without opening the attachments, the words blurring to hazy black lines. Inside, she agonized. The range of compensation Dr. Johansen offered was beyond generous. This job alone would pay for all of Teri’s household expenses plus the tuition and books for Zoe’s hybrid home school for the next year. It would require working with Nick Johansen again, which she didn’t relish, even allowing that time might have made a better person of him. Then again, Teri thought cynically, for that kind of money, I can figure out a way to stomach it.
The contract would also require temporary relocation, but since she and Zoe often traveled during the summer and holidays, including spending time in client locations so Teri could work and much of her work could be handled remotely with the right IT access, this posed less difficulty than it might have. She owned an RV for exactly that reason. And in combination with the housing stipend offered, the contract’s compensation would be even higher.
But Moab? Is that in Utah? What are we going to do there?
The more glaring limitation was the timeline the upgrades required. If the security failures were bad enough that she’d been recommended, affecting repair was going to be a substantial task. It might take longer than Teri had to give over summer vacation. If she could start after Zoe’s school let out though, and arrange VPN access to complete anything that she didn’t finish before Zoe returned to school, then this might be the only contract Teri needed for the year, maybe more.
Evie twitched and whimpered in her doggie dreams underfoot as Teri opened the attached report, then groaned. She rubbed her temples as she read, sighing when she reached the end. Johansen still has no idea what he’s doing with information security.
Given the security gaps the testing discovered, his proposed updates were not only insufficient, they were unnecessary with other system protections she’d need to apply. More concerning though were the report’s results that indicated other foundational issues might need work before she could begin to overhaul the system’s security protocols and safeguards.
She’d need to conduct her own test of the existing protections to rule out the need for additional changes, and potentially, more time and expense. Leaning back in her chair, Teri crossed her arms over her chest to consider, rubbing the sleeping dog with a socked foot.
It was a lot of work to rebuild system security from the ground up.
Then again, it was also a lot of fun to have a clean palette on a project, particularly of this magnitude.
Plus, it’d be foolish not to bid at the very least.
Opening a document with her company’s letterhead and referencing the report’s failures, she detailed her specific upgrades, provided the work hours she expected each to take, and the compensation she wanted, including VPN access and control of her schedule. She attached an estimated range for the additional testing she’d perform to assure any as yet undiscovered gaps were documented, allowing that a revision to the estimate might be required if the hospital wanted her to close them. Saving the document, Teri attached it to her reply to Dr. Johansen.
That ought to price me out of consideration. Contentedly accepting the likely outcome, Teri focused on other work.
It was mid-afternoon when she reached a good stopping point in her latest project. Stretching and wandering to the kitchen with Evie in tow, she rummaged in the refrigerator for a light snack before returning to her desk to wind down before she left to pick Zoe up from school Checking her email, Teri stared, stunned realizing that less than an hour after she'd sent her bid, she received Johansen’s reply.
The hospital would pay all her expenses to come to Moab to conduct additional testing and finalize the estimate for any additional fixes. Once that testing was completed, she would provide specific details and the expected costs and timeline to Johansen directly. He included a selection of dates that would work with his schedule, with a preference for one in April, during the week before Easter.
Stifling the five-alarm frenzy that quivered up her spine, Teri stared at the reply in dismay. Generous as the contract was, the thought of working with Nick Johansen again worried her just a bit too much. Surely he couldn't wield so much power over the hospital Board he could single-handedly dictate her selection for the project-- she was confident she'd priced herself out of consideration. She'd been so deliberate.
I'm letting my imagination run away with me. Perhaps she was merely the most responsive of the firms they'd contacted for consultations. Perhaps they already had a preferred IT security vendor and only wanted a second opinion. They can still reject my final bid, she soothed herself, then reluctantly made childcare and travel arrangements.
A few weeks later, Teri flew into the Canyonlands Field airport eighteen miles north of Moab to discover, much to her chagrin, she’d arrived during the annual event, Jeep Week.Appalled to find the small city glutted with all manner of 4x4 vehicles there for the series of day long trail rides along the canyons and rims, she nearly declined to revise her bid for the generous contract that instant, regardless of the outcome of her additional testing. If this was any indication of how summer tourism expanded the city’s population, she worried about camps and care for her daughter while she was working.But when she reached the medical campus, the hospital staff assured her the city would return to its typical idyllic demeanor after the end of the yearly off-road festival and that even though summer tourism did increase the population, it wasn’t the same crowd as for the 4x4 challenges.
They departed for Moab in the RV the week after school let out for summer. Arriving to find the temperatures warmer than home, Teri and Zoe had immediately taken advantage of the weather, visiting Canyonlands National Park, Arches National Park and the Nature Conservancy's Matheson Wetlands Preserve the week after they arrived. The RV resort was positioned to offer astonishing views of the unique rock formations set alongside the Colorado River and was a perfect spot for a surprising variety of outdoor activities.Since their arrival at the RV resort for the summer, the tourist traffic into the city had increased steadily, particularly on weekends. Visitors funneled in, drawn by opportunities to visit the local national parks, or participate in another of the myriad activities in eastern Utah’s scenic Grand County.This week in advance of the Memorial Day holiday, the influx of travelers and vehicles had multi
Though just past noon, the bright sun in the clear blue sky getting baking hot as they reversed their earlier path, waiting in the limited shade in the bakery’s parking lot until their online order was ready. Teri dashed inside to collect their food, then drove them home, grateful for the RV’s air conditioned interior and the tall cottonwoods that shaded their pad by mid-afternoon and into the evening.Beneath the kitchen table, Evie slept at their feet as mother and daughter ate and talked over lunch. Teri’s first day of work was rapidly approaching. Zoe had yet to choose a day camp for that week but was inclined towards one of the programs offered at the dinosaur museum, which was part of the impetus for their forthcoming visit.She’s growing so fast, Teri thought, listening to her daughter easily read the detailed descriptions of several week-long camps at the dinosaur museum as she cleane
“Zoe! Get your lunch and your pack together and get your shoes on!” Annoyed, Teri tossed her daughter’s shoes from the bathroom where she’d spent the last half hour stumbling over them as she readied for work. Pulling her blouse over her head, she finger-combed her hair into place and hurried into the bedroom for her own shoes.“Don’t wear the boxy black ones!” Zoe ordered bossily from the table as Teri emerged.“What’s wrong with them?” Her eyes skimmed over the very shoes, already in hand.Tucking her lunchbox into her pack, Zoe zipped it then hoisted it onto one shoulder, raising her brows in an expression she’d learned from her mother. “They make you look like those old women from that movie – with the monsters and the kids with weird powers. The women that could control time and turn into birds.”
Teri slept little, tossing and turning and ruminating the long night’s hours about the biker on the ridge and wishing she had a glass of wine to slow her thoughts.Jim is in Moab, she forced her mind to acknowledge, staring into the nebulous shadows of her bedroom. What are the odds he just happened to be biking about and spotted me from the ridge on the only evening I’ve been at the pool?That’s ridiculous. I’m being paranoid. What reason could he possibly have for seeking me out? He didn’t want me, or Zoe, years ago. Besides, that real estate agent was right. He probably has plenty of women chasing him, he doesn’t need me.Still, the old ache of Jim’s loss throbbed at the thought.It was early morning, as the sounds of crickets faded and birdsong began, when she’d finally decided she was making a mountain out of a mol
Though the entire evening had been a concentrated exercise in body and voice modulation, the sheer magnitude of her accomplishment—sitting and talking politely, even managing to eat, mere inches from the sole man on earth who turned her mind to mush and irresistibly lured her seditious body like the Pied Piper—didn’t become apparent until Teri was mindlessly zipping northbound along Main Street towards the secluded sanctuary of her RV home.Once there, all the provoked and pent-up primal brain instincts surged to the forefront, vehemently denying further suppression, even now that the dangerous threat Jim’s mere proximity presented was removed.“The primal brain controls our innate and spontaneous self-preserving behaviors, which ensures our survival and that of our species,” she remembered with sudden clarity from a college biology lecture. “These are often sum
“Sooo,” Mark drawled, when he arrived at work the next morning. Setting a cup of coffee from his favorite coffee house on the desk for Teri, he waggled his brows. “Some pretty intense stuff was going on between you and Erikson last night. He was walking on air leaving the restaurant. Spill already!”Teri’s eyes flicked up briefly from her coding, fixing Mark where he stood. “I thought you said he stands you up all the time.”At the hint of annoyance in her tone, Mark’s brows shot up. Though most of what he knew of Jim was from Carla, in his gut he’d been positive he and Teri would hit it off.While it certainly wasn’t his place to say, between the single-minded devotion to her daughter and the significant investment in at least this work project, Teri left herself little time for a life outside either. With someone as brilliant and
Evie barked and leapt off the bed, racing into the RV’s family area. Emerging reticently from the blissful haze of heavy dreamless sleep, Teri sat up groggily, a vague impression of noise in her head, though Evie now was quiet.Yawning, she rubbed her fingertips in gentle circles at her temples. At least her earlier headache was reduced to a weak dull pressure and the nausea she’d felt during lunch with Johansen was gone.Still wandering dazedly at the edge of dreamland, Teri gave a startled cry to a knock at the outer door that sent Evie erupting into another brief frenzied round of barking from the other room. Outside, she heard a voice call her name.Jim.An unadulterated confusing mélange of thrilled pleasure and raw fear bubbled up inside her.What was I thinking? Why? Why did I do this to myself? Why did I text him? M