Broker’s Pick
Jay O’Shea

Photo Credit: Charles Fredrick Gruber

I stood at the window as the new girl arrived. Mrs. Sutani was out so I went downstairs to meet her. I took her bags and caught the scent of something floral, synthetic but appealing.

“On your way home?” I asked. With her olive skin and hazel eyes I thought it could go either way.

“No.” Her English was accented, with an inflection I didn’t recognize. “I’m from Corsica.”

She looked so small and fragile, I wanted to take her in my hand.

“It’s an island,” she added. “In the Mediterranean.”

“Well, be careful here,” I said. “This is no tropical paradise.”

“Neither is Corsica.” She smiled, the corner of her mouth turning up, just on one side.

I’ve lived in this house for over a year. There’s no point in buying my own place on the island, with my wife and child back home. Besides Mrs. Sutani likes me. She finds it comforting, a respectable man like myself here while so many others come and go. Not that this is a hotel or a boarding house. Everyone who stays here has a personal recommendation. But no one’s as constant as me.

Mrs. Sutani and I are the same age. You could see she was a looker once. But a woman loses her beauty so soon. Nothing she can do but stand by and watch it fade, like a flower cut and brought indoors. Doesn’t help that she lost her husband in the war. On leave and killed by a bomb meant for anyone at all. Imagine: he put in years of service and died running errands.

I saw action myself and I know I’m not safe here. But at least the missus and the little one are at home. But then, there’s another difference, right? It’s man’s job to go out into the world and take risks. I can’t hold Mrs. Sutani’s flaccid skin and thick body against her; it must be hard to stand by, while someone else faces danger.

At dinner, the girl sat across from me. It was just the three of us. I asked her name. Her clear eyes locked with mine.

“Rosa.” Her lips inched back into a smile.

Rosa, I repeated to myself. Rose. A blossom not yet faded. Not even picked.

I found myself talking. She brought it out of me; maybe it was her eyes, with their open, trusting look. I felt she would listen, that she would understand.

I was military for twenty years and none of it was light duty. The worst of it was here, on this island, in the northern desert. You have to wonder who’d want to form a country up there. If it were up to me, I’d say, let them have it. They wouldn’t last more than a few months. Even water is scarce. Fresh water, anyway. Plenty of salt water. It seeps in and ruins the land for farming. That land was for fighting on, not fighting over.

But the battle: on the narrow strip, the tendril that connects the peninsula to the rest of the country. Sunlight seared our eyes so that we, with our tanks and guns, sat blinded, waiting for their attack. The guerillas bided their time, then swarmed in from the patches of jungle that rested at the edge of the pass.

I don’t even know how many of my boys fell that day.

And the worse part, I said, looking at the two women next to me, was when I saw the guerillas’ faces. They had girls on their front line. Not even women. Girls. Bright-faced with hair in braids, looking like they should be in school. Until you saw their eyes. You only see eyes like that in a soldier. They had made a life of this and they were, what, sixteen?

“I’m surprised you stayed,” Rosa said, her voice cool as the water in my glass.

After dinner, I sat in the back garden and smoked, listening to the cicadas buzzing and birds chattering before they went silent for the night. The traffic on the road was a whisper. The servant woman’s child laughed as he ran through the garden. He was prattling away but I couldn’t understand him; I’ve never learned the island language. Why bother? It’s irrelevant, spoken nowhere else in the world, barely more than a dialect. And it sounds like nails rattling in a can.

Rosa sat down. She said nothing and I wondered if I’d upset her, with my talk of the war. The light from the kitchen threw a shadow across her face. Her neck was long and graceful and it arched as she turned her head to look out into the garden. Her blouse had a neckline that dipped to the edge of modesty. I couldn’t see a swell of breasts. All I could see was her collarbone, an even edge with a tight valley behind it. Without meaning to, I thought of my mouth on her shoulders, of my tongue caressing the line of that bone.

She stared at me. I sat back. I ran my hand through my hair and took a drag off my cigarette. She couldn’t have guessed what I was thinking. Could she?

“I’ve met him,” I said, dropping the name of the rebel leader.

He’s notoriously elusive—you don’t run a jungle campaign for fifteen years by calling attention to yourself—and not many people get to see him. Certainly no one else from our side has. It’s a good story. Not one I get to relay very often. I told it well this time, filling in its edges with detail.

“What do you do, Rosa?” I asked just before I went to bed.

We were standing on the stairs. I felt how close she was. I looked down at that perfect head and thought about what it would be like to pull her into my arms. She just might acquiesce.

Then again, she might not.

“I’m a journalist,” she said, with that half-smile. It might have been unnerving at first but I’d come to find it charming.

“Well, I hope tonight is off the record.” I laughed.

Her lopsided smile didn’t move, didn’t spread to her cheeks or her eyes.

“Of course.” She ran her hand along the banister.

“Where do you go from here?” I asked.

“The Peninsula.” She looked at me for a moment longer than was comfortable, then turned and walked to her room.

I called in sick the day she left. I hadn’t planned it that way; I woke with a scratchy throat and thought about what it would be like to see her go. I carried her bags to the car.

“Maybe you should leave something behind,” I said.

She raised an eyebrow as she took the bags from me. Skin flashed under her loose sleeve. A straight line ran down her forearm where the muscle cut in. These young girls with their fitness obsessions: don’t they know making themselves hard is not attractive?

“You can come back anytime,” I said, although it wasn’t my place to offer.

The hours after she left reduced her to disconnected snapshots: the hint of curves underneath flowing clothes, her skin, creamy, eyes hazel like a cat’s. I worried about her up there, in the North, on her own. She didn’t know what she was getting herself into. A fragile blossom in the midst of all that danger and devastation. So easily crushed.

My Mediterranean rose.

She wasn’t mine. But the words caught in my head.

I argued with my wife on the phone that night. I couldn’t help but make the comparison, not just between Rosa’s sleek little figure and my wife’s soft, spreading flesh, but between Rosa’s quiet acceptance and Rupa’s constant questioning. Rosa just listened; Rosa took me as I am. Rupa pushed me away with her nagging and haranguing.

Later, Rosa’s image eluded me. I looked at my own loose body. I told myself to make up with my wife.

Then it was morning and I woke to the television’s blare. I heard the servant woman shout and Mrs. Sutani’s slippers slap against the floor. The servant calling the mistress, I thought, amused. Then I realized there must be something wrong for Mrs. Sutani to run like that.

I walked out in my bathrobe, smoothing down my hair as I opened the door. They stood on the landing in front of my room, poses identical. Two statues, one old, round, and pale, the other young, dark, and skinny, arms clasped around their chests, faces pinched. Standing in front of the television. Watching an international news channel. Voices in English.

The servant woman kept talking and I could barely make out the broadcast. But I saw the pictures: a body crumpled by bullet wounds, curled up tight as it was lifted onto a stretcher. A few other dead, who no one was bothering with. Fire in the background. The shell of a building, surrounded by rubble. It took me a moment to recognize the destruction as war damage, not connected to the assassination.

Assassination. I finally heard the newscaster’s voice. The rebel leader was killed. Shot in the early hours of the morning by a sniper from a rival faction.

A woman, traveling on a foreign passport, under an assumed name.

The camera caught a shot of the assassin. Hands cuffed behind her back, she stumbled as two scruffy policemen pushed her along. Her head dropped like a blossom cut at the stem. The shirt slipped from her shoulder as the police edged her toward the door of the truck.

I didn’t have to look to see the straight line of her collarbone.


Jay O’Shea is an award-winning author of fiction and non-fiction. Her essays have been published in three languages and six countries. Her novel Alchemy of Loss is currently seeking a good home. An enthusiastic, if somewhat inconsistent, practitioner of yoga, rock-climbing, and martial arts, she lives in Los Angeles with her partner, child, and pet Rottweiler. Email: j.b.oshea[at]