Big Daddy

Alberto shivered from the cold. Pulling the bulky plaid covers over his head, he wasn’t supposed to be sleeping in a stranger’s bed.

He’d broken into the abandoned house and hoped to stay until he got on his feet.

Anything was better than being kicked out of his parents’ home for being gay or roaming the streets in the cold, looking for shelter.

Having no one to remove the shards of shattered glass lodged in his hand, Alberto had to get used to being alone. Not even his best friend was around to help.

It was times like these that the young man wished he had someone special in his life.

Fat chance. His last attempt at a relationship was a nightmare.

He’d bandaged his cut hand the best he could, hoping it wouldn’t get infected.

The teenage boy’s bedroom he’d broken into for the night was full of sports memorabilia, action figurines, and even a picture frame of him and his family.

Must have been great having loving parents.

Whatever. He didn’t need them. Alberto had made it this long without their help. Just him and his best friend.

Yet still, barely out of his teens himself, Alberto wished for better times.

He never should have came out of the closet, then he’d be celebrating the holidays with them instead.

The black eye his father had given him was evidence of that. He couldn’t believe his mother had done nothing but clutch the cross around her neck.

Hypocrites. Nothing said Christianity like beating up then abandoning your first born son for being gay.

Just get through the night. If there was a God, He’d work things out.

Wind howled through the hole in the window, flicking wet snow in Alberto’s face. He didn’t have much money, but he’d leave enough to cover repairs.

Must have been three o’clock in the morning before Alberto finally fell asleep. The troubles that weighed on his mind would have to wait until dawn.

A bright light from under the bedroom door woke him.  Rays stretched across the scuffed wood floor and shaggy green carpet.

Someone was home.

Alberto gasped. He had to escape. But how? The only way out was the window; sure to creak loud enough to alert whoever was out there.

Heavy footsteps paced up and down the hallway, inching closer. Close enough to make Alberto’s heart stop.

Water rushed out from the bathroom faucet. Then the door slammed shut.  

Now was his chance.

Where the hell were his shoes? Alberto had slept in his denims and jacket, but there was no time to look.

 

Alberto shivered from the cold. It was so cold, he’d slept in his shirt and denims. He couldn’t turn the heat on or it might alert someone he was there. What was worse, the paper he’d taped to block out where he’d punched a hole through the window was soaked and flapped in the freezing wind.  

He’d fix the window before he left.  It would only be a couple of days that he’d stay in this home anyway, at least he hoped, until he got on his feet.  There was no other place to go after all.

He needed to catch some Z’s and he would think of what else to do. His best friend told him this would be a safe place for him to hide until he figured things out, but what he really need now more than anything was a true friend. Someone to tell him everything would be all right. Someone to hold him and let him pour his heart out to. Someone who would love him unconditionally.

Alberto’s eyes were heavy and he’d just closed them, when something made them shoot open. What was that noise?

Alberto shot straight up out of bed. He held his breath as he looked for an exit. Nothing.  No way he could go out the door. If he went out the window, it’d only creak and alert whoever was out there that he was hiding inside. There was no place to go under the bed either and the closet was too small.

He was fucked.

Something or someone stomped closer. Heavy footsteps echoed outside the bedroom door.

The shadow of a man’s boots loomed under the door crack. Alberto exhaled quietly so he wouldn’t be hurt, turning his body so he could put on his shoes, but there was no time. He’d have to get out the window and run around without them.

Alberto crawled on the bed, over to the window and tried to unlock it. Shit, it was stuck. He pushed it up with his thumbs, as the pacing in front of the door increased. Then, the footsteps stopped.

Now was his chance.

Cracking the bedroom window open, the rush of wailing wind filled the room. Loose papers spiraled, knick knacks shifted around.

The alarm clock fell down with an indisputable clang.

Footsteps came closer, pounding harder, faster toward him.  Alberto lifted himself up, diving head-first into the snow as the door opened.

There wasn’t time to close the window, whoever it was would look out and Alberto pressed his body against the side of the building, tucking his legs and fit close to his body so as not to be seen.

He held his breath. His teeth chattered in the colder and he warmed his arms by rubbing them briskly. He could feel the large man’s presence above him, looking out the window.

“Shit,” the man said, his hot breath floating in the air. There were no tracks and even if there were, the wind was so wild, he wouldn’t be able to see them.

God, Alberto’s bare feet were painfully cold.

The window shut with a loud boom, making Alberto’s heart leap out of his throat. He caught his breath, ducking down below the window sill and crawling in the snow along the side of the building, the ice cold melted snow soaked through his denims.  He rounded the corner as his heart raced.

If he could get around to the front, he could make a dash for it, but as Alberto rose looking each way for a clear path, a rifle clutched in his face.

“Now, I’m only going to say this once,” the gritty baritone voice said. “Move and you’re dead.” An oversized pitbull and boxer mutt growled at him; his deadly barks shaking Alberto to his core.

 

2

 

Big Daddy

 

Punk kids always caused problems around here. He’d worked too hard for this house to lose it from some delinquent. Even covered in the snow like it was now, the ranch-style home positioned on top of the hill had caught the eye of burglars before.

Jake, Sr. lowered his rifle. It was fucking cold out here, what the hell was he doing with barely any clothes on? He was young, in his early 20s, about his son’s age, in fact. He was scrawny and couldn’t hurt a fly.

No shoes, walking around in the snow with barely anything on.  The younger man was harmless but not very bright. What was he thinking? The evergreen trees that surrounded the home vibrated and swayed in the heavy wind.

“What do you want?”  Jake, Sr. asked, keeping the rifle pointed at his face and speaking over the howling wind. His rifle only had bullet blanks in it. Usually, the sight of a rifle alone was enough to scare off any riff-raff. His dog, Gringo barked in agreement lunging toward the kid but Jake, Sr. pulled him back by the chain. “Enough, Gringo.” Had to admire the dog’s loyalty, something so rare today.

The young man’s eyes widened with fear.  His hands rose straight up as if he were being robbed. His teeth chattered as he said, “Please, don’t shoot me. I swear to God. I didn’t mean anything by it.”  His voice quivered in the cold.

He had dark hair and light skin, pink full lips and light brown eyes. Good-looking kid that was for sure. Probably had never done anything like this before.

Jake, Sr. almost felt sorry for him, but he wasn’t about to let his soft heart stop him from getting to the bottom of this.

“You like breaking into people’s homes?”  he said, narrowing his eyes. The young man could barely speak. He didn’t have anything to defend himself even if he was a robber. Probably some runaway, or some stupid kid who wanted to play a prank. Jake, Sr. would get to the bottom of it if he scared him enough. “Well?”

The dog growled again. “Gringo, go home.” The dog growled in protest, but rushed past the boy, brushing against his leg hard enough that he almost knocked him off balance as he ran through the doggy door inside.

The poor kid shivered in the cold, his clothes soaked to the bone. The young man stammered as he said,”No, sir, I don’t I just -“

The older man took the rifle in one hand and grabbed the kid by the collar with the other hand.They stomped through the ankle-high snow past what was left of the front yard garden.

The young man almost stumbled as Jake senior practically dragged In toward the front of the door. “What are you going to do?”  he asked,  as Jake senior kneed the front door open and pulled him inside.  

He did it for his own good. It was freezing outside and he wasn’t about to let him go not before you found out what was going on. He practically tossed the young man into the dining room chair as he took his jacket off and tossed it on the floor. The dog barked.

“What’d I say, Gringo? Go to your room.” The dog obeyed running down the hall and out of his hair. Such a hard headed dog with a mind of his own. The young man’s eyes widened with fear. Maybe he wasn’t a dog person. The older man couldn’t blame him, Gringo did look deadlier than he was, but in truth, he was all bark and no bite.

Jake Sr., sighed, catching his breath as he kicked the door shut with a boom. “What am I going to do? Call the cops, of course,”  he said, and he should have done it right then and there, but something stopped him.  

Jake, Sr. shut the door closed, as the young man’s searched for an exit. He locked the door just in case. His heavy boots pounded toward him, stopping in front of the young man, crossing his arms. He nodded at him as if wanting some type of response.

He swallowed hard, his pale-colored cheeks blushing in a rosey red.  Jake, Sr. wanted to light a cigarette, but had been trying to quit. “What’s your name?”

” Alberto, but please, sir I swear. I won’t do it again, just please don’t -” Alberto said, leaning forward. His eyes locked with Jake, Sr.’s, in desperation.

Jake senior chuckled and shook his head taking off his flannel jacket and draping it over one of the chairs. “Fuck yeah, you won’t do it again.”

The young man looked at him as if anxious to see what he would do next. He swallowed hard his little Adam’s apple jumping up and down as he did. something about him made the older man want to protect him. Alberto shivered in the cold and Jake senior was reminded of the soaked clothes he wore.

Alberto coughed. Shit. That was the last thing he needed, someone sick he’d be responsible for. “You trying to catch pneumonia?”

Alberto cleared his throat. “No, sir, I-“

Jake, Sr. ran his fingers through his soaked head, shaking off some of the remaining snow. He shook his head at Alberto and said, “Punk kids think you can just break into any-“

But Alberto interrupted him. “No, sir. I’ve never …”  

The older man narrowed his eyes. He didn’t like being interrupted. Young kids today didn’t have any respect and they needed to learn it. if he taught his son anything it was to respect those that were older than him. Truth was, he had his children at an early age and was more like an older brother then a father to them but they still took him seriously.

He pulled the chair back and sat in it, unlacing his boots but keeping an eye on Alberto at the same time. “You’re lucky I don’t have a hot finger. Most people around here shoot first and ask questions later.”

Alberto bowed his head as if he were ashamed at what he did. It was almost endearing. “Yes, sir. I … I just … saw your house was was empty and … I just need a place to stay just for a couple of days.”

Jake, Sr. paused before answering, studying him and as if to see whether he was telling the truth. Everything in his gut told him he was just a young man, a good kid the found himself in a little bit of trouble.  He arched his eyebrow. “Couple of days?”

The young man’s nostrils flared not in anger, but almost as if he were trying to hold back his tears. “If you don’t call the cops, I’ll do whatever you want. Promise.”

Whatever you want? Jake Sr. imagination stirred at the words. He shouldn’t let his imagination go there. He was about the same age as his son. God, he had to get laid and soon and get his mind out of the gutter. And yet still …

The young man shivered again, looking incredibly vulnerable and Jake, Sr. couldn’t deny that his cock swelled at the thought of it.

He leaned back, locking his eyes on Alberto. “Take off your clothes.”

Alberto’s voice went up an octave. “What?”

Jake, Sr. leaned forward resting his arms on his thick muscular thighs. He lowered his voice. “I said, ‘off.’ Take your clothes off.”

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Case of the Strawberry Stabbing

As she paced back and forth in the entrance hall of her modest home, cracking her fingers every couple of minutes as the nerves grew, Beatrice was slowly coming to terms with the unarguable fact that she had been stood up. Hung out to dry. Kicked to the curb like last night’s trash. What was meant to be a romantic dinner for two had very quickly become a sobering meal for one.

Beatrice still couldn’t believe it. Sure, she should have believed it. And as she glanced at the large grandfather clock for what must have been the fiftieth time, she should have told herself that it was time to face reality And if her past was any indication of how tonight was going to go down, then this latest event couldn’t have been more par for the course. But, despite the mounting evidence, Beatrice was still having a hard time coming to grips with the situation.

What annoyed her the most was the time wasted. She had spent the entire day preparing for her date tonight. And of all that needless preparation, there was one aspect in particular that held her attention the most. She licked the end of her thumb as she lamented on this fact; still able to taste the chocolate coconut frosting that had been on it earlier. As she did so, she tallied in her head all the work and personal preparation that went into what was supposed to be a magical evening.

The triple layered dessert that she had made for tonight wasn’t just an ordinary cake, but a thing of beauty. It had taken her hours to prepare too. Beatrice was so excited about this date, that she even used her secret family recipe; a form of pulling out all the stops that was sure to have her date impressed and most likely guarantee a return.  

The cake had a meticulously created fluffy and light texture; so much so that it was like eating a cloud. And this was perfectly balanced with a thick and creamy center that ensured the cake melted in both your mouth and your heart. Beatrice considered herself a semi-professional baker, and through this objective lens, even she had to say that this cake was her best yet.

Well, it was her non-date’s loss. Really, wasn’t it? She tried to use this reasoning to explain away the sinking feeling in her stomach at being stood up. Although she told herself that it was a waste of time and a perfectly good dessert that had her so upset, the truth was that she was also a little heartbroken.

The sophisticated woman checked the grandfather clock again, and as she did, she caught her reflection in the glass. At sixty-years-of-age, Beatrice was what you would call a refined beauty. With short cut hair that was beginning to border on silver, and a few more wrinkles than she liked to admit, Beatrice hadn’t quite hit her twilight years yet; she could feel them coming.

She nervously pushed at her outfit, a flowery white Sunday dress with a yellow knitted sweater. As she did, she made the mental note that from now on she was going to start dressing a little younger. She may be getting a bit older, but that didn’t mean she had to put it on display.

The clock hand suddenly ticked over, chiming the coming of a new hour. It was now official; her date was exactly two hours late.

Giving up entirely now, Beatrice shook her head at herself as she slowly made her way over to the dining room, where the table had been pre-set. It was quite the setting too if Beatrice was modest. Sparkly bright silverware flanked both sides of the good china she had decided to use for the evening. And these little pieces were topped off by the crystal vases that she had placed in the center of the table. Was it a little over the top for a first date? Maybe. But Beatrice didn’t care. She was old fashioned that way and was doing everything she could to impress. It had been that long since her last romantic encounter that she wasn’t going to leave anything to chance.

And it wasn’t that she was unattractive. As stated, she may have been in her sixties, but she was a refined beauty from an era where beauty was a natural commodity, not something that was injected or paid for like the ladies of today. In her hay-day, Beatrice could have gone toe to toe with any of the young harlots that today’s men considered ‘beautiful.’

No, the reason for Beatrice’s obsessive singleness was purely circumstance. It’s just with trying to run her home catering business while also trying not to lose her bakery at the same time, her mind and time had been elsewhere. Dating was more often than not, the last thing on her mind.

And this was a shame too because if her best friends were to be believed, she had had more than one opportunity to capitalize on not being single of which she had missed due to her lack of interest. While working with her at the cafe, her friends often commented about how younger men still looked her up and down as she walked by. And if one of them was to be believed, they even tried flirting with her a few times too.  But she wasn’t interested; she was holding out for someone special; like tonight’s discarded date.

His name was David, and she had met him at the local neighborhood market of all places. He was about her age, early sixties, but held himself like he was twenty years younger. It was his height that caught her eye at first. At over six feet tall, he stood out from the majority of men in the area like a sore thumb.  

Then, when she was finally able to get closer, Beatrice remembered how she had to stop herself from gasping. It was his eyes that did that to her. A piercing shade of blue that constantly sparkled; giving him a dazzling, movie star effect that he was very aware of. Pair this with the charm he possessed in spades and the elegant way that he dressed, and David was a man to be desired by most and had by only a few. To use an old expression, David was the cat’s meow.

It was funny that at the exact moment this expression crossed her mind, she heard a soft scratching at the kitchen window. Sighing to herself, and with her hands still full of unused silverware, Beatrice hurried from the dining room into the kitchen where the other male in her life waited for her. Sure enough, as she entered the tiny kitchen, he was sitting there, staring at her like she was late to her party. Sylvester, the cat.

Sylvester sat on the other side of the closed kitchen window, pawing at the glass as he demanded to be let inside. Unable to stop herself from smiling, Beatrice hurried over and let him in. At least there was one reliable male who would always turn up when food was on offer. As soon as the window was open, Sylvester darted inside, offering an appreciative purr as he did.

Sylvester was a stray. He had made himself known to Beatrice a little over a year ago, and since then he had officially adopted her house as his own. This was most likely because Beatrice had gotten into the habit of feeding him every day – even buying cat food now when she went down to the shops. Her best friend, Stella, had warned her the first time he turned up not to feed him, that this would only make him come back. But Beatrice just couldn’t help it. She always had a soft spot for the needy, and this cat fell into that category like no other.

Sylvester was half Siamese and half goodness-knows-what-else. The reason for the confusion was that the poor thing looked like someone had run him through the blender for a significant portion of his life. With an ear missing, scars on his body and large missing patches of fur, it’s a wonder that he had survived on his own for so long. He looked considerably better now of course, but some scars can be healed, even with time.

And besides, Beatrice couldn’t be happier that she had started to feed him. Since then Sylvester had become the extra bit of company that she didn’t even realize she needed. When she was home alone cooking, or reading, it was nice to have someone else to talk to. Even if he didn’t always talk back.

“Guess it’s just us tonight,” said Beatrice, picking up the blue-brown eyed cat. When he first started coming around, Sylvester wouldn’t come within ten feet of Beatrice. He was more than happy to eat her food and drink her water, but physical contact was a big no-no. But over time, like a choreographed dance, he slowly but steadily came closer and closer. Until finally, she could pick him up without fear of reprisal.

With him in hand, she fetched David’s portion of the lasagne. The lasagne was almost as good as the cake, truth be told. Four layers of cheese, meat sauce, and white cream made this a lasagne that was probably a little too good for a cat to appreciate fully. But then again, as she served the cold dish up to Sylvester, she decided that it was too good for David too. He didn’t deserve her cooking anyway. In fact, she knew that he didn’t. The pasta sauce that she used for the lasagne was so good that she’d thought about adding it to the menu at her bakery as a side-dish.

As Sylvester dug into the meal, Beatrice leaned back on the kitchen bench, perfectly content to watch her little friend feast. But as she did, she suddenly became aware of how very empty the house was. The silence was so great; it was deafening. It was only broken by the light slurping from the cat and the ticking of the grandfather clock in the adjoining room. Beatrice had lived alone for a while now, but tonight above all, served to remind her of just how lonely she had become.

She’d be lying to herself if she hadn’t admitted she was looking forward to tonight. She’d even gone to the salon yesterday, just to make sure that she looked her very best, which was something that Beatrice never did. It was just that she was so looking forward to the change in company from her two friends. Someone her age that she could talk to, laugh with and maybe, just maybe, share some chemistry with.

And she was so sure that this was going to be David.

She met him by the fresh vegetable section at the local market where he’d whipped up their conversation in the first place. He started by making some clever observations about what she was buying; indicating that he was both well read and a good cook. He then launched into a conversation about his travels all around the world, the famous people he’d met and the adventures that he had been on. He wowed her with his stories and seduced her with his charm.

This kind of bravado and self-congratulations didn’t usually work on Beatrice, and a few of the stories were so over-the-top that she wasn’t sure she believed them all. But she didn’t care. He was so dashing that he could have spoken about darn near anything and she was sure it would have captured her imagination. And on top of all that, the fact that it was her that he was speaking to…well that was the icing on the proverbial three layer cake.

It was probably because of that, and before she knew it, Beatrice had invited David over to her home for dinner and a drink. She almost cursed herself out loud the moment the words had left her mouth. It was something she’d never really done, and she was sure that he would say no. I mean, why wouldn’t he? He was David after all. But to her surprise and delight, he flashed her that charming smile touched her on the arm and agreed. He couldn’t have looked more genuine.

She had planned to cook the debonair gentleman her very best that evening. And she even told him so, making sure to emphasize that her cooking was something worth coming over for on its own. He wasn’t exactly modest, so why should she be? Anyway, he winked at her and said he couldn’t wait. It made her heart flutter, and her knees shake. A feeling that she hadn’t experienced in years.

And now, sitting alone, she was beginning to remember why she hadn’t experienced it in so long. Or better yet, why she had guarded herself against it. It had been so long that she had forgotten that with love and romance, comes heartache and pain.

Sylvester, finished with his meal, gave off another long purr as he made his way to Beatrice, stretching out under her hand as he readied himself to be petted. It was nice being needed like that…and it was sad that it was only a cat that needed it.  

In her heart of hearts, Beatrice knew that to be so guarded was ridiculous and foolish. She couldn’t wish to be with someone while at the same time being against putting herself out there. Because at the end of the day she did want to meet someone. No one would ever replace her husband, but that wasn’t the point. She had a hole that needed to be filled. It would be nice to have someone she could have good conversation with, eat and share food with, and someone who could make her laugh. Why was that so hard?

She closed her eyes, inhaling the sweet and tangy scent of the lasagne, the aroma still wafting through the air even hours after it was cooked. That was how she knew it was good when the smell hung around long after the body had passed. At least that was what her husband used to say. She took another long whiff, relishing the smell of Italian herbs blending with tomato and cheese. It was a dish that always reminded her of her husband, as it was his favorite.

She felt a stab of pain, as she realized that she had made the dish for another man. A man that didn’t even show. A betrayal of the worst kind.

“Well, Arthur,” she said, speaking to her deceased husband. This was a pretty common occurrence by now and something that she always did whenever she was alone and found herself thinking of him. “You said to move on, to find someone who would love me. Not sure that’s going to happen. Not like you loved me,” she said with a chuckle. She laughed mostly to keep herself from tearing up. She was much too strong for that. Tears were used by the weak to get sympathy, was something that she used to say. Well, that was before she lost her love. Now she was starting to see their usefulness.

As Sylvester started to paw her at her hand, demanding more of her attention, she decided that it was time to kick the little freeloader out and maybe call it a night. She had nothing else to do and may as well. At least that was a way to stop herself from becoming depressed. But, as she tried to shoo him out the window, he became uncharacteristically clingy. It was as if he too were having a bad day and just needed someone to be around; to remind themselves that they weren’t alone.  

In the end, Beatrice’s heart gave way, and she decided to let him stay inside for the evening. “Just tonight,” she said to him. But heck, the rate that the two were going, she wouldn’t be surprised if she was never able to get him out. And she also wasn’t sure if she wanted to.

Sighing, she picked Sylvester up and carried him into the living room. As she did, she thought on where she had gone wrong. Heck, where the two of them had gone wrong. She was at a loss to decide who had it worse, her or the cat?

What it came down to was how busy she always was. Nowadays, when she wasn’t running her catering business or trying to keep her bakery afloat with her girlfriends, Beatrice kept herself busy volunteering at the local animal shelter. There were also the rare occasions her daughter decided to drop by, the very rare occasions.

Still sitting on the couch, Sylvester calmly sleeping on her lap, Beatrice decided that she’d guzzle the glass of red wine in front of her. And maybe another after that. It was an expensive wine after all, and she couldn’t let it go to waste. If David weren’t going to enjoy with her then maybe she would just drink away her problems for the evening. She deserved that much, at the very least.

She sat in silence for several moments, slowly drinking the oaky red, enjoying the way it made her taste buds dance and her head swirl. It wasn’t a big glass, but Beatrice had never been a heavy drinker. And as she came closer to finishing it, she found her eyelids getting heavier. Her thoughts became hazy as she slowly drifted off to sleep…

A loud whistle startled her awake, followed by a “Hey beautiful.”

Beatrice sat straight up rubbing her eyes as Sylvester flew off her lap from the sudden movement. At first, and in her groggy state, she thought it was her dead husband talking to her. She often dreamt of him, but this wasn’t a dream. This was real. It was only after several seconds, all of which comprised of Beatrice trying to snap herself back to reality, that she remembered it was Buzz, her parrot.

That darn green parrot did such a good impersonation of her dead husband that it was uncanny. When her husband had first passed, too often, she would come home to Buzz, mimicking his voice. And before she knew it she would be on the ground, swimming in a pool of her tears. It wasn’t that bad now of course, more a gentle reminder of the man she once loved so dearly.

“You just want more food,” she said with a smirk, eyeing the parrot as it sat on its perch in the corner of the room, locked away in its big metal cage. Sylvester was eyeing him too of course. Beatrice liked to imagine that they were good friends, which was the main reason she called him Sylvester in the first place.

She gradually pushed herself up from the couch and made her way toward the large bird cage where a bowl of bird seed was sitting just out of reach. Placing the bowl in the cage, Buzz eagerly pounced on the meal with gusto, guzzling the seed like he hadn’t eaten in days.

She often wondered if she should get him a partner. At least then he could have someone to chirp with and maybe even start a little parrot family. “At least someone thinks I look nice tonight.” She joked as she continued to watch him eat. “I’ll tell you one thing, Buzz, if I were twenty years younger…”

She laughed to herself as she made her way back to the dining room. The table was only half packed up, and now that she was up again she figured that she might as well finish clearing it up.

But again it wasn’t meant to be, as no sooner had she picked up one of the crystal vases that she heard her phone vibrating from the living room. Sighing to herself, she hustled back to the living room to look at the caller-ID. She wasn’t really in the mood for talking and probably wasn’t going to answer, regardless of who it was.

But the moment she saw who it was, she rolled her eyes, reaching for the phone. It was Stella of course, her best friend. She wondered whether or not she should answer it but then realized how pointless that would be. If she knew Stella, which she did, she would continue to call and call until she picked up. It was as endearing as it was annoying.

“What is it?” Beatrice spoke into the phone. She knew that some form of self-contrived drama was about to hit her from the other end. She could only imagine what it was going to be.

“Is that any way to answer the phone when your best friend calls?” said Stella, sounding a little huffy. Her voice had a way of always being high pitched and dramatic as if she were the star of a midday soap opera.

Beatrice pursed her lips, taking a seat at the dining table as she traced the lace tablecloth with her manicured fingernails— specifically done for tonight of course. “Aren’t you supposed to be wrapped around some stripper pole or something tonight?”

Her promiscuous friend groaned at Beatrice’s joke that was just a little too real to be funny. Stella wasn’t a stripper of course, but the way she lived her life she could give them a run for their money. “Funny and no. I prefer belly dancing. Anyway, you’ll never guess what I heard.”

The one good thing about Stella was that she always had the latest gossip from around the retirement community they lived in. She claimed that it came to her organically and she never sought it out. But Beatrice knew her best friend better than that. She’d even caught her one or two times spying from the bushes as she attempted to eavesdrop.

Stella only lived across the street from her so Beatrice wondered what was so important that she couldn’t just come on over. “What now? You know I don’t like gossip.” It was a lie of course. Who didn’t like a little gossip? And considering how dull Beatrice’s life had become, a little gossip lately went a long way towards entertaining her.

Her best friend gasped, taking in a huge breath as if she had the tale of the century to tell. But for Stella, every tale was a story of the century; a weekly occurrence by now that relied more on her dramatic flair than the actual event. “Well, you’ll want to hear this one.”

Beatrice sighed as she caught her reflection in the crystal vase sitting in front of her. Another day, another wrinkle. Those once blond hairs were slowly being replaced by gray ones. And that once curvaceous figure that her husband loved so much was now sagging into a sack of potatoes. Well, maybe that was a small exaggeration.  

She still did look amazing for her age, having been a model before she became a schoolteacher, but she failed to see it. It was no wonder David hadn’t shown up. Maybe he was just friendly, and she misinterpreted it as something more? Was she so desperate that she would mistake an act of friendship as a romantic engagement…

“Earth to Beatrice,” said her best friend, raising her voice to an even higher pitch. It of course worked, quickly snapping Beatrice from her trance.

Beatrice groaned as she looked away from her reflection. “Make it good and make it brief,” she said, knowing that this story was going to be anything but. She secretly wished for all the juicy details and knew that her friend wouldn’t spare any.

Stella gasped again as if she were performing for an audience. Beatrice could almost see the woman in her typical tight-fitting outfit, grasping at her pearls in mock dramatic fashion. “So … You know that new man in the neighborhood that everyone’s been talking about, David?”

Beatrice cleared her throat, suddenly very glad that this was a phone conversation and not face to face. The way that her face dropped at the mention of his name would have screamed her current downtrodden mood. She didn’t want to hear the man’s name again, let alone have him brought up in conversation. “Who? Oh, him …” She said in her most casual of tones.

She hadn’t told anyone, including her best friends, about the date. This wasn’t because she was a secretive person by nature or anything sinister like that. It was more because she didn’t want any gossip around her retirement community ruining what she had hoped would be a magical evening. And on top of that, she didn’t know if it was going to work out or not and didn’t want to jinx the night. Not that it mattered much anyway.

“Well, he’s at the church bake-off right this moment,” said Stella. Their community church had a weekly bake-off to raise money for the building fund. It seemed to Beatrice that the church was always trying to raise money for the building fund, regardless of how much they made each week. That was one of the reasons that Beatrice rarely participated anymore. She was pretty confident that the never-ending projects and the money they made lined the pockets of the pastor and his brand new porch, rather than that of the needy.

“The church bake-off, eh?” Beatrice’s blood boiled as she tried to keep her voice calm and steady. So, that’s where he was tonight? Had David completely forgotten about their date or had he purposely stood her up? If it was baked goods that he was desperate for, she could have made them for him. She was the best baker in the neighborhood after all. Although right now she would have been more inclined to shove a hot pie in his face rather than serve it up for him to eat.

“Yes, the church bake-off, working as the bake-off auctioneer and get this, he’s been flirting all night with a young blonde girl, sources tell me,” Stella confirmed, scoffing at the end as if she wouldn’t be doing the same thing, were the roles reversed.

The church always had a volunteer auctioneer to auction off the tastiest of dishes. As much as she hated to admit it, the role was suited to David. A man like that, with his level of charm and class, could make even the stingiest of women empty their pockets for him and ‘the cause.’

By now Beatrice had heard enough. Her mama had raised a lady, one who didn’t get tangled up in drama and the like. But she also hadn’t raised a fool, and right now that was exactly how she felt. She had one thing on her mind and one thing only. “Stella, call Sophie. I suddenly have a craving for something,” said Beatrice.  CLICK HERE TO PURCHASE THE ENTIRE NOVEL

I Got You

Forty-five minutes ago, he flashed his fake ID and chugged his last beer at the bar with his best friend.

Now, Jake lay face down on the dirt and gravel road with his face pummeled. The taste of his own blood seeped from his nose into his mouth.  He’d never been in more pain in his life.

They’d never find his body out here in Forest Hills, not in the middle of nowhere. Only a half an hour from Portland, Oregon, but off the beaten path where no one ever came to. Everyone thought the state was liberal, they had no idea about its dirty underbelly.

Thick with evergreen trees, too hoarded by tree huggers to be cut down, too wild to tame.  Ferns and bushes smothered the forest floor; the perfect place to hide a dead body. Even the wildlife seemed to be shocked into silence.

He rolled over to see the infinite stars glittered in the cloudless sky. Would have been breathtaking any other night. Any other night that he wasn’t bleeding from the inside.

Focus, dammit, focus.

Cold chills from the midnight air ran through Jake’s body. He couldn’t hold a thought; his mind spiraled like a never-ending twister, passing in and out of time.

Disassociated thoughts.  Something, anything. Scrambling, trying to keep his mind focused.

He should have worn a jacket and for once, he wished he’d gotten the chance to say goodbye to his dad and sister. He hadn’t seen them in years.  Maybe then there would be a chance at finding his body.

Now, Jake would never get to see his dad’s face. Never get to watch him stifle his tears of joy as he one day graduated from college, the first in the family, nor fulfill his dreams of becoming somebody. His dad would know then how much he missed out on Jake’s life by abandoning them.

That would never happen, neither would there be a family for Jake one day, not even a chance. He didn’t even get a chance at a career. Other than a few massage therapy courses, Jake had no idea what he wanted to do with his life and he’d never get a chance to figure that out.

He’d die tonight, just another growing statistic of gay bashing.

Grunts from the homophobic mob of rednecks muffled his best friend Alberto’s cries for help.  Bones cracking, bats pummeling his almost lifeless body.  He deserved so much better in his life.

Guilt burned through Jake.  He wasn’t tough enough to defend Alberto though he’d tried. Wiry and pale, Jake didn’t have a prayer of a chance against that many guys.

“You’re going to make it through this. We’re both going to live a long life,” he mumbled to himself, though that was a lie.

There was a bone-cracking sound. Had they murdered Alberto? Jake wanted to kill them, if only he had the strength.

“Alberto,” Jake tried to scream out, but his throat was too dry, too strained, too coated with the dust he sucked in, his strength nearly depleted.

“Faggot,” he heard the men say.  Faggot, that word stung and clung to him like a bad stench, an ugly reminder of why they’d kept being gay a secret for so long.

Now, the world would know; if they ever found his remains, spray-painted with the word Fag on it.

His stomach turned thinking about the shock and embarrassment his dad would endure, the stain to their family name.

What a fucked up night.  Jake only wanted Alberto to have a good time for his birthday.

Not anymore.

The crunching sound of the gravel gave him a sense of relief. The men piled into the back of the pickup truck, whooping and cheering like they’d just won a football game as it began to back up, leaving them for dead. Maybe there was a way out of this, a way to still help Alberto.

He twisted his neck and grimaced in pain. That’s when he saw him — the attacker was returning. The leader of the mob.

Tall and over-sized, the monster of a young man came toward him, ready to finish him off.

Something about him seemed familiar.  That voice; he’d heard it before and he remembered those emerald green eyes that glowed like a predator. The scent of Old Spice, cigarettes and beer.

Jake froze, what little blood remained in his body, drained from his pale face. The hair lifted on his arms, and the tendons of his neck strained.

He knew who the guy was.

He could see his silhouette backlit by the headlights of the rumbling, battered and mud-stained truck. The exhaust coughed and sputtered, filling his stinging nostrils with heavy pungent smog, the taste bitter.

The attacker gripped the baseball bat in his hand, ready to take another shot at Jake’s head.

Jake’s heart pounded so hard, it was deafening, ready to explode.  Petrified, his eyes bulged, but his blood boiled with anger.

This motherfucker had just taken away the only somebody he ever loved, the only somebody who cared about him unconditionally.  And there was nothing he could do about it.

 

 

CHAPTER 2

 

Emptiness.

Like a chunk of his heart had gone missing.  It far outweighed the physical pain he’d woken up to.

Everything that happened the other night was a nightmare.  As the tubes ran in and out of Jake’s body like an electrical grid; the rasping sound of the breathing machine next to him cranked in and out.  His heart monitor’s rhythmic never-ending beep ticked on, Jake had just one thought on his mind.

Alberto.

“Son,” his dad said, sitting by the hospital bed. “Who did this to you?”  He was Jake’s step-dad officially, but the only father Jake had ever known. He had bags under his eyes, his weathered face worn and etched in worry no matter how good he thought he was at hiding it.  It’d been so long since Jake had seen his dad, it was sad to see him age so badly. Years of stress, guilt and alcohol abuse hadn’t helped.

“I … don’t know,” Jake lied. He didn’t want to get into it.  He knew how bad his dad’s temper was and the last thing he needed was more drama.

His father sighed. He must have resented the fact that Jake wouldn’t open up to him and but his father had only himself to blame.

Part of Jake wanted to hug him after so long not having seen him, but the other part of him remained so angry with him, he just couldn’t let go.

Besides, no amount of fatherly lectures, nor meds could numb Jake from the pain he felt right now.

Water, water, why am I so thirsty? Ice cubes were not going to cut it.

“Son, please tell me. What  were you doing out there?” he asked and Jake bit his lip. “And why the hell did they spray paint that that word on you?”

“I …” Jake started to say, cringing in discomfort. He wanted to tell his father everything he’d been hiding his whole life, but he couldn’t bear what it would do to him in a small town like the one he grew up in to know his son was a homo.  He wondered sometimes if his father regretted naming him after him. Technically speaking, Jake was a junior, when he was adopted legally by him as a toddler, they changed his name, but that title brought with it a lot of burden.

“You can tell me,” his father said. “That word. Why that of all things?”

His chest tightened as he said, “I told you. I don’t know. I don’t remember. Can I just sleep?”

“Of course.” His dad forced a smile, hiding his smile as usual. His dad used to be a really handsome man.  There was a time when all the ladies used to look at him twice but now, the years of stress had worn him down. He took a giant breath of relief in. The scent of his exhale told Jake, he’d gone back to cigarettes when he swore he’d quit. “My son’s all man. I bet you got one or two of those chicks at that college of yours too. Don’t you?”

“You know me,” Jake said, conjuring up a smile.

“Son, the cops said when you’re feeling better, they have a few questions for you,” his dad said approaching closer.

Jake swallowed, they were the last people he wanted to talk to.

“Son, I promise you, when I find these guys,” his dad continued, gripping to the side of the bed like he was wringing someone’s neck. “I’m going to make them wish

“Dad Dad. Don’t worry. I’ll never see them again. It’s over,” Jake told him, hoping it was true. With his father’s heart condition, the last thing he needed was to lose him too.

“Okay, yeah … you’re right,” his dad said, tough as nails. Jake had never seen him cry before, but he could tell by the puffiness of his eyes that that’s what he’d been doing.

Jake sighed.  He really wasn’t in the mood to talk.

“You got a place to stay?” his dad asked.

“I’m fine,” Jake told him, though he had no clue where. With Alberto in the hospital, there’s no way he could sneak into his dorm room every night.

“I want you to stay with me for awhile with me and your sister Genie, ‘till you get better,” his dad told him.

“I’m cool,” Jake said.

“That wasn’t a request,” his dad said firmly.  “Genie will be by later on. She cleared out your old bedroom.”

There was no sense in arguing with his dad.  What would a few days hurt?  He took a deep breath as if to gather strength for what he really wanted to ask.

“Dad, please, tell me. Is he dead? My friend Alberto?” Jake asked, wheezing between breaths.  Even the words choked in his mouth.

His father let out a breath as if releasing the stress of the world. “Son—”

“Mr. Richards. Jake, Sr.?” the doctor interrupted as he poked his head in. “Can I see you for a moment?”

“Sure,” his dad told him. “Rest up.”

“Dad, wait!”

His dad was gone.  Jake wanted to scream out for him to return, but he didn’t have the strength. A quick glance at the warped reflection in the chrome rails that held him in and he didn’t even recognize his own face. If he didn’t have a chance for love before, this took it to a whole other level. Only one man held his heart, and now he didn’t know if Alberto was alive or dead.

“God help me!” Someone was talking in their sleep from behind the curtain next to him. Cramped and filthy, this is where the hospital stuck poor people they didn’t want to deal with.  The outburst made Jake jump until he realized what it was.

The room stank of shit and Clorox so strong the fumes made it difficult to breathe.  God only knows how long it was before the orderlies visited this room, bedpans neglected, crusty dried remains of the other patients’ meals.

If the constant paging over the hospital speakers didn’t get to him, the groans and moans from the person in the next bed would. Even the crusty remains of the flowers and half-filled helium balloons, saying ‘Get Well’ no doubt brought by his father’s church, could lift his spirits.

It’d been years since he’d seen any of the congregation. He couldn’t believe how active he used to be in the church. He still had many of their emails and had been tempted to reach out to them. But why? If they got word that he was gay, it’d only ruin his family’s reputation.

A bone-chilling draft raced through the paper-thin blankets and up the backside of his hospital gown as if to bring his mind back to where he was.

He could barely make out the muffled tones of his father and doctor speaking. His dad sounded irritated about something, but what? He couldn’t make out.

“Jake,” his dad said, racing inside catching his breath. “Alberto, he

Jake bit his lip to keep his eyes from watering. This was it: the finality of what he knew was coming. His heart monitor beeped like a hummingbird.

“Did he suffer?” Jake asked.

“Son, Alberto’s alive.”

 

 

CHAPTER 3

 

“Anybody home?” Jake turned around to see his sister Genie standing at the hospital room door.  He raced over to her as quickly as his body would allow him and squeezed the life out of her.  Five years.  Had it been that long since he’d seen or heard from her?  She was just who he needed right now standing in Alberto’s room, seeing him like that.

“Look at you, still skin and bones,” she told him.

“And you, still slutty-looking as ever,” he teased.

“Right off the catwalk,” she told him, turning around to show him all her curves squeezed into a striped dress and tossed her long red mane out of her face. “Hey, you gotta use what you got.”

“Use what you got? Don’t you mean, on the street corner?” he said.

“Don’t think just cause you’re bigger I can’t still beat you up,” she said, trying to hide her smile.

He chuckled. It felt good to smile for once.  She angled so she could take a better look at Alberto and sighed.

“Shit,” she said.

“Yeah,” he said, seeing him like this was horrible to say the least. “He always asked about you.”

“So sad.  You get a hold of his mom yet?”

“Tried. No answer.” He didn’t want to get into the fact that she cut him off ever since finding out he was gay. “Dad wants me to go back with you guys for awhile,” Jake said, rolling his eyes.

He turned to Alberto as he lay unconscious in the bed. It’d taken him days to be well enough to visit and even then, he had to fight the medical staff to let him see him.

“I know … Does he know?” she asked.

“Know what?”

“About you … being gay.”

“What?” he said. He’d never told her or anyone in the family before. But he didn’t want to lie anymore either. He was tired of it. It was draining.

“What are you talking about? Who said that?” Jake said, swallowing hard as he leaned against Alberto’s bed frame to keep from falling. His sister Genie, pulled out her bottle of perfume and sprayed the hospital room.  Seeing her after all these years put a smile on his face, but he did not want to talk about this right now.

She fanned her hand in front of her face as if to change the subject.

“Jeez, Jake. God, what died in here?” she said.

“I never said anything about me being … you know?” Jake said, lowering his voice so the other patients in the room wouldn’t hear.

“I’m not going to tell nobody,” she said, tidying up the room and grimacing at the IV bags filled with blood and other fluids. “Besides, I think it’s kind of cool to have a gay brother.”

“Quiet. Do you want people to?” Jake told her, scolding her with a look. He didn’t know who was on the other side of the curtain next to Alberto, but he couldn’t afford the risk.

“To what? Jake there’s a whole world out there besides Portland and definitely besides Forest Hills. Trust me, I know. Anyway, I always knew you and Alberto were getting it on.”

“We’re not … we never …” Jake said, shifting his position. “We’re just friends.”

“But you wanted to. I could see it in your eyes. I think it’s cute actually, but if you ask me, there’s somebody else out there in the world. Besides, Mexicans can’t keep their dicks in their pants.”

“He’s not Mexican. He’s Puerto Rican remember and—” Jake said, narrowing his eyes at her.

“Same thing,” she told him rolling her eyes. “Anyway little brother, I’ve got a few friends I think you’d absolutely love.”

“I don’t want to meet anyone. I’m not looking … And, will you keep it down?  If you haven’t noticed people don’t exactly deal well with guys like me.”

“Reminds me…  Here,” she said, pulling out a piece of paper and pen as she scribbled something on it and handed it to him.

He took it. BENJAMIN RICHARDS 555-6688

“What’s this?” he said, tilting the scrap of paper from side to side. Richards. Why did he have the same last name as him? Wait a minute.

“No. I’m not calling him.” Jake said, his jaw clenching.

“Jake, he’s our step-brother. And he runs his own self-defense mixed martial arts gym boxing, jiu jitsu, kickboxing, you name it.  I tracked him down a couple of years ago.”

“Have you met him?” Jake asked.

“Well, no. Not yet, but—”

“Then, why do you expect me to? He probably hates us. His dad ran off with our mother, remember? Ruined his whole family. What would he want with me? And why would he want to help me?” Jake asked.  

“Just think about it. Besides, if you’re going to be the way you are, you gotta learn how to defend yourself,” she told him, lowering her voice.

“I appreciate it, I do but I decided … I’m not that way anymore,” he said, biting his lower lip.

She laughed in his face. “So, you just upped and decided, did you?”

“It’s not worth it. I can be into girls. I used to date girls,” he replied defensively, crossing his arms.

“Back in the third grade and from what I remember, you were more interested in their Barbies than them. That is before Dad beat that shit out of you.”

He pushed the memories out of his head. He didn’t want to think about the way things used to be. “So, I read about these camps where they ” he started to say, changing the subject, “these churches that pray the gay away.”

Even saying those words made him sick to his stomach. It was humiliating and exhausting to constantly be someone he wasn’t. He’d tried everything to change. But maybe he wasn’t trying hard enough.

“Are you out of your mind? The only thing those camps do is take your money in the name of Jesus. Half those preachers are sucking hot dogs on the side as it is.”

“Genie!” Jake chuckled. She always had a way of making him laugh.

“Just keep it quiet. If you’re going to live with us, we can’t have anyone in town knowing. With the law firm I work at … I want to be more than just an assistant and then there’s dad. He’d be—”

“No, I get it,” Jake said.

“Listen sweetie, I gotta go. You keep that card now. Call him. Our step-brother only lives a few towns away,” she told him, kissing him on the cheek and draping the purse over her shoulder as she left.

“I hate you,” he said.

“Hate you too!” she said with a smile. “Queen.”

“Slut,” he fired back.

“Hey, at least I own it. I’ll come visit tomorrow. Smooches,” she told him.

He shook his head, turning to his unconscious friend, Alberto.  Seeing that tube down his throat, his corner in the hospital room looking like a lab experiment was hard.  He lifted a comb from the nightstand next to the hospital bed and fleeced it through Alberto’s hair. He’d die if anyone saw him like this.

“What do you think, Alberto? Think I can go straight for awhile?” he asked him, squeezing his hand. His face still swollen, he barely resembled himself.

“I’m sorry I … failed you. But when you wake up and we get out of here, we’re going to move. I don’t care what it takes. You and me, we’re going to move away as far as we can and start over together. We’ll find wives, have families, we can do it. That way nobody will bother us anymore.”

Jake sighed. The hypnotic rasp of the breathing machine echoed in the silence. “Please, wake up Alberto. Forgive me.”

“Knock-knock,” a gruff man’s voice said, startling Jake as he rapped on the door frame. At first, he thought Genie had come back.

But then, that smell Old Spice, beer and cigarettes. Jake didn’t need to turn around before he knew whom it was. The hairs rising from the back of his neck confirmed his worst fears.

 

CHAPTER 4

 

“You touch him and I’ll —”  Jake said, his eyes locked on the man with emerald green eyes.

“And you’ll what? Tell me faggot, cause I’d like to hear this one,” he answered with a smirk on his face.

There was no midnight dark to shroud him anymore, nor a hood. He recognized that face clear as day.

Steve Channing.

Jake recognized Alberto’s frat brother in the clear of day. The scratches his best friend gave Steve across his face were still fresh, giving Jake some satisfaction.

Alberto had always done whatever he could to avoid Steve and his constant taunts at the frat house. He told Jake about it often, but Jake never thought Steve would take it as far as he did that night.  Though he’d done well at hiding the fact he was gay from anyone, Steve would make fun of his voice and the rags he wore to school.

His hand gripped Alberto’s bed as if to protect him. Although he knew he was helpless to do anything defend him, he’d be damned if Steve was going to hurt his best friend again.

“I’m going to call the cops,” Jake warned.

“The cops?” he said, arching his eyebrow and letting out a chuckle, and mimicking Jake’s soft voice while adding a lisp. “That doesn’t sound like the type of loyalty from Alberto or his boyfriend that we expect from our fraternity. You do know who my father is, don’t you?”

“Why? Who?” Jake asked, his voice cracking.

“Bubba Channing Sheriff Bubba Channing?” he said.

Jake swallowed hard.  Steve grabbed him.

“No, I don’t think you’ll be making that phone call.” He cackled.

Jake gasped for breath, but the man’s grip on his already fragile wrist paralyzed him.

“What do you want?” Jake said, lifting his chin in faux defiance.

“I just wanted to make sure we’re on the same page. That’s all. Your little boyfriend did a doozy on my face. But that’s nothing compared to what he did to my life. They pulled that full scholarship from me, you know? Almost kicked me off campus for good cause of that snitch,” Steve said as he stepped forward.

“Maybe you shouldn’t have harassed us on campus. Maybe you shouldn’t have—”

Jake didn’t even finish his thought. He couldn’t hide how uncomfortable he was and a smile spread across Steve’s face.

“I always thought you were soft Jakey, didn’t know you were a homo until that night. Does your dad know about your little activities? Does your church? Do the rest of the student body at St. Mary’s Christian University? I betcha they don’t. No, something tells me you’re going to keep your mouth shut. I can make your life a living hell, I promise you that. And your little boyfriend’s too. It’d be a shame to see him suffer more.”

“What’s this?” his dad said, coming out of nowhere as he entered Alberto’s hospital room carrying flowers for Alberto.

“Mr.  Richards,” Steve said, turning on the charm. “Steve Channing — Just a friend of your son’s.”

“Oh? Well, the pleasures mine. Never met any of his friends,” his dad said, hiding his smile as he set the flowers down.

“When I heard what happened I was just mortified,” Steve told him, as charming as ever.

“That’s what he needs. Friends, real friends. You’re a good man, Steve,” his dad said, shaking his hand.

“Thanks, Mr. Richards.  Whatever it takes to keep his spirits up, we’re here for him,” Steve said, looking back at Jake who was at his wits end by now.  “Well, I better head out. School tomorrow.”

“Sure thing. Thanks for coming,” his dad waved him off.

“Bye, Jakey!” Steve said as he exited.

“Good guy, that Steve,” his dad said, placing his hand on Jake’s shoulder.  “We should have him over for dinner sometime.”

But Jake was lost in his thoughts.

“I’m going to grab some coffee. Need anything?” his dad asked, waking him from his thoughts.

“Uh, no,” Jake said.

“Don’t worry, he’s going to pull through this,” his dad comforted. “I know this isn’t the best place in the world for Alberto, but I’m going to pull some extra hours on the road, pick up some cash, take care of him.”

“Thanks,” Jake said, though his thoughts were elsewhere.

“I’ll even check on him from time to time. I’ve got to run, son.” His dad exited, but Jake was in another world. He turned to Alberto, his jaw tense.

“Don’t worry Alberto, I’m going to figure this out,” he told him with conviction.

He had to do something, but what?  CLICK HERE TO READ THE REST

Chance for Love

A Chance for Love

by: Jeff Rivera

 

⧭⧭⧭

 

It wasn’t the first time I’d thought about killing my brother while he slept.  

 

I gripped the pillow above his head, and this time I was certain I’d follow through with it.

 

For 18 years, Adrian had been stuck in my life like a bad rash. With my parents dead, there was no one else to care for him.

 

Don’t get me wrong. I love my little brother more than life itself, but because of him, I’d had put my own life on hold.

 

Gone was my high school prom. I was stuck home that night because he had the flu.  I spent my nights working a janitorial job to make ends meet when other guys my age were partying it up on campus.

 

The college I’d dreamed of going to across the country, I couldn’t go to that either even though I had a full scholarship. Because who else would take care of him?

 

Instead, I tried to go to community college at night. But in the end my brother needed the money for his medical expenses, so I couldn’t do that either.

 

Most importantly, my one chance at marrying the love of my life was gone, too—and all ’cause of him.  

 

It takes one heck of a woman to accept that my brother would never stop being a part of my life and, in the end, I just couldn’t put her through all of that.

 

I’d never have a normal happy life so long as Adrian was around.

 

I pushed open the door to his room and it creaked. The rude street light cast a searing glow diagonally across the room, revealing all the rug’s bare spots. Adrian cracked his brown eyes open in the dim night light and gave me that smile that told me I was his whole world. My heart stopped.

 

“Hi Pablo.” His eyes glinted but his words came slow and groggy. “I love you.”

 

That space between my nose tightened, and I bit my lip to hold back the tears. “Go back to sleep.” I wouldn’t—couldn’t —say it back.  

 

But I was his whole world. His only family. His only friend.

 

And he was mine.  We were all each other had, and may ever have.

 

Sure, I blamed him for missing out on so much in my life. But deep down inside, maybe the real reason I’d stayed with him is that it was all my fault.

 

The reason he had brain damage and couldn’t take care of himself at the age of 18? It was because of something I’d done.

 

⧭⧭⧭

 

I was going to lose my job if I was late again. I dashed down the street in the freezing rain and weaved in and out of the fall morning crowd, my fraying business case in hand.

 

I was by far the best customer service rep in my IT department. But any chance of a promotion—and the money we so badly needed along with it—would go out the door if I wasn’t at my middle cubicle in ten minutes.

 

It was my brother again, of course.  Adrian refused to get dressed for the adult day care program. Said he should be able to stay home. He wanted more time with me.

 

Reason never worked with him. He never thought about the consequences of anything.

 

Without the program, I wouldn’t be able to work. To be honest, it was my only opportunity to interact with real people my age, and live vicariously through them.

 

No one knew about my brother. I kept that part of my life hidden. Why subject them to my problems? Whenever they invited me out, I always came up with some excuse. The plumbing was broken. I had to go out of town. Anything.

 

I had to keep my mind focused if I was going to make the midtown bus across the street. I should have been looking when I dashed for it.

 

Maybe then I wouldn’t have been hit by that red car.

 

I was knocked out cold for a good three minutes. When I came to, the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen was crouched on the street above me.

 

About my age, she was heaven embodied in a petite woman with a curvaceous body and the face of an angel.

 

“I’m so sorry. What were you doing running out in front of me?” Her eyebrows went from concerned to feisty—just the way I like them.

 

“What were you doing hitting a pedestrian?” I sat up a little too fast and rubbed my head.

 

The onlookers crowded around us. I hated when people stared. I put my hand on her chrome car bumper to get up. My knee hurt like heck.

 

What was left of the rain storm finished up, the last drops gently rippling the puddles around me, but the wind against my damp clothes had a bite to it.

 

The girl’s warm hand touched my arm and electric chills ran through my body. “Maybe we should call the cops so the insurance—”

 

I froze. The cops, that was the last thing I needed. “What time is it?” I asked, looking at what was left of my watch.

 

“7:47, but—”

 

I should stay. I should get her number. Maybe I should even ask her out. “I’ve got to go. I—Are you okay? Is your car…?”

 

She scribbled something on the back of a paper.  “Yeah, I’m fine. Take my number in case … You know, you need it.”

 

My hand touched hers as I took it, and the electric chills hit me again. The rain slowed and the chill wind turned warm. Cars honked in the distance and my breathing slowed to a stop. I was a map maker, charting her face. Her gorgeous eyes. The dimpled cheeks. That little nose.

 

I withdrew my hand, breaking the connection and unpausing time. “I better … See ya.” I hobbled across the street, my legs tight, my soul screaming at me to go back.

 

“Wait, you forgot your—” she started.  I couldn’t make out the rest as the traffic drowned out the melodic timbre of her voice.

 

My goodness she was gorgeous.

 

⧭⧭⧭

The thing about it was that I was about to call her. I swear. I’d been looking at her phone number all the next Saturday morning. I’d only set it down to take a shower.

I came back, refreshed and ready. But it was gone. I looked everywhere for it. “Adrian, did you take the paper on my bed?”

 

“I cleaned!” he said. He was always trying to help, which usually meant him messing something up.  

 

This time it meant that her phone number, along with all the real trash, was now in the giant dumpster outside our apartment.

 

Our apartment was small, a few pieces of furniture that my mother had thrown here and there before she died.  A small kitchen that barely had enough room to turn around in, let alone cook.

 

It was meant for one person, so with the two of us, it got dirty quickly.  

 

I wanted to get mad at Adrian. The rage built up in my gut like always.

His sad, wet eyes didn’t change that. No, it was when he looked at the floor and asked, “I do bad?”  That’s when I just couldn’t.

 

I sat on the couch next to him and patted his knee. I found the remote and put on his favorite cartoons. The television was one of the few things that worked in our apartment.

 

I sighed. How could I get mad at him? He didn’t ’cause me problems on purpose. Anyway, it was for the best.

 

She’s a great catch. So why would I get her entangled in my messed up life? Not fair to her. Or me, because when she ran screaming, I’d feel even lower than I do now.

 

Yet still, despite my protests and the swarm of images on the television, my thoughts led inexorably to her.

 

⧭⧭⧭

 

Gotta be honest. When the cop showed up at my door the next day, I was nervous.  

 

She was a large woman, her pistol at hand, the CB radio squawking. I didn’t know what to make of her. “Pablo Guzman?” she asked, her manner matter-of-fact but her eyes tense.

 

“Yes, officer?” Did Adrian get out of the house again? Something bad had better not have happened. I crossed my fingers behind my back, gritted my teeth and prepared for the worst.

 

“I understand you were involved in an accident the other day on Washington and 5th?” she said, flipping through her pad.

 

“Oh, I …” I didn’t want to get the girl in trouble. I’d lie to protect her if need be. I had no problem with that.

 

She crossed her arms and narrowed her eyes. “Camera surveillance reveals a car hit you on—”

 

I cleared my throat. “Oh, that? It was nothing. I was late for work. I should have been looking where I was going.”

 

I mustered my most casual grin and laughed. But her expression told me it wasn’t funny.

 

She looked me up and down, then squinted over my shoulder. “Anyone live here with you?”

 

I frowned. That was an odd question to ask.  “What?”

 

She poked her head in and looked around. “Married? Have a girlfriend? … Boyfriend?”

 

This was weird. “Huh? No, I’m single, just my—”

 

A small smile formed on her face and her eyes softened. “Good.  I see you have no criminal record for us to be concerned about.”

 

Us? Did she say ‘us’?  A police car zoomed down the street behind her, sirens blaring. It wasn’t the best neighborhood in the world, but it was affordable.

 

“… Valedictorian at your high school too. Same job for the last three years. Stability. That’s good.”

 

How the hell does she know that? I leaned against the doorframe and crossed my arms. “I’m sorry. Is that all in my record?”

She cut me off, her hand grazing her pistol. “But there is one concern.  Leaving the scene of an accident … We may have to do something about that.”

 

With all of forty-eight dollars and change to name until my next paycheck, bail was out of the question, let alone an attorney. And leaving my brother to fend for himself just wasn’t an option. “Officer, I … I’m sorry. It really wasn’t—”

 

The corners of her mouth curled upwards, but she suppressed it, and the hard cop-face returned. “Did you find her attractive?  The girl, Victoria. Is she your type?”

 

Those dimples. Those eyes. An echo of those electric chills hit me. I grinned and looked away, impossible emotion rising in my throat. “What? Of course, she’s the most beautiful girl I’ve ever—”

 

“Good.” She handed me something—my driver’s license. “You left this at the scene of the crime. Victoria was right. You are cute.”

 

This couldn’t be standard questioning. “Thanks, but … What? Did you say…?”

 

She handed the paper to me. “This is where you’ll meet her tomorrow night at 7:15. And wear something nice.”

 

I looked at the note, dumbfounded. “She’s my sister and I’ll defend her to the end. You mess this up and I’ll end you.”

 

She walked away, and I chuckled. I should have known. I’d get to see her again after all.   

 

Victoria. I loved that name.

 

⧭⧭⧭

 

I didn’t want to bring my brother to the date, but I had no other choice. I had a borrowed car and he promised to stay in there for a couple of hours, playing video games.

 

Once he started playing those things, he was lost in another world. So I figured I’d be safe stepping into the fancy restaurant.

 

I pushed through the great, frosted glass doors. Inside, dark wooden tables and a soft but engaging Latin rhythm greeted me.

 

I scanned the crowded tables for her face and our eyes met. Those eyes, those gorgeous dimples. That was her.  The scent of spicy Mexican food filled my nostrils, but my eyes were on Victoria.

 

My feet took me to her of their own accord. She looked at me, shaking her head but smiling. “Sorry I’m late.”

“Late?” She looked the other way. Her sister sat next to her, out of uniform this time but her presence overbearing nonetheless.

 

“I guess that’s my cue to leave,” her sister said with a smirk. She stood up, motioned to her chair and walked over to me. “Remember what I said, you lucky lug.”

“You set me up on a blind date?” Victoria asked, her mouth hanging open.

 

Her sister looked back and grinned. “You wouldn’t stop talking about how cute he was. And you’d never go out with anyone else otherwise.  Thank me later.” She hustled away and was out the door.

 

I blushed. I hadn’t meant to impose, but goodness she looked good.  “I’m sorry. I can leave if you want me to.”

 

“No, just … take a seat. We can at least have a drink together before we both leave.” She looked away and at the floor, annoyance in her voice.

I sat down and pulled my chair in. “You look gorgeous.” That dress, that figure, that face.  

 

“Thanks. Just something I threw on.” She looked down, blushed and took a gulp of water.  Enchiladas and refried beans filled our evening as much as the margaritas and conversation.

 

We talked nonstop for hours about everything from her cop sister Cynthia, to her career as a medical student to her past relationship.

 

I could have listened to her for hours. I picked up one sentence where she left off, and she did the same for me. It was as if we’d been cut from the same cloth.

 

“So tell me about you. How is it you don’t have a girlfriend?” she asked, the straw from her drink tracing her full lips.  

 

I wanted nothing more than to kiss her in that moment, but I had to be a gentleman.

 

“Oh, I …” I wanted to tell her everything about my brother and about how I took care of him. About how I’d put my whole life on hold for Adrian, but then I saw it through the restaurant’s great glass front window.

 

The video game came sailing out the driver’s side window. My brother got out, slammed the car door behind him and stomped his beloved game. I wanted to ignore it, I wanted to stay. I wanted to hope he would calm down on his own. But I knew it’d only get worse.

 

I cleared my throat, feeling guilty already. “I … I have to leave, I’m sorry—”

 

She blushed. “No, I didn’t mean to take so much of your time.”

 

That’s the last thing I wanted her to think. “Not at all. I could talk to you forever, it’s just—”

 

She smiled. “Yeah? Me too. Call me?” Her voice went up an octave before she caught herself and looked away.

 

So, she liked me as much as I liked her. I smiled back.  “Of course. Oh and let me text you my number,” I said, watching my brother from the corner of my eye yell at a passerby.

 

“Sounds good to me,” she said, and gave me the most beautiful smile in the world.

 

She made me feel normal. When I was with Victoria, there was no other world and I had a glimpse into the life that we could have together.

 

Maybe there really was a chance for love.

 

⧭⧭⧭

 

It was her birthday evening and I’d promised to give her a great time. We’d spent hours on the phone every night talking since that night of our first date.  

 

She had this amazing chuckle that made me feel like we’d known each other for years. Victoria and I had texted back and forth during the day so much I hardly got any work done.

 

But she was worth it.  She fit me like a glove. How had we made it this far?

 

Her last boyfriend—who stood her up and disrespected her on a regular basis—had ultimately broken her heart. She’d sworn off dating for years.

 

I promised her I’d never hurt her and told her that she deserved nothing but the best—it was true, after all.  A woman like that didn’t come around every day. A woman like that demanded the best of a man, if he was to have any chance at her.

 

I was going to give her my best.  I may not have had money or dressed as fancy as the crowd she was used to. But I could make her feel special. I could make her laugh. I could show Victoria that she was my world like no other.

 

I pulled open the front door. I’d pick her up and take her to her birthday party. It was going to be our best— A bloodcurdling scream sounded behind me.

 

I ran through the living room, nearly tripping over a video game controller and pushed my way into the kitchen. My brother stood at the counter, blood pouring from his hand, dripping onto the floor, a half cut carrot on the counter in front of him.

 

“I told you never to—!”  No, it was no use. I grabbed a towel and wrapped his hand up tight. I’d unplugged the stove—just in case—so why didn’t I lock up the utensils, too?

 

I’d hoped he’d just stay in his room playing video games. But I should have known he’d ruin this for me.

 

I parked the car outside the hospital and rushed him into the chaotic emergency room, the scent of Clorox and ammonia assaulting my nostrils. I didn’t like hospitals. They reminded me my time was running out and they reminded me of the night my parents died.  

 

The nurses took one look and hustled us back to where I handed Adrian off to the doctors. I stepped out of the room and reached for my phone. Great. Not only did I have no reception, I had no power either.

 

I sighed. Adrian must have unplugged my phone yet again.

 

I racked my brain trying to remember Victoria’s phone number so I could call her from the hospital, but it was to no avail. And I couldn’t abandon Adrian there. The doctors were having a hard enough time as it was.

 

I’d stood her up on her birthday and I could only hope she’d forgive me.

 

⧭⧭⧭

 

“Why are you ashamed of me?” my brother asked me one day out of the blue. Victoria wouldn’t return my calls and I’d been in a funk for days, time passing but not feeling it.

 

Roses. Letters for weeks. Everything was returned unopened. I’d hurt her. I’d give anything to make it up to her, but she’d had enough.

 

“What are you talking about?” I turned my back to him and started flipping through the sports section of the newspaper.

 

He yanked my newspaper away and glared at me. “Why can’t I meet Victoria?”

 

He must have overheard me talking to her before because I’d never mentioned her to him. He was a lot smarter than I gave him credit for.

 

I sighed, wishing I was anywhere but here but mostly because, as much as I wanted to deny it, I was indeed a little ashamed of him.  

 

He embarrassed me. I never went anywhere in public with him except the adult daycare center. I never spoke about him to anyone.

 

He was a dirty little secret that I hoped no one ever found out about. And still I couldn’t admit it.

 

The buzz of the old refrigerator filled the silence between us.  I had to think of something.

 

“What do you say we go to the arcade tomorrow night?” He always liked that.

 

“When nobody else is around?” He glared at me.  

 

My face got hot. Didn’t he appreciate the sacrifices I’d made, that I’d given up any hope of a normal life? I couldn’t even hold onto a girl I was really feeling—‘cause of him.

 

But I didn’t want to get into it. “It’s cheaper after midnight, remember?” I said, looking back towards the newspaper. “Remember when Dad used to—”

 

“I don’t want to talk about him.  I try. I try real hard, but I can’t—”Adrian beat his hands against his temples until I pulled them away.

 

“Try what, buddy?” I asked, swallowing around the lump in my throat.

 

He looked at me with tears in his eyes and lips quivering.  “I wish I could be a normal brother for you.”

 

He broke away from me, running into the living room and breaking my heart.

 

⧭⧭⧭

 

As much as I wanted to pretend I was over Victoria, each day away from her got harder, not easier.

 

I wanted to move on with life, and yet she tugged at my heart like an extra-large burrito I’d eaten too fast.

 

I sent her notes. I sent her flowers. But nothing worked. Nothing would bring her back into my life. I paid for my last try, the last bouquet of red roses I’d likely ever send her, and stepped through the front door, my hands full with groceries.

 

“Yes, it’s true. And he loves you a lot. I can tell.” Adrian was on the phone in the bedroom. But he never used the phone.

 

I’d only been ten minutes. He couldn’t get into any trouble unsupervised for that long. Or so I’d hoped.

 

“Who are you talking to?” I asked, shaking my head with a smile. It was probably one of his imaginary conversations.

 

“Victoria,” he said, smiling from ear-to-ear.

 

I rolled my eyes and put my grocery bag down. I needed to start dinner. He knew I’d kill him if he ever did that.

 

Besides, he didn’t have her phone number, unless he’d scrolled through my phone contacts and …

 

“You have a sister? What’s her name? Cynthia? … Like a real cop?” he asked.

 

I snatched that phone away from him so fast that I practically knocked him over.  My heart leapt to my throat.  “Vic … Victoria?”

 

I told myself to relax. I tried to sound macho and calm. But I’m afraid I croaked like a frog.

 

She chuckled—that one that I loved so much. My heart melted and my knees buckled. “Was that your little brother?” she asked.

 

“Uh, yeah,” I said, raising my fist at him. I’d whoop his butt when I got off the phone. Adrian flashed me a devilish smile and left the room.

 

“Why didn’t you tell me you had a special needs brother?” she asked, sounding both amused and cross.

 

I didn’t know if I was being chastised or what. I didn’t know how to answer that question.  I sat down on the edge of my bed. “Oh, I … it never came up, so…”

 

“You’ve been taking care of your brother the whole time, all these years by yourself?” she asked, her voice somewhere between disbelief and admiration, with a distinct note of shock.

 

“Yeah, I … we manage.” I was ashamed now that I hadn’t brought it up before. I took a deep breath, but the shame remained. Maybe it was me that’d screwed this up? God, what an idiot I was.

 

I needed to tell her everything I’d bottled up inside for years. “It was my fault, you know?”

 

“Your fault?” she said, sounding confused.

 

I bit the inside of my lip, trying to think of the best way to say it. I couldn’t hold anything back anymore. If she was going to like me, I wanted her to like all of me, even the ugly parts.

 

“The accident. My family was on their way to my high school football game.  My brother didn’t even want to go, but they made him.”

 

The words spilled out of my mouth faster than I could control them. I’d dammed them up. For years, they’d silently sought release behind the wall. Now, I could finally give it to them.

 

“I …” I held back the tears as much as I could. “It’s only ‘cause he was wearing a seatbelt that he didn’t die like my parents.”

 

I sobbed like a baby. I felt so weak. I lay back on the bed, looking up at the stucco ceiling until I could hear her sobbing on the other end. My chest lightened and a wave of happiness whipped through me. Finally, I had someone I could tell everything to.

 

She took a deep breath from the tears we’d shared between us. “I’m interning in the neuro unit at the hospital specializing in brain traumas. That’s my passion.”

 

“Oh,” I said, not knowing what else to say.  She really did understand. She was one heck of a woman.

 

“You’ve been doing this all by yourself, no help? No personal life, too, I bet.  Must be lonely,” she said.

 

I don’t know if it was what she said, or the way she said it, but her words made my nose sting and I had to fight more tears from coming.  I cleared my throat several times. “A little bit.”

 

“Doesn’t have to be lonely you know,” Victoria said.  The silence hung heavy between us and I tried to think about what she was saying.

 

“What do you mean?” I swiped the tear that had made its way down my cheek.

 

“Do you like spaghetti?” she asked, sounding upbeat.

 

She was sick of the tears and needed to change the subject. I could understand that. What a mope I was. “Yeah, sure. It’s our favorite, why?”

 

She almost sounded authoritative as she said, “I hope you have clean pots and pans at your place ’cause if there’s nothing I can’t stand …”

 

It dawned on me and I stood up, smiling from ear-to-ear. “Sure, yeah.  We’ve got everything.”

 

“Good, I make the world’s best spaghetti,” she said. I could hear the smile on her face. I had to see it again in person, too.  

 

I couldn’t wait to hold her in my arms and kiss those lips the way they deserved to be kissed.

 

⧭⧭⧭

 

We were married on a Saturday evening.  Victoria had said she didn’t want to get called into the hospital in the middle of the ceremony.

 

I stood across from my bride and looked deep into her eyes. I’d found my soulmate. It takes one heck of a woman to know that my brother would be a part of my life forever.

 

In our life forever—and she was that woman.

 

We said our vows, and I took her soft face in my palms. I kissed her lips.  Soft Christmas lights twinkled above, lighting up and down the aisles.

 

Sweet-scented white roses matched our lavender and cream outfits.

 

Adrian and Cynthia were the loudest in the wedding party, louder than our large crowd of family and new friends, cheering us on as we walked down the aisle into the waiting limo.  

 

There were Victoria’s hospital friends, my new friends—from the corporate IT job I’d landed after taking those accelerated college night courses—and then there were Adrian’s new friends from the special school we’d gotten him into.

 

Cynthia had arranged a police escort for us, of course. We drove away from the little church where we’d exchanged our vows, illuminated by the candlelight, and I realized I hadn’t said goodbye to my little brother.

 

That’s when the CB radio buzzed.

 

Victoria snatched it before I could. “CB1 this is CB 2, come in.” She was like a big kid, stuffed into her large, laced wedding gown.

 

Sometimes I didn’t know who was the bigger kid, Cynthia or Adrian.

 

“CB 1,” Adrian said on the other end.  “Just wanted to wish you a good honeymoon.”

 

“Thank you CB2. Here’s CB3.” She handed the radio to me as I smiled.  My hands graced her manicured fingers and I kissed them first, knowing I’d spend the rest of my life entwined with hers.

 

“CB2 this is CB3, come in,” I said. Victoria leaned her head on my shoulder, flicked my silky bow tie and nestled closer to me.

 

“I just wanted to say that I love you, big brother,” said Adrian.  “Go on and make some babies now.”

 

I laughed. “We’ll do our best, little brother.”

 

“I did the wedding ring thingy all by myself,” he said. “Are you proud of me?”

 

He’d been our ring bearer and wore that duty with a badge of honor.  My heart warmed as I prepared to say what I should have told him years ago.  “Yeah, I’m proud of you. Real proud… Always been… Now, don’t drive Cynthia crazy while we’re gone.”

 

“I won’t. We’re going to go out on stakeouts and everything!” he said.

 

“Have fun.  Love ya,” I said, looking into my wife’s eyes.

Click here for more ———>>Books by Jeff Rivera

THE END

 

Never Say Goodbye

It’s been 10 years since I’ve seen her. 10 years since I stepped foot in this town and risked everything to be with her.

Today is the day I face it all. Today is the day I clean up the mistakes I made.

Mistakes. I made a lot of them in my young life. But loving April wasn’t one of them.

I look down at where I was born and raised, and memories flood my mind. Some of them invigorate me. Those will stay with me for all eternity. But others, encrusted in guilt, are so painful that they eat at me from the inside out.

I was on a different path then before she came back into my life. That was a time when I was my parents’ pride and joy.

A time when I knew nothing of the hardships that were to come, nor of the pressures of being perfect for the world.

How things have changed.

I’ll ask for forgiveness for the people I hurt along the way. I don’t know if they will accept it.

The crisp wind howls in protest and stirs up the snow flurries that came in from the mountains. It’s almost Christmas, and from up here I can see the decorations and lights twinkling in the early evening darkness.

Christmas is about redemption and forgiveness, but as I prepare to go into my hometown, I wonder if that will be enough.

Even as the scent of pine cones welcomes me home, I know this is punishment for my love. I can feel it.

I shouldn’t be here. I should let the past be the past. Yet, I can’t go on until I see her one last time. There’s so much I need to say, so many misunderstandings that could have been avoided. So much unnecessary pain.

I promised her I’d return for her and I have—10 years late. I only hope April’s waited for me, and no other man has stolen her heart. I only hope she forgives me for what I did.

She might not recognize me. I’m not the clean cut 19-year-old with rosy apple cheeks she knew all those years ago.

My skin-and-bones frame is now a muscular one. My short-cropped hair is now long and untamed, like a rock star’s.

Maybe April looks different too, but I cannot imagine her as anything but beautiful. I’ll love her just the same no matter the wrinkles or grey hair, the roll or curve—she’ll still be perfect to me.

True love does that to you. It stays with you. It never leaves you. No matter the years, no matter the distance, no matter the guilt.

But sins—the type that rip families apart and ruin lives—may be the only exception.

I hope not.

I think about what happened to our love and our families, and my blood boils. But life will do that to you—test if your love is real. Ours was as real as the evergreen trees that cloak Forest Hills.

I take a deep breath and head down the hill that overlooks my hometown. I only hope she still feels the same way about me.

⧭⧭⧭
then
Making love in the back of the pastor’s church basement was foolish, but then true love makes you do foolish things.

Years had passed since Josiah and April had last laid eyes on each other—years since they’d been forcibly separated.

But true love never runs dry.

They met in the playground on a sunny summer day when they were six. After that, they were inseparable. On her seventh birthday, at the birthday party he organized for her in his backyard, he told her: “I’m going to marry you one day, April.”

That promise never left him. After all, it’s not every day a man meets his soulmate. It’s not every day when he finds his twin flame in this sea of cold souls called life.

It was a bitter cold November afternoon, the sun setting on scattered dead leaves in his front yard, when Child Protective Services ripped April from her mother’s arms—and out of Josiah’s life. The two tried to find each other for years after that.

They thought they’d never see each other again—each thinking of the other as boy became young man and girl became young woman.

Yet here she was in his arms once again. At 19-years-old, their prayers were answered. Breathless pants were silenced only by passionate kisses.

The church’s dim light made April glow like an angel and Josiah’s light eyes made her heart leap. Her damp dark hair draped over them like a blanket, entangled in each other’s arms.

It was Josiah’s first time with a girl, but true love needs no guide.

Their love was forbidden. No one could know. Not that he was the son of a preacher. Nor that she was a former prostitute.

True love forgives everything—even a painful past.

Even his burden—of being the perfect son and handling the pressure his father put on him.

Even her battle scars—of living on the streets and struggling every day to stay alive.

They both held secrets that they entrusted only to each other. But they would soon see that even true love isn’t enough to shield them from the dark perils of the world.

⧭⧭⧭
now
Breaking my mother’s heart all those years ago was almost as bad as what happened between me and April.

I stand across from my mother for the first time in years, and it strikes me how much time has passed.

Gone is her flawless complexion—her laugh lines replaced with wrinkles, thanks to me.

Her once dark hair has been strangled by lifeless strands of gray and silver, as if to remind me of the havoc my absence created.

I look around my old stomping grounds and I have hope that forgiveness will begin in the form of my mother’s unconditional love.

A pathetic plastic mini-tree sits atop the cracked formica kitchen table, reminding me that Christmas is almost here.

There will be no chestnuts roasted on an open fire this year. No presents under the tree.

It’s my fault that the church—who once treated her like a second mother and our cabin as a second home—has evaporated from her life.

I take a deep breath and she wipes the kitchen counter as if I’m not even here.

I’ve got to say something to fill the cold empty silence. “Ever think about getting back together with Dad?”

I force an uncomfortable laugh, though there’s nothing funny about ending a marriage of more than 20 years.

She rubs the goose pimples on her arms. I grip the edges of the counter for support and swallow around the lump in my throat. I came here to say something, just one important thing. I clear my throat.

“Mom, I… I’m sorry I—”

My mother walks right past me like she doesn’t want to discuss it. Silence is the worst kind of punishment, especially when assaulted by someone you love.

I change the subject to one just as sensitive. “Mom, you haven’t seen April around, have you?”

She opens the outside door and an arctic wind rushes in, as if hinting it’s time for me to go.

I stop before the door and give her a last look. “Just know… If you ever need anything, I’ll be checking on you. Hope you don’t mind.”

⧭⧭⧭
then
Pregnant? The words whispered from April’s mouth, and Josiah didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry.

He had to stay strong for her, though his heart pounded so hard he couldn’t swallow.

He sat on the arm of the La-Z-Boy chair next to her, his arm behind her neck, her hair flowing over his arm like delicate strands of silk. He pulled her closer and kissed her moist forehead.

Her mother’s home was simple and that was good because April often found herself cleaning it up after her mother’s liquor-fueled binges.

“How did this…? When did this happen?” His words came out faster than he could retrieve them. He closed his eyes in preparation for the retort he’d earned.

Her eyes narrowed at him as if he’d slapped her across the face. “Oh, I think you know how it happened.”

He put his tongue between his teeth and bit down. The joy and the fear welled up all at once as a weight in his throat that threatened to explode. But he breathed through pursed lips and calmed it. One thought punched through the calm: Their lives were ruined. He was staying with his April—he’d never leave her—but this baby was going to ruin their lives.

They harbored the dream of revealing their secret relationship to their parents—and the fantasy that they’d be welcomed with unconditional love. That was impossible now.

The moment the word got out about their pregnancy, his father’s position as the town’s pastor would be in doubt.

His mom would be shunned. Worse yet, both April and Josiah will be excommunicated from the church.

His reputation as the perfect son, the benchmark every parent compared their own children to? That would be lost forever. Now he would be the cautionary tale, the one they could all consider themselves superior to, no matter how badly they screwed up.

A lone tear trailed down April’s cheek and he lifted her chin, their lips meeting in a kiss.

“So long as we’re together, that’s all that matters,” said Josiah, his eyes locking with hers.
Nothing was more important to him than April. Josiah would fight to protect her, to treasure her, to keep her in his arms. Nothing would stop that. Nothing.

⧭⧭⧭
now

He was broken. My father, the former pastor, slopped the mop in the bucket and ran it down the faux marble elementary school floor. His eyes focused on nothing, slack and circled in shades of red and purple.

It stung to see his fall from grace as much as it stung to smell the stench of the dirty Clorox he cleaned with.

Had my love for April been worth all of this?

At the height of his career as a pastor, he was the best in the state. They’d called on him to travel far and wide giving his trademark sermons—with plenty of fire but not too much brimstone. There were even guest appearances on TV and there was talk of his own show. He was well on his way to becoming a national pastor. My dad could have been one of the greatest.

But now he was a janitor. I’d taken it all from him.

Josiah looked around at all that had become of his father’s career. Children’s homemade Christmas cards hung to the walls. Plastic mistletoe dangled from the classroom doors.

The old man’s bony shoulders arched with age and shame. His once flat stomach and muscular build ruined by drinking his problems away.

My parents—once the sterling example of a married couple—were torn apart by the havoc of our careless love.

His turned his back to me. Excommunication extended itself even to the family and he didn’t want to hear what I had to say, nor could he say anything back to me even if he’d wanted.

Still, I couldn’t hold back. “Dad, we never got to talk about what happened all those years ago.”

A cold breeze made my dad shiver and zip up his custodial uniform tighter. I had to ask the one thing I came here for.

“Dad, you haven’t seen April around town, have you?”

But he just walked into the supply closet as if I wasn’t even there, dumped the slop from the bucket and slammed the door shut in my face.

There was a time when we were best friends and now… I only hoped I could at least see April. That might make facing all of this worth it.

⧭⧭⧭
then
If anyone would understand, it would be Josiah’s parents. They were more like his brother and sister sometimes than anything.

That evening was their 20th wedding anniversary, and the more Josiah thought about it, the more he wondered why he’d taken so long to introduce April as his girlfriend.

“Do you think they’ll like me?” April spun around, her emerald green dress finally out of the closet for the event. She was ravishing.

“They’ll adore you—and our child.” Josiah snuck a quick kiss in the shadows of a nook of the Community Hall. How could they not?

His eyes met theirs from across the crowded hall and his parents smiled from ear-to-ear. Josiah was their pride and joy.

Josiah grabbed April’s hand and squeezed. He was tired of hiding this relationship. So many times he’d wanted to scream out to the world: “I love April and April loves me!” He cleared his throat. But this was going to be hard.

His dad received an energetic handshake from one congregation member and his mom took a warm hug from another. “Thank you. Thank you so much. We are truly blessed,” his father said.

“Dad? Mom?” Josiah stepped in, April in tow, her face dark and tense.

The room quieted around them, the vigorous conversation of before replaced by the judgmental looks and whispers of the brothers and sisters of the congregation.

“Yes, son.” His father’s eyes darted from Josiah to April and back.

“There’s something I need to tell you.” Josiah swallowed around the lumps in his throat.

“She’s pregnant!” The double doors to the hall slammed against the wall and April’s mother staggered into the room, preceded not just by her voice but also by her trademark stench of cheap whiskey.
All heads turned to them. The congregation had shunned Harriet years before she lost custody of April to Child Protective Services. And they weren’t any happier to see her now.

Indeed, Josiah and April had seen firsthand the permanent stain of judgment that was excommunication in a small Christian town.

“And you call yourself a Christian.” Harriet coughed, her voice gravelly like a lung cancer patient. She pushed her way through the reeling crowd to the front of the stage—and next to his parents.

“Harriet, perhaps we can discuss this privately.” His father radiated his trademark aplomb and warm smile. But his eyes were cold, and scared.

Harriet waved something around in her hand.

“Oh my goodness.” April blushed a crimson red, and Harriet flung the pregnancy test at Josiah’s parents.

“Your perfect Christian son did that to my daughter.”

The waves of crowd murmurs drowned the pounding sound of his heart. April dashed towards the door, her hands like blinders at the side of her head. Josiah chased. As if the shock and shame on his parents’ faces wasn’t painful enough, the hisses the congregation made was like being stoned to death on that long sprint for the door.

⧭⧭⧭
now
I was invisible, lost in a stream of people and drowning in my own misery. They scurried about in their winter coats in the hustle and bustle that was Christmas season.

April. I needed her. Only she had a way to lift my spirits.

It was she who I could laugh with for hours about almost nothing, never running out of things to talk about.

It was she who was my other half. I’d been lost all these years without her. I wondered if she still felt the same. I wondered where she was.

There she was—the answer to my prayers and my one bridge to the love of my life. Harriet.

I didn’t recognize April’s mother at first, talking to herself, bundled in tattered clothing and pushing her overfilled grocery cart through the mass of pedestrians.

She was homeless. My heart broke for what had become of her life, but I couldn’t help but feel that maybe she deserved that dose of karma.

She froze, her eyes widening as they met mine. She turned pale as if she’d seen a ghost.

And she had.
The little boy who ran right through me probably gave it away. Perhaps it was the cold chills and goosebumps. Most people got those when spirits like me were near.
She hauled butt across the street and down a back alley.

“Wait!” I chased after her. There was no way she’d avoid me.

“Get away from me!”

I wasn’t about to lose my only opportunity to see my April again. She turned left, then right into the maze of alleys that made up the infrastructure of Main Street in Forest Hills. But it wasn’t enough to keep me away.

She made a wrong turn and I appeared right in front of her, trapping Harriet in the dead end of a back alley.

She pounded her head in denial. “I’m crazy. The doctor said I just need to take my meds.”

“You’re no more crazy now than you were all those years ago.” I crossed my arms, ready for any sudden escape attempts.

“Our Father in heaven. Hallowed be thy name,” she said, crossing herself incorrectly, by the way.

“Thy will be done in heaven as in Earth.” I finished her prayer with a smirk. “I can’t believe you can see me. I can’t believe you can hear me.”

“You’re dead?”

I shrugged. “I’m glad to see you too. I need you to help me reach April.”

“I ain’t doin’ squat.” She slipped past me and dashed into a church.

There went my one and only chance to reach the love of my life.

⧭⧭⧭
then
“What do you mean you want to break up?”Josiah rolled the cold, smooth metal of her promise ring around in his hand.

They really thought they could make it through this. The unauthorized public outing of their relationship and April’s pregnancy had been devastating for the two of them.

She focused her eyes on the cracks in the sidewalk and turned to leave from his parents’ doorstep that day. “It’s better this way,” she mumbled.

Josiah pulled her back into an embrace, and took her face in his palms. “I’m lost without you.”

She struggled to look away and her chin quivered as a lone tear ran down her cheek. “This is destroying your family.”

As much as he wanted to deny it, the damage had already begun. They’d already demanded his father step down as the town’s pastor.

And the once close sisters in the congregation barely muttered “Hello” to his own mother at the market.

These so-called friends, many of whom they’d been there for in their darkest hours, now avoided them like the plague.

Was loving April worth all this? For Josiah, there was only one answer.

His thumb brushed the lone tear from her cheek. “We’re going to run away together. That way we can live our own life together. You, me, and our baby.”

“You promise?”

“Look at me.” Josiah kissed her lips. “I promise.”

⧭⧭⧭
now
The blood-curdling scream pierced my ears. “Get away from me!” Harriet’s voice echoed in the women’s public bathroom.

I cornered her against the bathroom sink. “I don’t think you understand the gravity of the situation. I don’t have much time left and I need to speak to April while I still can.”

A smirk spread across her face. “Well, I guess then we have a conundrum because I ain’t helping you.”

“Why not?” I asked. Enough games.

She bowed her head in shame though she masked it with a chuckle. “Even if I wanted to, she won’t speak to me. Hasn’t in 10 years.”

“Why not?” I asked, though I knew the answer before I finished speaking.

She scoffed. “After ruining things for you two lovebirds? Not going to happen. Good luck on your journey to the light.”

She staggered away, clearly still drunk. I was desperate. I had to think fast as so the words slipped out of my mouth before I could stop them. “You’re going to die.”

She rolled her eyes, reaching for the doorknob. “Ain’t everybody?”

“You’ve got cancer—terminal cancer.” It was a terrible thing to say, especially since it wasn’t true, but I had no other choice and I could only hope it would work.

She turned to face me. “How much time do I got?”

“Not much. It’s best, if there’s something you need to say to someone, you do it and soon,” I said, trying to mask how horrible I felt about doing this.

She took a long breath. “The world has treated me like trash most of my life. I wanna say nothin’ to nobody… except April.”

“Then do it and do it quick.” I crossed my arms. Harriet had fallen right into my trap.

⧭⧭⧭
then
In the end, saying goodbye to his parents before he slipped out the window that night was just too painful.

He wanted to bring up the subject over dinner, but his mother faked that she wasn’t hungry in order to make sure there were enough baked beans for him and his father. And it tore his heart out.

Through it all, with his father losing his job and his mother ironing people’s clothes to scratch out a living, his parents stayed strong.

But the threads of the relationship were coming undone.

April was right. Their love was destroying everything.

His parents would only try to talk him out of leaving. His goodbye letter was the best way, he told himself. He laid it on the kitchen table before disappearing from their lives—forever.

April was waiting for him at her house. Josiah was to pick her up at 11 p.m. They would leave together for the last Greyhound bus that night from Main Street.

But Josiah never made it there.

⧭⧭⧭
now
April slammed the door in her mother’s face. I really shouldn’t have been surprised.

They hadn’t spoken for years. Before that, their relationship had always been rocky. So, the chances of her mother getting through to her for me were slim to none.

And yet, I had to try.

Harriet charged down the hall of the fancy high-rise condo where April lived. Even the Christmas decorations were gold-plated.

She glared at me as if April’s response was somehow my fault. “Told you she wouldn’t talk to me.”

“So that’s it? This could be my… Your only chance to talk to your daughter and you’re just going to give up?” I stepped out in front of her again.

She tried to walk through me, but the strength of my emotions blocked her.

Her eyes widened. She wasn’t the only one. I could manipulate something physical!

“You can’t make me do it.” She refused to look at me.

“Do you want to die, knowing you didn’t make amends to the one ones you loved and hurt the most?” I pressed her shoulder.

I thought of my own guilt. I never got a chance to say goodbye. I never got to tell the people I loved how much they meant to me.

I didn’t know how much time I had left, but I could feel a force calling me back to where I’d escaped from.

A force that wouldn’t take no for an answer.

Her eyes glistened in the brightly-lit hallway. “I was such a bad mother. I made so many mistakes. I don’t know what to say.”

I never thought I’d hug that woman, but for the first time in my life, I realized who she was: just a mom who wanted her daughter’s forgiveness.

“We’ll figure something out.” I hoped I was right.

⧭⧭⧭
then
Tonight was the night he and April would run away together. It was difficult to leave his family behind, but this was the only way.

Josiah only hoped that in time things would calm down—that he, April and their baby could return to Forest Hills and be reunited with his parents.

That evening, the rain poured so hard he couldn’t see more than three feet in front of him, let alone the dirt road that led to April’s house.

He glanced at his watch. It was already past 11:30 p.m. Goodness knew when he’d arrive at April’s. He had to find a faster way.

Turning to the right, the only possible route was to cut through the woods and across the river.

He might get a little wet, but it was better than April thinking he’d abandoned her.

At first, it seemed like a good idea—even with the river rushing below. He took a tentative first step in the soft mud.

The world flipped on him and the cool cascade of river water shocked him into an otherworldly stupor as he hit his head on the sharp rock.

April’s face crossed his consciousness one last time. Now he was going to be really late.

The river rock came up fast and filled his vision. His lifeless body floated down the river like a loose log.

⧭⧭⧭
now
Harriet walked behind my dad at the school, her shoulders hunched and her face downcast.

What happened to my family was her fault. If only she’d minded her own business, my parents could have helped me and April work things out.

Maybe then my parents wouldn’t have had the stress which eventually split them apart. I only wanted them to accept April as the love of my life.

I’d made Harriet take a shower at the community center and change into some more presentable clothes. Even so, the mouthwash would only mask the liquor on her breath for so long.
Dad hit play on a busted old boombox and tired Christmas music burst into the hallway. Harriet opened her mouth. “Merry Christmas, pastor,” she yelled, and cleared her throat.
My father chuckled before turning around. “Been a long time since anybody’s called me—” His eyes met hers and his smile faded. “You.”

“I just need a second of your time,” said Harriet.

“Out.” His voice echoed down the hall like a cannon.

“Tell him it’s about me.” I had to get through to him.

“Josiah asked me to pass along a message.” She planted her feet in a surprising show of determination.

My father froze and, for a moment, his face softened—a glimpse into the man I knew before. “You’ve seen my son?”

“He… never meant to hurt you or your wife when he left that night. If he could have done it all over again, before he died, he—”

“Died?” asked my father, his eyebrows arching.

Rage rose in me. “I didn’t tell you to say that!”

“You’re telling me my son is dead and what…? You’re some kind of psychic?”

“Not exactly. I…” Her mouth moved but nothing came out.

“Get behind me, Satan! Get behind me!” He stepped towards her, his eyes big and his jaw set. Harriet screeched and scuttered back down the hall.

“Wait! Harriet!” I yelled. But the exit door slammed shut behind her—and, with it, my only chance at my father’s forgiveness.

I stayed with my father, and he squatted in a corner, his hand frantically wiping away the streaming tears.

⧭⧭⧭
then
Josiah’s body washed up on a river bank, miles from Forest Hills. It was there that a little boy found him while hooking a chunk of ham on his fishing hook.

The boy screamed to his parents that he’d found a dead man with no identification and they immediately ran to investigate.

Only Josiah wasn’t dead, not yet.

He was just unconscious. They had him helicoptered to the nearest hospital. Josiah was alive but barely. His spirit was trapped in the comatose shell, floating in the darkness with only a shaft of light that called to him.

He knew what it was. It begged him to cross over. But Josiah refused. He would not—could not—go. Not without his April.

⧭⧭⧭
now
Christmas was tomorrow and I could feel a strange, new pulling to the other side.

I was fading. If I was going to have any chance of undoing what I’d done when I left, we needed to move fast.

After our disastrous attempt to connect with my dad, I didn’t get my hopes up when Harriet approached my mother in the grocery store parking lot.

At first, she listened calmly and dug through her purse for something.

Harriet explained how I’d come back to apologize and that I only wanted to join them for one last Christmas.

“What he wants more than anything is for you, April and—”

“Ah, here it is.” My mother looked up from her purse and sprayed a fine mist from a black canister in Harriet’s direction.

Harriet screeched and grabbed for her eyes. “Mace?” she screamed, her eyes revealing a mix of horror and disbelief.
Heads turned in the parking lot to stare at her, and people scurried to their vehicles, tightly clutching their Christmas dinner fixings.

“That’s what you get for splitting up our family and for concocting this cockamamie story about my son! My son is still alive. I can feel it!” My mother’s quivering hands covered her face. She turned, opened her car door, then slammed it and faced Harriet. “I’m sorry.”

“No,” said Harriet, sobbing. “I deserved it. My daughter… she won’t even talk to me and it’s my fault.”

My mother strode over to her and pulled a few Kleenexes from her purse. “The mace is a low dose. Shouldn’t last any more than a few minutes.”

“Tell her I miss her sweet potato pie on Christmas and the time she made taco pie,” I said.

Harriet told her and my mother gasped. “I’m sorry Mom, sorry I put you through so much pain.”

Her eyes turned red and she turned away. “No, son, you listen to me. You went with love. And God is love. No one has the right to deny that to you.”

I touched my mother’s hand and goose pimples ran up her arms. She shivered. “Is that him?”

Harriet nodded.

“Wait until I tell your father,” my mom said, smiling through the tears.

“Not so sure he’s open to that idea,” said Harriet.

“You let me take care of him… Thank you, Harriet. Thank you.” My mother hugged her, a gulping laugh bursting through her tears.

Harriet smiled and a tear rolled down her cheek.

My mother turned to her car, then back again. “Do you have any place to eat Christmas dinner? I make the world’s best sweet potato pie.”

Harriet wasn’t used to such kindness and became fidgety. “No, I…”

“Say ‘yes,’ Harriet,” I said with a smile.

She chuckled. “Yes, I’d be honored to join you for Christmas. Thank you… for forgiving me.”

⧭⧭⧭
now & then
Something was wrong. Jonah could feel it. He was no longer in the parking lot with Harriet and his mother.

He was in the hospital where his lifeless body lay comatose. The physician and specialists murmured next to him. That’s what brought him here.

They were going to unplug his life support. That much he knew for sure.

After years of being a vegetable with no identification, hospital funding cutbacks meant they couldn’t continue to keep him alive, not when he had no chance to wake up and no people who cared about him.

It would be done in a matter of hours. Gone with it would be any opportunity he had to reach April.

He had to do something. Now.

⧭⧭⧭
now
“So, wait…” The confusion was etched on Harriet’s face. They were on their way back up to April’s condo in the elevator. “So, you’re not dead?”

“You need to tell my parents to keep calling hospitals, describing everything I tell you,” I said.

“All right,” said Harriet, texting my mother.

“Take this all down.” I recounted to her every detail I could see. In and out of the hospital, name tags on hospital personnel, the smells, the train and factory in the distance. Anything and everything I could think of that could help them find me.

Harriet looked at me. “Sent. I hope it’s enough.”

“Me too.” I sighed, and the elevator doors opened. Standing in front of us was April. Goodness, she looked amazing. It was the first time I’d gotten a good look at her.

Age had been kind to her. She still had that sweetness to her. I didn’t know how this was possible but she’d become even more beautiful.

“You again. I’m calling security.” April strutted down the hall toward her condo, her rage beating its tempo on the hard floor.

“Tell her about how I remember the first time we made love in the church basement.” I needed something that would make April take this seriously.

“What?” said Harriet, contorting her face. “Really?”

“Just tell her.”

“Who are you talking to? Should have known you’d lose your mind eventually with all that drinking.” April opened the door to her condo just enough to squeeze through.

“He wants me to tell you two… ‘did it’ in the church basement.”

On the other side of the door, April froze and looked at her wide-eyed. “I beg your pardon?”

“He says he proposed to you when you were both five and he never gave you the dream. He’s only sorry he didn’t get to fulfill it.”

April’s face hardened and rage clouded her beauty. “You’re a cruel woman.”

“It was under the oak tree. You two called it your fort. Fort Green.”

April froze, her mouth hanging open in shock.

“He says he gave you a promise ring years later and you tried to give it back to him when you were standing outside his parents’ house.”

“If this is some kind of trick…” April narrowed her eyes at her mother.

“No trick. Just a mother trying to make up to a daughter and get her to love her again. I’m sorry you hate me, April. I know I deserve it for what I did.”

“I don’t hate you. I just… You really hurt us, what you did.”

“I know… I… I’m pond scum. I… he loves you still. I was jealous. I never had what you two had and the closest way to have a piece of it was to ruin it. I’m sorry, will you ever forgive me?”

April’s eyes met her mother’s. “It’ll take some time. But I’m willing to try.”

I wanted to tap Harriet on the shoulder. “Tell her, I tried to get to her that night, that something happened. An accident. I couldn’t leave this world—not without saying goodbye.”

Harriet relayed my words and April’s face turned red and she slid down the wall, grasping onto her condo door for support. She sobbed, and covered her mouth, her glance both hopeful and hurting. She babbled so many questions, we could hardly keep up.

We talked for hours through Harriet, discussing things from the past that only we knew.

“What about our baby?” I asked.

April looked away. “Without you, I wasn’t sure I could be a good mother, Josiah. In the end, I felt the best thing for our child was—”

“You terminated the pregnancy? You gave him up for adoption?” I contemplated each possibility and each one hurt deep inside me.

Harriet’s anxious eyes wandered. “No, I—”

Her front door burst open and a ten-year-old boy looked down on April. “Mom! Can I play video games?”

“After homework. Josiah, Jr. meet your… grandmother, Harriet.”

Harriet’s eyes lit up. I couldn’t believe my own eyes. He was like the perfect cross between the very best of April and me.

Harriet hugged her grandson and I didn’t want to leave. “You-know-who says he’s beautiful,” Harriet said.

“Grandma, do you know how to make chocolate chip cookies?” Josiah, Jr. asked.

“I sure do, but—” Harriet’s phone rang. “Yes? Uh-huh… We’ll be right there.”

“What is it, Mom?” April asked.

“We found him. We found Josiah.”

⧭⧭⧭
now

“Where am I?” Everything was bright, too bright, and I had to close my eyes.
“We’ve waited so long,” my mother said.
I covered my eyes and peeled one eyelid back. My parents fidgeted at my side, their arms around each other and their tearful eyes lighting up.

I smiled weakly at them. “Me too,” I said, my voice scratchy.
They kissed each other, and my father looked in my mother’s eyes, his grin growing. “Best Christmas present ever.”
But my thoughts were on the reason for my existence—the love of my life. “Where’s April?”

“Josiah?” April stepped to the side of the bed with our son in her arms. She looked at the boy. “Say ‘hello’ to your daddy.”

“Hi, Daddy. Wanna play catch?”

“Maybe you should let him recover first,” said April, laughing. “Go downstairs with your grandparents and get something to eat.”

“Yes, ma’am,” said Josiah, Jr.

“You did good with him,” I said, my throat clenching up not just from the emotion of it, but also from the pride I felt.

Christmas music buzzed in the background and April cleared her throat. “Welcome back,” she whispered.

Harriet stepped up next. “So, you decided to come back, did ya?” She gave me a side smile. “You son-of-a-gun… Come on, Junior.”

I watched them all walk away, getting along beautifully in the spirit of Christmas. “I guess I should probably tell her that she’s not terminally ill after all.”

“What?” asked April, looking at her mother and back to me.
“It’s a long story.” I reached my hand out to hers. “Never got to say goodbye.”

“Now, you don’t have to.” She leaned over and kissed me, our lips meeting for the first time in years. The sweetest taste and the best Christmas gift ever.

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My One and Only

⧭⧭⧭

We’ve had 40 great years together. But tonight will be our last. My wife doesn’t know yet.  The least I can do is make it memorable.

I walk through this antique shop, looking for the perfect goodbye gift, and take a deep breath. The must of these old things tickles my nose. Fresh lilies sit in a crystal vase next to a case of cameos and Victorian rings. I think of her.

She is my life. It hasn’t always been perfect, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. The intricate golden metalwork of the rings entrances me but the reflection in the glass jolts me back to reality. Gone are my strong muscular frame and handsome jawline. I’ve got more wrinkles than I care to admit to and a paunchy gut — thanks to her rich cooking. Too much time has passed.

She complains of her grey hairs. Her petite body has more curves now than she’d like. But her grey only reminds me of the strength of our love and the curves are but more of her for me to love.

True love isn’t perfect. How could it be? It’s messy, it’s higher than the highest mountain and lower than the deepest canyon — frequently at the same time. The world does everything it can to test if it’s for real. It takes the love of a good woman to know that. I have it and I wouldn’t change it for riches, power or even a new Silverado.

My wife says I changed her life. That’s not right. She taught me true love exists. She sacrificed her life so we could be together. She refused to give up on us when the job and the house were gone, and all we had left was love. I’ll do anything for her. Maybe, in the end, I’m being punished for loving her too much.

The store clerk conjures up a warm smile. “Mr. Johnson,” he says.

“Jack,” I say. “Mr. Johnson was my father.”

He pulls out the sterling silver case, the locket inside.  It was years ago that I last ran my fingers along its smooth casing — when I first gave it to her. The memories flood back and I turn away from the clerk. Don’t go soft on me now, Jack. The locket was lost to me forever. And yet here it is.  It’s perfect, just like her.

I’ve handled the arrangements. My wife is financially set — I made sure of that.  Tommy, Hayden and Mason will have it the hardest. Strong woman that she is, though, she’ll keep our kids together. She’s always been our glue.

How do I tell her we won’t be together forever? I’ve been practicing for months now, but nothing sounds right.

I didn’t have the heart to tell her eight months ago when Dr. Patrick gave me the results over the phone. God, I don’t want to leave her. She’s been through too much pain as it is.

How do you say goodbye to your soulmate? How do you look her in the eyes one more time knowing it’ll be the last?

I keep my promises to my wife. But I promised to grow old with her and now I have to break that one. We met when I was young, strong and handsome, so my real question is: will she stay with me until the end?

I close my eyes. Soft classical music rolls over me in idyllic waves, the strings rising and then falling, stubbornly falling. It wasn’t like this the first time I met her — the woman who would change my life forever.

⧭⧭⧭

“Stay away from her.” His father slammed his bible closed.

“But, Dad, what they say about Julianna isn’t—” Jack locked eyes with his father and the air congealed. He was nineteen now, scrawny for sure but just as tall as Pastor Johnson’s six feet and five inches. One glance at those dark eyes though, and he was a child again. He tensed his arms and straightened his shoulders. Dad had cowed him before. Not this time.

Why? The question screamed behind his eardrums. But he knew better than to ask it.

The old man should be happy that he was helping the young woman prepare for the storm. Just last week, he told him for the ninety-ninth time that he needed to move on and meet a nice girl.  With two years since Desiree, maybe he was right.

His father never approved of their relationship, much less their engagement.  Desiree came from a world of wealth, and her parents didn’t much care for him either.

But they didn’t see what the two of them saw.  They didn’t feel what the two of them felt. They were soulmates. The world tried everything to split them apart and nothing worked — until death.

No, Jack couldn’t move on, no matter what his father said.  Not a day went by that he didn’t think of his Desiree.

His father opened his mouth and Jack clenched his fist. He’d put up with enough of the Pastor’s grumblings. But Desiree’s face came back to him. The sad mouth. The compassionate eyebrows. Once a week, she’d asked him to work on his relationship with the old bible-thumper.

That was the only reason he didn’t punch his father square in the nose right now. He’d promised her. She was more compassionate and forgiving than him. Therein lay only the barest inkling of the beauty that was Desiree.

It was supposed to be a romantic getaway. She’d always begged him for a trip to the French Quarter in New Orleans. They’d planned it all out: a stroll along the Moon Walk, oysters for dinner, drinks by candlelight and then a carriage ride back to a quiet cottage for an early night.

But Katrina hit.

His father turned his back on him and set to scribbling his Sunday sermon. Jack’s stomach cramped up.

This was their third small town in two years and this small pea home they’d given him wasn’t much. They’d once had family though. Sparse framed photos hung on the damp oakwood walls. They were the closest thing to a real home that remained. There was a time when he and his father were close, but those days were long gone.

Pastor Johnson was lucky, he could escape into the fantasy that was his religion but Jack had lost all faith some time ago. If there was a god, he wouldn’t have taken his Desiree away.

She was too good for this world and not a day went by when he didn’t think of her.

They met when they were only six years old. In her, he found his best friend, his partner, his soulmate. Distance separated them at times, but fate always stepped in and brought them back together. They became inseparable.

Atop the Ferris wheel the night of their first kiss, he looked into her blue eyes and grinned. “I’m going to marry you one day, Desiree.”

She laughed. It was that unique high-pitched chuckle that only she had. She didn’t say yes. But he knew she would.

He just didn’t know it would take two years. He found her and he proved he was no longer a boy, but a man. He won her heart. The ring on her finger proved all of that — until the storm came and took it away. They said ’till death do us part, but even death couldn’t stop his love for her.

Julianna was beautiful. But move on from Desiree? Never.  Why was his father so hell-bent against her?  He’d promised to help the young woman fix her home for the coming storm. If there was one thing Jack was, he was a man of his word.

⧭⧭⧭

She knew things only his Desiree knew.

It was a long day fixing her roof. Jack only wanted to step inside for a quick, cool drink. But, honestly, he didn’t know the last time he’d tasted a home-cooked meal. It was just nice to be taken care of for a moment.

He paced the fraying shag carpet of the cramped living room. He didn’t want to be alone with another girl. It just didn’t feel right, no matter that Desiree was dead and buried. It was like cheating on her memory. And maybe she was watching him from somewhere.

His father said she’d want him to move on, but he didn’t believe it. They’d never exchanged the words, but in his heart, they were very much still married.   He just wished he’d gotten the chance to say goodbye. There was so much he wanted to say to her.

Julianna, in a way, reminded him of his Desiree.  Jack smiled at the lovely young woman.  She was by far the friendliest person he’d met in town. Everyone else was consumed with busybody activities.

Candlelight illuminated her dark hair and dark brown eyes. Her place was simple, barely above what he’d call a shack, but thanks to her it was homey. A woman’s touch — something he’d almost forgotten the importance of. He never knew a house to be a home without it.

If he were in the market for a woman, Julianna — feisty and coy as she was — would definitely make the cut. He’d had a couple too many glasses of wine, but he needed to forget the world tonight.  She was just as lonely as him, up on that hill in that shack she called home. And that wasn’t by accident.  Jack didn’t want to dig into her business — why the people in town treated her like a black sheep — but the curiosity ate at him.

There was a kinship between these two souls. Jack felt it from the beginning, though he couldn’t put his finger on why. It was just nice to meet someone who was genuine. Even so, he kept his mouth shut about Desiree. He was a man of few words as it was. When he spoke, it was low. It was slow.

He had a lot in common with his old Labrador, Bruno. He took that dog everywhere his truck went.  He was Desiree’s dog, actually. She’d loved Bruno so much he had to come to their wedding — the wedding that never happened. The dog survived the storm when Desiree did not.

She’d called out to him in her last moments, the locket bouncing on her chest. He couldn’t afford a real wedding ring. But she said she’d treasure it forever, that it was more than enough. God bless her heart.

Bruno licked Julianna’s slender arms and she laughed. He wasn’t like that with everyone. She liked him, he liked her — and Bruno was about the best judge of character Jack knew.

He needed a real friend — someone he could talk with about everything he’d kept bottled up inside since the funeral.  “How do you expect to meet someone nice if you talk about your dead fiancée all the time,” his father always said, so he’d learned to keep her inside, like a secret.

Desiree watched over him. Jack knew it was true, even though he didn’t dare tell anyone that. That time when Bruno barked at nothing the same way he’d barked when he was happy to see her. That time when the air got still and he felt her touch on his neck. They could be coincidence. But he hoped they were her way of sending him a message.

Maybe it was just wishful thinking. He never told a soul, and certainly not his father, who would’ve said it was devilish hijinks.

Jack’s watch showed 2:13am. His wine glass was empty again, for at least the fifth time. But still he kept his mouth shut, despite Jualianna’s open-mouthed laughing at his bad jokes.

She opened up to him though. She missed her family, the people who’d rejected her. She’d made mistakes, and felt there was a scarlet letter printed on her. She was stuck, and couldn’t move on until she’d made amends.

Jack leaned forward and lifted her chin. Her eyes met his. “Nobody got the right to judge you,” he said in his deep baritone voice and country twang.

She blushed, looked down and looked up at him again, her eyes searching his.

He licked his lips and admired the gentle curve of her cheeks, the soft rise of her nose, the slender pink that was her lips. No. His heart was still with Desiree. He sat back and sighed.

He’d had this recurring dream of the last moment he’d seen her. She was trying to tell him something, but what? He he’d always wake up in a cold sweat before figuring it out.

The rich tomato and basil scent of lasagna filled his nostrils.  He should head back home. His father would start asking questions about where he’d been.  His mind was too jumbled as it was — he couldn’t handle another conflict.

Jack pushed back from the table. “I really should be—”

The angel cards were on the table and her crestfallen eyes stopped him cold. “Just a little fun before you go. It’s the least you can let me know for being a hearing ear tonight, and for fixing my roof.” She raised a helpless eyebrow and Jack was defenseless.

He sat back down, a mocking grin on his face. They were harmless fun, just general statements that could apply to anyone.

But then she said something only his Desiree and he knew, something about the locket.

⧭⧭⧭

It was just a coincidence. It had to be, and with just one question, he could prove it and move on with his life.

Bruno paced back and forth, the pitter patter of his paws echoing against the hardwood floor. Jack rolled over in bed again, the first light of dawn punching through his curtains. How could Julianna have known about the locket?

He replayed his exit last night in his mind. After she said it, he had to leave. He thanked her for the evening, mumbled something about the hour and rushed out of there, his mind spinning.

He pulled the soft blanket over his head, the one Desiree had bought him. He’d promised Julianna he’d be back to finish the roof but he couldn’t go now. It was too awkward.

But his integrity ate at him. He’d broken his promise once, and been living with the guilt ever since.

He had to show up. The storm would hit town any day now and he was still a couple days away from finishing up the roof and boarding the windows. It was a bad one, the news said, the worst in decades — and Jack knew firsthand how bad storms could be.

He looked up at the hot sun and wiped his brow before pounding more on the roof. Was it true that his Desiree had been trying to reach him all along, like Julianna said the night before?  He’d been under a thick cloud of depression, that was true. But so much that he couldn’t see what was right in front of him?

That was hard to believe, but the thought of his fiancée, lost and confused out there, trying to reach out to him in any way possible… It made his heart hurt. Was he suffocating her calls to him? He had a right to be sad, but that would be selfish. And how could he be selfish with his beloved Desiree?

Jack arrived early the next morning, the determination to maintain his distance clear even through the early morning haze. Julianna greeted him and he dipped his cowboy hat at her. Bruno’s whines battled the screeching katydids in the trees.  Julianna put out a bowl of water for him, and Desiree’s dog paced in the shade, first slurping a generous drink, then hopping in Jack’s pickup truck and out again, restarting the nervous cycle once more.

Jack was always polite to her. He didn’t want to let on just how much their conversation bothered him. But the questions ate at him like maggots on rotting flesh.

He couldn’t hold it in any longer. He descended to her door and barely grunted a hello. “I just want to know one thing. If Desiree really did say all that about the locket, then how’d she pass.”

‘Die’ was not a word in his vocabulary, at least not when it came to his beloved Desiree. It was final. And there was nothing final about Desiree — she was very much alive, at least in memory.

The younger woman stuttered. Jack didn’t know if he’d shocked her with the question or if she was offended by being put to the test.  Her eyes searched the gravel road behind Jack as if the answer lay there.

A smirk spread across his face and his shoulders relaxed.  It wasn’t real. It was just a lucky guess. Part of him was disappointed. He longed to reach out to Desiree, to have just one more shot at connecting with her. But it was best this way. “I better put the tools in the truck. I’ll be back tomorrow to finish it all up.” He headed toward his pickup.

“She says she drowned. Was there a flood of some sort?” Julianna asked.

⧭⧭⧭

Real men don’t cry, his father always told him. But Jack’s tears of happiness flowed anyway.

So many questions he had for Desiree as he sat across from Julianna at the kitchen table.  A fresh, cold glass of lemonade sat in front of him, but he couldn’t drink, he couldn’t eat, he couldn’t swallow. This moment was everything.

Jack didn’t know where to begin. He wanted to seize the moment, to tell Julianna something to say to her. But the joy was too big. The words didn’t fit.

“She can hear you fine.” Julianna’s eyes sparkled and she squeezed his hand. “She says she loves you. She misses you. She’s never stopped loving you.”

“Tell her, ‘me too.’ I love you too, baby.” He took a sip of the lemonade to ground himself.

“She wants to know if you’re taking care of… Who’s Hershey?” She scrunched her eyebrows in confusion.

His hand froze and he swallowed hard. “That’s what she called Bruno.”

Julianna chuckled and Jack pulled Bruno’s face close to him. “You hear that boy? She sees you, too.”

It was a dream come true. Desiree and Jack were picking up where they left off before her death. He told her of how he was taking care of Bruno, keeping the dog always at his side. He told her he’d finish getting his electrical engineering degree, just like she’d wanted. That he was trying to be the best man he could be — in honor of her.

Jack never thought he’d have a chance to communicate with his Desiree again and his energy ran in hot and cold spurts, not knowing what to make of this new chance. Through Julianna, he laughed and he cried reminiscing with her about old times, things only his Desiree would know.  There was the time he’d gone to the gym with a big hole in his crotch or their social studies teacher with the weird neck tick or the time they’d gone to Red Rock outside of Las Vegas just the two of them. Jack didn’t have to say anything. He only confirmed with his smile — and eventually his tears — the truth of Julianna’s statements.

Julianna enjoyed it too, laughing at the comments she said his Desiree was making. It was as if she loved living vicariously their lives. But it grew late and Julianna sagged in her chair. “I’m sorry, Jack,” she said from behind darkening eyelids. “I’m losing the connection. Let’s try again tomorrow after you finish up the roof?” She managed a weak smile.

The lights flickered and her radio crackled on. The sad, slow guitar of “The Thunder Rolls” came on — his fiancée’s favorite Garth Brook’s song. Chills sparked in his shoulders and that spot between his eyes tightened.

He nodded. “I—” His throat seized up and he tried to clear it. “I just want to say—”

“No.” She grinned. “Thank you. I just want to make people happy. I know what it’s like to lose someone you…” She looked away and Jack didn’t push it.

He hated leaving that evening but he needed to get back home to his father before the old pastor started asking questions.

⧭⧭⧭

Julianna was a fraud and Jack’s father handed him the evidence to prove it. Jack stared at the newspaper, reading and rereading the passages.  He gripped the water-soiled paper in his hands and his eyes trailed through page after page. Julianna had conned so many people out of their money. They’d even brought her up on charges, but she always got away on a technicality.

Jack’s father towered over him, his hands on his hips.  He took a deep breath, the room spinning around him.  It couldn’t be possible.  Only he and Desiree knew the intimate details Julianna had recounted to him.

“People like her knew just what to say. I told you to stay away from her. ‘Do not turn to mediums or seek out spiritists, for you will be defiled by them. I am the LORD your God.’ Leviticus 19.31.” The pastor’s booming voice echoed behind him, adding insult to injury.

Bruno howled as if in protest and the old pastor swatted him on the backside. “Shut up, Bruno.” The dog growled as if mumbling and threw himself to the floor by Jack’s side, his eyes ever-vigilant on the pastor.

Jack pinched his brow. He was a fool. Feminine beauty and a con artist’s fake sincerity were all it took to trick him. He was lonely. He was weak. His stomach roiled and he wanted to scream.

“You always fall for the wrong girls,” his father said.  “First that fiancée of yours and now—”

Jack shot to his feet and headed for the door. Another word to disrespect his wife and he would lose control. He’d punch his father in his self-righteous nose and he’d have broken his word to Desiree again. His soul rebelled at the idea. He was honor-bound to repair his relationship with his father.

Outside, in the midday sun, Jack stewed on Julianna. The heat rose to his head and he mock-punched the peeling aluminum siding. She needed money, that he understood. But to use his Desiree, his most precious memories, all he had left of her, to con him out of money?

A cool wind blew from the ocean. True, Julianna never asked him for money. But maybe his father was right. Maybe it was only a matter of time. Maybe this was a long con. Jack wasn’t sure about anything right now except for one thing: he was giving her a piece of his mind first thing tomorrow morning.

⧭⧭⧭

It was the sound of his Desiree’s voice coming from Julianna’s mouth that made him stop mid-sentence.

It started when she told him she didn’t have the money to finish the house repairs. Jack did his best to control his temper there, in the heat of the summer sun, but he’d wished he’d gone with his first instinct of just leaving and not saying anything to her, ever. He felt taken advantage of — there were no two ways around that.

But he had to defend Desiree’s honor. He’d stop at nothing to do that.  He swatted at the mosquitos that punished him for his rage. “Shame on you,” he said to her.

A lone tear trailed from her face even as her eyes flared angry. She opened her mouth but no words came out.

“How dare you take advantage of innocent people like that?”

“But I didn’t. It’s not true, none of it.”

Jack stared at her sideways. He didn’t want to believe her.  It wasn’t just that she’d disrespected him. She’d disrespected the very memory of his fiancée. He’d miss their budding friendship, but he needed to move on with is life. He turned to walk away.

Desiree’s voice sounded behind him. “Please, don’t leave me.”

Jack’s heart stopped. He shook his head. No, it was just his overactive imagination. Rage flared in him, both at himself and Julianna. He turned to see the whites of Julianna’s eyes, and his anger evaporated.

Her elbows moved at odd angles, her head rolled back and her body jerked as if being struck by some force.  “Is this a joke to—”

“You promised not to leave me behind. You promised you’d never forget me,” said his wife through Julianna.

Julianna’s dark brown eyes turned into Desiree’s crystal blues and that familiar and unmistakable high-pitched chuckle that came from her mouth.

Jack rocked back and forth, his eyes blinking and tears forming. He dropped to his knees before her and grasped hold of her hands. Somehow, someway, Desiree had come through to him from the other side.  There was no mistaking that now.

⧭⧭⧭

Days turned into weeks and weeks into months. Any moment that Jack could get to Julianna’s home and speak to his Desiree, he did.

He spent most of the summer helping his father at his church.  If he was honest, it wasn’t just to keep the pastor’s suspicions at bay about the hours he’d spend away from him and the dinners he’d miss. No, it was also maybe to thank God for bringing him back his Desiree.

It wasn’t easy keeping the ever-vigilant eyes of the town busybodies from catching him with her. The town was small but the mouths were big. Personally, he didn’t care what anyone thought. But he had to protect his father’s job and keep the hounds from harassing Julianna.

He couldn’t thank the young woman enough. Fixing things around her house was the least he could do. She never asked for a penny. She said she kept the lights on by driving to the big city on the weekends and giving readings at the flea markets. Even so, whenever Jack could, he’d use the money he earned over the summer helping his dad to make sure her refrigerator was stocked and fresh flowers were cut. He also left sweet notes about how grateful he was to her.

Giving to her was like giving to his wife. Seeing her eyes light up at the kind things he’d do for her was like seeing his wife’s eyes light up. Whenever he saw Julianna’s dark eyes turn to his wife’s blue, it was like having her back, if only for a moment. And he treasured each of those moments.

It was like old times, and Jack thanked God every day for the chance to reunite with her. He and Julianna drew closer, too. She told him that her husband who had beat her left her the house before the old son of gun had gotten in a car crash with a tree.  She told him how she longed to return to her family — but that they’d cast her aside when they learned of her angel card readings. She told him of her dream to travel the country one day, hand in hand with someone she cared about, someone who wouldn’t judge her, someone who would let her be her and support her — someone she could build a life with. There were times when she’d start to say something, but hold back and Jack didn’t push her, but it only made him want to know her more.

He showed her how to shoot his rifle, and she showed him how to cook. He showed her how to defend herself, and she showed him how to dance without stepping on her toes. Truth be told, she was the best friend he’d had since he met Desiree and he treasured every moment he had with her.

She wasn’t always able to connect with Desiree. She had horrible migraines at times that blocked her from connecting to the spirit world. Those were the times when he’d find himself massaging her temples or her shoulders as she leaned her head against his chest.

They became close, so close in fact that he realized she wanted more than just friendship. That put him in an awkward position. Not that she wasn’t beautiful because she was breathtaking and kind and funny and generous — but Jack had made a commitment to his Desiree and nothing could stop that. Nothing. Ever.

⧭⧭⧭

They were going to kill her. His father called it an exorcism, but if Jack didn’t do something Julianna would be dead in the church basement.

Jack and Julianna had planned on having dinner together that evening. She said she’d meet him in Beaverton since she had run a few errands in the area anyway. Not like there were any good restaurants near them. And it was the least he could do for her birthday after she’d done so much for him.

He waited for hours at the Mexican restaurant she’d picked out. At first, he just thought her errands were taking longer than expected. But it wasn’t like her to not answer her phone and certainly not like her to stand him up. Something was wrong, Jack just knew it.

Thunder rumbled and lightning struck in the distance. Jack drove up and down the main street, lit only by the occasional street lamp, to see if her car had broken down. But something told Jack to head back to his town.

He drove into the night, occasional flashes of lightning illuminating the darkness. The old country road curved this way and that, up the hill. There at the top, the steeple of his father’s church stood above the town, its weather vane spinning wild in the chaotic wind.

He sat in his truck for a while, the windows cracked open, the wet stormy air distracting him from the creeping sense of anxiety. The church was quiet, dark, shuttered. He didn’t know why he was there. He put his hands on the keys and turned.

A scream broke through the wind and lightning cracked, too close. He threw himself out of the truck, and ran up the front steps. He pulled on the door and the chains rattled on the inside.

He jumped off the side of the wide front staircase and pulled open the storm cellar. He tripped his way through the musty dark, past rows of seats in the auditorium and into bare, concrete back of the church basement.

Cloaked in his black and blue pastor’s robe, the bible in one hand a knife in the other and surrounded by other pastors, his father chanted chilling words, words Jack had never heard before.

Jack tip-toed up behind them and in the glare of a harsh overhead light, caught sight of Julianna, strapped to a chair.

That’s when he knew they were attempting an exorcism.

She screamed, and the tiny cuts on her forearms told Jack that knife wasn’t just symbolic. Her eyes met his and he knew there was only one choice.

Leave.

Leave and come back in with his rifle pointed at these men.  “Son, what are you doing?” his father asked.

“Let her go or I swear to God—”

“Don’t use the Lord’s name in vain,” his father yelled. “Especially not here.”

“If this is God, I want no part of it.” Jack went around them, the rifle still pointed at them and untied Julianna.

“Isn’t this just like you to get involved with the wrong kind of woman again,” his father said.

Jack pointed the rifle at his foot. “Say one more word about the woman I love and I swear I’ll blow your feet off.”

The old man backed off. Jack would never let him bully him again.

⧭⧭⧭

He draped her in his arms and carried her out of the church. He placed one foot, then the next on the narrow, rickety stairs out of the basement and into the raging storm outside. He leaned his mouth to her ear. “I’ll never let anything happen to you again. Never.”

It was his mission and responsibility to protect her. He’d stay with her as long as she needed him, no matter what it took, no matter what it cost.

Going back to her home was out of the question. Jack didn’t have much money, but he gathered what little remained and drove her to the next town. He checked her into a rundown motel off the main highway. He needed time to figure out what to do.

She refused to go to the hospital, asking him only to hold her. That he did, the whole night, staying with her for days as she slowly began to open up.

Julianna could barely speak, let alone connect with Desiree. He was concerned about the young woman’s well-being, but he also wondered if this was the end.  Would he never connect with his wife again?

He wasn’t just protecting Julianna, he was holding onto what he had left of his Desiree. Julianna was his one and only connection to her and he’d guard that with his life. He had to.

This place was only temporary. They were on the run now. His father would send the cops after them. He’d press charges for bringing a firearm into the church.  Julianna was ready to leave that town anyway, but she couldn’t decide between returning to her parents in Wyoming or just leaving the country altogether.

She was done doing readings for people, she said, if this was the damage it caused. But Jack couldn’t accept that. She helped people. At the very least, she gave them hope. Love doesn’t end at death. It lasts forever. Nobody could deny that now, not after spending time with her like he had.

And even if he never could speak to his wife again, he’d always remember what she’d done for him.

He didn’t want her to go, and it wasn’t just because he’d lose his Desiree again. He was responsible for what had happened to her now. He wanted to protect her. He cared about Julianna now. And it scared him.

Beads of rain tapped against the motel’s window and the wind whistled through a narrow crack in the wall. She lay on his chest and he pulled her closer.  She turned on the radio, and Desiree’s song came on the air.  He lifted Julianna’s chin and her eyes turned blue.

“Dance with me,” his wife’s voice said.

A lone tear trailed down the tough cowboy’s face. “Don’t ever leave me again,” he said.

⧭⧭⧭

She was gone now. A dreamy haze came over him when she was here, but he was back in cold reality now. Julianna lay her head on his chest, but all he could think about for the last thirty minutes was their feet shuffling across the worn motel rug to the song. Jack had closed his eyes, his left hand entwined with hers, his right hand at the small of her back, and he was back with his Desiree again.

But the power went off and, with it, the lights and radio.  Illuminated only by the reflection of the wan street light, there was no doubt in his mind. This was not his Desiree that he was dancing with.

Juliana’s dark eyes searched his, and the guilt consumed him.

He broke from her and she frowned at him, her eyes downcast. “Where is she?” he asked.  “Is she gone?”

Julianna nodded.

“Can you get her back, just a little while longer?” His voice broke and his breath stuck in his throat.

“I can’t.” She looked away and moved toward the window, her back to him in the dark.

“You can’t or you won’t?” he whispered.

Her eyes met his, and she smiled through the tears. “We could be happy together, you and me. Why do you need her anymore?  You’re the only one I trust. Ever since my son. I killed him you know. I held him under water so the cancer wouldn’t… He was suffering so much.”

His jaw dropped.

“And you let go.  She told you to take the helicopter rope, to save yourself when the flood waters came. You could have saved her. You could have come back for her but you didn’t.”

“How did you…?” It was like bandage had been ripped off his wound. It stung and it felt true at the same time.

“We’re the same, you see? We understand each other. Why don’t you want to be with me?” she asked, her smile weak and vulnerable.

He found stability in the rickety desk chair, his hand gripping the cold metal edge. She’d grown too close to him. This was his fault. He could have stopped it. But she must have understood just how important his connection with her was.  “I can’t do that, Julianna.”

“Can’t? Or won’t?” she asked with an edge to her voice.

“Won’t.” He crossed his arms, his face hardening.

“She wasn’t going to marry you, you know? She was going to marry someone else until he broke up with her,” she said through gritted teeth, her arms crossed.

“You’re lying.” He didn’t want to hear it, he couldn’t, though he’d had a feeling she’d seen someone else when they’d been apart all those years.

“You know it’s true.” She hurried to him and kneeled, her eyes pleading.

“I don’t care. What we had was real and nothing in the past is going to change that.”

She gasped as if his words were like stabs to her heart and sat back against the bed, her long hair covering her face.

He needed air before he said more that he regretted. “Be back,” he mumbled, and opened the door.

⧭⧭⧭

He never got to say goodbye. Jack stepped back into the motel room after hours cooling off, and he knew from the moment he saw Juliana’s silhouette slumped on the bed — she was gone.

Julianna opened her eyes. Those dark eyes were gone, replaced by Desiree’s blue ones. He wrapped his arms around her, his lips gripping hers, an electrical storm of emotion welling up in his gut.

“I’m sorry I didn’t go back for you, I’m sorry I didn’t—” he started. He’d given his word that he’d come back for her, but when he did, she’d disappeared, submerged beneath the dark waters.

“I told you to save yourself, to live for the both of us.”

He nodded, fighting the tears in vain, the salty drops burning his cheeks. She took his head in her hands and laid it on her lap. She stroked his head.

“What happened to her?” he asked.

“Julianna’s not coming back.  She said you’d given her more love and support than anyone ever had and for that, the least she could do was give me back to you.”

Jack’s eyes met hers.  A twinge of guilt tore at his gut. He couldn’t love Julianna the way she wanted.

She’d sacrificed her body, her mind, so they could be united. The gratitude, the magnitude of her sacrifice, overwhelmed him. He hoped it would never leave him.

⧭⧭⧭

Forty years together of bliss, of ups and downs, we had. And yet, as I stepped into the living room that evening to give my wife her final gift, my heart pounded.

I didn’t need to say a word. I pulled up the chair and opened the box for her, the locket swaddled in cloud-white cotton. Her blue eyes met mine and she nodded.  “It’s okay,” Desiree said.

She walked to the kitchen drawer and pulled out a prescription bottle. I didn’t want to see the label. “We won’t suffer. We’ll just sleep and when we wake up, we can be together again on the other side.”

I took her face in my palms and our lips met for one last time. For forty years, I’d waited for this moment.

Forty years to be reunited with my one and only love.

THE END ——>> SUPPORT THIS AUTHOR BY PURCHASING THE PAPERBACK VERSION OF THIS BOOK ——>> CLICK HERE

 

More Stories by Jeff Rivera

Love Stories written by Jeff Rivera

Chance for Love – He is his brother’s keeper and believes his chance for love is gone, until he meets her.

Never Say Goodbye – All he wants is her forgiveness but getting it proves more difficult than he anticipates.

My One and Only – Saying goodbye to his wife was the hardest thing he ever did, until he learns she has a message for him beyond the grave.

Mario (pen name – Jamie Lake) – Letting go over her after all these years has been difficult, then he learns she’s been trying to reach him.

Forever My Lady – She promises to stay with him no matter what, then he learns she’s marrying someone else.

Sing to Me – He must give up his life long dream to be with her, but at what cost?

Chains – He’s not supposed to be in love with his brother’s fiance, but he can’t help himself.

Mario – Part 2

CHAPTER 5

“Well, it took you long enough,” his mother managed to say between wheezes. “I’ve been sitting in this bed with absolutely nothing to do and no one to talk to.”

“They say plants grow faster if you sing to them,” he smirked nodding at the dying cactus in the corner. “Why don’t you try that?”

“Just like your father,” she grumbled.

Mario chuckled, though he knew that comment was meant to sting. His mother grunted in return. Leaning over her bed, Mario put the back of his hand to her forehead. It was still burning up. He dipped a cloth into the bucket of ice water next to the bed, wrung it out, and lay it across her forehead. Fighting the fever was fruitless; all he could do was keep it low enough so she wouldn’t be miserable. He felt helpless; he had never been good at making his mother happy. He had failed at it most of his life.

First, he had left for America when he was eighteen, hoping to make enough money working in the strawberry fields and grape vineyards to send home and support her. Instead of being grateful, she had accused him of abandoning her in her time of need. It was always, Mario knew now, his mother’s “time of need.” Then, when he failed to come home as a doctor or ‘something useful’, as she put it, his mother only shook her head and said, “Should have known you’d come back empty-handed. Well, I hope you don’t expect to stay here.” But, of course, he had expected to stay there, and he had. What other choice did he have? Besides, she needed someone to take care of the house and, whether she wanted to admit it or not, she’d missed him.

“How about some TV?” he asked her now, trying to push the unpleasant memories from his mind. He hoped a little TV would distract them both, taking her mind off her pain and his off Maria’s letter. “Are you hungry?”

“No. You couldn’t cook if I asked you to make toast. And there’s nothing on TV anyway. It’s the middle of the night.” she snapped, squirming restlessly in the bed, trying in vain to make herself more comfortable.

Mario had a knack for staying calm and being patient, something he remembered Maria loving about him too. “It’s almost noon, Mami.” he corrected her gently. He got up and pushed the curtains to the side a bit so more light fell into the room. His mother squinted against the sudden light and grunted.

“Are you trying to blind me on top of everything else?” she screamed.

“A little sunshine never killed anybody. Unless you’re a vampire. Oh, I forgot, let me close it,” he smirked starting to close the curtain.

“Can’t a mother have a little respect in her dying hours?” she asked. “Well, find anything interesting out there in that shed? Took you long enough,” she asked.

“Oh … I … no,” he lied.

Maria wasn’t someone he could discuss with his mother. He could never really talk about relationships with her. She had always been far too caught up in the misery of her own failed relationship to offer any words of encouragement or untainted advice. Besides, he knew how much she’d always hated Maria; someone she’d never met and had no reason to hate except that she was the one person who could take her only son away.

“No?” she questioned as if she knew better.

No, he wouldn’t do this to himself. He had enough to deal with. He pushed his troubled feelings down again, stuffed them into the box he’d reserved in his heart for the past, and sealed it shut. “Just some old papers, found your mother’s doll and a letter and a-”

She cut him off. “Letter?” she said, as if she had cherry-picked that word despite his attempt to bury it in a long list of objects.

He shrugged. Maybe if he acted like he didn’t care, he could convince her.

“From whom?” she asked, her old grammar school ways perking right up. She’d always taught him to speak properly. “Just because you’re from the barrio, doesn’t mean you have to sound like you are,” she’d tell him in her strictest school teacher voice.

“Just…you probably don’t even remember her anyway. It was a letter from Maria,” he said. He hurried to turn the TV on. He needed a topic change and fast. “Betty la Fea is on. How about that?”

“Remember her? I’m old, not senile. Of course, I remember her. How is she?”

Years ago, his mother had forbidden him to speak Maria’s name in her house. But now she asked like she was really interested, which surprised Mario. Her eyes bore into the back of his head until he was forced to turn around and face her.

“I don’t know. The letter was pretty old.” he said, not really wanting to talk about it.

“Well, haven’t you written her back?” she asked.

“Mami, that was ten years ago. Like you said back then, if it was meant to be, it would have worked out.”

“I never said such a thing. That’s nonsense,” she said defensively.

He opened his mouth to say something, then closed it again. The words were probably better left unspoken. He didn’t want to argue with her, not with her in the condition she was in. But the fact that she denied saying something that had had such a profound effect on his life and cut him so deeply at the time, made his blood boil.

“It was a long time ago,” he said softly, looking at his shoes. He fiddled a thread that was unraveling from the hem of his shirt. “It doesn’t matter anyway.”

“Well, from what I remember, you and she were pretty hot and heavy,” she quipped.

Reducing their true deep love; something that happens only once in a lifetime to “hot and heavy” disrespected it but he wasn’t about to take this conversation any further than it needed to be.

“We were young. It was a teenage love affair,” he said, managing to grin as he flipped through the channels.

“Age is just a number. Love is love. Your father and I met when we were just 15,” she said, as if comparing his relationship to hers was a badge of honor. What she didn’t say was that Mario’s father had left her when he was 17 and only ever came back for Christmas and Mario’s birthday—to eat, to make the headboards quake and then leave her alone again.

“I don’t really want to talk about it, Mami,” he said, sitting down at the end of the bed.

“And why not?” she demanded.

Her ignorance was making his temperature rise again. It was her favorite pastime to push his buttons, but he wasn’t going to give in to her and lose this battle of will. “How about I make you some tortillas with beans that should help your stomach a little,” he said, getting up and starting to walk out.

“You’ll only burn it,” she said, and continued pushing the subject. “I don’t understand if you love someone that much, why you didn’t keep loving her and marry her, or whatever it is you young people do nowadays.”

“Because you needed me!” Mario exploded, the boom in his voice ricocheted off the walls surprising both him and his mother. As much as they had argued in the past, he had never raised his voice at his mother before. Instantly, he knew it was a mistake. But it was too late. The lid had popped off. Her denials of what she put him through all those years, of how she tried to drive them apart, of her ruining his one and only chance to finally run away together with Maria and now, pretending that nothing happened, only brought back the years of pent of frustration and volcano of anger. He felt all of the turmoil boiling inside of him and put his hand on his chest, sure he would be able to feel the heat on the outside.

His mother’s eyes, wide with shock at first, now narrowed in anger. “Now, you listen to me,” she said in a growl. “I’m still your mother.”

“How could I forget?” he said. He tried to swallow down his anger, forget the rest of the words he wanted to shout at her, but now that they’d pushed their way out it was hard to make them go away again. He had been repressing his feelings for Maria, trying not to feel, for years now. But he’d only been fooling himself.

“Mario, I’m not dead yet. If you want to take that tone with your mother, you can at least wait until the coffin is nailed,” she said. “Sit down.” Her voice resumed its usual bite.

Even though Mario was a grown man, he knew not to disobey his mother. He’d already crossed the line. He may have been over six foot tall and she as small as a bird, but she had a commanding presence and a temper that everyone in their village knew not to cross. He sat back down, his nostrils flaring, staring at the floor.

Deep breaths, he told himself. In. Out. He counted his breaths until the anger started to subside.

“Look at me,” she told him and he reluctantly did so. His anger was still dangerously close to the surface. “Now, we all make choices in our lives and I haven’t always made the best ones. Things were different back then. Times have changed and I … well, I just don’t want you to miss out on something that could be good for you.”

Mario was speechless. That was as close to an apology as he’d ever heard from his mother. For as long as he could remember, he hadn’t heard her say she wanted anything good for anyone but herself. She could dish out criticism far and wide, but this angle was a new one. He looked at her skeptically and wondered what her ulterior motive was. She was a master of manipulation. He waited, wondering if this kind speech was yet another insult in disguise. He couldn’t ever let his guard down with her.

“Now, listen up,” she said. Her wheezing was starting to get the best of her and a cough erupted. He leaned forward, concerned. No matter how angry he was, she was still sick, and seeing her like this tore him apart.

“Mami, I’m sorry. Are you alright?” he said reaching for her.

“I’m dying, what do you think?” she cut in. “Don’t interrupt. Now, you love that … that Maria of yours, you gotta write her back. Tell her how you feel.”

“Mami, I keep telling you. That was ten years ago. She … she’s moved on.” Saying the words burned him like a fire consuming him.

His mother looked at him, raising her eyebrow, “She …?” his mother said emphasizing the word, with a smirk on her face. It made something in Mario jump, and his body felt cold all over. Did she know?

“If you love her like you say you do, and if she loves you like you always said she did, time won’t mean a thing. Now, I want you to go over to my nightstand and pull out a pen and pad. You’re going to write that letter, young man, and you’re going to read it to me before you send it. Lord knows I’m not going to have you mess up yet another thing before I die.”

For a minute, Mario just stared at her, shocked at her words. Then, he went to the nightstand and began rummaging around for the pen and pad. Evidently, he took too long to do what he was told, because she barked, “Well, do I have to write it myself?”

“No, mother,” he said, sitting back down. The pen was heavy in his hands and the pad felt foreign in his lap. Strange how something so part of his everyday life could feel alien to him in the moment. It’d been years since he’d written anything. Something that was such a big part of him, a part of him died with the last letter to Maria.

“Now, sit back down and you write your heart out. You always were good at that writing thing, don’t know why you stopped doing it.”

Perhaps because you told me it was a hobby and a waste of time, he thought to himself, but he didn’t dare say that out loud. He had his temper in control again and he didn’t want to risk it.

“Not sure how to start,” he said, toying with the pen in his hand.

“What do you mean ‘Don’t know how to start’? How about ‘Dear Maria’ for starters—or whatever the name is…”

That comment seemed to be weighed with meaning, as if she indeed did know something—a secret she’d toy and tease him with, like you’d tease a kitten with a piece of string, until he confessed. He ignored it.

She can’t know, he told himself. How would she possibly have found out? He’d been so good at hiding it all these years, he’d almost believed the lie himself. He swallowed hard, cleared his throat and leaned over the pad on his lap to start the letter. He began to write, laboring over each word.

“Read it to me,” she demanded. Why was she suddenly so concerned?

“But I’ve only written…” he started to say in his deep voice.

“Read it to me, dammit,” she said, coughing and reaching for her glass of water.

“Dear Maria, how are you? You’ll never guess what I found in the garage…” he started to say. It sounded silly even to his own ears, but then again, it was obviously hard writing a letter to your long-lost love with your mother practically hanging over your shoulder.

The only reason their love affair had worked out in the first place was because they’d been so far away from anyone Mario knew. There had been no way for anyone there to stop him from following his heart, other than Maria’s family. Not like now, when he was here in his childhood home, face-to-face with a woman who had made it her lifetime mission to condemn him no matter where he went.

“Is that how you’re going to begin it?” she asked, “Lord, so glad we didn’t waste any money sending you to university. Son, if you’re going to write someone you love, someone you haven’t spoken to in over ten years, then you have to write from the heart, you have to pour your soul out on the paper like you mean it. And if you’ve fucked up like you fucked up…”

“Mother!” He was shocked at her language.

“Let’s face it, you fucked up royally,” she said matter-of-factly, “So you’ve got to say it. You’ve got to say you did exactly that. Do it over again and toss that kaka you call a letter away.”

He smiled and shook his head. His mother had certainly never had a problem speaking what was on her mind, but this time he had to admit she was right. So, instead of writing what was in his head, he began writing what was in his heart:

Dear Maria,

Ten years. Ten years is a long time not to be with the one you love. Not to be with the one you swore your life to, not to hear their voice, or feel their skin against yours, not to taste their lips or see your future in their eyes. That’s what I think of when I think of you.

Maybe I’m coming on too strong, maybe it’s too much to say to someone who probably doesn’t even remember you, from someone who hurt you so deeply the only cure was to forget them, bury the past and move on.

They say destiny rules all and I must have been a very bad man in a past life for destiny to play such a nasty trick on me, to keep your last words to me hidden all these years. Had fate not intervened, had I not seen your letter buried under those boxes in the shed, I never would have had the pleasure to reach out to you. I would never have been reminded not only of how we were painfully separated but of how much I loved you, how much I still love you.

Maria, I know it’s been a long time and if you’re still angry with me or hurt, you have every right to be, but please, hear me out. If you are still reading this, know that not a day has gone by the last ten years that I haven’t thought of you.

It was only now that I saw your letter. Had I seen it before, so much would be different now. Know there hasn’t been a time when someone has uttered the word partner, savior, lover or soul mate that your image doesn’t cross my mind. Know that if I could turn back the hands of time and take back what I said, just for one more moment with you, I’d do it.

There is so much to tell you, so much that has transpired the last ten years that I want share with you under the moonlight in the barn or at creek in our place, just like we used to do when I’d read you my poetry. You were always so encouraging. Know that you are and have been in my prayers at night, know that you’re in my bloodstream, a part of me, and know most of all that I love you and always will.

If you’ll have me, my dear Maria, if you’ll have me, I’d love another chance just to see your beautiful face one more time.

Love,

Mario

The words he had written broke his heart as he read them aloud to his mother. He hadn’t wanted to dig so deep, to reach for everything he resolved; he had worked so hard for so long to keep himself callous, to keep himself from feeling. But in the last few hours, his walls had disintegrated into dust. He was defenseless, he was vulnerable before those memories and the fear and the possibility of what could come.

He braced himself for his mother’s usual caustic criticisms. They would sting even more this time because he was so raw inside, raw from years of keeping the anger and hurt from eating him alive, raw from the memories he’d crammed in his brain and raw because for the first time in a long time, he’s picked up a pen and written something, a dream of his that had died when he wrote that last letter to Maria.

Slowly, he raised his head to look at his mother. She was clearing her throat—not because of her illness, not because she’d caught something in her throat, but because she was touched by the letter. She dabbed her eyes with a corner of the bed sheet and said, “Terrible allergies in this room.”

“Are you alright, Mami?” he asked, trying to hide a smile. Usually, he was the one crying because of her, macho as he was, even if it were in secret where no one especially her could see. He’d never seen his mother touched emotionally by anything, not even a movie, and in this moment, he felt incredibly moved.

“Open the window and get some air in here,” she demanded.

“I thought you said it was too much sunlight, Madame Vampire,” he teased.

“I said open the Goddamn windows,” she repeated.

He got up and yanked on the curtains and unfastened the windows, letting the fresh breeze come in.

“Terrible, terrible allergies,” she said, dabbing her eyes. “So, when are you going to send it?”

“Do you think it’s all right?” he asked. He felt unsure now, lost at sea, a little boat bobbing on the waves. He could deal with love, he could deal with loss. He could deal with anything that was certain. But now that the tides had changed and the response was uncertain, he felt like he wasn’t anchored to anything.

“Better than nothing. It’ll have to do,” she said. That was high praise coming from his mother. “There’s a roll of stamps in the kitchen cabinet next to the refrigerator,” she continued. “Be sure to send it out right away before the mailman comes today or you’ll have to wait another day.”

“All right. I’ll take care of it a bit later,” he said. He wasn’t going to admit it, but the idea of actually sending the letter scared him. “Are you thirsty-?”

“Now, dammit. Do it now,” she demanded.

Why did she care so much? It wasn’t like her. His mother could be moody and had become even more so as she got older, but she seemed to be anxious about this whole thing. He didn’t know if he should be concerned or flattered that she was finally taking an interest. For so many years, he’d longed to have a relationship with his mother where he could speak to her about anything, especially his love life, but she’d made it pretty damn clear from the beginning that if he didn’t end up with someone she approved of, she’d make sure that person never felt welcomed. She’d stuck to her word, and when she heard about Maria, she never let him off the hook for it.

After that, he had stopped talking to her about his life. When he saw how his friends leaned on their mothers, depended on them, confided in them, he always felt jealous. Even his friends, who were embarrassed to talk about their love lives with their mothers, could still count on them when things went wrong. Mario had always craved that kind of support system.

Heading into the kitchen, he yanked open the cabinet where the stamps and envelopes were, still suspicious of his mother’s motives, still wondering what game she was trying to play. Why was she pushing him to fix something from the past that was probably unfixable? Why had she never shown this type of love and support for his relationship with Maria when it had actually had a chance? What did she imagine would happen if Maria got the letter?

As little hope as Mario had, he realized that his strong-willed mother was dying, and he had better do what she said. He folded and refolded the letter until it fit neatly in the envelope. He found himself creasing the envelope before licking it, wanting everything to be perfect. He knew very well that even if Maria did somehow get the letter, there was little or no chance of her answering, not after this long. But he realized that obeying his mother’s orders wasn’t his only motivation in sending it. He had to know. He’d give Maria an ultimatum—the same ultimatum she had given him in that lost letter: one month. If I don’t hear back from her in that time, then I know her answer, he decided, scribbling his address and Maria’s on the envelope and sticking the stamp on it before he could change his mind.

The letter felt heavy in his hands. It carried the weight of ten years with it after all. Mario ran his fingers along the smooth edges of the envelope, felt the smooth paper underneath his fingers. This one small thing, this single sheet of paper, had the potential to save his life. After this, he would either be the happiest man alive, travelling to a new life, or a ruined soul, tumbling into the depths of despair. One little square sheet of paper had the power to decide his fate.

His heart pounded with every step on the long, hot walk to the mailbox. He shoved the letter inside and slammed it shut. When he returned to the kitchen, he found himself lingering at window, watching for the mailman. He always came promptly at 2:15 and always had for as long as he remembered.

His mother screamed and yelled from the bedroom, asking him what he was doing, but Mario stayed in the kitchen until the ancient mail truck with its little putt-putt engine coughed and rattled its way up the street. The mailman was ancient, too—it was the same wizened, bent-over old man who had delivered the last letter he’d received from Maria so many years ago. As the mailman trudged up to the mailbox, whistling, and began stuffing the contents in his sack, Mario had a sudden urge to run out, to stop him, to snatch the letter away from him and tear it into a hundred pieces. But he stopped himself, and when the mailman was back in the truck and the truck was chugging away into the distance, Mario actually felt a sense of relief. It was out of his hands now. Fate would answer with a yes or a no.

CHAPTER 6

Each day was more excruciating than the last. The weather got hotter and hotter. Summer in Mexico was never a joke, but this time, it felt like the rays sought Mario out and scorched him on purpose, as if punishing him for reaching out in the past and trying to change something that was supposed to have been settled long ago.

He was drained of energy. And it wasn’t just his duties around the house—caring for his mother, who seemed to be getting nominally better with his cousin’s occasional help—nor the endless nights working a double-shift as a janitor to make up for the second job he’d lost. His exhaustion came from a new daily routine that had been established. Every day, at 2:15pm, like clockwork, the ancient mail truck chugged up the road to deliver the mail. And every day, the minute the truck pulled away, Mario would rush outdoors to check on the box, with hope and expectation mounting inside him, daring to imagine that he would find an envelope addressed in Maria’s loopy scrawl.

But, every day, his hopes were dashed. The only mail that ever came was junk mail—catalogs, bills. Mario just stacked all of it on the kitchen table, knowing that his mother would never look at it.

For weeks, Mario ignored the stack of mail, hating the sight of it because it contained no answer from Maria. But finally, he realized he had to take care of the bills, so he sat down at the kitchen table and began opening the envelopes and writing checks. As he went about the mundane task, he found his mind drifting—found himself returning in his imagination to the beautiful vineyard where he and Maria had met. He had been a lowly farm hand, a migrant worker, and she the child of his boss, the vineyard owner. They had spent endless sunny days together: hiding under the bushes, eating grapes, whispering sweet nothings into each other’s ears when they thought no one was looking. They’d been through so much together, so much that only they could go through together; hidden behind the hills of those rolling, fragrant green fields, they had discovered each other’s secrets—secrets they’d each hidden from their families for years.

He sighed. It had been nearly three weeks now since he mailed the letter. He was beginning to give up hope. For nearly three weeks, he had been living for that moment in the afternoon when the mail came. But the one-month deadline was creeping closer, and he had heard nothing. Why would Maria even want to write back anyway?

The last day of the month finally arrived. When the mail truck pulled up, he was so distracted that he ran outside without his shoes. As he hobbled along to the mailbox, the hot ground nearly peeling the skin from his feet, his heart was pounding like an African drum. Mario reached the mailbox just as the truck was pulling away. Today was the day that would determine his fate. Today was the deadline he’d set for her to respond. If the letter was there, he’d know they were meant to be.

First, he took a deep breath. Then, he yanked the mailbox door open quickly, the way you tear a bandage off. And as he looked into the darkened oval-shaped box, he saw nothing.

Not a damn thing.

CHAPTER 7

For days, he tried to live with the truth. The matter was settled. He had set the ultimatum and now he had to live with it. But he couldn’t. As the days rolled on, no matter how busy he kept himself, no matter what he did to keep his mind off Maria, he couldn’t, he wouldn’t let it go.

One night, during his janitorial shift, Mario’s anger began overtaking his disappointment. As he sprayed down the desks in the school classrooms, he scrubbed them fiercely, thinking, the least she could have done was write me a note that said ‘shove off.’ She couldn’t even find the time to answer? That night was another restless one. He tossed and turned for hours, wrestling with his feelings, and finally, long before his mother was awake, he got up and went to the kitchen, knowing there was only one thing he could do.

Call her.

His large fingers fumbled as they dialed the old rotary-style phone. Even after all these years, he still knew the number by heart. He only hoped the number was still good and that, even this early in the morning, someone would answer.

He almost hung up after the twentieth ring. He was foolish to even think someone would answer early as they did wake on the vineyard—and yet then, someone did.

“Hello?” a raspy old voice said.

Mario immediately recognized the voice. He had so many memories of having to go through Maria’s mother to speak to her.

“Hello?” the voice repeated, this time more irritated.

“Um, hello,” he heard himself say, and suddenly he was a teenager again, shy about talking to an adult, scared Maria’s mother wouldn’t let her come to the phone.

“Who is this?” her mother said.

“Senora Santiago? This is … this is Mario,” he said.

The silence that followed his words felt like an eternity. Finally, she spoke again. “What do you want?”

He worked up a smile and said, “Maybe you don’t remember me, it’s been so long, but…”

“I know who you are,” she snapped. “Now, what do you want?”

It had been over ten years since he’d heard her voice and, even though she hadn’t always been the friendliest person in the world to him back then, he’d thought that after all these years, he would get a warmer reception than that.

“Oh, well, I was curious if Maria…”

“No,” she cut him off very firmly.

“No? I only want to talk to her for a moment,” he said as politely as he could, though his blood was starting to boil.

“You’re going to call up here, after all these years, and now you want to talk to my daughter? Now?!” she said, raising her voice.

He wanted to tell her that it was none of her business, that what had gone on between him and Maria was between the two of them and no one else. He wanted to tell her that he wasn’t going to let anything come between him and the one he loved anymore, not even her, but instead, he held it together.

“Now, you listen to me,” he said, the bass in his voice rumbling with authority. “I only need a few minutes with her. She’s old enough to make her own decisions.”

A wicked chuckle erupted from the other side of the phone. “Old enough. You really are stupid, aren’t you?”

“I beg your pardon, Senora?” Mario was reaching the edge of his patience.

“You mean, no one told you?”

“Told me what?”

“She — my daughter died, Mario.”

Even with the edge in her voice, he could tell she was trying to hide the pain. Suddenly, his world was spinning. He was drowning in guilt. He was too late. Too late.

“Dead?” he heard himself say.

“Yes, dead. And she died of a broken heart—all because of you.” Her voice was tight with anger. “My daughter loved you, Mario. You knew this, and you used her.”

“I never — Senora, I’m — I’m so sorry for your-” he started to say.

“Save it,” she spat. “Nothing you can say will bring my daughter back.”

“I had no idea she — she felt that way about me. I thought she understood …. we talked about it.”

“Why don’t you ask me what you really want to ask me?” she said.

He swallowed hard. Did she know? Had Maria confessed the truth to her mother before she died?

“Is he — Is Keith around?” he asked.

“You have some nerve. The Devil’s got a special place in hell for people like you.”

CHAPTER 8

For days, he felt hollow and dizzy, as if he were shell-shocked. Maria was dead. The one link between him and the one he loved was gone. Suddenly, all those years she had pretended for him, all those years she’d protected his secret, all those years she’d selflessly served as his beard began to make sense to him.

Maria had been in love with him. Why hadn’t he seen it? He’d written the letters using her name because she had said he could. She had understood what his lover’s parents would do if they found out about the two of them. She had never seemed to mind, all those times he called her up just to give her a telephone message to pass along to someone else, and now he realized she did it only so she could hear his voice. All those years. She must have been dying inside the whole time, wanting Mario so bad yet knowing that not even in her wildest dreams could she have him.

Mario had spent so many years calling Keith, the person he really loved, “Maria”—so many years referring to his love as “she,” that it almost felt natural, even though Keith was as macho as Mario himself. The secret of their love had been safe with Maria and yet, all along, she’d kept the secret as a way to be close to the one she loved: Mario.

His heart ached for her. He only wished he could have had the chance to say “goodbye” to her, to thank her for all she’d done for him and Keith. There was nothing he could ever do, ever say, to repay her but that night he took a walk out in the middle of the desert amongst a sacred land and river his father used to take him to when he was younger. There, he lit a white candle and said his final goodbyes.

Mario stood with the immense, silent desert stretching out for miles on all sides of him, with the endless sky above him awash in a red-orange sunset, with the brown mountains just visible in the very far distance.

She’s out there, somewhere, he thought. My dear friend Maria.

He knew she wouldn’t want him sulking after her. She had sacrificed her life, her love, to make him happy and he only hoped there was a chance he could speak to Keith again. Keith had to be fine—he had to be, or, Mario knew, Maria’s mother would have mentioned something, if only to hurt Mario, out of spite.

The sun sank below the mountains and the red of the sunset became the deep purple-black of evening. The setting sun always reminded Mario how short life was. Keith was alive, and now Mario could no longer hide behind Maria. It was Maria’s greatest gift to him. As he turned to begin the long trudge back to his mother’s house, he vowed that their love would come out in the open, if only Keith would see him again.

CHAPTER 9

“Are you going to bring me that soup, or are you going to let it get cold again, like the last time?” her mother scoffed as Mario made his way down the hall with the tray.

He was doing his best to stay patient, but some days were harder than ever, especially lately. His nerves were fraying at the ends. He was unravelling, coming apart at the seams. And all his mother ever did was scream and shout and expect him to serve her like he was a nurse. What was she going to say when he told her that he needed to leave her for good?

“Almost there, mother,” he said, bringing the tray to her bedside.

“Better not be too much salt in it this time,” she said.

“Tortillas?” he asked, changing the subject.

“Of course, I want tortillas. How can you eat tortilla soup without tortillas?”

Mario brought the tortillas from the kitchen, and when he came back into the room, she said, “Well…?”

“Well what, mother?” he asked her.

“Have you heard from her yet?”

He sighed. He really didn’t want to get into it right now. How could he tell her that the woman he’d pretended was his girlfriend was dead? How could he tell her that he didn’t even know if the man he actually loved would see him again?

“No,” he answered. “And I probably never will.”

“Well, don’t sound so gloomy,” she said.

Mario couldn’t stay in this room one second longer or he would scream. “I’m going to get some air,” he mumbled and turned to leave the room.

“Son,” his mother’s tone was suddenly softer. He turned around and looked at her in surprise. It was a very rare occasion that she called him “son.”

“What is it, mother?” he asked, concerned.

“Sit down for a second,” she said, patting the bed.

Mario hesitated. Hearing her wheezing and labored breathing, he wondered if she was really on her deathbed, if she was going to speak her last words to him, or reveal a secret she had held all her life. His mother had never allowed him onto her bed. Not even when he was a child and he’d had a nightmare. He was never allowed to crawl under the covers with her and take comfort from the warmth radiating from her, like most children had been able to. It was his father’s side of the bed, she’d once explained, and she was keeping it open for him. Mario had long stopped questioning the fact that she kept a space for her wasted love life, but not for her son. Now, he sat down gingerly on the very edge of the bed, feeling like an intruder.

“There’s something I want to talk to you about.” His mother’s speech was slow, but it wasn’t from her difficulty breathing. She was opening herself up, showing her vulnerable side, and she was having a hard time with it.

“What happened?” he asked.

She started and stopped half a dozen times before she finally spit it out.

“Is there something you need to tell me?” she finally asked.

“About what?” he asked her, tightening up.

What did she know? Did she know Maria was dead? Did she know that he had never really loved her in the first place? Did she know about Keith? Had she guessed that, any day now, he was going to need to leave her for good?

“I don’t know, how about Maria?” She raised an eyebrow.

“What’s that supposed to mean? I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he lied. His heart was racing. He had always known there would come a time when he’d have to have this conversation. He had hoped it would be when his mother was long gone so he didn’t have to face it. How could you tell someone something that might shatter their perception of you? How could you confirm their lifelong belief that you were a complete failure and disappointment of a son?

“Son, really?” she said. “I know, we haven’t always … seen eye-to-eye about things but I hoped that you felt like you could be honest with me.”

“Honest with you?”

What a joke.

“Are you really going to make me say it?” Her voice was wavering, and Mario saw tears in her eyes. “You know, this really disturbs me that you don’t trust me enough to talk to me, to tell me what’s going on in your life.”

Clearly, his mother was still playing games, still trying to torture him. Mario stood up and, impatient, began pacing the room. “Mother, honestly, I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said.

“I understood if there was never going to be a wedding or grandchildren for me. I accepted that a long time ago … with your condition,” she said.

“My condition?”

“Yes, Mario, your condition. Well? Will you just say it?”

“Say, what mother? Say what? That you never wanted me to be with Maria? That even if I had brought her into this house, you never would have accepted her, you never would have approved of our relationship?”

Every time he said the name “Maria,” he had to struggle against the lump in his throat. He was tired of lying, tired of hiding behind Maria’s name. Using that poor dead girl’s name was the lowest of lows to him, and he was getting to the point where he just didn’t care whether his mother’s heart would be broken or not. He loved Keith and she was going to have to accept it, whether she liked it or not.

“Never would have approved of your relationship? Now, that is not true. Not true at all,” she said, folding her arms tighter.

“You lie!” he said. “You did everything in your power to prevent us from being together.” His voice cracked on the last word and he stopped, refusing to speak again until he had himself under control.

“I did nothing of the sort,” she said, clutching her robe under her chin dramatically.

“You did,” he said. He sighed. This was not how he wanted to have this conversation. He always thought when the truth finally came out, he would have Keith by his side—or, better yet, a marriage certificate in his hand, even if they weren’t legally married. Then, he could rub in her face that there was nothing she could do about it. Instead, he was skating around the conversation like he was still sixteen-years-old.

“Tell me this,” she said finally, breaking the silence, “When did you start calling him ‘Maria’?”

So, she did know. Mario’s head was pounding. His throat was dry. It felt like his world was falling apart. His fingers fumbled with the hem of his shirt and he shifted from one leg to the other. How long had she known? How long had she been hiding that secret from him?

“It was a mutual decision,” he said in a low voice, thinking back to the day they’d decided. As fast as the world had been changing at the time, with discos becoming popular and gay culture seeping into the world’s consciousness, both he and Keith had known that the love between them was forbidden, and had to be covered up.

When he’d first met Keith, Mario had tried to trick himself into believing he’d fallen for a female, perhaps so he could sleep at night without being tortured by memories of the stories his mother told him of heaven and hell, stories which he swore were nonsense but were still etched so indelibly into his subconscious that the fear had become part of his DNA. He remembered the nights away from her. Him. It was only when they were together that Mario could forget the consequences, the difficult journey that lay ahead, and focus only their love. The other times—the nights he was alone, the days when he worked and couldn’t see him—those were the times that fear shook Mario to the core and he wondered if it was possible to run away from himself.

It had taken him years to be comfortable with the fact that Keith was a man, and that he was in love with another man. But by then, the lie had taken hold, and Mario kept it going, telling himself that the truth would break his mother’s heart. It was easier to say you were lying so you wouldn’t hurt someone else than to admit that you were barely comfortable with the truth yourself.

Now, he avoided his mother’s eyes, looking down as he said softly, “We thought it would be best.”

Mario always hoped if he could find the right time for this conversation, that somehow it wouldn’t be painful and awkward. But was there ever an easy way to tell someone you would never be the person they expected you to be? That you’d defied their hopes and dreams for your future? Was there ever a time that it would be easy to admit to your parents that you could accept yourself as a failure, but you would never survive knowing they thought of you that way, too?

“Best? For whom?” she asked.

“For everyone,” he said.

“Seems like a coward’s way out to me,” she grumbled.

Who is she to talk? Mario thought. Wasn’t his mother the one still pretending that his father was coming back? Wasn’t she holding on to a lie, just like he was?

“Really, mother?” he said. “Fine, I’ll tell you what you want to know. Everything, nothing held back but only under one promise from you: that we never discuss this again, ever.”

“Whatever you wish,” she said. “Of course, had you been honest with me the first time, we never would have had to have this little discussion in the first place.”

He sighed, sank back into the chair, and stared at the bed to gather his thoughts for a second. Then he began, “His real name is Keith.”

After he said it, Mario watched his mother’s reaction. He wanted a response from her. He had earned that right after decades of avoiding the topic, after decades of caring for her. Where would she be without him? She might see him as a good-for-nothing waste of a life after this, but she would have died long ago if it hadn’t been for him.

His mother swallowed hard. “Keith,” she said, breathing out as if in relief. “That seems like a nice name.”

“Really, mother? Are you going to pretend that you’re fine with it?” Mario was on edge. He’d prepared himself for a fight. For insults and tears and shame.

“Why wouldn’t I be fine with it?” she said in feigned innocence.

“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe because you and Papi said that if any of your sons ever went gay, you’d disown them. That ever since I was a kid you told me to buck up and be a man and that if you wanted a sissy, you would have had a daughter?”

“Me?” she said. “I would never-”

“You would and you did,” he said firmly. He wasn’t going to let her deny it. He wasn’t going to let her off the hook. If she was going to make him own up to his past, then she would have to own up to hers.

Finally, she lifted her chin. “Things were different then. I was only trying think of what was best for you. It’s a cruel world out there and I didn’t want you to go through any more heartache and pain needlessly.”

“Is that your way of saying you’re sorry?” he asked her. He was at the end of his rope. He didn’t know how to pretend anymore. His emotions were taking over, and they lapped over him like waves. He stopped trying to control himself, stopped trying to be the model, obedient son. He was Mario. Gay, emotional, maybe even a disappointment to her. But he was himself, dammit, and that’s all that mattered.

“I haven’t always made the best decisions, but you have to understand that I never meant to harm you or make you unhappy,” she said.

He sighed and shook his head. That was probably the closest he was ever going to get to an apology from his mother for her years of disapproval, lack of acceptance, and stranglehold on his life. If he didn’t accept it, he would be bitter for the rest of his life. He reached out and squeezed her hand, then kissed her on the forehead.

“Are we done yet?” he asked, starting to get up, but she squeezed his hand and pulled him back.

“There’s … one more thing,” she said.

His shoulders, which had started to relax in relief, tensed up again.

“What is it, mother?” He braced for impact.

“You have to understand, at the moment, I was more shocked than anything—and I was still hoping that somehow I could persuade you to …”

“To what?”

“To marry that nice little girl in the village, remember her name?”

“Gloria?” he asked. “How could I not? You bugged me about it every day since I returned from the States.”

Was she losing her mind? Was her age really causing her to forget, or was this yet another one of her performances?

“Yes, that was her name, Gloria. She would have made a lovely wife and mother for you,” she said, smiling at the memories.

“Tell me,” he said.

“He was a nice man, Keith,” she said.

Mario frowned at his mother. She had said that almost as if she knew him, and she had a funny look on her face.

“Yes, he was,” he said cautiously.

“And beautiful blue eyes,” she added.

His insides leapt. He didn’t have a photo of Keith; they’d agreed it would be too risky. “How did you know he had blue eyes?”

“Gorgeous strawberry blonde hair, too.”

“What? How did you know?” he asked.

She was toying with him again, working him up. He knew she loved seeing him panic like this.

Her lips quivered. “‘Cause he came here … looking for you four years ago.”

His heart dropped and the blood rushed from his face. “Wh-what?”

“He came here to the house-”

“I heard you, but what do you mean, ‘he came here’? How could he have come here and you not tell me?”

It felt like time had stopped. Everything around him was frozen, and even the earth had stopped moving. Had Keith, the love of his life, come all this way just to see him and he’d missed him? Mario could hear his own heartbeat in his ears. A drop of sweat rolled down his back between his shoulder blades. It was suddenly unbearably hot.

Tears were streaming down his mother’s face. He’d never seen her cry like this, not even when his father left the last time, for good.

“I didn’t want you to go,” she choked out between sobs.

“What?!” he said, his voice raising.

“You were all I had. You have to understand. I have nobody else and I didn’t want you to go away. I was trying to protect you. Your father left me, and-”

“My father left you ‘cause he was a drunk. Why did you have to deny me the one thing that made me happy?”

Mario leapt out of his chair, too restless to sit one second longer. His body was buzzing with electricity. He felt like he had fire at the tips of his fingers and if he touched something, anything, it would burst into flames. It felt like he would burst into flames. His mind raced with a million thoughts. His Keith, right on his door step. How could he have never known about this? Why hadn’t Keith left a note, even if all he had to say was goodbye?

“I didn’t want you to go through the heartbreak I did. Love only lasts for a moment.”

“No, mother, not true love. You are … You are …” How could he possibly put into words all the anger, pain, and betrayal he felt? It felt as if he was being torn to pieces.

“I know. I am all of it and … there’s more…” she said, sobbing so hard her words were almost indistinguishable.

“More?” He wasn’t sure if he could take any more.

“He thinks … I mean, I told him that you were …” Her words broke off as she started coughing emphatically.

Maybe I should let her cough to death, Mario thought spitefully. But finally his empathy, as well as his anxiety about what she had to say, implored him to fetch her some water. If she died now he would never know, and he had to know. He practically forced the water down her throat as she gasped for breath.

“You told him I was what? What, mother? What?” he asked. “Married? You didn’t tell him I married someone else, did you?” He couldn’t imagine what could be worse than that. The very idea of Keith having moved on had hurt him so much, he couldn’t bear thinking that his mother had inflicted that same kind of pain on Keith.

She wouldn’t answer. He couldn’t help himself; he grabbed her and shook her. “Mother, tell me!”

She calmed down enough to answer, looking at him even more apologetically than she had before. Then, she uttered one word: “Dead.”

Shock and horror swallowed him up like a giant wave. His ears were ringing, and he couldn’t believe that he’d heard her correctly.

“Dead?”

“I told him you had died in a horrible accident. He wanted to visit your grave, but I told him, there was nothing left of you, and so…”

Mario felt like he was drowning. His body was dizzy and weightless, and he had to gasp for breath. He shook his head to clear it and blinked furiously, hoping this was all just a dream he would snap out of.

He squeezed his eyes shut. Maybe when he woke up, he would still be waiting for a letter. Maybe when he woke up, he would still be crying into his mop at the elementary school. Maybe when he woke up, he would still be in that sun-warmed vineyard, lying on the fragrant green grass with Keith lying next to him, their fingers intertwined. At this point, anything would be better than being here, now, knowing that his mother had ruined every single opportunity for him to be happy again. And she’d done it on purpose.

His throat was so choked with hatred he had to fight to say the words. “You are wicked, you are evil, you are … I will never speak to you again. Never.”

He turned to storm out of the room. He wanted nothing from his mother. He had spent his entire life trying to make her happy, trying to be good enough, and what had she given him in return? She never let him live. She let him die a little bit each day, knowing all along that he could have had at least an ounce of happiness. Had she hated him that much for being born? Had he really robbed her of her dreams? Was this her way of getting revenge?

“I won’t try to stop you this time,” she called out weakly after him from her bed. “I know I deserve it, I know I deserve to die alone.”

Mario whirled around. “Don’t even try to guilt trip me into one of your manipulative-”

“I am not manipulating you,” she gasped at the audacity of it.

He laughed a bitter, angry laugh. “You have manipulated me from the day I was born, using whatever means you could to suck me into your conniving self-serving agendas. I’ve been nothing but good to you. I went to America to send money to you, I gave up the love of my life for you. Everything was for you, and what do I have to show for it?! I’m 34, I’m stuck here in this — this hell hole living with you, the female embodiment of the Devil.”

He spat the words out like they were venom. She gasped in shock. Mario was sick of her, sick of her lies, sick of her acting, sick of her ropes that strangled and chained him to a world he hated. He wanted to be freed, freed once and for all.

“Don’t give me that dramatic display,” he snapped. “There won’t be any Oscars, any Emmys, any Tony awards for your performance today, mother. What you did is unspeakable and for your sake, I hope that God forgives you.”

For the first time he could remember, his mother was stunned into silence. He stormed out of the bedroom and, in a flustered rage, grabbed whatever things he could and shoved them into a bag. He was leaving. He didn’t know where he was going, but he wasn’t staying here one more night with that woman. Let her find someone else to look after her, he thought. Someone who doesn’t have a life, who doesn’t care about being robbed of every shred of their freedom and personal life. Or let her die, alone.

But, on his way out of the house, Mario stopped suddenly in the doorway. Could he actually do it? Could he truly leave behind the safety net that for years had served as his excuse for not following his heart? Could he leave his own mother alone, no matter how much she deserved it? What kind of person did that make him—and, if there was a God, like his mother had pounded into his head all these years, would He forgive him?

Mario took a deep breath. This was the part he hated. She always pulled him back. After all, she was blood. There was nothing stronger than blood—well, maybe true love, but she had destroyed any possibility of his having that years ago. Now, he had nothing but the sliver of hope that somehow he could scrape together a life of his own and that maybe Keith would be waiting for him, dreaming of the same thing. And yet, he knew what he had to do.

When Mario walked back into the bedroom, his mother looked up at him, her eyes puffy and red. With her tiny frame swaddled in a robe and blankets, she looked more like a little girl than the old woman she had become.

“Goodbye, mother,” he said. “I will call Paula and ask her to check in on you tonight.”

He didn’t even bother to let her respond, leaving her with nothing but the echoing sound of his footsteps as he headed out. A steely resolve settled in his chest. If there could be forgiveness for who he was, a gay man, there could be forgiveness for what he’d done.

“Mario?”

When he heard the voice behind him, Mario turned around and stared in surprise. His mother was in her bedroom doorway—standing up on her own two feet. She was no longer wheezing or coughing; she was no longer the sickly woman she had presented herself to be for the last few weeks, but the proper lady he remembered from his childhood. He was confused.

“It was me, you know?” His mother was speaking clearly now, no longer rasping out her words between wheezes. “I couldn’t think of what to get you for your birthday and I … I made you clean out that shed because I wanted you to find that letter. I asked your cousin to put it under the boxes because I knew if you stayed out there long enough, you would find it. Can I get at least credit for that?”

Mario stared at her, his face an expressionless mask. Even though he felt like a hurricane had ripped through him, unsettling everything he believed, he refused to give her the benefit of seeing how much she’d shaken him. The woman he had devoted his entire life to, the woman he had spent countless sleepless nights worrying over and caring for, was now standing before him healthy and strong. She had never really needed him, he realized now. This whole time, it had all been a performance, a complete lie. There was nothing he could say to convey to her the immense pain, betrayal, and rage he was feeling.

His mother reached over into the kitchen drawer and pulled out a pack of cigarettes. Death on a stick. Her coughing and wheezing was thanks to that, and still she insisted.

“Sit down,” she said, cupping her cigarette in her hand as she flicked the lighter.

Just to defy her, he stayed standing as she lit it up like an old pro.

“I may not win an Oscar, an Emmy or even a Tony, son but you have to admit, I gave the performance of a lifetime,” his mother said, taking a deep drag on the cigarette. “I was going to be an actress before you … before your father left you with me. You know that. I could have been somebody. You owed it to me. The least you could have done after stealing my future away is stay with me.”

Here she was again, blaming him. After everything she had done, and admitted to doing, she was going to lay it on him again. Well, he had let her blame him for everything that was wrong in her life long enough. He was done.

“No, mother. I don’t owe you a damn thing.” He hitched his bag on his shoulder and started to walk out the door.

“You’ll miss me!” she called after him, yelling out the door, “You’ll come back! Mario? Mario, come back! Come back this instant!”

But her calls fell on deaf ears; he kept walking with conviction. He knew where he needed to go. He knew where his heart was, and he was going to finish what he’d started so many years ago. This time, he was older and wiser and ready to take the reins in life. The only person that could stop him this time was him.

Maybe he’d find nothing. Maybe Keith would be with someone else—but he had to know, he had to try. He was going to return to the love of his life, if he would see him.

CHAPTER 10

There had been so many moments when Mario thought he would never get to the vineyard. Months had passed since he’d hitchhiked his way up through Mexico and smuggled his way over the border. He had faced heat, dirt, exhaustion, and fear when the flashlights of the border control almost tracked him down.

But he had made it—and now he stood at the foot of the vineyard. The scent of wine grapes filled his nostrils, bringing with them so many memories of times gone by. As he walked down the dusty road, Mario thought about the summer he spent working in the fields, the summer he fell in love for the first time. Now, the house rose up before him: a plantation-style home with columns that seemed to reach the heavens. The house was beautiful, but badly in need of repairs– the paint was chipping, the wooden boards of the porch sagging. It almost seemed abandoned to Mario; there was no one around that he could see. But still, as he climbed the steps of the front porch, his heart was pounding in his chest. The yelp of an old dog nearly made him jump out of his skin. The ugly mutt was practically blind but as it smelled the air, its growls turned to a friendly bark and it licked his hand.

The screen door creaked open suddenly, and a man with rifle stepped out. “Can I help ya’?” the voice said.

Mario recognized the voice immediately, and he felt as if a warm hand was closing around his heart.

It was the love of his life. It was Keith.

He stepped out from under the shadow of the house into the sunlight and cupped his hand above his brow. He’d aged well, the years had been good to him. Not even the fine lines that had begun to be etched around his mouth could take away that handsome face and those ice-blue eyes. After a moment, a smile of recognition lit Keith’s face.

“Mario?”

Seeing Keith’s smile again tugged at Mario’s heart, and Mario couldn’t help smiling in return. “Keith?”

Keith set the rifle down carefully and when he looked up, Mario could see the tears that had filled his eyes. Mario ran to him, and they threw their arms around each other. Keith’s smell, a familiar scent of sunshine and wine and Old Spice, was like oxygen to Mario. They held each other close, and then Keith kissed him.

As Mario kissed him back longingly, deeply, passionately, he knew he was home. Finally, he was home.

THE END

Mario – Part 1

Her name was Maria.

At least, that’s what he called her, and ever since he’d been separated from her, deported from the United States back to his hometown in Mexico, he hadn’t put her out of his mind. Ten years—had it really been that long? Sometimes, it felt like no time had passed at all, as if it had been just yesterday that he was completely content. Happy. Other times, it felt like a lifetime had passed. A lifetime in which the universe was so big around him, he felt like he would drown in the emptiness. A lifetime in which he felt so cramped and stuck in the life that lay ahead of him that he couldn’t breathe. Heartbreak was claustrophobia. Heartbreak was being lost. Heartbreak was hell.

Mario slopped his mop in the pail of soapy water and splashed it on the hard faux-marble floor of the elementary school. The sharp smell of detergent pinched his nose. He stank of years of soap scum, disappointment and broken dreams. He wiped his brow with the back of his hand, the sweat under the fringe that flopped back over his eyes made him feel grimy. His shaggy, overgrown hair covered his eyes. Things were easier when eye contact couldn’t happen by accident. Not that many people were looking at him anyway: the kids usually ran down the hall around him, the teachers barely said “excuse me” when they accidentally bumped into him. To them, he was invisible, and, although it hurt sometimes, it was better that way. No conversation meant no connection, and no connection meant he could protect himself from feeling something. If he was lucky, he would never feel again.

It had been the 70s, a time when the disco beat became a national anthem, even in Mexico. A time when the world was still reeling from the Civil Rights Movement and drowning itself in recreational drugs, booze and music to numb the shock of change. And yet, there was no substance in the world that could keep him from thinking about her. He could smell her scent, fresh as a morning after a summer storm. He could taste her lips, that sweet taste that had mixed with the salt of his own lips to create a new flavor all their own. He could see her hair, glowing in the golden sunlight of those warm summer months in the vineyard where he’d first met her. She had been his sunrise and his sunset. His beginning and his end. Her smile had promised that everything would be all right and anything was possible, as long as they had each other.

Now, he was alone.

All he had for company were the dried skeletons of memories long past, the echoes of her voice in the void she had left behind. Her last words to him had stabbed him in the heart over and over again since the day she said them. He had never felt pain like that, and he was sure if he felt it again, he’d die. So now, he tried to be numb. He forced himself to forget that he had ever known what it was to feel, to really be alive. He didn’t smile at people like he used to; he didn’t cry at movies anymore. Rare was a day that he let his temper flare even a bit. Numbness was his protective shield; he was sure that, if he opened himself up to feeling again, all the pain he had felt that day would come rushing back. He couldn’t survive that again. He’d barely survived the first time.

This was not where Mario had meant to be at this age. He was almost 34 years old – the prime of his life. By this time, he hoped to be married, to have kids somehow, to have traveled the world with the one he loved— Maria. They used to spend nights dreaming of a future together: their house, the family they would do whatever they could to build. He imagined that he would come home to their simple but beautiful house after a long day’s work– real work, not cleaning up after careless, sloppy people who barely noticed his existence – and walk through the door to smell a delicious dinner on the stove. Maria would welcome him with a warm embrace, telling him how much she had missed him all day, and he would taste wine on her lips when he kissed her. They wouldn’t have needed to be rich. They would have had something better: love.

But that was a fantasy. He felt foolish even letting it slip into mind again. He forced it out as he dipped the mop in the pail and yanked the lever to strain it from the funk. If Maria saw him now, alone in a hallway mopping a filthy floor, she’d probably break down and cry. This was so far from the future they’d dreamed of. Then again, maybe she wouldn’t care. She’d made it pretty clear that she wanted nothing to do with him, that she was tired of waiting. Now, he was the one waiting for someone that would never come, and he had the rest of his life to do it.

The thought was exhausting. He leaned his mop against a locker and sank down onto the staircase. His legs and shoulders ached from working all evening, and it was long after hours, so he was sure no one would catch him resting. He still had a second job to go to before dawn. Earning minimum wage, he had to work two jobs to support himself and his dying mother. Thank God, his cousin was watching her now, so he could go to work and get a well-needed break from taking care of her.

He pulled out a Ho-Ho cupcake from his left pocket. He’d bought it earlier from the vending machine, and it was smashed flat and warm from being in his pocket so long. He dipped his finger into the icing and stuck it in his mouth. The tart sweetness threatened to pull him back to another memory with Maria. Instead, stuffed the whole warm, sweet mess into his mouth at once. A small taste of heaven when everything else in his life seemed like hell.

“Happy birthday,” he said to himself.

He was alone on his birthday yet again, and just to add insult to injury, he dug his hand into his pants pocket and drew out an old, folded piece of paper. It was the letter he’d carried with him for the last ten years: Maria’s last letter to him. He traced the loop handwriting with his finger. His name was written the way she pronounced it, rolling and beautiful, like a work of art. Why did he do this to himself? Why relive that painful day again and again, day after day, year after year?

He couldn’t help himself. This letter was all he had left of her, painful as it was. He took a deep breath and opened it, his hands trembling as much as they had the day he’d first received it. But that day, the trembling had been from excitement, because he’d been so happy to hear from her. He hadn’t known the pain the letter would hold for him.

Dear Mario,

I can’t say I’m surprised, but I won’t lie. I am disappointed. You told me we’d be together by now, that somehow we’d make it happen. You said we’d run away together. That’s what you said, you promised.

I’m sorry to hear about your mom. I really am. But you cannot live her life for her. This isn’t about her. This is about us. You and me.

You promised.

And now you lied to me. I cannot tell you how much this hurts me to do this, but I’ve waited five years, and I just can’t wait anymore.

It’s clear that you don’t love me as much as I love you. I thought you did, but clearly I was mistaken.

Good luck, Mario. Thank you for the joy you brought in my life. I hope you find what you’re looking for.

Goodbye,

Maria

As Mario read, a tear rolled down his cheek. His throat was so tight it was hard to breathe. It hurt him just as much as they day he’d first read it. He knew he had hurt Maria, but what choice had he had? His mother needed him. He couldn’t have left her to suffer alone while he ran away with his love. Mario was his mother’s son, all she had. He knew that five years was a long time to wait, but he had imagined that Maria loved him enough to wait forever.

He had been wrong.

Wiping the tears from his cheek with the sleeve of his worn janitor’s uniform, Mario shook his head as if to clear the memories away.

You’re not supposed to feel anything, remember?

He stuffed the folded paper in his jacket pocket again. Misery would have to wait another day. He stood up. The last rays of sunlight slanting across the lockers had faded, and the hallway was dark. All the color had been sucked out of the world. Mario took up his mop again to finish cleaning so he could head home. He had to check on his mother again before starting the night shift at his next job or he’d never hear the end of it. And right now, that was the last thing he needed.

CHAPTER 2

“Why didn’t you call me?” Mario demanded to know. His cousin Paula was clearly stressed out as it was and he instantly regretted questioning her.

His mother was lying in bed, ashen-faced and only half-conscious, wheezing painfully with each breath she struggled to inhale. From time to time, she turned restlessly, mumbling incomprehensible, troubled words. She was in a far worse state than she’d been when he’d left her that morning. He had thought that leaving her with his cousin would mean she was safe for a while, but clearly he’d been wrong.

“I did, but no one answered at the school,” his cousin said, a concerned look on her face. “She kept yelling and screaming for you before.”

Mario closed his eyes and slumped against the dresser. It never ended. He left a miserable job to come to a miserable home before he left for another miserable job.

“What was she screaming about this time?” Mario asked.

“She said you needed to clean out the shed.”

That sounded like his mother: sick as a dog, but never too frail to try to run his life for him. Mario sighed and walked over to his mother’s bedside.

“What’d the doctor say?” he asked his cousin.

“There’s nothing much more we can do,” his cousin answered. “She refused to see him long enough to make a proper diagnosis.”

Mario’s stomach sank. He had known that this day would come eventually, and as difficult as it was to see his mother in pain, as exhausting as it was caring for her, and as much as he hated her sometimes for being the chain that kept him from moving on, from being with the one he loved, she was still his mother.

“Happy birthday,” his cousin whispered in his ear as she gave him a quick kiss on the cheek.

He leaned over to take a better look at his mother. Her sweaty forehead was burning up, but her little hand was freezing cold. He clasped it in his, wishing he could do something to ease her pain. This small Mexican town didn’t have the best doctors, and the nearest hospital was a good four hours away—too long a trip for an old woman in her condition. The only thing they could do was pray she’d come out of it or wait for her to die. Brushing her soft hair away from her face, Mario kissed his mother’s forehead. Her skin was smooth and soft, a strong contrast to how hard she was on the inside.

It was so strange to see his mother like this: weak and trembling, a mere shell of who she had been before she got sick. She had always been petite, but a petite powerhouse, well-known in their town for her strength and conviction. People knew not to cross her, and though she rarely raised her voice, she managed to keep her family and neighbors in line. When she gave you that evil eye of hers, you stopped whatever you were doing immediately, knowing that she meant business. God forbid, she caught you talking or fooling around in church.

People had always told Mario he must be just as strong as his mother, if he could live under her rule and still manage to be himself. But now, after ten years of looking after her, jumping every time she snapped her fingers, Mario wasn’t sure he even knew who he was anymore. He was no pushover—far from it, he stood his ground—but, as strong and macho as he was, his mother held some kind of power over him.

The old woman coughed and her eyes fluttered closed. Now she was drifting in and out of sleep. His cousin tiptoed across the room to pick up her purse and slip out quietly. It was late and she had to go home and headed out as quickly as she could. Not that he blamed her, five minutes with his mother was enough to drive anyone bananas.

Mario would have to go to the nearest pay phone and call the factory to tell them he couldn’t work that night. His boss had made it clear that if he missed work one more time, he’d be fired. But what choice did Mario have?

That night, he slept in a chair next to his mother’s bed until her coughing woke him up. Only a thin sliver of light was visible in the gap between the dark curtains, but it was morning. His mother had made it through the night. She managed to sit up and say, “Well, are you just going to sit there or are you going to get me a glass of water?”

Mario rubbed his eyes. “And good morning to you too, Mami,” he answered, glad to see that at least her illness hadn’t changed her personality. She was sick, but she wasn’t lost yet.

“Don’t be a smart ass,” she grumbled scrunching her lips.

“You feeling alright?” he asked her.

“I’ve got pneumonia, what do you think?” Her voice was shaky, but there was still that same fire in her eyes. “Water, son. Water.”

“Yes sir,” Mario said, getting up stiffly from his chair.

“Don’t think I’m too sick to throw a vase at you,” she wheezed.

They often had a playful battle of words between them. It was closest thing he ever experienced as love from her.Even from her sickbed, his mother could still order him around with the best of them. There was still hope.

Her voice gained strength, and she said in her old salty tone, “And for God’s sake will you clean out that shed out back? It’s a pigsty!”

In the kitchen, he grabbed her favorite glass, ran it under the faucet and watched the water-line climb. Why was she asking him to clean the shed out now, of all times? Couldn’t that wait? She either had no clue that she was dying, or hoped to pretend that she wasn’t. Either way, she was still running his life. He shut the faucet off and walked back to the bedroom where she glared at him.

“You trying to kill me? What took you so long? I’m dying here.”

“Put a little rat poisoning in there to add some flavor,” he teased.

She glared at him. “Wouldn’t surprise me,” she scoffed.

Clearing her throat, she snatched the glass from him and took a sip. Water splashed onto the blanket because her hand was shaking so bad, but she didn’t notice—if she had, she would have blamed it on him. She swallowed with difficulty. The doctor had said her throat was raw from all the coughing.

Sinking back into her pillows, his mother said, “Gloria came by earlier with her husband. It’s nice when people make you a priority in their life.”

So, she’s starting off the morning with a nice heaping helping of guilt, Mario thought.

By the way his mother had emphasized the word husband, Mario knew exactly what she was getting at. She had always wanted him to give up what she described as a pipe dream about marrying Maria and marry Gloria instead. He had considered it, too, after Maria’s last letter, but he hadn’t been able to bring himself to do it. The idea of someone else’s fingertips tracing trails of fire over his chest, someone else’s lips where Maria’s should have been, just felt wrong.

“I heard she’s going to have a baby,” his mother was saying. “Would have been nice to have lived long enough to seen my own grandchildren,” she added. “Guess that’s not going to happen anytime soon.”

Mario sank back into his chair by her bedside and slowly rolled his neck to stretch the muscles. Sleeping sitting up had made him sore all over. The small, dark bedroom seemed to close in around him as he listened to his mother go on and on about how other women her age had grandchildren to play with and she never would. He managed to suppress his rising anger and keep quiet. Normally, her rants would have put him on edge, but listening to her labored, phlegm-filled lungs push hard to get the words out, hearing the rasping wheeze of her breathing, he didn’t have the heart or the strength to argue with her. He didn’t want the last conversation they had to be a fight.

Instead, he tried to stay cheerful—a mood that was very foreign to him these days. “Grandchildren, well … you never know what the future holds,” he said, doing his best to smile.

His mother rolled her eyes. “Well, I’ll be gone soon, so you’ll be able to do whatever the hell you want.”

Those words—whatever the hell you want—were loaded. There was something on his mother’s mind, something she was holding back from saying. And that, Mario knew, was a big deal. She usually had no problem saying exactly what she was thinking, no matter who it hurt. So what was going on here?

But instead of explaining any further, she continued her rant. “I’m surprised you made it home instead of letting me die alone. You seem to be doing whatever you can nowadays not to be around. Was I that bad of a mother to you? Was I?”

She was laying on more guilt just to push his buttons, and it was getting harder to hold his tongue. Resentment burned in his chest like a flame, and its intensity took him by surprise. When he tried to swallow it down, it tasted bitter in his throat. It took every bit of will he had not to participate in her sparring match. She hadn’t even remembered his birthday. But she was weak. He could see it, even though she tried her best to hide it, so all he said was, “Not at all, mami. You’re a wonderful mother. I just have to work so we can have-”

“I thought I taught you to lie better than that,” she grumbled. “Well, go make yourself useful if you want so much time alone, and clean out that damn shed. Paula told me it’s a rat’s nest in there.”

The damn shed again! Why was she so fixated on it?

“Yes, your majesty,” he smirked.

“I swear I’m going to throw that vase at you,” she warned.

“Sure thing, Mami. I’ll do it a bit later.”

She glared at him. “Are you really going to make me repeat myself in my dying hours?”

Her small frame curled up on the bed reminded him of a cobra ready to strike. Even now, when she had no energy left, her venom was potent.

He’d learned a long time ago that arguing with her was just a waste of time; she’d always win and, macho as he was, he would have his feelings hurt by her words. So, he forced a smile.

“Anything else?” he asked on the way out the bedroom door.

“Don’t be a smart ass,” she said, a cough racking her frail body as she struggled to clear her throat. When she could speak again, she said, “And I want that shed spic n’ span.”

CHAPTER 3

No matter how obnoxious his mother was, no matter how overbearing she’d been most of his life, Mario would be sad to say “goodbye” to her. After all, she had brought him into the world.

She had always been there for him, holding his hand through the best and worst moments of his life in her own way – even if that was partly because she didn’t think he could stand on his own two feet or because she wanted to keep her tentacles of control over him or maybe because she didn’t want him running off to live his own life.

He knew he should be spending what little time he had left with her—her “dying hours,” as she called them—by her side, but he also knew those hours would just be miserable if he didn’t do what she told him. So, he went to clean out the shed. Even though the morning was still young, it was already searing hot. The sun beat down on his head and neck as he trudged across the dry brown grass of the backyard to the shed, which was a small wooden structure with the chipped red paint peeling off the walls. Grabbing the key that hung from a nearby tree branch, he unlocked the old rusted lock and yanked the molded door open.

The smell of musty air and cedar wood hit and overwhelmed him with memories. He understood it now. The shed was full of ghosts. This was where he and his cousin Paco, Paula’s brother had played hide and seek, crouching in the dark corner behind the lawn mower even though his mom made it clear she didn’t want them playing in there around all the sharp tools. This was where his mother stored everything that had once belonged to, or reminded her of, his “good for nothing” father—things that were now dusty, moldy, moth-eaten or rusted. She would have done better to just burn them or throw them out. But, then again, he knew how love could get you knotted up in a twisted mess. Even though his mother said terrible things about his father, Mario knew that she still held a torch for him. Even though it had been twenty years since she’d seen him, she had kept the things in this shed because she hoped secretly, in her heart of hearts, that he would come back one day. It was a pretty farfetched dream, but wasn’t he doing the same thing when it came to Maria?

No, he resolved. I’ll never be like her. If I have children, I’ll be kind to them and let them live their own lives. They don’t deserve to suffer because I’m bitter from a broken heart.

His mother hadn’t always been bitter, though. There were times when she had been much happier, usually after one of his father’s rare visits. He’d visit them a handful of times a year. His mother never welcomed him with open arms at first—she would demand where he had been, scream at him for abandoning her to take care of their son all by herself, and throw plates and vases at him until Mario ran and hid under his bed to avoid the shattering glass, plugging his fingers in his ears so he couldn’t hear them shouting. But then, suddenly, the shouting would change to moans of pleasure, and his mother would cry out his father’s name, and the battle would be followed by one of those passionate sessions of loud, all-night love making that neighbors for miles around could hear.

In the morning, the sun would be streaming into the kitchen, and when Mario walked in for breakfast, he would find his father at the table, reading the newspaper and humming a cheerful Mexican folk song, and his mother at the stove, frying up his father’s favorite breakfast. His father would greet Mario with a big hug and pull him onto his lap, and then reach over to spank his wife’s behind, making her shriek and swat at him playfully with her spatula.

Of course, the fighting always began again soon—his father would announce that he had to leave again, and his mother would send the breakfast in the pan flying across the room to splatter at the wall, and the shouting would escalate even louder than the night before. But Mario chose to remember those brief, happy memories, of when his parents were together.

For many years, Mario’s father came and went. But then one day, his father left and never came back. Not even for Christmas, not even for Mario’s birthday. He didn’t call or send a single letter.

Secretly, Mario blamed his mother. She had pushed his father away, just like she had pushed away almost everyone else in her life. Part of Mario, though he hated to say it, felt like she deserved what she got. If she died bitter and alone, it was all her fault.

She had even come close to driving Mario away, in her worst moments. When she was angry, she told him that he was a mistake—not a symbol of her and his father’s brief but fleeting love, but an unwanted accident. When Mario was born, he had destroyed her chance of making something of herself, of becoming a great actress like she had dreamed. She had settled for being a grammar school teacher instead, but she never forgave him or his father for that.

“I could have been somebody,” she used to tell Mario over and over again. “I was better than anyone else in my university.”

For so long, Mario and his mother each blamed the other for driving his father away. But as Mario grew into a man himself, he realized that the blame wasn’t his mother’s alone. His father had made the choice long ago to marry her. He’d chosen the life he’d had with her. Who was he to run away?

Coward, Mario thought. Yellow-livered coward.

Sometimes Mario would imagine that his father had died in some horrible accident or in a bar fight. That’s what he deserved, he would think bitterly, and then ask forgiveness for thinking it. It wasn’t just bitterness that made him think that way. If his father had died, then there was a reason that he hadn’t come back to visit, hadn’t called them or even written. There was a reason Mario had been left to care for his mother alone, his own love on hold.

But every few years, he’d hear a friend or relative say they had seen his father, usually passed out at a bar or in a back alley. Others claimed, he was much happier, sober—a church-going man with a new family.

A family that was better? Mario always wondered. A family that he could love?

Now he shook his head, trying to squash the flood of emotions rising in his chest, and squinted through the dust floating in the air of the dark shed at the stacks of boxes and piles of junk. Where to begin?

He figured he’d begin with the box right in front of him. But as he lifted that box, one that seemed out of place, as if it had been moved only recently, something caught his eye.

An envelope.

Not a typed envelope that your gas bill came in, but an envelope that would hold a personal letter. He picked it up and, though it was hard to see clearly because he hadn’t reached to pull the rusty chain that switched on the bare light bulb overhead, he recognized the handwriting immediately.

Those loopy letters made his heart skip a beat. Maria, the envelope said. A surge of excitement coursed through him, and it had been so long since he’d let himself feel anything that the emotion made him dizzy.

Was it some letter he’d read and lost? No. He flipped it over and saw that the envelope was still sealed. It had never been opened. He tried to swallow, but his mouth had dried up. In the humid, musty heat of the shed, he felt light-headed. His tongue felt thick and his fingers were numb. He fumbled with the envelope as he held it up so he could see it better in the shafts of light coming in the cracks of the shed walls. The date on the front said October— a good month after the last letter he’d received from her.

If he opened the letter, he would be opening up his heart to a new world of pain. Maybe it was better just to burn it and let the letter he had kept with him all these years be his last memory of her, as he finally moved on with his life.

It’s time to let go, he told himself for the hundredth time. Just destroy it. Never think about it again.

He gripped the envelope, prepared to tear it into a dozen pieces … but something stopped him. The letter may have been ten-years-old, but even if it broke his heart all over again, even if it could do nothing to change his hopeless future, he just had to know what was in it.

CHAPTER 4

Before opening the letter, Mario stepped out of the shed. Even under the bright sun, he was trembling all over. The ground beneath him felt like it was shaking. He had to lean against the side of the shed to stay standing. Memories washed over him. He couldn’t stop thinking about the last letter he’d written her, in response to the scathing letter from her that he kept in his pocket. Even though he had mailed it over ten-years-ago, he still remembered every word he had written to her, and he still regretted every word of it. If only he had the chance to do everything over again. But he didn’t, and as if to torture himself, he went through his own letter in his head for the thousandth time:

Dear Maria,

I love you and I cannot believe you’d question this. You talk about promises and you promised to stick with me no matter how long it took. I’m sorry I cannot see you when I want to, I am, but I have to say I’m disappointed in you for giving me more pressure than I already have.

My mother is sick, there is nothing I can do about that. Do you expect me to abandon her? I’m the only one she has. I thought about asking you to wait a little while longer. I thought you’d love me enough to do that, but it’s clear that is not the case.

And so, if your heart is telling you that you cannot wait anymore, do what you need to do.

I wish you the best. I will miss you.

Until we meet again,

Mario

He took a deep breath thinking about those words—until we meet again. One of his tears had even dropped onto the page, smudging the ink, but the words had still been legible. Oh, how he regretted writing them now. If he had it to do all over again, he would. But he had been so mad that day he wrote it; he could still remember the anger that had coursed through him as he’d bent over the kitchen table, scratching out the letters with his pen, furious with Maria for not understanding his circumstances and responsibilities, for doubting that he loved her and wanted to be with her, frustrated with himself for having allowed himself to be backed into a corner and separated from her in the first place. If only he had been honest with her, instead of shutting the door on their love. He and Maria had always been real with each other; that was one of the many reasons he had been so in love with her. But he’d said “goodbye” to her, explaining to his mother, if you let a bird go and it comes back to you, it’s meant to be.

His mother had snorted. “That’s horseshit,” she’d said. “I told you she wasn’t any good for you.”

Even though her words had felt like vinegar in a wound, he had tried to see his mother’s point of view, especially as the years passed and Maria never wrote back to him. But deep inside there was a glimmer of hope, a flame that hadn’t been extinguished, a whisper that said, Wait. Maria will be back.

He was his mother’s son, wasn’t he? She would always fight to the bitter end—as she was proving it right now in her bed in that dark little room as her frail body gave it her all, refusing to die.

That glimmer of hope, that whisper, had been right. Maria had written back. And even though the letter had been buried under boxes all this time, his heart raced with possibilities.

He hooked his index finger under the flap of the envelope and tore it open.

As his finger slid across the paper, he could feel the imprint of the pen Maria had used. The all-too-familiar curls and loops of her handwriting threatened to sweep him away again. It took all he had to ground himself so he could read her words.

Dear Mario,

You know it isn’t easy for me to say I’m sorry. It’s not easy to admit that what I said was hurtful and that I never should have said it at all. For the last few weeks, I’ve been doing everything I can to stay angry at you, to forget you, but the truth is, I cannot. The truth is, I can’t get you out of my mind.

I know what I said was hurtful. I know you can’t help it, that you’ve been doing the honorable thing taking care of your mother and that you couldn’t abandon her to run away together with me thousands of miles away. I know this now, but I was selfish. You see, I don’t just love you. I’m in love with you. And the truth is, I cannot imagine life without you. If you can find it in your heart to forgive me, to forget everything I ever said to you and just give us one more chance, just say the word and I promise I’ll wait for you until the moon is no more. I will not be writing you back after this anymore. If I don’t hear back from you in the next month, I can only assume then, you’ve moved on.

Love,

Maria

Mario’s heart leapt as he looked at the date: ten years ago. The letter was musty and yellowed with age. Ten years. She had given him one month to win her back, to assure her of his love, to take the first step toward that future they had imagined together, and she hadn’t heard from him in ten years.

“But I never saw the fucking letter!” he cried aloud in frustration. Mario had thought that he could never know pain as deep as the wound of ten years ago, but now as he imagined Maria watching for the mailman, running to take the letters and look for one with his handwriting, and weeping in disappointment when day after day it did not arrive, agony pierced him like a hot, searing spear. Guilt and regret ripped the old wounds open, and they were more agonizingly painful than ever.

Why hadn’t he seen this letter? How could fate be so cruel? He could have written to her, he could have gone to her, taken her in his arms and proclaimed his love to her. They could be standing, now, with their arms around each other, watching from the back porch as their children splashed and shrieked happily in a sprinkler on the lawn, Maria laughing as she watched them, her head on his shoulder.

Did she ever think of him now? He wondered if his name ever came up. If his image flashed across her mind every now and then. He wondered if she smiled with pleasant memories of what could have been—or if, when people asked about him, she stared blankly said, “Mario who?” It had been over a decade. She had probably long forgotten about him. Surely, she had met someone else. Surely, some other man had swept her off her feet. She was too good of a catch. Maria had moved on, Mario was sure, and he was stuck in this hell hole he’d created for himself.

He refolded the letter and tucked it back in the envelope. There was no sense fantasizing now. Those chances, those times, had come and gone. He snapped back to reality. He had better get back to cleaning out the shed before his mother had another fit.  CLICK HERE TO READ THE REST ——> http://jeffrivera.com/mario-part-2/

 

Infinity Gene

New York City, New York

 

He should have never listened to him. Trespassing deep within the abandoned New York City subway tunnel was a bad idea.

The darkness was an abyss stretching out endlessly before him, holding within its yawning maw all manner of horrors.

Dread crept down A.J.’s spine; his body quivered and muscles tensed. He pulled his baseball cap tightly around his head.

Something lifeless stared back at him from the brewing shadows, he was sure of it.

He blinked and it was gone.

His breath labored and his heart thundered with agony. A.J. had to keep his reactions under control to avoid being tracked down.

Eyes darting back and forth, his feet dragged across the metal tracks. The littlest of sounds could spell his doom.

In the distance, a subway train scraped along the tracks, its patrons clueless of the looming danger.

If A.J. didn’t make it out alive, the world would never know.

He envied their ignorance. A morbid smile spread across his face, as he thought of his long-past craving for adventure.

That was a time when he’d pray for a life-changing experience that would shatter his otherwise mundane life.

University. Nightly partying. Endless homework. It was a circle he couldn’t get out of, and now he longed to get back to it.

Anything was better than running for his life.

As A.J. ran along the dank, rat-infested train tracks, his lungs gasping for air, one thing was clear: he had to move now, or he would die.

The air in the abandoned tunnel was thick and pungent, made rotten by years of neglect.

Cockroaches and varmints had made it their home, living in squalor. Not even the most desperate of transients would hole up here. Its curved walls crumbled with disrepair. Only the graffiti, a splash of color in an otherwise grimy environment exhibited a time of hope.

Wincing with every step, small stones crushed underfoot in an otherwise deathly silence.

Even the barest whisper was a thunderclap in the underground. It was only a matter of time before he was caught by it.

It.

Sweat prickled his temples, trickling down the sides of his face, as he remembered what he’d seen.

Stinking of fear, A.J. wanted to strip his jacket, black top, and pantsfrivolous garments. They were but the useless remnants of a life that would never be the same.

Stained in blood and sweat, A.J. longed for a weapon—a gun, a knife; he’d take a stick at this point.

He was armed with nothing but his wits and fists, though he feared neither would be enough.

Slamming his back against a dark nook, A.J. glanced back just long enough to see if he was still being chased.

Nothing. He had to catch his breath.

Small bits of rubble fell around him, softly impacting against his body. A.J. doubled over, heaving air into his lungs, dripping sweat from his brow.

Every breath strained through his crackle-dry throat was broken glass, slicing its way down his gullet.

His muscles throbbed and ached, their tendons torn apart. Every step was misery, every second another endured torment.

The putrid smell didn’t help matters, either. A.J. could almost taste the bile in the back of his throat. He wished that this was nothing but a nightmare.

Snap!

His head cracked in the direction of the sound. Silence. Minutes were like hours in this living hell.

A gust of wind stirred the old magazines and trash littering the ground, and the tense air was alive with fear.

Someone was near.

Only the rusted bars lining the tracks signaled any hope for salvation. He had to follow them, no matter what the risk.

Yet somehow, the ominous sense that he’d been herded into a trap shuddered through A.J.’s body.

His best friend Chad had been captured by itslaughtered. No one could survive that thing.

No one.

How he wished that his best friend was by his side now; he didn’t want to die alone in this grimy tunnel.

Those last moments Chad had experienced must have been filled with absolute terror.

Had Chad seen flashes of his family? Had he thought of the wishes left unfulfilled, or of all the times he and A.J. had shared growing up together?

So many questions that would never be answered, even long after they found his rotting corpse. Or what was left of it.

Somebody had to notice they were missing eventually, right?

A.J. swallowed hard, remembering how Chad had made him promise not to tell anyone where they were going.

A.J. was a fool for having listened to his best friend. Right now, he could’ve been chilling in their cruddy apartment like any other dateless Friday night.

Whispers ricocheted across the walls in every direction. High voices, low voices. He was going mad.

His heart slammed into his chest, his knees shaking like weak jelly.

Something unsettling, something unnatural, something unholy was brewing. His mind raced. He couldn’t stay here. Staying here was suicide.

As he stumbled along the tracks as fast as he could, he couldn’t help but allow the guilt to sink its claws into him.

Poor Chad. He’d been hunted like prey. If he hadn’t made it, what hope did A.J. have?

He’d looked everywhere for his best friend. His tattered and blood-soaked shirt proved it.

That thing.

The short-lived battle had been messy, and only by a miracle had he escaped. For now, anyway.

Lifeless milk-blue eyes, unnatural pale skin.

Rumors of mole people tickled his mind. It was said that they’d lived for generations under the bowels of the city.

Surviving on trash and rotting corpses, they were the rebels of a civilized society.

A.J. didn’t know what it was that had attacked them back then.

But it was coming for him.

He picked up the pace. The exit door was in the distance. If only he could get to it.

This was too easy. Something was wrong; his survival instincts told him so. Even without its physical presence, fright had seized A.J.

The stealth being was something borne of only the darkest nightmares.

As he ran, the tunnel’s curved walls melted into the roof as if closing in on him.

He was living on borrowed time.

Chad had said he’d found a passageway that led to an underground facility, and A.J. couldn’t let him go down there alone.

The whole idea sounded insane. His best friend’s conspiracy theories, often powered by online chatter, were amusing. Initially, he’d brushed it off.

It was said that these abandoned tunnels were a prime location for such facilities as they were still tied into the city’s power grid.

Often times, these kinds of places would go unnoticed, at least until Chad and A.J. had stumbled down here.

And the pods…he shuddered, thinking about it. Those long cubicles emanating their ethereal green glow. It almost looked like an electronic womb.

 

Wires protruded from the pods, pulsing with light and energy, as if something were breathing life into them.

All thoughts that the experiments were merely electronic evaporated as they saw through the fogged glass, a face staring back at them.

They had to leave, but their uninvited transgression wouldn’t go unnoticed or unpunished.

The entrance to the subway had been blocked off by warning signs, signs that, right now, A.J. had wished they’d heeded.

A train rumbled nearby. Like distant thunder, its wheels squealed against the rusted tracks in protest.

No one had been down this part of the tunnel in years. It was neglected and crumbling, its cracked red brickwork untouched by graffiti.

Nothing could reach it, not even a cell phone signal.

No one would hear him scream.

Savage red memories fueled his race toward the door—his escape, if he could just get to it.

Its faint glow was his only sign of hope, the only way back into the outside world and back to his normal life.

A gurgling rumble broke through the eerie silence. A.J.’s heart froze and his body stood rigid with tension.

He couldn’t help but be overcome by the feeling of being watched, the feeling of being hunted.

The predator was back.

The horrid stench of death filled the tunnel. But from where? A.J. was almost afraid to look around.

He looked but there was nothing.

Flickers of light from the overhead lamps strobed and yet the abyss still offered nothing but the rancid stench of death.

Raspy breathing echoed off the concrete walls with a hush, and whispers flew by like bullets.

Everywhere and nowhere, the beast sent chills throughout his body.

Whether it lurked from behind the wall or hung down from the ceilings like the strings of sewage that dangled above, A.J didn’t know.

Uncertainty permeated his spirit, and fate laughed its way through the ticking countdown that was his life.

Either way, he had to move faster. He had to make a break for it. It was now or never.

Summoning the last remnants of strength he had, A.J. pushed off, not caring about the noise he made.

The predator was on his trail.

His feet slipped against the ground as his frail muscles were pushed beyond their limits.

Stones scuttled on either side, thudding against the wall, clinking against the train tracks as he ran.

His panting breath reverberated against the wall. The fearful smell of his sweat was intoxicating to the creature.

Pain shot up his ankle; it was sprained. The injury only served to remind him that he was alive; there was no time to think about it.

As A.J. dashed down a turn in the tracks, flashes of the silhouette that pursued him grew closer.

The more he ran, the harder he pushed and the more he dragged himself through mud.

The lights fluttered. From the darkness, the silhouette pursued him in an animalistic fashion.

His heart raced as he ran through the pain, ignoring the begging strain that made him want to do little more than crumple to the floor.

Then, all was dark.

Pitch dark.

For a moment, everything was silent. A.J. could hear only the rushing blood of his heart beating and the sound of his stifled breath as he listened.

The deathly silence was broken as the impending crunch of something moving towards him cut through the air.

He wanted to move forward, but where was forward? Where was backwards?

Chad had warned him never to step foot on the third rail of the subway tracks or he could be electrocuted.

What a way to die.

A.J. had to take that risk.

The lights fizzed overhead, providing him a way out, strobing faster, faster as he moved into a sprint.

The whispers were all around him now, muttering unintelligible things, demented things.

He wanted to scream but couldn’t expend the energy.

Something crawled along the walls; he swore it. The shadows in his peripheral swam with movement.

Out of nowhere, something leaped toward him, whooshing through the air. He swung out of the way just in time.

An arm, a leg, a tentacle, a tendril—he wasn’t sure what had tried to grab him.

Whatever it was dislodged the rubble as it moved along the sides of the wall, gaining on A.J. with every second.

Move, dammit, move.

A.J. had never run faster in his life. The chase was relentless, and it would be one with an inexorable end unless he could get out.

Almost there. The exit door’s glow radiated, its ghostly green glow a haven.

In his moment of triumph, A.J. looked back. Big mistake.

Tripping over the track wasn’t the worst part; hitting his head on the rusted rail hurt the most.

Pain sang in his head and A.J. rolled onto his back, processing the sensation that was ringing throughout his body.

He groaned, cradling his head in his hands. Blood seeped from his forehead, filtering through his hands.

He noticed that his baseball cap had fallen off, and with a bloodied hand he reached for it. Then, there was a snarl.

It wasn’t only the gurgling sound of the predator that paralyzed him with fear. No, he had much more pressing matters.

A spotlight shone in his face, blinding him, the beam of light coming from nothing other than the oncoming subway.

Barreling towards him, its vibrations rattled the track, the whir of its engines propelling it ever closer.

Sweat ran down the back of his neck after all that running, all that struggle. He couldn’t let it be for nothing.

He had to get up. Now.

As he got up to run, he realized that his foot was trapped. Pain crippled him as he fell to the ground.

The tracks had shifted, locking him in. Panic gripped him.

He was a sitting duck.

He’d come so close to escaping. This felt unfair, for it to end like this. A.J. scrambled up, pulling at his leg in a frenzy.

He twisted until it hurt. The bloodcurdling yell that escaped from his throat was dwarfed by the sound of the oncoming train.

The tracks rumbled. His eyes widened. A.J. took a deep breath and pulled with as much vigor as he could muster.

Pain seared through his tender wound as he pulled it free, skin scraping off in the encapsulating horror.

Light flooded into the decrepit tunnel, creeping along the tunnel walls until it had illuminated the silhouette of the predator before him.

Was that thing wearing a tattered Nazi uniform?

A.J. gasped, stumbling backwards. Its hunched body approached, unperturbed by the incoming train.

Honk! The train’s horn blared.

Whether he was crushed by the train or devoured by the being’s insatiable appetite, A.J. would die.

He was sure of it.

A.J. made the symbol of the cross. He’d never been a religious man, but now was a good time to start.

Even if God existed, He had no place there. Whatever this thing was, it was born from hell.  CLICK HERE TO PURCHASE THE FULL NOVEL