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.

Sing to Me

They want me to pull the plug on her. I won’t. Not now, not ever.

Word is she could go any day now. I refuse to believe that as I sit with her, holding my new bride’s fragile hand, my fingers entwined with hers.  I have hope.  I won’t let them take that hope from me.

Prayer can work miracles. So can love. Love is so dynamic and all-encompassing. It can heal anything, even a brain-dead girl hit by a semi.

The gentle rasp of her breathing machine and the monotonous beep of her heart monitor offer no comfort.

I kiss Emma on the hand and whisper, “Don’t worry, baby. I’ll protect you.”     

My mother steps inside the room. She knows I don’t want to talk anymore. We’ve been over this, and I’m not budging.

“Cody, there’s something else,” she says, her expression troubled.

“What is it?” I ask her, trying to control my growing exasperation. I’m so mentally exhausted and worn down physically. They say I have bags under my eyes, and I can’t remember the last time I combed my hair.  The past few months have been a living hell. How ironic that my love can’t wake, and I barely sleep.

“Emma’s grandmother is trying to get a court order to force them to pull the plug,” my mother says cautiously, gauging my reaction.

“What?” My heart stops in its tracks. I rasp disbelievingly. “I’m her husband.”

“They’re going to fight this, son, and they could win. One way or another, you’re going to have to say goodbye.”

“Over my dead body,” I grit out between clenched teeth. She knows better than to push the issue and judging by the way her shoulders hunch and her head is bowed; I’ve hurt her feelings. It’s not her fault, and I whisper, “I’m sorry.”

I place an extra knitted blanket on top of Emma to keep her warm.  It feels like an icebox in here, and it’s the least I can do to keep my baby comfortable.

Twenty-years-old and all I can think is “what a waste of her life.”  

I love her.  Love doesn’t even come close to how I feel about my Emma.

How can I say, love, when she’s become the air that I breathe and my reason for living?

I know this accident that happened is all my fault, and it sickens me to think about it. I clench my teeth and take a deep calming breath. My anger won’t help her come back from the brink of death.

We had so many plans and so many dreams. I should never have let her go. I know that now more than ever.

~~~

The first time Emma walked into my life, there was an eruption inside me I hadn’t experienced before. Not since the horrible break up with my ex two years ago had I thought of girls as anything but conquests.

The day my life changed forever, I was supposed to be with my best friend, Aaron. He wanted to meet at the apartment we shared to practice a new song for our band that he was raving about starting up.

I loved the band but being cooped up with them 24/7 took its toll sometimes. So, instead, I was alone tuning my guitar in the makeshift garage we’d rented back in Beaverton, Oregon.

The place should have been remodeled—no, torn down decades ago. Scattered in the crowded unit, our equipment looked like a tribute to The Rolling Stones.  Lined with concrete and rusted metal, it reeked like a cheese factory.

Emma sauntered in the open door as if she’d walked onto a million dollar yacht. Strawberry blonde hair rested on her shoulders, her flawless skin marred only by a smattering of light freckles and her eyes the color of the ocean—the type I could stare into for hours.

She wiped the dust from the doorframe as she entered, her face contorted in disgust. “This place is a fire hazard.”

I plucked the strings of my bass guitar and said, “Excuse me?”

“You deaf?”  She folded her arms and leaned against the door. “And ever heard of a mop or air freshener?”

I shook my long hair out of my face. “You sure you got the right place, lady?”

“I read online you’re giving music lessons, right?”  She strolled to the keyboard and ran her fingers over the keys.

“Don’t touch that, and no, not anymore.”

She poked at the keys again, as if daring me to do something. “Why not?”

“Changed my mind,” I said and stood, joining her at the keyboard.

A semblance of a mischievous smile curved her lips as her eyes searched for something else to touch. “So you said you’d do it in the ad, but now you won’t?”

“Too much hassle and too many broke assholes,” I said as my eyes followed her wondering what she was going to touch next. “Do you always walk around other people’s places touching their stuff and snooping around? Wanna take a seat or something?”

She placed her hands on her hips and looked around the room. “Take a seat where? On the dirty floor or the filthy futon?

“What?” I asked with indignation as I raised a brow. Did this girl really come here to insult me? We didn’t have much at that point, but we were serious about our music and determined to make it.  Having a band may have started out as a way to get laid, but now it was more than that.

“So … which am I? A hassle, an asshole, or broke?”  She tilted her head, widening her eyes.

Two could play that game. “My guess is all of the above.”

“You’re a real charmer,” she mumbled with sarcasm. She flipped her hair over her shoulder and turned around to sashay past me. Her heels clicking and clacking, echoing against the concrete floor as I watched her tight, sexy body walk away.  Every curve was exactly where it should be, and my imagination was going places it shouldn’t. My mother always believed in love at first sight, and I’d always laughed at her. I had a feeling my mother would be getting the last laugh this time.

Emma screamed class. She was a lady and a lady like that deserved to be treated with respect. Something I haven’t done in quite some time. I was going to have to play this cool and be a good boy which wasn’t an easy feat for a guy like me.

“Yeah? Not too bad yourself. Hey, stop touching things. Cool it, will you?” I growled, growing irritated.

“Did you just tell me to ‘cool it’?”  she asked, gasping in mockery and then looking at me with false irritation. Damn, she’s so pretty I can’t stay annoyed at her.

“Now, who’s deaf?” I smirked.

A mischievous grin formed on her face again, as if she enjoyed the challenge and a man who would stand up to her.

“That your bike parked out front?” She sat at the keyboard and crossed her legs, but not before she wiped the seat.

“Yeah. Why?”

“Hmm.” There was a glint in her eye.

“Hmm, good? Or Hmm, bad?”

“What do you want it to be, good or bad?” she teased.

My imagination stirred, but I had to be a gentleman.

“Triumph Tiger?”

“Yep,” I said, surprised a woman like her would notice.

“1200 Explorer, right? 950 Watt alternator?” she said, brushing her nails.

“Yeah, you know bikes?” Fancy girl who liked bikes, hot. Maybe it was that or those eyes of hers, or maybe those legs that made we wonder where they led to.

“I hope so. My dad owned a chain of motorcycle shops,” she said. “I like your tattoos.”

My muscles flexed as I set my guitar down, my arms wrapped in designs on my biceps and triceps.  I worked out a lot, and it was moments with a girl like this, which made me glad I did.

“You like tattoos?” I asked her.

“Yep,” she said, blushing a little.

“Got any?” I asked her, eyeing her up and down.

“Not that you can see,” she teased.

“When can I see them?” I asked in a low sultry voice.

“So … lessons?” she asked, changing the subject and giving me, “come get me” eyes.

I liked this girl, strong sassy, wild, spoke her mind, held her own. I wanted to tame her, and I would, or at least have fun trying. Never imagined I’d ever entertain the thought since my ex-girlfriend.

“Piano or guitar?”

“Piano, of course.” She flipped the keyboard on.

“It’s fifty dollars a lesson,” I offered, blocking her view from the keyboard. God, she smelled good; expensive too, way out of my league, but I was intrigued.

“Are you insane? I’ll pay you twenty,” she bartered, standing up to challenge me head-on.

Man, she looks good.

“Forty and I’ll take you to dinner.” My grin spread across my face. I may have to open up those lessons again, just for her.

“Fifteen and I don’t do dinner on the first date.” She wetted her lips with the tip of her tongue.

“No?” I whispered, my voice husky as I stepped over the line into her personal space.  My eyes fought from looking at every inch of her curvaceous body.

“No. I don’t want to get stuck with you longer than necessary.”

“Longer than necessary for what?” My eyebrows furrowed in confusion.

“To know …” she said, letting the word hang in the air.

“To know what?”

She looked at me as if wanting me to fill in the blanks.

“Do we get to ride on your bike?” she asked, changing the subject.

“Does that mean you’ll go out on a date with me?” I asked hopefully, but not trying to sound too excited.

She pondered my question for a beat, and then answered, “Fine, only because I want a ride on your bike. Don’t get any other ideas.”

I grasped her hips and pulled her to me, wearing a sly grin. “And what kind of ideas would those be?”

She placed her hands on my chest and nudged me back a step. “I know of a nice little kosher restaurant a few miles away.”

“Your wish is my desire.”

“We’ll see about that.” She smiled.

 

~~~

 

I looked at this girl sitting across from me at some kosher dive place I’d never stepped foot in before. I wondered how I got such a hot, classy chick sitting across from me.  I’d prefer to take her to a better place for dinner. But she insisted we go to Arnold’s Deli, one of Beaverton, Oregon’s finest establishments—not quite.

She was a walking irony. Classy, but didn’t mind dumps like this.  Sassy, but I sensed there was a softer side she liked to hide. It was just the perfect amount of contradiction to keep a guy interested.

Having a rock band in such a small town, I had my set of female groupies, and though they had their benefits, they were clingy.  This girl was anything but. Confident, didn’t miss a beat, called me on my crap. I’d never met anyone quite like her.  Despite the bad breakup I’d been through not too long ago that had kept me on guard, somehow she was able to dissolve my reservations at every turn.

“You didn’t even introduce yourself, you know?” she scolded playfully, interrupting my thoughts.  She broke apart a piece of bread, and then popped it into her mouth.

“Neither did you.” I scooted the stool closer to her, smelling that minty scent.  I had to get closer to her.

“Not my job to introduce myself,” she said.

“And why not?”  I had to hear this one.

“‘Cause I’m the lady, silly.”  She grinned, throwing a piece of the straw wrapper at my forehead.

“And?” I chuckled, throwing a piece back at her.

“And ladies don’t have to do that sort of thing, it’s the man’s job.”

“Go gender equality,” I mumbled, rolling my eyes and toying with my salad, which tasted like rabbit food.

“Are you always this loveable?” Her eyes flicked over the tattoos on my arms.

“Are you always this beautiful?” I winked, leaning forward and gazing into her ocean blue eyes.

She bit her bottom lip, and I could tell my proximity was affecting her. “You shouldn’t pick at your food; it’s rude.” She was playing with me by changing the subject.  She placed her soft hand on mine. It was the first time we touched, and I’ll never forget the electrical connection that passed between us. I know she felt it too, because her breathing pattern had changed, and she couldn’t let go of me.

Her touch gave me peace as if I was coming home after a treacherous journey of broken hearts.

“Anything else, madam?” I replied, smiling.

“Mademoiselle. I’m only nineteen.”

“You know French?” Surprise lifted my brow.

“I hope so, I studied it for four years. Half my professors at the fashion university are French.”

“I hope there are no French guys sniffing around you,” I told her,  trying to get a feel if she had a boyfriend.

“Maybe, maybe not,” she teased. “One thing about the French, they know how to treat a lady.”

“And I don’t?”

“That’s yet to be seen.”

“Oh, and how’s that?” I asked, grinning. This girl didn’t have any problem expressing herself, and I loved it.

“You didn’t open the door for me when we came in here. You didn’t pull out my chair, and you didn’t let me order first,” she admonished, counting each accusation with her fingers.

“Here’s the thing, ma chérie. This is me, sweetheart. You don’t like it, then one of us has a problem and it ain’t me.”

She arched an eyebrow as if she’d been challenged to a duel. “Oh?”

“And,” I went on to say, “If I’m so awful why are you still here?”

“Cause I’m hungry, and you’re paying,” she declared, crumbling a napkin and tossing it at my head.

“Oh, I’m paying for this date alright,” I teased her.

“Date? Who says this is a date?” The way she tried to hide her smile by dipping her head made my heart skip a beat.

“Beautiful girl like you, in a fine establishment like this, I’d call it a date,” I said. “Makes me wonder, why hasn’t someone snapped you up yet?”

She flashed me a frown, before trying to cover it back up, and I had to wonder if she were thinking about a painful past relationship. A moment of vulnerability she tried not to show as she said, “Well, maybe not everyone is as kind, charming and funny as you.”

I took her hand in mine and kissed the back of it, never removing my eyes from hers. “Maybe not everyone sees how amazing you are.”

A shade of pink flushes her cheeks, and I smile, I actually made her blush.  She was going to be much more than a conquest to me; she was special. She was smart and witty.  How she’d dealt with the waiter earlier told me she cared about people.  The dude had fumbled our order and she’d given him the sweetest smile while she corrected him.

But there was a pain in her eyes that made me want to protect her, show her not every guy was going to hurt her. I couldn’t help it. My best friend Aaron said I had a bleeding heart which is what had gotten me in trouble in the past.  I couldn’t help but put my heart on the line for this one.

“Why don’t you have anyone?” she asked.

“Did but … when you don’t make a million bucks a year like the guys she was seeing behind my back …”

“That sucks. Sorry. What was her name?”

I didn’t even want to say it. Every time I did all the feelings of the past rushed forth. I sighed. “Marie.”

“Marie. Even sounds like a snob.”

I laughed.

She tilted her head to the side, studying me for a while. “You know, I can tell things about you.”

“Oh? Things?” I arched my eyebrow. I had to hear this one. “What kind of things?”

“Like give you a bath and a haircut and you’re cute enough that you might make a half-decent boyfriend.”

“Put you in anything and you’re gorgeous and smart enough, you might make an amazing girlfriend.”

“Who says I’m interested?”

“Who says you’re not?” I had to hand it to her, she didn’t hold back. “Cody White.”

“Cody … interesting. Is that your real name or your stage name?”

“Real,” I told her, extending my hand.

“Fine, I’m Emma Lohan.” She slid her hand into mine and I felt an instant jolt of pleasure.

“What’s your middle name?” I asked.

“Kara.”

“Nice.” I smiled.

“Yep, Emma Kara Vizcarra-Lohan.”

“Beautiful. Sounds exotic.”

“If you call being half Irish, half Mexican and Puerto Rican exotic. What’s yours?”

“Oscar.”

“Cody Oscar White. C.O.W. Moo…!” She laughed at her own joke. I had to laugh too.  Sure, I’d heard this a million times before, since I was in preschool but from her, it was endearing.

I glanced down at my watch and was surprised to see two hours had passed since we had arrived. We’d talked, laughed, and joked about everything and nothing under the sun. I wasn’t ready to let her go.

I leaned closer, my eyes flicked to her lips as I rasped, “Well, ma chérie. I wonder if a fancy girl such as yourself is too fancy for me to invite to my gig tonight.”

I watched her swallow hard, the reality of my lifestyle coming back to the forefront. “So I can be around all your groupies?” There was a slight edge to her voice.

“I’ll give you first dibs,” I joked, cracking a smile.

“No thanks, I don’t share.”

I paused a beat, letting her response soak in. There was no doubt at that point she had been done wrong. I needed to make sure to erase any doubt she might have of me. I tilted her chin up with my fingertips, forcing her gaze to mine, needing her to understand how serious I was. “Neither do I,” I told her in a steely tone. “So are you coming or not?”

“Do I get backstage passes?” She lifted her chin, not missing a beat.

“It’s at a bar, and the only backstage pass is the broom closet, sweetheart.”

She held her gaze on me for a second and then replied, “I’ll take it.”

 

CHAPTER 2

Screams reverberated in the fog-filled wannabe trendy bar. Packed with gorgeous women like always, Sashes tried to be House of Blues, but it never would be.   Older than dirt, it reeked of whiskey and belch but it was the town’s staple, and we’ve performed here for years.

For one night, this night, I wished we had a better venue.

I couldn’t tell if the sound of the crowd deafened me because of the small venue or because the women were crazier than normal. Our usual groupies, teenie boppers to cougars, crammed up front all with their boobs hanging out. Not that I minded.  On top of the crappy stage, it made a for great view, but my thoughts were elsewhere.

“You alright?” my best friend Aaron asked as he adjusted his fedora. Full stage makeup, silk vest, and leather jacket — dressed like the superstar he thought he already was.

“Alright? Yeah? Why?” I asked him, tuning my bass guitar.

“That her?” he asked, nodding in the direction of Emma, who had her arms crossed and was looking very out of place.

“Yep.”  I couldn’t help but smile looking at her. She looked hot, model material kind of hot if you asked me. I was amazed how we connected from the second she walked into my garage. The fact that she let me exchange phone numbers with her at dinner only confirmed what I was feeling was real. I liked our playful banter earlier. I needed a strong woman in my life, someone who wouldn’t back down and would put me in my place.

“How’d you manage that?” he asked with a grin.

“The same way you managed that blow job with the dude in the broom closet earlier,” I joked with him, elbowing him in the stomach. We were always busting each other’s balls.

“Shut up,” he laughed, catching his breath. “Let’s start this.”

We ran out on stage and Aaron wailed a high-pitched welcome to the crowd.  It was his trademark. I glanced at Emma who didn’t seem impressed. The stage lights were blinding, but I could spot that girl anywhere. She didn’t need to display everything she had to show off her body.  She was classier than that.

The girls screaming in front didn’t seem to mind Aaron’s wail. I don’t think they listened to us anyway; they just liked the idea of hanging on the arm of a local celebrity. Celebrity, meaning we had more than a hundred online hard rock fans that had followed the four of us since we were teens.

The first song was a hit, and Aaron went on to smooth talk the women like he always did as our drummer tapped the cymbals, keeping a tempo.

“We’ve got some lovely ladies tonight,” his voice echoed over the cheap microphone, and he blew the fans a kiss; such a ladies man.

“I love you Aaron!” a particularly boisterous blonde called out, slurring her words, obviously a little drunk.

“Thank you, baby.” He shot her a wink.

“Cody, come home with me tonight!” another yelled, edging the first  lady out of the way. Lord, let this not turn into another cat fight.

I blew kisses back at them although I knew my best friend would give me grief. Any attention diverted away from him was not welcomed to say the least. He’d have to get over it. I laughed as more and more women were calling out to me instead of him. I was flattered, but they weren’t my type. I’d found what I was looking for in Emma.  I loved how she seemed to like me for me, not just cause I was on stage like all the other women.

But that’s when I noticed my date was leaving the bar.  I whispered in Aaron’s ear, “Be back.”

He narrowed his eyes at me, and shook his head as if he didn’t approve, but I didn’t care.  I wasn’t needed during the next song anyway. Our guitarist could take over bass for one song, so I backed off the stage and went after Emma.

I rushed out the door, bursting into the heat of the night, scorching and thick with the type of humidity only Oregon could conjure up.  Emma was nowhere to be seen.

Where did this girl go? It was as if she completely disappeared.

I wanted to call out for her but didn’t want to cause a scene or seem desperate.  Finally, I noticed her leaning against the side of the building as if she hadn’t done anything wrong. Man, she looked sexy. If she didn’t look so good, I would have given her a piece of my mind. I rolled up my sleeves to reveal my muscular forearms. I knew she liked my body. I’d caught her looking many times, and I wanted her to find me irresistible.

I was partially irritated that she left the gig, but it was quickly replaced by worry, because she looked so solemn standing there in the dark all alone. “You alright?” I asked.

“Didn’t want to interrupt you from all your groupies,” she hissed. I was immediately taken aback by her sharpness, and then it  dawned on me, she had apparent feelings for me.

“Don’t tell me you’re the jealous type.”  I stepped closer with a grin.

“No, I’m not worried about those skanks. I’m worried about my so-called date who was blowing kisses at them.” Her hand looked small on my chest as she placed a barrier between us.

“It’s just an act. I just want ….”

“…Want me to keep watching you get ogled by your adoring fans?” she accused, tilting her head slightly.

“That’s ridiculous.” I squared my shoulders.  I didn’t like accusations, reminded me too much of my ex.

“Or perhaps you want me to lose my hearing with that God-awful lead singer.” She poked at me further as if testing my limits.

“Hey now, that’s our music,” I growled.  We may not have had the best equipment but one thing for certain, we had potential.

“Music? That’s not music.” She shook her head. “And you’re better than that.”

“How do you know what I am and what I’m not?” I narrowed my eyes at her, not sure if I should take that as a compliment or an insult.

“I told you, I can tell things about you.”  She stopped mid-sentence. “Sorry,” she said, “I’m just …”

The way her eyes avoided mine, there was something she wanted to tell me something but couldn’t.

“Hey, you alright?”

She frowned, and then looked down at her feet, apologizing. “You’re right, I’m sorry. I guess I am a little jealous of those groupies.”

I lifted her chin, and tilted my head to the side, speaking in a soft reassuring voice, “I can promise that you have nothing to worry about. You’re it for me, you’re all I see.”

She looked so vulnerable under the light of the moon, and the way her eyes avoided mine as if there was something she wanted to say but couldn’t. I stroked my thumb over her cheek. “What’s going through that pretty little head of yours, sweetheart?”

Her lips and chin quivered, and her eyes began to water.  Clearly, this wasn’t about my band at all. Something else was bothering her.

“Hey babe,” I said, putting my hands on her shoulders and pulling her closer. “What’s wrong?”

She looked at me. “I didn’t mean to say things like that it’s just … it’s been a long time since I’ve liked someone and … whatever you do,  be honest and don’t … hurt me.”

My finger wiped the lone tear streaming from her eye. I was right, someone had hurt her. I knew what that was like and looking at her, I could see whoever he was, he’d done a real number on her.

“No baby, I’ll never try to hurt you.  You’re an angel to me. I’m just dumb. It’s been awhile since I dated just one girl before, but you’re special. I’m going to make stupid mistakes. I just need you to be patient with me, okay?”

She looked at me and nodded. God, why’d she have to look so innocent and gorgeous all at the same time?   I lifted the hem of my t-shirt, exposing abs as I dried the tears from her cheeks.

“Thanks.” She smiled.

“Listen, no strings attached. You ever need someone to talk to about … what happened to you, you let me know. Okay?”

“Sure,” she sniffed.

“Let’s just say, I can relate.” I went on, not wanting to go into it. The memories of what I’d been through with my ex were still fresh to me.

“Is that true?” she asked.

“Yep.” Then I changed the subject. “You know what you need?”

“What? Tell me?”

That’s when I kissed her for the first time. I couldn’t help myself. She tasted like raspberries and her lips were softer than I expected and only made me want to try it again.

She ran her hand down my abs, making me glad I worked out every day, then nipped me on the lip as she pulled away, the sting sharp and fresh.

“Ow. What was that for?” I rubbed my fingers over my lips trying to soothe the sting.

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