My Pride and Joy – From One Moment to Another

I don’t understand.  I keep thinking that I do understand.  But I don’t.  And I never will.  We each see from our own eyes.  We each act and feel and respond according to our individual experiences in our own lives.  There is no way possible to assume that the person next to me is feeling a certain way, or will respond to a certain thing I do with or to them, without me having lived their life and understanding exactly why they are the way they are.

I can’t grasp why I feel, act and respond the way I do, sometimes, and I am me.

Everyone in my life has taken a turn casting a judgement on me, at one point or another.  There is not one person I know who can deny this.

I am so used to getting knocked down hard, and then kicked while I’m down, every single time I open my heart and reach out to help someone.  Several times I have gone too far with my attempts to help – resulting in a major miscommunication of some form, that ended up making the person who I was trying to help, suffer even more than when I started trying to help.  And of course, then the poor person who I reached out to, looked at me with bewilderment and anger, for making their life worse instead of better.  That’s where I took the biggest beatings.  “You should have kept your mouth shut and stayed out of it.”  “It was none of your business.”  I don’t think those two sentences will ever stop repeating in my head each night.  I’m not kidding.  Every, single, night, as I lay down to sleep.

A situation arose in August, all too familiar, with a young soul reaching out for help from behind closed doors where the abuse was nearly reaching its violent peak.  Something had to be done.  He needed help.  He was asking for help.

Uncertain as ever, I would carefully reach out and help.  Sure enough, it would make his life worse, with his abuser catching onto my attempts to help him, and then punishing him for it.  But he would ask again, weeks later, for me to try again to help him.  He didn’t want to give up trying to escape that house.  The abuse got worse.  I truly didn’t know what to do at that point.  Until his abuser turned its anger onto my daughter, and abused her right in front of me over the phone.

I went to the police, and then I went to a care agency who was dealing with the victim through another matter already.  I insisted he was in danger, and I begged them to help him.  I told his care representative that I didn’t know if I was doing the right thing.  She had been well persuaded by his abuser that he was in very good hands, being well cared for and well disciplined – so she had a hard time taking me seriously, I could tell.  That, and my age compared to that of his abuser’s, made it even harder for her to take me seriously.

They took my urgency into consideration, and gave the victim enough freedom to choose whether he wanted to leave the abuser’s home or not, after forcing him to remain where he was for the rest of that weekend, during which he was taken on a camping trip.  He chose to leave.  Our home was the only place he could go, so he since came to stay with us.  I thought for a brief moment, “My god.  I did it right.  I succeeded in helping him!”

A week later I was set to go on a vacation with my two best friends.  I left on a Thursday afternoon, after the victim and myself checked in with his care representative earlier that morning, at eleven.  I was forty-five minutes into the trip, and his care rep was calling me, and demanding that he and I return to her office immediately, since some disturbing information had been brought to her attention.  She told me we needed to have a meeting as soon as possible, this time with the abuser present.

I rushed home and picked him up and together we headed back to his care rep’s office, shaky and scared of what was on the horizon this time.

His abuser walked into the door immediately after us, into the waiting area.  The look on its face was a smug one.  It spoke a couple quiet words to the victim, taunting him.  “You have no idea just how much shit you’re in.” it hissed at him.  It let out a loud laugh and shook its head, feigning disbelief.

I gently reminded him to stay calm and ignore.  Just ignore it.  Everything will be okay.  He looked at me with trust in his eyes.  I was so terrified of letting him down.

The care representative appeared moments later, leading us into a large conference room, where he and I took two seats next to one another, and as far away from the abuser as possible.  The care representative took her seat at the end, facing the three of us.

She directed her attention to the victim first and foremost, putting him on the spot and asking what really happened between himself and his abuser.  He stammered, prompting a gentle prod from the care rep.  She asked him, “So you got kicked out on Monday, then what?”

To which his abuser immediately denied, and began the onslaught of him right there, in front of myself and the care representative.  The abuser looked him in the eyes and insisted several times that it never threw him out.

He looked back at it, and the second time it denied it, he yelled, “Fuck off!  You threw me out right there and you left me!”

The abuser pulled back with a very fake shocked look, before screaming out loud, “I dropped you off, and was going to pick you up an hour later, and you weren’t there!

The care representative quickly hushed the abuser and changed the topic, not allowing the victim to defend himself and clarify the miscommunication with the abuser about whether or not he’d been thrown out, or dropped off to be picked up again an hour later, as the abuser had alleged.

The victim had taken to lying about several different things, all of which he’d cleanly made me aware of when I’d first opened up my doors to him, so I knew, as his care representative picked him apart, that his abuser had gone through the cell phone that it had once allowed him to have, and had become aware itself of what had really been taking place with his desires to stay or go.  Between the abuser and his care representative, they tore him to shreds, and completely reduced his appearance to that of a lying, thieving, backstabbing user.  Then they looked at me and asked me, “Do you still open your doors to him, knowing he is a liar and cannot be trusted?”

I didn’t waiver.  I nodded and I told them that I knew already of the truth.  They both looked aggravated and disappointed by my answer.  Now it was my turn to take a beating.

The abuser looked at the care rep in disbelief and shouted, “I’ve told you about her!  You can’t be serious – she can’t actually be fit to take him in!”

The care rep looked back at the abuser and made to answer, but the abuser turned its attention to the victim, leaning in toward him and whispering, “Don’t you remember what we talked about this weekend?  Huh?  Don’t you remember telling me how you don’t really like her?  You like her Step daughter, but you don’t like her, after the way she’s acted on several different occasions when you’ve been around?  Go on, say it – you had no problem complaining to me this weekend, about her groping you!  And touching her younger step son in front of everyone in inappropriate places while she was so drunk she couldn’t even stand straight?  And what about her cheating with the dad’s buddy there, while we were camping?  SAY it!

When I first met the abuser, some four months before all this took place, I found it to be a quite open, seemingly helpful person, with wisdom that I felt I could look up to.  Actually, I did look up to the abuser, as someone older than me, with way more experience with kids and relationships.  I thought I could trust it.  So I began a friendship with it, trusting it more and more and confiding in it about things that had taken place with my kids.  Not one of my kids are mine biologically.  They are biologically from their father, my husband, who I call my husband but am not yet married to (I consider it a stronger term of endearment, since I love him so), and their mother, who separated from my husband some four and a half years ago.  To date, I have been with my husband for merely a couple days more than four years.  I was accused of doing something I can’t even speak of, to my older son, back in April.  I nearly left my husband, fearing at that time that I could end up spending the rest of my life in prison for a crime I never committed.  Not just that – the accusation itself, left me feeling filthy and low, as a human being.  I felt disgusting, despite not being guilty of the accusation.  I confided in the abuser about this story, and the abuser comforted me and encouraged me.  It made me trust the abuser more.  And that day at the care rep’s office, when the abuser needed ammunition, it dug deep and found the sharpest daggers it could, to throw at me.

It hurt even more, when I watched the victim slump in his seat and hang his head in shame, mumbling his confession that yes, he had indeed said those things about me over the weekend.  He followed that with, “I said whatever I had to, to get you off my back!”

The abuser’s eyes met mine with glee.

“Will you still take him in?” his care rep asked me.

“Yes.”

The abuser went off a third time.  About me again.  This time, about drinking too much, and allowing my kids to drink as minors and do drugs and leave them unattended to their own demise.  Anything to make me unfit again.

I looked over the abuser to the care rep.

“I went to the police before I came here.  I took all the necessary steps to help this boy.  You called me on Monday evening, if I remember correctly, asking me to take him in.  I took him in.  I’m feeding him.  I’m clothing him.  I’m trying to help him, not hurt him.  You don’t want him in my house because you’re not sure I’m fit to care for him?  Fine – just get him the hell out of the house he has been in, because he’s being abused there and my husband and I have witnessed it with our own eyes right on our property!  What relevance does any of this hostility have to helping him?  None of these accusations are proven, in fact, they’re slander at best, and they have nothing to do with helping this boy.  I don’t think I need to be cut down and accused of cheating on my husband because I am trying to help someone who I know is being abused!”

His abuser cut the care rep off before she could speak, for something like the fifth time already.

Don’t call him your Husband.  Slut.  You will never be worthy of becoming his wife.  You’re not married to him, so don’t ever call him your husband.  That’s an absolute insult to loyal, loving wives and husbands everywhere.  I’ve been married twenty years.  That’s worthy.  Not you.” it hissed venomously at me.

Finally, the care rep addressed the abuser.  She ordered it to back off, and “shut up”.  Then she asked me one last time if I was still okay with the victim staying in my home.  I nodded.  So she adjourned the meeting and told the three of us that we would be meeting again, the following week on the same day.

The abuser gave me the same smug smile and laugh.

“My dad told me that you were nothing more than a homewrecker.  I’m bringing my mom and dad with me next week.  Be ready.  Because they weren’t too impressed with your behavior when we went camping, either.” was its warning as we left the room.

I dropped the victim at home, having said nothing to him the whole drive.  I got out of the truck myself, and took a walk into the field, bursting into tears.  I didn’t know that he’d gone into the house and told my daughter that she should go find me.  She was trailing behind me, calling out, but I couldn’t hear her with the wind blowing around me.  It wasn’t until I looked back toward the house that I saw her walking up the hill toward me.

I told her what had taken place.  I told her about the rotten accusations.  The things that the abuser had said about me cheating on my husband, her dad.  With the dad of one of her best friends.  She reacted with shock.

She talked with me for a while out in the field, coaxing me back to the house and urging me to resume my vacation, three hours later than I’d tried to leave.

So I went on vacation with my two best friends, and returned several days later, to deal with a new reality.

I contacted the care representative’s supervisor after some digging into the victim’s rights.  We had a right to refuse meeting with the abuser in the room again.  So I spoke with the supervisor and explained how I felt after what had taken place, and told her that I, nor he, were willing to be held in the same room as the abuser again after the last time.  She understood my request and assured me it was not going to happen again.

We met with his care representative later that week, shocked and terrified to see his abuser waiting outside the building.  We were both so frightened that we were trembling.  But his care rep came and retrieved us, and we didn’t see the abuser again after that.

We were promptly informed that his care rep did not approve of his stay at my residence, for several reasons, including possible break up with my daughter, which I completely understood.  She claimed she didn’t want to divulge the other reasons for her feelings.  I am certain I know what they are.

I have met the care rep with the victim some four or five times since the explosive meeting with the abuser present.  I can tell that this woman took a lot of the things that the abuser said about me, into consideration and as such treats me with remarkably less respect than anyone else I have ever dealt with in situations such as this.

It hurts.  They say words don’t hurt you if you don’t let them.  They do.  I despise the abuser for the things it said to and about me that day at the care rep’s office.  And I can’t comfortably seat myself in the same room as the victim without someone else present.  Much the same as with my older son.  Things will never return to normal.  I will never be able to touch either one again in this lifetime.  It’s just too awkward and too terrifying for me.

I’ve had to put distance and awkwardness between myself and my husband’s best friend since that day, also.  It’s been so hard on me.

I look at this boy who I helped.  I helped him.  And everyone else destroyed me for doing so.  No one looks at me and says, “You took a hell of a beating for that kid.  You’re a kind person, going through all that for him.  I can’t imagine.”

I look at this boy who I helped.  Sometimes I feel resentful, knowing that things like that came out of his mouth about me.  It takes constantly reminding myself that he only did what he had to, to get his tormentor to abuse him even a little bit less.  It was at my expense.  His care rep hasn’t offered me any sort of compensation, be it financial, emotional, or anything at all, for my efforts and for the abuse I took in helping him escape.  I feel bitter some days.  I wonder if he will remember my efforts ten years from now.

I wonder if anyone ever went through this much pain just to see me get out alive.  Or if anyone would go through it all, for my sake.

The more I reach out to help others, the harder the beatings I take.  I’ve helped more than just this boy.  I have helped past roommates escape poverty, by sympathizing for them and letting them go months without paying rent, or lowering their rent so that I thought they could utilize the most of their income to get started in life.  They wasted my efforts, and deserted me when I needed help the most.

No one understands why I help them.  No one understands that I would help my worst enemy, if it meant sparing them from some of the suffering I have gone through in my lifetime so far.  I keep getting hurt for helping people.  I keep growing more hateful of myself as a person, whenever I fail my mission to help someone obtain their ultimate goal.  I stand back and watch others suffer more than I step in to help anymore.

The boy has lived with us two months now.  My daughter has been in our home for a year.  She seemed to understand.  I pray that she still does understand.

I don’t need a pat on the back for everything I’ve done for others.  I just want to express the hurt, I suppose.  Because it does hurt.  I give everything to help.  I don’t ask for anything back.  Well maybe I would ask for something in return.  And that request would be, if I help you, with anything, or if I try to help and I fail, please don’t hurt me for it.  I will never stop trying to help.

*****

This document was originally created on the fifth of October, in 2016.  It is now March 7th, 2017.  The victim has lived with us for more than seven months at this point.

My daughter returned to school on the first of February this year.  The victim took a full time job where my husband works, perhaps two weeks following my daughter’s return to school.  He earns a guideline income thirty percent higher than my own now.  He is clean.  He is healthy.  He is happy.  My daughter is clean, and healthy, and happy.  Neither of the two made the choice to abandon my husband and I, as I had originally feared out of my own insecurities.

The victim calls my husband “Dad”.  He treats me with respect, obeys my requests and rules, and works hard at his new job.  I consider him my son, though he may never hear me utter the words, out of my own uncontrollable fears of frightening him or making things awkward, now that I have surprisingly found a suitable level of comfort with him despite the abuse and accusations I endured from his tormentor in the summer of 2016.

I am beyond proud of my daughter.  I am beyond proud of the victim.  My son.  I do not need a pat on the back for helping them.  Watching them do what they are both doing now, is more rewarding than anything that anyone could give me, or say to me now.  I pray to the highest heaven that they both succeed with their lives, and that they go where most have never gone before. success

I don’t doubt either child.  I have faith in each of them individually, and I know they will succeed in life.  They will make mistakes, like anyone, but they are both mature enough.  They will learn from their mistakes and they will rise again and keep moving forward.  And I will be here.  I will be right beside them.  In life.  In death.  I will help them and I will rescue them.  And I will never stop being proud of them.

I am not much older than either child.  I have lots to learn as a human being.  I have made many mistakes.  Countless, probably.  I have hurt both children emotionally at some point, with words or actions that I chose on my own.  I’ve never mothered my own children.  If anything, I am nowhere near qualified to be considered a parent, or even a “guardian”, to either one.

But they have both taught me so much.  Especially that I don’t need validation, from anyone, for helping someone.  I don’t even need it from them.  If they chose never to say “Thank-you”, it wouldn’t matter.  What matters is they made it.  And they are making it now.

If ever I could be a mother, or considered a mother, and God gave me the choice of all the children on this Earth that I could say were mine, I would choose the same children that I “mother” now. Proud

Neither of you will ever know of this document’s existence.  There will come days where you will each wonder if I care about you at all.  But I know, here and now, I love you both and I could not be happier or more proud of anyone.  You are my children.  And you both will always be my children.  I’ll never leave your side.  I will protect you until my last breath on this earth.  And I will thank God for every moment I have with you, and ask him to always watch over each of you, and I will pray for you both to live the best lives you can live.

Most of all, I pray you both learn love and happiness, and adoption.  Adoption may be a funny term to throw in.  But I could not have known this level of love, happiness, or belonging, had I never met Dad and adopted his family as my own.

 

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Last Dollar

It’s already been several years since we lost touch.  I haven’t a clue if you will ever bother reading this, nor do I have any idea how you would typically react.  I would feel skeptical and angered, I can imagine, and so it wouldn’t surprise me if that’s your feelings also.

Your pictures still sit vigil on my nightstand.  As well as two pictures of the two of us.  Not a day has passed me by that I haven’t wondered how you are.  I don’t think I will ever meet anyone quite like you again in this lifetime.

I have no hard feelings toward you.  I let go of you, so that you could decide if your friendship with me was worth your commitment.  And I didn’t blame you if you felt it wasn’t.  I still don’t.  It may have been and may very well still be the best choice you could ever make for yourself.

But I’ve never come to terms with the guilt for not clarifying any of this with you.  I’m not coming to you out of the blue seeking to reconcile a deceased friendship.  I just wanted to let you know that nothing I did in the end when I let you go was meant to harm you in any way.

I carry a weighted conscience full of regret.  So many things I did, so many things I said, and so many times I caused you pain in one way or another.  I will tell you for my own sake that I don’t think I was ever in my right mind during any point at which you were in my life.  And I don’t hold anyone accountable for it but myself.  I lacked maturity and common sense, and I am well aware that I still do.  I feel a constant worry these days for those who do call themselves my friends, that I will undoubtedly destroy my bond with them one way or another.  It’s just a fear.  I do my best now to treat them well, and acknowledge as well as apologize for my wrongdoings.

I don’t expect a “return” of any sort from this letter.  All I really wish, is that it may possibly ease your mind if you have found yourself in so much as a quarter of the mental struggles I have found myself in every time I think of you, and my decision to leave you be.

I understand now, that so much damage was done that it may be impossible for you to even read this letter the whole way through.  I have had to give up on one or two individuals along my path for just that reason – and I know I can never look back, just as you may never be able to with me.  I regret it immensely.  And I would take it all back.  If I knew then what I know now, I would have known better than to put you through any of what I did end up putting you through.  I was a textbook “horrible, self-centered, superficial know-it-all” best friend who wasn’t there for you far more often than I can will myself to admit.  I wasn’t a friend at all.  I pray that my damages to you haven’t caused you to lead any less of the life you deserve to live.  I hope you see everything, experience everything, and go everywhere that you have always wanted to go.

You and your family cared for me and got me started in life.  I handled my early adulthood with such disgrace that I feel shame any time I walk the streets of our home town.  But I am still thankful.  I will die knowing that if it wasn’t for you being a part of my life, I may never have had an adult life to begin with.

I will die thankful for every moment that you were a part of my life.  I’ll never forget all the great memories.  The songs I hear on the radio that make me smile because they bring back hilarious memories of us.  There isn’t a bone in my body that wishes you any ill.  If I could take back the damages I had done, I would in a heartbeat.  I wish you nothing less than the best in life.

Tear this letter up and burn it if it will help you at all.  Or keep it and reread it as many times as you like.  My heart is always open to you, as are the doors to any home I ever reside in.  I am still here, whether in light or darkness.  If you need me, you will find me.  And if you want nothing more than to see me, you may any time you like.

I can’t guarantee that I will never make a mistake that could cause you harm again – and therefore, I will reassure you that I don’t expect you to ever present yourself in my life again.  I won’t blame you for it.  But if you ever do reappear, I will make every effort possible to make sure I never hurt your feelings again.

Wishing you all the best that life has to give.

best-friend

Gin Excerpt

“Care if I join you?”  The familiar voice caught her off guard.  She had to wonder where she’d heard that voice before – until she looked up into no other than the piercing eyes of the stranger who’d found her collapsed in the doorway of her suite on her first evening at the resort.

CHAPTER FOUR

                She stared in horror at the man she’d terribly embarrassed herself in front of on the first eve of her stay at the resort.  A shaking breath escaped her as she nodded politely to him, cursing herself inside her own mind for ever promising that she would let people talk to her.

“Where’s your other half?” he asked as he sat down.

She gazed at him across the table.  His voice was low.  Attractively low.

“Where’s yours?” she asked him stoutly.

“Don’t have one.” he answered her as he leaned back in his chair.  “Your turn.”

“I am here by myself.” she murmured.  She couldn’t stop her eyes from drifting.  He was an older man, though it would seem he knew just how to groom himself.  Dark silver specked hair framing his head.  A square, taut jaw and a nose that had to have been scientifically molded to be just the correct size in proportion to the rest of his face.  Oh no.  The alcohol was making her crazy.

“Good idea for you to be here by yourself with a high level anxiety disorder like that?” he asked her.

She nearly fell out of her chair.

“And just what would you know?  You don’t know me.” she demanded, instantly angered by the handsome stranger.  “I fell down – my stomach was aching and that was it!”

“That’s why you kept yelling ‘Please stop, please stop, please, please stop’?” he asked.

She gasped and her eyes widened in horror.

“I did not.” she whispered.

He nodded.  “You did.”

She turned her head and stared out at the scenery again, trying hard to pull herself together.

“I didn’t come here to upset ya,” the man said.  “I just wondered how you were, and when I saw you come in earlier, I spent almost an hour and a half watching you and debating on whether or not I should come by and say hi.  Seen ya sitting alone and just thought maybe you’d like some company.  I can leave you be if you like.”

She took a deep breath.

“Pretty ignorant to start a conversation without introducing yourself first.  And asking me where my other half is?  Makes me think you’re fishing.” she muttered.

“You’re right.  I’m sorry.” he replied with a smile.  “I’m Bruce.  It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

“I’m Maria.” she replied.  She tried to keep her gaze out over the scenery, but could not help looking back at him when she heard no response from him.

“What brings you here, Maria?  And by yourself?  You must have won the lottery to be staying at a resort like this, in the best suite they have available.” he asked coolly.  He grabbed his glass of unknown and drank several sips as he eyed her.

“What are you after?” she asked him, getting straight to the point.  “Looking for sex?  Money?  You’re not going to find either here.  I’m not rich.  I didn’t win a lottery.  You’re just irritating me with your questions.  If this is such a ritzy place then what the hell are you doing here by yourself?  Are you a politician?  Actor?  Retired football player?  Find some other floozy.”

She felt regret immediately following her outburst as Bruce reacted with a look of shock and even some hurt.  But then that damn smile came right back to him.

“You are a straight shooter.  I like that.” he replied.  “I can’t help myself to find some sort of attraction to you – you are quite possibly the most beautiful woman I’ve ever laid eyes on.  However, believe it or not, I am way too old for you.  Though I’m impressed and actually flattered by all the occupations you guessed me to have.  Only good looking men are ever depicted in such roles.  Which tells me you think I’m simply gorgeous.”  He winked his eye at her.

She rolled her eyes but couldn’t suppress the laugh that burst from her.

“So again, what are you doing here then?  Why do you want to know all this about me?  What if I said my name is Maria, and that’s it?  And you say, ‘how do you like the resort, Maria?’ and I say, ‘Lovely, Bruce, just like your masculine jaw line and that nice black shirt you’re wearing.  I like the way that little bit of the silver fur on your chest pokes out.’” she retorted.

He’d just been attempting to take another sip when she said it, but ended up spewing it from his mouth as he burst into a shocked laughter.

They fell silent and stared into one another’s eyes for a moment until Maria could no longer stand it and looked away.  He was becoming more and more attractive to her as each moment passed.  What the hell was the matter with her?

“Just how old are you?” she asked him.

Bruce laughed some more.  “How about you get three guesses, and I say ‘yes’ to the right one?  Otherwise I won’t tell.” he offered with a smirk.

“Forty-seven.” she tried.

“How flattering!” he laughed as he shook his head no.

“Fifty-two.” she tried again.  She was grinning from ear to ear despite her previous annoyance with the man.

“You got it.” he answered.

No way!” she gasped.

“And how old would you guess me to be?” she asked him slyly.

He gazed at her intently for a moment.

“Twenty-six?” he tried.

She grinned and shook her head no.

“Twenty-eight?  Can’t be much older than that, I know you’re not in your thirties yet.” he tried again.  She felt like the intensity of his gaze was going to light her on fire.

She shook her head no again.

“Last try,” she murmured with a grin.

“Twenty… five…” he answered.

“That’s right.” she replied with a nod.

“Young and stunning.” he commented with a smile.

She giggled stupidly and took another sip of her champagne.  She found delight in chatting with the older man after she came to be more comfortable with him and realized that he wasn’t out to sleep with her after all, despite his flirtatious commentary.  She actually didn’t mind the compliments.  It had been such a long time since she had allowed herself to feel pretty, and go even a step further than that by letting someone else compliment her for it.

Bruce was retired – he’d been in the FBI since he’d graduated military school when he was twenty-one.  Always being on duty and involved in active policing led him to a solitary lifestyle – he’d simply chosen not to find a partner or have any children, as he’d learnt through coworkers’ experiences, it often led to divorce and misery.

Maria wasn’t sure if she bought the whole FBI bit – but she could certainly tell by the looks of the man that he’d been through some violence at some point or another, as a long scar raked across his right eye, along with at least ten more all up and down his muscular arms.  For a thin man, he was certainly not lacking in shape.

He came from a small town in Virginia, called Leesburg, just outside the city of Washington.  He had served and lived right in Washington itself until his retirement, at which point he bought himself a small home in Leesburg to reside in until he decided on his permanent settlement home, which he hoped to purchase in Montana, of all places.

“Why Montana?” she asked him curiously.  “The winters are brutal up there.  And you want to have a ranch there?  Your animals will all die in the cold!”

Bruce laughed at her question and statement.

“How do you think people in Canada survive?” he asked her.  “They raise just the same animals up north as we do down south.  You’ve never been to Montana, have you?”

Maria shook her head.  She couldn’t imagine.

“Believe it or not, the climate in Montana is not terrible at all.  Winters are mild compared to Canada, and if you live in the mountains, it’s especially nicer.  The mountains are exactly the reason I want to go.  A nice ranch hidden away in the mountains…  Log house, fire place, big ole bear rug that me and my future missus can make sweet, sweet love on in the fire light after we down our glasses of champagne…”  He winked at her again.

Maria burst into laughter.  “Well you sound like you’ve got it all figured out!” she exclaimed.  “Down to the smallest detail.”

Bruce nodded with a wide smile.  “If I see you again I will show you pictures of the ranch I’ve been wanting for the last year and a half.”

“How much is it?” Maria asked.

“Not for sale.” Bruce laughed.  “I contacted the owners to see if they would ever be willing to sell it.  Turns out the old man is in the retirement home – his wife passed away and his three kids are now fighting over the property.  I gave them an offer that I think they can’t refuse, but they are in the middle of court battles for inheritance, so it will be awhile before I ever hear back, I’m sure.”

Maria nodded but said no more.  Bruce fell silent as well.  They sipped their drinks and took to gazing out across the bay at the great mountain that reached up to the east.  It was nearly midnight and a bright yellow moon hung high in the sky, casting its peaceful rays upon the landscape.  She just could not get over how incredible this place was.

She let out a small laugh, catching Bruce’s attention.

“I keep expecting the ‘Black Pearl’ to come sailing in.  This whole place – the island, and the people on it, reminds me of those ‘Pirates’ movies.  My whole life, I never thought I would end up in a place like this.  For two whole months.” she murmured.

Bruce’s bottom jaw nearly hit the table as the waiter dropped by and served them both drinks.

“Two months!” he exclaimed.  “I’m here for one, and I thought that was lots!  What the heck did you do to be given two months at this resort, with all the expenses paid for you?”

That question burnt her insides as she kept her gaze out over the calm waters.

“It’s disgusting, really.” she murmured.  She could feel Bruce’s eyes on her.

“Hmm, maybe this is not something to be discussed.” he commented.  “I’m sorry.  You may slap me if it will make you feel better?”

She could tell in her peripheral vision that he was attempting to gain another smile from her, or even a laugh.

“I’m a sales and promotions coordinator for a magazine called ‘The Brim of Beauty’, in New York City.” she began quietly.  She could see him sit straight up, but still could not bring herself to return his gaze.  “I got the position three years ago, when I was only twenty-two.  I had no schooling or training for it, and that made a lot of my coworkers really mad.  Two of them were guys, Michael and Avery.  They were so mad they started acting like jerks to everyone and coming to work drunk, until they were given two weeks’ notice of dismissal.

“Those two, and all the rest of the crew that I worked with, all started to bully me.  I would get to work and my chair would be gone from my desk, or my computer monitor, or sometimes my whole desk would be flipped onto its side and there would be little sticky notes plastered all over with little messages like ‘Quit now.’ and ‘You are undeserving.’  And then some were just profanities, like ‘slut’, ‘whore’, you know.

“Michael got into a habit of shoving me, another reason for him being dismissed.  Avery never really talked to me much.  I knew that he hated that I got my position, but he never outright confronted me about it.  He and Michael were both five and six years older than me, and had the education for the job, where I didn’t.  They kind of ‘led’ the rest of my coworkers into bullying me.  I think it was just for fun at first.  Then it was meant to make me quit.  And then after they were notified of their dismissal…”  She trailed off.

               She caught herself beginning to divulge way too much, if she hadn’t already.  “I’m sorry,” she murmured, “I actually don’t want to talk about this anymore.  I’m just here because my boss thought it would be a good idea for me to get a break from everything.  Can we please leave it at that?”

He eyed her closely for a moment before nodding.

“You don’t have to tell me a damn thing, you know.  Can tell me to take a hike anytime you like.” he replied quietly.

“I didn’t want to tell you.  At first.  But now I just can’t stop talking to you.  It’s this alcohol.  I’m drinking too much.  You’re looking too good.  Can we please change the topic now?” she answered, finally returning her gaze to him.

Bruce’s smile came back to his handsome face as he gazed at her.  She could still see the sorrow in his eyes, and was quickly beginning to feel embarrassed for having told him the whole story when she didn’t even know him.

“Would you be interested in a moonlit walk along the beach?” he asked her.

CHAPTER FIVE

                It was Maria’s fourth eve on the resort and she’d already befriended another guest who so happened to be a handsome, single man who’d charmed his way into her evening as she’d sat down to have dinner and champagne at the restaurant atop the roof of the resort.

She certainly had not expected to be warming up to anyone – much less a man, so soon into her stay.

From the moment he took his seat at her table, they’d spent over four hours visiting, him telling Maria his life story, and she surprisingly divulging hers except for the darkness of her near death experience at work nearly two years before.  It didn’t help that she’d had six or seven tall glasses of champagne in that time, undoubtedly impairing her normally meticulous judgements.

And now the handsome stranger stood up from his seat with a hand extended to her, asking if she would like to go for a walk along the beach in the moonlight.  Could the evening get any stranger?!

“Just so you know,” Bruce murmured to her, seemingly noticing her unease, “I’m afraid you simply won’t be able to throw yourself on top of me and tear my clothes off at any point during our tour, as there is armed surveillance of the entire property at all hours of the night.  So your intentions to harm, violate, or murder me, must be left at this table.”  Another sly wink at her.  He was assuring her of her safety.

Maria let out a laugh at his cunning as she took his hand and stood from her seat as well.  The whole world was tilting to the right.  She’d certainly had far too much to drink.  She did her best not to let it show to her new acquaintance.

Maria had been taking heavier steps than she realized, and ended up fully linking arms with Bruce as they descended the steps down the seven floors of the resort.  The sight was drawing attention from other guests as they made their way through the wide open facility.

A light breeze whispered across the waters as the two emerged from the main floor of the resort.

“Why was everyone staring at us like that?” she muttered to herself.  Several men had given the pair longing looks, while some seven or eight women that they’d encountered, looked at Bruce with wide eyes and then at Maria with narrow, hostile glances.

“What was that?” Bruce asked her.

She straightened up as they walked, taking in a deep breath and reveling in the fragrances of the ocean and the sexy man walking next to her.

“I just noticed all the… looks we were getting from people.  Didn’t you?” she asked him.

“Sure I did,” he replied.  “They probably think we are a couple, and then they wonder how on earth a girl like you got with a drop-dead gorgeous guy like me.  Wouldn’t you agree?”  He gave her a crooked grin.

“I thought I wasn’t drunk.” she answered, smiling at him.  “But if I was sober, there is no way this would be happening right now.”

“Why?” he asked her, stopping.  She nearly fell forward as her arm was still linked in his.  “You’re not drunk.  You’re a little tipsy, but you’re not drunk.  Do you really need an excuse to be out here enjoying the beach?  The moonlight?  Look over there, at the mountain.”

She regretted the way she’d said it immediately, though she’d only spoken the truth – socializing with anyone was something she’d become so terrified of, much less socializing with a strange man she’d only just met!  But she looked where he pointed, and let out a short breath as she fell in love with the sight of the tall mountain lit up by the yellow moonlight.

“This is incredible.” she murmured.  “I don’t need an excuse to be out here, enjoying this.”

“Good.” Bruce replied.  He gently began to step forward, until she caught on and stepped too as they started walking again.

“How many times have you been to this resort?” she asked him.

“This is my second time out here.” he answered her.  “Last time I only stayed for two weeks.  But it was such an amazing holiday that I wanted to stay longer this time.”

Her curiosity was burning her to ask him another question, but she knew it was none of her business.  She was desperate to know if he’d simply hooked up with a girl the last time he’d been on vacation.  Or ever, for that matter.  The thoughts going through her mind over a man she’d only just met were beginning to make the girl feel dizzy enough to puke.

“Didn’t get to meet a beautiful green-eyed beauty last time though.” he murmured with a wink to her, answering the question without her even having to ask.  She didn’t realize she’d held her breath for a moment until she let it out at his comment.  What the hell was with her?

“You are so sure of yourself!” she commented to him.

They’d walked far enough along the beach that she could see a large hill rising up before them, thickly peppered in trees and shrubbery.  The plants here were like none that she’d ever been used to back home.  Giant ferns stretched up and outward into the night at the outer edges, while some story tall banana trees could be seen rising even higher behind them.  The gaps between the plant-life looked inviting to her, though she knew it would be too dark at this time to venture in.  That, and the heavily armed security guard that stood hidden beneath the leaves of the ferns, who she assumed was about to step out and ask them to turn around.

Bruce had apparently already seen the guard, as he gently tugged her to the side and turned around with her to begin walking back.

“What’s happening over there?” she asked as she saw the different colors of light beaming up from the top of the resort.

“Turns into a nightclub after midnight.  Goes until five in the morning.  They also set up a little bar right on the beach, over on the other side of the resort, too, for old guys like me that can’t dance.” he answered her.

Maria laughed.  “So you really aren’t as confident as you make yourself out to be.” she said to him with a smile.

“I’ll wing it if you want me to,” Bruce replied with a smirk.  “Dancing in clubs is just a bunch of grinding and dry humping to music – I could do that no problem if you wanted me to!”

She laughed even harder at the man.

He nudged her playfully as they walked.

“You want to?  Let’s go give it a try!” he prodded her, raising his voice to sound more excited.

She gave him a shove back and shook her head as she laughed.

He broke off from her and began swinging his arms in front, then behind himself as he thrust his hips comically back and forth.

“See?  I can dance!” he exclaimed.

She was sure now that she’d had far too much to drink as she laughed so hard she couldn’t breathe.  She grasped her stomach and doubled over in her hysteria.

Bruce quit what he was doing and waited for her to catch her breath and stand straight up before reaching out to take her hand again.

“You have nothing to be afraid of.” he murmured to her as she gently grasped onto his hand.

The laughter faded as she locked eyes with him.  He was all serious now, gazing at her in silence as she stood beside him.  She could feel an icy chill sneaking up her spine as she lost herself in his piercing eyes.

“One more drink before we call it a night and I let you go back to your lonely suite?” he asked her after a moment.

She said nothing back for a little while as she continued to look at him.  She’d thought at the beginning of the night that she was going to entirely regret engaging with the egotistical stranger who’d casually inserted himself into her evening, but now as she stood quietly observing the man, she realized that he’d simply been trying to cheer her up the entire evening.

“You weren’t going to sleep with me.” she whispered.

He offered her the first soulful smile she’d seen from him that evening as he shook his head.  “No, beautiful.  Not hard to tell that you’re lonely and afraid.  Maybe it’s none of my business.  But I thought maybe you’d like to have a friend.”

She should have been happy to hear that.  She should have felt relief.  Why was her whole chest caving in on itself?  Why did she feel like she was ready to burst into tears?

Because that wasn’t what she wanted to hear.

“Are you alright?” he asked her, concern filling his gaze.  “You look like you’re going to be sick.”

“I am,” she managed to choke out before she doubled over and puked into the sand.

 

CHAPTER SIX

 

Too much to drink, combined with a pallet of foods that she was still not yet accustomed to, and now the devastating discovery of being “friend-zoned” by a man who she’d been remarkably getting attached to from the moment he sat down at her table, led to one of the sickest nights of her life.

Maria couldn’t bring herself to answer Bruce.  She stayed in position for another moment in case more came spewing out.

When she finally felt sure enough it wasn’t going to happen again right away, she slowly stood straight up again and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand.  Bruce stood watching in silence, seemingly unsure of what to say.

“Well leave me then.” Maria snapped at him.

Bruce drew back in shock.

“What did I do?” he asked, bewildered.

“I don’t need your pity.” she hissed miserably.  “I’m not a lost fawn needing guidance and sympathy.  Go have your drink.  I’m going to go throw up more.”

She turned on her heels and stalked away from him, back toward the resort.  The drunkenness still hadn’t left her, and neither had the sickness.  She fell to her knees as more of her supper came thundering up.

It was hard not to make a lot of noise, despite her best efforts.  She could not recall ever having puked so hard in her life.  Her ribs were aching and her lungs felt so empty that she expected them to shrivel up to nothing.

She felt a gentle hand on her back as another hand carefully swept her dangling hair out of the way of her vomit.

“Come on,” murmured Bruce, “let’s get you back to your suite.”

He managed to get her back to her suite and into the washroom, where he sat beside her and held her hair while she puked some more.  The pair spent over three hours beside the toilet together.  Bruce got up a couple times to fill a small glass of water for her, but every sip she drank just seemed to come right back up.

Maria finally just quit trying to drink anything at all, and sat with her head held above the toilet bowl, until she fell asleep without realizing.

She awoke to a soft feeling on her back as Bruce ever gently placed her down on the large king bed.  He’d already pulled the single blanket down before he placed her so that he could throw it back over her.

“What are you doing?” she asked him faintly, squinting against the bright moonlight that filtered into the suite.  “How did – how did we end up here?”

“Ssh.” he hushed her.  He tossed the blanket over her.  “I’ll tell you all about it in the morning.  Close your eyes, you really need to sleep for a couple minutes.”

Maria didn’t argue with that, and shut her eyes like she was told, drifting quickly into a deep sleep.

Bright sunlight filtered through the fly sheets, warming Maria’s face and pleasantly waking her the next morning.  Seagulls could be heard outside, adding to the happy, warm feeling she’d been developing while at the resort.

It was grand – she wished she could wake up like this every morning.

Until she fully opened her eyes and caught sight of the shirtless man that lay sleeping on top of the blankets next to her and let out a terrified screech.

Bruce jerked awake with a startled grunt on the edge of the bed, shifting his weight just a bit too far back in his shock that he slipped off the side of the bed, falling to the floor and taking half the fly sheets down with him in a loud crash.

But Maria didn’t give him a chance to react.

She was up off the bed and standing on the ground next to him, glaring down at him accusingly.

“What the hell are you doing in here!?” she demanded frantically.  “I would never have let you in!  How did you get in here?  Just what the hell happened last night!  Tell me or I will start kicking you!”

“Whoa, whoa, now just hang on a minute!” Bruce tried, reaching around to try and pull the fly sheets off him.  It was to no avail, as he ended up tangled in them twice as bad as before.  “I can – explain – in two – seconds, just let me get this damn thing – off me!  Give an old man a damn heart attack, you know!”

Maria wound up her leg in her hysteria, ready to boot the man right in his rib cage.

“Tell me what happened!” she demanded.  “I’m not getting you out of that netting until you explain just what the hell you’re doing in my room, on my bed, sleeping beside me!

“Jesus!” he cried.  “Fine!  We drank together, we walked along the beach together, then we made love in the sand, then we came back to your suite and made love on the edge of the pool, then the floor, then the couch!  Then we went to sleep!  Is that good enough for you?  Let me out of this damn thing already!”

Maria let out a horrified gasp as she brought her hands to her face.  What on Earth had she done?  It couldn’t be.

“Are you going to help me now?” he asked as he flopped around like a tangled up dolphin.

She booted him in the side, making him cry out.

“Hey what the hell!  I asked for help, not a damn beating!” he yelled.

She booted him a second time before she got down on her knees beside him and began to shake him violently by his shoulders.

“Asshole!” she yelled at him.  “Why would you take advantage of a drunk girl like that!  You’re disgusting, you’re -”

“I didn’t!” he cried, cutting her off.  “Holy crap I was just kidding, I never touched you!  Stop beatin’ the crap outta me, you crazy broad!  Last night you told me to leave you alone because I didn’t plan to sleep with you, and today you’re tryin’ to murder me because you think I did!  Get me outta this damn sheet already!”

Maria froze mid-motion and let out a quiet “Oh.” as she remembered a little more of the night before.  Bruce was right.

She quickly pulled the sheets off of him and watched him achingly get back on his feet.

He looked at Maria with a glare, until the look softened and a maniacal grin began to sweep across his face.

She didn’t realize that she’d started to grin back at him, until both of them burst into laughter.

Bruce sat down on the edge of the bed, gathering the shirt that he’d left at the foot of the bed before he’d gone to sleep.

Maria couldn’t help staring at his exposed chest and back as he reached over and grabbed his shirt.  It would appear that the feelings she’d dealt with the night before were indeed not caused by her intoxication as they were still present the next morning.

“You ‘friend-zoned’ me.” she said to him quietly as she watched him button up his shirt.

“What?” Bruce asked in disbelief.  “Is that what that was about?  Why didn’t you say something right then?”

“What the heck was I supposed to say?” she asked.  She could feel the irritation slowly coming back.  “I don’t even know why I’m bringing it up now.”

“Well that’s not hard,” Bruce replied simply, “you like me, so it upset you when you thought I didn’t like you that way.  That would make anyone mad.  But that wasn’t what I was trying to tell you last night.”

“Oh, get over yourself already!” she exclaimed.  “You were the one who started the whole thing!  You made it seem like you liked me, not the other way around!”

“That’s because I do like you, cutie.” he answered her.  She fell silent with an open mouth.  “You’re beautiful, and sweet, and strikingly innocent.”

Maria cringed when she heard the word “innocent”.

“I would be happy to get closer to you.  I just didn’t think you’d appreciate me doing exactly what you tried to murder me over ten minutes ago.  So I tried to tell you that.  I wasn’t trying to offend you, at all.  You just took it the wrong way, that’s all.” he explained.

“Well you’re not going to get any closer to me if you keep up that ‘full of yourself’ attitude!” she snarled at him.  “You’re not Casanova himself, you know!”

“I can pretend to be if it makes me feel better about myself.” he quipped back, sticking his nose up like a child.

She let out a laugh despite her best efforts of displaying her irritations with him.  This damned man was the son of charisma himself.

“Well what now?” she asked aloud.

“You should probably go shower and get cleaned up.  Join me for breakfast on the beach?” he replied.

She was shocked at the shower suggestion, until she looked herself over and realized she was still in the lovely blue gown from the night before, and her previously beautiful hairdo was now a vomit-soaked mop matted against the side of her head.  She brought both her hands up to her hair, trying to cover it from his view in her shame.

“I can help you wash your hair out if you like.” he announced with a wink.  “Scrub your back too, and you can scrub mine.  So much easier with a second person.”

“Oh for Pete’s sake, get out already!” she cried in exasperation.  She rolled her eyes and hid her smirk from him as she escorted him to the door.  “I’ll find you later if I feel like joining you, Bruce.  Thanks for taking care of my sorry drunken butt last night.  And um, sorry, for kicking you earlier.”

Whiskey Excerpt

He was just finishing dinner later that afternoon when he felt his phone vibrating.  It was Dan phoning him.

“Hey Dan,” he answered.

“Hey.  What are you doing right now?” Dan asked.

“Just finishing dinner.” he answered.

“How’d the appraisal go?”

“Better than I figured,” he replied.  He walked out onto the deck and lit a smoke as he continued.  “Worth five hundred and forty-eight thousand she figures, so we’re advertising it for five hundred ninety-nine and take whatever offer is closest.”

“Holy crap!” Dan exclaimed.  “Well good thing Sarah signed off on it finally then!” he laughed into the phone.  “Anyway, that’s not what I wanted to talk to you about.”

“Okay,” responded Darryl, “what’s going on then?”

“Oh nothing,” Dan answered coolly, “I’m just at the auction mart here and we figured out where the goats went when they got sold.”

Darryl’s smoke fell from his mouth and he began to choke.  He almost dropped his phone too while he coughed and hacked and grabbed his cigarette from the ground.

“Jesus man, hold it together!” said Dan.  “It’s just your goats.”

“Well what the hell are you even doing-”  Darryl stopped himself.  He took a long breath.  “Okay, where did they go?  A slaughter house probably, right?”

“Wrong.” answered Dan.  Darryl’s heart skipped a beat.  “It was that friend of hers.  Marilyn.”

“What!?”  He thought he was going to fall over.  “Why would she – How in the hell did she even know I sent them to the auction?  Honoria never found out until the next day!”

“Do you think she still has em?” Dan asked.

“I don’t know,” replied Darryl.  “I gotta let you go.  I’m going to phone her right now and find out.  Maybe she can tell me who she’s sold them to if she doesn’t have them still.”

“Okay, let me know what you figure out.”

Darryl hung up and stared at his phone.  His heart was pounding so hard that he could feel the pressure in his head.  He could only hope that Marilyn hadn’t sold the goats to anyone else.  He looked through the contacts on his list, uncertain that he would be able to remember Marilyn’s or her parents’ phone number without having to ask Honoria.

After several moments of nervously scrolling through several hundred contacts, he was beyond relieved to find Marilyn’s home phone number among the list.

He dialed the number and waited.  He could feel his stomach rising to his throat in anticipation.

The phone rang several times before Marilyn’s mother Charlene answered.

“Hello?” came her voice.

“Hello!  How are you?” Darryl choked out.  He struggled to stay calm.

“I’m good.  Who am I speaking with?” she asked, seemingly confused.

“It’s – it’s uh, Darryl.” he stammered.

“Oh.” she replied stoutly.  He heard some shuffling, then he heard her call for Marilyn.

A few moments went by, until finally Marilyn’s voice came into the phone.  “Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t hang up on you right now, you bastard.” she said.

His heart sank.

“I know.” he answered.  “I know you probably don’t want to talk to me of all people, but please hear me out-” he got cut off.

“No, I quite frankly don’t want to talk to an asshole, thanks.  You have some nerve phoning me.  What is it that you want?” she demanded.  “I have no respect at all for what you did to my best friend.  I may not know the whole situation but I know that you completely deserted her.  And getting rid of her animals?  She was trying to work things out to take them, you know.”

Darryl could hardly hold his temper.  “I’m not calling you to talk about why I threw her out – but you’re right when you say you don’t fucking know the whole situation,” he growled through the phone.  “I’m trying to make things right.  I’m going to fix the damages I did to her.  I’m no fucking expert but give me a damn break.”

“Then why are you calling?  Are you telling me that you made a mistake?  You mean you finally figured out that she never actually molested your son, you dumbass?” she threw back.  “I can hang up anytime I like, so keep getting mad if you want.  You have nothing to be angry about compared to what you’ve done to that girl.”

Darryl drew back, taken by surprise.  Did Honoria tell Marilyn the truth?

“How did you…” he whispered.  “Did she- did she tell you that?”

“You don’t know her as well as I thought you did.” she said.  “I knew from the start that it wasn’t true.  It took her a long time to admit it, probably out of fear that I would throw it in your face and tell you what a piece of shit you are for what you put her through.  I could slap you right across the face right now, you know that?”

His eyes filled with tears as he listened.  She broke him down.

“Hello?” she asked.  “Did you hang up or did I leave you speechless?”

“I fucked up.  Believe me, I get it.” he muttered in misery.

“I know about her depression.  I know that I hurt her.  I hurt her on purpose to get revenge on her for hurting my son.  I know the truth now.  My – my own kids set this up, with their mother, and had one of their little friends try to blackmail Honoria into this bull shit situation.  They were pretending Janelle had been kidnapped and that she would be returned safely if Honoria cheated on me with that kid.  But Honoria wouldn’t fall for their shit, and so they resorted to something even worse, roping my fifteen year old son into framing her for molesting him.  I caught my daughter – I found her in Toronto.  She’s alive, and safe – and I need to tell Honoria this, so that she knows.  I swear to you I only want to fix this!” he yelled.

Marilyn fell silent.

Darryl took a deep breath.

“You bought her goats from the auction mart.” he murmured finally.  “I was trying to track them down and get them back.”

“Honoria’s not getting her goats back until she has a place of her own.” Marilyn answered.

“So you do have all of them.” he murmured.  “Does she know?”

“No.  She doesn’t need to know right now.  She needs to get better.  I looked for her cat too but I couldn’t find him.” she replied.

“I got Whiskey back.  I tracked him down, he’s back with me safe and sound and he’s not going anywhere except back to her when she’s able to have him.” Darryl explained.

“I’m relieved to hear that.  I thought that he was gone for good.  She’s actually living in a house in Tomahawk now that my parents bought.  They would let her have him there.  You should give him back to her sooner than later, it might help her a lot.  She’s not doing well at all lately.  As for her goats, I’m not letting them go back to your farm.  They are hers to take back when she’s on a place of her own, that no asshole will be able to just toss them out without her being able to prevent it.  You may be trying to do the right thing now, but you lost my trust and respect when you handled things the way that you did.  I will look after the goats until she can take them back.  You don’t need to worry about them.” she replied.

He was not sure what to say anymore.  It crushed his heart that he couldn’t take the herd back for Honoria – it made him feel pathetic.  But he understood Marilyn’s reasoning.

“I’m selling this farm.” he said finally.  “The realtor assessed it today.  Sarah signed off; she’s no longer involved with any part of this property, nor any other property I ever buy.  I am going to tell Honoria everything.  I want to fix this.  I really do.  I don’t care what it takes.”

He heard Marilyn let out a short breath.  It sounded like a sigh of relief.

“I wondered if you would ever,” she murmured.  “Honoria gave up so much for you, and to be with you.  I really wondered if you would ever open up your eyes and give up that damned farm to be with her.  She would have stayed even if you hadn’t.  But you and your family and ex-wife put that girl through Hell.”

“I know.” he replied sadly.  “I know.  I’m going to make things right.”

“Her art show is tonight.” Marilyn said.  “Will you be there?”

“I wouldn’t miss it for the world.” he replied.  “Of course I’ll be there.”

“Good then, I’ll be seeing you there.” she answered.  He could hear the tone of threatening in her voice.  She was warning him not to let her dearest friend get hurt again.  She hung up before he could say any more.

Chapter Twenty-Five

      When he’d finished his conversation with Marilyn, he was horrified to see that it was already a quarter after four, so he hurriedly showered and prepared himself for the event that evening.  He put on only the sharpest clothing he owned; a pair of black dress slacks, his finest shoes, and his favorite black Harley Davidson dress shirt.  If he wanted to get her back, he wanted to look his best for her.

His palms were sweating and he was beginning to feel dizzy by the time Dan arrived at his home to retrieve him.

“Good lord, Man.” huffed Dan.  “You need some of this.  Drink up.”  He handed Darryl a small silver flask.

“What’s this?  Why do I need to drink it?” asked Darryl dumbly.

“Whiskey.  Drink up.  You look like shit.” he answered.

Darryl pouted at the comment, but took a long burning swig from the flask.  It seared all the way down his throat.  He nearly gagged.  Then he took another swig.  And one more before Dan grabbed the flask back from him.

“Have you eaten anything since dinner time today?” he asked.

“Sure I have.  You’re not my mother.” Darryl retorted.

“You’re right.  Let’s go before we’re late for the show.”

It was close to two hours before they arrived in the city of Edmonton.  It was just getting dark out and a large orange half -moon hung low in the night sky.  It made him think of her even more.  His dreams of her.  Touching her.  Hugging her.  Kissing her.  The smell of her hair when he held her.

The memory wrenched his heart.  He wanted that again.  He wanted her again.  He had to get her back.  It didn’t matter what it was going to take.  He wanted his beloved back in his arms, and he would never, ever, let her go again.

He was pulled out of thought and back down to earth when they finally rolled into the parking lot of the gallery.

“We’re here,” Dan murmured as they pulled up beside Bailey’s car.  Dale’s pickup sat on the other side of her car.

Darryl could feel his stomach rising to his throat as he stepped out of Dan’s diesel.  Dan came around to his side as well as Dale.

“Well don’t you look fine this evening.” Dale commented.  “Anyone ever tell you that you don’t look so bad when you clean up a little?”

“I know, he looks so handsome!” added Bailey with a giggle as she stepped out of her car to join the three men.

Darryl could barely open his mouth he was so nervous.  He simply nodded at the others with a terribly fraud grin.

Dan handed him a cigarette.  He gladly took it, lighting it with a shaking hand.  Dale, Dan and Bailey all joined him, each lighting up their own cigarettes as well.

They smoked in silence for several moments.  It felt to Darryl as though his friends were almost as nervous as he was.

“It’ll all be fine,” he mumbled finally.  His friends all looked at him.  “Thanks for coming in with me.  Let’s get in there and have ourselves a good night.”

And with that, the four turned together, and walked through the swinging doors into the Emerald Art Gala, not sure of what lay waiting for them that late September evening.

A slim young man stood behind a podium positioned in the entry way, gathering names and collecting tickets from guests as they entered the show.

“Welcome to Emerald Art Gala,” he greeted kindly, “names and tickets please.  Also, there is a guest book that the artist would be delighted to have her guests sign this evening.”  He waived his arm toward a table behind him where a large white book lay open with a classic ink pen sitting in a holder beside it.

Dan and Bailey were the first to give the young man their names and slips.  Then Darryl stepped forward.  He handed the young man his ticket and said his name, and the boy’s head shot up and his eyes narrowed as he inspected him.

“What?” asked Darryl, terrified.  “Is my name black listed?”

“No,” replied the young man.  “Just think I’ve heard of you.”

“Oh great.” he muttered.  “Musta been a lot of good things then.”

Dale stepped forward, interrupting the tension.  “Dale Kerrick.” he said, handing in his ticket.

The young man nodded to them and began addressing the next guests in line.

The four made their way to the guest book at the next table, awed by the size of the event.  A small band was set up on a stage in the center of the large showroom, while several waiters and waitresses scurried about with platters of fruits and glasses of drinks.  Tables were set up to one half of the area, the chairs all facing a second stage, larger than the one in the center of the room that the band had been playing at.  Darryl could only imagine when he would see the beautiful artist he once called his, emerge onto that stage to address her audience.

“We’re going this way,” Dan said, pointing toward the right side of the show room.  There were three general sections of art work for the guests to observe.

“I’ll check out this end.  Meet you guys in the middle.” Darryl replied.

“I’ll go with him.” Dale added, striding after Darryl.

They made their way to the first painting they could see at the beginning of the left wall.  It was one that Darryl remembered well, since Honoria had painted it while sitting outside on the farm one sunny fall afternoon.  It was two ravens sitting together in a tree branch, sharing hold of a yellow leaf in their beaks.

“Girl really had some talent,” Dale murmured, looking closely at the picture.

Darryl nodded, and the two men proceeded on to the next painting.  This one was of a mother moose and baby touching noses while submerged under water.  It was incredibly soft and tasteful, and it reminded Darryl so much of the bond between mother and child.  He’d not seen this one before.

They continued onto another one after several moments.  It was another that Darryl recognized immediately – a Mountie on his horse in front of the Edmonton police headquarters.  She’d made the painting years ago, in tribute of a fallen Mountie that she knew personally.  The RCMP never accepted it from her for some reason, so she had kept it, and presented it wherever she showed, despite how poorly she thought the quality of it was.  Even now, seeing the number of people observing it, Darryl knew it was still one of her strongest pieces.

The music flowed softly throughout the showroom.  It was truly a peaceful event, the lights dimmed down and people speaking in whisper to one another as they inspected each piece.  Spotlights were placed strategically, illuminating each piece of work on its own, making them stand out so much more.  Darryl strayed from the consecutive line of paintings along the wall – and caught sight of one down at the end that struck him.  He gently slid through the gatherings of people until he stood right in front of it.

It was a painting of herself.  In one of her favorite summer dresses, the white one.  She was sitting in the rocking chair he’d bought her with Whiskey sleeping on her lap.  Her hand was on Whiskey’s head, petting him.  The sunlight was specifically shining on Whiskey in this painting.  Then he noticed the tears coming from her eyes.  She’d painted them so delicately small, and transparent, likely hoping to “hide” this particular detail as she’d done in previous works.  He winced when he read the caption.  “For Whiskey”

“Darryl,” he heard someone say.  He turned his head and came face to face with Marilyn.  She spread her arms and stepped forward, hugging him.  “I’m glad you could make it!”

They stepped back and he opened his mouth to say something but was abruptly interrupted by a hard slap across the face.  Marilyn slapped him so hard his head was spinning.  He put his hand on the cheek she’d hit and looked back at her in shock.  Several people around them had stopped talking and were now staring intently at the two.

“That’s for everything you did to Honoria.” she announced stoutly.  “You deserved it.”

Before Darryl could say anything back to her, Bailey was right in between the two.

“Hey what the hell did you do that for?  Who do you think you are!” she demanded, shoving Marilyn back.

Darryl grabbed Bailey by her shoulder, making her turn her head to look at him.

“Don’t.” he said.  He pulled her back and she relented, stepping out of the way.

He looked around at all the people now crowded around them.  “Nothing to see here,” he announced.  “Keep moving.”  Then he returned his attention to Marilyn.  “This is Bailey, Dan’s girlfriend.  Bailey, this is – this is Marilyn, Honoria’s best friend.”

Dale and Dan were stepping up beside Darryl now as Bailey reacted with shock.  Darryl promptly extended the introductions to Dan and Dale, who also were shocked.

Marilyn smiled warmly at them all.  “Good to see you again.  It’s been a long time.” she greeted.  “Anyway, sorry about that, Bailey.  It’s something a little personal between Darryl and I.  Don’t worry though, that’s the only one he gets!”

She looked right into Darryl’s eyes.

“Good to see you again,” he said finally.  His cheek was still stinging.

“Anyway, I have to get back.  I am helping with set up and take down and I saw you walk in so I had to come say hi for a minute.  Honoria doesn’t know that any of you are here.  Should I let her know?” she asked.

Darryl shook his head.  “No.  Don’t ruin her night.  She’ll see us.” he replied.

Marilyn smiled and nodded before turning and sauntering off toward the large stage.

“The hell is she slapping you for?” Bailey asked, dumbfounded.  “Chick is a fucking psycho.  What was that about?”

“It was for everything that I put Honoria through.  And for not knowing her well enough to see through the lies and know that she never actually did what everyone had accused her of.” he muttered.  “It’s good now.  Don’t worry about it.”

Bailey just shook her head in response.

Dan looked at Darryl’s cheek and let out a laugh.

“She got ya pretty good!” he snorted, smacking Darryl on the back.

Darryl didn’t say anything.  He was entirely lost in his thoughts of Honoria.  All of this artwork hanging in this showroom was created by her.  He wanted to see more.  So he started walking, and the three trailed behind him.

There was over two hundred pieces to view.

They had seen a good half of the pieces when the music quieted down and a voice boomed out through the large speakers by the second stage.

“Good evening everyone, and welcome to the first annual Emerald Art Gala!  Please find yourselves seats in the next few moments as our lovely Miss Honoria Barton will be on stage very soon to talk about her life and journey in art, and the things that inspire her, as well as showing everyone her newest piece!” announced the young man.  It was the same young man that had been accepting tickets at the door.  The crowd applauded.

“Where’s the booze at?” Dale asked.  “I want a drink if I get to sit down now.”

They looked around, and Bailey spotted the bar in the far corner.  She pointed and announced, “Over there.  I want something to drink too.”

They made their way over and each grabbed themselves something to sip on.  Darryl waited off to the side while the three of them ordered their drinks first.  He was looking around the showroom, lost in thought.

But then his eyes came to rest on the slender figure beside the second stage, and his heart nearly exploded in his chest.  Honoria stood next to the stage in a long silk navy blue evening gown, talking with Marilyn and the young man who’d just announced her presence.  Her bright blonde hair hung carelessly down her shoulders and back, flowing as naturally and beautifully as he’d always so fondly remembered.  But even from this distance he could see how terribly thin she’d become.  She didn’t look healthy at all.

“Darryl?  Did you grab yourself a drink?” Bailey asked, gently grabbing him by the arm.  “Are you okay?”

He shook his head and turned toward the bar.  “Double rye and coke.  Two of ’em please.” He requested.  The young lady behind the bar nodded and prepared his drinks for him, while Bailey and Dan and Dale looked over their friend with concern.

“Are you sure you’re okay?” Bailey asked him.  “You’re pale.”

He nodded to Bailey, but couldn’t bring himself to say anything.  Even though he was looking right at Bailey, he could still see Honoria in the background, and it was shaking him to his core.

“Here you are, sir.” he heard the young woman behind the bar counter say.  He turned and gladly accepted his drinks from her.

“Let’s go sit down somewhere,” he choked out.  He looked toward the stage and saw that Honoria was not there anymore.

Dan and Bailey walked up front and led the way to a table toward the center, not too far from the stage.  Darryl hesitated to sit down, so they all looked over at him.

“What’s up?” Dan asked casually.  “Wanna sit closer to the stage?”

“Farther.” Darryl mumbled nervously.  “She’ll see us for sure if we sit here.”

“Isn’t that what you want?” Dale cut in.  “Quit being so nervous man, everything will be fine!”

Bailey nodded in agreement, and pulled out a chair for Darryl.

“Sit down, it’ll all be okay.” she urged gently.

Darryl let out a long, shaking breath and relented.  He plopped down onto the chair and lowered himself as much as he could.  He was terrified that he would choke up and distract Honoria if she caught sight of him, and end up the cause of her gala being ruined.

More people slowly gathered from all corners of the showroom, taking seats and whispering amongst themselves.  He could hear the comments and critiques they had about some of the artwork.

One conversation in particular caught Darryl’s ear.  It was the people at the table next to him.  Three men and two women sat discussing Honoria, and her potential as an artist.

“She has some incredible skill,” commented one of the ladies, “Some of her artwork looks like photographs!”

“Yes, but these artists nowadays cheat by using projectors and tracing the lines and colors onto their canvases from original photographs.  In my opinion, that’s not genuine artistic skill.” answered one of the gentlemen snobbishly.

“Did you read the pamphlet about her?  It specifically mentions that she doesn’t use a projector – all of her work is free hand, and some of it didn’t even have photos for her to reference!” exclaimed another one of the men.  “I’ve been hearing her name more and more in the last two years.  The girl is becoming a rising star.”

Darryl could feel his heart pounding harder and harder as they continued.

“I don’t like any of it.” commented the other lady at the table.  Darryl peeked over and saw her sticking her nose in the air.  “I am a painter, I’ve gone to university for it.  I know artwork like the back of my hand.  And this – this stuff is just mindless expressions of things that everyone likes.  There’s nothing original about her work.  I could out-paint her in five minutes!”

Every hair was standing up on the back of his neck.  He wanted to jump up and scream at the lady for calling down Honoria’s artwork.  He knew for a fact that Honoria’s work was original, and took days, sometimes months for her to complete.

He was ready to open his mouth when one of the other gentlemen at the table spoke up.

“For goodness sake, Jill!” he exclaimed, exasperated.  “I’ve heard this from you at every show we have ever attended!  You cut down all these amazing artists and their hard work, and act like you can do it better!  When did you last have a show?  How many outstanding pieces have you ever painted?  Your jealousy defeats you, truly.  Be more appreciative of good quality work, or else don’t come to these shows!  I won’t hear another word of it.”

The lady dropped her head in embarrassment at her partner’s response.  The others at the table fell awkwardly silent and gazed about, avoiding further conversation.

“The heck are you looking at?”

Dale’s question caught Darryl off guard, and he turned his head to see his three friends eyeing him curiously.

“Oh.  Nothing,” he answered.  “Just listening to them talk about what they thought of the artwork.”

Bailey opened her mouth to say something but stopped when the young man’s voice boomed through the speakers again.

“I see everyone has found themselves a seat,” he announced, “That is wonderful!  We hope you have all been enjoying your experience on this fine September evening!  If everyone would please turn off their cell phones and quiet down, it would be greatly appreciated.”

Lots of shuffling could be heard as people pulled cell phones from their pockets and purses and switched them to silent or turned them off.  The announcer remained silent for a moment, giving everyone time to quiet down again.

“Now could everyone please join me in welcoming our lovely Miss Honoria Barton to the stage?” he asked.

The crowd applauded.  Darryl’s heart stopped.  Honoria walked onto the stage, waiving a slender arm to the crowd.

“Thank-you,” she said into the microphone.  Her melodic voice hadn’t changed at all.  “I’m so happy that so many of you made it to the show this evening.  This is my first solo show, and the turnout is so much greater than I’d hoped for!  I want to begin by telling you all a little about myself, …”

Darryl could hardly breathe.  He watched her mouth move as she talked, but all sound drifted away from him as he lost himself to his feelings.  He’d caught sight of the long gloves she was wearing.  They stretched to the crooks of her elbows.  But when she moved her arms just right, he could see the bandaging poking out of the ends of her gloves – the bandaging that had been covering the long gashes on her wrists.

He felt an elbow to his rib – it was Dan.

“You gonna pass out?” he murmured.  Honoria had stopped speaking for a moment and was just pulling a cover off of something farther back on the stage.

Darryl looked over at him.  He shook his head and tried to smile, then he looked back at the stage.  Honoria had just pulled the cover off her latest piece, and the crowd had fallen into an awed hush as they looked at it.

He craned his neck to see what it was.

Tears began to cloud his vision as he got a clear view of the thirty-six by forty-eight painting of himself holding up his daughter in the sunlight.  He recognized it immediately.  It was from a photo that was taken when Janelle was only six years old, out in the front field.  He’d been chasing after her playfully and caught her, scooping her up and swirling her through the air.  The game had delighted the little girl to no end, so they had to snap a photo of the beautiful moment.  And here it was, painted bold and beautiful, filled to the brim with the happiness that he so dearly missed.

The guilt crushed him as he looked at the painting.  It was one of the best ones Honoria had made yet.  Honoria stood beside it and remained silent for a moment longer, letting everyone get a good look at it before she started talking again.

“This here,” she began.  Darryl could tell her voice was shaky with her own emotions.  “This is a painting of two people who I care a lot about.  One of them went missing in the last six months, and has since been presumed dead.  We spent many sleepless nights worrying for her, waiting for her, hoping that somehow she would come back safe and sound.”

Darryl’s three friends worriedly looked at each other before looking over at Darryl, who was now beginning to shake.

“We tried anything that we could think of, to try and get this little girl back home.” she explained sadly.  “But all our efforts failed.  This painting is a tribute to her, Janelle Bowden, and any other missing child on our Earth.  She was so special, and I still struggle with the loss of her.  I am placing this painting up for auction with an opening bid of two thousand dollars.  The money paid for this painting is being donated to Canada’s Missing Children Foundation, in the hopes that maybe my efforts weren’t for nothing.  I want to help the foundation grow, and prevent tragedies such as this, and tonight I ask for your help.  Besides this painting, there are nearly a hundred others up for sale, and fifty percent of each of their proceeds will also be donated to the foundation.  I thank all of you for attending the gala this evening, and I would like to give a big thanks to the staff at Edmonton Art Gallery for helping me set up this most beautiful event and making it as special as it could be.  I couldn’t have accomplished this without all the support.  Thank you all.”

The crowd erupted into applause.  Honoria took a step to the side and handed the microphone off to the young man, who stepped up to address the crowd one more time.

“Looks like everyone is happy with her newest piece!” he exclaimed brightly.  “At the base of the stage on the little desk there,” he motioned below himself to the small table, “is a setup where you can write your bid and place it in the box, anonymously.  I will be sitting at the desk observing your bid and updating the amount for the rest of the guests.  Please remember this is a silent auction, so if you see who put the last bid in, please do keep it to yourself!  Thanks again everyone, please enjoy the rest of your night!”

The young man turned to Honoria and held the microphone out to her, asking if she had anything more to say.

Darryl stood up and his chair almost flipped onto its back.  The noise was enough to catch her attention and for the first time that evening, their eyes locked.  Her gasp was audible from where he stood.  She had reached out for the microphone at first but then retracted her hand immediately.

“Hey,” Dan said to Darryl, but he didn’t hear him.  He stepped away from his chair and began moving through the mess of tables and people, toward the stage.  His eyes stayed locked with hers.

People noticed Darryl as he walked through.  He could hear them whispering at their tables, recognizing him from the painting.

He stopped at the edge of the stage.  He didn’t know what to say.  But he refused to take his eyes off hers.  He hadn’t realized that a single tear had escaped his own, as he watched tears begin to form in hers.

“You, you came,” she murmured.  “You’re here.  I thought – I thought-”  She let out a short breath, and tried to walk toward him.  But the walk turned to a stumble, and the stumble turned into a hard fall.  She came crashing down on her knees first, and Darryl knew right then that she’d fainted.

Dear Neighbor

I was in a session with the psychiatrist one evening, and we were talking about my sadness, when I brought up the year of my undoing.  She’d heard the story once already, since it was told to her right when I’d first begun to see her as it is such a large part of my life’s story.

She asked me why it was on my mind.  I told her I was unsure.  I began to speak of the memories.  The good ones.  And then the bad ones.  The lack of support and love from my own family, who’d only taken part in the abuse of me during that tragedy.  The loss of ever seeing you again.  I felt like I was throwing the “slight possibility” of an opportunity to have a relationship with you, out the window when I ran away.  It’s ironic how much I cared for you when I never so much as held your hand as a lover or girlfriend.  It was a heated teenage infatuation at its best, and I was swept up by your charm and supposed kindness.  At this point in time, it had already been four years since I’d so much as spoken to you.

The conversation began to fracture, breaking into all the millions of little fragments that composed my mind, and soon I was revealing the entire heap of disappointments.  In myself, and my life, and all the ridiculous choices I’d made and kept making.

That day, my session lasted twice as long as it had ever before, and my psychiatrist brought out the true issue behind my unstable mental foundation.  I felt unlovable.  From even before the day I met you.

It is late January now, and I work the best job I’ve ever worked before, and I wake up every single day with optimism and readiness to face the world.  I can’t count my blessings because there are so many.  I as a human being, have finally learnt a compassion for myself, and a love for myself, that no one else, not even my own husband, was able to give me.

I am proud of the woman I’ve become.  I am forgiving of myself for choices that I made in the past, even if others are not.  And I am vindicated.  Free of the chains that bound me to a ball of self-hatred and misery.pic-1

I’ve learnt patience.  I’ve learnt kindness.  I’m proud to say I’ve learnt faithfulness and devotion.  I am a strong, healthy woman, and I am so grateful for the life I live now.

And what brings me back to that fateful time eight long years ago, is learning not to regret.  But accept it as part of who I am and part of my betterment as I undoubtedly learnt from such a dark experience.

I spoke to my good friend the other day about the past.  He told me he felt stuck in it.  He said he was afraid he would be stuck in his past forever, unable to let go and move forward with his life.  He knew all the details of my past – he was there to witness much of it.  He asked how I was doing these days and how I was about moving on myself.

I thought you might like to know what I said to him.

I said, “I’m learning more every day.  I used to have it stuck in my head that one day I had to come face to face with (you) and be able to face my past without fears or regret, and prove something to (you).  What I was supposed to prove, I am not sure.  But I’m not fighting my past anymore.  I don’t need validation from (you) to feel good about who am and where my life is at, and I’m finally figuring that out.  It took a really long time, but I’m letting go a little more every day.”

This is one of many writings – created in direct correlation with you.  If I had to guess how many times I’ve begun to write, or even finished writing, letters or messages to you, I would not hesitate to say over a hundred, at least.  I’ve even written out make-believe scenes with you and I “running into each other” by slim coincidence, and reconciling our past.  Finally hearing you apologize.  Finally hearing whatever magic words that I thought you were supposed to say for me to say, “Ok, I’m glad we got that sorted out.  Now I can move on with my life.”

But I don’t need that any more.  I never needed it from the beginning.  I was holding myself back.

And now?  I wouldn’t trade this life for anything.  I can probably even say that everything I took from my past with you in my life, has helped to make me as strong and as grateful for my blessings as I am today.  I am wise, and empathetic.  I am able to step back from a conflict and consider the other person’s point of view, most times reconciling myself with their actions before even needing to “hear an apology” from them.  I am loving, and thankful, and as a result I treat my partner and my children well, and I make them feel wanted and needed, and get exactly that much in return.  I never knew a sense of belonging like what I know now.

At this time, on this day, I can finally tell you, with or without acknowledgement, that I’m letting go.  I survived.  And for everything I went through with and because of you, and every other person who’s come and gone in my life, I’m grateful.  Because maybe I would not be where I am now if things had gone differently.  And I wouldn’t want that.

I love my life and I especially love who I am.  I’ve never been happier with myself as a person.  And this emotion.  This knowledge, that I am capable of setting myself free.

I don’t need you to set me free.  I don’t need anyone else to but myself.

Thank-you for being a part of my life.  Your impact helped me gain independence, strength, and wisdom from experience.  I don’t regret it anymore.  I have accepted it, and forgiven myself for my choices, and I’ve forgiven all those who’ve hurt me.  I’m on a great path, and this is where I’m dropping my chains.  I’m moving on.  And I just wanted to say, Good Bye, neighbor.  Perhaps we’ll meet again on the other side.  And if not, I’m okay with that too.

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