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The Long Way Home, Excerpt

The Long Way Home

by:  Staci Stallings

She had heard nothing but her father’s infuriating voice in her head for two hours when her finger snapped the back stitch button on and then off.  You would think he could at least try to be reasonable… for once in his miserable life.

Carefully cutting the thread away, Ami pulled the lacey material free. The curtains were turning out nicely— even Mrs. Sanders, her home ec teacher, would’ve been pleased. With one more snip she freed it from the thread and held the finished product up next to the chair to inspect her work.

“Good deal.” Pleased, she stood, unfurling the curtain onto her bed where its mate laid. Then she stepped back to examine her handiwork. It was times like this that she believed somehow she was going to make this work. She was going to make it by September, and she would show her father and prove to him he had been wrong about her and her grandfather and this farm the whole time.

“Ami?” Jaxton called from the stairs.

“I’m in here,” she called back, pulling at the material to measure for the tie-backs.

She tried not to notice as he appeared at her door and leaned there. “Well, I’ve got good news, and I’ve got bad news.”

“What’s the good news?” She tipped her head in his direction as she pinned the material together, trying to act like any bad news would be only a little bump she could easily handle.

“Well, I found the last wall.”

“Cool. So, what’s the bad news?”

“The sheet rock’s no good,” he said clearly wishing he didn’t have to be the one to tell her that.

Looking up, she scowled in confusion. “No good? What does that mean?”

“Come see.”

And with that, her feet were moving to go inspect the thing.

“It’s all crumbly,” he said as she stepped past him and headed for the stairs. “It looks like it got wet at some point.”

She didn’t say another word as she climbed the stairs and went into the room to inspect the damage. Horror hit her square. He wasn’t kidding. The floor was covered with white dust and crumbs from the wall. It was worn completely through in one, large place, and in several others it wouldn’t take much to make it fall.

As she stood looking at it, she could hear her father’s lectures, and piece-by-piece her dream began a slow crumble inside her. She closed her eyes to the stinging in the backs of her eyes, pushing back at it with her eyelids and her hand. She should have known. She should just give up now. Why was she even doing this? He was right. She would never be able to make this work.

“I’m not sure the rest is like this,” he said from behind her. “Maybe it was just this one place that got wet.”

However, she shook her head, fighting to keep the tears from spilling over. “Dad said it wasn’t worth it. I should’ve just listened to him.”

It wasn’t said for his benefit. After everything she’d been through, to make it this far and then to have the house crumble from the inside out just ripped the last piece of determination from her. The only thing left was surrender. Surrender to the utter hopelessness of it all.

“But no,” she continued in a mumbled anger, “I didn’t listen, did I?  No, I thought I knew better. I thought I could make it work. What a joke.”

“Ami.” Jaxton’s presence closed the distance between them. “Come on, don’t say that.”

“Why not?” And she spun on him as the anger flashed through her eyes. “Why shouldn’t I?”

But he never so much as blinked. “Because it’s not true, that’s why.”

“Yes, it is,” she said as one tear escaped from the corner of her eye and threaded its way down her cheek. She looked away and swiped at it furiously, hoping he hadn’t seen it, but it was too late. Still, the fury made her come back at him. “Look around you. They might as well knock this place down, and put it out of its misery.”

He put his hands on his beltline and licked his lips as he stared down at her. “You don’t mean that.”

“Yes I do,” she said vehemently. “I do. I was such an idiot to think I could make this work.”

He took one step toward her, and the fury didn’t let her think she should move.

“But it’s probably better, you know,” she said, laughing sarcastically as the tears now wound their way down over her nose, not thwarted or even held back. “It was a stupid idea anyway. Always has been.”

“No, it wasn’t.” With worry in his dark eyes, he took hold of her arm. “Please don’t say that.”

Then her senses came back to her, and she jerked at her arm. “What do you think you’re doing?”

But he held her firmly. “Come here.” Not brooking any argument, he pulled her from the room and down the hallway.

“Where are we going?” she asked as fear overtook the anger. He was so strong, she knew as she followed she wouldn’t be able to fight him off if he had anything other than honorable intentions. “Jaxton!”

However, he never stopped as he pulled her down the hallway and into the library. “I want to show you something.”

“What?” she asked as he opened the door and pulled her across the room to the French doors.

On the other side, he stopped for one second and looked down at her. “This.”

And with that, he flipped the handle and flung the doors open. Never releasing her, he pulled her out onto the balcony.

“What?” she asked again as the anger returned to her voice.

“This. Listen,” he said as he took a deep breath.

“What? I don’t hear anything.” She latched her arms in front of her to hold onto her anger and frustration as he let go of her arm and took a step over to the railing.

“Listen,” he said again, closing his eyes, and peace descend on his face.

In annoyance, Ami shook her head and pushed the beauty of the day and the way he looked enjoying it away from her. “I don’t hear anything.”

“That’s just it. There’s nothing there. Nobody yelling at you or telling you what to do or telling you that you’re doing it wrong. Nothing. Just you and the wind.” A moment and he opened his eyes so his gaze came right down to hers. He was looking right at her then, right into her, and she couldn’t look away. “Don’t you see, Ami? You can’t give up now. People need this.”

However, her spirit held only disgusted anger with the whole horrible idea.

“Can’t you feel it?” he asked as peace found his voice and his movements.

Although she knew exactly what he meant, at that moment, she didn’t want to feel what he was talking about. She wanted to be mad. She wanted to be frustrated. She wanted to give up, and she knew if she let herself feel the peace of that balcony, she would find a way to talk herself out of it.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” She shook her head, pushing the peace away from her just as easily as she brushed away the strand of hair that caught the breeze and ended up in her face.

“Okay, then, here.” Once again he took her hand and led her over to the railing where he put her hand on it gently.  His gaze slid down and rested on her. She felt it thought she never looked up.

“Now close your eyes,” he instructed, and when she moved to protest, he said, “Just do it.”

With a shake of her head, believing she could hang on to the anger no matter what, she closed her eyes.

“Just listen.” He was right beside her, his arm practically around her, and heat she wasn’t sure was from the sun began seeping into her. “Listen to the wind in the trees.”

She pushed the pain in her chest down and squeezed her eyes closed to keep it there. It was a stupid dream, a child’s fantasy.

***

“Let it go,” Jaxton said, watching her, mesmerized by her and the day. She was so incredibly beautiful. “Just let it go, Ami. For once, just breathe and let it go.”

She shook her head vehemently. Once and then harder.

His heart broke for her, for the struggle and the deck that was stacked against her. “Your grandfather gave you this place because he knew you understood,” he said softly. “He knew you’d share this feeling with everyone who came here.”

“But,” she started to protest.

“And he knew that no matter what you wouldn’t give up,” he said, knowing in his heart it was true.

“But,” she started again, just as he reached down and laid his hand on the small of her back. That touch brought her back from keeping the pain down, and she looked up, right through the depths of his eyes. He had never felt anything like that moment.

“Listen to me.” His gaze held hers gently. “It’d be so easy to let everybody else talk you out of this. I guarantee you it’d be a lot easier than trying to make your dream come true. But if you do that, if you let them talk you out of your dreams, you’ll regret it for the rest of your life.”

She shook her head and mashed her lips together. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Yes, you do.” And he knew she did as he was now looking right into her soul. “You think they’re right. You think they know more about what’s possible than you do. Well, they don’t. They don’t understand your dream.”

“And you do?”

A second and he had to admit the truth. “No, I don’t see all of your dream either, but I know if you give up now, you’ll think about this moment forever and wonder what if. What if you hadn’t given up? What if you did what you had to to make this happen?”

“And what if it doesn’t happen anyway?”

“Well, then what have you lost?” He shrugged slightly. “A few months? A little time? If you don’t try, you’ve lost your dream. That’d be a thousand times worse.”

Ami ducked her head to the side, and her gaze fell onto the little grotto below.

“He gave you this place for a reason,” Jaxton said, watching her struggle, feeling it in the depths of his own soul. “He believed in you, Ami. He knew you could do it.”

She shook her head again, sending strands of hair skittering on the breeze.

“And you can,” he said softly, putting his hand once again on her back because that just felt so right to all of him.

Her spoke of exhaustion and defeat. “But there’s so much to do…”

“I’ll help you all I can,” he said solidly.

“Why?” she finally asked, looking up and searching his eyes.

With no hesitation, Jaxton enveloped her with his. “Because I know how many people need what this place can give them,” he said with a soft smile. “Just say you’ll give it to September. If it doesn’t work, at least you tried.”

“But what about you?” she asked slowly, a new worry tripping into her dark eyes. “Don’t you have to go back to Chicago?”

His gaze sank to the planks at their feet as the question raked through him. But then he knew, and he picked his gaze up to meet hers. “Chicago’ll still be there in September. I think I’m standing exactly where I need to be right now.”

Ami exhaled slowly and shook her head. “But there’s so much to do.”

“So, we take it one project at a time,” he said, “one day at a time, and we get done whatever we can.”

“But I don’t have the money to pay you,” she said, the determination to quit waning with each new excuse she found.

“So we’ll just call it payback.”

“For what?”

“For showing me what’s really important,” he said.

Although she couldn’t have known the depth of those words, she nodded. Then she closed her eyes. “Okay. So, what do we do about that sheet rock?”

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Ebook Romance Stories: Excerpt “A Light in the Darkness”


ALID Cover New 1-10-2014Excerpt from “A Light in the Darkness”

Going back was ridiculous.  Gabe had told himself that ten thousand times as he drove through the sheets coming down horizontally to the pickup.  A book was not worth this.  And yet, he hadn’t read in four days.  A new habit takes hold at seven days and is established by 21.  He knew that from every motivational book he’d ever read, and he’d read many of them.

The temptation to let it go just one more day clung to his spirit, but he wouldn’t give in to it.  Not now.  Not ever.  The vision of what he was meant to do in this life was too intense, too clear as was the opposite trail that led off into a life he had almost gotten by default.  Letting his life slide in that direction again was too sickening to think about.

At the carriage house, he killed the engine and then berated himself for that.  Stupid.  He would be right back.  But he’d already done it, so he left it off, reached for the door handle, and made a break for the huge, heavy wooden door beyond.  Unfamiliarity smacked him when his hand found the handle.  The door was open—not a lot, but it was.  There was no reason for that door to be open.  No one came out here anymore.

Shrugging the rain off his shoulders and the fear from his spirit, he ducked inside.  Dark as usual.  He reached over and pulled the little light, illuminating the stairs.  The single bulb blinked on, and he stood for a moment, looking, waiting, watching.  But nothing moved. Shoving his hands in his pockets, he started up the stairs.  Which book should he get? The one he was reading but was only marginally interested in or the new one he’d gotten from Marvin over the weekend? It was funny how even now at odd times he would receive a package from his former mentor and how those packages always had a way of turning his life at just the right moment.  It was a pattern Gabriel had learned to trust.

Then, seven steps up, he heard it, and his steps stopped instantly.  He turned to look back down the stairs.  Something wasn’t right.  It wasn’t a definite sound or even movement.  More a feeling.  His movements slid into slow motion.  Concern slipped into his spirit. “Is somebody here?”

The sound of his voice ricocheted off the rounded, stone walls around him.  His gaze darted side to side, back and forth, searching for the unseen.  The little light overhead swung, sending the shadows ducking and weaving through each other.  Foreboding slid through him. Something wasn’t right. Then he heard it, for real this time.  A small, soft intake of air.

His steps turned, and he headed back down the stairs, one at a time, slowly. Listening.  Senses taking in everything.  At the bottom, he let his hand stay on the railing one more moment.  He stopped again to listen.  It took a moment, but there it was again.  Soft, but definitely there.  “Who’s here?”

On the hard stone floor, he moved along the staircase toward the sound.  When he got to the arch of the stairs over his head, he stooped down and gazed into the shadows slicing the cobblestone under the stairs.  He squinted to see better.  Indistinct and shadowed, he saw it nonetheless.  A figure, huddling there, hiding, not moving.

Gabe’s mind raced with the possibilities.  A vagabond seeking shelter from the storm?  A criminal hiding out from the authorities?  Before he could get all the possibilities reasoned out, his eyes adjusted to the dim light.  What told him first what he was looking at—his head or his heart—he would never have been able to say for sure.  But in one giant sweep, he knew this was no vagabond.  It was a woman. Wet, crumpled, and terrified, with wide, terrified eyes looking right at him.

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Ebook Romance Stories: Character Insights, “If You Believed in Love”


IYB FINAL COVER 1-1-2014A Person Who Has Influenced My Life

by:  Letty Rahman

This semester I have had the pleasure of taking a course by a fabulous teacher, Professor Elizabeth Forester (Ms. Forester to everyone who knows her).  Now, Ms. Forester is not your typical teacher.  For one, she is tough.  I don’t mean tough like she’ll beat you up.  I mean she doesn’t let you ever take the easy way out.  I’m quite certain she has never seen a Scantron in her life. She probably doesn’t even know what they are. No, Ms. Forester’s tests are all-essay, and you’d better know your stuff when you walk in because it isn’t going to be fill-in-the-blank kind of questions.

On top of that, test time isn’t the only time you’d better be prepared in Ms. Forester’s class.  Every time you walk in those doors, she is going to push you and tease you and pull every nugget of information and understanding out of you.  You would be surprised how often students say things they didn’t even know they knew in that class.

Strangely, I have noticed several types of students in Ms. Forester’s classroom.  There is one type I feel the most sorry for. They took one look at her syllabus and dropped the class.  Oh, yes, in the classroom she fully lives up to her reputation as a slave-driver. At first that scared me too, but I had to have the class so I didn’t have a choice to leave.  I’m so glad now that I didn’t.  I think it was Divine Providence or something that kept me there.

Why?  Because I’ve learned so much–yes, about poems and Jane Austen, but more than that, I’ve learned about life.  I’ve learned that the things we learn in different classes like chemistry and history and even math can fill in and fill out who we become as people.  They are not ultimately about this piece of knowledge and that piece of understanding.  They are about the whole that we become by learning them.

Take, for example, the poems and books we are reading in Ms. Forester’s class.  I won’t lie to you. The Browning poems were a challenge, but Ms. Forester didn’t just stand up there and talk about iambic pentameter and rhyme.  She taught us how to understand the meaning of the words.  Like the one line about Shakespeare and how he was brave enough to put his thoughts and his understandings on paper.  How the person writing the poem thought Shakespeare was crazy for letting people into his world that far, but how, in fact, it was because he let them in that his name has been immortalized throughout the centuries.

Then there’s the whole Jane Austen thing, which I personally thought was… well, whack, to begin with. I mean who cares about these people who think women can and should be bought and sold like cattle? However, as we’ve read and understood and learned, I realized it’s not about that.  It’s not about the fairness of that society.  It’s about people who are trying to be themselves and learn and grow in spite of those rules and rigidity or maybe in defiance of them.

It’s so interesting to me because I sit here trying to explain what Ms. Forester has given to me as a teacher to a student, and it’s all right there in my mind like I can touch it and grab onto it and give it to you. But when I start to write it down, it’s like I can’t capture it.  Maybe it can’t be captured in words.  I don’t know.

What I do know is that Ms. Forester has changed my life.  She has shown me a world I didn’t even know existed, and I don’t think I’m the only one who feels like that.  In Ms. Forester’s class you are not a number.  You are not a lump of flesh who happens to be sitting in a desk.  You are a person.  A real, live person with a history and a story of your own.  In fact, I’ve learned to even look at people differently, to read who they are and where they are with life through this class.

I wish I could explain that, but maybe you just have to sit in her classroom and absorb who she is and what she can show you to ever really understand.  I just wish every student was lucky enough to take her class and to stay long enough to realize that they have something worth sharing as well.

IYB FINAL COVER 1-1-2014

 

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Ebook Romance Stories: Review of “If You Believed in Love”


IYB FINAL COVER 1-1-2014If You Believed in Love

By:  Staci Stallings

Reviewed by:  Zoya Smalling

I so want to be in Elizabeth’s class. I learned so much and felt I was a student in the class as they discovered new ways of looking at life. If only I could find a teacher like her, I would certainly audit the class. The mark of a good book is one impacts your perspective. Ms. Stallings, If You Believed In Love, is a good book.

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Ebook Romance Stories: Excerpt from “If You Believed in Love”


IYB FINAL COVER 1-1-2014Excerpt from “If You Believed in Love”

On Tuesday the weather had turned decidedly bleak.  The snow, such that it wasn’t, had come and gone, leaving in its wake swirls of nothing and temperatures that chilled right through everything.  Jonathon pulled his coat closer and quickened his steps up to the door of Bennett Hall.  There were no students congregating today, but once again, he was late.  He hated that about himself.  He really did.

But just getting out of that apartment, especially on a day like today, was a major accomplishment.  At the door to the lecture hall, he took a breath, opened the door quietly, and slipped inside.

“Shall I sonnet-sing you about myself?” she read, steeping each word in meaning. “Do I live in a house you would like to see?”

Before he’d even gotten into the desk, Jonathon was once again taken in by her beauty, by her words, by the etherealness of her being.

“Is it scant of gear, has it store pelf?/‘Unlock my heart with a sonnet-key’?”  Her gaze came up off the book and landed right on him.  The look lasted but a fragment of a moment, and yet he felt it all the way through him as if a bomb had gone off in his heart.  Then it was gone, crossing to the other students. “Would someone like to tell me what this poem is about?”

Sliding down into the seat, Jonathon opened his book to House and fought to breathe.  How could one look do that to him?

“Mr…?” she said in that way she had of asking student’s names without asking them.  “I’m sorry.  I didn’t catch your name.”

He glanced up and was instantly woven fast by her gaze.  Swallowing, he gulped down the breath, glancing behind him only to find the solid wooden wall. “Oh.”  He cleared his throat and sat up straighter, neither of which helped.  “Danforth.  Jonathon Danforth.”

A soft smile went through her eyes.  “Well, Mr. Danforth, would you like to tell us what you think this poem is about?”

“Oh. Huh.” Words clogged at the top of his throat all at once, and he coughed to get them unstuck.  “Uh.  I think that the…” Each word came in haltingly unspaced steps as if drunk and on the verge of passing out.  “I think the poem, House,” he added for her benefit so she didn’t think he was a complete loser, “is about how frightening it is to let someone else in.”

That piqued her interest, pulling it up in her eyes, so he continued, gaining confidence with each word.

“At the beginning, Browning is saying, like, ‘So you think you want to come into my house?  You’re asking me to unlock my heart to you and let you come in and see?  I’ll tell you what happens when you do stupid things like that.  People come.  The neighbors and just whoever, and they take a look in your house, in your heart, and they say, ‘Oh, well, I figured he was always much less a person than he seemed on the outside.  I mean look, he smoked, and he didn’t even sleep with his wife anymore.  Yep, could’ve pegged him for a loser.’”

This time it was her, not him that seemed caught in the web.  With one glance at her, he pushed the words from his heart.

“And then at the end, he basically says, it’s not worth it to let the world see who you really are.  Maybe Shakespeare could and did, but he was a fool.”

*~*~*

The words, his words, were spoken with so much eloquence and understanding that Elizabeth had to reach out to even grab back onto life.  “Very nice, Mr. Danforth.” She shook her head without shaking it and flipped her attention away from the man hovering in the back desk all dressed in black to one of her other students closer down front.  “Do you agree with him, Mr. Hansen?”

“With Browning or the old dude?” the student asked.

Elizabeth glanced back up at Mr. Danforth with apology.  “With Mr. Browning.  Do you think it is not smart to let people in?”

“Oh, yeah.  Sure.  I mean people will diss you if you let ‘em.  Even if they don’t really know anything about you.”

“People judge you,” Susana said.  “That’s just the way it is.”

Elizabeth walked slowly across the room.  “And so it’s smart to keep yourself hidden, to not give anyone the key?”

“Either that or you get trampled to death.”

“Uh-huh.”  She opened her book.  “But what about this last line?  ‘With this same key/Shakespeare unlocked his heart,’ once more!’/Did Shakespeare? If so, the less Shakespeare he!”

“What about it?” someone asked.

“What’s he saying?”

“That Shakespeare was an idiot for putting his feelings into words for everyone to read them and see who he really was.”

“Right,” she said and tilted her head inquisitively.  “But is that true?  Was Shakespeare an idiot for writing down his feelings for everyone to read?  And by extension was Robert Browning an idiot for doing the same?”

A moment of pause.

“Well,” Letty from down front said, “kind of, I guess so.  I mean we’ve seen how in love with his wife he was, but we’ve also read some really dark stuff—like Porphyria’s Lover and My Last Duchess.  I mean those aren’t fantasies or thoughts or whatever that I’d let everybody know I had.”

“Do you think less of him because of them?”

*~*~*

Jonathon’s whole attention was captured by her—not just because of her outer beauty but also because she didn’t go for the easy answers.  She didn’t stand at the board and tell them about pentameter and alliteration.  She dug into the poems and brought out more insights and depth than he had even seen reading them once, sometimes twice, and even on occasion three or four times.

“No, not really,” one of the boys said.  “I mean, sometimes I think he’s whack, but sometimes I really get what he’s saying because it’s something I feel—even if I’d use better words to describe it.”

Ms. Forester smiled almost to the point of laughing.  When she grew serious, however, it was a slow process into its depths.  She turned, and her gaze swept the class. “Have you ever heard of Shakespeare?”

The confusion that crossed the room went through Jonathon as well.

“Do you know some of the things he wrote?”

“Um, like plays and stuff,” someone offered.

“Plays like what?” she asked, turning slowly at the far end of the room.

Romeo & Juliet, Othello, Hamlet, Macbeth.”

As if really thinking this through with them, she nodded.  “But this was a man who lived in the sixteenth century.  This was a man, one man, a simple playwright.  Why have his words lasted not just minutes, not just years, but centuries?”

And then Jonathon saw it as well.  His gaze snapped back to his book.  Was the point really there, or was she making it up?  He read and re-read those last couple of lines.

“Is Browning saying it’s stupid to be like Shakespeare, or is he really saying the only way for your work to live on into the eternities past even your death is to open your heart and let the world in, to let them see who you really are?”

Not a sound.  Not a breath in the whole room.

Without looking at her book, she gazed at them. “Rather I prize the doubt/Low kinds exist without,/Finished and finite clods, untroubled by a spark.”  Her pause held every breath in the room.  “Was Shakespeare a finished and finite clod untroubled by a spark?”

“No,” someone breathed.  “He was brave enough to live.”

“How do we know that, Ms. Moore?”

“Because we still have his words, we know he lived.”

Ms. Forester nodded thoughtfully.  “Because he was brave enough, or crazy enough, to open his heart and let the world see.”

If anyone had so much as breathed, it would’ve knocked Jonathon completely over.  He could hardly get to the depth of her eyes much less her words.

“Turn to Appearances, page 31.”  Without more than a second’s time, she continued without reading her book. “And so you found that poor room dull,/Dark, hardly to your taste, my dear?/Its features seemed unbeautiful;/But this I know—‘twas there, not here,/You plighted troth to me, the word/Which—ask that poor room how it heard.

“And this rich room obtains your praise/Unqualified—so bright, so fair,/So all whereat perfection stays?/Aye, but remember—here, not there,/The other word was spoken!—Ask/This rich room how you dropped the mask!

“Browning uses the metaphor of a house again in this one, a structure of some kind with different rooms.  And what’s the story with this house?”

“The guy likes one room but not the other.”

Quiet depth filled her eyes.  “Why?”  She turned, and her gaze caught a raised hand. “Mr. Hansen?”

“Because in one room he was trying to be something he wasn’t, and in the other, he dropped the mask.”

“And the first room, where he was wearing the mask was…?”

“Unbeautiful,” Susana said.  “Dull and dark.”

Ms. Forester seemed lost in the thought.  “And the second room? What was it like?”

“Unqualified,” someone down front said, “so bright, so fair.”

“He’s saying the same thing in both poems, is he not?” She turned on the toe of her boot and gazed at the whole of her students.  “Be who you are.  Drop the mask. Be brave enough to show the world, and far from losing yourself and being criticized like a finite clod, you may be immortalized like Shakespeare, or at the very least, the room you’re standing in might just seem a little brighter than the one where you were before.”  Her attention jumped up to the clock. “Oh, look at the time.  Be sure to read the last selections for Thursday’s class.  See you then.”

It was like snapping awake from a dream and not being at all able to shake it.  Jonathon stood as the others did as well.  His mind spun trying to think of something, some reason that could keep him here with her for one more minute.  He checked his things, gathering them slowly, watching her down front the whole time.  One of the other students stepped up to her, and she bent to listen.  What could he ask her?  What question would be good enough to go to the front?

But his mind was not cooperating at all.  Finally with a sigh, he gave up the search, and with only one more look, he headed out.

Outside it was still cold.  Frigid really.  However, instead of turning to his apartment, he picked up the collar of his coat and headed for the library.  He was glad he’d spent the extra time there on Tuesday.  That helped him be ready for today.  However, as his mind traced through his answer, he couldn’t help but feel like an idiot.  She was going to think he was completely lame.  There wasn’t one truly deep, brilliant insight in any of it.  And sadly, he’d thought he knew what that poem was about.

Determination to dig a little deeper seeped into him.  It wasn’t like it was a formal requirement.  She didn’t say, “Do it or else.”  Nor was it a challenge as in “You have to do it like me to be worthy of my time.” Instead it was more, “Do it because…”  Because it will teach you something important about life and about yourself.  He was intrigued by that, more than he could say.  And he couldn’t wait to get into these new poems and see what they had to teach him.


IYB FINAL COVER 1-1-2014Buy “If You Believed in Love”

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Ebook Romance Stories: “Coming Undone” Chapter 1 & 2

Coming Undone Final 1-15-2014

#1 Religious Fiction, #1 Religion & Inspirational @ Amazon!

Coming Undone

by:  Staci Stallings

Chapter 1

“Don’t give me that, bro. Come on. We want details. Lots of details.”

At the stainless steel refrigerator in the kitchen, Ben Warren grabbed the handle as he smiled. “Oh, no.  I don’t kiss and tell.”  He reached in, snagged three cold ones, and headed back for the large round table currently taking up a good portion of his living room.  Setting the other two beers on the table, he sat down and twisted the cap off his before taking a long drink.

Friday night and the living was good.

“Since when?” one of the guys called.

“Yeah, come on, Ben,” Kelly Zandavol, Ben’s best friend since high school said as he nailed Ben with an I-don’t-believe-that-for-a-minute look.  “You can’t leave us hanging like that.  What’s she like?”

“No. Uh-huh.” Ben shook his head even as he took another drink. “You ain’t getting any more.”

“Dude,” Logan Murphy said, surveying his cards although there was only sparse attention to the actual game, “you know that you’re our in with the ladies. Now you’re gonna freeze us out just when it’s getting good?  What’s up with that?”  He rearranged the cards in his hand though presumably that didn’t help.  God Himself couldn’t help Logan with cards or with the ladies as he called them.  “If I can’t live through you, I’m doomed.”

“Not to mention the shape Kelly’ll be in,” Todd Rundell added.  “You know what that marriage thing can do to a guy.”

“Hey. Hey.” Kelly lifted his chin.  “Speak for yourself there.  Me and my lady are doing just fine.”

“Uh-huh.” Todd put down his beer, picked up his cards, and shuffled them back and forth in his hand.  “That’s why you’re over here at nearly midnight on a Friday night.”

“That’s better than you turkeys,” Kelly retorted. “At least I’ve got a woman to go home to.”

Logan laid three cards on the table.  “Three.”  He waited for Kelly to deal him three new ones.  “The man does have a point. Yes. Yes, he does.”

Ben took one more drink of the beer before setting it down and getting down to the business of raking more of his friends’ money to his side of the table. “Well, I’ll take beer and cards over having some chick looking over my shoulder all the time an-y-day.  Two.”  He waited and accepted the two cards Kelly gave him.  He fought not to let the disappointment in the hand show, but it didn’t work very well.  “Dang, Kelly.  I think you need to go back home to that lady of yours.  This dealing thing is not your forte.”

“Ha. Ha. Funny-man.  You in or out?” Kelly nodded to the table, indicating the betting had begun.

A long breath that Ben exhaled very slowly.  Finally he pushed his cards together. “I’m out.  No sense playing trash like that.”  He stood to go back into the kitchen, figuring if no one was leaving, they might as well get some sustenance.  Pushing the unbuttoned and rolled sleeves of his blue pin-striped work shirt up to his elbows, he reached into the cabinet and pulled out a bag of chips and another of pretzels.  With two rips he had them open.  He didn’t bother with the dish.  The guys didn’t care about that kind of stuff anyway.

“Ah, dude!  Aces? You’re kidding me!” Logan exclaimed as Ben headed back.

“Hey, you play, you pay,” Kelly said, raking all the money in the middle to his side of the table.  “So, are you at least gonna tell us her name?”

Ben put the bags in the center of the table.  He pulled a chip out and sat down, crunching loudly.  Truly, truly, he wished they would stop the questioning.  If they didn’t, he might have to resort to making things up.

Unfortunately, Kelly had known him too long.  He stopped gathering the cards and looked right at Ben who was crunching and drinking but not really looking up.  “You don’t know it, do you?”

“Know what?” Ben asked as if he had no clue what Kelly was talking about. Then he shrugged and grabbed another chip.  “Of course I do.  It was…”  For one second too long, his brain went on vacation.  “Cheris.  Her name was Cheris.”  He bit into the chip and smiled widely.  “See. I told you I knew it.”

“Uh-huh.” Kelly’s look told Ben he wasn’t at all sure if he believed that or not.

Truthfully, Ben wasn’t completely sure whether to believe himself or not. That whole night after the company party was a little fuzzy.  In fact, there were very few nights when he ended up in his bed or someone else’s that weren’t more than a little fuzzy.  Of course, the guys didn’t need to know that part, and they were on a need to know basis, if that.

The phone in the kitchen rang precluding anymore discussion of the subject.

“Speak of the devil,” Logan said as Ben’s gaze jumped at the sound.

Puzzled by who might be calling at midnight, other than Cheris—if that was her name—he got to his feet.  Then again, he didn’t think she had his phone number although she might.  Those details weren’t exactly clear. The thoughts swirled in his brain as he headed for the still ringing phone.

“Hi, honey,” Logan said sweetly.  “Oh, sure, you can come on over. I’ll just chase the guys out…”

Ben wanted to deck him, but he was already to the phone.  The guys all cracked up at the kissy noises Logan was making.  For grown men who were all 30-something, they certainly could be childish sometimes.  “Hello.”

“Uh. Mr… Mr. Warren?”

In the background he could hear the too familiar sounds of a medical facility.  Worry dropped on him as he spun and ducked next to the cabinet. “Yes, this is Ben Warren.”

“Uh, Mr. Warren, I’m sorry to bother you so late, but this is St. Anthony’s Hospital. Your father has just been admitted.  You are listed as his next of kin…”

The rest of the words evaporated in a swirl of alarm and concern.  “What? Is he okay?” He put his finger in his ear to block everything else out. “What happened?”

“I’m not really authorized to discuss it, but the doctors think it would be a good idea for you to get here as quickly as possible.”

Ben ran his hand through and over his thick, dark hair.  “Uh. Yeah.  Yeah. Okay.  I’ll be there as soon as possible.”

Somehow he ended the phone call, but it too was lost in the spinning of the world around him.  He closed his eyes and fought to breathe, hoping to make it stop.  However, when he opened his eyes, it was still tilting and shifting around him.  Decisions.  He had to make some decisions.  First, he needed to get to the hospital to see what was going on.  Pushing away from the cabinet, he stumbled through the myriad of possibilities as he headed through the living room.

Three surprised and very concerned faces gazed up at him.

“Something wrong?” Kelly asked.

“Uh. Yeah. I guess. I don’t know.  It’s my dad.”  None of the words seemed to even correlate with reality.  “I don’t know. Something happened.”

At the little closet, he pulled out the first jacket his hand found, and he yanked it on.  “You guys just lock up when you’re done.”

“You want me to go with you?” Kelly asked, standing.  His dark face was ash-washed with concern.

“No.”  Ben tried to shake the looks on his friends’ faces from his consciousness. “No. Of course not. I’m… I’m sure it’s nothing.”  Do they call you from the hospital at midnight if it’s nothing? He couldn’t answer that question, and he didn’t even want to try.  “I’ll just…” The words were jamming together in his brain in no distinct pattern. “Um… Just let yourselves out when you’re finished.  And be sure to lock up.”

Remembering he would have to drive, he patted his pockets and then looked around. “Keys?  Where are my keys?”

“By the front door where they always are?” Kelly asked, clearly tipping toward legitimate concern for his friend.

“Oh, yeah. Right.” Ben nodded, having no idea why.

“Are you sure you don’t want me to go?”

“Yeah.  Yeah. I’m sure.  I’ll let you know.”  Taking the keys from the little hook, Ben wrenched the doorknob and for one second, considered reconsidering his friend’s offer.  He didn’t want to face whatever this was alone.  Then he took his ego by the collar and gave it a good shake.  He was Ben Warren, and Ben Warren didn’t back down from any challenge.  With that thought, he yanked the door open and headed to the hospital.

***

The final credits rolled up and off the screen as Kathryn Walker swiped at the tears streaming down her cheeks.  The only good thing was that she was alone, no one here to witness this pitiful display of sap and desperation.  She could hear Misty or Casey or her mother.  Ugh.  Her mother.  That was enough to dry all the tears with one single sniff.

Her mother would count this as verifiable proof that being unmarried was the single worst disposition a woman could have on this earth.  Especially a woman of 32 and three-quarter years.  As Kathryn stood, she sniffed again and walked over to the DVD player to replace that disc in its proper case.  It was strange how somewhere north of 28, she had started counting the months to and from her birthday like a ten-year-old.

“I’m still six months from being 30.”  “I’m only 30 and two months…”  It was pathetic really—as if there would be something magical about the four months before she was 30 and six months, or 31 and six months, or 35, or whatever.  At one time she had vehemently sworn to herself that by such-and-such an age, she would’ve found Mr. Right.  But when such-and-such became six months ago and then a year ago, and then five years ago, she had given up that game and morphed into the newest incarnation of singlehood—the defiant, “I kind of like it this way.  No, really, I do.  It’s easier…”

She wasn’t sure if anyone believed her.  She didn’t even believe her.  Especially on nights like tonight.  The movie that was supposed to cheer her up had hardly done that.  Instead, it had brought her face-to-face in vibrant color with the fact that everyone else found that perfectly perfect person for them through these neat, cute little coincidences that just, for whatever reason, never seemed to happen for her or to her.  She couldn’t quite tell which it was.  She wondered for the millionth time if they knew some secret that she didn’t.  However, she was pretty sure it was all just one big, stinking luck of the draw thing. And she was about as unlucky in that department as anyone had ever been.

As she flipped off the light and gingerly made her way through her dark apartment toward her bedroom, she went through the inventory of herself once more.  Weight—not bad, could be better, but not bad.  Looks—above average but definitely not model territory.  Financial standing—quite good actually.  Good job—check.  Moral with values—check.  Although honestly, she wasn’t sure if that one counted for her or against her.

Certainly she could have bedded many in the past if she had been into that existence, which she most definitely was not.  No.  Even snagging a guy wasn’t worth giving up her self-worth.  Besides, she knew quite a few who had done just that only to find divorce papers on the other side of the marriage certificate.

With a sigh, she climbed between the pressed cotton sheets and sighed.  Nope, the hard truth was all the good guys were long gone.  The only ones left had track records that read like rap sheets not to mention baggage from their several failed marriages and a couple of kids thrown in for good measure.  Still, as she did every night, she closed her eyes, snuggled into the covers and thought about him.  She had no real picture of him although she had seen him in her dreams on a couple of occasions—never his face, just vague pieces.

She snuggled deeper thinking about those pieces.  Like his hands.  She’d always liked his hands, with nice long fingers and a presence she couldn’t quite put into words.  And his dark hair.  That one always made her heart snag.  She would know that hair when she saw it.  Of that, she was sure.  She had seen it so many times in her dreams. Slowly sleep began to take over her senses, and as she drifted off, she let out a long sigh.  “God, please be with him wherever he is.  Keep him safe and guide him.  And please let him know that I already love him. Amen.”

***

The disorienting transition from the darkened parking lot and street lights into the blinding white light of St. Anthony’s emergency room cut right through Ben’s skull with the precision of a sharp scalpel.  He blinked it back, hoping he wouldn’t trip over something he couldn’t see because he never even slowed down all the way to the counter.  The nurse on the other side looked both bored and half-asleep.

“Excuse me, I need to know…” he started.

“Please get in line,” she said with no feeling to her voice at all.

“What?” He glanced around in confusion.  “There is no line.”

“All patients must get in line behind that sign.”  She pointed to the ceiling without so much as looking at it.

Ben looked around and up at the sign.  For privacy, please remain behind this line until you are called forward. The same was written again in Spanish and then in some language he neither spoke nor could decode.

“Please step behind the line and wait to be called.”

Man, he wanted to argue. More than he’d ever wanted to do anything in his life, he wanted to argue, but he sensed from Ms. No-Nonsense that doing so would only prolong this nightmare.  Tilting his head at that understanding, he nodded.  “Okay.”  He pushed back from the counter and took the four steps to the front of the non-existent line.  After a moment, he put his hands out to his side to indicate that he had fully complied with the request.

The nurse took her own sweet time as she finished up whatever she was doing.  Then, looking like she was bored to tears, she looked up.  “Next.”

Finally. Ben rushed forward.

“Name?” she asked.

“Um, it’s for my father.”

“Name?”

Frustration growled through him.  “Mine or his?”

She checked him with a condescending scowl.  “Are you the patient or is he?”

“He is.  They said they brought him in…”  Composure slipped away from him as he looked at his watch.  “Like an hour ago or something like that.”

“Okay.  His name?”  She put her fingers on the keyboard.

“Ron… uh, Ronald Warren.”

“Ronald F. Warren?”

“Yes.”

She nodded but didn’t continue.  As panic set into his heart, he arched forward, straining to see what was on that screen.  With a deepening scowl, she looked at him and turned the screen from his line of vision as he backed off.

“Sorry.”

You should be went through her eyes.  “Mr. Warren has been taken to the 8th Floor, Neurology.”

“Neurology?” Ben repeated the word, trying to understand the horrors it hid in its depths.

“Yes.”  The nurse glanced behind him.  “Next.”

It was a fight to keep his balance on an even keel as he turned from the desk and hurried to the elevators at the far end of the room.  This part he knew.  This part he had memorized.  The riding the elevator part—up to see doctors, down to see administrators—working to incorporate his company’s newest line of life-saving drugs into the hospital’s current regimen of patient care.

At the elevator, he hit the button and stepped back, putting his hand on the beltline of his jeans.  He arched first his gaze and then his neck to watch the numbers above the elevator slowly slide downward.  Part of him wanted them to speed up.  Part of him wanted them to stop altogether.  If they just stopped, then he wouldn’t have to deal with whatever came next.  He tried to think about what that might be—what neurology meant, what he should do if this was truly serious.

He let out a quick I’m-being-stupid breath and fought to tamp down the clutch of fear around his chest.  His father was fine.  Of course, he was fine.  He was, after all, only 66.  That was hardly old.  With the back of his hand, Ben scratched the side of his face as indiscriminant nerves attacked him.

The elevator dinged, yanking his attention upward.  He stepped back as those on the elevator disembarked, and then raking in a breath, he got on and hit the round number 8 button.  So many things.  So many memories and thoughts of the past and future criss-crossed in his brain as the little box slid upward.  Should he call his mother?  She would probably want to know.  Especially if it was serious.

What about Jason?  Surely his mother knew where his brother was.  She should make that call.  Ben certainly didn’t want to—even if he knew the number, which he didn’t.  Truth be known, he didn’t want to do any of this.  If he could somehow just skipped over the next hours or days or whatever this turned out to be, he would with no questions.  He didn’t do serious or responsibility very well.  How had the universe not gotten that memo?  Or maybe it had, and this would in fact turn out to be nothing.  False alarm.  Nothing to worry about.

The bell dinged, and he forced all the other thoughts and worries down into himself.  First, he would find out how bad it was.  Then he would figure out how best to proceed.

***

It wasn’t like there was a barking dog or even traffic noises this high up, so there was really no excuse for not being able to sleep.  However, Kathryn had endured more than one night like this, and she knew there was no forcing sleep.  In frustration, she flipped the covers off her legs and swung herself to the edge of the bed.

“Ugh.” Why did life have to be so impossible?  She stood carefully and got her balance before turning her steps for the kitchen.

Over the sink, she turned on the little light and squinted into it.  Two blinks and her eyes began to accept the invasion of the light.  On auto-pilot and with a yawn, she went first to one cabinet, then to the other, gathering what she needed for chamomile tea.  It was her first line of defense on nights such as these.  If this didn’t work, she’d be back for hot chocolate in an hour.  Then melatonin if all else failed.

She filled the little cup with hot water from the tap.  It would give the tea that funny after-taste she hated, but it was quicker than going the kettle route, and since she’d read that stupid email about not heating water in the microwave, she’d been too much of a coward to try that again.  Instead, she took her mostly lukewarm water to the counter and put in the teabag.

In no time the clear water had turned to a dull brownish-yellow.  With one half teaspoon of sugar, she lifted it to her lips.  “Ugh.”  Terrible as she figured it would be.  Not caring, she lifted it again, switch off the light, and headed back for her bedroom.

***

“Mr. Warren, your father has suffered a massive stroke.” The doctor in the white coat that Ben had never met before gave the news softly but with noted firmness.

The little consultation room seemed to close in on Ben as he shifted in the chair. He swallowed that feeling down. “Okay.”

“As next of kin, where we go from here is pretty much up to you and the good Lord,” the doctor continued obviously assuming Ben had some connection to the Creator that he really didn’t.

Ben narrowed his focus, trying to find the answers the doctor seemed to think he had.  “I… Okay.  Um.  What are our options?”

“Well, we’ve stabilized him as much as we can.  At this point, we could try surgery although with his heart history and his present condition, I can’t guarantee anything.”

Ben absorbed the news with another swallow, a nod, and a small shift backward.  “Heart.  Yeah… Okay.  So…”

“We have an MRI scheduled for the morning to determine the exact extent of the damage.  Once we get those results, we will probably know more about how to proceed.”

“Okay. Good.”  It was incomprehensible that he should know what to say.  “Um, can I see him?”

“He’s in ICU right now.  They’re getting him settled.  You can have a seat in the waiting area.  ICU visits don’t really start until 8 a.m., but for you, I’ll make an exception.  Your father and I played many rounds of golf together.  I know he would want you to have this time if…”  The words stopped.  “Well, he would want you to have this time.”

Although Ben tried to wrap his mind around all of this and think it through, the truth was he was lost, like being in a forest with no trail and only brambles and briars for as far as the eye could see.  How or why he had gotten dropped here, he had no idea.  Where he was supposed to go from here was even vaguer. “Um, do you… do you think I should call my mother and… well, should I let everyone know?”

The pause was almost imperceptible, and then the doctor nodded.  “I think that would be wise.”

Chapter 2

The night in the hospital waiting room, propped up next to the wall was the longest of Ben’s life.  He didn’t really sleep, only nodded off once or twice.  He’d tried to call his mother.  She wasn’t home, but the help would leave a message.  His mind had gone around and around the question of calling Jason, but he’d finally decided against it mostly because he didn’t know his number or even the exact name of the town he lived.

They’d only let him back to see his father once sometime around three in the morning.  The best thing Ben could say about the visit was it was mercifully brief owing to the hospital rules about ICU visits.  Those five minutes had been spent with his hands in his pockets, back practically pressed to the wall by the door.  He didn’t want to go closer.  He didn’t want to see.

Beeps from the monitors were the only indication that the man lying in the bed wasn’t already gone.  Gone.  It was such a strange word—especially in association with his father.  There was a time, before the divorce when his father had been gone a lot.  Actually, his father was there, just not in a traditional sense.  As head of the regional neurology department for the hospitals in the area, his father was a very busy man.  He was charged with saving lives, and the fact that other things paled in comparison was just reality.

And then the divorce came, and everything changed…

Ben let the breath go from his lungs as he thought about his mother and his parents’ marriage.  The time when she had been present was so far gone that he hardly remembered them being together.  At least that’s what he told himself.  It was easier that way.  Easier to forget his mother leaving him to watch Jason in the car while she went into that house on Macasy Street.  Yes, he wished he could forget that.  And he wished he could forget the fights and the tears and the ripping of his heart as he watched her car turn the corner out of sight that last day after being in court.

At the time he hadn’t had all the pieces, and in truth he still didn’t.  But in adulthood, he’d filled in many of them so that the story at least made some sense now.  His father’s absence was the excuse she used to find comfort in the arms of another man—Macasy Street.  That had always been his name to Ben.  Honestly, he’d only seen glimpses of the man, but they still brought up an irrational anger so dark that it threatened to swallow him whole.

Even now when he let the hard clamped mask over his heart slip, he felt that fury clutch his throat, choking the life from him.  No.  It was better not to remember.  The problem was with so much time, remembering was harder to keep at bay than usual. He shifted in his seat next to the wall.  The room was again coming to life, slowly, a few bodies at a time, they drifted in.  He looked over at the clock and mentally had to search for how long from 7:34 it would be until 8 o’clock.  Taking a breath, he closed his eyes to push it all away.  He didn’t want to be here.

The bleep of his phone brought him forward, and he yanked it from his pocket.  With one touch he had it to his ear.  “Warren.”

“Hey, bro.  I’m sorry.  Did I wake you?”

Ben laughed at the thought and scratched his head.  “Hey, Kell.  How’s it going?”

“I’m fine.  How’s it going with you?”

It was strange how hard it had become just to breathe.  He looked around, tilted his neck to stretch it first one way and then the other.  “I’ve been better.”

“How’s your dad?”

His head fell forward on the weight of the situation.  He couldn’t find the words.  They just were not there.  “I… Um… It’s not good, Kell.  It’s not.”

Kelly didn’t say a thing for a moment as he absorbed the news.  “I’m sorry to hear that.  What happened?”

“Well, I’m not real clear on the details, but at like 11 last night his maid found him in the kitchen.  He had a stroke.”

“A TIA.  Right?”

“No.  This one was massive.  Almost like an aneurism from what I can figure based on what they’re not telling me.  He’s in ICU.”  Defiantly, though he couldn’t clearly determine who the enemy was, Ben sat back and put his head on the wall. “I just… I wasn’t ready for this, you know?  I mean, I just talked to him the other day, and he sounded fine.  We were going to go golfing next weekend…”

“Do you want me to come down there?”

Ben deflated.  “No.  There’s not really anything you can do.”

The pause stretched between them.

“Are you going to call your mom?”

“I tried.  Last night.  She’s out.  I don’t even know what that means.  Out.  With Mom, that could mean in the Caribbean, in Hawaii, or on the moon.”

“The moon?”

“You know what I mean.”

Ding. The speaker cracked on.  “It’s 8 a.m.  Visiting for ICU.”

Looking up at the speaker, Ben wanted to punch it to get it to shut up.  “Listen, Kell.  I’ve got to go.  Visiting hours.”  What he really wanted to do was act like he’d never heard the announcement.  What difference would it make?  His father couldn’t hear him anyway.  Besides, he was not equal to this task.  No possible way.

“Call me.  Okay? Whatever.  You don’t have to do this alone.”

“Yeah.”  But he didn’t believe a word of it.  He was alone.  More alone than he had ever been.

***

“Don’t start.” Kathryn stirred her oolong tea as her steamed rice sat heaped on her plate Saturday afternoon.

“I’m just sayin’,” her sister, Casey said.  Casey, younger by three years and moved two-hours out to the suburbs so these little get togethers had gotten few and far between, sat like a pixy on the edge of her chair flicking things back and forth on her plate.

Anger plowed over Kathryn. “No.  No just sayin’.  I don’t want to hear it. Okay?”

“Kate, if I didn’t love you, I wouldn’t suggest it, but I see how miserable you are.”

“Oh, and you’re not?  I don’t see you doing cartwheels, Mrs. Married for eight years with two kids.”

“Well, but it’s different for me.  Brett makes me crazy.  You know that.  He always has.”  Casey laid her hand across the table until it rested on Kathryn’s wrist.  “But I love him, and he loves me.  I just want that for you, Kate.  Is that so wrong?”

“No.”  Kathryn picked up her fork and rearranged the white grains as she yanked a long piece of blonde hair over her ear.  “It’s just… It’s not the same for me.  You fell in love in college.  College wasn’t exactly a picnic in that department for me.”

“So, you were a late bloomer.  So what?”

“Cas, I’m 32.  Thirty.  Two.”

“Almost thirty-three, but who’s counting?  Come on, Kate.  You’re smart, and you’re so kind and helpful and…”

“Doomed to be single forever.”

“No.  Not true.  You just have to get out there.  You spend entirely too much time at work and in that apartment of yours.”

“I like my apartment.”

“And I’m sure it likes you back.  Come on, Kate.  Face it.  If the only places you ever go are work and home, how are you ever going to meet someone?”

“I go other places.”  Kathryn hated the defensiveness in her voice.

“Like where?”

“Church.”  Okay.  It was lame.  But it really wasn’t.  She’d been in the singles group until she got too old.  Of course, she could join the re-single group, but that had no appeal.

“Are there any prospects at church?”

Her heart skipped just a little at the thought.  She smiled before she could stop it. “Well, there is this one guy.  He came in a couple weeks ago.  He sat a couple benches ahead of me.”

“A ring?”

“Not that I could tell.”

“Alone?”

“Yes.”  It was like pushing the words off a cliff.  She didn’t want to think them, to go down that road because she’d been disappointed after getting her hopes up so many times, she had this feeling memorized.

“No ring.  Coming to church alone.  Good. Good.” Casey considered those for a moment as she ate her noodles slowly.  “Age?”

“I don’t know.  A little younger?  A little older.  That’s kind of hard to tell anymore.”  Kathryn let her fork go and sipped her tea.

“So, in the right age-range roughly, new to church.  I think you should introduce yourself.”

Horror painted her face red hot as she shook her ponytail back and forth.  “I’m not introducing myself.  Are you crazy?”  She ducked at the thought that anyone in the restaurant had overheard the conversation.  “He’ll think I’m insane.”

“So you’d rather some other insane chick gets him first?”

“Casey!”

Her sister frowned. “What?  You do your level best to melt into the woodwork, Kate, and then you wonder why no one notices you.”

“I can’t…. I couldn’t…. I’m not like you.”  She went back to her rice though she had lost her appetite completely.

“And you have thanked God for that on regular occasions.”

“That’s not true,” Kathryn said although she knew it was a lie.

“Yes it is, but thanks for trying.”  Casey spun her fork in her noodles three times.  “Look.  All I’m saying is it wouldn’t hurt to go out once in awhile.  You know, get yourself out there.”

A thought traced through Kathryn’s head, and she bit her tongue to keep it from coming out.  No.  Don’t say it. Don’t tell her.  You know what she’ll say. Don’t say it.  Don’t say it! “Well, Misty said…”  Kathryn ducked, hating herself for saying it the instant it was out.

“Yes?  Continue.”  Casey circled her fork in the air, her gaze suddenly excited and full of anticipation.

Kathryn shrugged, smiled, and then laughed as she ducked over her rice.  “Well, she’s got this cousin or something.”

This time Casey laid her fork all the way down.  “And…?”

“I don’t know.  She said he’s back in town, and he’s single…”

“Hello!  What are you waiting for—an engraved invitation?”

“I don’t know.”  Kathryn scrunched her nose in embarrassed apprehension.  “A blind date?  Isn’t that kind of… I don’t know… desperate?”

“Well, I guess that would depend on what you wear and if you sit on his lap and ask him to marry you before you get in the car.”

Annoyance flooded over Kathryn.  “You’re terrible.  I would never do something like that.”

The laughing taunt left Casey’s face.  “Look, all I’m saying, big sister, is that Mr. Right is obviously not going to just fall into your lap.  You’ve got to stop waiting around and be a little more proactive in the search.  Who knows, Mr. Cousin Guy might be him, or maybe he knows him, or maybe when you’re at the restaurant, him will come around the corner, and you’ll just know.  It’s not like it’s an exact science, you know.”

Kathryn picked up her tea and sipped it carefully although it was by now only tepid.  “Yeah, tell me about it.”

***

Sleep sounded heavenly.  After being at the hospital for 18 hours straight, Ben boarded the elevator that made him sway as it started downward.  He ran his hand over the back of his head wishing any of this made sense.  He still hadn’t gotten in touch with his mother, and his father’s condition, though stabilized, did not look any better.  In fact, the MRI was inconclusive because of some swelling on the brain.

The doctor told him that was normal, but nothing was normal now.  Nothing.  On the ground floor, he followed the others out, thinking how long of a walk the parking lot seemed.  He had run marathons that were shorter.

“Ben?”

Instinctively he turned at the sound of his name as Travis Steele, one of the younger doctors in oncology, stepped up to him.  He put out his hand, and Ben shook it.

“I was sorry to hear about your dad,” Travis said.  “He’s one of the good guys. How’s he doing?”

Ben stepped back into his cocoon of personal space.  “Not great.  They’re waiting for the swelling to go down so they can figure out what to do.”  Was it just him or did the whole world seem like some strange, psychedelic dream all of a sudden?  Who was this saying these things?  It couldn’t be him.  He didn’t even understand them himself and yet somehow he sounded like he understood it all perfectly.

“Oh. Sorry to hear about that.” Travis looked to the side.  “Listen, I was just about to go get some coffee if you’d like to join me.”

Not really.  But he heard himself say, “Okay.  Sure.”

In fact once they sat down, Ben found it was nice to have someone to talk with that understood at least a minimum of his situation.  That was comforting.

“I wish I knew,” Ben said as they discussed what happened if things went south with his dad’s condition.  “It’s just me here.  My mom lives in Oakland, and my little brother… Well, I’m not even real sure where he lives.  I don’t know if they’d come for the funeral or not.”  Once again the sheer weirdness of the whole situation descended on him.  He thought about Dr. Steele, a young man—probably younger than even himself, and for the first time, Ben thought about the other side of saving lives.  “How do you do it?”

“Do what?” Travis took a small drink of the coffee.

“How do you come here every day when you know some of your patients aren’t going to make it?  Doesn’t that make you crazy?”

“It can.  At first it was much worse, and even now, sometimes it’s rough, but you learn to do what you can, care as much as you can, and then let go.  Sometimes what you do works.  Sometimes it doesn’t.  The final call’s not up to me.  God makes that one.  But sometimes it’s easier than others to agree He made the right one.”

God.  There was a topic Ben did not want to discuss.  He wondered then if every doctor who practiced at St. Anthony’s had to swear by some oath of faith or something.  He’d never really thought about it before.  However, before he could ask, Dr. Steele looked at his watch.

“Well, I’d better get back.  I’m on call tonight.”

“Oh, well.”  Ben scrambled to his feet, his spirit lagging a good six inches behind every move he made.  “Thanks.”

Dr. Steele extended his hand.  “I hope you get a miracle.  I’ll be praying for one.”

“Th-thanks.”

***

Macaroni for one.  Kathryn pushed it around her plate and then around again as she sat at her counter, a single glass of water the only other thing on it.  Bored, she turned and grabbed the day old newspaper from the coffee table, propped it up and leaned forward on the stool.  It wasn’t interesting.  Politics and foreign affairs—neither of which were more than distractions for her.  She read the first few paragraphs of three stories before giving up and pitching it back onto the coffee table.  She would never see what others found so fascinating.

After taking her plate to the sink, washing it off, and putting it in the dishwasher, she trekked into the living room.  Curling onto the couch, she grabbed the remote, aimed it at the television and started flipping through the channels.  One led to the next and then to the next.  How could there be that many channels and nothing to watch?  Putting her head back onto the cushions, she continued through the channels, hoping she had missed something.  She hadn’t.

Finally she clicked the thing off and let the darkness envelope her. Her spirit plummeted into it and through it.  Maybe Casey was right.  Maybe she should tell Misty she’d go out with what’s his name.  She bounced her toe up and down trying to decide. It couldn’t be any worse than sitting alone in her apartment for hours on end. Could it?

Try as she might, she couldn’t find one thing that wasn’t completely depressing about her current existence.  The plain truth was, she was tired of being alone.  “God, why are You making me wait?” she asked the ceiling.  “I don’t understand this.  I really don’t.  Look.  If he’s not coming, would You please just tell me so I can quit thinking about it?”

Silence.

Utter, total, complete, maddening silence.

Even the soft ringing of her ears was louder than God’s answer.

“Great.”  She sprang to her feet.  “That’s just great, God.  Thanks for that.  Really. I’ll be sure to put an extra five in the collection plate tomorrow.”  Stomping to her room although she had to be careful what with her sock feet on the hardwood floors, Kathryn let the anger and frustration boil over.  She didn’t need a man.  She’d survived this long without one.  Besides a man meant she’d have to deal with kids.  The others at work were always complaining about how expensive day care was, not to mention braces and dance lessons.

As she brushed her teeth, she reasoned at least she didn’t have to waste money on things like that.  No.  She had a whole apartment all to herself.  If she left her underwear on the floor, nobody was there to complain.  If she let the dishes stack up, that was okay too. No one cared.

And yet, as she went into her bedroom and sat down on the bed, sadness took over.  She laid her clasped hands in her lap and closed her eyes.  “God, really I don’t understand this.  I don’t.”  Slowly she slid from the bed to the floor.  Kneeling there, she laid her head on her hands.  “God, please.  If being married is not what You want for me, then please, please take this desire away.  I can’t take living like this all the time, feeling like something should be happening when it isn’t.  Please.  Somehow, just give me peace. I don’t know how much longer I can do this.”

But she knew she really had no choice in the matter.  If God didn’t send her soulmate, there was really not much she could do other than to continue to wait and pray.  Her heart filled with thoughts of the “him” she didn’t even know, and the familiar words came once again.  “God, please be with him tonight, keep him safe, and guide him in the ways You want him to go.  Dear Lord, please put Your hand on his life, guide him, protect him, and give him peace.  Amen.”

***

The brakes under Ben squealed the car to a halt as the white car flashed by him through the intersection.  “Hello!  What does red light mean to you?  Jerk!”

Collecting his scattering nerves, Ben smashed his foot on the pedal and took off through his light which was still green.  “Stupid, idiot drivers.  Get a clue or get off the road!”

He knew in some deep place in himself that he was out of control and on the edge of completely losing it, but he didn’t want to think about that.  The street lights flashed over the top of the Mustang, drifting across the shiny paint like ghosts from another existence.  Putting his elbow up on the armrest, he let his head down onto his hand as he stopped at the next red light.  At this rate it was going to be midnight or better before he got home.

Home.  That would seem odd in a way it never had before.  That’s where he was, where he had been before his world had turned upside down.  Pushing that and everything else back down, he drove through the crowded Saturday night streets, hardly realizing that had this been a normal Saturday night, he would surely have been cruising these same streets looking for some action.  Right now all he wanted to find was a pillow and a bed.

It was another 30 minutes before he pulled up to his apartment.  Another five before he closed the apartment door behind him and leaned up against it.  Home.

He didn’t bother to turn the lights on.  What was the point?  Instead he pitched his keys to the little hallway table and wrenched his jacket off.  Tired had never felt like this.  Even hangovers were better.  At least with them, he had a vague memory of fun and partying to remind him of why he felt so bad.  This just felt bad through and through.

Going into the kitchen, he considered a beer but decided against it.  Instead he got some water from the tap, which he hated but downed the whole thing without tasting any of it.  He felt at the moment like he might never again slake his thirst or be fully rested.  He was so tired.  So incredibly tired.  Two steps back to the door and he saw the blinking message light on his answering machine sitting on his counter.  Like a robot, he punched the button and leaned his head against the door post to keep himself from sliding to the ground.

Beep.  “Ben.  Dude.  I’ve been trying to get a hold of you.”  Kelly.

Ben wondered what time that one had been left, but somehow he had missed that part of the message.

“Don’t worry.  I’ll try your cell.”

Beep.  “Ben. Hi.  This is Charissa… from the party.”

His eyes rolled upward before letting them fall all the way closed. Not now.

“Listen, I got your number from Cameron.  I hope you don’t mind.  I really had a good time the other night.  I’d like to see you again.  Call me.  K?”

She left her number in a sultry tone just before the machine went beep.  And then it went dark.  Without bothering to even think of responding to either, Ben picked himself up off the wall and headed for the shower.  He wanted to get off this nightmare of a ride.  He wondered if someone could let him off.  It would be nice.

The hot water from the shower sent humidity into the air, and although Ben wanted to get in under it, he found himself at his sink, knowing he should be doing something but not at all sure what that something was.  Then he looked into the mirror.  His eyes were sunken and sad.  He didn’t remember ever seeing them like that before.  How could he ever get through this?  This wasn’t the life he wanted.  He didn’t do responsibility well.  Never had. Careless and reckless were much more his style.

Too tired to dwell on that, he headed for the shower and was already under the current before he remembered he was going to shave.  Oh, well.  Granted, two full days of stubble were becoming far more than a mere five-o’clock shadow by this point.  If he kept this up, even he wouldn’t recognize himself.  The shower was accomplished only by marshalling all of the energy he had left.  Still, each movement was made in ultra-slow, by sheer-force-only motion.  It seemed slow was the only gear accessible to him anymore.

When he cut the water, he grabbed the nearest towel, put it around him, and went back out to the bedroom.  Sure, he normally did things like brush and dry his hair, brush his teeth, dress for bed.  But little things like that were lost in the thick haze of exhaustion.  He wasn’t even sure he was in the bed before he was asleep.

***

Sunday mornings always dawned with glorious sunrises followed by soft white and pale yellow light streaming in her bedroom window.  Kathryn loved Sundays. She awoke bathed in that heavenly light as she did every Sunday. Sundays were always special because she got to sleep in a bit later and so the sun had a little more chance to break over the horizon and make it into her room.  Breathing life in, she smiled.  Maybe today was the day.  Maybe today she would meet the guy two rows up at church.  Before she was even out of bed, she started plotting.  If he was there before she was, maybe she could just innocently sit next to him.

That wouldn’t be too forward, would it?  It might be, she finally decided.  Maybe she could sit behind him.  Then when they did the sign of peace, he would turn and shake her hand.  A fantasy played out featuring the two of them, their eyes meeting, their hearts beating as one.  She let those thoughts run their course because they were so much better than reality ever was.

Dragging in an excited breath, she arched her shoulders over the possibilities.  Maybe today was the day.

Coming Undone Final 1-15-2014

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Ebook Romance Stories: Reunion, Chapter 1


Reunion Cover Final 1-17-2014Reunion

The Dreams Series, Book 2

by:  Staci Stallings

 

Chapter 1

“Mail call,” Liz Rivas said as she dropped a stack of various-sized envelopes into Camille Wright’s in-box.

“Anything interesting?” Camille asked, winding a light brown strand of straight hair around one ear although she never looked up from the design that held her attention on her desk.

“A test printout on the carbon-alloy that they ran yesterday.” Liz sorted through the letters. “The transcripts from your meeting with Baker, and this.” She pulled a green postcard out of the stack and held it up.

Camille looked up and squinted behind her chic wire-rimmed glasses. “What’s that?”

“An invitation to a reunion,” Liz said with small smile and a raise of her eyebrows. “Ten years? Huh? Wow. I wouldn’t have pegged you for a senior citizen already.”

“Ha. Ha.” Camille reached up and swiped the card out of Liz’s hand. She leaned back in her chair and surveyed it. ‘Ridgecrest High School is proud to invite you back…’ She glanced at the date but did little more before pitching it onto her desk.

“You’re going, right?” Liz asked with interest.

As she bent back over her work, Camille shook her head, causing several strands of hair to fall around her face again. She quickly pushed them behind her ear and bent back over the sketches, wondering if there was a clip in her desk across the way. “Probably not.”

Liz shifted her weight to her other shapely leg just below the professional black skirt. “What? You didn’t like high school?”

It took little trouble to push the thought of high school away from her. “There’s only a couple people I would even want to see again. Why put yourself through that for two people?”

“You never know it might be fun. Old friends, old stories…old boyfriends.”

Without looking up, Camille reached for the pencil tucked behind her ear and made a small mark on the paper. “Could you get me the files on the dimensions for the cockpit controls again? This isn’t fitting like it’s supposed to.”

“Sure.” Liz stood at the door for a single second more. “By the way, Ben called earlier. He said they’ve got the conference date set. April 24th.”

“Great,” Camille said, her gaze and concentration glued to the markings on the large paper in front of her. “Pencil it in. I can’t afford to miss this one.”

And with that, Liz stepped out. Camille’s pencil traced again over the line. More than a billion dollars rode on this one design—the NightViper, an aircraft that would take over where the F-19 Eagle left off, and for the business—not to mention the sake of her job, it had better be perfect. With that thought, she picked up the phone and punched speed dial 3 even as she continued making small marks on the plans. Two more marks and she leaned back in her chair, listening to the ringing of the phone.

A tap at a time she turned her pencil end-to-end as her gaze crossed her design table. Unconsciously she laid the pencil down and picked up the green postcard to skim it. ‘April 12th. 6 p.m. The Grand Plaza Hotel, Ridgecrest, N.Y. Catered hors d’oeuvres and meal provided. RSVP by March 15th.’ At that moment the phone clicked in her ear, and she yanked her attention back to it.

“Rai.” She leaned forward and flipped the invitation back onto her desk. “Have you gotten those trial cockpit designs finished yet? I need them.”

*~*~*

“Michael! Hey, that’s your line, man! Where’d you go?” Jaylon Quinn asked in frustration from his folding chair at the bottom of the stage. Script in hand he sat, listening to the first read-through without scripts. It was like fingernails scraping down a chalkboard.

“Sorry. What is it again?” the short, black-headed senior asked from the stage without even bothering to try to remember it.

“‘We’ve got to get out of here before…’”

“Oh, yeah,” Michael said, and then he turned back to his accomplice. “We’ve got to get out of here before they call the cops. Nobody with any sense will ever believe this story.”

“She did,” Clay Heish, Michael’s blonde-headed, dim-witted accomplice, said.

“Like I said, ‘Nobody with any sense will ever believe this!’ Now, come on. Hand me that crowbar.”

All motion on the stage stopped, and Jaylon waited a full thirty seconds before shaking his head. “Clay!”

Clay stared off the stage in concentration. “I forgot it.”

“‘Where is it? I thought it was right here,’” Jaylon supplied, losing patience with each word.

“Sorry.” Clay nodded. “Where is it? I thought it was right here.”

With two fingers, Jaylon rubbed the bridge of his nose, sighed, and then ran one set of fingers through his hair. Somehow when he’d decided on teaching, he had never envisioned this. Michael, his star student for the past three years had never once bothered to really memorize a script until two days before the performance, and with Clay as his accomplice this year, things were sure to deteriorate from there.

“Well, look around, it’s got to be here somewhere,” Michael hissed. “Crowbars don’t just disappear. Hurry up. She’ll be back any second.”

Jaylon looked at his watch. Fifteen more minutes and he’d be sprung. He couldn’t wait. The stage went quiet again as the two boys stood with no more lines to deliver waiting for the surprise entrance of their hostess who didn’t appear.

“Karen!” Jaylon yelled a little too loudly. “That’s your cue!”

In half-a-heartbeat, Karen, a young-looking sophomore, ran onto the stage. “Sorry, Mr. Quinn, I was talking to Bethany.”

Jaylon scratched his cheek in frustration. “Don’t apologize, just get on with it.”

On stage the reading continued although Jaylon was only vaguely keeping up with it. How had he ever thought he could teach kids? To him, they were enigmas—like trying to nail pudding to a wall. His head was starting to pound.

Again too much silence enveloped the room, and this time even Jaylon didn’t know how to fill it. “That’s it.” He stood, throwing both hands up in surrender. “We’ll start there tomorrow. And Michael, could you please work on memorizing a little more?”

“Sure thing,” Michael said with a smooth smile that Jaylon had long since learned meant, ‘I’m not even going to think about what you just said between now and tomorrow.’

Jaylon shook his head and gathered his briefcase as the students filed off the stage.

“See ya tomorrow, Mr. Quinn,” Karen said in her cotton candy sweet voice.

All he wanted to do was choke her, but he simply smiled and said, “Yeah, take care.”

As slowly as humanly possible, Jaylon climbed the steps and stepped behind the curtain to snap off the lights. Behind the stage curtains, he made his way to the back door of the stage, which led to his office. Office? It would’ve been nice if it was an office. Actually it was more like a broom closet with a two-foot table and a small trail littered with boxes leading to the chair.

The room itself still smelled like ammonia from the janitor who had reluctantly agreed to relinquish the space to save Jaylon from having to drag the theatre material across campus from the main building to the auditorium, which doubled as a cafeteria.

When it was built, the auditorium was never really meant to be more than a small stage to hold talent shows and kids’ choral performances. Brickhaven I.S.D. in upper New York State had never even had a drama program until Jaylon landed there three years before.

Drama, it had always been his first love, but two years of off-Broadway productions that closed before the first performance had pretty much killed his undying devotion to the stage as well as wiped out his bank account. So, when he saw the ad for an English teacher interested in starting up a drama program while scanning for jobs on the Internet, he had called about it immediately.

Somehow he should’ve known the rest of the story the second he drove into the tiny town with one flashing stop light and a grocery store the size of a small gas station. The fact that the superintendent interviewed him on the spot and called just two hours after he’d gotten home should also have set off the warning bells.

But they hadn’t, and now here he was three years later, sucking down aspirin like candy and wondering how life had led him here. Fighting off the depression, he yanked his briefcase stuffed with work off the floor and stalked out. He had papers to grade, but then again, he always had papers to grade.

He just hoped that tonight he could actually find a little time to get some of them done. The prospect of Nicole showing up with more wedding problems threatened to send him right off the edge as he climbed into the old, blue Camaro Z28 and turned the car for home.

If he could just make it to May the 3rd with a piece of his sanity left, life was sure to get better. It could get no worse. He turned off the pavement and veered over to the little mailbox standing in the ditch. With one hand he rolled down the window, pulled the latch open, and dug for the letters. He didn’t even look at them, just flipped them into the passenger seat and continued down the dirt road to the little turn off.

How fortunate he’d felt when he found this place. A hundred years old and just the perfect size for him. What he hadn’t counted on was one of the pipes breaking two months after he’d moved in, which led to re-plumbing the whole house, during which they found out the wiring was shot too. Of course it, too, had to be replaced for fear the entire structure might burn to the ground around him.

By the time those repairs were completed, the last thing he had money to do was to go house hunting again, and so he had stayed—despite the draft that wafted in through every window when the wind blew from the Northeast and the thick layer of dust that accumulated when he wasn’t looking. And now, at least for the next five months, it was home.

When he turned the last corner to home, all hopes of getting any papers graded vanished. In the driveway sat the little white Mustang with the DDYS GRL vanity plates. Nicole.

*~*~*

A bag of groceries, briefcase, and a handful of various traveling paraphernalia in hand, Camille trudged up the three flights of stairs to her apartment. At the door, she wrestled with the things in her hands so that she could get her key into the lock. When the door swung open, she took one step inside and dropped everything to the floor.

“Well, hello, Max,” she said to the giant orange tabby cat that scratched its back against the dividing wall in greeting to her. “Yes, I brought you some more food.”

She locked the door behind her and picked up the bag from the floor.

“I know. I know. I told you I’d get Happy Cat, but they were out again.” With the practice of a thousand performances, she pulled the cat bowl up to the sink, washed and dried it, and then filled one side with water and set it back on the floor. Quickly she picked up the bag of cat food, ripped it open, and dumped some into the bowl.

For one minute she sat on her heels, petting the animal at her feet as she laid her chin in her hand. “So, how was your day? Huh? Did Old Mr. Hathington behave himself, or did he yell all day again?”

The cat continued to eat as Camille stroked its soft fur. If only every moment could be this peaceful. Her thoughts traced back to the office, and as though the straightjacket had fallen over her again, she stood and walked back to the door to retrieve the briefcase.

She needed to have more than a few preliminary drawings completed before Ben’s meeting in April. Funny how four months ago April had seemed like more than enough time. But that was before Ben left for the consulting job of a lifetime and dumped the leadership mantle onto her shoulders.

Who was she trying to kid anyway? She was barely 28. Who in their right mind puts a 28-year-old in charge of a major design like this one?

Ben. It was strange how she could never think of him without that by-now-familiar twang in her heart.

She had never so much as acted interested in him, but that didn’t stop him. Oh, no. First it was coffee after work to talk about upcoming projects, then it was dinner with clients, then dinner with just the two of them. Always business, and yet always with an undercurrent of something else.

Without bothering to take off anything more than her heels, Camille threw a TV dinner into the microwave and punched the buttons. She knew what Ben had thought back in November when she’d called in sick for his first conference. Honestly, she wasn’t avoiding him—it’s not easy to give a speech when you’re throwing your guts up.

But still, she knew he was hurt. She’d heard it in his voice when he’d called later in the week to tell her about the conference.

“I just wish I could’ve seen you,” he’d said, and she heard the sadness. “I was looking forward to it.”

“Yeah, so was I.”

It was true. One part of her always looked forward to seeing him. It was just that the other parts constantly wondered what half-step forward they would take this time. He had never pushed. Never so much as asked her out point-blank. But the undercurrent when he was around was hard to deny. A hand on the small of her back to lead her to the table, a look a moment too long, laughing at all of her jokes—even the ones that weren’t all that funny. It was all the little things that added up to something. Something she wasn’t sure she was ready for. Something she wasn’t sure she even wanted.

The microwave dinged, and she carefully pulled the dinner out and set it on the table next to her designs. Ben would be able to finish this in two seconds. He would be able to see the problem with the design in a breath. She could hear him even as she sat and looked over them, “It’s your perspective, Camille. You’re too close. Back up. Give it a breath, and your answer will be there.”

Back up. If only she had the time to back up, that was exactly what she would’ve done. The only problem was, there was no time to back up anymore. Isaac needed these designs in two weeks, and it was becoming clear that even if she worked non-stop until then, that deadline would probably still be beyond her grasp.

In frustration, she forked a piece of dry Salisbury steak in her mouth before erasing a full inch of her design and starting over. “Who’s dumb idea was this anyway? Ben, I swear you had to be out of your mind to recommend me for this.”

*~*~*

Jaylon walked through his back door and found Nicole seated at his table with white envelopes and pink invitations stacked around her.

“I thought you were going to be here an hour ago.” She flipped a lock of wavy platinum blonde hair over her shoulder testily although she never looked up from her work.

“We had first read-throughs today.” He set his briefcase on the two inches of table not covered with invitations.

“Well, Mom’s going to have an absolute conniption if we don’t get these things addressed and out.” With her pen she motioned across the disaster as he dutifully walked over and kissed the top of her head. “We’ve only got about two hundred more to do.”

He stepped over to the cabinet to grab a glass. “That all?”

“Ha. Ha. You know, if we’d have gotten them done over the weekend like I wanted…”

“I was trying to catch up with everything else.”

“Everything else?” she asked, an undercurrent of sarcasm yanking the words down. “Like what? Masterpiece Theatre?”

“I had all the contest applications to get in.” He took a drink of water trying to swallow the annoyance. “And I had papers to grade and lesson plans to write…”

“Please.” She put her hands on her ears. “No more teacher stuff. I’m begging you.”

Jaylon considered explaining that teaching was his job and that it required a laundry list of other responsibilities, but he’d heard her comebacks to that so many times it was pointless to start down that road now.

He sat down at the table and grabbed a stack of envelopes and another stack of invitations. Maybe if they got the invitations out, then he could get on with his life.

“Did you call Cazenovia yet?” Nicole asked without looking up as she addressed an envelope in perfect calligraphy.

Knowing even as he did that she wouldn’t be pleased, Jaylon shook his head as his hands slid an invitation into the envelope. “I didn’t have time.”

“Didn’t have time?” She looked up as her shaped eyebrows came together. “This isn’t some little unimportant detail, you know? This is our future we’re talking about.”

“I know. I know. I thought about it at lunch, but I had cafeteria duty.”

Nicole clicked her tongue in exasperation as her gaze dropped back to the invitations. “I really can’t wait until you get a real job. Cafeteria duty? Jeez. If I have to hear about that the rest of my life…”

What? he wanted to ask. Would that really be so terrible? Sure, he didn’t like a lot of things about his job, but it was a job. It was respectable, and for the most part it wasn’t so bad. For a few hours a day he got to do something he really loved, but Nicole always found a way to make that sound so trivial, so beneath him, so beneath her.

“I had lunch with Daddy today,” she said as her voice sweetened like honey. “His offer’s still open.”

“I already told you I’m not management material.”

She laughed, and the sarcasm was back. “What do you mean? That’s what you do all day—except you manage barbarians and don’t get paid for it.”

Reining in his fatigue and growing frustration, Jaylon ran his fingers through his hair. “I’m happy teaching.”

Again with the tongue-clicking thing. “You know, unless you get on with a college at least as big as Cazenovia, teaching’s a dead-end street. You know that and so do I.”

He set his jaw. “Well, I’m not managing.”

“Well, then I suggest you don’t keep forgetting to make that phone call.”

*~*~*

Camille’s mind wanted a break. It needed a break. It had been working nearly non-stop since six-thirty that morning, and it was beginning to show signs of totally shutting down. Slowly she stood from the table, padded down the short hallway to her room and then into her bathroom. Nothing about her apartment was spectacular. It wasn’t that she didn’t make more than enough money to have a great apartment. It was just that those kinds of things had never held much interest for her.

On autopilot she undressed and pulled the knob to start the water. She reached up and pulled the clip out of her hair, which immediately sent the shoulder-length locks tumbling down. When she looked in the mirror across the room, even she had to admit she looked tired. A nice, long, hot shower and then maybe she could stay awake long enough to finish the plane’s nose. If she didn’t, she could always fall into bed exhausted enough to fall asleep.

Her worn out feet stepped into the shower, and instantly the rest of her body began to shut down with her brain. It was the same story every night. She was so tired she could barely keep her eyes open—until her head actually hit the pillow. Then her overtired brain simply wouldn’t turn off and go to sleep. The designs were usually first and foremost in her thoughts, but there were other things too—like her little sister Daria and how things were going for her in North Carolina.

Why the girl had to pick somewhere so far away to go to school was still beyond Camille’s grasp. After all it wasn’t like they didn’t have computers in New York. The thought crossed her mind that she needed to be watching for the tuition bill in the next couple of days. It was sure to be crossing her desk soon.

Mail crossing her desk wound her thoughts back to the green postcard, and her hands rubbed the edges of her arms. It had been so long since Ridgecrest, since Lexie, and Nick, and the play, and… With a jerk she opened her eyes and pumped the shampoo nozzle twice. She wasn’t going, so it was silly to even think about it.

Silly. But still her heart filled her whole chest as the memories of days long past surged through her.

*~*~*

The anger was still in Jaylon’s chest hours later as he sat on the soft mattress of his bed running a red pen over the last of the three stacks of papers. Nicole or no Nicole he was determined not to shirk his duties to this school or to these kids. There were already enough people doing that to them.

For too many of them, school was their one and only stable place in the whole world. That was simply the sad fact of life. He slid the top paper off the stack and came face-to-face with Michael’s. Slowly Jaylon shook his head. Three years with that kid, and as far as Jaylon could tell, nothing much had changed. He was as unfocused and flighty as he had been during their first meeting—and just as talented.

A sigh escaped Jaylon’s throat as he wrote the grade on the top of the paper and continued on through the stack. Next year, Michael would be gone, off to live his own life somewhere far away from Brickhaven, and what good had Jaylon really done for him? Forced him to memorize a few lines for plays that had been long since forgotten? What was that in the whole scheme of life? What good could that ever do anyone?

A pang stung through the middle of the anger. Those words—so hated and yet so familiar. They were always with him. It was like he couldn’t really get away from them for any length of time.

Some small piece of him whispered that his father was right all along, but quickly he slammed that door shut even as he put the graded stack into his briefcase and slammed the lid. It did make a difference. It had to. If it didn’t, then what was the point of living in the first place?

With three kicks he pulled himself off the bed and stomped to the closet to lay out his clothes for the next morning. Tomorrow would be different. Tomorrow he wouldn’t let the long hours and the nagging kids and the frustrated co-workers get to him. Tomorrow he would be the teacher they deserved—the one they would remember long after Brickhaven was just a spec in the distance.

Like Mrs. Allen had been for him. As he snapped off the light and climbed under the covers, a smile came to his face. Mrs. Allen. He hadn’t really thought of her in a long time. He wondered for a moment if she was even still teaching, even still in Ridgecrest. She would never believe it if she could see him now.

Sleep began its advance over his eyelids. No, Mrs. Allen would never believe it. How could she? He didn’t.

*~*~*

At two thirty in the morning, her hair in a tangled, matted mess, Camille stumbled out of her room and back to the kitchen table. It was a confirmed fact. She would never get any sleep until these stupid designs were finished. She sat down and looked for a long moment at the phone.

Calling Ben now could be the very signal he’d been waiting for, but she was in no state to argue with herself. Trying not to think about what she was doing, she dialed the number and listened to the phone ring. “Come on, Ben. Where are you?”

“Hello?” the groggy voice on the other end finally said.

“Hi, did I wake you?” she asked, already running her pencil over the designs.

“Camille? What time is it?”

“Two-thirty.”

“And you ask if you woke me up? Uh—duh!”

“I’m having some problems with these designs. You think I could run them by you?”

There was a long pause on his end. “Sure. I’ll go turn on my computer.”

“Thanks, Ben. I don’t know what I’d do without you.”

Reunion Cover Final 1-17-2014 

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