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Ebook Romance Stories: White Knight, The Story

White Knight

Book 2

~ The Courage Series ~

Hoping for some excitement and a little extra money, A.J. Knight signed up to be a Houston EMT. However, when he did, he never thought about the life-and-death situations he’d be put into or the lives that he might be called on to save. Worse, he never so much as considered the lives that might be lost while he was working to save them.

Eve Knox understands what it’s like to have life ripped away in an instant. After the death of her first and only love in an unimaginable tragedy, she is struggling to go on with a life that seems to have been stripped of its former meaning. Hurting and alone, Eve knows her friends are just trying to help her cope, but their attempts to fill the void in her heart are starting to smother the spirit she once had. She sees no point in searching for love a second time, what happens when a second-chance love shows up in a way she never saw coming…

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Romance Stories: A First Chapter, “If You Believed in Love”


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

by:  Staci Stallings

Chapter 1

 “I do not believe I’m doing this.”  Jonathon Danforth strode past the knots of college students who were draped and drawn over every available step and statue.  Had it been cold, they all surely would’ve taken refuge elsewhere, but New York was experiencing one of those fascinating if completely frustrating warm snaps in the middle of January.

It couldn’t last.  They never did.  That’s why Jonathon wore his black wool coat even today when it was 60 degrees out.  He was ready for the moment the cold front, that one not even predicted yet, blew in.  Climbing the steps, he asked himself again, “Ugh.  What am I doing here?  This is completely insane.”

Still he reached for the large door and entered Bennett Hall.  Inside was considerably more crowded and considerably colder as well.  It was nice to see the good people of New York Central College didn’t waste money on little issues like heat and light.  His gaze slid to the ceiling where the lighting, such that it wasn’t, glowed dimly.  With a snort of derision and disgust, he made his way through the old lobby, dotted with students.

They were all young.  Nineteen, twenty.  No more than 22.  Some looked at him.  Most were content to ignore him.  In the middle of the lobby, he stopped and dug out his schedule.  English Literature. Room 103.

As he stuffed the schedule back in his pocket, he had to ask himself yet again why he was doing this.  It wasn’t like he needed an education.  He had one.  Two if you counted life experience which he definitely did.  And yet, here he was, standing at the doors of an old lecture hall that held little if any fascination for him.  Why? drifted through him again, but he beat that back.  Did it matter why?  Did it really?

He was here.  He had made this decision, and now he was going to go through with it whether he liked it or not.

It was a thing of beauty.  Lecture Hall 103.  Elizabeth Forester had been here, in the lecture hall, since eleven a.m.  It was not required that teachers, uh, professors get there two hours before the class was to start, but Elizabeth simply couldn’t help herself.  The old English wood, the desks placed just so.  They didn’t make them like this lecture hall anymore.  It was a throwback to a time long before when students came and sat up straight, ready and eager to learn.

Of course in the past three years since she’d become an actual professor, she had seen very few of such students.  Many today were not interested in doing more than minimal work and collecting a good grade (somehow that the two didn’t go readily hand-in-hand never really made a dent in their social calendars until right before finals).  She wanted to be angry about that, to make them understand what literature could do for a person, but she had no real way of conveying that except to her own heart, so she contented herself in presenting the material and letting what happened, happen.

But 103.  That was a different matter altogether.  First, it was storied—for her anyway.  It was where she had first come into the hallowed halls of higher education as a wide-eyed freshman more years ago than she wanted to admit.  And there was always the aura of Professor Avery, her first mentor, that hung about the place.

As she sat at the old desk which really served no real purpose anymore, save that they couldn’t get it out of the room, she thought about Professor Avery.  “Elizabeth, you are a fine student with a great passion for fine literature.  Have you ever considered teaching?”

And thus had the trajectory of her life forever changed.  It was odd, she thought, running her hand slowly across the smooth old wood, how one minute your life could be so one way and the very next, it would never be the same again.

Although the classroom could hardly be called full, Jonathon took a seat in the back and pulled the schedule out once more.  English Literature was bad enough.  He’d hate to stumble into a really bad class.

Voices came from around him, but he paid no real attention to them.  They were from a different world, a world that, though he might try, he would never again inhabit.  He bent and reached into his black satchel for the notebook he’d purchased for three dollars at the bookstore.  It was only a single subject notebook, not even distinctive.  He shook his head at the cost and placed it on the desk.  So many things had changed since the last time he’d sat in a room like this, praying it would be over and swearing he would never come back.

With a small sigh, he opened the notebook, took out his pen, and in careful block letters wrote:  ENGLISH LITERATURE across the center of the top page.

“Great.  We’re so screwed,” a pasty kid with bad skin and a nose ring said as he sat down with his friend right in front of Jonathon. “We got the Wicked Witch of the East.”  The kid sat or rather slumped into his desk.

“Yeah, dude,” his friend, an equally savory subject of no more than twenty, said as he fell into the desk next to his friend.  “Rachel had her last semester, and she said she required papers and all that shit.”

Jonathon swallowed and beat down the impulse to pulverize the two.  So much had changed since he’d been in a classroom, so much, and he wondered once again why he had let Janet talk him into this.  He dropped his gaze to his paper and wrote down the time of the class 1:00-2:30 p.m.  Tuesday and Thursday.  He had no syllabus or he would’ve written the teacher’s name also.

“If she gives us papers, dude,” nose-ring boy said, “I am so out of here.  I don’t have time for shit like that.  It’s not like I don’t have a life.”

Yes, Jonathon thought, a sad, pathetic little existence that will no doubt only get dimmer and darker the longer you take a breath.

“Good afternoon, class.”  The teacher’s voice, though not exactly English held a mysterious accent that Jonathon snagged on immediately. 

He looked up and sat up straighter.  Good idea or not, he was here, and he was going to make the best of it.

“Class,” Elizabeth tried again.  Although it was precisely 1:00, students still milled about, sitting on the desks, conversing with their friends, standing at the back doors of the hall.  “Um, excuse me.  If you could all come on in and take your seats, we can begin.”

They didn’t really pay her much mind, so with frustrated determination she turned to the chalkboard.   With penmanship that would’ve snarled the mind of the great English masters, she began the lesson.  “This is English Literature.  I am Ms. Forester.  My office hours are from 9 to 11 a.m. on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.  You may come see me about any problems you are having.”  Information transferred, she strode to the desk as the students found desks and fell silent.

Pulling the syllabuses with her, she strode to the first of the rows and handed half of them one way and half the other.  “These are the syllabuses. I suggest you take them home and commit them to memory.  They are requirements, not suggestions.”

The groan she had come to expect began on one side and crossed the sea of seats to the other. 

“There are five books on the syllabus.  We will read all five in their entirety.”

More groans.

“Plus, you will have four papers,” she continued without pause, “and three tests.”

“Jeez. What are you trying to do, kill us?” a student down front asked.

“No,” she replied coolly.  “I’m trying to teach you.”  Her gaze snapped from that student up the rows to make sure everyone had the syllabus.  Turning, she readjusted her glasses.  “Now.  We will start with our section on English poetry.”  At the desk she lifted one of the little paperback books she had brought with her.  This particular one looked shabby compared with those the students who thought that far in advance had purchased.  But that was both to be expected and quite unavoidable. No book in her possession lasted longer than four read-throughs.  She had come to expect them to fall apart long before she got tired of them. “That would be this book.”

She held it up in case they could decipher colors better than words.  Opening it, she hardly took a breath before her gaze fell to the words, and she was transported once again to a place and a time that made more sense than any other place she had ever occupied.

“The rain set in early tonight,” the teacher, Ms. Forester, read from the little book that looked a hundred years old and sounded older.  “The sullen wind was soon awake,/It tore the elm-tops down for spite,/and did its worst to vex the lake:/I listened with heart fit to break.”

Something about the young woman and how she read drew Jonathon’s full attention to her though he had never been a big fan of poetry. 

Her gaze swept the class.  “When glided in Porphyria; straight/She shut the cold out and the storm,/and I kneeled and made the cheerless grate/Blaze up, and all the cottage warm.”  The words came from her softly, mysteriously as if she knew something no one else did.

Though he didn’t notice, he tilted his head and riveted his gaze onto her.  She seemed ethereal, as if only partially connected to this earth.

“To set its struggling passion free/From pride, and vainer ties dissever,/And give herself to me forever.”

It was much like being caught in a cobweb you can’t get out of; it clings—to your clothes, to your body, to everything.  Only these words clung not to his clothes nor his body, but to his spirit.  He tried to shake them loose, but they were captivating.

“That moment she was mine, mine, fair,/Perfectly pure and good:  I found/A thing to do, and all her hair/In one long yellow string I wound/Three times her little throat around,/And strangled her.”

With a gulp, Jonathon backed up.  His eyebrows narrowed on the thought.  What was this?  They were ten minutes into class, and she was already reading poetry about some idiot killing the woman he loved?  He slid back in his desk and fought not to sigh.  She was just like all the rest of the punk-nosed, acne-laden idiots that populated this institute of supposedly higher learning.  If he could’ve gotten up the courage or the energy, he would’ve stood up and left.  In fact, he glanced at the door, wishing he had fought harder against his sister’s insane suggestion.

Frustration crowded in on him as he shook his head, tapped his pen on his notebook, and forced his attention back to her and the reading of death.  This was just what he didn’t need.

“And thus we sit together now,/And all night long we have not stirred,/And yet God has not said a word!”

Jonathon looked around. Maybe there was a thought police guy close enough he could bust her for saying God in a public university.  At least then he could get out of this nightmare and go home to his couch where he should’ve been smart enough to stay in the first place.

“He killed her?” one kid asked down front in confusion.

Ms. Forester looked at him.  “He did.”

“Man, that’s jacked up,” the kid in front of Jonathon said.

“Dude,” the kid next to him said, “that’s just wrong.”

“Why?” Ms. Forester asked, and Jonathon’s eyebrows shot for the ceiling.

Was she kidding?  Reading things like that to impressionable kids who might think it sounded like fun?  It was all he could do to force himself to stay in the seat.  Dropping this class sounded like a very good idea.  In fact, he might just conveniently not even drop but just never show up again. It wasn’t like he was the one who had paid for the class anyway.

“Why’d he kill her?  I don’t get it,” a young lady down front said.  “Didn’t she like come to see him and everything?”

“He killed her to keep her,” Ms. Forester said as if that made all the sense in the world.  “He didn’t want her to find another, and so rather than risk that, he killed her before she could lose her purity and innocence.”

“Well, that’s one way to do it,” the kid in front of Jonathon said, and with everything in him he wanted to bop the kid on top of the head.

“Is it?”  The dark eyes hidden behind the stark, small glasses landed right in front of Jonathon, startling him far more than he could readily admit.  “Does it make sense?  Can you kill love in order to keep it?”

“No,” another young lady from the front said.  “If you kill it, you don’t get to keep it.  It… like… dies.”

“Yes,” Ms. Forester said, and Jonathon saw the con, “but it says, ‘And yet God has not said a word!’  So God’s obviously okay with it, right?”

“I don’t know. Wait a couple days,” one girl said.  “The smell alone will tell him that wasn’t a good idea.”

“Why not?” Ms. Forester leaned into the front rows.  “Why is it not a good idea?  She can’t not love him now.  Right?”

“Because, Miss, if she’s dead, he don’t get to keep her, and she don’t love him neither,” another guy tried. “He just gets to sit there with her for awhile, and then he gets to bury her, and love is just like… gone.”

That pushed Jonathon back from the conversation for good. As intrigued as he had been for most of the class, he didn’t hear one other thing.

Well, at least she had their attention, Elizabeth thought as she pointed out the reading assignment of fifteen poems for the next session over the noise of the departing students.  They were already back to social hour, and with a sigh, she relinquished her time with them.  It hadn’t gone badly, too badly anyway.  That was something.

Gathering up her things, she slid the extra syllabuses into her over-the-shoulder satchel and erased the board.  Her heart did a little slide at the sight of her name on that board.  How overwhelmingly in awe of Professor Avery she had been that first day.  As her hand made large, sweeping arcs, erasing her name from memory, she couldn’t help but hope she had made a difference in someone’s life today like he had made in hers all those years ago.

It was what every teacher wished for, she guessed.  At least the ones who cared.  The truth was, looking at the class today, this class, her class, she knew that English Literature, would be long forgotten by most if not all the second they stepped out of those doors.  It was a least of the worst electives for most.  Not that she blamed them, but she did wish… 

The back door snapped open, jerking her from her reverie.  The next class in here wasn’t for an hour and a half.  She had checked.  However, the man who stepped in was not any faculty member that she had ever met.  She stumbled over both the darkness of his features and his scowl. “Um, can I help you?”

Without answering, he stepped through the back desks, and when he stood, he held up a black scarf.  “Sorry,” he said.  “I left this.  It was a gift from my sister.  She would kill me if I lost it.”

“Ah.”  Elizabeth raised her chin in understanding, but in the next instant questioned everything about him.  He was older, much older than most of her students, and although she searched her memory, she couldn’t remember a single interaction they’d had the entire class.  She pulled her satchel over her shoulder and started up the steps.  “Are you…”  She had to clear her throat to get it all out.  “Hm.  Are you…. Um, were you in the English Literature class just now?”

“What? Oh. Yeah.  Very entertaining.”  He slung the scarf around his neck.  “Especially that whole killing your girlfriend thing.  Very nice.”

Softly and somewhat puzzled, she laughed.  When she got to the top step, he followed her to the door and out. 

“Well, the good news is, that was just to get their attention.”  She glanced back past him into the now-empty lecture hall.  “Next class will not be nearly so gory, I assure you.”

His smile was soft, barely there.  “Then I shall look forward to the next class.”  And with that, he clicked his heels, turned, and disappeared into the crush of students.

Looking after him, Elizabeth frowned.  That was odd.  It was like meeting Mr. Darcy’s almost-witty cousin.  Then she shook her head and rolled her eyes.  “Oh, Elizabeth, really.  I swear sometimes I think you think those characters are real.” With a scowl and another shake of her head, she turned and headed the other direction, hoping the library wouldn’t be crowded today.

For two long days and two longer nights, Jonathon had debated about going to class again—or not.  As he crossed the cold, hard concrete, knowing he was late, he shook his head at the stupidity of coming back.  She seemed nice enough—she, of course being Ms. Forester—especially after class, but it was hardly likely that she even knew he was on the planet.  She didn’t even know he was in a class she’d taught for an hour and half.  That either said a lot about him or a lot about her, and he wasn’t entirely sure which annoyed him more.

Carefully, quietly, he pulled the large wooden door to the lecture hall open and peered in.  Just as he was afraid, class had already started.  Well, at least his grade wasn’t in jeopardy as it had been his first go-round with the education system.  Slipping quietly in, he crossed past two other students to his seat in the back.

“I would I could adopt your will,” she read at the front. “See with your eyes, and set my heart/Beating by yours, and drink my fill/At your soul’s springs—your part my part/In life, for good and ill.”

Jonathon flipped his book open and found the page.  Two in the Campagna.  He’d liked that selection.  Mostly because it was short and also because no one died.

“Sounds like Browning had it bad,” a guy down front said.

“Yes, you’re right,” Ms. Forester said.  Then she stopped.  “I’m sorry. What’s your name?”

“Oh, uh.  Adam.”

“Adam…?” she asked, searching for the last name.

“Reynolds.”

“Mr. Reynolds,” she said as if she’d just stepped off a carriage in Old England, “would you like to expand on your comment about Mr. Browning’s love life?”

“Oh, well,” Adam said as if he’d never heard a question quite like that one.  “He’s just all ‘O my dove’ and ‘I yearn upward, touch you close.’ I mean it sounds like he’s got some serious needs he’s trying to get this chick to take care of.”

The answer was crude, and even if Adam was trying not to be, Jonathon rolled his eyes in embarrassment for her.  To have to expound on that one would have landed him in the hospital with an aneurism. 

“You’re right, Mr. Reynolds.  Mr. Browning did have some serious needs as you put it.  He was in love, deep, deep desperate love, with his soulmate.  Her name happened to be Elizabeth Barrett Browning.”

“Whoa. Whoa. Hold up,” another young man down front said.  “Didn’t she write that other one?  That ‘How do I love thee?  Let me count the ways’ at the end?”

Ms. Forester smiled that little smile that said she knew secrets they could only guess at.  “Very good, Mr….?”

“Oh, Taylor.  Roman Taylor.”

“Very impressive, Mr. Taylor.  You read the assignment and can quote it.”

“I’d heard that one before,” Roman said.  “It’s on like Hallmark cards and sh… stuff.”

She laughed and then fell serious.  “The Brownings are one of the greatest love stories in all of English Literature.  The best part is, they were for real.”

“Did he kill her too?” one of the guys on the other side asked.

Without hesitation, Ms. Forester turned her attention to him.  “Mr….?”

“Cruz.”

“Mr. Cruz.” Ms. Forester took a moment to regather herself. “No, Robert did not kill Elizabeth, but they were both very in touch with the fact that love here on earth does come to an end.  They often wrote of such things as losing the other and the indelible pain that would bring.”

“So were they like in a war or something?” one of the girls asked, and when she saw her teacher begin the question, she answered it.  “It’s Letty.  Letty Rahman.”

Ms. Forester tipped her head to the side, illuminating the wisps of light brown hair that escaped from the weave of the two braids twisted at the back of her head.  “No, Ms. Rahman.  They were not at war.  There were wars going on, to be sure, but the English society during which the Brownings and the others we will be studying wrote was characterized by extreme manners in genteel society.  For example, people in the upper classes addressed one another as Mr. and Mrs.—even if they were married.”

“If they were married?”

“Yes.  It was all very formal and proper.  There were rules about society and about family, and you did not break these rules or terrible things would happen.  You might end up penniless and destitute.  You might end up married to some scoundrel who took you as a bride for your family’s money.  Or you might have to marry someone not for love but for family honor or to keep the family from dishonor.  For young women, life revolved around whom they would marry and who would marry them.”

“That’s whack.  Who needs a guy to be all up in your business?”

Ms. Forester turned and questioned the petitioner with one raise of the eyebrow.

“Susanna Suertes,” the girl replied.

“Ms. Suertes.”  Like she was gliding on glass, Ms. Forester strode to the space just in front of the girl four rows back almost exactly between Jonathon and the teacher.  He swallowed the trance down, fighting to break free, but it did not leave.

“In this time period, women were considered no better than cattle or horses.  They were basically property.  Fathers paid suitable and sometimes unsuitable gentleman to marry their daughters.  That was called a dowry.  If she did not have a dowry, a young lady’s chances of being suitably married were drastically reduced and therefore her chances for a life of anything more than life as a servant were greatly reduced as well.  But you have to understand, it wasn’t like a young woman could simply buy the nearest castle and move in.  Women could not own property.  They could not own their own homes.  They did not own horses or even the knickknacks or silver in the household.  The man owned everything.  If the male of the family passed on, the estate passed to the next suitable man whether he was part of the family or not.”

“Girl, that’s whack.  Why couldn’t women own anything?  Women are just as good as men.”

“Now.  Maybe.”  Ms. Forester spoke the words like small bombs, dropped with precision.  “But back then, an unmarried woman with no father was at the mercy of other relatives and the gentleman the estate went to.  Minus that, she had very few options.  So the noble class of women could go from living in idyllic settings one day to destitute the next just like that.”  She snapped her fingers.  “But this made love all the more important.  For a man who loved his wife and daughters would go to great lengths to ensure they would be provided for upon his death.  Death and love were ever at the forefront of the thoughts of these people because they were so intricately entwined.  Listen…”

And then she read from Rabbi Ben Ezra, another of the poems they had read.  Fifteen poems was enough for anyone.  Jonathon had finished this one sometime around three a.m. Wednesday morning when he couldn’t sleep for the question of if he was even going to come today.  Now, today, for the most part, he was glad he had come.  It wasn’t all symbolism and sonnets as he’d been afraid it would be.  When she talked about love, it was even kind of nice.  If you believed in such a thing, which he didn’t.

“’Grow old along with me!/The best is yet to be,/The last of life, for which the first was made./Our times are in his hand/Who saith, ‘A whole I planned;/Youth shows but half.  Trust God; see all,/nor be afraid!’” 

She slipped the book closed.  “Listen to those words.  In them Robert Browning is calling us all to be more than we are, calling us to love with a love that will slip through the provincial bonds of time and complete the whole.  ‘The last of life for which the first was made.’  He’s saying both parts are important.  This part you are living now will teach you what is right and what is important so that the last of your lives can come full circle into something that means something to the world and to God.”

Without bothering to open the book again, she continued, though Jonathon noticed she’d skipped a few lines. “Not for such hopes and fears/Annulling life’s brief years,/Do I remonstrate—folly wide the mark!/Rather I prize the doubt/Low kinds exist without,/Finished and finite clods, untroubled by a spark.”  The mystery was back in her voice again.  “Hear that?  Do you hear it?  ‘I prize the doubt.’  He’s saying, ‘Don’t live your life thinking you have to have it all figured out.  Prize when you don’t know.  Prize when you’re on the verge of something big and you don’t know if you can do it.  You can for ‘Not for such hopes and fears/Annulling life’s brief years…’ Don’t waste time now being afraid and sitting on the sidelines.  Don’t let hopes and fears take away these years.  They are quick, and before you know it, they’ll be gone.

“‘Low kinds exist without.’  If you are chained to this earth by your doubt and your fears, you are a low kind.  You are a ‘finished and finite clod.’  That means if you let your doubts and your fears take over your life, then this is it.  This is all there is. If you stayed chained to the fear and doubt of this earth, then you are a finite clod, and when you die, they will put you in the ground, and you will rot, and that will be it.  You will be untroubled into eternity by the spark of love… or even of life.

“Browning understood something that few of us ever do.  It is in the risking to really love, to really put yourself out there that life is truly and most wondrously lived.”  Her gaze caught the large clock on the wall.  “I know it’s almost time to go, but please, just a couple more.”

No one, least of all Jonathon moved.

“All I could ever be.”  Her voice reverberated around the room. “All men ignored in me./This, I was worth to God, whose wheel the pitcher shaped./Aye, not that the Potter’s wheel,/That metaphor! And feel/Why time spins fast, why passive lies our clay–/Thou, to whom fools propound,/When the wine makes its round,/’Since life fleets, all is change; the Past is gone, seize today!’”  She seemed transported to a wholly different space and time, and with her most of the class.  “Listen to that.  The Potter made you, and even though the world may ignore you, the Potter knows what He’s doing, but we have to seize what’s right in front of us and not let this moment slip into the Past.”

He wished she wouldn’t keep looking at that clock.  It reminded him he would have to leave very soon.

“One more,” she said as if begging for permission.  A soft groan crossed the classroom.  “I know. I know, but this one is really good.  ‘So, take and use Thy work;/ Amend what flaws may lurk,/What strain o’ the stuff, what warpings past the aim!/My times be in Thy hand!/Perfect the cup as planned!/Let age approve of youth, and death complete the same!”

The final words rang in the great hall and whispered there for another moment into eternity.  Had this been a performance, Jonathon would’ve been the first to applaud sarcastically, but this was no performance.  He could see it in her eyes and could hear it in the breathlessness of her voice, she believed every single word of it.

“He’s saying,” she said softly, and not even a pen moved, “that we may not be perfect.  We may have our lives all out of sorts, and our cups may not look like what we think they should, but the strain of the stuff that happens to us, those intentions that went past the aim—those times are in God’s hands, and He can fix them if we’ll let him.  Then in our old age we will approve of those lessons we learned in our youth, and our death will bring us full circle.”

A second and then another the words hung there, and then she smiled softly almost apologetically.  “Read the rest of the poems in the book for Tuesday’s class please.  You are free to go.”

They might have been free to go, but it took several long seconds for anyone to move.  And then they were moving, but it was subdued, hushed in a way it hadn’t been before.  Jonathon moved slowly, blinking and trying to understand the trance he’d fallen into.  He didn’t bother to put his Poetry of Robert Browning book back in his satchel.  As the other students crossed out into the noisy world beyond, he watched her up front.  She moved like she was not even on solid ground.  Dressed in that soft tan cotton dress that swirled around her ankles encased in black boots, she looked more like a spirit escaped from history than a real, live person. Stepping to the board, she erased the markings there and then strode to the desk to gather her things.

He’d never stayed behind before to talk to a teacher, that he could remember anyway.  And he knew doing so branded him as a hopeless kiss-up, but his mind and body simply wouldn’t shift back into normal mode.  She climbed the steps and smiled when she saw him coming down the row.

“So, see,” she said as if she was proud of herself.  “No one died today.”

He smiled, amused in spite of himself.  “That’s a definite improvement.”

At his row she stopped and waited for him to join her before they stepped out into the hallway.

“So, did you enjoy these poems?”

Man, he wished he could just say yes.  Instead, he wrinkled his nose. “I’m not really a poetry kind of guy.”

“Oh.”  She lifted her chin, revealing a long slender neck.  Then she pursed her lips and nodded.  “I guess not.”  When her gaze came to his, it almost knocked him backward.  Soft with a hint of both sadness and determination, she looked at him.  “Well, I hope to see you Tuesday.  Watch My Last Duchess, it’s kind of an echo of Porphyria’s Lover.”

“Oh, okay.”  He nodded.  “Thanks for the warning.”

“You’re welcome.”  She jerked her gaze away from him and then smiled. “I’ll see you Tuesday.”

He lifted the book in a half-hearted wave.  “Tuesday.”

And with that she turned and strode off across the lobby and down the hallway beyond. 

When she was gone, Jonathon’s senses kicked back in, and he dropped his gaze to the book in his hand.  It held something, something that was innate about her.  Vowing to figure out just what that something was, he did not turn the other way as he had the previous Tuesday.  Instead he headed for the library.  His apartment was so horrible for studying. 

First there was the refrigerator.  When he was bored, it was too much of a temptation, and reading these poems was about as boring as it got.  Unless she was in the front of that lecture hall reading them.  Focusing on the fact that she saw something there he clearly didn’t, he directed his steps to the library.  He would read as long as he could, and then he would go home.  Thursday wasn’t turning out to be so bad after all.

 

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

Ebook Romance Stories presents Chapter 1 & 2 of “Coming Undone,” a #1 BestSelling Amazon Religious Fiction and Religion & Inspirational book…

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.


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