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Return To Me: Part 7

Too terrified to move, Emma could only stare, mouth agape. She couldn’t make out any facial features, hair color, or clothing, but the outline of a man was evident. The shape didn’t move or make a sound, just sat perfectly still at the head of the table.

Where Justin always sat.

The exhilaration that coursed through her veins was unlike anything Emma had felt before. It had worked. Justin was here.

A sob escaped her before she could stop it. This was everything she had wanted, her most fervent wish come true! Her knees were suddenly soft and threatened to give out on her, putting her at risk of falling to the floor in a blubbering heap.

“Justin!” She called his name in a breathy laugh and took a step forward, ready to rush through the night into his arms.

As she watched, the figure silently began to stand. That wasn’t quite right, she thought. The motion more closely resembled a mist rising from the floor than anything a human body could do. There was no rustling of clothing, no squeak of the chair on the floor, nothing to indicate actual movement.

A small whisper of air blew past Emma, lifting the strands of hair that lay against her damp cheek. Her muscles tensed and she found herself holding her breath.

There was a palpable difference in the room. The air felt charged with electricity, crackling with latent power about to explode. Emma’s heart was racing but the pounding in her ears drowned out everything else. It was as though the whole world was holding its breath along with her.

Her stomach in knots, Emma took in a shaky breath and whispered, “Justin?”

She looked more closely at the shadow and realized something was wrong. Very, very wrong. The street lights were bright enough that the rest of the room was lit up, the furniture illuminated in stark relief. But somehow the light didn’t touch the figure. All the brightness seemed to be swallowed as soon as it touched the shape, like being sucked into a black hole. It wasn’t just that she couldn’t make out any features – there weren’t any.

A terrifying realization fell over Emma. Whatever this thing was, it was NOT her husband. It was shaped like Justin, as though his shadow was being cast into the room, but that was the only similarity. This was so much more than a mere shadow. It pulsed and breathed and moved in a way that was wholly unnatural and set her nerves jangling in alarm. Where her husband had been sunshine and love, this emanated darkness. All the warmth in the room was overrun by a chilling sense of dread.

She had been tricked.

The cold understanding of the manipulation took her breath. All the dreams had been visitations, there was no doubt. But the truth of who – or what – had been visiting her in her sleep was chilling.

Emma took an involuntary step backward and watched in horror as the shape stepped – no, not stepped: floated? drifted? – through the dining room table, advancing on her at a languid, relentless pace. All the air was suddenly sucked out of the room, the pressure in her ears making her wince.

What had started out as a desperate prayer for happiness had turned into a living nightmare. Every second brought the menacing figure closer and closer, the sense of impending danger growing. Emma cast her eyes around her, looking for an escape or a weapon or something to rescue her from the situation, but she was pressed against the wall at the end of the hallway. In a panic, she dodged to the side, intending to dive back into her bedroom. But before she had taken more than a step, the door slammed shut, nearly catching her hand in the process. Ice water filled her veins and she turned her gaze back to the entity’s imminent progression.

Her brain was a jumble of static and fear and she was no longer able to make sense of what she was witnessing. The shadow continued to glide through the space between them, insistent and unhurried. Emma wanted desperately to run, to try to dash through or around this dark figure and escape into the night outside but her limbs refused to obey her. On the verge of collapsing physically and mentally, a memory poked at the wall of fear surrounding her brain, begging to be seen.

YES. That Emma had prepared for exactly this scenario was a fact that had been forgotten in her state of pure terror. The cautions from the old crone at the shop prompted Emma to do a little research. She had come across numerous warnings about meddling with the afterlife, about the unpredictability of the spirit world and the likelihood of inviting in something unwholesome and possibly evil. While she had trusted Dream Justin, she hadn’t been entirely convinced the conjuring incantation was going to work in the first place. But she reasoned that it couldn’t hurt to have an idea of how to protect herself. Just in case.

Her hands flew to her hips looking for pockets that weren’t there. Patting down her backside and her stomach and her chest, Emma was somehow shocked to realize she was barely dressed. She was in her pajamas, the handwritten spell discarded somewhere else, out of reach.

Clutching at her hair, pushing down the scream that gurgled in the back of her throat, Emma racked her brain in an attempt to draw out the words she needed. The dark entity proceeded inexorably forward, but its substance had changed. Where it had started out as only a shadow, it appeared to have gained some substance, a roiling mass. There was depth to it now, like a billow of black smoke, writhing and twisting in on itself. The shape was swirling faster and faster as Emma watched, almost as though its excitement at overtaking her was manifesting in movement.

Words flashed into Emma’s mind, jumbled together randomly, nonsensical. She floundered, her overwhelming anxiety making it impossible to snatch anything useful from the whirlwind in her head. The darkness was closer now, churning and reeling, licks of shadow bursting forward, just feet from Emma. She pressed herself against the wall. There was nowhere for her to go, and watching the determined progression pulled a scream from deep inside her.

She raised her hands in a futile attempt to ward off the evil now close enough she could hear the swishing and buzzing its rolling motion created. With a burst of reckless urgency, she shouted the first words that rose to the front of her internal maelstrom.

“You are not welcome here, you have no power to cause me harm! I call upon all the powers of light and love to drag you far from me, back to the depths where you belong!”

The shadow stopped its forward movement, shaking and gyrating with more speed, getting louder and louder, a high-pitched keening adding to the noise. It began to expand, filling the hallway and blocking all light seeping through the windows. Emma clamped her hands over her ears, shouting the words over and over again, battling the roar of what could only be the entity’s rage.

“YOU ARE NOT WELCOME HERE! YOU HAVE NO POWER TO CAUSE ME HARM!” A fierce wind blew through the hallway, making it hard for her to breathe, but she persisted. “I CALL UPON ALL THE POWERS OF LIGHT AND LOVE TO DRAG YOU FAR FROM ME, BACK TO THE DEPTHS WHERE YOU BELONG!”

Emma flailed one hand at the wall next to her, searching for something, anything, to save her. Her hand landed on a light switch, the incantation continuing to flow from her lungs with her last breath. The malevolent phantom redoubled its growth, raising the cacophony to unbearable levels, freezing air now whipping all around Emma. Certain that her death was upon her, she forced herself to face the attack with eyes wide open, knowing that the last thing she would ever see would be the sudden burst of forward movement just before the darkness swallowed her, body and soul.

She flipped the switch under her palm by instinct, shrieking from every cell of her being. As light flooded the space around her, she was hit with an ice cold explosion of air followed by a deafening silence.

Emma stood in the bright hallway, chilled to the bone, but unharmed.

And completely alone.

Return To Me: Part 6

The rest of the day was spent poring over the summoning book, looking for just the right words and symbols necessary for what she was about to attempt. Many variations of the incantation were written and discarded. Eventually, she ended up with a chant that she felt was powerful and to-the-point. She practiced drawing the sigil Justin had told her to use, finding it in the book. She drew it over and over until it was perfect. She cleared off the dining room table, placing a dark purple cloth at the head and smoothing the sigil drawing on top of it. She traced the shape on the paper with the powdered elderberry, her hands surprisingly steady. Settling the candle at the top of the cloth, she stood back and surveyed her work. Perfect.

Once the table was ready, Emma poured herself a glass of wine before turning off the lights throughout the house. She perched on the edge of Justin’s favorite armchair and gazed out the large bay window into the quiet night. All the trick-or-treaters had come and gone, leaving the street empty.

Next to the chair stood the end table that held the reframed photo of the two of them on their wedding day. Justin’s warm brown eyes smiled out at her, sparkling with mischief. She picked up the photo and gazed at her husband’s face. He looked so alive in this picture, so vibrant and warm it was disorienting. How could he be dead?  Justin had been larger than life and brought light into every room he entered. You could feel the kindness and joy radiating off him any time you were within ten feet. Emma wasn’t the only one who felt it. But she was sure she was the only one who experienced the absence of that sunshine so acutely. His recent nighttime visitations had only served to dig that emptiness bigger and deeper and more painful. It didn’t matter if they were real or merely wishful dreaming. Justin was still gone.

Trailing her finger along the shape of his cheek, she kissed the glass and set the frame back on the table. She finished her wine, rinsed the glass and took her place at the end of the table in front of the makeshift altar.

It was time.

Pulling a small folded piece of paper out of her pocket, Emma lit the candle. She smoothed the paper on the table, so she could read the words, and held her hands out, palms up, in front of her. She cleared her throat and closed her eyes, taking a bracing breath.

“You who lived yesterday, I call you from my mind to yours. Come back from the shadows into the light.” She glanced at the paper before cupping her hands and wafting the candle smoke over her face. “I feel the warmth of your body, the warmth of your spirit. This sigil of summoning calls you to me and I hold you in my arms, my heart, and my soul. I bid you return to me.”

She choked back a sob, overcome with the desperation she felt for this to work. “Please,” she whispered, dropping her hands, clenching and unclenching them at her sides. “Oh god, please return to me, Justin. Please.”

Repeating the incantation three times – for good measure – Emma let the candle burn and stood perfectly still. She closed her eyes and tried to relax her body and mind, listening to every creak and sigh the house made around her. How would she know if it had worked? Would the air in the room feel different? Would he appear in front of her, fully formed, flesh and bone, like in her dreams?

She stood quietly for what felt like an eternity, waiting. Hoping. One silent tear after another fell from her closed eyes. It was foolish of her to have believed this would work. The dreams were just that – dreams. Wishful thinking, a manifestation of her broken heart. Justin was dead. Period.

Tonight, All Hallows Eve with the house silent and dark, she understood how people believed in things like this. If they felt even a fraction of the pain Emma felt right now – had felt for the better part of the last year – they would be nothing short of desperate to believe their late loves were somehow still with them.

Swallowing the sob that bubbled up in her throat, Emma pictured Justin’s face in her mind, heard his laugh in the deep quiet of the room. Ten years. Ten short years of the purest happiness Emma had ever known. He had been her rock and her guiding light. Without that beacon of love in her life she had been floundering in the world and didn’t know if she’d ever find her way again. That’s why she’d been so lost without him. Why she’d let her dream self be convinced this absurdity could bring him back.

Disappointed tears now dry on her face, Emma let her shoulders slump in defeat. Nothing had happened. She didn’t know if she honestly thought something would, but if this nonsense was ever going to work then it would take the one night when the veil to the spirit world was thinnest to breathe it to life.

Opening her eyes and letting them adjust to the near-darkness in the house, she smoothed out the incantation on the table, over and over again. A passing car cast shadows that danced and bounced off the walls. It was silent and still and empty in the house, just as it had been every night since the end of her world. Justin was gone. That was the reality Emma had to live with now. Heaving a defeated sigh, Emma snuffed out the candle and trudged to her bedroom. Perhaps she would dream of him again. Perhaps not, now that she knew it had all been in her head.

Emma drifted in and out of a restless sleep. She was too hot, she was too cold, it was too quiet, she couldn’t get comfortable. She was beyond exhausted and she should have fallen into a deep sleep, but it eluded her, keeping her always just outside the circle of peacefulness. She even had taken 3 full sleeping pills, for good measure, but she still tossed and turned.

With a jolt, Emma sat straight up in bed, suddenly wide awake, any hint of fatigue long gone. Her breathing was ragged and shallow and she was covered with a sheen of sweat, as though she had been running. Sitting motionless, she tried to recall what had woken her. She glanced around the bedroom looking for an explanation, but nothing stood out to her.

The one thing clear in her mind was that she needed to go out to the dining room. She knew it as surely as she knew her own name. In the pit of her stomach she felt a knot, the pull of a thread drawing her out of her bed and toward the door.

Her feet hit the cold floor and she paused. Through the crack of the partially-opened door Emma saw only darkness. Something was calling to her. Nothing audible, nothing she could hear, but a call that she could feel in the middle of her chest. She rubbed her wet palms on the legs of her pajamas and licked her lips, trying to get the courage to move.

On shaky legs, she rose and took a few tentative steps across the room. Cloaked in a sensation of unreality, everything around her seemed to glow and pulsate. Was she dreaming again? This was nothing like the lucid dreams of Justin she had been experiencing. Instead, there was a menacing nightmare quality in the air. Only the rough boards beneath her feet and the manic pounding in her chest grounded her in the certainty of wakefulness.

She watched her hand tremble reaching for the door. The ominous squeaking of the hinges made goosebumps break out over every inch of her and she came close to turning back. The urge to slam the door and dive under her covers until the sun came up nearly overtook her and she hesitated in the open doorway. But the invisible thread drawing her out was stronger than her apprehension and she leaned into the hallway.

All the air in her lungs turned to sludge and she was unable to take a breath. Her eyes had to be playing tricks on her, the remnant of whatever nightmare had woken her so forcefully a moment ago. She blinked over and over, trying to clear her vision but nothing changed. Stepping fully into the hall, the hair on the back of her neck stood on end as the realization of what she was seeing fully formed.

A silhouette was visible at the dining room table, backlit by the street lights through the window.

Return To Me: Part 5

There had been other dreams about Justin, especially right after his death. But this one…this one was different. Real. So real, in fact, that Emma woke up expecting to find him waiting in the kitchen for her, holding out a steaming cup of fresh coffee.

In the dream, she had rolled over to see him sleeping next to her. She shot upright, had nearly fallen out of bed, and startled him awake. He sat up, rubbing his eyes, and smiled at her.

“Expecting someone else?”

When she only managed to clap a hand over her mouth, failing to stifle a sob, he had gathered her to his chest and smoothed her hair.

“I’m here, Em. Shh, shh. I’m really and truly here.”

Emma had clung to him, a thousand questions in her mind, but unable to make her voice work. After several minutes, she pulled back just enough to look at him, and nearly fell apart again at the bright smile on his face.

“Justin…” she murmured. He leaned into her and feathered his lips against hers. “Oh my god, Justin…I thought – how are you here? You can’t be here.” Tentatively, Emma stroked his cheek. “I thought I would never get to see you again. How is this possible?”

Laying back in the bed and propping himself on his elbow, the smile never left Justin’s face as he patted the space next to him.

“I don’t know,” he answered cheerfully. “I just am. God, you’re so beautiful, Em. I could stare at you for the rest of eternity and see something new every day.”

When he ran his fingertips along her cheek, wiping away the tears, Emma melted into his touch. “Can you stay? Are you here for good?” A thought suddenly occurred to her and she sat up, her eyes wide. “Am I dead?!”

Justin threw his head back and laughed. “No, babe, you’re still very much alive. You are, however, asleep, and I won’t be here when you wake up. Come here.” He pulled her to him, laying her head on his chest.

Lulled by the impossible sound of his heart beating, Emma closed her eyes and snuggled tighter against him. It felt so good to hold him again, even if it was just a dream. He was warm, and comfortable and here. That was all that mattered.

The next time she opened her eyes the sun was streaming through her curtains and she was alone. Even though it had been a year since he passed away, Emma could never bring herself to take up the whole bed. Every night, she left his side tucked in and neat. And this morning it looked no different than it had for the last 365 mornings.

He visited her in similar dreams every night for the next week. Sometimes the two of them got up and went into the living room, sitting across from each other like they used to do, telling stories and laughing. Other nights they only laid in bed and gazed at each other, not needing words to communicate what they were feeling. But morning always came, and Justin wasn’t there.

On the tenth night after these dream dates started, Emma eagerly climbed into bed, nestling down under the covers. This had become her favorite time of the day. Her excitement was making it harder and harder for her to fall asleep, however, so she had started taking sleeping pills. It was a half a pill for the first couple of nights, then a whole one. But it was taking longer and longer for her to drift off, so she was up to two and a half pills at this point. She knew she was pushing the threshold of safety, but to her it was worth it.

Once sleep overtook her, Emma rolled over in bed and opened her eyes with a smile, expecting to see her husband grinning back at her. But on this night, the pillow next to her was empty. Sitting up abruptly, Emma scanned the dark room.

“Justin?” When there was no response, she slid out of bed and started looking for him. “Justin? Are you here?”

As she reached the dining table at the end of the hallway, movement from the living room made her jump. Justin was sitting in his favorite armchair by the window, his elbows resting on his knees and his hands clasped in front of him. Relief coursed through Emma and she skipped toward him.

“There you are! You had me worried.” The nervous tightening in her stomach only worsened when Justin didn’t look up as she approached. “Babe? Is everything okay?”

When he finally looked up at her, Emma was shocked at the sadness on his face. His sunny smile was turned down and his bright eyes were dim and full of distress. She rushed to him, dropping to her knees and taking his hands in hers.

Shaking his head, Justin sighed. “I can’t stay, Em. This will be my last visit to you.”

Emma’s stomach dropped and a cold wave washed over her. She stroked his cheek and said, “No. No, it can’t be. I just got you back! You can’t go away again. You can’t!”

Justin grasped her shoulders and pushed her back from him before standing and pacing to the fireplace. He leaned against the mantle, refusing to look at Emma.

“It’s not my decision, Em. It’s out of my hands.”

Standing defiantly in the middle of the room, her hands on her hips, Emma asked, “Well, whose decision is it then? If there’s someone to make the decision, there must be someone to talk to, some way to change their mind. I’m not letting you go. I won’t.” She chewed her lip to keep it from trembling. “I can’t.”

Justin whirled around and was suddenly in front of Emma, her hands gripped in his. “There is something you can do, Emma. There is a way I can stay with you…if you want me to.”

“Anything!” Emma’s heart began beating so fast she was sure it was going to burst out of her chest. “You know I will do anything to bring you back to me. Tell me what to do.”

Brushing her hair back off her forehead, Justin flashed Emma his most charming smile. He kissed her tenderly then pulled her close and whispered his instructions in her ear.

When Emma opened her eyes to the bright sun once again, she felt lighter and more hopeful than she had in more than a year. She had a plan. She had a goal. Something to do, to work for.

Something that meant everything to her.

She showered and made some breakfast, taking her coffee in a travel mug as she bounded out the door. There was research to be done, a couple of items to buy, certain arrangements to make and there was no time to waste. It was Halloween and Justin had been adamant everything had to be done tonight, or it wouldn’t work.

And it had to work.

After driving an hour outside of town, Emma pulled up outside a ramshackle shop. The sign read Wayward Cosmos and the website said she could find everything from books and candles to talismans and crystals. She had never been in a shop like this before and something about walking through the door set her nerves on edge.

It was dark and a little musty, the shelves close and full of odds and ends. The space had looked much larger from the outside and claustrophobia began to set in for Emma. She had to turn sideways to walk between tables. One wall was full of bookshelves overflowing with tomes of varying size. The opposite wall’s shelves were covered in crystal balls, statues of dragons and fairies, and lots of charms and totems that Emma had never seen before. The tables scattered throughout the shop held makeshift Wiccan altars, vials of different substances with names like mugwort and poke root. There was a giant pentagram painted on the floor and a large glass case full of animal skulls in different sizes.

The store was hushed, no sounds of an air conditioner, a fan, a radio. The lights were on and the door was unlocked, so Emma felt fairly confident that the shop was open, but the stillness around her was eerie and had her checking over her shoulder frequently.

She made her way to the bookshelf, looking for something that might help with the task at hand. Justin had told her what kind of book to look for, but no exact title. All he could tell her was that she’d know it when she found it. She perused such titles as The Green Witch, Wicca Book of Spells, The Complete Book of Witchcraft, The Crystal Bible. Letting her fingers trail over the spines, Emma felt a quickening in her stomach. There had to be a book to help her. If not here, where?

Her eyes fell on a title that caught her attention: The Magical Art of Summoning Spirits. Pulling it off the shelf, she knew immediately this was what she had been looking for. Her hand smoothed over the words etched on the cover and she felt an electric tingle run up her arm. Clutching it to her chest she turned and was shocked to find an old woman standing directly behind her.

“Oh!” She was so surprised, she stepped back and stumbled against the bookshelf. “I – I didn’t hear you! Jesus, you scared me!”

The figure stood perfectly still, saying nothing. Emma took in the old woman’s long, flowing gown and bare feet, noting the sound of the sparkling bracelets piled on both of her wrists. Her hair was pure white, curling almost to her waist, framing a wrinkled face with bright green eyes. Brow furrowed, she stared at Emma long and hard, freezing her in place. The eyes…there was something about her eyes that made goosebumps rise on Emma’s skin. Intelligent, calculating, and regarding Emma as though she was reading every thought in her mind – and didn’t like what she saw there.

After what felt like several minutes of being scrutinized, Emma cleared her throat and tried on a feeble smile.

“Uh…is this your shop? I – I was looking for a couple of items. Maybe you could help me?”

The old woman leaned closer as though to say something, but instead drew in a sharp breath. Then her eyes fell on the book clasped in Emma’s hands and her eyes darkened.

“Your intentions are good, but your methods are dangerous,” the woman croaked. “That book should not be read lightly.”

Emma swallowed and tried to smile. “Oh, uh, thank you. It’s actually for a friend. He does this stuff all the time and knows what he’s doing.” She slid sideways, trying to extract herself from the closeness of this encounter. “Do you sell candles, too? There was a specific one he wanted.”

With a grunt, the old woman spun away toward the back of the store, making Emma rush to catch up to her. Her speed and agility didn’t match her appearance at all.

“Do you also have some powdered elderberry?”

At this question, the old woman pulled up short and cast a suspicious look over her shoulder. “Elderberry, eh? And what candle did your…friend…ask for specifically?”

“Uh…purple? Dark purple, to be exact.”

The woman snorted and shook her head. “Your friend is meddling in things…he…shouldn’t. This is powerful magic and can have very unexpected repercussions.”

Chewing on her lip, Emma held the book closer against her chest. “You do have the items, though, right? I mean, you have them here, today, that you can sell to me?”

A shiny black cat that Emma hadn’t noticed before leapt onto the counter and sat protectively in front of the crone. Absently stroking the cat, she watched Emma closely. Without looking away, she reached under the countertop and produced a fat amethyst-colored candle, setting it down with a thud. Emma could feel a bead of sweat trickling down the back of her neck and she had to wipe her sweaty palms on her jeans over and over while the shopkeeper glared at her.

Finally breaking away from the uncomfortable eye contact, the old woman turned to a drawer set in the shelving behind her and pulled out an old apothecary bottle. She removed the cork stopper and shook a measure of dark powder into a small baggie. When she returned her attention to Emma, the look on her face was kinder, her forehead wrinkled not in anger but concern. She rang up Emma’s items on an ornate old cash register and captured Emma’s hand between both of her gnarled ones when handing back the change.

“Use caution, my dear. This is unpredictable magic you’re meddling with here. You may get far more than you bargained for if you follow through with this rash plan.”

Emma grimaced, startled by the strength of the old woman’s grip. She pulled her hand away and picked up her items.

“Um, okay, I will – I’ll be careful. I, uh, I know what I’m doing – I mean my friend knows what he’s doing – but I thank you for your concern. Have a nice day!” She turned and made a hasty retreat to the door.

Return To Me: Part 3

One year later, the pain was no less. The loneliness had only grown exponentially. And the isolation had become far more pronounced. Identifying Justin’s body had been the single worst experience Emma had ever lived through. She tried to erase that image with alcohol for the first couple of months afterwards, crying until she threw up then washing down all the pain and guilt and solitude with another bottle of wine.

There had been some even darker days that she had somehow made it through. She had a vague recollection of getting out of bed and showering every day, of leaving the house and nodding woodenly to friends and family as they offered their condolences but ultimately didn’t know what to say. Emma knew she must have eaten at some point. The only memory that stood out in stark relief was the night, six months into her life as a widow, that she had stared down the barrel of a loaded pistol.

Literally.

Emma lit the candles on the dining room table and looked over the settings once more. She had never told anyone about that night. It was the darkest moment she had ever experienced. The only thought in her mind had been that she needed to be with Justin. Without him, there was nothing in this world for her. Until the moment she realized he was really gone, Emma had considered herself an independent woman. She didn’t need a man to make her happy, to take care of her. She loved Justin and they had an amazing partnership in which they were happiest together, but she could survive alone if necessary.

At least that’s what she thought until being alone became her reality.

Thinking back as she checked the oven, she was surprised at how easy it had been to make that deadly decision. There was no weighing the pros and cons, no contemplating the ramifications to those she’d leave behind. It had been as simple as thinking there was nothing left in this world for her and she didn’t want to stay in it anymore.

She had been at lunch with her mom when it presented itself as the only solution for her, but she said nothing. Her mother had been relaying how Emma’s friends were always inquiring about her, sending their well-wishes and love. She had tried not to roll her eyes at that. Her closest friends had come to the funeral to show their support. They made donations to the local homeless shelter in Justin’s name. They brought beautiful cards with flowery poetry scripted on the inside. Some brought her casseroles – really, what was a now-single woman going to do with six pans of lasagna? – while others sent flowers or cookie bouquets. Her best friends even made a few tentative phone calls with half-assed invitations to get together when Emma knew that was the last thing they actually wanted.

Sadness and loneliness that couldn’t be alleviated hung like a lead weight around Emma’s neck every day, every night, every waking moment. Her mother encouraged her to get out, to do something, even if it was just taking a walk. Lois meant well, but Emma had been sunk so far in her grief there was nothing her mom could say or do to pull her out. Emma had let her mind wander over the last few months. The awkward lunch dates with her mother, her father’s clumsy hugs and stilted conversation because he simply didn’t know what to say. The long days and even longer nights that left her wishing for a gas leak or some other disaster to kill her in her sleep.

In that moment, at that thought, it all became so clear. Emma’s eyes were wide and clear for the first time in a long time. She felt a little guilty when her mom perked up, too, thinking her daughter was taking her well-meant advice to heart. In reality, Lois was witnessing the beginning of a plan that would ultimately end her daughter’s life. It was simple, really. Her parents were going out of town for the next week, a trip that had been planned even before Justin’s accident. If she used her time wisely, Emma could start the wheels in motion and be free of this nightmare before they returned.

Sure, her parents would be devastated for a while. She felt some remorse for that. But they would be so much better off without worrying about Emma every day. She would be at peace and that would bring them peace.

After a three-day waiting period, Emma picked up the small 9mm pistol she had selected. It wasn’t fancy. It was used and cheap, but she was assured by the salesman that it was reliable and easy to handle. She had lied to him, saying that she had just moved to town and, living alone, she wanted something to keep in the house, just in case. She had turned it over and over in her hands, admiring the compact size of the solution to her misery.

A concise note explaining her actions had been left propped up on the kitchen counter. She owed her parents that, at the very least. The house was clean and neat. The food from the refrigerator had been thrown out two days before. Emma wasn’t eating much these days anyway. All of her bills were paid, all of her services had been canceled.

She was ready.

Sitting on the edge of the bed she had once shared with Justin, Emma took a deep breath. This was the moment. Six months of missing the piece that had made her whole, made her who she was and gave her the strength to face anything, was long enough. Soon she’d be reunited with Justin and they would be together forever.

With a sense of calm she hadn’t known in what felt like eons, Emma contemplated the weapon, deciding what would be the most efficient way to take her life. She’d heard about some who shot themselves in the chest, right into the heart, but she wasn’t confident that would do the trick. Head, it was. Should she press the muzzle against her temple or place it firmly between her teeth? She frowned. There were stories of both methods going horribly wrong and only maiming the shooter. While she had never contemplated suicide before and certainly wasn’t an expert, she knew that if you were going to do the deed you’d better make sure it took.

She held the gun up and pointed it squarely between her eyes. The muzzle stared back at her, the black void promising her peace at last. This was it. She pressed the gun against her forehead, positioning it so there was no way to miss, and closed her eyes.

“Justin…” His name came out in a reverent whisper and she pictured him in her mind’s eye.

Soon.

Suddenly a crash sounded from the living room making Emma jump. She hadn’t put her finger on the trigger yet and the gun fell from her hands, clattering to the hardwood floor. Emma sprang up from her bed, her heart pounding loud and frantic in her chest.

Someone was in the house.

Return To Me: Part 2

“Uh, can I get you something to drink?” Emma was aware that she was stalling but she smiled at the officers and pointed toward the kitchen. “I can get some coffee going pretty quickly or I have iced tea or some different sodas…”

The officers glanced at each other and the male cleared his throat. “No, thank you. That won’t be necessary. Please, have a seat.”

Her head felt unexpectedly light, and Emma perched awkwardly on the edge of the armchair, facing the officers who were sitting side-by-side on the couch. A muffled voice could be heard somewhere close by and Emma cast her eyes around the room, trying to find the source. She was surprised to see a cell phone in her hand and stared at it for a moment, unsure what to do with it.

Stalling.

Stalling.

She lifted the phone to her ear and croaked out, “Mom? Mom, I have, ah, company. Can I call you right back?” She nodded at whatever her mother had said and disconnected the call without another word, finally turning her attention to the figures before her.

“Mrs. Baker, we have some very bad news to tell you,” the female officer started, and Emma began shaking her head involuntarily. She didn’t need to hear what the woman was about to say. She already knew. Somehow, she already knew it deep in her soul.

Emma wanted to run, to make them leave. Her stomach clenched, on the verge of expelling its contents and she needed to leave. But her body was frozen in place, unable to escape the nightmare that was about to begin.

The officers exchanged another glance and the female officer continued. “Your husband, Justin Baker, was in a car accident this afternoon and was killed.”

Emma blinked.

“I am very sorry this happened.” The male officer had kind eyes, Emma thought randomly as she stared at him, waiting for him to deliver the punchline she knew had to be coming. “Is there anyone I can call for you?”

Her head still wagging back and forth in denial, she locked eyes with the man then the woman, back and forth, trying to understand the words she had just heard.

“I’m sorry – what? What are you telling me? No one died. You’re wrong. My husband is on his way home from work and we’re going to a costume party. You have the wrong house, the wrong Bakers. Justin is about to walk through the door any second…” Emma floundered with her phone, trying to check the time.

He should have been home more than an hour ago.

She felt like all the blood was evacuating her body, starting at her scalp and moving through her face, her chest, her stomach, to her toes. Her feet were suddenly freezing cold and stars began to form in the edge of her vision.

Her phone resumed its insistent vibrating, message after message filling her screen but Emma barely noticed. Her mind was simultaneously racing and immobile. She couldn’t move past the loop that was playing over and over in her head. Justin is dead. He isn’t coming home. You’ll never see him again, never kiss him again. Justin is dead. Dead.

 Justin. Is. Dead.

Lifting her head slowly, Emma realized the officers were still sitting on her couch. The woman was talking. She saw her lips moving, but Emma couldn’t hear anything over the buzzing in her ears. It was the strangest sensation. Her head was filled with static, her fingers and toes felt like they were encased in ice, her cheeks and lips were tingling with pins and needles.

“Ma’am?” The male officer’s voice cut through the other noise. “Mrs. Baker, are you okay? Do we need to call anyone for you?”

Emma shook her head. “I…What – what do I do now?” All the fight had drained out of her and her words came out in a whisper. “What am I supposed to do now?”

romance story, romantic serial, short story chapters, sharon clark, Sharon L. Clark Author

The Path of Least Dysfunction, A Series: Chapter 33

Same restaurant, same table, very different nerves. I was waiting for Chris, the same as I had what felt like forever ago. Last time, however, I was nervous with excitement and anticipation. I had been so looking forward to talking to him and getting to know him again.

This particular meeting would be a very different situation.

I wasn’t sure if Chris knew what was coming. I didn’t know how he was going to react. Or how I was going to react, for that matter. Jamie was my future, I was absolutely certain about that, but that didn’t mean that I wasn’t going to break my own heart.

My stomach was in knots and the number of times I contemplated checking the size of the window in the bathroom – just in case – was astronomical. With a snort I realized I hadn’t tried to run away for quite a while. A little personal growth, perhaps?

Yeah, doubtful.

Chris’s pickup pulled in and I seriously thought I was going to throw up. Watching him get out of the truck and stand there, still holding the handle, told me all I needed to know. It seemed he had a pretty good idea why we were here. He stared at his feet, spinning his keys around the middle finger of one hand, gripping the car door like it was his bathroom escape route. After an eternity, he pocketed his keys, scrubbed a hand over his hair and walked into the restaurant.

I stood and tried to smile as he approached. It must have been a frightening expression that was less inviting than it was horror story because his feet stuttered and I thought he was going to turn around. Instead, he grinned at me without the smile reaching his eyes. He pulled me in for a hug and kissed my cheek, exactly the way he had at our first meeting and my stomach dropped. This was going to suck.

“You look great, Lexi,” he said, holding my chair out for me before taking his own seat. He fiddled with his silverware and only glanced up now and then without making any kind of eye contact. “Do you want to actually order food, or just rip the bandage off?”

I grimaced. “Ouch.”

He shrugged and locked eyes with me. “I can’t say I wasn’t expecting this at some point. Even when we were together you weren’t really with me.”

The tears started to well up and I shook my head. “Chris, you don’t deserve this. I am a horrible human being and I am so, so sorry.”

Grabbing my hand across the table, he leaned forward. “I’m not. Not for one second.” He twined his fingers through mine and lifted our hands to kiss my knuckles. “Lexi, this time with you has been amazing. It’s nothing I was looking for, but something I see now that I really needed. Did you know that I hadn’t been on a date in a year before you called me?”

I raised my eyebrows. “I didn’t know that. But it’s got to be hard to meet people, much less go on dates, when you’ve got a kid.”

Before I had even finished my thought, Chris was shaking his head. “It wasn’t that at all. I’m not sure I know what it truly was, but I kind of think it was fear.” Rubbing his thumb over my knuckles, he stared at our joined hands. As though he’d been burned, though, he released my hand and sat back, crossing his arms. It felt terrible, like the closeness between us had been a dream.

“What could you possibly be afraid of that would keep you from dating? I don’t know why the ladies aren’t falling all over themselves to get to you! You’re sweet. You’re funny, and adorable. You’re an amazing father and a devoted and protective friend. What are you afraid of?”

He narrowed his eyes and cocked his head. “I’m not sure if I can explain it. After since Angie and I split up, I’ve done nothing but work, sleep, and spend time with my son. Period. It’s comfortable. It’s safe. I know all the people in my life and they know everything about me and love me anyway. The idea of getting to know someone again – of putting myself out there to be accepted or rejected – makes me want to barf.”

The waiter appeared out of nowhere and Chris was about to wave him away when I cleared my throat. “Actually, can we get some chips and queso and a couple of menus, please?” Chris raised his eyebrows at me and I grinned. “What? I’m hungry.”

He laughed at me and sat back in his seat, looking relaxed for the first time that night. “Yeah, okay, so am I. I’ve been too nervous all day to eat anything. I knew why you asked me here but I was still hoping I was wrong.”

“Chris…” But he held up a hand and leaned in.

“No, it’s fine. On the drive here I really thought about it. I said I was scared to let anyone else in, to open myself up again. But this time with you…well, it’s given me some faith in myself again.”

“I’m glad to hear that, but I’m not entirely sure what I did.”

Chris was quiet for a moment, chewing his lip. “How do I explain it? I guess that spending time with you made me realize how much I miss having someone in my life who looks at me the way you did. I want to have someone I can be number one for, a best friend and partner in crime. It’s not you, unfortunately, but I know that I’m ready to look for her. So I suppose I should be thanking you.”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. “You mean you’re not mad?”

“Why would I be mad?”

“For dragging you into my psychotic break? For leading you to believe that we had a future?” I could feel the tears threatening again. “Don’t you think I was unfair to you, maybe even using you?”

“Were you?”

“No! I don’t know, maybe.” I sniffled and stared at my hands in my lap.

“Can you use the willing? No one got hurt here.” He leaned forward and lifted my chin. “Besides, Lexi, I was happy to be your tool.”

We burst into laughter and when our eyes met, I knew we would be okay.

romance story, romantic serial, short story chapters, sharon clark, Sharon L. Clark Author

The Path of Least Dysfunction, A Series: Chapter 32

My palms were sweaty and my heart was racing as I approached Kelly’s door. I had been a terrible friend. Jamie was right; I’d been so self-absorbed that I didn’t know anything about what was going on in Kelly’s life, even as she was working behind the scenes to help fix mine. Throw in the fact that I’d jumped to the conclusion that she was sleeping with Jamie and there was no mistaking it: I was the worst.

Before I could knock on the door it flew open and I was nearly knocked down by Jamie’s brother, Chad.

“Alexis!” He grabbed my shoulders to steady me, his eyes wide and his mouth open. Once we had both recovered from the shock, he pulled me in for a quick hug. “It’s good to see you. I, uh, better get going so you two can talk.”

He skipped down the stairs, calling over his shoulder, “Go on in. Kel’s in the kitchen.”

Feeling like I was headed to my executioner, I trudged into the house, closing the door behind me. When I reached the kitchen, Kelly was leaning against the counter, a mug of coffee in her hands and another sitting next to her. She looked up when I came in and flashed me a big smile.

“Hey,” I said as I fidgeted in the doorway. It was kind of hard for me to look her in the eye. I didn’t think she knew what I had thought about her and Jamie, but I did and that was bad enough.

She set her mug on the counter and flew across the floor to me, hugging me tight. “Lex! It’s so good to see you! I missed you.”

Returning her hug, I knew without a doubt that I didn’t deserve her. “I missed you, too, Kel. And I’m so sorry.”

“For what?” She let go of me and brought me the other cup of coffee, indicating for me to take a stool at the counter. “I can’t think of anything for you to be sorry about.”

I sipped my coffee and watched her. She was smiling, she seemed genuinely happy to see me, but there was something…else. Something hidden just below the surface. Her smile was a little too big, the lilt in her voice a little too peppy. I felt like I was talking to a Stepford Wife.

“Come on, Kelly, I know that’s not true. I’ve been a rotten friend. I haven’t been around. I didn’t even know about you and Chad until Jamie told me – today! Trust me, there’s plenty for you to be mad about.”

Her smile faltered a bit, but she shrugged and waved me off. “Don’t be silly. Why would you know about Chad when I didn’t tell you about him? I’m the one who should be apologizing.”

Yeah, this was all wrong. I didn’t know who this was in front of me, but it sure wasn’t my best friend. Kelly had never been one to be too accommodating. If she thought you were being an asshole she’d tell you she thought you were being an asshole. The way she was taking the blame for this was making my skin crawl. I set the mug down harder than I intended and stared at her.

“What the hell, Kelly? Knock it off. I know you’re pissed at me – hell, I’m pissed at me! But we can’t get past this is you won’t talk to me.”

She held my gaze for another minute, keeping very still, then her shoulders slumped and the pleasant expression dropped from her face. “You’re right. I’m pissed. I’m pissed at you, at Jamie, at Chris – hell at this whole screwed up mess!”

“I’m so sorry,” I said, reaching across the counter to grab her hand. But Kelly yanked her hand out of reach and jumped up from the stool.

Rubbing her hands over her face, she started pacing the white tile of the kitchen. “I have seen you do some stupid things, Lex. You are my best friend and I love you, but this latest bullshit has really been a challenge for me.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean I have tried really hard to be supportive and understanding and to just let you figure your shit out on your own. But Jesus Christ, Alexis! You are being a complete and utter moron!” Kelly stopped suddenly and covered her face with her hands.

The tears started to build and I blinked fast to try to keep them away. “Kelly, I-“

She turned and pointed a finger at me, scowling. “No. Lex, no. I am talking right now. Just-just let me say what I need to say.”

Clamping my lips shut and folding my hands in my lap, I nodded and waited. She deflated a bit and sighed.

“Sorry. That was uncalled for. But please, let me explain why I think you’re a moron.” Our eyes locked and we both tried to suppress a smirk. Kelly snorted and sat down across from me again. “Okay. I’ve gone over this conversation in my head a million times and, now that I have the chance to let you have it, I can’t think of a single word of what I wanted to say.”

“I’m not going anywhere.”

Kelly took my hand and started fiddling with the engagement ring I still wore every day. “Jamie is amazing. Can we agree on that?” When I nodded, she continued. “Lex, everyone – and I mean everyone – dreams about finding the perfect partner. Someone who knows all their flaws and neuroses and doesn’t love that person in spite of them, but because of them. You and I both know that is Jamie, inside and out.”

Chuckling, she shrugged. “I mean, he’s not my type, of course. He’s far too sweet and I need a little spice and fire, ya know? With Chad, it’s like he knows exactly how to get me mad and push me just far enough to make things hot, and then-”

She stopped abruptly, her cheeks red. “Sorry. Different conversation. But seriously…it’s like Jamie was custom-made for you. He’s kind and patient. Jamie is funny and smart and just dorky enough to be adorable.”

We both laughed at that. He was a movie nerd and was part of a few fandoms. I had been dragged along to a few ComiCons and, even if they hadn’t been a blast for me, too, his enthusiasm alone would have made it fun.

She cocked her head and frowned. “What are you doing, Lex? I don’t understand what would have ever made you think this marriage wouldn’t last. If anyone in the entire world had ‘happily-ever-after’ written all over them, it’s you and Jamie. This trip down Memory Lane is pointless. Your future is not with Brian or any of the other exes. And, I’m sorry, but it is not with Chris, either.”

I pulled my hand out of hers and stared at my lap. My feelings for Chris were so complicated it made my stomach hurt just to think about him. He deserved to be happy and the way I was dragging him around behind me was unfair and, to be honest, cruel.

Kelly seemed to sense that I was still conflicted about Chris and she sucked in a deep breath. “Look. I totally get that Chris is fantastic. He is a great guy, a good dad, seems to still care about you after all this time. But-“ she held up a finger and raised her eyebrows. “But he is your past, kiddo. He can’t be your future.”

Nodding, I couldn’t stop the tears this time. I knew she was right.

She pulled me up off the stool and into a hug. “Chris is a great guy. But you’re trying to recapture something that you used to have, that isn’t right for you. Not anymore. The two of you are very different people now. I’m sure there will always be an affection between you, but it isn’t anything more than that.” She grasped my shoulders and pushed me away to look me in the eye. “Am I wrong?”

“No,” I sniffled. Kelly handed me a box of tissues and squeezed my shoulder.

“Do you still love Jamie?”

I gaped at the question. “Yes! I love him and I miss him and I’ve been such a bitch and a crazy person and I don’t deserve him.”

Shrugging, Kelly sipped her coffee. “You’re not wrong.” But she winked at me over the top of her mug.

Taking my cup out of my hands, she pulled me to my feet and guided me toward the front door. “Look, I’m sure you two have a lot of things to talk about and a lot of amazing make-up sex to get to, so get out of here and un-postpone your damn wedding.”

romance story, romantic serial, short story chapters, sharon clark, Sharon L. Clark Author

The Path of Least Dysfunction, A Series: Chapter 31

The color drained from Jamie’s face which was not a good sign. He launched out of his seat and started pacing, rubbing his chin, one hand on his hip. I wasn’t hopeful that I was going to like what I was about to hear.

He finally stopped and faced me. “Okay, you’re right. You definitely deserve an explanation.”

“The truth, Jamie. I deserve the truth,” I corrected. “Please don’t try to spare my feelings. I need to know what’s happening between you two, how things started, and what it all means for the future – for our future.”

My stomach was knotted and my throat was tight. Anxiety wrapped itself around me as I imagined all the things he might say: He and Kelly had been sleeping together for years, or he was really in love with her and didn’t know how to call it off, or that it was Kelly and always Kelly that he’d wanted to be with and only had the opportunity once I’d postponed the wedding.

I was ready for anything he had to say.

“Kelly’s dating my brother.”

Except for that.

“What? Chad? Kelly’s dating Chad?” When he nodded, I rubbed my forehead. “How did I not know that?”

He threw his hands in the air. “You’ve been a little self-absorbed recently, Lex. They’ve been seeing each other for a couple months now. I probably see Kelly more often than you do, these days.”

I felt sick. While hearing that Jamie and Kelly were romantically involved would have been painful, knowing that I had failed my best friend was like a knife to the gut. Throw in the fact that I had suspected the two people I loved most were sneaking around behind my back and I would have been happy to be swallowed by the earth at that exact moment.

“With everything that’s been going on in your life, she’s been missing you, just like I have. She and Chad started inviting me over for dinners or along to baseball games or farmers markets.” He raked his fingers through his hair then spread both hands out in front of him. “We felt like we had both lost you and no one but the two of us could understand how we were feeling. She and Chad are crazy about each other but she and I have a connection they never will: you.”

Jamie knelt in front of me and took my hands in his. “Alexis, I’m sorry. I’m not trying to be an asshole here. But you haven’t really been present. Kelly has been trying to support you, to be there for you. She doesn’t feel right talking about her relationship with Chad when you’re confused and hurting.”

There was no way I could look at Jamie so I stared at our hands in my lap. When the first tear plopped into my lap, he cupped my cheek and swiped the next one away with his thumb. That small gesture of kindness pushed my guilt over the edge and I buried my face in my hands and sobbed. He tried to wrap his arms around me but I stood and pushed roughly past him.

“How can you try to comfort me? I deserve to feel every ounce of guilt and pain. I’m so ashamed. How could I be so selfish?” I finally looked up at Jamie to find concern lining his face as he watched me. “And you…” I gulped. “I don’t understand how you’re still here, how you haven’t washed your hands of this whole nightmare!”

He frowned and flew across the room to me, grasping my upper arms and pulling me close. “How can you even say that? For being so smart, you really can be stupid sometimes, Alexis!”

Releasing his grip, he pulled me into his arms, the rough stubble of his chin pressed against my cheek. His voice was soft and full of pain when he said, “I am here – and I will always be here – because I love you, Alexis. My world was dark and cold before I met you. I had no direction, no joy in my life before you.”

I clung to him, bunching his shirt in my fists and trying to press myself closer to him. But he pulled back and smoothed my curls from my forehead, framing my face in both hands. A small smile curved his lips.

“I’ve never told you this…I’ve never told anyone this, not even Chad. But I was in a very dark place the night we met. I felt helpless, hopeless, floundering in an ocean of despair and going under quickly.”

My eyes wide, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. “Oh, Jamie.” He waved me off.

“I hadn’t made a plan, I wasn’t committed to doing anything, but I sure didn’t see any future for myself. Until you. I saw that smile, got a glimpsse of your enormous humor and heart, and for the first time in a long time I saw beauty in the world. That night I met you, at the karaoke bar, was the night my life truly started.”

Searching his face, it was like I was seeing him – really seeing him – for the first time. “I had no idea. Jamie, I’m so sorry. Why didn’t you tell me?”

He shrugged. “It wasn’t important. That wasn’t me anymore. Everything had changed and I didn’t want my past to be part of our future.”

“I can’t believe what I’ve put you through,” I murmured, pressing my face into his shoulder to hide the fresh wave of shame trying to drown me. “If I had known…”

Extracting himself from my embrace, he held me at arms’ length and cocked his head. “I didn’t tell you that to make you feel bad or obligated. That’s the last thing I want! I’d never want you to be with me because you felt like you had to be.” He dropped his hands and took a step backwards. “Please don’t think I’m going to backslide or fall apart if you decide not to be with me. It will hurt, a lot, but that’s kind of what I’m trying to tell you. The world is a different place to me now. Knowing you, loving you, has shown me there is endless possibility and hope all around us. You saved my life, even if you choose not to be in it anymore.”

Words wouldn’t come to me. I had never heard anything so heartfelt and honest in my life. In the years we’d been together we’d shared nearly everything and I had always felt closer to Jamie than to anyone else. But the raw emotion in his words made me realize there was still so much more to learn, so much I wanted to discover about him and my heart swelled with affection. I stepped closer, reaching for him, wanting to feel his arms around me and to press my lips to his.

He held out his hands and moved out of reach. “Hold on, Lex,” he said. I blinked. “Don’t you think there’s someone else you need to make things right with, first?”

My cheeks flushed and I nodded.

Jamie kissed my forehead and whispered in my ear, “Call me when you’re done.” Then he handed me my phone, the call already ringing into Kelly’s line.

romance story, romantic serial, short story chapters, sharon clark, Sharon L. Clark Author

The Path of Least Dysfunction, A Series: Chapter 30

I watched Chris leave, thinking about what he’d said. He really wasn’t pushing me. So why did I feel like I was under pressure?

That was all on me. It was classic Alexis; the weight of the world balanced precariously on every decision I made. Logically, I knew that very little hinged on what job I took, where I went on vacation, what I had for dinner. But somehow my anxiety had convinced me that if I chose poorly the repercussions could be catastrophic.

Being around Chris felt good. He was kind and considerate and probably the sweetest man on the planet. Could I see myself with him? Easily. We would wake up and make breakfast, then spend the time before we had to work drinking coffee and discussing the latest news. On the weekends we could stay in bed and binge tv or get up to wander around the Farmers’ Market, holding hands and meeting up with friends for brunch. Our life together stretched out in front of me, calm, peaceful, and full of love. We could get married and buy a house, get a dog and have a baby. He’d be the best dad.

With a shock, I realized I had forgotten a very important piece of information regarding Chris: He was already a dad!

I frowned. That tidbit brought with it an entire host of things I hadn’t taken into consideration. His ex-wife would always be a part of his life. It’s not that I didn’t like Angie or that I thought she’d try to come between us, but that reminder that he’d loved someone else would always be present. I liked kids. At least, I was sure I would, if I spent any time around them. Chewing my lip, it dawned on me that life with Chris might cause as much anxiety as it quelled.

When I walked into my apartment, Jamie was standing at the window, hands in his pockets and his shoulders down. He didn’t turn when I came in. He didn’t say anything, either.

“Hey,” I said. “It’s time we had a talk.”

He cleared his throat. “I’ve already lost you, haven’t I?”

I froze, guilt settling like a weight in my stomach. “What do you mean? Of course not. But I think we both have questions that deserve answers.”

Jamie nodded, shuffled his foot on the carpet, then crossed the room and sat in the chair he’d been in earlier.

He didn’t look up at me once.

As soon as I was settled across from him, hands clenched in my lap, I tried to order my thoughts. I had no idea what to start with. Should I tell him things I think he wants to know? Ask him my questions? Keep my mouth shut and wait for him to start?

I watched him and it became obvious he wasn’t about to take the initiative. He was slouched forward in the chair, elbows resting on his thighs. Staring at the floor, his hands hung limp between his knees. Everything about him felt dejected and heartbroken. And, once again, it was because of me.

“Are you in love with him, Lex?” he asked the floor.

Was I? That was the million-dollar question. How did I feel about Chris? There was a part of me that wanted to spend all my time with him, to kiss him again, to just lie in his arms. But the rational part of me was able to look at the situation and see it the way he had described our kiss: ‘It was two people with a shared past needing to feel something good, if only for a little while.’

Looking at Jamie in my living room and seeing what my behavior was doing to him broke my heart. I wanted to gather him to me and kiss him, soothe him, and take away all the hurt.

“I—I don’t know,” I stammered. “I’m so confused. I don’t know if these are real feelings or something left over from high school or just a reaction to the way he thinks he feels about me.”

Jamie sat up and finally met my gaze. His lips curved into the ghost of a smile, but his eyes were still filled with pain. “That’s better news than I was expecting,” he said. “Watching how comfortable you two are with each other, I was sure this was the end for me.” His face darkened and he turned away. “But the fact that you kissed him is going to hang over us for a long time.”

“I know.” I stared at my hands as I picked at my nails. Oh, I was aware that I had hurt him in a moment of stupidity and the guilt weighed heavily on me. “It sounds like a broken record, but I never meant for that to happen. It was nothing but a moment of weakness.”

I was going to say more, try to apologize again, to get him to understand what I had been feeling in that moment with Chris. But as I looked at Jamie’s sad, distraught face, something occurred to me.

“Wait a minute. I’ve already explained this, I’ve already apologized. It’s your turn to start talking.”

His brow furrowed, he cocked his head and asked, “What do you mean? About what?”

I crossed my arms and narrowed my eyes, giving him the best glare I could muster as I uttered one word.

Kelly.”

romance story, romantic serial, short story chapters, sharon clark, Sharon L. Clark Author

The Path of Least Dysfunction, A Series: Chapter 29

I placed a hand on Chris’s chest to hold him at the door and then turned so I could also see Jamie in the living room behind me.

How had my life gotten so complicated?

“Now, hold on a second,” I began. Before I could launch into a speech about all of us being adults and how we should take a deep breath and just talk, both Jamie and Chris pointed an accusing finger at each other.

“What’s HE doing here?” they both shouted.

I pushed Chris out into the hallway. “You: go outside! We need to talk.” He tried to protest, but the look on my face must have promised danger because he went without another word.

I spun around and pointed at a smug-looking Jamie. “And you,” I snarled. “Are not off the hook. I expect you to be exactly in that spot when I get back!”

At least he had the common sense to look ashamed of himself as I left, slamming the door behind me. I stomped outside to deal with the first crisis.

Chris was pacing on the sidewalk, chewing his lip with his hands deep in his pockets. He seemed to relax as soon as he saw me and stepped up wearing an enormous smile. “Lexi!”

“What are you doing here, Chris?”

He frowned for a second. “I told you – I was worried. You sounded like you might be in trouble.” Dipping his head to get a better look at my face, he asked, “Are you in trouble?”

Suddenly all my anger drained away and I was exhausted. “No. Maybe. I don’t know, Chris.” I sighed and closed my eyes, trying to regain control of my whirling emotions.

“Are you and Jamie fighting?”

I nodded.

“Is it bad?”

I shrugged. “It’s all gotten completely out of hand. None of this was supposed to happen!” Running my hands through my hair, I paced along the sidewalk. “I mean, I know I cheated first, but god, this is all wrong!”

Chris grabbed my shoulders and turned me to face him. “Whoa, whoa. There are a couple things I need you to clarify in that last sentence. You cheated on Jamie? When? And with who?”

I gaped at him. “Chris, it was with you. We kissed? You were there.”

He rolled his eyes and laughed. “Oh my god, I thought you actually slept with someone.”

“It shouldn’t have happened.” I felt the tears coming and closed my eyes again to keep them at bay. “If it wasn’t cheating, then what was it?”

“Lexi, it was a moment, that’s all.” Cupping my cheek, Chris wiped an escaped tear with his thumb. “It was a moment of powerful emotions. Of nostalgia and confusion, loneliness and affection. It was two people with a shared past needing to feel something good, if only for a little while.”

I rolled my eyes and groaned. “Stop doing that!”

“Doing what?”

“Saying the right thing! Saying the exactly perfect thing that I need to hear that makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside! I need you to be an asshole and you are failing abysmally.”

Laughing, Chris opened his arms. I only hesitated a second before wrapping my arms around his waist and laying my cheek on his chest. He rubbed my back and kissed the top of my head and it was nicer than I wanted to admit.

Maybe I could just stay out here for the rest of the day – or forever – letting Chris take care of me while he said sweet things to me. Jamie could have my apartment if I didn’t have to go back in there and face him.

His hand stopped moving and he froze.

“What?” I asked.

Holding me at arm’s length, his eyes narrowed, he said, “Hold on. You said you cheated ‘first’. For you to be first there had to be someone second. What did he do, Lexi?”

“Well, that’s the question, isn’t it?” I backed out of Chris’s reach. “I’m not sure if he did anything, we didn’t have a chance to get into it before you showed up. But…” I bit my lip and stared at my feet.

“That bastard,” he snarled. “Who is she? That tramp he brought to the art show?”

Without looking up, I shook my head. How could I explain my suspicions to him when I couldn’t wrap my own head around it? Gravity seemed to be pulling my tears from my eyes against my will. Chris saw the first one plop on the ground, and I could hear him grumbling under his breath.

“Alexis, was it someone you know?”

I nodded and swiped at my eyes. “I­…I think it was Kelly.”

“WHAT?!”

Chris yelled so loud he rousted some birds from a tree near the parking lot and definitely got my attention. His hands clenched and unclenched, his face turning red.

“He’s lying,” he said. “There’s no way Kelly would do that to you. He’s trying to make you feel bad – feel worse than you already do – by saying you drove him to cheat because he thinks YOU cheated! What a rat.”

Standing with my arms limp at my sides, I waited for Chris to stop his tirade. I didn’t have the energy to argue with him. Hell, I didn’t think I had the energy to go back upstairs and deal with Jamie, either. My eyes followed the path of the sidewalk, wondering where it would take me, how far away it went, and if I could outrun Chris if I got a jump on him.

He noticed that I wasn’t seething with him, and he slowed his frantic pacing until he was directly in front of me.

“Lexi? Are you okay?” He stroked my arm and took my hand, stepping close and lacing his fingers with mine. “I’m an asshole. You’ve got so much on your shoulders you don’t need me freaking out, too. I shouldn’t have yelled. Sorry.”

I wanted to be mad. I wanted to shove him or punch him in the stomach or yell at him. But I looked up at his sweet eyes and his sad smile and I just couldn’t. Instead, I kissed his cheek and grinned.

“You’re pretty wonderful, you know that? But Chris, this,” I held up our joined hands. “This has to stop.” My heart broke at the expression on his face as he disentangled our hands. His shoulders hunched and he stared at his shuffling feet, burying his fists deep in his pockets. “For now. I need it to slow down for now, while I figure out what the hell I’m doing. And what I want.”

He nodded. “You know I don’t want to push you. I want you to be happy, whatever that looks like. Even if it’s not with me.”

Before I could say anything else, he turned with a small wave and walked away.

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