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

The Path of Least Dysfunction, A Series: Chapter 21

I saw Brian approaching before he saw me. He was with his wife and two small boys, pushing the stroller with one hand and waving the other in the air as he told a story.

Brian hadn’t changed much. He was still tall and gangly, but a little less so as he’d filled out over the years. It changed the shape of his face and made his big engaging smile even more charming. His wife was pretty with long, straight blond hair and an athletic build on a petite frame. She looked kind and sweet and I was so happy she had found Brian.

When his eyes zeroed in on me across the park, his grin grew even bigger. He pointed me out to his wife, and I was immediately apprehensive. She had to think I was crazy. What kind of weirdo meets up with ex-boyfriends? Married ex-boyfriends? I hadn’t explained to Brian what I was doing, or why I wanted to see him. He never asked why, just accepted with enthusiasm. To my surprise, his wife flashed a genuine smile and waved at me before pressing a kiss to Brian’s cheek and steering the two little ones to the playground.

He jogged my way grinning from ear to ear and my stomach flipped as he drew closer. Did I know what I was going to say? Good lord, no. But I stood up and offered a shaky smile anyway.

“Brian. I’m so glad you were able to come.”

Stopping a few feet from me, he stared at my hand like I was offering him a snake before closing the distance and enveloping me in a hug. This was no awkward, uncomfortable hug – he pulled me close and held me tight and all of my nerves melted away.

This was Brian. I had nothing to be afraid of here.

He kept an arm around my shoulders as we began to walk. It was easy and friendly. Brian asked about Kelly and about my family. I asked him about his work at the high school and was thrilled to learn he’d been composing his own jazz music.

“It’s amazing,” he gushed. “Anything and everything inspires me: the sound of the rain, my kids laughing, the wind in the leaves. And the freedom of creating something that is all my own is intoxicating! I’ve never been happier.”

Arm in arm we kept moving through the park. I talked about Jamie. A lot. I told Brian about how we met, how he proposed, how he dealt with my neuroses always with a smile.

We continued swapping stories until my stomach growled loud enough for Brian and everyone within ten feet to hear.

“Oh my god,” I groaned, burying my face in my hands.

He simply looped his arm through mine and steered me to a nearby soft pretzel vendor. We sat in companionable silence while we ate. It was refreshing to just be still in the sunshine and the light breeze, not feeling compelled to do or say or think about anything.

Of course, that feeling was short-lived. Brian cleared his throat and crumpled up his pretzel paper.

“So. Alexis. I’m not complaining – I’ve had a terrific time catching up and just hanging out with you – but I’m fairly certain you had an ulterior motive for seeing me.”

I stared at him, chewing the last bite of my pretzel very slowly. I still hadn’t figured out what I was going to say and we’d been walking and talking for an hour.

“You’re right. There was something else I wanted to talk about. So.” I took a deep breath and squared my shoulders. “So. I don’t know if you heard – probably not, I mean why would you? – but I got engaged recently.”

The smile exploded across his face and I could tell that he was genuinely ecstatic for me. “I DID hear! When is the wedding?”

I grimaced. “Well, that’s the thing. It’s kind of…postponed indefinitely.”

He grabbed my hands and his smile faded as quickly as it had bloomed. “Oh my god! What happened? Are you okay?”

“Yes…and no. I mean, it’s not like anything actually happened, the wedding isn’t called off. Jamie is amazing and perfect for me and my favorite person in the world. But I just…I don’t know, I’m not ready, I guess.”

Brian pulled me up from the bench and started strolling around the fountain in the middle of the park, obviously trying to think of something to say besides ‘you’re a crazy person’.

“Brian, how did you know things would last? Was there some kind of clue? Was there something she did or said that told you that, no matter what, she would love you forever?”

His roar of laughter startled me enough to make me jump a foot out of my skin. I wasn’t trying to be funny, so I was pretty peeved that his response to my honest question was laughter. He must have felt me tense up next to him because he squeezed my shoulder and let the chuckle die in his throat.

“I’m so sorry, Lex, I don’t mean to laugh. But what makes you think there is ever anything that can give you that kind of definitive proof? No one knows they’re going to be together forever – or that they’ll divorce after seven years. It’s all based on your faith in the other person.”

I groaned. “I know, I know. But – and I don’t mean to be rude or anything – but you had such low self-esteem when I knew you, how were you so convinced that getting married was the right thing?”

In the distance I could see his wife, Janie, returning from the playground. During our conversation Brian and I had giggled at the similarity in the names of the people we loved best. The children were already dozing in the stroller, dirty, exhausted, and happy. I glanced up at Brian and the look on his face when he saw his little family was ridiculously sweet and sappy. I loved it.

“You’re not rude, Lex. I didn’t think much of myself back then, you’re right. I needed constant approval from the people around me, you included – maybe especially. Let’s not pretend – I was gangly and goofy and nerdy and my mouth was too big – the fact that I had a girlfriend ever was a miracle in itself. But Janie…” He sighed. “I don’t know if I can explain it, but just her loving me gave me a confidence I had never felt before. And not just because she’s smokin’ hot.”

I bumped him with my hip and rolled my eyes.

“Seriously! She helped me see myself through her eyes and it was…amazing. I didn’t know if we would last forever – I still don’t know. But what I do know is that I want to spend all the time I can with her, no matter if it’s an eternity or two years.”

We stopped in front of the bench where I’d been perched when he arrived and turned to face each other. When he smiled down at me this time, there was nothing but kindness and affection in his eyes. He took my hands in his and gave them a squeeze.

“I don’t know exactly what you were looking for here, Lex, but I hope I was helpful. Listening to you talk about Jamie, I can hear how much you love him in every word.” Brian pulled me in for one last hug and shook his head. “Kind of strange that the tables have turned, huh? I’ve never seen you so hesitant before.”

I pressed my cheek against his shoulder and my words came out as barely a whisper.

“I’ve never had so much to lose.”

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

The Path of Least Dysfunction, A Series: Chapter 20

I had always loved this park. Full of gentle hills, lots of open green space, little clusters of trees shading picnic tables. There was something for everyone. Waiting on the bench, the warm sun on my shoulders failed to ease my nerves.

My leg bounced up and down and I twisted my fingers in my lap. I watched the families and couples as they passed me, examining each and every face. There was only one I was looking for. I hadn’t seen him in years and I wasn’t sure what to expect.

The shoebox of memories that I had dragged off the shelf when all of this started had contained more than the sweet postcards and photos from Chris. I also had kept a large collection of notes and stories from Brian.

Tall and thin with thick black hair, Brian was my first boyfriend at college. Chris and I were officially over, I had sent Doug packing, and I was ready for a fresh start. Brian was it.

I lived in a co-ed dorm that first year, the floors alternating between genders. Brian was on the fifth floor and I lived on eighth. We didn’t have any classes together, but we saw each other in the cafeteria and the lobby, in the elevators and the common room. One of my eighth-floor neighbors had grown up with one of his fifth-floor neighbors and she brought me to his party one weekend.

Brian was perched in the corner, surrounded by a group of his music department friends, and I was immediately drawn to him. He was telling stories and making the people around him laugh. Snippets of songs or joke punchlines floated to me across the room. Eventually I drifted over to join the crowd near him and got drawn into the conversation. I wasn’t much for singing, but Brian was engaging and goofy, with an innocence about him that I sorely needed after the nightmare that was Doug.

By the end of the night, we were huddled together on the couch, talking and laughing until nearly everyone else had either gone home or fallen asleep. I gave him my phone number, but several days passed and I hadn’t heard from him. I shrugged it off as a great encounter, a fun night, and figured he must not have been as interested as I had thought.

The following Friday, I came home from class and found a tightly folded collection of papers shoved under my door. It was a note. An honest-to-god note like you’d pass in a middle school classroom. But this one was full of drawings and rambling thoughts about me, from Brian. The things he said were sweet and funny. He talked about how happy he was that he got to meet me, that he had actually lost my number and had to track me down through our mutual friends. They wouldn’t give him my room number so he had resorted to this outdated means of communication and they had agreed to deliver it.

His drawings were cute and simple but very well done. One showed the two of us sitting on the couch at the party, smiling at each other. Another one was him at a desk scribbling furiously. I had never had anyone draw anything for me and I was immediately charmed. I wrote back, with nowhere near the comedy, but gave him my number once again and stressed that I’d love to see him.

Thinking back, I probably should have seen that as a sign. He had written all these lovely words but hadn’t asked to see me, hadn’t offered up his phone number. I wasn’t opposed to being assertive and asking him out, but this became a pattern for our relationship down the road.

It turned out that Brian was a Music major, with his sights set on becoming a high school band instructor. He sang and played a multitude of instruments, but the trumpet was his first love. And he was an exceptional player. We didn’t jump into a romantic relationship immediately, but we did spend an awful lot of time together for the next few weeks. I would keep him company while he practiced, doing my own homework while he ran scales or worked on his improvisation. He would make sure I had a ticket front and center to any performance he was part of, giving me a wink and a smile in between songs. We would meet for dinner or walk to the coffee shop on the hill to support his friends doing open mic shows.

Even after we were seeing each other almost daily, I still found letters and notes and drawings under my door. He wrote me stories, self-deprecating humorous tales where I was a princess and he the lowly jester, painting himself as unworthy of my attention. There were little jabs at himself, almost always coming from the fictional me. Of course, I would laugh at these and reassure him that I liked him. He was cute and funny, his stories and notes full of compliments. I didn’t see this behavior as problematic until months later.

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

The Path of Least Dysfunction, A Series: Chapter 19

I knew I was wallowing: in self-pity, in nostalgia, in doubt. Maybe I should have just kept my mouth shut and gone forward with the wedding. After all, I loved Jamie and being with him made me happy. He gave me strength when I was my own worst enemy.

It was no secret that I was neurotic. My family knew it, my friends knew it, I knew it. Overthinking was my super power. I could ‘what-if’ anyone out of anything, if given a chance. I talked myself out of many opportunities using this method.

I could have gone to a prestigious college on the other side of the country. It was a big city full of diversity and culture and was the opposite of where I had grown up. But the what-ifs won out: What if something happened to someone I loved and I was a 24-hour drive away? What if I didn’t fit in anywhere and was completely alone? What if I couldn’t keep up with the classes and I was proven to be a fraud, as I fully expected? No, it was easier to stay within a two-hour radius of my hometown, just in case. If I failed, when I failed, I wouldn’t have far to fall.

My fears prompted me to settle into a ‘good enough’ job, and allowed me to wave off anything daring under the guise of safety. But with Jamie…he saw me in a way I never could.

He had a way of listening to what I said and finding my fear behind the words. He saw through all my nonsense and had a very diplomatic way of calling me out on it. Jamie would tilt his head and purse his lips and then lay out the truth for me.

A promotion opportunity presented itself. It was a perfect position for me, full of research and data gathering and analysis. I gushed about it to Jamie, so excited about the chance to do something I could love doing. But the more I talked, the more I talked myself out of it. I presented my own counter arguments, predicting the future five or six steps down the road to where the position was obsolete, or where I realized I wasn’t equipped to handle the responsibilities, or where I was simply burned out and resented the job – and myself. I managed to rave about and dismiss the promotion all in the same breath.

“Are you done?” He looked at me calmly, waiting. I nodded.

“This job was made for you. It is built for a person with your unique skills and personality. They won’t fire you if you don’t get the promotion. You lose nothing. But think of everything you could gain! Do you know how rare it is for someone to find a career that they love? I can’t think of anyone who would say they were passionate about what they do. But you? You were born to do this.”

I chewed my lip. “But –“

“Alexis, take the chance. I have faith in you, even if you don’t. Enough for the both of us.”

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

The Path of Least Dysfunction, A Series: Chapter 18

While I had seen and heard of the karaoke club, I was not in the least prepared for the experience of being inside. Generally, a bar has a rough clientele base: it’s a classy sit-down pub for the middle aged; it’s a bass-thumping dance club for the newly legal and almost legal to grind and shimmy; it’s a dark, seedy joint for ancient, lost souls to drown their despair.

This was a mixture of all of the above.

Currently, a 40-something brassy blonde with false eyelashes was belting out Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive like it was a church hymn. There was a scraggly eighty-year-old sitting at the bar, using his hands to conduct the music with enthusiasm. Men and women of all ages stood and sat and drank and talked and sang along. I’d never seen anything like it.

The club wasn’t very big, but I still had trouble finding the face that had lured me inside. As I was scanning the crowd Kelly elbowed me.

“Go get us some drinks.”

“What? Why should I buy? It’s your turn, Kell.”

“I’ll pay you back. And for god’s sake, do me a favor and just talk to him.”

My cheeks burned red and I scoffed. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

She grabbed my shoulders and forced me to look into her eyes.

“Don’t insult me. I’m not stupid. He’s standing at the bar, watching you, and has been since we walked in.”

That information made my stomach start doing flips. Still, I tried to lie to my best friend and hide the fact that I was already smitten.

“Maybe he’s a creep or a psychopath.”

She rolled her eyes and turned me around, pushing me toward the bar.

“I don’t for a second think that you believe that. Please put us all out of our misery.”

Sure enough, he was standing at the bar, trying to be sly about watching me. When our eyes met, he blushed a little but didn’t look away. To the contrary, he stood up taller and grinned a little wider.

Damn. I guess I was buying this round.

Not wanting to be too obvious, I didn’t try to squeeze into the space right next to him. I figured that if he was truly interested, he’d travel that extra three feet to me. Thankfully, I didn’t have to wait long.

“I was hoping I’d get a chance to meet you.”

Goosebumps. Immediately. Keep it together, Alexis.

I looked up at him with a half-smile. “You were?”

“Absolutely.” He held out his hand, even though we were basically pressed against each other in the crowd. “I’m Jamie.”

“Alexis.” When I shook his hand, the contact lasted longer than it should have. It seemed neither one of us wanted to be the first to let go.

“I feel like my whole life has been leading up to this moment, Alexis.”

My eyebrows shot up. “Wow. What a line.”

“Don’t you believe in love at first sight?”

“Is that what you think this is?”

He leaned in close so I could hear him over the noise. He smelled amazing. “I’m struggling to come up with a more feasible explanation for the way I’m feeling.”

“And how is that?”

He wasn’t touching me at all, but his breath on my ear and the side of my neck was oddly intimate.

“My heart is racing, I feel like I’m on fire, I can hardly catch my breath…”

“Maybe you have malaria.”

He cocked his head to the side and gave me a full smile. “Cute.”

“So…you’re telling me you DO believe in such fairy tales as love at first sight.”

Looking down at me, his smile softened. There was so much tenderness in his eyes my knees nearly buckled.

“I never used to.”

Kelly and I did not make it to the final stop that night.

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

The Path of Least Dysfunction, A Series: Chapter 17

By the time I got home, I had declined 12 phone calls and nearly 20 text messages. I switched the cell off.

The rest of the night was spent curled up on my bed, bawling like a child. I knew I had brought all of this on myself, but I had never felt so alone in my life.

Any time I felt this bad, my first impulse was to call Jamie. He was my rock and had been for over two years. Jamie always knew how to comfort me, how to help me work through my problems without making me feel worse. But somehow, I didn’t think he would be super sympathetic to my self-pity.

I held my hand in front of me, where I could admire the ring Jamie had picked out for me. He had spent more than a month shopping for the perfect style for me and, of course, he knocked it out of the park. Somehow, Jamie knew me so well he picked out the ring I never knew I had always wanted. He’d been doing things like that since the day we met.

Kelly and I were downtown that night to blow off steam after a long work week. The days of binge drinking and wild girl behavior were long past, so we were nursing drinks and hopping between bars on the square. We had challenged ourselves to have one drink at every bar before we called it quits. We’d been to the country/western bar, the martini bar, the Irish pub, and the sports bar. The only ones left were the video game arcade and the karaoke club. We were standing on the sidewalk debating which one would be the last stop for the night. That’s when I first saw Jamie.

He was at the back of a crowd of young men walking toward us, smiling at something the guys around him were talking about. He was wearing a Red Sox baseball cap, a white buttondown shirt with the sleeves rolled up to just below his elbows, and a pair of slim, dark jeans. I think his smile was the first thing that got my heart racing. Kelly was still talking, probably asking me questions, but her words barely registered.

As the group got closer, Jamie finally looked up and saw us. It sounds so cliché, but I was lost in that moment. A cartoon princess movie would show a montage of birds singing, and rainbows arching across the sky, and flowers blooming just so the butterflies would have somewhere to land. The neon lights and traffic and noisy music spilling from every doorway was, to me, just as sweet and just as romantic.

Jamie fell farther to the back, his steps slowing and stuttering, like he was torn about which direction to go, with his group or a few steps farther – to me. Our eyes stayed locked on each other even as his friends turned into the karaoke bar and he followed them with some reluctance.

“Kell, let’s go do some karaoke.”

“Really? Can you sing?”

I shrugged. “I sound great with the radio. Come on!”

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

The Path of Least Dysfunction, A Series: Chapter 16

Sunday dinner devolved quickly. Dad and I returned to my mom and sisters silently carrying on with food prep. None of them looked up when we came in, they all just kept on viciously chopping, peeling, and sautéing like those veggies had done something wrong, instead of us.

I attempted to apologize, as did Dad. Our pleas fell on deaf ears, however. My presence wasn’t so much as acknowledged, let alone forgiven. Since it appeared that we would, eventually, have a dinner to eat, I decided to sit in the living room with my dad.

Turns out that was the wrong decision. I could feel the piercing stares and waves of disgust washing over me the entire time it took for dinner to be served. Even then, not one of them invited us to join them. We simply saw that the food was done and decided to take our chances.

We were seated around the table, the only sound the clinking and scraping of silverware on plates. It was hard to enjoy the gourmet meal I was putting in my mouth because I felt so miserable. The air felt thick and heavy with judgment of what was seen as my horrible and selfish behavior. When I couldn’t take it anymore, I set my fork down nicely next to my plate and folded my hands in my lap.

“Can we please talk about this?”

There was an immediate lack of movement from anyone in that dining room. After an unusually uncomfortable pause, my mom was the only one to speak.

“No.”

“Judy…” My dad tried to smooth things out with her, placing a hand on her arm and speaking in a quiet voice. She was having none of that, though.

“Don’t you start with me, Jim! Don’t you dare. You’re as bad as she is! Sneaking out without a word to anyone!”

“There was no way to get a word IN, mom! You all were screaming at each other so loud a bomb could have gone off and you wouldn’t have noticed!” My resolve to be calm and contrite was beginning to unravel.

Lisa snorted. “Oh, right. This whole situation is OUR fault?”

“I didn’t say that. But may I point out that its nobody’s decision but MINE when or even whether I marry Jamie?!”

“Alexis, you wouldn’t!” Maggie gasped and stared at me with wide eyes.

I looked around the table at these people I loved – my mom, fuming at everyone around her; Maggie on the verge of tears at the idea that I might not get married; my dad looking like he was trying to figure out how to avoid sleeping on the couch that night; and Lisa showing zero emotion with her eyes glued to some imaginary spot on the wall – and I couldn’t be there one second longer.

I scraped my plate into the trash, thanked them all for a wonderful dinner, and slammed out the door without looking back.

Huh. Seemed I had developed a ‘modus operandi’ of running away from my problems. I made a mental note to see someone about that.

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

The Path of Least Dysfunction, A Series: Chapter 15

After my dad joined the conversation it got exceptionally loud in that little kitchen. Not because of him – my father was probably the calmest, most thoughtful human being I had ever encountered. Jamie was a close second.

No, my mom and my sisters decided that they each knew what my problem was. And they each knew exactly how to fix it.

My mother said I was being silly and overreacting to a case of cold feet.

“Everyone gets them! But that’s no reason to go traipsing around with ex-boyfriends!”

She felt that I should just quit messing around, put on my big-girl panties, and do what I was supposed to do. Judy then launched into a tirade about whiny millennials.

The fix suggested by Lisa was to just call off the wedding. It was glaringly apparent to her that I just didn’t want to get married. I was too young and shouldn’t rush into anything. She also felt I was being tremendously unfair to Jamie, stringing him along.

“The only decent thing to do is to cut him loose and stay single for a year or longer. Marriage isn’t for everyone.

Maggie, with her imagined wealth of experience in all things, said that Jamie and I had been together too long and that I was simply feeling restless. She thought that I needed to get away to Las Vegas for a wild and crazy weekend.

“What happens in Vegas, and all that! Imagine blowing off some steam with an anonymous stranger. Sow some wild oats before settling down – you’ll feel like a whole new woman!”

Not surprisingly, my mother lost her damn mind at Maggie’s suggestion, Maggie thought Lisa was bonkers to think that being alone was the best course of action, and Lisa couldn’t believe that our mother would blindly overlook my feelings and push me into some sexist expectation from the Dark Ages.

Each one was shouting louder than the next and ignoring me, completely. I watched silently from the far side of the kitchen until tears blurred my vision. While Mom, Lisa, and Maggie were distracted, my dad nudged me with his elbow and waggled his eyebrows.

The cavalry had arrived.

It was simple to escape the house. None of them heard anything but their own voices at this point. My dad and I kept quiet until we had turned the corner a few houses down.

“You know they’re going to think I just ran away. Again. Mom’s going to shit herself.”

Thankfully, Jim was not as shocked by foul language as Judy was, and he chuckled under his breath.

“I have a feeling you’re right about that. But don’t worry – I’ll tell them that this time you were kidnapped.” He slung an arm around my shoulders and grinned down at me.

I had so much on my mind, and I had no idea how to express any of it.

“Dad, do you think I should just call off the wedding?”

He squeezed my shoulder. My dad would take his time to answer, carefully measuring each word before it was uttered.

“Kiddo, it doesn’t matter what I think – or what your mom or your sisters think, either. The only people this wedding should really matter to are you and Jamie.”

I sighed and laid my head on his shoulder.

“I know, Dad. In my heart I know you’re right. But I can’t help thinking that Lisa has a point. Jamie deserves better. Maybe the fact that I’m hesitating is – is proof that this isn’t what I want. That I’m just going along with it because it’s what’s expected.”

“Is that how you feel?”

Was it? Everything was such a mess I couldn’t tell what I felt.

“Did I tell you I ran into Doug last week?”

Judging by the sudden tension in his body, I had not. It was no secret my dad had zero love for Doug. And that was even without knowing the whole story. Losing your virginity on a bathroom counter was NOT something you discussed with your father.

“Don’t worry, it was purely an accident. I know what went wrong there. And he’s still an asshole. Hopefully he was drunk enough that he won’t remember he knows me, much less that he saw me.”

Dad shook his head and grunted.

“That kid was a dickhead.” I couldn’t help laughing. “Sorry, Alexis, but he was!”

“Still is, Dad.” I frowned at the sidewalk. “But running into him made me even more worried about the future. I thought I was in love with Doug.”

My dad stopped cold in the middle of the sidewalk and turned me so he could see my face.

“Jamie is NOT Doug.”

“I know. But – ”

“It sounds to me like you’re trying to talk yourself out of getting married. Like you don’t trust your own feelings.”

I groaned. “At this point, I don’t, Dad.”

He tucked my hand in the crook of his arm and started steering us back home.

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

The Path of Least Dysfunction, A Series: Chapter 14

Every Sunday, my sisters and I descended on our childhood home to cook dinner for our parents. It became a tradition after my older sister, Lisa, moved to the other side of town for college. Maggie and I had missed her so much, and she came home every weekend to do laundry anyway, that we just decided it should be a thing. That was almost ten years ago.

This particular Sunday was about three weeks after the bridal shop ‘incident’. Once they all knew I was safe, they hadn’t pushed for more information. The last two weekends had slipped by in pleasant conversation and homemade pie without a scene.

But my mother had reached her limit.

My sisters and I were dancing around the kitchen, working together like a clunky, rusty machine, but still getting the job done. Dad was in the living room watching one of the news channels, giving them back his commentary. My mom was sitting on a stool at the kitchen island, trying to stay out of our way for fear of being trampled.

We were singing along to the radio as we worked, laughing at each other and lost in the music. Then Judy switched off the sound and slapped her hands on the marble counter.

“Okay, that’s about enough!”

Maggie nibbled at the celery she’d been chopping.

“We weren’t THAT bad, were we? I mean, Alexis was a little flat, but otherwise – “

“That’s not what I was referring to, and you know it.”

Tugging at her sleeve, Lisa steered Maggie to the far side of the kitchen. It seemed I was the only one not quite grasping the situation and I continued to root around in the fridge.

“Alexis Marie! I have been patient. I have tried to be understanding. But, by god, I deserve an explanation!”

There was complete silence following her outburst. I even heard my dad lower the volume on the television. That was kind of his thing; listening without obviously listening. Maggie and Lisa were huddled in the corner, well out of reach of our enraged mother – and me.

“Well?”

Well, indeed. Once again, I was faced with the task of trying to explain something I wasn’t sure I understood, myself.

“I am sorry for sneaking out on you like that. I don’t have an excuse. It was rude and selfish – ”

“And childish.” Mom gave me a glare that dared me to contradict her.

“And childish. I should have apologized a long time ago.”

That seemed to soften Judy’s resolve a bit. She raised her eyebrows, crossed her arms, and nodded.

“Thank you. We sat out there for a good hour before anyone realized you weren’t there. Poor Janice thought you had been kidnapped, or something.”

Shoving my hands in my pockets, I leaned back against the refrigerator. All I could do was stare at the floor and hope the words to make things better would materialize before me. Thankfully, my mom couldn’t stand the silence and the tension.

“Oh, sweetie. What on earth made you run away? Was it all just overwhelming?”

I shrugged. “A little. It’s just…I was looking at myself in that mirror and it was all so real all of a sudden. I guess I panicked.”

“Don’t you want to marry Jamie anymore?”

“Oh god Lisa, yes! I do want to marry him! Just not…yet.”

Maggie took the stool next to Mom and slung an arm over her shoulders.

“Can you believe this shit, Judy?”

We all snorted – all except Judy.

“Margaret! Watch your mouth! And since when don’t you call me Mom?”

“Since I am a grown, independent woman.”

“…who raids mom’s kitchen rather than go shopping for herself.” Lisa dodged her sister’s playful swat and wrapped me in a hug.

“I heard you were with Chris a couple weeks ago.”

Everyone perked up at Lisa’s statement, mouths round in shock.

I rolled my eyes.

“Oh my god, you guys! I wasn’t ‘with’ him in the Biblical sense! Is that what you think of me? We went to dinner. That is ALL.”

My dad, showing he was following along with the conversation just fine, thank you very much, piped up without turning around.

“How is old Chris, anyway? I always liked that kid.”

Turning on her stool, my mom was the one to reply.

“Jim, I’ve told you all this before. He’s divorced and lives with his little boy in the guest house on his parents’ farm. You’ve seen them.”

He waved his hand, lazily in the air. “Oh sure, sure. I remember that now.”

After a short silence, Dad hoisted himself from his armchair and wandered into the kitchen.

“Lex, what were you doing going out with Chris? Are things okay with you and Jamie?”

Well now. That WAS a question, wasn’t it?

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

The Path of Least Dysfunction, A Series: Chapter 13

Doug and I only dated for a few weeks, all told. He had wooed me, bringing me flowers, giving me compliments. After being rejected by Chris, it was a nice change to feel wanted and adored.

Our relationship turned physical pretty quickly. Looking back, that was my error; I had assumed that because he was younger than I was, he was more innocent, too. But I learned Doug was very skilled in the art of manipulation.

Chris and I had never had sex. We loved each other, but we just never got to that point – it never seemed necessary. Sure, there was a lot of making out (top of my list of favorite things, remember?) and a fair amount of heavy petting, but we were both still virgins when we broke up.

Knowing what I know now, Doug’s behavior was classic sociopath. He zeroed in on me, sensing my vulnerability and my need to see the good in others. He turned every situation to his advantage, making other people think that when he got in trouble, it wasn’t his fault. I caught him in a couple of lies but he gaslighted me into believing I was paranoid or overreacting.

I liked kissing Doug. I liked the way he made me feel, the things he whispered in my ear. He wanted to have sex, be the first for each other, but I wasn’t quite ready. He was disappointed but ultimately understanding each time I put on the brakes. But that didn’t stop him from trying to push things just a little farther every time we were together.

We had gotten a hotel room to ring in New Year’s Eve with our friends – well, the parent of one of our friends got the room. None of us was old enough. There was plenty of alcohol, the really horrible stuff that got you drunk quickly and made you sick the next day. The whole night, Doug and I hadn’t been actually fighting, but he had been distant and quiet. When I pressed him about it, he shrugged it off. He finally told me that he was so crazy about me and couldn’t stop thinking about touching me, and that I was making him miserable by saying no. Didn’t I love him?

Damn, he was good.

I had been drinking plenty of orange Mad Dog and was feeling pretty amorous. As the night wore on and I thought about it more and more, that addled, drunk teen brain was convinced that Doug really loved me, that I really wanted to have sex – and to have sex with him – and that I was finally  READY.

So, when I whispered coyly into his ear that I wanted him, he unceremoniously pulled me into the bathroom and we proceeded to fuck quickly and uncomfortably on the hotel bathroom counter, with everyone in the other room knowing exactly what was going on behind that door.

Not my proudest moment.

After that night, he became even more and more distant. There was always something else he had to do rather than take me out, or he couldn’t stay on the phone with me for more than a few minutes. There were no more flowers, no more sweet nothings in my ear. In their place arose hurtful criticisms disguised as backhanded compliments. He resorted to name-calling – nothing really hurtful, but instead of calling me sweetie or babe he started calling me dork and loser. All under the cloak of quirky terms of endearment.

I got off work early one weekend and decided to surprise him with dinner. Well, he had a surprise for me, too.

A coworker named Dawn, naked in his bed.

I screamed and yelled and cried and he blamed me for showing up unannounced, for not being more willing and available. He had needs that I wasn’t fulfilling.

What a jackass.

That had been a hard lesson for me to learn. After Doug, I didn’t date for almost a year. When I did, the summer before college, there was very little physical contact. One boy – so sweet and shy and kind – only got hugs on my front porch after our dates. For three months.

The last I had heard of Doug was that he had joined the Navy, following in his old man’s footsteps. I had convinced myself that I’d never have to see him again and had taken great comfort in that thought.

And yet, here he was. Leaning in too close, telling me sexist and dirty jokes. He never realized that I had been giving him the death glare for a solid five minutes.

He stumbled forward, pushing himself up against me and breathing heavily.

“Come on, Alexis, let’s get out of here. Relive some old times? Give me a chance to remind you what it’s like to be with a REAL man.”

Kelly materialized out of nowhere, throwing her arm around me and squeezing herself between me and Doug.

“Lex! Where’s the freaking wine? I’m dying over here!”

She paid the bartender, handed me the two glasses, and steered me toward our table with a high-pitched, “Byeeee!” thrown over her shoulder at a drunk and confused Doug.

His ball sack had been saved by Kelly that night, and he never even knew it.

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

The Path of Least Dysfunction, A Series: Chapter 12

This couldn’t be happening.

Doug had crawled out from under his slimy rock somewhere. I thought I had scraped him off many years ago and had clung to the idea that I’d never have to see his smug face again.

After Chris and I had broken up, I was feeling pretty bad about myself. I turned to my work friends more often – Doug being one of them – and he fit in with everyone pretty well. We had worked together for nearly a year, but it wasn’t until my breakup that we became good friends. We hung out with our work crowd and talked on the phone almost every night. He was a lot of fun and very attentive and, after my devastating heartbreak, was a willing shoulder for me to cry on.

Then things started to change. It was subtle at first; suggesting we go see a movie or that I should come over to hang out. I would always offer to call the rest of our friends to join us, at which point he’d suddenly remember something else he had to do.

One night he confessed that he was in love with me. I laughed it off – he was younger than me, and kind of goofy, even if he was cute and charming. He tried multiple times to convince me we’d make a great couple; we were already close friends, we got along so well, we had fun together – why shouldn’t we take it to the next level? I turned him down over and over. I explained that I valued him as a friend and didn’t want to ruin that. That’s not what he wanted to hear, so he started to withdraw. He wouldn’t take my calls or was monosyllabic when he did.

Soon, he laid down an ultimatum. He wanted to be a couple. If I couldn’t do that, he couldn’t be friends with me. It was too painful for him. At that point, I had been leaning on him a lot for distraction from the sadness of my breakup with Chris, and I didn’t want to lose him. I hemmed and hawed for the weekend and finally agreed to go out on a date.

I cringe every time I think about it. What an idiot I was.

“Alexis, babe, you look pretty good! You’ve definitely aged well…” He sneered at me. “Are you surprised to see me?”

Trying to pass off a grimace as a smile, I hoped the lighting was dim enough he couldn’t tell.

“Doug, if I had a list of the people I least expected to see here tonight, you would be at the top of that list.”

He puffed out his chest and smirked. “Damn straight, I would!”

He would take that as a compliment.

“What have you been up to while I’ve been gone? Hanging around, missing me?” He leaned back and let his eyes wander all over me. I immediately wanted to vomit. “I don’t see a wedding ring…”

“Nope. But I see you have one. Congratulations.”

Like he had just remembered that he was married, he frowned at his hand.

“Oh yeah, that. No big deal. I hung out with Jill for a few months and then she got knocked up when I was home on leave. There was no way I was going to let her raise my kid without me. Marrying her seemed the best way to keep control of the situation and make sure she wasn’t out whoring around.”

My jaw dropped. There was absolutely nothing I could think of to say to that.

The bartender set two shots down in front of Doug and he slid one over to me.

“Come on, let’s celebrate!”

“Celebrate what, exactly?”

He leaned in close so I could smell his cheap cologne and the waves of alcohol on his breath.

“Us running into each other like this, baby. It’s great to see you, but I’d love to see even more of you, if you catch my drift.” He pulled away and winked.

Oh, for fuck’s sake.

“Thanks Doug, but my shot days are well behind me. Please, help yourself.”

With that, he shrugged and downed them both, shaking his arms with a loud, “Whoo!”

“You’re married, huh? And with a baby. Is your wife here?”

He smirked and shook his head slowly.

“Nope. I am free as a bird tonight. When I go out, I don’t want the old ball and chain hanging on me. Jill takes care of the kid and I send her money while I’m out on deployment. When I’m home, she does whatever I want, whenever I want it. Other than that, she doesn’t get into my business.”

I didn’t think it was possible, but Doug had become an even bigger misogynist douche.

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