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A Family Mystery Uncovered

This is the second story prompt from the book I got for Christmas and it took me several versions to get something I didn’t hate. The title was given to me and the words that had to be included are underlined throughout the text. I haven’t edited this story, either, so I apologize for anything repetitive, misspelled, or just plain idiotic. 

Enjoy!

Title: A Family Mystery Uncovered

Words: Sunday, secret, wallpaper, swap, sister, curiosity, island, notebook, marathon, demand


I laid in my bed, the covers pulled up to my chin, and held very still. Even breathing seemed too loud and made my heart race at the thought that I’d be heard and the ghost would come for me.

Every night for as long as I could remember, there had been unexplainable sounds that woke me up and kept me paralyzed in fear until exhaustion simply won out. I was only fifteen but I didn’t know a time when I wasn’t living in terror. When I complained to my mother about the moans, taps, and scratching I heard throughout the night she shushed me, declaring it all a bad dream. She even took me to a psychiatrist who diagnosed me with ‘night terrors’ which was absurd. Did you have to sleep to have those?

My sister, who had the attic bedroom, never heard a thing – or so she claimed. She was two years older and so close to graduating and leaving home that we rarely even saw her. But every now and then she’d invite me to her room to hang out or for what she called a sleepover. We’d roll sleeping bags onto the floor and lie awake, gossiping and making up scary stories until we couldn’t keep our eyes open. Those were nights that I cherished and would miss when she was gone.

“Do you think mom will let me swap rooms with you when you leave for college?” We were sprawled on the couches one Sunday in the throes of a massive rom-com marathon. “I can’t sleep in that room at all and I’m worried that whatever is in there is going to finally come for me. It seems like your room doesn’t have the noises and stuff.”

Angie glanced at me quickly and popped a chip in her mouth. “Seems that way, huh? Did it ever occur to you that you just don’t notice it when we’re both in there?”

I paused the movie and sat up. “What are you talking about?”

“I’m talking about the fact that I hear the same shit you do, it’s just not as loud all the way up there.”

Gaping, I tried to wrap my mind around what she was telling me. “Wait – so you’ve been hearing the same stuff all this time? I was forced to doctors and psychiatrists who tried to convince me it was all in my head and you’ve heard it too?”

She wouldn’t meet my eyes and started picking at her fingernails. “Come on, Mel, what do you think would have happened if I’d said anything? The folks would demand that I get my head shrunk, too. You were already going: if it was determined that you were insane it could be surmised that I was, too, right?”

Just then, our mom walked into the kitchen, tossing her keys on the island and pulling bobby pins out of her hair, letting it hang loose around her shoulders. “You were what, Ang? What are you two lazy bones talking about?” She leaned against the doorframe and crossed her arms.

Angie and I exchanged a quick wide-eyed glance before answering.

“Oh, you know, Mel’s worried about getting accepted to college. I was just telling her that I was worried, too, but she doesn’t have to worry about it.” She tugged at my hair playfully. “She’s smarter than I am, anyway.”

Mom cocked her head and smiled at us with soft eyes. “Oh, you girls! It makes me all warm inside to see how close you are!” She dashed across the room and wormed her way to a seat right between us and reached for the bag of chips. “So what are we watching tonight? Are we on a romance or horror kick right now?”

*****

The noises were particularly upsetting and my hands were trembling as I clutched at my comforter. I couldn’t keep my eyes still; too afraid to move at all and possibly draw attention to myself, my gaze was constantly flitting from one shadowy corner of the room to the next, certain there was something crouching in the darkness.

Whatever was keeping me awake had moved on from taps and moans to bangs, thuds, and outright muffled screams. How was my mom not racing through the house right now, making sure we were safe? It sounded like someone was being murdered.

There was a creak outside my bedroom and my heart tried to jump out of my chest when the doorknob turned. I pulled the covers over my head and chanted in my head, Go away, just go away!

“Melissa?” my sister whispered from the doorway and I was so relieved I almost burst into tears.

“Angie!” I hissed back, lifting the edge of the covers so she could jump in and we could huddle together for at least the illusion of safety. “Do you hear it, too? It’s so much worse!”

“We have to do something, Mel,” she said. Her hand flashed out from under the blanket and clicked on the lamp next to my bed.

“What are you doing?” I tried to climb over her to douse the light but she held me back.

“Whatever is going on isn’t going on inside your room. Don’t you think if movement or light drew it to us that I would’ve been caught on my way down here?” She pulled a notebook out from under the sheets and placed her palm on the cover. “I’ve been writing down every event over the past year, documenting what I heard, what time, what day, and I think there’s a pattern.”

I couldn’t focus on what she was saying, my nerves were shot and adrenaline was at an all-time high. “A pattern? What does that mean?” I pulled my knees up to my chest and tried to slow my breathing and my racing brain. With my eyes I traced the floral pattern on my wallpaper as the vines and leaves wound around the room, over and under, through and across.

“I mean, there are thumps and bangs nearly every night but things get really crazy every three weeks or so.” She tapped her finger on her chin. “What is going on every three weeks to ramp activity up so much?”

Before I could formulate a hypothesis, something caught my eye. The wall above my desk was moving, almost breathing. I watched a spot bow out and back flat, out and back until I wasn’t sure if my eyes were playing tricks on me.

Angie was still thumbing through her notebook, trying to figure out what the pattern could mean so she didn’t notice when I climbed off the bed. My curiosity overwhelmed my fear and I advanced on the wall, walking on tiptoes until I could reach out and touch it. But I couldn’t bring myself to do it.

A hand settled on my shoulder and it immediately had a calming effect. I loved that my sister was right there, offering her support and letting me know I wasn’t in this alone. I straightened my spine and lifted my hand once more.

“I don’t know that you want to do that.” My mother’s voice sounded in my ear and I spun around to find her right behind me, a serene smile on her face.

Her blood-spattered face.

“Wha-what happened? Are you okay? Where’s Angie?”

I leaned around mom to see Angie lying across the bed, unmoving, her notebook flung to the floor. Mother waved a hand and said, “Oh, don’t you worry about her. Your sister will be just fine. I only gave her a small dose. She’ll wake up with a doozy of a headache, but nothing a little aspirin can’t sure.”

Pressing my back against the wall, I was horrified at the calm vision before me. My mom’s hair was pulled neatly back into a ponytail that swung against the shoulders of a red track suit. After closer inspection, it wasn’t meant to be red. Her hands and her clothes were drenched in red, carrying with them that distinct metallic smell of blood.

“What have you done?” I barely choked the words out, fear gripping my chest as I stared at this monster who looked like someone I loved.

She clucked her tongue and stroked my cheek, saying, “Oh darling, I hadn’t intended on revealing our little secret quite yet; it’s far sooner than I had hoped. I didn’t think you’d be ready for another couple of years, to be honest.”

My mouth hung open even as I tried to escape her gentle touch. “I don’t want to know your secret!”

“Oh, it’s not my secret,” she chuckled. “This is a tradition that has been handed down through the generations of our family, from mother to daughter, for centuries. Once you see it in motion, actually get to perform the rituals with your own hands, you’ll wonder how you ever lived without it.”

She reached for me as though to gather me in her arms but before I could slap her hands away, the wall behind me exploded outward, showering us all with plaster and dust.

“Save me!” a voice rasped out as a bony claw clamped onto my shoulder. I screamed and my mom’s eyes lit with a blood lust I never could have imagined in my worst nightmares. She calmly stepped forward and peeled the fingers off me, bending them back until they cracked and the voice in the wall emitted an inhuman screech of pain, before the hand and the voice disappeared in a series of muffled thuds.

I dashed to my sister’s side as she began to wake up, groaning, and I could think of nothing but trying to protect her. Mother smoothed her stained hands down the front of her suit and took a deep breath.

“You two stay put and I promise I’ll explain everything when I get back.” She leaned in to peck a kiss to my cheek and winked. “But right now I’ve got a man to catch.”

END

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 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 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 28

“You – you what?” I couldn’t believe what I’d just heard. This was Jamie, MY Jamie, who had never wished harm to anyone.

He ground his fist into the palm of his other hand and frowned at the floor. When he spoke again, his voice was quiet and dark.

“I wanted to hurt you, to make you feel as bad as I did. I brought Brenda to make you think that I had moved on, that every minute of every day wasn’t spent thinking about you and missing you.” He glanced up. “Wondering who you were with.”

I couldn’t hold his gaze for long, as guilt settled in my chest like a lead weight. My hands twisted in my lap, knotting my fingers, clenching into fists. There was not one word I could think of to say. Nothing was going to make this better. An apology would sound weak and wouldn’t assuage my guilt or his anger, and would probably only serve to make things worse.

He stood suddenly and paced across the living room, sweeping his hands over his hair repeatedly, shaking his head.

“You were everything to me,” he began. “There was nothing I wouldn’t do for you, Alexis. Nothing. If I could give you the moon and stars, you know you’d already have them. Since the day we met, the only thing I wanted to do was make you happy. And what did you do with that?”

Coming to a stop with his back to me, he hung his head. His sadness was radiating off him and I knew I needed to make things better, to try to explain again why I was doing what I was.

“Oh, Jamie. I –“

Before I could even start, he had spun around and was looming over me, his finger pointing menacingly in my face.

“Don’t!” he bellowed. “You don’t get to talk right now, Alexis!”

I shrank back into the couch, my eyes wide. I had never seen him like this. Jamie didn’t raise his voice. He had never tried to intimidate me or threaten me. This was a stranger in front of me, not the Jamie I knew.

He pressed the heels of his hands against his eyes and blew out a deep breath. Keeping my eyes on him, I waited.

“Shit. This is not what I wanted. Things weren’t supposed to go down like this.” Turning to face me, he looked down, his brow furrowed. “Yes. I wanted to hurt you. That was my whole plan in coming to the art show. I wanted to make you feel as small, unloved, and insignificant as you made me feel.”

I kept my eyes down, watching the floor as he started pacing again. This had become a surreal situation and one that I didn’t know how to handle. I couldn’t blame him for wanting to hurt me, not really. He didn’t deserve the way I’d treated him, not for one second. Coming to the art show to confront me only made sense.

I frowned. He came to the art show to confront me? But…how did he even know I would be there?

Rising from the couch inch by inch, anger bubbled up inside me. “Jamie,” I murmured.

He whirled around surprised to find me so close behind him. His eyes flew wide for a second then narrowed and he crossed his arms in defiance. I continued to advance on him.

“Jamie…how did you know I was going to be there? I didn’t tell anyone. It was a last-minute decision. It’s not the sort of thing that I generally attend, so I know you didn’t guess.” I jabbed a finger into his chest, my anger overshadowing any fear he had caused a moment before. “How did you know? Do you have my phone tapped or something?”

Rolling his eyes, he stepped around me, hiding his face and putting some distance between us.

“Have your phone tapped?” he scoffed. “Don’t be rididculous! Who do you think I am – James Bond? How would I even do that?”

I followed him and stepped in his path. “Then how? You’re not a damn psychic.”

There was no way I was letting him get away without an explanation and I could tell by his face that he knew it.

“Jesus, you’re stubborn.” Sighing, he relented. “It was Kelly. She told me you were going to be there and suggested that I come talk to you.”

“Bullshit,” I spat. “Kelly wouldn’t do that. She was getting me away from everything, including thinking about you.”

He shrugged. “Look, she knew that neither of us would be the first to reach out and she was tired of getting caught in the middle. So…she orchestrated an ‘accidental’ meeting where we could hash things out.” Looking smug, he added, “She wasn’t expecting me to have my own plan.”

None of this was making sense. I pushed my hands against my temples to keep my head from exploding.

“I don’t understand! There are so many things you just said that are crazy I don’t even know where to start.” I fell back into the couch and stared at the ceiling. Without looking at him, I knew Jamie had sat down and was watching me closely.

I thought again about what he said, and something wasn’t sitting right.

“Wait – when did Kelly tell you where we were going?”

I felt him shrug. “I don’t know. On the phone the night before, I guess. She let it slip and we set it up from there.”

“You were…already talking to her when she ‘let it slip’? Why were you on the phone with her?”

He moved from the couch to the chair across from me without saying anything. I sat up and stared at him.

“How often do you two talk, Jamie?”

Now he was the one who couldn’t look me in the eye. His knee was bouncing and he was suddenly very interested in the floor. “Come on, Alexis. There’s no law that says I can’t talk to Kelly without you. We’re friends, too, you know.”

“Yeah, I don’t think so.” My chest started to hurt. “I would never hang out with one of your friends without you.”

He launched out of the chair and started toward the door. “Jesus, Alexis, can you hear yourself? This isn’t on me, you know. You’re the one who decided to call off the wedding and-“

“Postpone.”

He froze, but he still wouldn’t look at me.

“I didn’t call off the wedding, Jamie. I postponed it.”

A heavy silence hung in the air and the pain in my chest grew. “What did you mean about Kelly getting caught in the middle? She’s my best friend. There is no ‘middle’.”

He didn’t speak or move, but deflated a little with a long, drawn-out sigh.

Turning toward me with his hands in his pockets, he chewed his lip and tried to explain. “Alexis, none of this was supposed to happen. Like I said, it was never my intention to hurt you. It was only when you backed out – sorry, put off the wedding that things got out of hand.“

“What the hell are you telling me, Jamie?” My stomach clenched and wanted to eject its contents.

Jamie moved toward me, holding out a hand. I took an involuntary step back, the idea of him touching me pissing me off. Just as the bile in my stomach was rising, so was my anger. I could feel it like the mercury in a thermometer, climbing higher and higher.

“Alexis, please, just listen to me –“

He was interrupted by a sudden, frantic knocking at my door that made both of us jump. I wasn’t expecting anyone else – hell, I wasn’t expecting Jamie, and yet here he was. I pointed a finger at him, giving him my most severe scowl, and said, “We are not even close to being done here.”

It was satisfying to see a flash of fear in his eyes.

The knocking continued without stopping, setting my already frazzled nerves on edge. Moving faster, I yanked the door open just to make the noise stop.

“Hey Lexi, you okay?”

My mouth dropped open and I groaned. “What are you doing here?”

Chris stepped over the threshold and grasped my shoulders, looking me over before leaning in and kissing my cheek.

“The way you sounded on the phone had me worried, thought maybe you were in some kind of trouble. I was already in my car and decided to swing by and make sure you were all right.”

His hands tightened on my shoulders and even before I saw the shift of his gaze behind me, I knew things were just about to get really awkward.

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

The Path of Least Dysfunction, A Series: Chapter 26

Kelly pulled on my arm, trying to move me from the sidewalk. “Lex, don’t do this. We should go sit and calm down before either of you does something you can’t take back.”

Without looking at her, I yanked my arm free. The woman with him – well, I say ‘woman’ but she looked about 18 – was slender and tall. She had a neat, bright red pixie cut and a cute upturned nose. As they walked, she gazed at him with shining eyes and a wide smile. One he was returning with just as much adoration.

I wanted to get closer so I could examine them more thoroughly, but Kelly stepped in front of me, trying to break my line of sight.

“Seriously, we need to go.”

I pushed her out of my way and watched Jamie and this girl walk from stall to stall. He had an arm slung around her shoulders, their fingers intertwined. They looked very comfortable. Very cozy. Enamored of each other.

No one else noticed the sudden thickening of the air around us, but my chest felt heavy and it was hard to draw a full breath. My eyes were locked on them with laser focus and I didn’t think I could look away now, even if I wanted to. The girl glanced up and saw me. There must have been something alarming about the way I looked because she nudged Jamie and pointed at me.

When our eyes met, I could see the blood drain from his face. He’d been caught. He knew it. I knew it. He untangled himself from his companion and walked toward me without a second glance at her. As he drew closer, Kelly blocked him.

“You better turn around and walk the other way, jack,” she snarled. “This is some kind of bullshit, you know that?”

Jamie didn’t even acknowledge Kelly’s existence. “Alexis. Let me explain.”

Behind him, Red hadn’t moved. The look on her face was one of absolute confusion, like she was questioning the validity of the universe in general. I stared at Jamie. Everything inside me had turned to ice and I felt…honestly, I felt nothing.

“It’s okay, Kel. I’ll talk to him.” Without checking to see if he was following, I turned and marched to the last coffee shop we had passed. The little bell over the door jingled when I entered, and I ordered two coffees. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I heard the bell again and knew it was him, I didn’t even have to look. I chose a table in the corner where I could see the door. He sat across from me and I sipped my coffee, strangely still and calm.

Jamie started playing with the coffee sleeve. Up. Down. Twist, twist.

I didn’t say anything, waiting for him to explain. It was bizarre that I wasn’t freaking out. That was my thing. I freaked out about inconsequential stuff all the time and this situation was a real doozy. I should have been a quivering mess, sobbing and snotty, barely functioning. Instead, I was relaxed.

I think that was terrifying to him.

“Lex, this isn’t anything,” he began. “I’m here as a favor. Brenda and I work together, and she wanted to come to this but didn’t want to come alone. Her boyfriend just broke up with her and all of her friends were busy. It’s perfectly innocent.”

Over his shoulder I saw Kelly peering in the window at us. She was scowling, her hands cupped around her eyes, and completely ignoring Brenda chattering away next to her. I smirked at the ridiculous sight and Jamie took that as a sign of my forgiveness or understanding or something. His shoulders released and his whole posture radiated relief. I snapped my eyes back to him, the smile gone.

“I don’t know that I care why you’re here with her. She looks like a child, by the way.”

His cheeks turned pink and he resumed the dance of the coffee sleeve. Up. Down. Twist, twist.

“She’s twenty,” he offered. As though that made things better. “Look, you walked away, Alexis. Not me. It’s been weeks without a word, and-“

“You told me not to call you.”

He gaped at me. “Yeah, not until you were ready to get married!” Jamie ran his hands through his hair and stared at the ceiling. “I don’t want to be your plaything, Lex. I love you and I want to marry you. But I won’t be your booty call.”

That made me snort. I was fairly certain those words had never come out of his mouth. Ever. But my laughter didn’t go over well with him. He crossed his arms and glared at me while I tried to figure out what to say.

“I didn’t walk away, Jamie. I asked for time – and I thought you said you’d give it to me.” I pointed at Brenda, chewing her fingernails just inside the door. “Has that changed?”

His glare turned into a sneer and he leaned across the table, keeping his voice low. “What about you, Lex? Has it changed for you? Spending time with every guy you’ve ever loved – except me. What am I supposed to think?”

Now I was getting angry. The cold calm inside me started to smolder and I matched his posture. “You’re supposed to think that I need some time, Jamie! You’re supposed to think that I’m confused and scared and a little lost, that’s what! Instead, you’re weekending with Tinkerbell over there. I may have kissed Chris but at least I’m not slipping away to bang him in a B&B!”

Jamie reeled back like I’d slapped him. At first I thought he was just shocked at my rage, and then the words replayed in my head.

Oh shit.

Now it was his turn to play out the iceberg routine. All emotion slid off his face and his eyes glazed over. He was done with this conversation.

“God, Jamie – it was just a kiss. We got together for a few drinks. I was feeling sad and it just…happened. There was nothing to it.”

His hands were in his lap and he was looking right through me. “You met with him more than once, huh? How many times, Lex? Are you dating him now?”

“Don’t be an asshole.”

“Oh, I’m the asshole, huh? You lose your shit, accusing me of sleeping with Brenda, then tell me you kissed another man and I’M the asshole?” He shook his head and got up from the table. Halfway to Brenda at the door, he spun around and stared at me. “I don’t think you’re ready to get married. Not to me, anyway. Maybe it’s a good thing you called off the wedding.”

He grabbed Brenda’s hand and dragged her behind him up the sidewalk. Kelly rushed to the table and put her hand on my shoulder. It wasn’t until Jamie was completely out of sight that the tears started.

“Postponed,” I whispered.

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

The Path of Least Dysfunction, A Series: Chapter 24

It hadn’t been my goal to end up in Chris’s arms. There really wasn’t an explanation for it, either. Oh, I had plenty of excuses for what happened, and I had been playing them over and over in my head, trying to get one to stick: We were caught up in the moment, we were both feeling lonely, old emotions bubbled to the surface, I had a number of weak reasons.

The truth was, I had thrown myself at him and he, in true Chris fashion, had simply rolled with it.

“Alexis, wait!”

Once I had released my death-grip on him, I climbed out of the fountain and ran. It wasn’t really clear to me what had upset me the most: the fact that I had kissed another man while I was, effectively, engaged to Jamie? Or was it that the way he said my name indicated that he regretted it immediately – and long before I did?

He caught up with me quickly, his shoes and socks clutched in one hand, the 6-pack in the other. “Stop! Why are you running? Talk to me, Lexi!”

It was hard to meet his eyes. I was so ashamed and I couldn’t imagine what he must be thinking. I finally pushed my shoulders back and faced him. “Chris, I’m so sorry. That should have never happened – I shouldn’t have done that – it was totally uncalled for and inappropriate. Let’s just get you back to your car, we’ll both go home, and let’s forget this ever happened.”

His shoulders slumped and he stared at his shuffling feet. “I don’t want to forget it, Lex,” he mumbled.

“What?”

When he met my gaze, his eyes were blazing with hope. “I don’t want to forget it! I want – I don’t regret that it happened. Not at all. And I don’t want to make your life any more complicated, honest to God! But…”

His voice trailed off as he set down what he was holding and put his hands on my shoulders.

“I haven’t been able to stop thinking about you since we had dinner that night, Lexi. You’re different in some ways, but still the same girl deep down. The girl with the infectious laugh, the smart sense of humor, the Texas-sized heart.” He trailed his fingers along my cheek. “The girl I fell for so many years ago.”

I wasn’t sure if it was, but I felt like my jaw was laying on the ground. There was no way I was hearing what I thought I was hearing.

“Chris…What are you saying?”

He stepped closer, his hands resting on my waist while I gaped at him. “I’m saying…Shit. I know you’ve got a lot on your plate, a lot weighing on you. I know you’re confused and the last thing I want is to add to all the noise. But I don’t think our story is over yet.”

Frowning, I pushed against his chest. “This is a joke, right? You’re messing with me.”

I sat on the bench to put my shoes back on and Chris sat next to me to do the same. Neither of us said anything until we were done and stood facing each other again.

“You’re not joking, are you?”

With one corner of his lips lifted into a grin, he shrugged. “I’m not. I can’t tell you what you should do, I would never presume to try to make your choice for you. But I would love to see you a little. Or a lot, actually, if you’d let me. You can’t deny there’s something strong between us, even all these years later! Maybe that’s why you can’t go through with the wedding.”

“You think I postponed the wedding because I still have feelings for you? That’s a little conceited, isn’t it?”

We pulled into the parking lot of Rudy’s and I killed the engine. I turned to face Chris and even in the shadows, I could see his dimples. He was smirking at me! As though my whole life wasn’t just flipped over! Like he thought it was all a colossal joke. I must have been scowling because he cleared his throat and switched to a neutral expression.

“It’s not conceited. When you called off the wedding, I-“

“Postponed,” I snapped. He looked confused so I explained it further. “The wedding wasn’t called off. It was postponed.”

His lips twitched. “Right. Of course. Sorry.” He cleared his throat and continued. “I was the first one you called, the first one you wanted to see after. We had such a great time together at dinner, it was like no time had passed at all! And, judging by what just happened in the fountain, the attraction between us is still very strong. I mean, I’ve been having dreams about you, for god’s sake!”

Could that really be the underlying reason? Was I afraid that things wouldn’t last forever with Jamie because I didn’t want them to last forever? I closed my eyes to stop my mind from chasing itself with this impossible question. But I had to admit that what passed between Chris and me couldn’t be ignored.

Staring out the windshield and gripping the steering wheel, I didn’t know what to say. So many thoughts and feelings were fighting each other inside me I couldn’t pull one in focus long enough to express it.We sat in silence for several minutes until Chris sighed.

“I’m not going to try to force your hand here, Lexi. The last thing I want to do is add to your stress.” He tucked my hair behind my ear and whispered, “I just want you to know that I care. That I’m here for you if – when you need me. When you’re ready.”

I swallowed hard as he got out of the car, refusing to look at him. My hands were white-knuckled on the steering wheel and my gaze was locked on a spot far off in the distance. Through the blurry veil of my tears I watched his truck pull away.

~~~

“I kissed Chris.”

Kelly choked on her coffee, her eyes wide as she tried to catch her breath.

I kept my head down, examining my coffee cup and drowning in my own guilt. I deserved every ounce of judgment Kelly was about to lay on me. There wasn’t anything she could say that I hadn’t already been beating myself up with since that night.

“Oh, Alexis…”

I buried my face in my hands. “I know…I’m the worst.”

She didn’t say anything, so I risked a glance at her face. I fully expected fire to be shooting from her nostrils or something similar, but instead she looked worried. Her eyebrows were drawn together, and her mouth was twisted sideways. Her pensive face.

“Come on,” I urged her. “Let me have it! I’m a horrible human being and Jamie deserves so much better and I should just hide in a hole for eternity. You can say it – we both know it’s the truth.”

Her head wagged from side to side, the same expression on her face.

“I don’t think you’re horrible. I think you’re confused.” She reached across the table and squeezed my hand. “Does Jamie know?”

“Nooo,” I groaned. I stared at the ceiling and tried to imagine how that conversation might go.

It wouldn’t be pretty.

Explaining the whole night to my best friend was therapeutic, to an extent. When I got to the part where I actually put my lips on Chris’s I was surprised at my racing heart and the butterflies in my stomach. Damn.

I told her about his parting offer and when I was finished my throat was starting to close up, trying to hold back the tears that threatened once again.

“Kell, I don’t know what to do! I’m such a mess. Why did I do that? Why would I do that to Jamie?”

She smirked over the top of her cup. “Well, you didn’t do it to Jamie. You did it to Chris.”

I scowled. “I don’t need you to be a smart ass right now, thanks.”

“You’re right, I’m sorry.” Kelly leaned back in her chair and regarded me silently for a moment. Then her eyes lit up and her face split in a huge smile. “But I know what you do need, my dear friend.”

The look on her face made me wary and exhausted before she said anything more. That look was usually the precursor to something wild and, sometimes, dangerous.

“I’m afraid to ask…”

Kelly pulled out her cell phone and began typing away, winking at me with a grin.

“No fear, Lex. We’re going on a road trip!”

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