Tag: short story serial Page 1 of 4

Within (Part 4)

I’ve been working on the same novel, making revisions, for such a long time that I needed a little break to stretch my writing ‘legs’, so to speak. There will be a total of 4 installments and I will release a new section each Wednesday. “Within” was a quick short that I thoroughly enjoyed writing – and that I hope you enjoy reading!

~~~~~

With a jolt, I’m back inside my own aching body, the cold of the cinder-block wall I’m propped against seeping into me.  My cheeks are wet, my head is throbbing with every heartbeat, and I feel excruciating pain in parts of my body I’d forgotten still existed. A musty, damp smell seeps into my nostrils, the soft whoosh from the vent the only sound. There’s very little light here, filtering through a grimy plate-glass window on the other side of the room. The walls are painted a dingy white, orange rust stains dripping down from the ceiling. What is this place? Where the hell am I?

I bet Kyle’s out there, on the other side of the glass, waiting for me to scream and cry and throw myself against the walls trying to escape. The energy has been sapped from my body, even moving my head is like trying to shift a boulder.

What the hell did he do to me? Every incident leaves me depleted and weak, but never like this. So, what’s different? He injected me with something. What the hell could do this to me, to Them? God knows I tried to tamp it down, hold the power at bay with anything and everything. Alcohol never worked. Not even ketamine. Whatever this is…I need more.

A creak catches my attention and my eyes focus just as Kyle steps into the room.

“Hello, Desiree.” He shuffles around the edges of the room. “How are you feeling?”

My mouth opens, but I can’t force out any sound. I can’t lift my hand, can’t speak, can’t wiggle a foot; and that knowledge seizes my heart in my chest. But that’s nothing compared to the chill that skitters down my spine at the cruel grin that slithers across his face.

“Very good. Excellent. You’ve been kept on a steady diet of succinylcholine and a lead derivative—my own little concoction—to keep you under control without killing you. It seems to be working very well, indeed. You can see me and hear me and register what’s happening to you, but powerless to do anything about it.” He closes the space between us and is suddenly kneeling in front of me. “Because there are plans for you, Des. Important plans.”

I cast my eyes around the room, anywhere but into his cold eyes, hoping to stave off the tears that are trying to spill out. Just kill me! I want to scream. I know he wants to, I know it as surely as I know I deserve it, and yet here we are. The tips of my fingers start to tingle, a shadow of feeling returning, and my breathing quickens. Kyle sneers.

“Yes, you should be afraid. You see, we don’t just need to know how you do what you do. No, you’re far more useful than that. We’re going to figure out how to harness your mutant power to use against our enemies. I can’t guarantee it won’t hurt…” He pauses to trail a finger along my cheek, then throws his head back and guffaws. “Who the fuck am I kidding? It’s going to hurt. A lot, Desiree. You are going to feel every ounce of pain you deserve and more. And I’m going to enjoy watching all of it.”

His laughter rings off the walls as the pale, violet glow seeps from my skin…

END

Within (Part 3)

I’ve been working on the same novel, making revisions, for such a long time that I needed a little break to stretch my writing ‘legs’, so to speak. There will be a total of 4 installments and I will release a new section each Wednesday. “Within” was a quick short that I thoroughly enjoyed writing – and that I hope you enjoy reading!

~~~~~

“Mama, mama, watch me!”

My heart lurches. Her eyes are bright and she’s smiling as she pumps her little legs to make the swing rise higher and higher. My Lily, my darling girl. I glance around at the park, the bright summer sun, the other families enjoying the playground. How is this happening? The bench I’m sitting on is solid and warm, my hair is even waving in the breeze. Am I dreaming? Or is this yet another way my ‘gift’ manifests?

“Lily, be careful! Don’t go so high!” I jump up from the bench, ready to scoop her off the swing and hug her tiny body in my arms. But a voice over my shoulder stops me cold.

“Just let her be a kid, Desiree. Jesus, you can’t control everything.” Kyle frowns at me as he sits with his hands folded in his lap. “And you can’t keep avoiding me. We have to talk about this and we have to talk now.”

A chill shoots through me from head to toe. I remember this day, and I don’t want to see it again. Please, please, God or whoever—whatever—is doing this to me, don’t make me live through this again. Maybe I’m in Hell. Maybe, by some miracle, I finally died and this is how my eternal torment is going to play out.

Turning to Kyle, I keep one eye on my little Lily-pad, wanting to absorb the details of her, to replace the memory that haunts every second of my existence. “She’s my daughter and you have no right to take her away from me.” The squeak of the rusted chains on the swing provide a sinister soundtrack to the conversation.

“I have every right.” He bares his teeth as he snarls at me. “You’re not well, Des. I don’t know if it’s drugs or schizophrenia or if you’re just fucking around because you hate me and want to torture me, but Lily is seven years old and shouldn’t have to deal with your lunatic ravings.”

Spying his new wife lurking on the edge of the park, a fire builds in my chest and I wrench my arm free. “I’m not crazy, you asshole. Something is happening to me, if you’d just listen—”

“Mommy, Daddy, look at me now! I’m touching the sky!”

“Wow! Look at you go!” Kyle beams the brightest, most charming smile at our daughter before he turns his attention back to me, his face twisting. How does he do that so quickly? I can feel the hatred wafting off him. “She deserves stability. She shouldn’t have to grow up scared of what you might do to her. Just let her go, for her own good. Jenna and I can give her everything she needs, and you know it.”

“Except her mother. She needs me, Kyle.”

He steps back and crosses his arms. “No, she doesn’t. Jenna will love her better and more than you are even capable of right now.” The smile that spreads over his handsome features chills me to the bone. “Besides, it’s already done. The judge signed the paperwork this morning, based on your own psychiatrist’s recommendations and my tear-filled testimony. That’s why I’m here. Lily is coming home with us, and your parental rights have been terminated, effective immediately.”

My hands start to tingle, then tremble, the vibrations running up my arms. “No…you can’t do this to me, Kyle, you can’t do this to Lily!” My breathing becomes erratic, blood rushing to my head as I struggle to remain in control.

No! Don’t do it! Stop it, fight it, don’t let this happen! I scream into the memory, but everything is unfolding exactly as it did that day. I’m as powerless now as I was then.

Pushing past me, Kyle calls to our daughter in a bright voice. “Hey, Lily-pad! It’s time to go! Jenna and I are going to take you home with us and we’ll order pizza for dinner and watch a movie. How does that sound?”

I snatch at his arm, trying to hold him back. “No. No, Kyle, please. I’ll do anything! Just don’t take her away from me!” My whole body is shuddering and Kyle knows it. He slaps my hand away and rounds on me with a sneer.

“Get a grip, Des, and keep your fucking theatrics to yourself. No one here is buying it.”

“Kyle, no, it’s real!” I shove my hands in my pockets to quell the electricity that’s building in them, the purple glow that’s pooling in my palms. I call them nightmares, but I’ve seen what I can do in my waking hours. “It’s not me. I have no control over Them, I swear on my life! You can’t take her, you just can’t!”

Clouds are swirling into view, obscuring the sun as a frigid wind picks up. I can’t hold Them back anymore and They tear through the thin material of my hoodie, writhing in the air. Kyle stumbles backwards, his upper lip curled back, his eyes wide and unblinking.

“Mama! Are you watching? Look how high I’m going!”

The purple tentacles burst out of my hands and straight toward Kyle, but he ducks, just in time. They shoot over his head and straight into Jenna’s mouth, her jaw dropped low.

“No!” Kyle rushes toward his young wife, heedless of the waving death as it retreats from her body, but we both know it’s too late. He rounds on me, a guttural scream ripping from his throat, and he charges.

I can’t move, take a step, get out of his path. He leaps at me, arm outstretched, and the first I see the blade is when it plunges into my shoulder, inches away from ending me. But no sooner does the weapon find purchase, then a massive shockwave emanates from me, catapulting Kyle a hundred yards away.

I block out the searing pain in my shoulder and cry a warning to Lily, screaming at her to run. The clouds chase each other in the darkening sky and I can feel the pressure building. I watch, helpless, as my Lily clutches at her throat, gasping for air, and tumbles off the swing to the mound of woodchips below.

I scream. Every fiber of my being is screaming for my daughter, begging for her to be spared, seconds before her fragile little body is torn to shreds.

Within (Part 2)

I’ve been working on the same novel, making revisions, for such a long time that I needed a little break to stretch my writing ‘legs’, so to speak. There will be a total of 4 installments and I will release a new section each Wednesday. “Within” was a quick short that I thoroughly enjoyed writing – and that I hope you enjoy reading!

~~~~~

Livid tears stream down my cheeks and I can no longer hold back. I open my other hand and the purple haze washes over me, pulsating like a heartbeat. The tendrils tear out of the man under the light, his empty meat sack dropping into an unnatural heap where he stood. They wind around me, lifting me from the ground and suspending me in the air, a helpless witness.

Kyle’s gone. He’s seen this episode before and his heartlessness allows him to disappear, leaving his underlings to face my wrath and a power they could never imagine in their worst nightmares. I hear the report of gunfire, see the muzzle flashes all around me, but none of their bullets touch me. Screaming through my tears, I beg them to stop, to run, to save themselves, even though it’s too late. It was too late the minute I turned onto this street and stepped into their ambush.

My head is forced backwards, the pressure emanating from inside me and bearing down on me at the same time, almost tearing me to shreds. God, if only that would happen—could happen! But there is no God. Only the force that’s woven itself into my DNA, part of me and wholly separate, simultaneously saving me and dooming me to walk this earth with no peace.

The sky rips open, all air sucked into the gaping hole it creates. Metal clatters to the ground as hands release weapons to grasp at throats, unable to breathe. There are no cries of fear or pain. The silence is bone-chilling and I force my eyes open to see if it’s over. Human bodies with absolutely no right to are being stretched, elongated, as the Black Hole’s gravity works on them. Mouths freeze open in silent shrieks while the bones of their skulls and their spines are pulled up and away from their shoes until they are torn apart and swallowed.

There is no stopping it: I’m not in control, I was never in control. All I can do is wail and scream and beg for it to end, to spare someone—anyone—from this destruction. The pressure is almost unbearable now, every cell in my body rioting. The tendrils wrap themselves tighter around me, the frenzied wind in my little bubble threatening to flay me alive. And then, with a crack like the world is splitting in two, it’s done.

I’m kneeling on the dark sidewalk and all around me is silent devastation, as though I’ve survived a nuclear detonation. Cars mangled and flipped, the lamp post impossibly twisted, the cement buckled and cracked. And not another soul in a half-mile radius.

My body is numb at first, wasted and weak. Fiery pinpricks burn across my skin. It’s not my time to die. Not today. Maybe not ever. Pain and fear and shame and loneliness are all I have to look forward to for eternity, death nothing more than a dream.

While I wait for enough strength to return to my legs to get them under me and to haul ass, I let the tears pour onto the cement. I’m exhausted. Each outburst leaves me wasted and heartbroken. Just in time for the highlight reel of the past four years’ torment to start.

One after another, I see the faces of all those this curse has touched. Their screams, their prayers and their bargaining play out inside my head, and then their gasping and the watery squelch as their bodies are overtaken. One voice always filters to the top and it’s enough to rip my heart out of my chest.

Wallowing in the vision of her face as it swims behind my closed eyes, approaching footsteps catch me off guard. My eyes fly open and I pop to my feet, fists at the ready, but a quick punch to my nose sends me staggering, stars filling my vision. I fall back on my ass, hard, and the shockwave travels through my bones, rattles my teeth. My arms are grabbed from all around me, several pairs of hands holding me in place. It’s starting again, I can feel the tingling build in my palms as They try to return.

Then his voice is in my ear, his warm breath causing the wisps of hair around my face to tickle my cheek.

“It didn’t have to be this way, Des.” He strokes my hair and my scalp crawls, right before I feel a sting and burning pressure behind my ear. “Shh…Don’t fight it. While I would love nothing more than to see you suffer, I’ve been ordered to make sure you arrive mostly unharmed.”

His poisonous voice is still ringing in my consciousness as I feel the effects of whatever he just fucking dosed me with. I can’t hold my head up, my sight narrows to a dark tunnel, and the tingling in my hands fades to nothing.

“What have you done?” I think the words came out of my mouth but my head is so stuffed with cotton that I can’t be sure.

My teeth clack together as Kyle clutches my hair and yanks my head back. “Shown you mercy, which is far more than you deserve, Des! I should slit your throat right here and now, consequences be damned.”

Then all is black.

Within (Part 1)

I’ve been working on the same novel, making revisions, for such a long time that I needed a little break to stretch my writing ‘legs’, so to speak. There will be a total of 4 installments and I will release a new section each Wednesday. “Within” was a quick short that I thoroughly enjoyed writing – and that I hope you enjoy reading!

~~~~~

A bus whips around the corner, the headlights washing over me, and I flinch back into the shadows. I pull my hood tighter around my face: That life is long behind me and recognition isn’t a risk I’m willing to take.

I pass through yellow pools of street light on my path to nowhere. The scar on my shoulder twinges painfully, as though it heard my thoughts. Yeah, yeah, I remember you. No need to be a dick about it.

There’s a man leaning against the lamp post on the corner, smoking a cigarette. He’s watching me, one foot propped up and his head cocked to the side. Even from a hundred yards, his greasy smile is repulsive.

I keep my head down and press a little closer to the buildings. Maybe if I can keep out of arms’ reach it’ll be more work then he wants. Come on, man, just look the other way and we can both see tomorrow.

“Hey, baby. Where you goin’ in such a hurry?” He tosses his smoke into the street and takes a step toward me. “A pretty thing like you shouldn’t be out here all alone.”

“Fuck off.” I speed up, keeping my head down. A few more strides and I’ll be flush with him, but I can tell by the change in his stance that I won’t get any farther. Shit.

“What’d you say to me?” He pulls up to his full height and blocks my path. My stomach twists into a knot: he’s easily six inches taller than I am, and he’s faster than he looks. Doesn’t matter. He’ll never move fast enough—none of them do.

My heart starts racing and I fight to keep my breathing even. I’ve been found. Again. Is he the only one here? Don’t be stupid, Des, they’d never send just one poor sap to round you up. They’ve learned that lesson.

“Come on, sweet thing, ain’t you gonna talk to me? Tell me your name at least? Don’t be mean.”

From the corner of my eye, there’s movement in the shadows across the street, that bus that passed me earlier. Parked on the next block, the windows dark—except for the red tracer lights trying to get a lock on me. Fuck.

“Look, man.” I keep shifting my weight from foot to foot, trying to make myself small and give the illusion that I’m scared of him. “I don’t want any trouble. I’m just trying to walk here, that’s all.”

A man steps out of a shadowy doorway to my right, and my heart sinks into my feet. “Give it up Des. You’re surrounded and we’re going to take you in one way or another. So, just don’t make this difficult.”

I shake the hood off and my hair gleams in the artificial light. “Don’t call me that, Kyle. You don’t get to call me that. And you aren’t taking me anywhere.”

Without taking my eyes off the creep in my way on the sidewalk, Kyle watches me, perfectly calm. Sandy-blond hair falling into his eyes, his lips pressed into a thin line, his hands resting loosely in his pants pockets. My own hand itches to smooth the hair off his forehead and see that smile he saved just for me once upon a time. But that was years ago and too much has happened since then for him to ever look at me with anything but pure loathing.

It would never match the loathing I feel for myself, not even a tiny bit.

My hatred for myself and for these monsters is making my skin crackle with energy. Taking a deep breath, I clench and release my fists, still in my pockets, hoping against hope to be able to hold it back, just this once. “Please, Kyle, let me go. Don’t make me do this.”

“Then come with me quietly, Des. We can help you.”

That name again. The tingling in my hands flares, then my head snaps up and I lock onto his sky-blue eyes. He has to see how futile this is—he has to! I plead silently with my eyes, but there is no compassion left in his.

He nods quickly and God damn it, I know it’s on. Why does he keep doing this to me? The man closest to me twitches in my direction and I jerk back, my hands low at my sides. He hesitates when he sees the pale violet glow leaking out between my clasped fingers.

“You moron,” Kyle bellows. “What are you waiting for? Get her. Now.”

Kyle’s lackey takes a step closer, but I open one hand and the tendrils fly free. As they travel over him, tasting his fear, his eyes are wide and his body is rigid. He opens his mouth to scream, but no sooner do his lips part than they are inside of him, gorging on more than the stench of his terror. I squeeze my eyes shut.

“Desiree!”

Kyle’s hands are clamped in fists and trembling at his sides, but he’s taken a step back, one foot inside the doorway he had emerged from earlier. Red laser dots, dark like blood, light up my chest, as the glow envelopes me.

“Don’t, Kyle!” I struggle to keep the sob out of my voice. “You know how this ends—please call them off, get them away from me!”

His eyes narrow and his chest puffs out as our eyes meet over the writhing body of his flunky and I know. I fucking know. With nothing else to live for, vengeance has made him cruel and nothing else matters to him but winning.

“You know I can’t. I won’t.”

“Do you think I don’t pay for what I did every second of every day?” My voice breaks. “There’s nothing you can do to me that’s worse than what I do to myself.”

“Well then.” His smile sends a chill down my spine. “You can call this mercy.”

Return To Me: Part 6

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

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

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

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

It was time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Return To Me: Part 5

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

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

“Expecting someone else?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Something that meant everything to her.

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

And it had to work.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you also have some powdered elderberry?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 29

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

How had my life gotten so complicated?

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What are you doing here, Chris?”

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

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

“Are you and Jamie fighting?”

I nodded.

“Is it bad?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Doing what?”

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

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

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

His hand stopped moving and he froze.

“What?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

“Alexis, was it someone you know?”

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

“WHAT?!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Path of Least Dysfunction, A Series: Chapter 27

Needless to say, Kelly and I didn’t stick around for the whole weekend. I was incapable of carrying on conversation and I wasn’t about to subject Kel to that kind of crap for 48 hours. So she drove us home.

The convertible top stayed up this time.

“Do you want to talk about it?”

“No,” I snapped. I realized how shitty I sounded as soon as it came out of my mouth. Kelly didn’t deserve that. “Sorry.”

Staring out the window, I had never felt so low. Normal people didn’t behave like this. Nothing made any sense to me anymore and I didn’t know what to do to make it better.

“God, I’ve made such a mess out of everything. This isn’t what I wanted.”

She didn’t look at me, but I caught a little side-eye before Kelly responded. “Isn’t it?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“I don’t know. Forget I said anything.”

Under no circumstance was I going to let that go. “Nope. Talk.”

There was a long pause before she answered. “Maybe deep down you wanted to break things off with Jamie but were too afraid to.” She shrugged.

“Are you suggesting that there’s some subconscious ulterior motive behind all of this?”

Kelly rolled her eyes. “Maybe. What do I know? I’m no head-shrinker. I just think…I don’t know.”

Wondering if she could feel the anger rolling off me, I faced her. “No, please, continue. Why would I do something like that?”

We pulled up to a red light and Kelly finally looked at me. “Jamie is a great guy. Maybe you don’t think you deserve him. Or you’re so afraid he’s going to leave that you’re making him leave.”

The light changed and her attention returned to the street. “Or maybe you really want to be with Chris.”

There wasn’t a quick response to that. I started gnawing on a fingernail, a nervous habit I’d fallen back into recently. My anger drained away, but it was replaced with a burst of panic. Could she be right?

I stared out the window at the passing scenery, not seeing any of it. Partially because I was preoccupied with the ideas Kelly had presented – and partially because of the tears in my eyes.

What was supposed to be a relaxing, four-day weekend ended up being a very uncomfortable Friday night crying in a B&B. Kelly dropped me off after the deep-dive conversation on the drive home Saturday morning and I promptly went back to bed. I stayed there for the rest of the day, not quite sleeping but not fully conscious, either.

There was a lot of emotional self-flagellation. I was a horrible human being. Nothing would ever be good again. Everything was ruined and everyone hated me. The hole I had buried myself in was so deep I couldn’t think of how to dig myself out. There was no universe in which Jamie would still want to marry me.

So where did that leave me?

Late in the afternoon I hauled my sorry carcass from the bedroom to the couch so I could gorge myself on trashy television. It was imperative that I find others whose live were worse than mine, if they existed. I was only two episodes into some show where were into fake online relationships when I got a text from Chris.

I groaned.

Hey! What’re you up to?

Staring at the phone, I wondered if he’d notice if I simply didn’t respond.

What do you say to mini golf and pizza?

“Damn it, Chris,” I cursed him.

I finally typed out a reply: I don’t think that’s a good idea.

He didn’t answer right away, and I thought maybe he got the hint. Or that I hurt his feelings.

Instead, he called me.

“Chris, what are you doing? This can’t happen.” I didn’t even say hello, just launched into rebuffing him. My tone must have come across as bad as I felt.

“Hey, are you okay? You don’t sound so good.”

“Gee thanks.”

He chuckled and I heard him shift the phone. “Listen, I know I said I wouldn’t push, but I’d really like to get together. It doesn’t have to be anything – we can go grocery shopping if that’s all you can do. I just…” He took a deep breath and continued, “Can I see you?”

Tremendously bad idea. In my state of mind, lost and guilty and vulnerable, I felt like I had nothing to lose at this point. That meant I was capable of making some appalling decisions that would only send me spiraling deeper into a hole of self-loathing. I had been there once in the past and I didn’t know if I could claw my way out of there again. But before I could answer, there was a knock at my door. I told Chris to hold on and checked the peep hole.

Jamie was in the hallway.

“Shit.”

Both Chris and Jamie heard my expletive.

“Alexis? Can we talk?” Jamie called from the other side of the door.

I heard Chris through the phone asking, “Lexi? What’s wrong?”

Making a quick decision, I hissed into the phone, “Everything’s fine, I have to go!” I ended the call and ran my fingers through my hair the best I could, knowing my curls were likely twisted and terrifying. There was no point in looking in the mirror first – I could imagine how gross I looked. Jamie already knew I was home so hiding was no longer an option. Best to just get the official break-up over so I could mourn it and return to hating myself in solitude.

Taking a deep breath, I opened the door a little and was surprised by how disheveled Jamie looked. Normally so very put-together with perfectly coiffed hair and a close shave, he looked like he hadn’t slept or seen a mirror recently, either. His hands were jammed deep in his pockets and he looked miserable.

And I was the reason.

“Hey. Can I come in?”

My throat closed up, threatening to unleash an ocean of tears, so I just nodded and pulled the door open farther. Once inside, he looked around and I caught a slight grin.

“What the hell are you watching?”

I snatched up the remote and clicked the tv off, blushing. “Shut up.”

He chuckled and turned to face me. There was so much pain and sadness in his eyes I wanted to gather him in my arms and make it all go away. But I was the reason it was there so how, exactly, would that work? We stood awkwardly glancing at each other and fidgeting. I finally pointed to one of the chairs.

“Can I make you some coffee or something?” He shook his head and sat, clasping his hands in front of him. I lowered myself to the edge of the couch and waited.

Jamie cleared his throat and said to the floor, “Alexis, you know I’d never want to hurt you.”

My stomach clenched and I seriously thought I was going to vomit. This was it.

“Normally, that is. In our normal life together, I would never want to hurt you.” He looked up then with fire in his eyes. “But yesterday, that was exactly what I wanted more than anything.”

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