Tag: writing Page 1 of 5

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 4

Fear clutched at her chest and froze her muscles in place. Slowly, carefully, she rose from the mattress. She had no idea what she might find but she wasn’t about to wait for it to come find her. She padded silently on bare feet to the bedroom door, straining to hear any further movement. There was no sound, so she ventured further into the hallway, inching along with her back pressed up against the wall.

When she reached the entrance to the living room she peeked around the corner in an attempt to assess the situation from a safe distance. She could only see a sliver of the room, and she couldn’t be sure it was empty. No shuffling or other signs of movement carried to her through the quiet. Cautiously, she stepped through the doorway.

No one was there. Nothing looked disturbed. The front door was still locked as was the sliding back door. So…what had made that noise? No windows were open. It was definitely inside the house and it hadn’t been the wind blowing something over. She passed her gaze over every part of the room; over Justin’s favorite armchair, the couch Emma slept on more often than not, the end tables, the coffee table, the fireplace and the mantle.

As she turned to search the kitchen, something caught her eye. She froze.

On the hearth, shattered and broken, was the 8×10 photo of Emma and Justin’s wedding day. Their faces smiled up at her with so much hope and joy that she would have crumpled to the ground if it hadn’t been for the fact that the photo had been, just a few minutes ago, sitting peacefully on the end table.

On the opposite side of the room.

She had spun around, making sure she wasn’t imagining things. Maybe this was a different photo that had simply fallen off the mantle. Emma had been a little singularly focused recently and it wouldn’t have been out of the question for her to have moved something and forgotten. But no, there were no empty spots above the fireplace. She knew where the photo had come from. How it got here, on the other hand…

“Justin,” she’d whispered again, this time in wonder. “Justin!” She called his name louder and stood still, holding her breath. Was it possible? Was he here? Her heart raced in anticipation. Eyes wide, searching the shadows in the corners of the room, she had expected to see him standing there with his arms open, his signature bright grin splitting his face. He had stopped her. He had saved her. He was still here, watching and protecting her.

That realization had washed over Emma with a tidal wave of tears. Justin wouldn’t have wanted this for her, she knew that now. No matter how much she missed him there was no way he would have condoned taking this kind of permanent action. He had always accused Emma of being too reactionary, of jumping to a major solution for a minor problem. While the despair that had taken over her life wasn’t necessarily minor to her, she realized her resolution wasn’t going to fix anything.

She had picked up the crumpled frame carefully and carried it to the kitchen. Removing the broken glass piece by piece, her eyes stayed locked on the picture, on the face she loved more than anything. Contradictory emotions flooded through her: she felt the joy and the promise of that day shining out of their faces, the anguish of being forever separated, the rage of him being taken from her. She stood in the kitchen, memorizing every line and curve of his face, letting the tears flow. When exhaustion finally overtook her, she left the photo on the counter and made her way to bed.

Walking into the bedroom, she started undressing but stopped dead in her tracks.

Lying forgotten on the floor, dull and cold, the gun suddenly filled Emma with dread. Her hands flew to cover her mouth, her eyes wide and terrified.

What had she been about to do?

Slowly coming out of her reverie, Emma found herself still in the kitchen, holding the finished casserole. She had no idea how long she’d been standing there, lost in her thoughts, but at least she’d had the presence of mind to put on the oven mitts first. With a sigh, she reluctantly continued preparations for her dinner guests.

“Sweetheart, everything was simply delicious!” Lois smoothed her daughter’s hair back from her face and kissed her warmly on the cheek. “I know it was hard, but you did a great job. And I know the Bakers were thankful to have this chance to talk about their son with others who knew and loved him.”

Emma squeezed her mother tight. “You’re right. It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. It’ll never be easy, but it was…oddly comforting.” The Bakers and the few neighbors who had been able to come had already left, leaving just Lois and David May with their daughter.

“Proud of you, kiddo,” David said. “You did great. Justin would have loved this.”

They were all silent for a moment, then Emma laughed. “You’re right. He loved telling his old stories and liked nothing better than to be the center of attention.” Her heart ached. “God, I miss him.”

Looking around, Lois started picking up glasses. “Let me help you clean all this up…”

Emma stopped her with a firm, “No. Mom, no. It’s okay. I like cleaning up. It lets me unwind from the stress of trying to be interesting all night. You guys go home. I’m fine.”

David raised an eyebrow at his daughter.

Kissing him on the cheek, Emma amended, “I’ll be fine.”

Once the door shut behind her parents, Emma set to the task of cleaning. She turned the radio on to fill the silence. After so much laughter and conversation, the house seemed empty all of a sudden. Singing along with the radio, Emma tried to keep her mind from wandering into the sadness that was left behind with the mess. A nice mindless activity like washing dishes coupled with the nonsense of current pop songs should do the trick.

When everything was washed and put away, she poured herself a glass of wine and leaned against the counter. Talking with everyone about Justin had brought him a little bit closer tonight. With only the light from the candles still burning on the table, Emma sat in what had been Justin’s favorite armchair.

“I miss you, baby,” she whispered. “You would have had a blast tonight. There was so much love in this room…and it was all for you.” Emma let out a deep sigh and leaned forward, her elbows resting on her knees. “I can’t believe it’s been a year. It sounds like such a long time when I say it out loud, but it feels like yesterday.”

Tucking her hair behind one ear, she sipped her wine and settled back into the chair. “Our neighbor Lisa was here – without James.” She quirked an eyebrow in the dark. “So much drama, babe. I have to say, I’m glad he’s gone. It was nice to see Lisa, though.”

She shot up out of the chair and started pacing the room, suddenly agitated. “Oh, I know, I know. I need to get out more, I need to be around people again. God, you sound like my mother.” Emma stopped and stared out the window. “You were the only way I tolerated people, you know that. Nothing is any fun without you, Justin.”

Draining the last of the wine in her glass, Emma set it in the sink and blew out the candles. She stood in the middle of the dark living room and smiled sadly as she wiped a tear from her cheek. “I will never not miss you.”

Emma got ready for bed and found herself looking through Justin’s jewelry box. She hadn’t touched it since his effects were given to her after the funeral.

She picked up the watch she had given to him for their last Christmas together. He had been a watch fiend, having a different one for every day of the week. But after Emma gave him this one, it was the only one he wore. It wasn’t fancy or expensive. It wasn’t even particularly attractive, to be honest. But on the back, Emma had added an engraving: You and me, forever. Love, E.

After sifting through his old chains and the pile of business cards he had somehow accumulated in the jewelry box, her fingers brushed against his wedding band. Shiny gray tungsten, it was still perfectly round and smooth as though she had just taken it out of the box. Emma was a little sad that the tungsten didn’t show any signs of wear. Made it seem like it hadn’t been worn in love for ten years. The little infinity symbol engraved on the inside was still pristine. And was as true that day as it had been the day she exchanged rings with him. Needing to feel close to Justin, she slipped the ring on her middle finger and pressed it to her lips. She returned all the other trinkets to the box and turned out the light. The emotional night had taken its toll on her, and Emma drifted off to sleep, clutching Justin’s ring tight.

That was the first night he visited her.

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 1

What was supposed to be a warm and fuzzy Christmas tale last year somehow morphed into a darker Halloween-time ghost story. This is the first installment (it’s a long short story…) and I’ll spread the rest out over the next week or so. I haven’t looked at it in over a year so please forgive any rough edges and I hope you enjoy it!


RETURN TO ME

“Fly me to the moon…”

Her wedding song sung in the sultry voice of Frank Sinatra filled the room as Emma Baker set the dining room table. She tucked a strand of pale blond hair behind her ear, ignoring the tear that made its way down her cheek. Folding the red cloth napkin for the tenth time, she finally laid it on the table, smoothing it into a flawless rectangle before arranging the silverware neatly on top.

Emma turned the salad plate into a different position, trying to find the perfect angle. She turned it. Then turned it again, and again, faster each time, her frustration mounting with every movement. In a sudden swift motion, she snatched the plate off the table and hurled it against the wall. It shattered with a loud and satisfying CRASH and Emma crumbled to the floor, sobbing.

Everything was wrong. She was preparing for a dinner she didn’t want to have with well-meaning people she didn’t feel prepared to deal with. Her husband, Justin, was the one who was good at entertaining. He had a crazy charm about him that instantly put people at ease. Without him here, Emma didn’t think she could face this group. But on the anniversary of his death, Emma was expected to gather his family and friends together to remember him. Her mother and his sister Julie insisted it would be good for her.

But they couldn’t see the gaping, aching chasm in Emma’s chest that had consumed her the moment she learned he was gone.

Emma sniffled and drew in a shuddering breath. When were these crying jags going to stop? It had been a year and she still couldn’t get through a day without crying at least once. Staring at the mess on the floor across the room, Emma sighed. Slowly, she pulled herself up and retrieved the broom and dustpan. She couldn’t leave that mess there. Company would be arriving any minute. Justin would have shaken his head and teased her good-naturedly about her temper.

“Jesus, Emma, what did that plate ever do to you?”

She could hear his deep-throated laugh inside her head and it brought a slight smile to her face. That was one of the things she missed the most. Her husband had an uncanny way of sensing when she was upset or sad and never failed to make her laugh. Sometimes it was through belting out a song in a ridiculous exaggerated voice, pretending to be a horrible opera singer. Other times he would listen to her complaint and then come up with fantastical solutions to her problem that were impossible or impractical – or illegal – but it had always made her feel better.

Emma didn’t think ‘better’ was ever going to be reality for her.

One year before, she had been getting ready for a costume party being held at their neighbor’s house. Justin was on his way home and Emma had laid out his costume before starting on hers. The trickiest part for her was making sure the Bride of Frankenstein wig would stay put. It was so much taller and heavier than she had expected. With a grin, she picked up the giant brick-like shoes Justin would be wearing with his Frankenstein’s Monster costume. She definitely had the better part of this deal.

Using the bright light of the bathroom, Emma started to apply her face makeup. Justin was late getting home, but he didn’t have as much to do to get ready. She started spreading the white base over her face, applying it first to her forehead then spreading down her nose, out to her cheeks and down to her chin. Staring at her reflection, contemplating whether she needed to spread it all the way down her neck, she was startled by a quick succession of text messages on her cell phone. Scrolling through, she saw that they were from several of her neighbors.

Emma, is everything okay?

Is Justin there?

What kind of car does Justin drive?

Emma was about to start replying to the random questions and asking a barrage of her own when her mother’s face popped up on the screen, calling her.

“Hey mom, what’s up?” Emma leaned closer to the mirror to examine her handiwork, trying not to get makeup on the phone.

“Oh, not much,” she replied. “Are you busy? Can you do me a favor really quick?”

Emma smiled. “Sure mom. What do you need?”

“Oh sweetheart, thank you. I am looking for a copy of my dip recipe. Your father and I are going to a Halloween potluck down the street. Can you imagine? We haven’t been out to a costume party in ages.”

Laughing, Emma made her way to the kitchen. “I’ll see if I can find it. What exactly am I looking for?”

“It should be titled ‘Lois May’s Famous Texas Caviar’ or something equally as ridiculous.”

“Good grief,” Emma laughed into the phone. “When have you ever been famous? Especially for some kind of dip?”

“Oh well, you know,” Lois started. “I’m not one to brag, but did I ever tell you about the time…”

Emma sifted through the recipes she kept in a binder while her mom launched into an involved tale of raucous parties and neighborhood housewife rivalries. All the while her phone kept vibrating with incoming text messages. She frowned. Where was that damn recipe? Her mom droned on in her ear, the continual buzzing of the phone started grating on Emma’s nerves, and just as she found the recipe she was searching for, her doorbell rang.

“Now what?” Emma grumbled. “Jesus. Mom? Mom!”

Lois was so caught up in her story she couldn’t hear her daughter trying to get her attention. Everything seemed to be happening at once and Emma was immobilized by indecision for a moment. Shaking her head to clear it, she tucked the recipe under her arm, holding the phone away from her ear, and paced to the front door.

“I’m coming, I’m coming,” she muttered. It had to be one of her neighbors, overzealous and overexcited about the costume party. Probably Lisa, from next door. She hadn’t gotten a reply to her text yet, so she probably just marched right over. Emma rolled her eyes.

When she reached the door, she threw it wide open. “Lisa, good lord! Can you just give me five – “

The admonition died in her throat as she took in the sight of two uniformed officers standing on her porch. They held their hats in their hands and had considerable trouble maintaining eye contact.

“Mrs. Emma Baker?”

Her mouth was surprisingly dry, so she nodded.

“May we come in?”

The voice in her head screamed NO! but she stepped back and held the door a little wider for them to enter. They stood awkwardly in the entryway until Emma invited them to the living room. Her entire body was suddenly tingling, her nerves alive and ready for a fight. She wasn’t sure why the police were here, but she knew they were about to tell her.

And she knew she absolutely didn’t want to hear it.

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

The Path of Least Dysfunction, A Series: Chapter 33

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

This particular meeting would be a very different situation.

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

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

Yeah, doubtful.

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

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

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

I grimaced. “Ouch.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why would I be mad?”

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

“Were you?”

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

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

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

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

The Path of Least Dysfunction, A Series: Chapter 32

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What do you mean?”

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m not going anywhere.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you still love Jamie?”

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

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

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

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