Throwing clay was almost Zen-like in the way it eased Kylie’s stress, but when she sculpted in free-form, unrestricted by the limitations of the wheel, the art of creation became an experience of spiritual enlightenment. The inspiration for her work poured from emotion she held deep inside her soul. That emotion directed her hands as they molded and shaped the clay. They were emotions she didn’t know she possessed, emotions of terrifying power which guided her through a painful, but at times euphoric, healing process; each completed piece a sliver of her true heart in tangible form.
Her sculptures revealed a tiny part of her individuality, each eliciting different truths about herself she struggled to define, leaving her feeling vulnerable and exposed, yet stronger than she had been before. She had made a handful for class assignments, another few strictly for herself. One of those weighed heavy on her heart. As she stood in the kitchen, gazing upon it in the soft light of the late afternoon sun, she debated what to do with it.
The sculpture was of her hand and Jimmy’s, both relaxed, slightly open, frozen forever in a lingering, delicate touch. She never should have made it. It was too intimate, too personal. Its creation had been therapeutic, precisely what she had needed in the moment, and it had turned out exactly as she had imagined, but the blatant truth it exposed terrified her more than any other she had unveiled.
She would forever be holding on.
She had originally made the sculpture for a class assignment, the study of the human hand. Her instructor had praised it, had asked if he could keep it in the classroom to put on display. She had been honored by his request, but she had declined, fearing she would lose access to the stir of emotions it evoked whenever she held it in her hands.
She wanted to keep it for herself, forever, but the more she looked at it, the more she began to realize it was not hers to keep. It never had been. She had made it for Jimmy, all along.
Kylie’s cell phone rang. She slipped it from the back pocket of her jeans.
“Hi, chicka,” Kylie greeted. She didn’t have to look at the screen to know it would be Stacy. She had been calling three, sometimes four, times a day to make sure Kylie hadn’t changed her mind about coming to the wedding.
“Hey, yourself,” Stacy said, her excitement bubbling through the phone. “Our dresses came today!”
“Yay!” Kylie hoped she sounded as excited as Stacy deserved.
“And guess what? Mine still fits! Yay!”
“Double yay!” Kylie cheered, this time knowing she got the excitement level right as she burst out laughing. “If you’re growing as fast as I did with Bray then that’s a huge accomplishment, indeed.”
“I cut back on the chili dogs.”
“That’s not what I hear from Aria,” Kylie teased.
“Like she has room to talk,” Stacy huffed. Kylie could imagine the eye roll. “So, what time are you getting in tomorrow?”
“Late. I have to work a few hours in the morning before our flight. We’ll probably just go straight to Mom’s and crash.”
“I ran into her at the library today. That sucks that she can’t get off work while you’re here.”
“Oh, I know, but she used up all her vacation time helping us move. She was able to do some rearranging of her schedule, though, so we’ll have a little time together, just not as much as I’d hoped for.”
“Well, once you finish your degree, you’ll just have to come back and work at the nursing home with her so they’ll give her more time off.”
“Not going to happen, Stace.”
“A girl can dream,” Stacy said with a light tone but a heavy sigh. “I miss seeing your face every day.”
“I miss your face, too.” Kylie sat at the table and turned the sculpture slowly, studying it as she debated what to do. “Are you guys hauling in the gifts already?”
“A few. We got a really nice card from Chase today.”
“Really?” Kylie asked, unable to hide her disgust. Stacy’s ex was a prick of epic proportions, a liar, a cheater, and an all-around ass.
“He can’t come to the wedding because he has to work, but I’m sure we’ll get together some time. His little boy, Nolan, is turning one in January, so maybe then.”
“I’ll never understand why you still talk to that guy.”
“He treated you like shit for fourteen years.”
“No, he didn’t.”
“He cheated on you. Repeatedly.”
“You think I forgot about that?” Stacy snapped.
Kylie immediately regretted upsetting her, rushed to apologize, “I’m so, so sorry. I truly am, Stace. I never should—”
“It’s okay, Ky… I know he cheated on me—multiple times—but it doesn’t do me any good to dwell on it. It sucked when I was living it, but it’s over, you know? I have Dan now, and our beautiful baby on the way. I have a job I love, great friends and this really amazing, crazy family I’ve assembled for myself. I love my life. What good does it do me to focus on the negative in the past?”
“None. You’re right,” Kylie agreed, wishing she possessed even a smidge of Stacy’s positive outlook.
“And, you know, as much as I hated Chase some days—and, believe me, there were some days when I really hated him—I will always love him and wish him well. He’s a good guy. He always has been. He just had a really hard time believing it, and it messed him up. You know?”
“I do.” As they fell into silence, Kylie closed her eyes and ran her hand over the sculpture, tracing its lines, slipping into the beautiful memories that had created it. “Stace, if things were different… if you didn’t have Dan… would you have gone back to Chase this last time? After he got Jill pregnant?”
“I did, Ky. For awhile.”
“No, I know, I mean… would you have stayed? Would you have gone through with marrying him?”
After a long pause, she said, “No.”
Kylie opened her eyes and looked at her hand holding Jimmy’s, memorized by her heart, immortalized in clay, and selfishly wished Stacy would have said yes.
“But, Ky, I wasn’t in love with him anymore. I spent fourteen years thinking what Chase and I felt for each other was real, but it never was. We had affection and comfort, and history and habits, and we accepted it as love because we didn’t know any better. We never let go of our high school crush because we foolishly believed it was real, adult love. But it never was. When it’s really real, like what I have with Dan, it hits you so hard, from so many different directions, in such a good, but kind of terrifying way, there’s no mistaking it for anything else.”
Kylie wiped away the tear sliding down her cheek and cleared her throat. She stood, needing to put space between her heart and her memories, and walked to the bank of windows overlooking the courtyard. “Stace, tell me the truth… Is Jimmy coming to the wedding?”
Stacy paused for a long moment before saying, “I wish I had an answer for you because it’s only fair for you to know what you’re getting yourself into, but I honestly don’t know if he is.”
“Okay,” Kylie said, barely audible, more to herself than to Stacy. She closed her eyes and rested her forehead against the cool glass of the window. “I should let you go. I need to get busy packing.”
“Don’t run off, Ky. Keep talking to me.”
Luckily, the front door opened as Brayden and Nessa came flying in, giving Kylie a reason to hang up. She barely got her tears wiped away and her good-byes out before Brayden ran across the room and threw his body against her legs like he loved to do, nearly knocking her over. He tipped his head back and smiled his million-watt smile up at her, and just like that her lonely heart pieced itself back together again. She scooped him up and covered his little face in kisses until he giggled.
“Hi, Babycakes. Did you have fun shopping with Nessa?”
He nodded so hard his entire body shook in excitement.
“Oh my gosh, Ky Girl, I am pooped!” Nessa dumped the shopping bags from her hands and collapsed onto the sofa. “Your kid is heck on wheels today.”
Kylie laughed and asked Brayden, “Did you give Nessa a hard time this afternoon?”
Brayden pushed against her shoulder and shook his head back and forth in denial so fast Kylie was sure he would shake it right off his shoulders.
“Look at him! He’s a monster,” Nessa declared with mock horror.
Kylie set the squirming boy on his feet and he ran across the living room toward Nessa with a playful growl. She hopped off the sofa and let him chase her around, laughing as she dodged around the furniture.
“Did you remember to pick up the gift I had on hold for Dan and Stacy?”
“Shasta, no! I think I forgot.” Out of breath, Nessa returned to her shopping bags to check. After a quick rummage, she came up empty handed. “I’m sorry.”
“That’s okay. I’ll get it later.”
“But wait’ll you see what I bought for myself. Are you ready for this?”
Knowing Nessa like she did, Kylie braced herself for anything. She nearly burst out laughing when Nessa presented, with a flourish, a massive, baby blue, down-filled winter coat, complete with a faux fur collar. Slipping it on, Nessa gave a little spin.
“What do you think?”
“Pretty,” Brayden declared, but that wasn’t the word Kylie would have chosen. Standing barely five-feet tall, Nessa had been built a little round, and very well endowed. The puffy, down-filling made her look like a giant, baby blue snowball… or a Weeble Wobble.
“We’re going to Nebraska, not the Antarctic.”
“It snows there,” Nessa stated matter-of-factly, her expression dead serious.
“I know, but I checked the forecast, and it’s supposed to be in the forties all week.” Kylie looked through the other shopping bags. “Thermal underwear? Seriously?”
“I don’t know what fabricated forecast you pretended to check, but the one I saw said it’s going to be in the twenties at night. The twenties, girlie! I’ma gonna freeze to death!”
“You’ll be fine,” Kylie assured her, but Nessa was on a roll.
“I got some sweaters, and all kinds of snacks for the plane ride, ’cuz you know those airline cheapskates only give you six itty, bitty pretzels for a four-hour flight, if that… And I got me some sexy, steamy reading material… Oh! And look what we found for Brayden…”
Brayden’s eyes lit up at the mention of his name. He watched with rapt attention as Nessa stuffed her hand into one of the bags, his little body practically vibrating from anticipation, but when she pulled out a bright green, stuffed dinosaur, with a grand, “Ta-Da!” Brayden’s smile vanished in an instant.
Nessa made the dinosaur dance and roar around the living room, but he wanted none of the fun. He let out a grunt of disinterest that bordered on disgust, and turned his back on her. With his joy gone and his head hung low, he wandered out of the living room and headed down the hall toward his bedroom.
“What the heck?” In disbelief, she looked from the stuffed animal to the retreating boy and back to the dinosaur again. “I swear he loved it in the store.”
“It happens all the time,” Kylie assured her. “I have boxes full of stuffed animals he loved for a minute and hated the next. I’ve pretty much given up hope in ever finding a replacement for Boo Bear.”
“You think he hates it?” Nessa asked, making a face as she scrutinized the dinosaur.
“Hate’s a pretty strong word. He just… doesn’t know about it yet. Give him time,” Kylie suggested.
“Ah, don’t sugar-coat it. He hates it.” Nessa tossed the stuffed animal onto the sofa with a dejected sigh. “Ah well, I guess I’ll sleep with it then. Not like I got a man keeping me warm at night anyway.”
Kylie grunted. “Who needs one?”
Nessa ignored both her comment and her tone. “You hungry? I could grill some salmon for dinner.”
“Sounds good.” Kylie started down the hall toward Brayden’s room. “I’ll be out to help you in a sec.”
“Take your time.” Nessa shrugged out of the bulky coat. “Man, that thing gets hot.”
“I told you,” Kylie called back over her shoulder with a laugh.
She knocked softly before stepping into Brayden’s room. Toys littered the floor. His pajamas from the morning were still strewn across the unmade bed, where he lay, his back to the door, facing the wall.
“Can I come in?”
He shook his head and wiped his nose with the back of his hand, sniffing a big sniff as he did.
She went in anyway, and knelt on the floor next to his bed. “That was a really cool dinosaur Nessa bought you today.”
He grunted in response.
“You don’t like it?”
He shook his head.
She rubbed a slow, lazy circle across his back. His body softened from her touch, but he didn’t turn around to look at her.
“Nessa sure seemed to like it a whole lot. Maybe you could let her borrow it for a little awhile.”
He lay still, thinking it over, and then after a moment he nodded.
“I’m sure if you change your mind and decide you like it, she’d let you have it back.”
He nodded again.
“Okay.” Tear streaks dampened his cheeks, but as they were drying, no fresh ones fell to take their place. “Are you hungry?”
He shook his head. His chest expanded and then deflated as he drew in a big breath and let it out on a shaky exhale. She shifted her hand to stroke his hair and his eyes closed. He’d missed his nap, and it was showing in his tears.
“Are you sleepy?”
He shook his head, but his eyes remained closed.
“Want me to lay with you for a minute?”
He shook his head, but then he turned around and held his arms out for her. She slipped into his twin-sized bed with him and held him close to her heart. He wouldn’t let her sing to him anymore. Only Jimmy had been allowed to do that. But he snuggled in closer when she started to hum. His hand came up to her neck, his head resting against her chest. With his tears soaking into her t-shirt, she hummed the song he had been falling asleep to since the day he was born. Before long, he let out another deep, shuttering sigh, and drifted off to sleep.
She stroked his hair, pressed kisses onto the top of his head, and held him tight. She had never felt more weighed down with hopeless than she did in moments like these. Most days Brayden did great. He didn’t talk much, but he was happy. He played and laughed and ran around raising hell, his sweet smile so bright it lit up the sky. But, occasionally, he remembered. When he did, his tears came from so deep inside she feared they would never stop.
Taking him on a trip into his past life in Nebraska still felt like the wrong decision, but she saw no other way for him to find proper closure. Letting go was hard, way too hard for a little boy, especially when his own mother was failing miserably at it.