Chapter 132 ~ A Crisp Morning

a crisp morningAlmost six months had passed since Marissa walked away from her job at Rogan-Handley Construction, but as she pulled into her usual parking slot at the end of the building, beneath the bare-branch canopy of the cottonwood tree, it felt as though she had only left for the night. As she opened the door to the office, she was welcomed by the familiar jiggle from the trio of bells hanging from the handle. The air carried the same undertone of motor oil and cedar as she remembered, but now the combination was heavily laced with cinnamon and Chantilly.

“Good morning, dear. What can I do for you today?”

Behind the front counter, at Marissa’s old desk, sat a pleasantly plump, older woman in a light pink cardigan and floral blouse. A pair of reading glasses hung around her neck on a jeweled chain. Her gray hair had been recently styled, her cheeks rouged.

“You’re Vivian, right?” Marissa asked.

“Why, yes. Yes, I am,” Vivian replied, a pleasant, yet curious, smile on her face. “And you are?”

“I’m Marissa.”

“Very nice to meet you, Marissa.” Vivian’s smile remained the same, without a hint of recognition of her name. She repeated, “Now, what can I do for you today?”

A jab of disappointment caused her pause. Out of sight, out of mind, apparently, she thought before asking, “Is Dan here?”

“Do you have an appointment?”

“No,” Marissa snapped, harsher than she intended, yet she felt no need to apologize. Who does this lady think she is, anyway? “He left some paperwork at the bank yesterday. I’m here to return it.”

Vivian held out her hand, nodded to the manila envelope Marissa held in her hand. “You can leave it with me.”

Marissa clutched the packet to her chest, defended her ground. “No, thank you. If he’s not here, I’ll just come back later.”

Vivian narrowed her eyes, as though sizing up Marissa for battle. “I’ll tell him you stopped by.”

“Thank you.”

As Marissa turned to leave, she heard Dan’s deep, hearty, unmistakable laugh carry from the small kitchenette in the back corner of the office. She stopped, mid stride, and spun back around to the smug woman who occupied her desk.

“Seriously?”

Vivian shrugged innocence. “I thought he’d left.”

Marissa didn’t have time to play games. As it was, doing this favor had already made her late to work. Ignoring Vivian’s protests, Marissa rounded the front desk and headed into the kitchenette, where she found Dan, along with Jimmy, Brent and Jason, all standing around the microwave.

“Hey, guys,” Marissa called out in greeting, just as the timer dinged.

Like Pavlov’s dogs, they all pounced, elbowing and jabbing for their turn to warm their breakfast. Brent popped open the door, pulled out a bowl, and shoved it down the counter to Jason, who kept his distance, though it put him at a disadvantage.

“Hey! It’s still cold!” he complained.

“Tough shit,” Jimmy barked. He grabbed Brent by the collar and wrestled him back, unwittingly giving Dan the advantage, who snuck in his bowl and slammed the door.

“Son of a bitch!” Brent grumbled, and rubbed at his neck where his shirt had dug in.

Jimmy shoved Dan. Dan shoved back.

Marissa stepped into the middle of the melee. “Boys!”

They halted.

“What in the world are you fighting over?” She plucked Jason’s bowl from his hands, sampled the treat. “Damn, this is really good apple crisp. Stacy’s?”

“Vivian’s,” Brent corrected with a dreamy sigh.

Instantly, Marissa’s mouth opened. The bite of crisp slid off her tongue and plopped into the bowl. She handed it back to Jason, who gazed down on the mess in disgust.

“You forgot this at the bank last night.” She slapped the packet of paperwork against Dan’s chest. “See you around, ya weirdos.”

The envelope fell to the floor as Dan and Jimmy resumed their shoving match. Believing them distracted, Brent popped open the microwave and attempted to ferret off with Dan’s lukewarm crisp. Jimmy caught him mid-stride and wrestled him to the ground with a cross-face cradle, leaving him defenseless against the expanding stream of whipped cream spraying from the can Dan welded.

Above the fray, Jason rushed to catch up to Marissa, stopping her just as she stepped outside the office, into the bitter cold, morning sunshine.

“Hey.”

Awkwardly, he held onto her arm with an oversized hand. Built a lot like Dan, but not as tall, he came across as guileless and cornfed as any other local boy. Not overly attractive, nor particularly ugly, he was always friendly, somewhat shy. But he possessed a killer smile that could knock her on her ass. Without warning, he used it.

“Hey,” he repeated.

“Hey,” she echoed.

Where his hand clutched her arm, she felt comfortably warm. The rest of her body shivered from the gust of winter air circling the parking lot. As though noticing her discomfort, and misinterpreting it, he released his hold on her.

Instantly, she missed his touch.

Stupid, she mentally chastised herself. Aloud, she apologized. “Sorry about spitting in your apple crisp. That was gross.”

“Stacy’s is better anyway.”

“I wouldn’t know.” She fell silent, unsure that more to say.

He seemed at a loss as well.

Not since grade school had she felt like this around a boy, giddy and dumb, with that nauseous tickle expanding in her stomach, making it hard to breathe.

The tips of his ears turned red from the cold. She lost feeling in her toes.

He glanced over his shoulder, at nothing, then back to her. “Call me some time?”

“Okay.” She bit her lip to hide the involuntary smile she felt building below the surface.

He exhaled a frosty breath. “Okay.”

“Well… I should go.”

He inched a nervous step toward her, then stuffed his hands in his pockets and abruptly turned on his heel. Before she could reach to stop him, he was gone.

Back in her car, she cranked the heater to thaw her face, and dug to the bottom of her purse to find her cellphone. Jason answered on the third ring.

“Hello?”

“Hi. It’s me… Marissa. You, uh… You said to call you sometime. So, I, um… I did.” Feeling tongue-tied and foolish, she couldn’t stop a giggle from escaping. Then, much too loudly, she added, “Goodbye!”

She could hear his laugh as she hung up the phone.

“Stupid, stupid, stupid,” she whispered while smacking her head against the steering wheel in repetition.

But still, as mortified as she felt in that moment, and for the rest of the day, she couldn’t wait to call him again.

Chapter 131 ~ Six Weeks

six weeksTwo weeks in, the focus of Marissa’s investigation on potential-pastor Cody Mueller had expanded to include those within his inner circle; his family, friends, business partners. For the most part, after thorough social media scrutiny and a few exploratory phone calls, his associates came back clean.

His wife, Leah, appeared impeccably clean, her only interests being those of church and family. She homeschooled their children, attended Bible study, sang in the choir. She had a pretty face, but everything about her felt forgettable; her hair, her smile, her style, her stance. It was as though she had been designed to blend into the background, the meek and mild woman slightly out of focus, off center stage.

In that sense, she was the perfect bride for Cody. Or, at least, the Cody Marissa remembered him to be—the boy who had thrived in the spotlight, who’d lived as though the world revolved solely around him. Which made ‘vanilla’ Cody even more difficult to accept. He had the perfect wife, the perfect life, to be the star of the show. Yet, he hung back, sipping tea with the uncredited crowd, while another man dazzled the audience; his father-in-law, Charles Hughes.

That man was an enigma.

Marissa had barely scratched Chuck’s surface, but she was already intrigued by what she’d seen. Even late in his sixties, he stood tall, assiduous, athletically handsome and exuding intelligence. A Doctor of Ministry and Master of Financial Economics, he was retired CEO of Purity Financial, and acting CFO of Calvin & Gable Investments in Greenwich. The man had a mind for money.

And, in a footnoted brief she’d almost missed, he had also been named as a person of interest in an ongoing securities fraud investigation in Idaho.

In following that thread, she’d made an interesting discovery about his personal life. Twenty years earlier, on Maundy Thursday, his wife had been suddenly, and violently, stricken by a yet undiagnosed aliment. Her battle had been valiant, but brief, ending just before dawn on Easter Sunday.

Widowed, the humble minister and renowned financier, Charles Hughes, had been appointed the responsibility of raising his young daughter, Leah, alone. Marissa wondered if that had been the moment Leah had first sought sanctuary in the background. Or if it had been assigned to her.

“Hi, Marissa,” a deep, familiar voice startled Marissa from her reprieve.

“Hey, Dan,” she jumped to reply, her voice a little too loud, much too eager. In quick reflex, as though hiding porn, she clicked the computer mouse to close her Internet research on the nefarious Chuck. The screen changed to the bank software she was supposed to be using to do her job. “What’s up with you?”

Amused by her obvious guilt, Dan smiled. “I don’t know, what’s up with you?”

“Facebooking, on the clock,” she whispered, a quasi-lie. “It’s against the rules.”

“Busy place this evening,” Dan commented.

Marissa glanced over at the teller counter, where Colleen and Marg stood gossiping with the town librarian, Anita Stoker, who’d stopped in to deposit the day’s late book fines. Retiree Clyde Jones stood at the coffee station, sipping the last of the lukewarm Folgers, waiting to check the balance on his IRA and retell his same, tired stories.

“There’s actually a line,” Marissa teased.

“Can you help a guy out? All I need is a cashier’s check drawn from the business equipment account.”

“I think I can handle that. Who am I making it out to?”

“Taney Ford in Juliette.” Dan handed her the paperwork with the details. “Figured it’s time Jason had his own company truck.”

An unexpected, warm flush flowed from Marissa’s ears to her toes at the mention of Jason’s name. “Aw, that’s nice of you. He’s a really good guy.”

“He is,” Dan agreed, smiling again as Marissa felt her cheeks flame. “You should stop by the office sometime, say hi. We all miss you.”

“Yeah, sorry about of that… the way I left…” With a dip of her head to hide her embarrassment, she tucked a tendril of hair behind her ear. “I never should have taken the job, in the first place. I knew as soon as Jimmy offered it would be a disaster.”

“Not a complete disaster. You did excellent work. There will always be a job for you at Rogan-Handley, Marissa, if you ever decide you want to come back.”

“Thanks,” she said, though it had been an easy offer for him to make. They both knew she would never accept. “I hear Stacy had the baby. Congratulations.”

He had his phone in his hand, and was halfway around her desk, before he finished asking the question, “You want to see a picture?”

“Maybe just one or two,” Marissa said with a laugh as Dan sidled up close, providing her a better view.

His voice cracked with pride as he presented, “My beautiful Emily Rose.”

“Oh, Dan, she’s gorgeous,” Marissa gushed over the baby’s bright eyes, wispy hair, long lashes, the squish of her nose when she smiled. “How old is she now?”

“Six weeks today,” he answered.

“Six weeks, huh? You know what that means, right?” Marissa nudged him with her shoulder, teasing, “You get to start working on baby number two tonight.”

“Wait—what? Tonight?” Dan stood at attention, his eyes wide, disbelieving. “Tonight-tonight?”

She backpedaled. “I… don’t know… I’m not a doctor. I just assumed.”

“Yeah, you’re not a doctor… But Stacy is seeing her doctor today…” Dan mused, pulling inward and muttering to himself. “She didn’t say anything about… But she did ask what time I would be home. And she did say she had a special evening planned…”

“Sounds like you best not be late for supper.”

Frantic, Dan patted his chest and coat pockets, as though searching for something he’d lost. Other than his mind. “What time is it?”

Marissa glanced at the large clock on the wall. “Five to five. Just about closing time.”

“See, ya. Bye.”

“Hey! What about the cashier’s check for Jason’s truck?”

“Screw Jason. He can walk,” Dan dismissed with a guffaw.

In his rush to the door, he tripped over a slow-moving Clyde. Marg steadied both men, then blushed crimson in surprise when Dan thanked her with a hearty kiss to the cheek.

“Many thanks, my fine lady, and good night!”

With a giant wave, and a swish of the door, he was gone.

“Oh, my!” Marg gasped in awe as she fanned her rosy cheeks. “What was that all about?”

“A long-awaited deposit, I suppose,” Marissa answered, her amusement fading as she noticed the paperwork Dan had forgotten in his dash to the door. “Shoot.”

Marg picked up the packet, leafed through the pages. “You’ll have to call him in the morning, let him know he left it behind.”

“Or I could just stop by the office and drop it off with his check. Save him the trouble,” Marissa offered without thinking.

“You’re always so thoughtful.” Marg patted Marissa’s hand. “Have a good evening, dear.”

“Thanks,” Marissa muttered in reply, uncertain whether that little pit she felt fire in her stomach was one of dread, or anticipation.

* * *

Stacy had the lights turned low, George Strait on the stereo, when Dan came home. Only Willie Nelson met him at the door, sniffing in fierce curiosity at the bouquet of lilies Dan carried in his hand.

“Hey, buddy.” Dan scratched the mutt behind his ears. “Where are my beautiful girls?”

Willie barked, his answer unintelligible.

“The kitchen?” Dan guessed.

Willie barked again, and danced at Dan’s feet, his tags jingling on his collar as they scouted the house. In the living room, the fireplace had been lit. A thick nest of soft blankets lay on floor before it. Something wonderful baked in the kitchen. Tapered candles slowly burned in the dining room, casting a warm, romantic glow over the table, set with fine china and silver. A bottle of wine chilled on ice. He set the bouquet beside Stacy’s plate and headed upstairs.

He found them in Emily’s room, mother and daughter sound asleep in the rocking chair, the soft light of the lamp surrounding them in a halo of amber. Gently, he lifted Emily from Stacy’s arms and kissed her warm, sweet cheek. Stacy stirred.

“Hi,” she whispered, her smile sleepy.

“Hi,” Dan whispered in reply. He carried Emily to her crib, tucked a light blanket around her and smoothed her downy hair.

Stacy yawned, indulged in a deep stretch. “You’re home early tonight. Dinner’s not quite ready yet.”

“That’s okay.” Dan reached for her. “I’m more interested in what’s for dessert.”

She tipped her head, played coy. “Ice cream?”

“If you want to call it that. I heard a rumor at the bank today.”

Her nose wrinkled in confusion. “What rumor?”

“That it’s been, you know…” He waggled his eyebrows. “Six weeks.”

She smiled and rolled her eyes in the way that he loved. “I told you that this morning, dupek. It’s not my fault you don’t listen.”

“I’m a stupid man. You have to spell things out for me.” He bent, lifted her onto his shoulder caveman style, and carried her down the hall, into their room.

“Dan!” she protested with a laugh, wiggled in his grasp. “I have the evening planned!”

“I know, and we’ll do all that, I promise, but romance would be wasted on this round.” He dumped her on the bed. “It’s not going to last very long.”

He ripped off his shirt, kicked off his boots, slipped out of his jeans. In a heartbeat, he was naked and ready. She was entirely too overdressed.

“You don’t need this.”

He lifted her blouse, tugged hard to get it over her head.

“You could have used the buttons, you know,” she said through her laughter as she ruffled her hair and rubbed at her ears.

“Waste of time.” He slid his hands around her back, unfastened her bra. “And this will just get in my way.”

The lace and wire set sail across the room.

“And I can’t do anything if you keep these on.”

Her jeans came off in a graceless swoop.

Stacy scooted higher on the bed. “Don’t you dare touch my socks.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it, Icicle Toes,” he teased, gazing down at his incredible wife, at her purple panties and woolen socks, her graceful curves and his favorite places.

Subtlety, she arched her back, beckoning him to join her. He kissed his way around her stomach, along her neck, into the valley of her breasts. Her body heat flushed, consuming him with need.

“You’re still a little overdressed,” he whispered as he lifted her hips. Her little purple panties fluttered out of his hand, onto the floor.

She rose to him, and he paused.

“Stace, should I…” He glanced at the drawer of the nightstand.

As though reading his mind, she brought a hand to his cheek, stroked his lips with her thumb. “We make beautiful babies together, kochanie.”

“Indeed, we do,” he agreed, his love for her expanding more than he ever imagined possible.

Potrzebuję cię,” she whispered and lifted her hips to his. His body was finished long before his mind could translate her words.

It wasn’t until after dinner, and a drizzle of chocolate sauce in front of the fire, that Stacy got her own euphoric release. As she lay breathless in Dan’s arms, he felt his exhausted body turn to gelatin, his sated muscles dissolve. Her hand traveled across his chest, around his side.

“Are you gaining weight?”

“What are you talking about, crazy woman?” he grumbled, but stopped protesting when he ran a hand down his stomach.

It wasn’t as flat as he remembered, the muscle definition hard to find.

Vivian!

Stacy shifted to get a better look at him. “You are gaining weight.”

“Shut up, you,” Dan blushed, fretting about his baked goods infidelity. The evidence was written all over his stomach, and probably his ass, laid bare for her to see in the moonlight. He tugged at the quilt, desperate to cover his shame.

“It’s okay, kochanie. I’ll still love you, no matter how big you get.” She snuggled in closer. “Besides, you’re comfier to cuddle this way.”

“That’s it.” He flipped her onto her back. “No more cuddles.”

Round three left him steamy, sweaty, and gasping for air, but he’d be damned if he allowed those illicit pasties to turn a man soft.

 

Chapter 130 ~ Vanilla

VanillaA feast of opportunities lay before Marissa on New Year’s Eve, many of them the same drunk options she had on any given eve; Jack’s, Gimp’s, a random bar in Juliette. There were a few parties she could stop by. An invitation to dinner she hadn’t officially declined. The more she debated where to go, the more she felt like staying home.

Stepping closer to the full-length mirror in her bedroom, she combed her fingers through her long blonde hair, freshly styled with white chardonnay highlights and warm honey lowlights.  Whipping it into a messy knot, she loosened random tendrils, curled them around her finger, and left them to brush along her cheek in the way that invited men to touch.

She glossed her pouted lips, pinched her skin to a blush pink, let the silk kimono slip from her shoulders and scrutinized her naked form. As always, her eyes went to the scars across her abdomen first. Her body had healed the web of lines to pale blemishes, nearly invisible from afar. She would always see them as they once were, angry and raw, blood red and weeping. She traced each line with her fingertips, journeyed the memory for a moment, then moved on.

She’d gotten lazy at the gym, careless with calories. Her thighs jiggled, as did her ass. Her belly, usually tight and defined, looked soft, bloated. Turning sideways, she pushed it out further, placed one hand above, one below, and pretended, just for a moment, that the tiny bump she cradled was a life.

Before the phantom ache took control and settled in, she turned again, brought her attention to her breasts. Double D, heavy in her hands, they too had near-invisible scars, but she had elected for those. Scheduled during a time of anguish, paid for by a guilty conscious, her breasts were the only hint of beauty to her horrid, disfigured body. They disgusted her. Yet, she loved them.

With a dab of perfume in her cleavage, her naked form wrapped once more in silk, she left her solitude and sought the company of others, but she still didn’t feel like leaving the house. With Kitty having gone to bed early with a headache and sniffles, she settled for Mike.

In the spirit of gifting experience and memory instead of toss-away junk for Christmas, Kitty had given Mike a key to the house, and Tommy’s old room. She hadn’t asked Marissa’s permission, or even her forgiveness.

Marissa had no voice in the matter of her own home, whatsoever. She’d always known that. Having lived so many years surrounded by her mother’s hoard, she’d grown accustomed to having her own needs and desires cast aside to make room for other people’s trash. She just thought, maybe, this one time, in the spirit of Christmas, her feelings could have been taken into consideration before Kitty started bringing strays into the house again.

Sadly, they were not. She’d received a library card from her mother, instead.

Along with a sad sack of clothes and framed photo of his absentee wife, Ashley, Mike had brought with him his Labrador pup, Bella. Her sweet, doggy breath and eager, morning kisses helped offset the stench of Mike’s feet, and the disgusting, slurping sound he made while eating cereal. Marissa considered Bella to be Mike’s gift to her. As gift to him, she helped pack Ashley’s crap from the apartment, and drop it off at Martha’s house for safekeeping.

However, now, a week later, tortured by his endless flipping of channels, Marissa seriously began to regret her acceptance.

“Just pick something, already!” she cried out in exasperation.

“Trying,” Mike grumbled from his slouch at the other end of the sofa. “There’s nothing on.”

“There’s got to be a New Year’s Eve ball-drop special on somewhere,” she said, semi-seriously. It had been her favorite way to spend New Year’s Eve as a kid—Dick Clark, sparkling Kool-Aid, and counting the seconds until midnight with her brother and Kitty.

With a grunt, Mike continued to scroll.

Marissa wrapped a blanket around her legs and moved the large bowl of popcorn from the coffee table to the cushion between them. Bella sat straight, pretty and proper, one paw on Marissa’s leg. Ears up, eyes sad, she gazed longingly at each salty, buttery treat that made its way from the bowl to Marissa’s mouth without falling. She sat so pretty and patient, Marissa let a kernel slip. Bella caught it mid-drop, like a pro.

“Here, you try,” Mike surrendered and tossed the remote to Marissa.

She punished his indecision with the Hallmark Channel.

“Ugh, seriously?” he groaned.

“What?” she smirked.

Neither of them watched the rom-com. He scratched at a scab on his head and texted Ashley. She picked up her laptop and did some light, Internet stalking.

For the past few days, she’d been keeping social media tabs on the potential pastor/jerk-wad rapist, Cody Mueller. She’d Googled him, friended him, and followed him. She’d learned nothing of value. Nor anything of interest. The man presented himself as professionally polished, slightly self-important, and completely void of any sense of individuality beneath the meticulously crafted veneer.

The pictures he shared of his wife and children were as stiff and posed as stock photos. His musings read like plagiarized lines from self-help books. His investment company’s website looked pre-packaged, with only the name and address customized to differentiate them from the competition. His profile listed business degrees from internet colleges and community service projects that sounded pretentious, at best.

“What does a rotary club do, anyway?” Marissa asked Mike.

“I dunno.” He lifted a shoulder in disinterested shrug. “Isn’t that an old lady thing, like Tupperware?”

She rolled her eyes. He was no help.

“Why?” He leaned in close, nosing into her business. “What’re you doing over here, anyway?”

She closed her laptop. “Nothing that concerns you.”

“Whatever,” he surrendered easily.

Mike returned to his side of the sofa. Marissa returned to stalking.

The more she dug into Cody Mueller’s bland, suburban life, the sleazier he seemed. His online ‘friend’ count was double the entire population of Allman Falls, but he didn’t appear to hang out with anyone. She could find no candid shots, no pets, no vacation pictures. Was he intentionally making himself look uninteresting and scandal-free, like a burgeoning politician? Or a serial killer?

Giving up on him, she switched her focus to the other potential pastor, Nicole Carlson. She looked to be in her late thirties, single, and a bit of a sci-fi geek. She had frizzy, red hair, wore thick glasses. She shared photos of her cats, Thor and Loki. Her posts quoted literature and mused about real life things, like grilled cheese and the smell of the earth after a summer rain. She taught English as a second language, ministered to prisoners, and had adopted a section of highway for litter control.

Everything about her seemed real, which made everything about Cody feel even less so.

Looking through her own friends list, she sought out the guys from high school who had hung in the same crowd as Cody, played on the same teams, dated the same girls. Many of them still lived in Allman Falls or Juliette, farmed or worked dead-end jobs, same as their parents had. They’d married the girl next door, got divorced. Some had moved on to bigger cities, different girls, to what they thought would be better lives, but ended up being more of the same.

All were older, wiser, more hardened by life, but no matter if they’d stayed or they’d gone, whether they’d found fortune or suffered loss, they were still the same guys they’d always been. They’d kept the same friends, retained similar hobbies. They still got drunk on weekends and did stupid shit together.

Marissa glanced over at Mike, wondered if he was the same guy he’d been in high school. She couldn’t imagine he’d changed much. Even as a kid, he was probably always a little hang dog, smelled a little like Corn Nuts.

“Hey.” She jabbed his arm. He’d long since put his phone down and had become enthralled in the budding romance on the television screen. “Do you ever get the feeling someone’s pretending to be a person they’re not?”

“All the time,” Mike answered, his eyes still focused on the screen. Chomping on popcorn, he smiled at the cheesy dialogue. “It’s human nature. Especially with addicts.”

“No, I mean, do you ever look at a person’s life and just know everything about him is complete bullshit? Like he’s too good, too perfect, too… I don’t know.” She struggled to find the right word.

“Contrived?” he offered.

“Vanilla,” she decided.

That drew his interest. “How so?”

She moved the popcorn out of the way, scooted closer so he could see her laptop. “Look through this guy’s profile and tell me any of it seems real.”

He clicked through the photos, read a couple posts. “Is this that pastor guy you had a crush on?”

“It wasn’t a crush.”

“Hmph,” he grunted. “The guy’s definitely vanilla, but I don’t think he’s faking it. I think he’s just that boring.”

“He was class president. Captain of the football team.”

Mike rolled his eyes. “Yawn.”

“He threw the best parties, dated the most popular girls.”

“Did his parents have money?” Mike guessed.

She sighed. “Yeah, I guess.”

“A rich kid in a small town? Of course, all the girls slept with him. And all the guys acted like he was king shit. That doesn’t mean they liked him. They just wanted to play with his toys, tag along on his vacations, experiment with his drugs. Does anybody still hang out with him now that they’re all grown up, making their own money?”

She’d done enough prying to know it was unlikely but wasn’t ready to concede. “He left town.”

“He didn’t go far. If they were real friends, they’d still get together for concerts or ball games. Hunting, golf, doesn’t matter. People will use any excuse to go for a drive and drink a beer.”

“True.”

“Face it, the guy’s boring. He married a vanilla woman, had vanilla sex, made some vanilla babies. Now, he’s probably bored with his vanilla life, feeling invisible in the big city, and looking to reclaim a position of power.”

“By becoming a pastor?” she asked, doubtful.

He shrugged. “It’s a surefire way to get invited to weddings.”

“And funerals,” she mused.

“Sinister.”

Indeed, she agreed.

Chapter 129 ~ Christmas at Chelsea

Christmas at Chelsea’Twas Christmas at Chelsea, and all through the house,

Were echoes of Dan’s jolly laughter, and music by Strauss.

A Balsam fir filled the corner, laden with ornaments and lights,

Topped with Gram’s porcelain angel, looking down in delight.

The Rogans were nestled, all snug on the couch,

Plum full of stuffing, mashed potatoes, and grouse.

Stace danced ’round the kitchen, a merry Cheryl by her side,

Filling trays with warm cocoa, sweet cream, and spiced pies.

Dan snoozed by the fire, Emily content in his arms,

While Willie Nelson pranced, delighting Aria with his charms.

When out on the lake, there arose such a clatter,

Jimmy sprang to the window to see what was the matter.

When what to his wondering eyes did appear,

But Kylie, and Brayden, clutching a tiny, stuffed reindeer!

He flew out the door, wrapped them with his arms in a flash,

His excitement so sudden, his heart suffered whiplash.

She was dressed for the winter, soft and warm in cashmere,

He knew he would hold her, long into the New Year.

Lifting Brayden up high, his life filled with new light,

He cried, “Merry Christmas to all!” It was a very good night.

 

Chapter 128 ~ Good Intention

Good IntentionTrue to nature, when the moment came, Marissa faltered. She sat before a vast mahogany desk, across from Pastor Tom, much in the same fashion she had sat across from Marg just a few days earlier. Except, this time, she was expected to lead the conversation. And she had no idea what to say.

It wasn’t her place to tell the church who they should, or should not, hire. How could she possibly know what kind of spiritual leader the congregation was looking for? She hadn’t regularly attended Sunday worship services in years. What gave her the right to think she had a voice in the direction of the church?

Besides, time passes. People change.

Pastor Tom broke the silence. “How have you been, Marissa?”

“Good. Good,” she answered with a nervous nod of her head.

Looking around the office, it was much as she remembered from her youth. Cozy. Quiet. Inviting. She remembered the candy dish. The mountain of books spilling off his desk. So many books.

She picked up one at random, ran her hand across the cool, leather cover. “Did you read all of these?”

“No,” he admitted. “Though, I have good intentions.”

She nodded again, feeling as stupid as a bird in a cage as she returned the book to the stack. “Do you have a big Christmas program planned?”

“The same as every year. Will I see you there?”

“Sure.” She selected a candy from the dish, took her time unwrapping the foil. The chocolate slowly melted in her mouth.

“How’s your mother?” Pastor Tom asked.

“She’s good,” Marissa answered honestly.

For so many years, when Kitty’s hoarding had been out of control, when her emotional state had been so low Marissa had sat up at night worrying her silent mother had chosen to never see another morning, that canned answer had been a lie. It felt good to finally be able to speak the truth.

“She’s doing very good, actually. I’m really proud of her.”

“We all are. She’s been an inspiration.”

“Thank you for, you know, never giving up on her. I think your visits are the only thing that kept her from completely drowning in her own mind.”

“Not the only thing,” he countered, but said no more on the subject.

“In honor of her success this year, we have decided to make Christmas a non-present holiday. The only gift we are allowed to give is the gift of experience and memory.”

“That’s a wonderful idea, one we should all adopt. Christmas has become much too materialistic, in my opinion.”

“Yeah, but gifting ‘experience’ is a heck of a lot harder than running to the mall for a pair of socks. I’m still not a hundred percent sure what I want to do, but I was thinking about how much my mom always loved to go to the movies. She gets all excited when she talks about seeing Clint Eastwood or some other sexy, leading man on the big screen. And how theater popcorn tastes so much better than microwave. She loved that her hands would smell like butter for the rest of the night.”

Pastor Tom listened with his entire body, facing her, leaned in, silent and attentive while she spoke. No one did that anymore. Everyone had their eyes on their phone, their mind on themselves.

“Growing up, we never could really afford to go to the movies. When I got older, I went with my friends. I never thought to invite her. So, I thought that’s what I would give her – a year’s worth of Clint Eastwood, or Chris Hemsworth, and the good popcorn.” She shrugged. “Date-nights with her daughter.”

“She would enjoy that, very much.”

“I have no idea what to do for Mike. Apparently, he’s part of the family now,” she said with a roll of her eyes. “I have to gift him an experience, or a memory, too.”

She knew exactly what kind of experience the poor boy desperately needed, but she wasn’t about to allow that particular memory to take up residence in her personal dreamworld. The mere thought of it sent a cold shiver down her spine, causing an involuntary shudder she couldn’t hide.

“You don’t like Mike?”

“No, I like him fine. I just…” She shrugged instead of speaking her heart.

She was jealous of him.

In the span of a summer, Mike was able to do for Kitty what Marissa had failed to do since long before her brother, Tommy, had died. Mike had been the one to dig Kitty out of the depths of her depression. He brought her back to life.

Marissa felt bad lying to the Pastor, so she spoke a bit of truth. “I don’t know that much about him.”

“This will be a good way to learn.”

Marissa had zero interest in learning anything about Mike. She was a little preoccupied with another guy in her life. She couldn’t leave the pastor’s office without asking, “Do you think people can change?”

“Life is a continuous opportunity for discovery and improvement. Your mother is a beautiful example of the power of faith, not only in God, but in one’s self. So is Mike.”

“No, I know people can learn and grow and overcome addiction, and all that. Decent people, anyway. But what about the bad people? The evil jerks of the world? Can they change? Can they become decent, good human beings?”

“I certainly hope so.” He smiled, his eyes kind, twinkling and merry as she always remembered. Like a father. Or Santa Claus. “It’s kind of why I do what I do. Why do you ask?”

“No reason,” she dismissed.

“We all have sinned, Marissa,” he said, quoting Romans. “We all fall short of the glory of God.”

“I know.”

He leaned back, his leather office chair creaking from his shifted weight, and brought his hands together in the form of a temple below his chin as he studied Marissa. She adverted her eyes from his, uncomfortable under his scrutiny.

“In my experience, as a pastor, I have never met an evil heart, one without conscious or fear of God. Instead, what I see every day, are good hearts that fall to sin in weakness.”

“You really need to get out more, Pastor,” she stated before thinking.

“I do,” he agreed with a laugh. “It’s one of the many reasons why I’m retiring.”

“What are the others?” she asked, grateful for an easy change of conversation.

She stayed awhile longer, listening to his passion for travel and desire to explore Ireland. She discovered they shared a love of Muddy Waters and lantern fishing. He gifted her a book, The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis. She gifted him the promise of attending church on Sunday. As the sun set low outside his west-facing window, they said their goodbyes.

In the hall, she merged with a small group exiting the library. She saw Jimmy immediately. A moment later, Mike. Seeing the two together, she understood the anonymous nature of the meeting they had attended. She stopped looking for other familiar faces in the crowd. Besides, she would always choose Jimmy over any other man in a room.

“Missy?” He said her name on an exhale of amused surprise. “What are you doing here?”

“In church, you mean?” she replied with a teasing laugh. “I could ask you the same.”

He shrugged, smiled that lopsided, Jimmy-smile she loved.

She would love him forever. She took his hand, pulled him aside and just enjoyed him for a moment. He kissed her cheek, tucked a strand of hair behind her ear, as was his habit.

He looked good. Incredible, really. Better than he had in a long time. He looked happy. Healthy. For so long, his face had been gaunt, his eyes dull. Now, he looked her over with his bright, crystal blue irises, lifted his eyebrows, and whistled in appreciation.

“Damn, Miss. You look ravishing, as always.”

She blushed. “Shush, you.”

“Seriously, though. What are you doing here?”

“Heard a rumor Pastor Tom’s leaving us. Had to check it out for myself.”

“I hear your old boyfriend, Cody’s, a shoo-in for the job,” he teased, making fun of her childhood crush on the ‘ugly, rich boy.’

“Let’s hope not.” She rolled her eyes, playing it off lightly. “Come out with me tonight.”

The noise he made perfectly echoed her own longing and regret. “I shouldn’t.”

“You’re back with Ky,” she stated.

“We’re trying,” he confirmed.

“I’m happy for you,” she said. It wasn’t a lie, though it came out sounding like one. She only wanted happiness for Jimmy, the same as he wanted for her.

He ran a light touch along her jaw, gave her another, lopsided Jimmy-smile. “Merry Christmas, Miss.”

“Merry Christmas, Jimmy.”

She watched as he walked away, his back straight, his shoulders high, and marveled at how quickly a broken man could begin to mend. Pastor Tom’s words replayed in her mind.

Good hearts fall to sin in weakness.

Jimmy was a good man, of good intention, with human failings. Never once had he set out to do her harm, cause her shame, or steal her faith.

He had left her broken, all the same.

Maybe the same was true of Cody. Maybe what he had done to her was simply collateral damage of a good heart fallen to weakness and temptation.

There was one way to find out if a man was sheep or wolf. Come to church, listen to him preach.

She drew in a deep, unsteady breath and whispered to herself, “Baa.”

Chapter 127 ~ Under Review

Under ReviewHer chest felt tight, as though compressed by a heavy weight, forcing her to take shallow, rapid breaths, leaving her lightheaded and confused. Her pulse throbbed in her neck, each beat sharp, constrictive. Consciously, she drew in a slow, intentional, calming breath, closing her eyes to center her soul before she expelled the deep panic with a gentle exhale.

“Relax, dear,” Marg Sloan encouraged with a bright smile. She reached across her desk to lightly pat Marissa’s clasped hands. “This is just a performance review, not an inquisition.”

“Right,” Marissa whispered through a nervous laugh. “You’re right. I’m sorry.”

Sitting straighter, Marissa smoothed her skirt, tucked her hair behind her ear, and shoved her haunted memories to the back of her mind, where she’d successfully kept every pain, every vision, every memory of her own tortured cries, buried for the past ten years.

Bloodied and bruised, more exhausted than she’d ever felt in her life, she’d still considered herself the victor of that fight. Spiritually. Emotionally. Never once had she allowed herself to feel a victim or a fool.

But, obviously, she’d only been fooling herself, if only the casual mention of his name held the power to revive that night in a vivid rush of terror and rage.

Marissa drew in a breath, forced her vision to focus on the paper Marg had placed in front of her, to listen to the words the woman spoke.

“…is simply wonderful. Your efficiency and accuracy ratings are well above what we would expect from a team member who has been with us for…”

Her speech became garbled. The typed words on the paper swirled. Marg handed Marissa a pen. She signed where Marg pointed. The paper disappeared into a manila folder. Marg produced another one.

And then she sighed.

“Now, about your attendance.”

Start on a high note, gentle roll to the low.

Marissa did her best to look contrite about her missed days and long lunches. Marg worked her way back to another high, Marissa’s impeccable phone etiquette, signaling the end of the performance review.

She walked away with a three-point-two percent raise. Better than the zero percent she’d expected, but not even close to what she had made during her brief stint working for Jimmy at Rogan-Handley Construction. Not that she wanted to suffer that humiliation again.

Still, she needed something better than the credit union.

At the end of the day, Marissa logged off her computer, slipped on her coat, and picked up the only decoration she had in her cubicle, a snake plant in a square, green pot.

The morning of her first day at her new job, her mother had taken the garden shears to her jungle of houseplants and selected a hardy cutting. She’d poked it into fresh soil, drawn a cheery face on the side of the pot, attached googly eyes, scattered a few stones for good luck, and then packed Marissa a peanut butter sandwich for lunch. Marissa had tossed the sandwich but kept the plant. She’d named it Glenn and had given him the place of honor on her desk, beside her monitor.

Glenn had been in her care for eighty-four days now. She hadn’t killed him, but he didn’t look exceptionally happy, either. She poked her finger into the soil. Bone dry.

“Sorry, buddy,” she whispered, and tucked him into her oversize purse. “I promise, I’ll do better at our next place, wherever we end up.”

She walked out of the office without a backward glance and braced against the wicked, winter wind as she hurried across the icy parking lot to her car. The driver’s door was frozen shut, the handle an unyielding block of ice from the afternoon’s freezing rain. As she hurried around to the other side of her car, a frigid blast of arctic air whipped across the downtown square and stole the breath clean out of her lungs. Gasping, she popped the handle. The door opened with a wrenching groan.

With all the grace of hippopotamus in snow boots, she clambered across a collected mess of CD’s and fast food trash heaped in the passenger side, over the center console, into the driver’s seat. Panting through a sudden hot flash from the exertion, she struggled to loosen her scarf, unbutton her coat, and stabbed her key into the ignition. Her poor car shuddered, died, and then choked to a semblance of life. She waited a moment longer, for the high-pitched squeal of her alternator to quiet down to a pitch less painful, then flipped on her one working headlight and rolled out of the parking lot.

She only had to drive a few blocks to the house she’d shared with Kitty for almost all her life, but she didn’t feel like going home. She wasn’t in the mood to hang out at Captain Jack’s, either, though she could probably pick up a shift if she’d wanted to. Her bank account needed her to. Maybe over the weekend, when the tips would be better, and she’d have time to sleep off a hangover.

She headed out of town, down the spur toward the highway, then turned onto a familiar country road. It had been a long time since she’d felt the need to drive this direction, to clear her mind, to breathe the air.

To focus.

Her brain felt scattered, her thoughts hyper and incomplete. The car’s heater cooked her feet, but the knob was broken and she couldn’t turn it down. Instead, she cracked the window, turned on the radio, and started flipping stations, desperate to find something that matched her mood.

“…make the entire process easy for you…”

♪ I’d take it all back, take it all back, take it all back, just to have you… ♪

“…regain control over your healthcare costs…”

♪ Are you going to kiss me, or not… ♪

The night was black, the sky a thick, heavy blanket of clouds, allowing no glow from the stars, or the moon. Patches of snow shone silver from the beam of her headlight.

♪ All in all, you’re just another brick in the wall… ♪

“…your official country station…”

♪ I’m the kind of guy who laughs at a funeral… ♪

“…across the state with snow and ice, making the roads treacherous for travel…”

“…He had, at the end, a plan for salvation…”

Frustrated, she turned down the volume, and drove the next two miles in relative silence. Her tires kicked up frozen gravel. Individual rocks dinged along the undercarriage of her car. Wind whistled through the cracked window. Her single headlight flickered when she hit a rough patch of washboard road. She slowed for an intersection, though there was no one she had to yield to.

She was alone, on the road, in the world. It was how she’d preferred to live her life. Except for Jimmy, there was no one she had ever loved, no one who had ever loved her. She’d never been the kind of girl who needed friends. Other than her mother, she had no family. Not since her brother was killed, since her baby had died.

Halfway to the next intersection, she slowed. Then stopped, put her car into park. She turned off her headlight but didn’t get out.

A lifetime had passed since she’d last walked into the valley and sat beneath the burr oak tree where she and Jimmy had tucked the memory of their accident. Part of the reason was the land had sold and was now used to run cattle. The beasts had soiled the ground, muddied the creek, stripped the life from the earth, and trampled the roots of her tree.

What innocence she’d buried had long been destroyed. Not only by the cattle, by also by the beast of man.

For that ground was where she had been raped.

She turned away from the valley, dug through the CD’s piled on her passenger seat.

Just the mention of his name…

She found Eric Church. Slipped him into the stereo. She kept the volume low and closed her eyes.

For everything Marissa Vasek had been in high school, Cody Mueller had been the opposite. She was poor, the child of a single mother, the daughter of a hoarder. He was a child of wealth, of healthy abundance. She’d always been slow to learn, struggled to read, hated school. He’d been elected class president, valedictorian, voted most likely to succeed.

She’d hung with the wrong crowd, smoked pot, talked back, got suspended. He’d kissed ass, played the teachers, mastered the game.

He’d dated cheerleaders. She’d dated Jimmy.

Secretly, she’d watched him, crushed on him. She went to his basketball games, crashed his parties, got drunk, acted stupid, hoping he’d notice. All through high school, freshman through senior years, he’d never once looked her way. He’d never spoken her name. He’d never returned her smile.

Except, the night before their high school graduation, he did.

Three weeks earlier, a semi had crossed the center line of the highway, and Jimmy had swerved. She’d healed physically from the car accident, from her miscarriage, from the surgery. But she had yet to heal emotionally.

She’d hated herself. She’d hated Jimmy. She’d hated the way the whole town talked about her, about him, about what they’d done. She was branded a whore, Jimmy even worse. Together, they were outcast.

She was high, all the time.

The night Cody noticed her, she was so stoned she could barely walk, could hardly keep her eyes open. But when he’d beckoned, she’d felt the first glimmer of joy hit her heart since the night of the crash, and she’d followed.

She’d climbed into the passenger seat of his truck, directed him out into the country, and led him to the oak tree. She’d wanted to show him where she’d buried her heart. She’d imagined he would hold her, listen to her sorrow, comfort her, kiss away her tears, mend her heart.

But all he’d wanted to see, to kiss and to touch, was her body, naked in the grass.

She’d said no. She’d screamed, No!

But Cody always got what he wanted. Even if he had to steal it.

Until that night, despite rumors to the contrary, Jimmy was the only boy Marissa had ever let see her body, kiss her skin, lie naked alongside her and touch her intimately. Together, they had learned how to please another, how to love another, how to respect another. He’d been gentle with her, playful with her, rougher when she’d wanted it. He’d stopped immediately if she ever felt uncomfortable.

He’d learned what she liked, and he’d perfected it. For her.

Jimmy was how she imagined all men would be. She had never been more wrong, more naïve, about anything in life.

That night in the valley, Cody had done what he wanted, how he’d wanted, when he’d wanted. He’d gotten hard over her struggles for him to stop. He’d slapped her, pinched her, punched her, and bit her breast so hard she’d thought the bruise would never heal.

He’d shoved her face down into the muddy earth, and he had taken her from behind. And then he’d left her beaten and bloody, her clothing torn, her body exposed, and returned to town without her.

She’d curled up under the tree, knees to her chest, and forced her eyes to dry. As she’d felt her body passing out, she’d prayed for God to let her die in her sleep.

Hours later, she’d woken up to a cold rain, her face tender and swollen to the touch, pissed off to still be alive, and determined to never feel weak or helpless again.

Years passed. She took control of her body, of pleasure and sex. She learned how to fight and resisted the desire to love. She never mentioned that night to anyone, not even to Jimmy. And she’d never given Cody a second thought. Until now.

He was all she thought about as she drove home, as she pushed her dinner around her plate. She saw his stupid, ugly face when she stared at the TV. She could feel the ghost of his clammy hands, could smell the stench of his rotten breath as she tried to sleep.

In the morning, determined once again to regain control, she returned to work, to her cubicle, and returned Glenn to his place of honor beside her monitor on her desk. Then, she picked up the phone, and dialed the church.

When Pastor Tom answered, she stated with conviction, “We need to talk.”

Intermission ~ NaNoWriMo

NaNo-Shield-Logo-WebI was first introduced to NaNoWriMo in the late 2000’s. We owned a garden center at the time. Winter days could be dreadfully long, cold even in the sunshine, and more than a little bit lonely. I found myself reaching out across the world, through the miracle of the Internet, reconnecting with lost family and dear friends. One, in particular, changed my life.

When we found each other, my “bad seed,” my Little Lizard, my high-school drama partner/journalism buddy, was experiencing a life exploration of her own. A military wife and mom of two, she was back in college, immersing herself in her beloved world of literature and language studies, on her way to becoming a librarian.

One of her classes that semester was a course on creative writing. She sent me some work to critique. I fell in love with her writing, with her passion. I wanted to play, too.

She said, “You should NaNoWriMo!”

I said, “I should do who-what-now, huh?”

And then, she explained.

NaNoWriMo is National Novel Writing Month. For the past twenty years, starting on the 1st of every November, participants begin working toward the goal of writing a 50,000 word novel by 11:59pm on November 30th.

That’s a lot of words. And a lot of fun… kind of.

That first year, I signed up, got all excited, put way too much pressure on myself, failed miserably, and gave up.

A year later, I admitted defeat on another dream. We sold the garden center. Disappointed in myself and uncertain where to go from there, I sat down at the computer to job search. Instead, I started to write.

Millie’s Rose was my first “NaNoWriMo.” I did it on my own, starting in the middle of January. I finished in the middle of February, revised a million times, published it, unpublished it, revised some more, and turned it into the ongoing blog series it is today – Allman Falls.

My second attempt at NaNo brought forth Olivia. I wrote her in the summertime, with the help of an amazing critique partner, and the musical inspiration of Michael Franti and Eminem. Half of it, I frantically thumbed into my Blackberry while sitting on my mother-in-law’s porch. I didn’t write that story as much as it poured. I have yet to feel that kind of inspiration again, but I’m determined to try.

This year, in the month it is intended, I’m packing up my laptop, my coffee, and my cat. I’m taking a vacation from Allman Falls and moving onto the porch with the hope of  NaNoWriMo-ing my way into a different world, full of new characters, new love, new drama, more comedy, and maybe a murder (or two).

I know nothing about what will transpire, who will do the transpiring, or where the transpiring will take place. I do, however, know what this new novel will be called. It’s had a name, and absolutely nothing else, for going on six months now:

Right on Sunshine

I’ll see you in December!