Chapter 130 ~ Vanilla

VanillaA feast of opportunity lay before Marissa on New Year’s Eve, many the same drunk options she had on any given eve; Jack’s, Gimp’s, a random bar in Juliette. There was a party she could stop by. An invitation to dinner she hadn’t officially declined. The more she considered her options, the more she favored the idea of staying home.

She stepped closer to the full-length mirror in her bedroom, 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 were first drawn to the scars across her abdomen. Time had healed the web of lines to pale tracts, nearly invisible from afar, but she would always see them as they once were; angry and raw, blood red and weeping. Tracing each line with a light touch of her fingertips, she 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 contracted her muscles to pull her flesh in tight, then relaxed and pushed the pudge out further. One hand above, one below, she pretended, just for a moment, that the tiny bump she cradled was the creation of life.

Before the phantom ache could take control and settle in, she shifted 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. She still didn’t feel like leaving the house. With Kitty having retired to bed early with a headache, 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. Kitty hadn’t asked Marissa’s permission first, or even for her forgiveness after. Having lived so many years surrounded by her mother’s hoard, Marissa had grown accustomed to her own needs and desires being 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. Instead, she’d received a laminated membership card to the Allman Falls public library and a candy cane heart.

It wasn’t all bad. 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 his ever-presence in the house. Marissa considered Bella to be Mike’s gift to her. As gift to him, she’d helped pack Ashley’s crap from the apartment then dropped 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 foolhardy acceptance.

“Just pick something, already!”

“Trying,” Mike said on a grumble 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 and sparkling Kool-Aid, anxiously counting down the seconds until midnight with her brother and Kitty.

As 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 salted 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 said, surrendering the remote to Marissa.

She punished his indecision with the Hallmark Channel.

“Ugh, seriously?”

“What?” she asked innocently, hiding a smirk.

Neither of them watched the marathon of holiday rom-coms. He scratched at a scab on his head and texted Ashley while she picked up her laptop to do some light, Internet stalking.

For the past few days, she’d been keeping social media tabs on the potential pastor/jerk-wad rapist, Tyler Tomek. 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 prepackaged, with only the name and address customized to differentiate them from the competition. His profile listed numerous degrees from expensive universities and community service projects that sounded pretentious, at best.

“What does the 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 and returned to his side of the sofa.

Marissa returned to stalking.

The more she dug into Tyler Tomek’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?

Looking through her own friends list, she sought out the guys from high school who had hung in the same crowd as Tyler, 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, procreated, got divorced. Some had moved on to bigger cities, different girls, to what they thought would be better lives, but only 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 greasy, a little hang dog, smelling 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 said, 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 new pastor guy you got a crush on?”

“It wasn’t a crush.”

He grunted his disbelief. “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. “Yeah, so? He’s still boring as hell.”

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

“Did his parents have money?” Mike asked.

She sighed. “I guess.”

“A rich kid in a small town? No doubt 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. Do any of ’em still hang with him now that they’re all grown up, making their own money?”

She’d done enough prying to know it was unlikely, but she 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 love an 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 incredulously.

“Of the church his parents control? Yeah. Absolutely.” He huffed. “Besides, it’s a surefire way to get invited to weddings.”

“And funerals,” she said.

“Sinister.”

“Indeed,” she agreed.

Mike slipped back into the make-believe world of movie romance, which was now, predictably, on the rocks, and Marissa returned to the world of exaggerated truth through her friends’ social media posts. Come midnight, her newsfeed would likely transform into an embarrassing, unkempt mess of drunken tragedy to be hastily untagged and deleted by morning, but the night was young enough the smiling faces she scrolled past were still perfectly filtered and mostly sober.

Many of the pictures had been taken at Captain Jack’s. They had a DJ for the night, drink specials and giveaways. If she’d wanted, she could have called the manager and asked for a shift. New Year’s Eve could be a huge money-maker, with the right crowd, but even the thought of picking up that tray again raised her blood pressure and roused her anger. Seven years of playing coy or teasing easy to drunken assholes with grabby hands and snarky girlfriends who didn’t know how to tip had burned her out. She wasn’t ready to go down that rabbit hole again.

What she really wanted was to step into a casual get-together like the one in the pictures Aria had posted from Chelsea Lake. Close friends enjoying good conversation in a lush living room alight with a warm fire crackling in the hearth, champagne on ice, and tray after tray of Pinterest-perfect appetizers. Aria positively glowed in her pregnancy. In every picture that captured Jimmy, he sat mesmerized, cradling Dan and Stacy’s newborn baby. The phantom ache throbbed from deep in her belly, crying out from her broken soul. Hurriedly, she moved on.

Scrolling the feed, she found more of the same, increasingly drunker friends and acquaintances living it up at the same old bars. A handful had stayed home to ring in the new year with their husband or wife, their young children. Quite a few were at a party in some guy’s garage, which looked like a hell of a good time. For a moment, Marissa was tempted to finish dressing and head out into the frigid night to be warmed by an excess of tequila shots and a steamy, meaningless hookup, but then Bella rested her chin on Marissa’s leg. With doe eyes, the dog implored Marissa to scratch her ears, and Marissa complied.

Bella’s ears were like velvet to the touch as Marissa stroked them with her thumb and let them play through her fingers, gently twirling and scrunching. Bella’s eyes rolled back as she groaned deeply in contentment. The dog loved nothing more than an ear massage or a nose nuzzle, shoulder rubs and butt scratches, car rides and stolen treats. As Marissa patted the sofa cushion beside her, Bella jumped at the invitation to snuggle in alongside her and wriggled her cold nose under the warmth of Marissa’s arm, sighing in contentment.

Marissa unclasped Bella’s collar, slipped it off her neck, then massaged the dog’s fur. Giggling, she sang, “Bella’s naked. Naked, naked, naked.”

Mike snorted a laugh. “Dork.”

Bella shot her owner a jovial glance then scooted and scooched, rolling onto her back, and nudged Marissa for a belly rub. The shift caused her collar to slip from Marissa lap and fall to the floor with a musical jangle of the dog tags. Marissa leaned down to pick it up and brushed her thumb over the engraving of the heart-shaped rabies tag, which read, “Rabies Vacc, Hart Veterinary Clinic, Allman Falls NE.”

“Do you like Dr. Hart?” Marissa asked.

Mike shrugged. “Yeah, I guess. I mean, he’s cheap.”

“That’s how you choose your veterinarian? By how much he charges?”

“No,” Mike said defensively. “He’s a nice guy. He’s good to Bella. But almost every vet I’ve ever met is really nice and good with animals. And really expensive. Doc Hart is a farm guy with a clinic, not some frou-frou puppy parlor. He’s cheap and efficient.”

“The same way you like your women?” Marissa asked with a teasing wink, which made Mike snort again with laughter.

Marissa patted Bella on the belly then picked up her cellphone and googled Dr. Alex Hart’s clinic. He didn’t have a website or any kind of social media presence, just a business landing page that listed clinic hours and an after-hours emergency phone number. He had received a half-dozen 5-star reviews in as many years, typical for a small-town business.

The doctor himself had a personal profile which Marissa lightly stalked before clicking the ‘Add Friend’ button. A few anxious minutes passed before she received notification he had accepted.

A heartbeat later, a new message popped up.

Her heart fluttered and she giggled aloud when she read, “Queen Nala awaits your arrival. 7:00 am sharp. Bring coffee.”

 

Chapter 129 ~ Good Intentions

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 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 Marissa’s 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 said 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.

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

“No,” he said. “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. His collection was varied, both fiction and non, classics mixed with newer releases. She pushed aside C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters and picked up a 1992 edition of The Complete Cat Care Manual. As though never read, the binding cracked when she opened the cover. Absentmindedly, she thumbed through the pages.

“I found a cat out in a pasture the other night and took it in to the vet. It was pretty messed up.” Marissa set the book aside. “Dr. Hart says she’s pregnant.”

“It’s good you found her when you did,” Pastor Tom said. “Do you plan to adopt her?”

Marissa scoffed at the question, changed the subject. “Are you doing anything special for Christmas this year?”

“We’ll have the same service we always do. Will I see you there?”

Again, she did not answer the question. Instead, she selected a piece of candy from the dish, took her time unwrapping the foil. As the chocolate slowly melted in her mouth, she reached for another.

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

“She’s good,” Marissa said with earnest, proud to answer 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 not giving up on her. Your weekly visits may have been the only thing that kept her from completely drowning in her own mind.”

“She never gave up on herself. That’s what truly matters.”

“In honor of her success this year, we have decided to make Christmas a non-present holiday. The only gift we’re 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 shiny trinket. I’ve been wracking my brain, trying to come up with the perfect future memory for my mom, and all I can think of is how much she used to love the idea of going to the movies. How she’d get all excited about seeing Clint Eastwood or some other sexy leading man on the big screen. And she’d go on and on about the popcorn and Junior Mints, and that her hands would smell like butter for the rest of the night.”

Pastor Tom listened with his entire body, facing her, silent and attentive while she spoke. No one listened like 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. We’d see the previews on TV and make big plans to go, but we never did. There was always something more important we had to spend the money on. When I got older, I’d go with my friends all the time, like it was no big deal.” She shrugged, feeling shame. “I never once thought to invite her.”

“I’m sure she wouldn’t have wanted to intrude.”

“Maybe, but still… I think that’s what I’ll give her; a year’s worth of Clint Eastwood, or Chris Hemsworth, Junior Mints and buttered popcorn. Date-nights with her daughter.”

“Kitty will enjoy that, very much.”

“And apparently, Mike’s part of our family now.” Marissa rolled her eyes. “I’m supposed to come up with an experience or memory for him, 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 caused an involuntary shudder she could not hide.

“You don’t like Mike?”

“No, I like him fine. I just… I don’t know…”

But she did know. She was jealous of him.

In the span of a summer, Mike had been 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 and bring 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 human beings?”

“I certainly hope so.” Pastor Tom 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 said dismissively.

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

“I know.”

Pastor Tom 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.”

She scoffed again. “You really need to get out more, Pastor.”

“I do.” He laughed as though in agreement. “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 the book on cat care, ‘just in case.’ 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. As though second nature, she sensed Jimmy immediately. A step behind, Mike followed. Seeing the two together, she understood the anonymous nature of the meeting they had attended. She stopped searching 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 a church?” she asked with a teasing laugh. “I could ask you the same.”

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

Marissa took his hand and pulled him aside, giving herself a moment to simply enjoy the comfort of his presence. 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, as he looked her over, his crystal blue irises shone bright.

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

She blushed. “Shush, you.”

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

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

“I hear your old boyfriend is a shoo-in for the job,” he said, 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 Jimmy made perfectly echoed her own longing and regret. “I shouldn’t.”

“Let me guess, you’re back with Ky?”

He shrugged. “We’re trying.”

“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 Tyler. 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 128 ~ Projection

ProjectionFrom its shelter deep in a thick mat of dormant grasses and winterkilled weeds strangling the fence line of the pasture, wary eyes of an animal watched as Marissa inched closer. Having shed her heavy coat, she kept her body low and small in attempt to look as nonthreatening as possible. Still, the animal cowered, shrinking in response to Marissa’s advance. When it could retreat no further, the creature hissed, finally revealing itself to be what Marissa had suspected all along; a feral cat.

She knelt on the frozen earth, pulled her sweater tight against the winter chill, and waited. Gradually, she sensed the animal relax as it too settled in to watch her. The night was too dark to determine the size or health of the cat, but it’s eyes never wavered from hers, indicating it was mentally alert. A good sign.

Cautiously, as to not startle the cat with sudden noise or movement, Marissa unwrapped scraps of her cheeseburger and French fry dinner she’d brought with her from the car. The food had gone cold, stale, but its aroma remained strong. She took a small bite of the cheeseburger, then broke off a piece and set it on the ground an arm’s reach in front of her. She did the same with the last of her fries, setting out a trail of offerings. And then, she waited.

The moon slipped behind a cloud, further darkening an already black night. Marissa fought back a shiver, exhaled a breath of warm air into her frozen hands and held them against her numb ears. And she waited.

A steer bellowed. Across the field, another bellowed in reply. A frigid gust of wind whipped Marissa’s hair up from her neck to slap against her cold cheeks. Still, she waited.

Eventually, hunger drove back fear. Hunkered low, with tentative steps, the cat slowly emerged from the protective cover of the underbrush. It kept its watchful eye on Marissa, its belly to the ground.

Another gust of wind brought the cat on instant defense. Its back arched, its fur bristled. Its tail fluffed to exaggerated proportions and pointed straight to the ground as a threatening growl rumbled from its chest. Marissa held a submissive stance. The wind died down, the cat calmed, and it continued its arduous journey.

As the moon emerged from behind its cloud cover, Marissa could better see the animal’s injuries; its damaged ear, bloodied neck, gimpy paw. It was malnourished and emaciated. Sharp hipbones jutted from beneath its dingy and matted fur. Still, the cat stepped with dignity, as though too proud to acknowledge defeat, too determined to entertain pain.

Marissa had emerged from the same field, in similar fashion, once upon a time.

She watched as the cat took delicate bites of the leftover cheeseburger and cold fries and was surprised when it did not run off with the last bite of scraps. Instead, with its fur still bristled but its back no longer arched, the cat eased onto its haunches, and watched Marissa with a prudent eye.

“I have nothing more to offer you,” she said, her voice no more than a whisper in the wind.

As though sensing different, the cat eased down to lay on her belly and wait. Or, maybe, it was simply too exhausted to journey back. The cat was young, small, battered. In the dark of night, it was difficult to determine fur color or eye color, but Marissa could see the cat was as cold as she felt. They shivered in unison.

She offered a hand, palm down, fingers relaxed, and was rewarded with a timid nuzzle.

“Fine. I’ll take you to the vet, get you cleaned up, make sure you’re alright, but don’t get any bright ideas about living with me. I don’t need any more stray animals in my house.”

Without giving the cat the opportunity to object, she scooped it up and tucked it securely beneath her arm. The cat struggled, kicking against Marissa’s side, gouging with its back claws, but it was weak, the struggle short lived. By the time they reached the car, the animal had surrendered to its fate.

It was long past closing time for most businesses in Allman Falls, but as Marissa had hoped, the lights still shone bright in the back buildings of the veterinary clinic. She found the door unlocked and stepped inside.

As a rural vet, Dr. Alex Hart cared for large and small animals alike. His kennels were occupied by a mix of dogs, scraggly cats, a handful of rabbits, and a hog. In the stable, two horses stood side by side in one of the stalls. A goat wearing blinders munched from a feed bucket in another.

In the third stall, Marissa found Dr. Hart in the middle of a rather intimate examination of an indignant cow held still by a hydraulic chute. She waited for him to remove his glove-clad arm from the animal’s nether regions before calling out, “Hello, there!”

With hardly a glance in her direction, Dr. Hart said, “The clinic is closed. Unless it’s an emergency, come back tomorrow.”

His voice was deep, carried on an air of authority and impatience. He removed his glove, jotted some notes on a clipboard, and picked up a stethoscope.

“It’s not an emergency,” Marissa said. “I just need to drop off this cat I found in a field.”

She held up the terrified cat, who now clung to her for security in the unfamiliar landscape, bright lights and strange smells of the barn. Dr. Hart’s attention was focused on the cow, not on Marissa and her burden. He did not respond.

“Can I just stick it in one of these cages?”

She took his continued non-answer as an affirmation and opened one of the empty units in the bank of stainless-steel cages. It required multiple attempts and a quick hand to simultaneously disengage all of the cat’s claws from her sweater and deposit it safely in its new home. The cat skittered to the back wall and compacted itself as small as possible in the shadows.

“Water?”

The doctor waved in the general direction of the far wall, where Marissa found a utility sink, clean bowls, and labeled canisters of food. She filled one bowl with cool water, another with a scoop of kibble, and returned to the cat’s cage.  The frightened creature pretended noninterest, just as it had to the scraps of cheeseburger in the field, but its nose sniffed furiously at the air. Marissa clicked her tongue and wiggled her fingers through the cage bars to entice the cat forward.

“You should leave it alone,” a small voice said from behind Marissa. “It’ll eat when it’s ready.”

She turned to find a young girl with kinky hair and emerald eyes dressed in Carhart overalls and pink plaid flannel. Marissa was terrible at guessing age, but judging by her small stature, she pegged the child at no more than five or six-years old.

“What’s your cat’s name?” the girl asked. She held a clipboard similar to that of the veterinarian’s and a fat purple marker at the ready.

“It doesn’t have a name.”

The girl scribbled some notes. “Boy or girl?”

“No clue.”

The girl frowned, scribbled some more. “And what brings you and your cat here today?”

“Look, the cat’s not mine. I found it in a field.”

“Hmph.” The girl looked dubious. “Are you sure you’re not just dumping it?”

“I am dumping it, but it’s not mine.”

“That’s what they all say,” said the girl with a heavy sigh and a dramatic roll of her eyes.

“Esme.” Dr. Hart said the girl’s name with a tone of warning.

Esme rolled her eyes again, this time in defiance. Marissa liked her immediately.

“I found the cat hiding in a fencerow,” Marissa said. “I don’t know whose it is, but it’s cold and hungry and has a pretty messed up ear.”

Upon hearing of the injury, Esme set down her clipboard and pulled a stool up against the bank of kennels. She climbed up to get a better view of the cat, who was hunkered back in the corner, desperate to disappear.

“Aw, poor kitty. Alex, come look.”

Dr. Hart stopped by the wash station to scrub his hands and slipped on a clean pair of gloves while Esme opened the kennel door and coaxed the injured cat forward. With practiced ease, the veterinarian transported the animal to a stainless-steel table and performed a thorough examination.

“The ear’s a loss and the neck wound needs stitches,” the doctor determined. “But she’ll be fine.”

“She?” Marissa repeated, though she’d had a feeling the cat was female. She could see it in the feline’s strength. Her intelligence. Her determination. She was a survivor.

“Can I name the cat?” Esme asked eagerly. “Please, please, please?”

“She is a queen,” Marissa interrupted at once. “The cat’s name is Queen.”

Esme wrinkled her nose in displeasure. “That’s a stupid name.”

“You’re stupid,” Marissa countered.

Esme stuck out her tongue. Marissa mimicked her.

“Enough,” Dr. Hart said, his tone scolding before he addressed Marissa directly. “I want to keep her overnight, make sure we get a handle on the infection in her ear, but you can pick her up tomorrow afternoon.”

Marissa placed a gentle hand on the terrified animal, felt the rumble of its low growl, the tight tremble of its agitation. Behind the angry fear darkening its eyes, she caught a glimmer of a deeper emotion, almost as though she could sense its innate loneliness beseeching Marissa to stay.

“She’s not my cat,” she said to the doctor, to herself, to the cat.

“Then you don’t get to name her,” Esme said with all the sass a tiny girl could muster.

“Fine. Whatever. You name her. I don’t care. She’s just a stupid cat, anyway.” She walked away before her heart could change her mind.

That night, in her dreams, haunted memories of the earth beneath the burr oak entwined with what Marissa imagined were the horrors suffered by the queen in the frozen pasture. She awoke with a start to the chiming of her alarm, her cheeks wet with tears, her heart wedged in her throat, fresh panic encircling her chest.

Quickly, she showered and dressed for work, styled her hair and applied makeup to practiced perfection. Inside, her emotions still wavered, anxiety quickened her heart, but to the outside world, she projected the poise and confidence of a young woman in firm control. She returned to the job she’d wanted to quit the night before, to the tight, familiar confines of her cubicle, and she returned Glenn to his place of honor beside her computer monitor on her desk.

As the morning crept along, she tried to concentrate on filing applications, verifying titles and calling patrons to remind them of loan payments due. But her mind continued to slip back to the field, to the night, to the cat she’d rescued, and then abandoned anew.

She picked up the phone to call a guy whose name she recognized as a former high school classmate who was now three payments behind on an unsecured loan and in danger of being turned over to the corporate office for collections. But she misdialed. Dr. Alex Hart answered instead.

“Hi, I was just calling to check on my… um…” She faltered, tried again. “I brought in a cat last night—a stray cat. The one with the wonky ear? I just wanted to see how it was doing.”

“The antibiotics are working. You can pick it up this afternoon.”

“No, I… Uh…”

“And since the cat is malnourished and pregnant, I’m going to send her home with a special food rich in nutrients to help support the development of the kittens.”

“Wait, what? Pregnant?”

The veterinarian continued to recite instructions on care, but Marissa could only focus on a singular thought, a particular horror that explained the injuries, the distrust, the determined show of strength when confronted. The queen had been raped.

Angered and awash with a sense of urgency, Marissa disconnected the call with the veterinarian and dialed the phone number she should have called days before, the instant she heard news of that bastard’s return.

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

Chapter 127 ~ Under Review

Under ReviewThe first panic attack Marissa ever suffered had happened the morning of her first day of second grade, just before the school bell rang. It had consumed her so quickly, so completely, it felt as though she had been possessed by evil itself, the intensity of it seemingly turning her inside out.

She had been too scared to cry, too weak to move, too terrified to speak. Frozen, with no control over her own body, she had messed her new dress. A lifelong victim of panic attacks herself, Marissa’s mother had quickly driven her home, calmed her down, cleaned her up, and returned her to school in time for first recess. The trick, Kitty said, was to give the panic no more power than a fleeting case of the hiccups. Pause for a moment, if you need to catch your breath, but never let it stop you from living life.

The advice had sounded plausible to a seven year-old, but it was so contrived not even Kitty herself could follow it. As the years passed and Marissa’s panic waxed and waned like the moon, she witnessed her mother succumb to her own spells of uncontrollable fear and anxiety. With each attack, Kitty had surrounded herself in a fresh hoard of treasures to reinforce her pretense of security, and Marissa’s faith in her own future sanity wavered.

As a teenager, the excess of hormones coursing through her blossoming body had nourished the panic, intensified its strength. Usually, it would strike her at night, paralyzing her as she drifted to sleep, terrorizing her half-dream state until she prayed for the sweet release of death. Occasionally, she would feel the fear creep up on her in the middle of the day, in public places, when others could witness her weakness. She’d learned to keep to herself, skirt along the peripheral of life, only stepping inside with Jimmy by her side.

She’d scared the shit out of that poor boy the first time he’d witnessed one of her fits of panic, a sudden powerful attack on a brilliant summer day spent fishing and wading in the river, fooling around on blankets they’d laid out on the grassy banks. He’d recovered faster than she could, and he had taught her the power of primal screaming.

Of course, that only worked in the rare instance she was alone in an abandoned field, with no unsuspecting soul within a country mile. It wasn’t practical when perched on a chair in the boss’s office, sitting close enough to shatter her with the first caterwaul.

Marissa smoothed her skirt, tucked her hair behind her ear, straightened her back and opened her airways. Still, her pulse throbbed in her neck, each beat sharp, as constrictive as Tyler’s hand had been the night he had pinned her to the ground.

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

“Right.” Marissa’s voice carried as a whisper through a nervous laugh. Consciously, she drew in a deep breath, closing her eyes to center her soul and calm the hiccupping of her heart. “You’re right. I’m sorry.”

With a gentle exhale, she expelled the rising panic, and returned 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.

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 another cleansing 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.

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 pay 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 Allman Falls Savings and Loan.

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, Kitty had taken the clippers 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.”

Marissa 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 passenger 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 rolled through the drive-thru and counted out enough loose change from her center console to grab a meal of grease and salt then headed out of town. She started down the spur toward the highway, then turned onto a familiar country road. It had been a long time since Marissa had 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. She couldn’t control the temperature. 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 illumination from the moon or stars. 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 she did not 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 Sturgill Simpson. Slipped him into the stereo. She kept the volume low and closed her eyes.

For everything Marissa Vasek had been in high school, Tyler Tomek had been the opposite. She was the child of a single mother, of poverty and panic. 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 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. He’d never once looked her way. Until, the night before their high school graduation, he had.

Three weeks earlier, a semi had crossed the center line of the highway. Jimmy had swerved, overcorrected, and her entire world had flipped upside down.

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 Tyler 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 his car, directed him out into the country, and led him to the burr oak tree. She’d wanted to show him where she’d buried her soul. But all he’d wanted to see, to kiss and to touch, was her body, naked beneath his in the grass.

She’d said no. She’d screamed, No!

But Tyler 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 his stroke. For her.

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

That night in the valley, Tyler 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. He had bit her breast so hard she’d thought the bruise would never heal.

He’d wrapped his hands around her neck, 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 finally 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’d taken control of her body, of her panic, of pleasure and sex. She’d learned how to defend herself, how to resist the desire to love, to be loved.

She’d never mentioned that night to anyone, not even to Jimmy. And she had never allowed Tyler a second thought. Until now.

Now, her stomach roiled from the memories. Her chest tightened, as though compressed by a heavy weight. The rising panic suffocated her, causing her to draw in rapid breaths that left her feeling lightheaded and confused.

Her vision clouded and she clawed at her door, frantic to find the window control. A blast of winter air rushed into the confined space and she gasped, inhaling deep in preparation of that first guttural scream that would shatter the bondage of terror constricting her very life force.

And then, she heard it. Faint at first, nothing more than a whispered plea carried on the north wind. Not the bellow of the cattle surrounding her, but a quiet cry of pain, of sorrow. An infant’s cry of loneliness.

The second cry brought her mind to center. It was the lonesome call of an animal, injured or trapped. Marissa picked up her cellphone, turned on the flashlight and trained its beam across the night-darkened field.

Hidden in the shadows, beneath the brush beyond the burr oak, a pair of eyes shined back.

Chapter 126 ~ Time for Change

December DayDan awoke to the sound of silence. He stretched, reached for the warmth of his wife, but found only cold sheets on her side of the bed. He opened his eyes to a sun-drenched bedroom and experienced instant panic, certain he had horrifically overslept and missed his consultation with Bennie and Bernice Sock to discuss pricing on a four-car garage addition to the back of their 1950’s style ranch. A moment later, his groggy brain joined the party, and he remembered it was Sunday.

A glance at the clock confirmed he had missed church. A deep inhale while he stretched his sore muscles assured he had not missed Sunday dinner. He could smell the ham baking in the oven, caught a heavenly whiff of cinnamon and spice. Apple pie for dessert, he thought. Or, even better, a mountain of sweet potatoes bubbling in a brown sugar glaze, a thick cap of mini marshmallows toasting on top.

With his stomach growling, he reached for the t-shirt and Levi’s he’d hastily cast aside the night before, moments before he’d crashed into bed, too exhausted even to snore. He desperately needed a shower, to stand in a steady stream of scalding hot water until the ache melted away from his body and his tight back loosened. First, he needed strong coffee, and a soul-soothing kiss from his beautiful wife.

He found Stacy settled on the sofa with their infant daughter, snuggling as Emily nursed. Their fat pup, Willie Nelson, lay sound asleep on the cushion beside her. A fire crackled. Michael Bublé crooned softly from the stereo in the corner. A fresh pot of coffee brewed in the kitchen.

“Good morning.” Dan bent to place a soft kiss on Emily’s downy head. He followed with a kiss to Stacy’s lips before joining them on the sofa.

“Good afternoon,” Stacy said, correcting him with a smile.

“I’m sorry I slept so late.”

“You needed the rest. When Emily started fussing long before the alarm went off for church, I figured it was a sign to let you sleep and have a Mommy-Daughter day with my baby girl.”

“How was it?”

“Very nice. We snuggled in the rocker for a bit, then had a warm bath and some breakfast before putting on a little fashion show for Willie. We went to church early and showed off our fancy manicures.” She lifted Emily’s little hand with her finger to show Dan the delicate pink polish they had selected.

“Pretty,” Dan said.

“Willie wanted his done, too.”

Dan reached over and lifted the dog’s paw. A rainbow of colors decorated his toes.

“He couldn’t decide on a color.” Stacy smiled that beautiful smile Dan loved, the one where her eyes sparkled, and her nose crinkled the slightest bit.

Dan stroked her cheek, kissed her lips. “How was church?”

“Good, but sad. Pastor Tom officially announced his retirement.”

“We knew it was going to happen.”

“Yeah, but it was always ‘someday,’ some arbitrary day, far into the future.” She shifted Emily in her arms, removing her from her breast and lifting her to her shoulder to burp. “Now, it’s the end of the month.”

“That is soon,” Dan said, surprised to feel a sense of loss gradually blossom.

Other than his years in Hollings, he’d never known church without Pastor Tom. Pastor Tom had baptized him, confirmed him. He had blessed both of Dan’s marriages. He had been there for every birth, every death; every joy and every sorrow, guiding Dan through life and through faith. The thought of him being replaced by some stranger felt overwhelming.

“Who have the elders chosen to take his place?” he asked.

“No one, yet, but they have an interim.”

“Pastor Frank?” Dan asked, the obvious choice. For years, the minister from Juliette had filled in whenever Pastor Tom had been unable to lead services. He was just as well-known and loved by the congregation as Pastor Tom, but he was close to retirement age himself. He wouldn’t be a long-term solution.

“Pastor Frank would be perfect, but no.” She sighed. “It’s Tyler Tomek.”

“The name sounds familiar.” Dan thought back through unreliable childhood memories of a boy named Tyler who was always causing trouble, picking fights, harassing the girls, throwing parties, dealing drugs. “That boy from Sycamore Street?”

“Yep,” Stacy said, her disappointment evident. “John and Cathy Tomek’s son.”

“Tomek Investments,” Dan said with dawning understanding. “Big money.”

“And big donors.”

“Meaning the interim will likely become permanent.” Dan bit back a grunt of displeasure. “How the hell did that kid find religion?”

“I’m not sure, but he’s not a kid anymore. He’s married, with two little boys of his own, and has a Masters of Divinity.”

“Did he buy it online.”

“People change, kochanie,” Stacy said, her tone chastising.

“Not that much.” The first hint of a headache pulsed behind Dan’s eyes and he stood to go in search of coffee. “At least it’s going to make Chief and Nessa’s wedding interesting.”

“How so?”

“A criminal presiding over the chief of police’s wedding ceremony? We could sell tickets.”

“Tyler’s not a criminal,” Stacy said, her eyes twinkling in amusement. “Just misguided youth.”

“Are you sure about that?” Dan asked with an arch of an eyebrow.

She shrugged. “Either way, it doesn’t matter. Pastor Tom’s promised to perform the ceremony.”

“Well, that’s no fun.” Dan bent and placed a kiss on Stacy’s lips.

“Do you want to hear the rest of my news?”

“Later,” he promised. “I need coffee and a shower, first.”

“Jimmy’s back.”

That stopped Dan in his tracks. “Did you see him?”

“No, Mike came to church with Kitty Vasek. He said Jimmy texted him late last night and asked him to come to his house at sunrise Monday morning to start work again.”

“How is he?”

She shrugged. “Mike didn’t know much else. You and Brent should stop out there later today. Maybe take him a plate of supper.”

“Yeah, we will.” Dan allowed himself to feel a hint of relief without getting too optimistic. He turned toward the kitchen, but Stacy reached out and grabbed the hem of his t-shirt, holding him back.

“What’s this stain on your shirt?” she asked.

“Where?” Dan looked down at the old t-shirt he wore, one he’d had for years and had relegated to work clothes. The screen-printing had cracked and faded; the fabric thinned. With so many old stains seeped into the cotton, it would be impossible to identify a new one. “I’m sure it’s nothing.”

“It’s something.” Stacy pulled him closer. She scratched at the suspicious spot with her fingernail. “What is this? Glue?”

As Dan looked down and saw the dried and crusty, cream colored stain, his heart plummeted. His breath caught. The sweet memory of that first bite of Vivian’s delectable cream puffs flashed across his taste buds, slipped down his throat in a suffocating gasp, and landed in his stomach with a sickening thud.

He’d been careless with Vivian’s treats, and he was about to be caught. Shit.

“I don’t know what it is,” he said quickly, the lie flaming his cheeks with a guilty flush. He tried to pull away from Stacy’s grasp, but she only held on tighter.

“It’s not glue… It looks like…” She gasped, her eyes widening in disbelief. “Daniel Joseph!”

“What? Wait! I—I can explain,” he stuttered in shame.

Anger flashed in her eyes, but as she leaned in to sniff the fabric, her expression changed to one of amusement. She let out a hearty laugh.

“Is that vanilla pudding?”

“Of course, it is. What did you think it was?” Dan asked, confused by her reaction. What could possibly be worse than eating another woman’s cream… Oh! “Seriously, Stace! What kind of husband do you think I am?”

“I’m sorry.” She blushed. “Overactive imagination, I guess, or these stupid hormones.”

He tried to huff in indignation, but the guilt flamed his cheeks hotter yet. He scraped at the stain with his thumbnail, desperate to erase the evidence of his illicit food affair.

“It’ll come out in the wash, Dan. Don’t worry about it.”

“But it’s my favorite shirt,” he said, a lie, and scrubbed harder.

“Where did you get pudding from?”

“Uh…” He grasped at the first thought that crossed his mind. “Little Debbie.”

“Mm hmm.” Stacy narrowed her eyes in disbelief, but she said nothing more, not teasing him or cursing him, in English or in Polish, her silence more unsettling than her accusations.

Damn you, Vivian!

* * *

Marissa Vasek awoke on Sunday morning with a tequila hangover and fuzzy memories of awkward, regrettable sex with a fat man named Sam in the men’s restroom of Captain Jack’s. The combination kept her holed up her drapery-darkened bedroom long into the afternoon. She emerged around suppertime, beckoned by the enticing aroma of her mother’s spicy pan-fried chicken and cheesy potatoes. Immediately upon stepping foot into the kitchen, she regretted the decision to abandon her solitary sanctuary and immerse herself in the land of fools.

“Hey, Mike,” she said to her mother’s B.F.F. and quasi-permanent house guest, who sat in his usual spot, slouched on one of the mismatched chairs at the kitchen table.

He pulled his eyes away from the video on his cellphone, tipped his chin in a half-ass greeting. “’Sup?”

Marissa gathered the sash of her silk kimono robe and loosely tied it around her waist to conceal her thin tank and panties. Mike spent so much time lurking in the shadows of her house she was certain he had already seen any goodie she may have to offer, but she still preferred the pretense of modesty. “How’s it hanging.”

“Dunno.” He shrugged. “Hadn’t thought about it.”

“Not much to think about, though, is there?”

Marissa waited, but Mike didn’t react to her jab. Disappointed, she filled a glass with tap water and eyed him over the rim as she sipped. The guy always carried a bit of a hangdog expression, but he seemed a little more ragged, a little more pathetic than usual. His pup, Bella, lay at his feet, chin on paws, eyes droopy, ears down, parroting her master’s emotion.

“Why so glum, chum.”

“Ashley’s flight left early this morning,” Marissa’s mother, Kitty, answered for Mike. “She’s on her way to Germany.”

“Well, that sucks hairy donkey dong,” Marissa said, though she truly couldn’t care less what Ashley did or did not do, or where she went. It wasn’t like Mike and Ashley were married for real, anyway. It was just insurance fraud. She moved over to the stove, poked at the chicken with a fork. “How much longer?”

“Not long,” Kitty said. “Toss a salad for me.”

While Marissa gathered vegetables from the refrigerator, washed, peeled, seeded and chopped, Kitty talked, and talked. And gossiped some more.

Marissa marveled at the recent changes in her mother; the brightness of her eyes, the joy in her voice, the pep in her step. For years, Kitty had cowered in her dank and darkened house, barricaded by her hoard of crap. But now, she explored the world freely, eager to meet as many new people as she could find. She collected the lost souls, often bringing them home for a meal, a warm shower or bed.

Kitty hoarded friends in much the same way as she had once hoarded scrap wood and porcelain dolls, but Marissa figured it was a healthier addiction than the one she had before. At least, until Kitty accidentally collected an arsonist or serial killer, or a hoard of feral cats, at which time, Marissa would be forced to step in again. Until then, she enjoyed listening to her mother laugh.

She wasn’t much listening to the words her mother spoke, however, until she heard the name Tyler Tomek. Startled from her reprieve, Marissa dropped the knife. “What did you just say?”

“I said Tyler Tomek is the elders’ choice,” Kitty repeated.

“Choice for what?”

“Interim pastor,” Mike said, his tone defeated, a perfect match for how Marissa suddenly felt.

“Seriously?”

“Oh, yes!” Kitty nodded in excitement. “I think it’ll be nice to have someone we already know replace Pastor Tom. It should make the transition that much easier. And I hear Tyler has turned into a fine young man. If I’m remembering right, Marissa, didn’t you use to date him?”

“We went out one time…” Marissa corrected, forcing her tone to remain light while her heart raced in terror from the memory, too chickenshit to speak the truth aloud; …and he raped me.

Chapter 125 ~ What a Girl Wants

What a Girl Wants“Up you go, Little Man.” Jimmy lifted Brayden high above his head, eliciting a squeal of joy from the boy before he gently lowered him into his bed. “Did you have fun today?”

Nodding, Brayden yawned and exhaled an exhausted, “Uh huh.”

He was fresh from his bath, his hair still damp, his cheeks rosy. As Jimmy leaned in to kiss him goodnight, he caught the light watermelon scent of his shampoo, the hint of mint and sweet bubble-gum from his toothpaste. Still, Jimmy could smell the sun and ocean from their afternoon spent playing on the beach. It had been one of the best days of his life, one neither he nor Brayden had wanted to end, but as he watched his son’s struggle to keep his heavy eyes open, Jimmy conceded it had.

Brayden rolled onto his side, curling his body around Jimmy where he sat on the edge of the bed. “Jimmy, you sleep wiff me tonight?”

“I can’t tonight, Buddy, but maybe next time I come you can spend the night with me. We’ll camp right on the beach and sleep outside under the stars. How does that sound?”

“’Morrow?” Brayden asked, his eyes bright with hope.

“Not tomorrow, but very soon. I’ll call you every night until then, so we can count down the days together.”

“Oh tay.” As Brayden let out a sigh of disappointment, Jimmy saw a shadow of the memory of all the time they had missed out on reflecting in his tired eyes.

Jimmy rubbed his hand around Brayden’s back, slow and soothing to help settle him into sleep. “A story or a song tonight?”

Brayden hitched a shoulder, picked at Boo Bear’s stitching as he thought it over. Finally, he decided. “Song.”

“Which one?”

“Your song.”

Jimmy smiled. It had been a long time since he had asked for James Taylor’s “Sweet Baby James.” The song was as much a part of Jimmy as the color of his eyes. It was the song Jimmy’s mother had lulled him to sleep with every night of his childhood. After Brent had been born, she’d changed the lyrics to “Sweet Brent and James,” but he had always considered the song his alone. He would lie in the top bunk of their bunk bed, watching through heavy eyelids as the branches of the silver maple danced in the wind outside his bedroom window, and listen to his mother’s soft, melodic voice.

Like all little boys do, he had told his mother he was too old for lullabies long before he truly wanted her to stop. He had been five-years-old at the time, practically on the verge of manhood. She had agreed, but then stated that since she would still be singing to Brent, and the song wouldn’t sound right without his name in it, he would have to cover his ears, so he didn’t accidentally hear it. Jimmy never did cover his ears. He listened to her sing his song every single night until he was eight and Brent was six, grateful for those three extra years.

Jimmy stayed by Brayden’s side long after he fell asleep. He knew he needed to leave, but he stole another few precious moments with his son before he did. The blonde haired, blue-eyed ray of sunshine was his heart. His home. It was where he belonged, where he intended to live for the rest of his life. Even if he could only do so a few weekends a year.

When he finally pulled himself away, he found Kylie in the living room, still wearing her uniform from the diner. She sat folding a basket of laundry, silently fuming, waiting for him.

“Is he asleep?” she asked.

He nodded in answer, then followed up with a verbal affirmation when he noticed her gaze avoided his, her attention stoically trained on the tiny pair of Levis in her hand.

“Good. You can go now.”

“I am,” Jimmy said, his voice strained as he kept his emotions in check. “My flight leaves in an hour.”

She said nothing in reply. For the briefest of moments, he allowed himself to indulge in the fantasy of loosening Kylie’s thick hair from the ponytail she held it trapped in, taking her in his arms and kissing her until she forgot her anger, her worries, her doubts, and could think only of making love to him.

Pushing the desire aside, he grabbed his jacket from the hook by the door and shrugged it on. “I’ll be back next weekend. We can figure out a more permanent visitation schedule then.”

“Excuse me?” she asked, her voice an angry sputter. She wrapped the toddler-sized pair of jeans into a ball, slammed them into the laundry basket. “We’re doing what now?”

Jimmy pulled a folded check from him pocket and tossed it onto the coffee table in front of her. “That’s for daycare, doctors, food, clothes, toys; whatever Brayden needs for the next six months. If it’s not enough, let me know and I’ll send more.”

Her face flushed in prideful anger, but he cut off her impending lecture.

“I am not nothing to him, Ky,” he said, throwing her hateful words back at her. “I am his father. He is my son. No matter how you and I feel about each other, that is never going to change. I’ll be back next Saturday morning at ten. Dress him for a day on the beach.”

He turned and walked out the door, escaping before she had a chance to say no.

* * *

The moment the door closed behind him, Kylie shoved the laundry basket off the sofa, buried her face in her hands, but the tears she had been fighting refused to fall. Too many other emotions competed for the focus of her attention; anger, lust, pride, confusion, a twisted vine of despair binding them all together in a heavy knot that choked her of clean oxygen and clear thought.

She didn’t have to pick up the check he’d left to know how heavy the zeros on it weighed. Her pride screamed for her to rip it to shreds, but the memory of her mother’s voice stopped her hands from doing so.

“He wants to help you. Let him do it…”

But what about what she wanted? Did that matter, at all?

How dare Jimmy barge into her life, state his demands, and then walk right back out again, as though her opinion didn’t matter. As though her needs were of no consequence?

Furious, she jumped up from the sofa and jerked open the door.

“Hey!” She shouted into the night, hollering out once again when she caught sight of his retreating frame. “Jimmy!”

Leaving the door open so she could listen for Brayden, she ran, capturing his arm before he could disappear around the corner of the courtyard.

“Ky—” Jimmy started to protest, but she silenced him with a shove against his chest.

“How dare you walk back into my life, with no warning, steal away my son, dictate my time, and then walk right back out again, without my consent!?”

“I’m not—” he tried, but she shoved him again.

“What about what I want, Jimmy?” She shoved him once more, forcing his back against the courtyard wall. “Do you even care about that?”

“Of course, I care,” he started to say, but silenced himself.

She stepped in close. He shrank away. She stepped closer yet, placing her hands on either side of him, trapping him against the wall.

Cautiously, he resigned, “Tell me what you want, Ky.”

She leaned into him, until the air she breathed no longer carried the slight hint of fragrance from the camellia-filled courtyard, but only the heady masculine scent of leather from his jacket, barbeque and lime from his dinner, the woodsy notes of his soap. Mixed in with those delicious notes, she caught a slight undertone of fear. That fear emboldened her.

“I want you,” she said, her lips a breath from his. “That is, if you want me, too.”

“Of course, I want you.” His reply came fast, his voice thick, husky, his body temperature rising. “You are all I’ve ever wanted.”

“We did everything wrong last time.”

“I know.” He agreed too easily. He wasn’t listening.

“No.” She pushed against him.

Confused, he reached for her. “Ky?”

“I don’t want what we had before, Jimmy. It was forced and it was chaotic, like we rushed into something neither one of us was ready for. I want to slow it down this time. Do it right. I want to take my time with you. I want to…” She struggled to find the right words to describe what she imagined, finally settling on the obvious. “I want to date you.”

“You want to do what?” he asked. Kylie watched as silent confusion slowly brightened into a mischievous twinkle in Jimmy’s eyes. “Are you sure about this?”

“Positive.”

Stepping close to him again, she allowed her body to relax against his, in the familiar way she’d been missing.

“I want to lie in bed at night, alone, and anticipate seeing you in in the daytime. I want to talk for hours over the phone, and then sit in comfortable silence across the table from you in a restaurant. I want to hide in the back row of a dark movie theater with you, not touching, but wanting to. I want to lie beside you on the beach at night, gaze at stars, and imagine what our future could be like. I want to take the time to figure myself out while I get to know the real James William Rogan, Jr. To truly know you.”

“You know me, Ky.”

“But I don’t. That’s our problem.” She took a step back. “I know who I imagined you to be. I know the role I assigned to you long before I ever met you. I know I was wrong about a lot of it, and I’ve learned some of the secrets you keep, but I still don’t know you. And you don’t know me.”

He didn’t argue. She could feel his posture relax, as though in agreement.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “For everything.”

She nodded, whispered, “Me, too.”

They stood silent in the courtyard, slowing it down, their bodies close, their breath mingled, her hand over his heart as it beat solid against his chest, reminding her of the one thing she had known for certain from the moment she had first laid eyes upon him in her mother’s backyard: Their love for each other was true.

The rest, they had a lifetime to figure out. Together.

Chapter 124 ~ Case Study

Case Study“Is he going to wear that damn hat every day?” Kylie whispered to Nessa as they watched Frog Man scramble, flip and fry his way through the breakfast rush, a foam rubber Nebraska Huskers Cornhead hat perched precariously atop his head.

“I’m sure,” Nessa replied on a weary sigh. She’d picked it up on her latest whirlwind trip to Allman Falls to spend the weekend loving on her Norse god, Chief.

Frog Man hadn’t taken it off since.

“I still think he’s going to catch himself on fire.” Kylie grabbed the coffee pot and made a round through the café. When they met back at the counter, she added, “He’s going to look ridiculous with no eyebrows.”

“I think he could pull it off,” Nessa said with a hop of her shoulders as Frog Man hollered out “Table seven!” from the kitchen. Nessa hooked a glass dispenser of maple syrup onto the pocket of her apron, scooped up two plates heaping with pancakes and rushed off as the door to the diner opened again.

Quickly, Kylie bussed table twelve before seating a family of four at it.

“Would you like some coffee while you look over the—”

“We’re ready to order,” the woman interrupted. Dressed younger than her age, overly made up and highlighted, the woman plucked a series of napkins from the dispenser and briskly scrubbed the table Kylie had just cleaned. “The kids will have the FrogCakes with a side of apples, I’d like scrambled eggs, whites only, with fruit salad. My husband will have the Denver omelet with bacon and wheat toast. Bring milk for the kids, coffee and juice for us.”

She held the wad of napkins in pinched fingers for Kylie.

“Yes, ma’am,” Kylie replied with a forced smile that disappeared the moment she turned her back to the table. She tossed the napkins into the trash and slipped their ticket in line on the clip.

“Play nice,” Nessa whispered in warning to Kylie as she twirled past.

“No promises,” Kylie’s eyes twinkled in reply.

As she worked her tables, Kylie’s attention kept returning to the family. The children, a boy of around seven and a girl close to Brayden’s age, both dressed in designer brands and hundred-dollar shoes, fought over the crayons as they colored their placements. The parents did not speak to each other, or to their children. The woman’s thumbs danced across the screen of her cellphone as she texted. The man scrolled mindlessly through his phone, never pausing long enough to register more than a headline.

When Nessa passed by their table, carrying a tray heavily loaded with beverages, the husband’s eyes shifted from his phone to Nessa’s backside, following her journey through the diner, to the corner booth. Unabashedly, he watched every bend and twist of Nessa’s figure as she distributed juice and water, hot coffee and cold sodas amongst the table.

A slight turn of her body away from her husband, an increase in flurry of her thumbs across the screen of her cellphone, gave indication the wife noticed. Her silence gave indication she didn’t care.

Once again, Frog Man hollered from the kitchen. “Table twelve!”

Kylie loaded her tray and delivered it to the table.

“Here we go guys!” With a flourish, she placed the pancakes in front of the children.

The boy grabbed his fork and stabbed it repeatedly through the center of the stack, growling on whisper, “Die, die, die, demon frog!” while the little girl’s eyes sparkled in delight at the smiling frog prince and princess faces Frog Man had created out of halved grapes, kiwi and apple slices. Kylie couldn’t help but chuckle when she noticed the pineapple chunks on top looked remarkably more like Cornhats than crowns.

“Look, Mommy!” the little girl tried to get her mother’s attention.

“Cute,” the woman answered without looking up from her phone.

“Do you like my picture?” the girl asked, holding her paper placemat high for Kylie to see.

“Very pretty,” Kylie praised. “I like way you colored the frog blue.”

Her cute features scrunched in frown. “Wyatt hogged the green.”

“Did not!” he protested.

“Did so!” she countered and stuck out her tongue.

Wyatt pinched his sister.

With a squeal, she smacked him.

“Knock it off,” their father chastised.

With a weary sigh, their mother finally set down her phone and picked up her silverware. Without pause, she sliced the frog princess in half, then quarters, then into bite-sized pieces. The sudden destruction of her joy brought a tear to the little girl’s eye, but she did not cry. She didn’t eat the pancake, either.

While his wife was distracted, the man ran a light touch down Kylie’s arm. “Would you bring some cream for the coffee, Doll?”

His request was innocent, but the way he asked sent a chill creeping down Kylie’s spine. More, she despised being called ‘Doll.’ Still, she smiled and pulled a handful of creamer packets from her apron pocket. “Can I get you anything else?”

Neither adult at the table answered. She’d become invisible.

Kylie moved onto the other diners; to the pair of teenagers in the back booth, who shared a single plate and sat close enough to fuse together. To the middle-aged couple who sat in a comfortable silence, not speaking, but no cellphones in sight as they shared a meal together. To a trio of elderly gentlemen who sat shoulder to shoulder at the counter, the one in the middle talking enough for the three of them. To the single father, fully engrossed in his tween daughter’s animated reenactment of her cheer audition.

Kylie found them all fascinating, but her eyes kept drifting back to the cold and distant couple at table twelve. They could have been having an off day, Kylie told herself, but it felt too much like the norm. They ate in silence, paid by credit card, and left the diner without exchanging even a single glance with each other.

As quickly as it started, the morning rush died. Frog Man disappeared out the back door to take a smoke break. Kylie wiped down the last booth and sunk into the worn, vinyl bench. Nessa slipped in across from Kylie, her back against the wall, and sighed.

“Oh, my feet are killing me,” she moaned. “I can’t do this anymore.”

“I can’t either,” Kylie agreed, but not because of the ache in her feet. “I don’t want to do this anymore.”

“Me, either.” Nessa closed her eyes for a moment. “But I already got a job waitressing at Charlene’s lined up for when I move.”

“I still can’t believe you’re leaving me in a few weeks.”

Nessa reached across the table for Kylie’s hand. “I still can’t believe you’re not coming with me.”

“I will. Eventually,” Kylie said. Without Nessa, Huntington Beach held no meaning. She missed her mother and her friends, the town. But she still needed more time to herself, time to think, to reflect. To figure out who the hell she was, who she wanted to be. “I still can’t believe Ashley. I almost didn’t recognize her at the airport. She looked like a whole different person, like she was all grown up.”

“She looked happy,” Nessa added.

“Fulfilled,” Kylie agreed. She laughed. “Maybe I should join the Army, too.”

“What you need to do is focus on your art.”

A week ago, Kylie would have argued a million reasons why it was foolish—selfish—to draw pictures and play with clay all day. Any more, she felt foolish denying her own talent. She was good. Every day, she was getting better. Why couldn’t she find a way to turn her passion into a livelihood. Why shouldn’t she at least try?

“I signed up for a few classes at the college for the next semester.”

“You’re staying through spring?” Nessa asked, disappointed.

“Yeah,” Kylie nodded. “I think I need to.”

Nessa didn’t argue. “What are you taking?”

“The fundamentals of illustration, and an introduction to art therapy. I’ve been thinking a lot about what Ashley said about wanting to study psychology, and I thought about how those sculpture classes helped me find my focus, and… I don’t know, it just feels right.” She shrugged, thought of the detached couple at breakfast, of her own struggle to find joy in life, peace with herself. “If I like it, I think I’m going to enroll in college full time in the fall, work toward a degree.”

“To be a psychiatrist?”

“To be a therapist,” Kylie quickly corrected. “Using art.”

“That’s really cool, Ky.” Nessa squeezed her hand. “So, four more years in California?”

“Nebraska. The only way I can afford it is to move back in with my mom.”

Nessa squeezed tighter. “That’s the best part!”

A bright flicker of reflected sunlight flashed across the far wall of the diner as a car pulled into the parking lot. Late for breakfast, early for lunch, Nessa and Kylie flipped a quarter to see who would have to get off their ass to wait on the customer. Kylie lost.

The bells attached to the handle of the door jingled in warning an instant before a wave of heat rushed inside, filling the diner with an energy so heady, so raw and sensual, Kylie didn’t have to look up to know who had walked in.

Still, she did.

The sight of him stole her breath away, silencing her disbelieving whisper, “Jimmy?”

“Hey, Ky.”