Excerpt from Mile Marker 139 (WIP) – Chapter Five

Chapter Five: Sarah Wilcox

A jazzy rendition of “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” plays in the background.  Most people are oblivious to the music, but as Sarah spins out another order on the cappuccino machine, she sings softly and rocks her hips.  Caught up in the love of Christmastime, she whips up peppermint mochas and gingerbread lattes by the dozen.

“Here you go,” she says with a wide grin as she sets another order on the counter for pickup.

The middle-aged couple returns the smile.  

“Thank you,” the woman says, slipping a dollar into the tip jar.

“Merry Christmas,” Sarah replies as they walk away.

She glances at the full tip jar.  Normally, at the end of each shift, the workers divide the money evenly, but during the holiday season, they’ve been collecting the money to go toward buying gifts for underprivileged kids.

“We’ve made quite the dough today,” remarks Benny, a handsome African American man who’s been working beside Sarah that morning.

Sarah smiles at him.  “That’s part of what I love about this time of year.  It brings out the best in people.”  

While they talk, their hands are busy making drinks.  Benny winks at Sarah, and she feels the blush on her face.  She’s been working beside him more than just this morning.  In fact, they’ve been spending hours working together, and Sarah wonders if he’s into her like she is into him.  He can’t be much older than her, and he’s tall and lean, not overly-muscular.  Maybe he played basketball in high school or college.

“What are your plans for the holidays?” Benny asks over the rush of noise.

“Gotta work till noon, but then my family’s spending the afternoon and evening with my aunt and uncle and their kids and grandkids.  The grandkids are young, so it’s that fun age of watching them open gifts, still believing in Santa and all that.  There will be tons of family there–even more than I can remember.  How about you?”

“Would you believe they gave me off work like I requested?  My last day before we leave for Florida is the 24th, and then I won’t be back until after New Year’s.  My family’s all down there.”

“You’ll be having more days off if you aren’t careful, Benjamin,” the assistant manager, Tina Ross, barks.  “Now, pay attention and get back to work, both of you.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Benny says.  When Tina turns her back, he mock-salutes her.

Sarah and he are reduced to a fit of giggles.  

“Careful,” Sarah says lowly, “if you aren’t careful–”

Benny snickers.

Hours later, Sarah finishes her shift and steps outside to gently falling snow.  She walks slowly to her car, savoring the peace that the snow brings.  Despite the revving of semi-truck engines getting on and off the turnpike, Sarah finds a certain stillness as she gets into her car.  She sits in silence for a minute before turning it on, then turns the radio dial until she finds a station playing Christmas music.  The song ends within seconds, and the radio announcer starts up.

“And we’re still going strong on our drive to touch the lives of hundreds, maybe thousands, who don’t have the money to have a Christmas dinner and a few gifts around the tree.  It’s true that our families and friends are greater than what money can buy, as is the birth of Jesus Christ.  That’s why in the spirit of giving and love, we are asking those who are able to call in and make a pledge.  We’ve already reached–”

Sarah turns off the radio as her eyes fall on the woman who sits at the picnic table every day.  Before she can let fear change her mind, she goes back inside the rest area and orders a cup of coffee.  Nothing fancy, just something warm.

“You know you don’t have to pay,” Janice says as she rings Sarah up.

“I know.”  Sarah shrugs with a soft, sad smile on her face.

“Hmm.”  Janice hands Sarah the coffee.  “See you tomorrow.”

“Thanks.”  

Sarah holds the cup carefully between her hands, like she’s cradling a precious treasure.  She stops at the stand where the cream and sugar are and grabs a few, stuffing them in her coat pockets.  She heads back outside into the snow, which is still falling gracefully.  With every step in the direction of the strange lady, Sarah’s heart thuds in her chest and up through her head.  She eventually reaches the woman, who is staring in the direction of the woods.  Standing a few feet away, Sarah hesitates with what to say.  She closes the distance between them and gingerly sets the coffee on the table, adding too many creams and sugars next to it with shaky fingers.

The woman turns — a sudden, jerky movement that takes Sarah by surprise.  She’s wearing sunglasses.  Sarah half-smiles.

“I just, uh, wanted to give you this.  It’s cold outside and all, so I thought you might want something to keep your warm.  If you don’t like coffee, I can get you tea or hot chocolate.  I work at the coffee place right inside.”  

Sarah stops babbling as the woman picks up the cup and takes a sip.  “Coffee’s fine.  Thank you.”

Sarah’s face eases into a full smile.  “You’re welcome.”

The woman doesn’t say anything else, but as she takes another sip of the coffee, Sarah is certain she hears a contented sigh.  Before the happy moment falls into awkwardness, Sarah says a quiet goodbye and leaves, smiling to herself all the way to the car and all the way on the drive home.

“What are you smiling for?” Sarah’s mom asks when she enters the kitchen.

“Just, you know, Christmas and the season of giving and all that, Mom.”  Sarah kisses her mom’s cheek, asking, “What can I do to help?”

 

Excerpt from Mile Marker 139 (WIP) – Chapter Four

Previous chapters: one,  two, and three.

Chapter Four: Mike Popkins

He’s out of breath.  Mike rests his hands on his thighs as he leans forward a bit, trying to calm his heart and get some oxygen.  He glares at the treadmill next to him.  Ten minutes.  Ten lousy minutes and the thing whooped his backside.  Barb used to walk on the damn thing at least thirty minutes every morning, even before breakfast or a cup of coffee.  And look where that got her.  For all her commitment to regular exercise and eating healthy, she’d died of an unexpected heart attack.

When Mike finally catches his breath, he heads into the kitchen and grabs a beer and a bag of chips.  Right to his favorite, well-worn recliner it is.  He plops down with a grunt and flicks on the TV, mindlessly clicking through the channels.  There’s nothing but talk shows, infomercials, news, and soap operas on in the mid-afternoon.  

“I pay how much every month for how many channels, and there’s nothing good on?” Mike mutters to himself.

He sighs and opens the beer, taking a long drag.  The potato chips are calling him, so he spends the next fifteen minutes eating through half of the bag and finishing his beer while a lady on TV goes on about buying “the special woman in your life a dazzling gold charm bracelet.”  And “If you order in now, there’s guaranteed delivery just in time for Christmas.”

The ringing of the phone shakes Mike out of his dream.  He was just about to kiss Barb and give her one of those silly bracelets.  Not realizing he’d fallen asleep, he momentarily panics as he reaches in his pocket for his phone.  It’s already 7:30, but there’s still time before he needs to leave for work.  Seeing his daughter-in-law’s name on the screen, he sighs.  Let it go to voicemail or pick up?

“Hi, Annie.”

“Hi, Mike.”  Annie sounds cheerful, like always, but Mike isn’t fooled.  She wears her smiles like they’re painted on and is that forced kind of happy you find in Disney World workers.  “I was hoping I’d reach you.”

“Well, you have.  What’s going on?”  Mike asks the question, even though he knows the answer.  Annie tries too hard to play the peacemaker between his son and him.

“Well, we missed you at Thanksgiving.  We were hoping to see you for Christmas.  The boys would love to see you.”

Mike’s heart clenches.  “By ‘boys,’ I’m sure you mean my grandkids, not my son.”

“Come on, Mike.  We’ve got an extra bed.”

He knows it’s petty, but Mike wants to know why his son’s family doesn’t come visit him.  He’s the old man.  The kids aren’t that little anymore.

“I’ll think about it.  Might be hard to get the time off work.  Lots of people traveling, you know.  Gotta keep the rest stop clean.”  Yeah, lots of people traveling but you, Mike, he thinks sourly.  Still, his pride won’t step aside long enough for him to give his poor daughter-in-law a straight answer.

“All right.  Just give me a call, all right?”

“Sure thing, Annie.  Thanks.”

“Bye.”

The line goes dead.  Bless Annie.  She was the one who’d really invited him for Thanksgiving, not Calvin.  Ever since Barb died, Mike and Calvin have been at odds.  They couldn’t be the same room without someone starting an argument.  Mike knew what Calvin thought of him — that he was lazy, that he hadn’t honored his mom’s wishes that he take care of himself, that he wouldn’t make the effort to keep the family together without her.

What did Calvin know?  

“Your mother was the picture of perfect health, young man, and she’s gone now.  Ain’t nothing gonna change that.  Not I’ve gotta figure out how to do things on my own.”

Mike knew grief.  Hell, Barb and he had known it together for years.  He often wished he would have had a daughter.  Maybe she would’ve understood what his stubborn son didn’t.  Annie didn’t need the burden of trying to fix a broken family.  But Mike and Barb were lucky to have the one child they did.  Years of miscarriages or not conceiving at all nearly drove them apart, but then Barb became pregnant with Calvin.

Mike shakes his head, trying to push the thoughts of the past away.  He stands, leaving crumbs on the chair and the empty beer can and half-empty chip bag on the tray next to the chair.  After a quick shower, he puts on his uniform of a light blue shirt and black pants that are getting too tight.

As Mike gets in his car, he marvels at how mild it’s been so far for December.  Besides that snowstorm right before Thanksgiving, the white stuff hasn’t been back.  On the drive to work, he knows he’d be smart to wrestle it out with that damn treadmill again come tomorrow.  

When he arrives, he is greeted by several people who work in the restaurants and by Gloria, who’s working in the gift shop.  Mike nods and waves to them.  They’re nice enough people, but he’s not much of a talker.  He sidles up to the burger joint and orders some food.  There’s still a half-hour until his shift starts.

“The usual?” asks Wayne from behind the counter.

“Yep, two doubles, a large fry, and a Coke, Wayne, young man.”

Wayne smiles.  “One of these days, it should be on the house, Mike.”

Mike waves him off and forks over the cash.  He doesn’t carry credit cards, much to the younger generations’ shock.  He adds the change to his other pocket.  It’ll go in the change jar that sits on the kitchen counter when he gets home, a leftover from when Barb was alive.  “Fun money,” as she liked to call it.  

Ten minutes later, Mike is done with his dinner.  He can hear Calvin’s whiney voice saying, “Dad, this is exactly the sort of thing Mom would’ve hated.  What, you couldn’t take a few minutes to cook yourself dinner at home?”

But cooking for one lonely old man isn’t practical, and Mike doesn’t cook.  He eyes the clock.  Still fifteen minutes.  Clocking in early isn’t okay with the boss, so Mike steps outside to smoke.  He grumbles at himself for eating so quickly as the indigestion hits him.

Lighting up, he scans the outside in the dark.  Of course, she’s not there yet.  It’s too early.  A few minutes later, Mike puts out his cigarette and goes inside to begin his shift: 9:00 to 6:00 every day but Wednesdays and Sundays.

Several hours later, Mike takes a break and reaches for another cigarette.  This time, he sees her, sitting in her usual spot, that crazy lady.  Mike isn’t sure what propels him, but he walks over to her.

“Hey, you mind if I join you?” he asks, offering a cigarette.

“What?”  She seems snapped out of a daze.  Removing her sunglasses, her eyes settle on Mike.  Recognition stirs in them and she even smiles slightly as she takes the cigarette.  “Thanks.”

Mike sits down slowly on the seat.  “You know, you’re lucky winter hasn’t really started yet.  Are you still gonna sit out here then?”

The woman takes a couple of drags from her cigarette.  “I haven’t thought about it yet.”

“It’s warmer inside.”  Mike finishes his cigarette, stands, and crushes it in the cigarette disposal.  “Gotta get back to work, but think about what I said.  Warmer inside.”

He leaves her gaping at his back as he walks away.

 

Excerpt from WIP Arianna – Part of Chapter 4

When I walked into Nana’s house that day, she turned, elbow-deep in flour as she made bread, and said, “You’re home early.”

“I quit.”  I took a seat at the table, placed my interlocked hands on its surface, and stared at my peeling nail polish.

“You what?”

“I quit my job.”

“Why would you do that?”  Nana wiped her hands on her apron near her hips and went to the sink to wash up.  After the water turned off, she grabbed the tea kettle and filled it.  I knew what was coming.  “We’re going to talk about this over some tea, Ari.”

“Isn’t it a bit hot for, um, hot tea?”

“Fine, then.  I’ll make iced herbal tea, but it’s still best to let the water boil on the stove, the tea bag steep, and then add the ice.  None of this instant nonsense.”  While the kettle warmed, Nana joined me.  “Now, what’s this about?”

I pointed at my face, half-smirking.  

“Your choice of decoration?”

I laughed.  “Yeah, Jeanine didn’t approve.  She wanted me to remove it, said it was against the rules or some garbage.  I didn’t agree, so I quit.”

“Hmm, seems a bit rash, dear.  But then again, you don’t seem that broken up.”

“I thought I might be more upset, but to be honest, I feel free.  And if I’m going to be completely honest with you, Nana, I don’t think I want to continue with beauty school, either.”

Nana’s eyebrows rose.  “Don’t you think you’re making an awful lot of changes, Ari?  I understand if you’re not happy with that way things are going, but too much change too quickly is, well, not healthy.”

I laughed humorlessly.  “Don’t I know it?  Don’t we both know it?  What choice did we have when my parents died, Nana?  None.  I wanna make some choices that are gonna have a better effect on my life.  Example–my whole relationship with Brad was coming apart at the seams for years.  I was living in his shoes.”

Nana chuckled.  “I never really cared for that boy, but I tolerated him because I thought you liked him.  He never stayed for dinner.  A man who doesn’t like my cooking automatically gets a lower grade in my books.”

I laughed at her spunk.  “Oh, Nana.”

Just then, the kettle whistled.  Nana stood and took care of making iced tea the right way.  We enjoyed her creation and further conversation.  I then helped her bake vegan bread, which was something I’d never done.  It was a lot of work, but something was therapeutic about it.  By the end of the afternoon, we had three loaves, one of which we used with dinner.

Excerpt from WIP Arianna – Beginning of Chapter 3

 

After leaving Brad’s house, I drove in circles until I pulled into McDonald’s and ordered a large fries, two cheeseburgers, and a Coke.  I found a spot under a tree in the corner of the parking lot and turned off the car.  I kept the radio on and spent the next ten minutes eating away my sorrow and pretending that the girl singing the latest song of heartbreak was belting out those lyrics just for me.  After finishing the Coke, I felt sick.  The food didn’t sit well with me, and judging by the tightness of my shorts, I knew I should stop my bad habit of getting fast food almost every day.  Nana’s meals weren’t keeping me full.

I wondered about texting Kelly from work to see if she was still out with some of the other girls.  Maybe a few drinks with “the girls,” even though they weren’t my girls, would be the escape I needed–from thinking about Brad, my parents, my dead-end job, my supposed beauty career.  

I pulled my phone out of my purse.  My finger hovered over the screen in indecision.  Biting my lip, I glanced at the fence in front of me.  My eyes locked onto a sign there.

“Looking to make big money?  No experience needed.  Call 216-555-7634.”

I wrestled a pen out of my overstuffed purse and wrote the number down on an unused napkin.  Why I was doing this, I wasn’t entirely sure.  It was probably a scam.  Something too good to be true.  All I knew was that I needed a change.

I turned for home.  When I entered, Nana was sitting in the armchair in the small living room, reading her evening Bible verses.

“You’re back sooner than expected,” she said as she set her materials aside and removed her reading glasses.

I dropped onto the couch.  “Yeah, um, things didn’t exactly go as planned.”  My voice gave way at the end.  Damn it.

Nana left her seat and joined me.  “Ari, what’s the matter?”

“Brad and I, we br-broke up.  I mean, I broke it off with him.”

“Oh, Ari, honey, I’m so sorry.”  Nana drew me into a hug.

“I don’t know why I’m crying.  I should be glad to be rid of that– that–”

Nana released me and gazed at me with a small smile.  “It won’t be the first time a young lady had her heart broken, even if it was your choice to end things.  It sounds like things must have been going south for sometime if you weren’t happy with him.”

“Maybe.  Yeah.”

“Isn’t there anyone you want to call, Ari?  A friend?”

I shook my head.  “It’s pathetic, but I don’t really have any friends, Nana.”

“Really?  There’s no one?”

“Not really.  I kinda pushed the few friends I had away since Mom and Dad died.  I’m not really close with anyone at the salon or at school.  I mean, sure, there are some girls I talk to at work or school, but we’d never do anything social together.”

“What about that one girl you were close with back in high school?  What was her name?”

“Lori?”

“That’s the one.”

“Lori and I haven’t talked since the summer after high school, Nana.  She went away to college, somewhere on the west coast, I think.  I never heard from her again.”  That wasn’t completely true.  We were Facebook friends, but I didn’t think that counted.  We never interacted on there, and Nana understood social media about as well as I understood how a car worked.

“Maybe when you go to beauty school tomorrow, you should consider getting to know someone there better.  You have something in common, after all.”

“Yeah, we’ll see.  I think I’m just gonna turn in for the night if it’s all the same to you, Nana.”

“Well, good night, then, Ari.”  Nana kissed my cheek.

I offered what I hoped looked like a smile and not a grimace and went to my room.  Pulling out my phone and plopping down on my bed, I went onto Facebook and pulled up Lori Hensen’s profile.  She was still single and was now in a master’s program.  She had a ridiculously big grin on her pretty face in her profile pic.  As I clicked through her photos, she was almost always surrounded by friends.  My finger hovered over the message button.  Oh, what the hell?  Why not try?

Hi Lori, sorry we sorta lost touch.  How’s life?  I didn’t say anything on here but I lost my parents last month.  Plane crash.  Sorry if that’s tmi.  I just thought I’d check in and say hey.  If you got a sec I’d love to talk sometime.  Miss you. X

I sent the message, but it didn’t look like she was on.  Deciding that maybe Nana had a point, I tapped on Kelly’s number.  I’d never actually texted her before.  We’d exchanged numbers early on, just because Kelly was the type of person who was nice to everyone.

Hi Kelly, its Arianna from work.  Hope ur havin fun 2nite.  

I was surprised when the phone pinged.  Up popped a message from Kelly: Hey arianna!! Whats up girlie?  Ur missin a fun time.  U sure u dont wanna come out w/ us?

If I were the partying type, I would’ve jumped at the prospect.  I walked to the vanity and glared at myself.  My eyes shifted to the journal and black binder, and my hand hovered over them.  Stay home and write away my sorrows or go out on the town?  You want change or not, Arianna?  This is a chance to get out there and make that happen.  As Nana would say, to take the bull by the horns.

Excerpt from WIP Arianna – Chapter 22

I stared across the room at Great-Grandma’s painting called “Mom” for a while, the mess of colors blending and blurring.  I nodded.  “I don’t even know where to begin.  I’ve been trying so hard to rebuild my life these past several weeks, Nana, and now–now it feels like it’s crumbling apart.  It’s pathetic that a huge part of that is because of some boy.”

“We both know Marc isn’t just ‘some boy.’”  Nana smiled ruefully.

I sighed.  “You’re right, as always.  I guess I didn’t realize how much of my happiness hung on him.  That’s what’s wrong with this picture.  I shouldn’t need a boy, a man, whatever, to complete me.  I should be able to stand on my own just fine.”

“Contrary to Simon and Garfunkel, no man is an island.  Or woman.  And I suppose I ought to attribute that metaphor to its true creator, a poet named–”

“John Donne.”

Nana smiled.  “I’m impressed, Ari.”

“Well, I do write poetry and have read my fair share of it.  It speaks to me.  Anyway, you were saying…”

“Well, then you know what I mean.  No one should feel the need to walk life’s path alone.  Maybe you have lost Marc–although I hope not–but you have me and that dear friend, Kelly…who you still need to bring around.”

“I know, Nana.  You’re right, of course.”  I laughed hollowly.  “Would you believe my boss congratulated me on a job well done today?  The one thing I’m excelling at it my work.  There’s not much satisfaction in that, though, for some reason.”

“For what it’s worth, I’m glad to hear you aren’t satisfied with just your job, Ari.  When a person dies, no one wants to be remembered for being successful at their job, how much money they had, or how many degrees they held.  At least most wouldn’t.  No, I’d like to think a person would want to be remembered for how they treated others, for the lives they impacted by being a good friend.”

“Maybe that’s why this hurts so much.  Marc was a great friend, Nana, even though I didn’t know him that long.  And he put up with so much crap from me.  Anyone else would’ve left weeks ago.”

“All the more reason to get in touch with him, my dear.”

Excerpt from Arianna (Unpublished WIP)

I started the first call…only for it to ring four times and go to an answering machine.  I hung up.  We didn’t ever leave messages, so that person’s number would just go through the system again and would be called by someone tomorrow.  It was all automatic.

I smiled grimly, thinking of all the times my parents’ phone would ring, and someone would just hang up on the other end.  They screened their calls and just let the answering machine take anything that was from a number they didn’t recognize.  Some of the same numbers called daily, much to Mom’s annoyance.

“Why don’t they just stop?” she’d ask.  “I’m not interested in whatever it is they’re selling.”

Now I was one of those annoying people who called…well, the computer called.  

“H-hello?”  The voice of an elderly woman cut in the middle of my wandering mind, snapping me back to reality.

“Hello, may I please speak with Mrs. Wilson?”  Amazed at how steady I kept my voice, like the proverbial well-oiled machine, I half-thought it couldn’t really be me who was speaking.

“Who?”

“Um, Mrs. Wilson.  Is she available?”  Oh, boy.  

“Oh, silly me.  This is her.  May I ask who’s calling?”

“Hello, Mrs. Wilson.  This is Arianna from Affection for the Afflicted.  Is now a good time to talk?”

“I’m afflicted with what, dear?”

“Oh, no…you’re fine, Mrs. Wilson.  I’m just calling for an organization called Affection for the Afflicted.  We help our people in Africa who have diseases like AIDS and malaria, who don’t have clean water, or enough food.”  Just my luck that I would get stuck with someone who’s hard of hearing…or she’s got dementia.

“I have clean water and plenty to eat, dear.  But thank you for calling.”

Tempted to sigh, I smiled in pain into the microphone.  What was the point of continuing this conversation?

“Thank you for your time, Mrs. Wilson.  Have a nice day.”

“Oh, you as well, dear.”

I ended the call.  Funny that she heard me just fine at the end.

The next several calls remained unsuccessful.  Mostly answering machines picked up, which wasn’t surprising since a lot of people would be at work, but I had one customer who offered to give me a tarot card reading.  I figured if she was so clairvoyant, she should have expected my call in the first place and not acted all caught off-guard when she’d picked up the phone.

Excerpt from Arianna (Unpublished WIP)

Friday evening, after closing the book, I went to my familiar place at the vanity and sat.  My tattered journal was now full, so I reached for the paper bag that held a new one.  On the way home from work, I’d taken a detour to a historical part of one of the western suburbs and gone into a stationery shop.  The cute little boutique boasted handmade cards by local artists, prints from area photographers, and a few journals with various artwork on them.  I’d left with a journal whose front looked like one of my great-grandma’s paintings.  It seemed fitting.

Now, as I withdrew the journal from the bag, I held it in my hands like it was a precious treasure.  I opened the journal and brought it to my face, sniffing the unused pages.  How I loved the smell of new books!  It was like opportunity and dreams having a scent.  I set the journal down on the vanity and wrote a poem:

Pictures merely tell the rumor of a half-remembered story,

A book with pages tattered and worn, yellowed with age,

The ink faded and dull, dying to eternity.

Memories fall away like rain dropping down glass,

Fogging the view, warping the truth, and sliding to death.

All is fleeting and passing like a silent train in the night,

But there are no stops but one;

Only the moment of now is the single real thing.

All else is dusty vanity drowning in yesterday’s ashes.

A poem… I titled it “Yesterday’s Ashes” after a moment and reread it several times.  Beyond the window, rain tapped at the glass.  I redirected my focus on the journal.  I hadn’t been thinking as I’d composed the poem, but the tears stinging my eyes spoke of a deep, aching emptiness inside.  That was the past…unreachable, slowly forgotten, and unchangeable.  Time didn’t stop for anyone.  Allow enough time to unravel, and the generations that come lose the connection to their ancestors.

pablo (11)

I closed the journal and moved my hand over the smooth cover.  Then I set it aside and picked up my great-grandfather’s book.  I stood and went into the darkened living room.  Nana had gone to bed hours ago.  Only the ticking of the clock on the mantel greeted me.  Standing in front of the couch, I stared at my great-grandma’s painting.  The book rested over my chest, and my heartbeat was steady up against it…so alive.  These objects were left behind, like impressions in the sand after someone has passed through, but the waves were relentless and soon enough washed away any trace of that passerby.

The longer I stood there, the more my eyes adjusted to the little amount of light in the room.  Details of Great-Grandma’s painting popped out, like the black blob of paint near the bottom right.  Her fury could have been contained in that single splotch, but here it was, seventy-some years after she’d painted it, nothing more than a lingering relic of a woman who had known loss and pain.

And yet…yet I was connected to her.  Connected to my great-grandpa, too, as his words from long ago spoke to me from pages that had been closed for decades.  My tears were steadily flowing down my cheeks now, but I didn’t try to stop them.  Despite their heartache, they had found each other and had created something beautiful.

What was I doing with my life, really?  Was this job, these new relationships, this new haircut, all of it–was it just a mask to cover what was at the root of my problems?  Because I knew, at the core of my put-on smiles and defensive walls, that eight-year-old girl lived.  She was as dirty and used as she felt from the moment those boys changed her life.